Q & A with Shareholder Employees
Anchorage, AK March 22, 2017
A Conversation with Emily Cross-Robinson, Client Relations Director for NMS
This is part of a series of interviews with NANA’s shareholder-employees.
Emily Cross-Robinson (Emily Cross, for short) is a shareholder originally from Kotzebue. She’s a client relations director for NMS. Photo by Chris Arend.
What is your Iñupiaq name?
I have five! I was the first girl, after three boys, so my mother told my grandmothers to have at it. I was named after five old ladies. Emily Barr, from Deering, is my great-grandmother. I have both her Iñupiaq (Payuraq) and English names.
She passed away about a year before I was born. I heard she was a very kind woman. My mother was pleased that I was smiley, like my namesake. As soon as mom looked in my direction, I would smile.
Who is your family? Where are they from?
My parents are Milton and Maggie Cross. My dad is from Kotzebue and my mom is from Elim (below Nome). It’s a pretty little village, very scenic. My mom is one of 14 kids; I have a lot of cousins.
My dad’s parents were John and Bessie Cross. My dad grew up in Kotzebue and went to high school in Anchorage. My parents met in Nome, where dad was a pilot, flying air taxis.
I was born in Nome and grew up in Kotzebue, Elim, and Anchorage.
What is your first memory of NANA, growing up in Kotzebue?
In Kindergarten, our class was taught Eskimo dances. (Motion dances tell a story.) I remember one dance was about flying in an airplane looking down over Kotzebue. Our arms were stretched out like the wings of a plane. We held one hand to our head, like a visor, and we looked down. Cookie, our teacher’s aide, brought us to the Senior Center to perform for the Elders.
I remember Grandma Bessie praying in Iñupiaq for our leaders. Her prayers could last an hour long. Last week, at the NANA Annual Meeting, it was nice to hear Iñupiaq spoken.
What is your job?
I’m the client relations director, focusing on Alaska operations. I find solutions when our clients have challenges. I also look at new business opportunities.
My clients are both external and internal. Internally, as a project manager, my role might be to facilitate better processes. One way we do that is through “expectations” meetings.
In addition, I’m leading our Entegra purchasing program that provides opportunities for commercial businesses access to our competitive procurement system.
What’s your primary focus?
We have service contracts all over the state. My focus is on our operations in Alaska and in the NANA region. In Kotzebue, we provide food service to Maniilaq (the hospital). We provide K-12 nutrition programs to all the schools in our region.
The first time I went to our villages, on behalf of NMS, I spent a week and a half visiting classrooms. I surveyed about 1,000 students (different grade levels) about their likes, dislikes, and what they’d change. Then I met with parents, who often had opposite opinions.
We had to come up with a balance, understanding local preference while abiding by federal food regulations and government guidelines for nutrition. We made changes based on community feedback, but we have to stay within the parameters of our contract, which is federally funded. What we serve has to pass an audit.
Overall, it’s a successful program, but we still need to get better at communicating to the people in the NANA region. For example, a lot of parents don’t know about the “seconds” program. Children can go up and have a second serving of the chicken, or whatever is on the menu that day.
I’m from Kotzebue. I understand their concerns. I have kids in school. We have some of the same challenges.
Where did you study or train?
I graduated from East High School in Anchorage, my father’s alma mater, where my youngest will be a senior next fall. She and her older sister are the third generation of East alum.
Right out of high school, I went to Alaska Career College. Otherwise, all my education was acquired through specialized training through my employers.
For seven years, I worked as a community relations manager for CH2M HILL. They put me through extensive training in public speaking, community engagement, community outreach, and media relations. (CH2M HILL, a global engineering firm, acquired VECO, an Alaskan firm.)
I’ve also had PMP training. My goal is to get certified (in project management).
What was your first job?
Everywhere I go, I run into adults whom I babysat when I was a kid, ages 12 to 16.
At 16, I was the hostess at the Sourdough Mining Company (an iconic Anchorage restaurant which closed last year, three decades after it opened). One of the owners is now an NMS client on a new project we’re working on.
I also worked at Reno Air (in the 90s). My boss was Clyde Gooden’s wife. (Clyde was a long-time NANA employee, now retired.)
Who has inspired you?
In high school, my debate teacher, Mr. Boyer, encouraged me to stand up and speak out on what I was passionate about. I was shy, so his encouragement gave me a boost. He taught me how to get sharp on my facts and helped me with my delivery. These are skills I still put to use in my position.
Why did you want to work at NANA?
Back in 1998, Hilda Haas and Martha Cervantes recruited me to come work at NANA. Martha, especially, was very clear about her expectations of me—to be a good role model and to be a good representative of NANA, as a shareholder.
I was a housekeeper up on the Slope for NMS. I took a lot of pride in my job. It was hard work. Working at a remote camp is not always easy. (Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska’s North Slope, is the largest oil field in North America. NANA’s companies have been working on the Slope since the 1974.)
What has surprised you about working at NANA?
How many subsidiaries we have—we have so many diverse businesses. It’s good for us to not rely heavily on just one type of business. We’re seeing that now (with oil).
What do you like best about your job?
I enjoy going out and meeting face-to-face with people. Meeting with shareholders on issues, whether it’s about employment or school meals, is the best part of my job. They feel comfortable talking to me, and I can relay information to our leadership. I feel valued in both camps.
Every week—every day—is different. This week, I was up in the region talking with our shareholder/clients. This morning, I met with a potential new client. This afternoon, I’ll be in front of a senate finance committee about funding public radio, which in rural Alaska is often the only radio. I always stress the importance of radio in our communities.
What important lessons have you learned?
Everybody has something to share. Some may scream it. With others, I may have to ask 20 questions to get at the issue. I value every voice.
Positions don’t outweigh the other. Every position is valued, from housekeeping up to the president.
What advice do you have for younger shareholders?
Do your research, find out what’s available—not only at NANA—internships, on-the-job training, mentoring, and volunteer opportunities. Look for ways to continue to learn and better yourself. Course correct. Make incremental changes.
Be prepared. Be flexible. Be ready when people ask you to step up. Say yes.
What would someone be surprised to know about you?
I’m crafty. I like quilting, scrapbooking, and cake decorating. It’s stress relieving. From time to time, my cakes are auctioned off at fundraising galas.
What’s the best news you’ve heard lately?
Our employees are now able to buy the same health insurance offered to U.S. federal government employees. It’s much more affordable. So, our employees will take home more money every pay period. This helps our companies and our employees alike.
We had a great team, getting our employees to enroll in the new program. We reached 100 percent of our previously enrolled employees at NMS. As we looked around the room at each other, a light bulb went off. We should keep this team together. We can continue that momentum to improve other things across our companies.
What are your strongest beliefs about what you do for NANA?
I get to represent NANA. I get to help people resolve a contract issue, navigate our systems, and serve our Elders. We’re here to support each other to be successful.
Emily Cross-Robinson was interviewed by Carol Richards, Director of Brand Communications for NANA Development Corporation.