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Shannon Block CEO and President of Denver Zoo

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When Shannon Block attended orientation at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., as an enthusiastic undergraduate in 1997, the presenter asked the audience who wanted to become President of the United States one day. Shannon could barely contain her enthusiasm in response to the question until she realized that nearly every hand in the auditorium was raised. It was then she decided to shift gears and pursue a less traveled route, or at least a career that had decidedly more openings than the Oval Office.

Born and raised in Edina, Minnesota, Shannon, president and CEO of Denver Zoo, has always been a bold and determined individual. She had no trouble setting goals for herself and figuring out the best way by which to reach them. So, when her initial plan to become the leader of the free world seemed tenuous, she forged another path for herself, and, as with most success stories, the road she took to get where she is today has been rich with experiences, challenges and opportunities. And when opportunity knocks for this ambitious
professional, she never complains about the noise, especially when that noise comes in animal form.

With her original plan off the table, Shannon gravitated toward the study of physics, a field of study in which she initially stood out as the only female, but the coursework intrigued her as it catered to her penchant for problem solving and contributing to decided results. During her undergraduate years, Shannon also completed the Research Experience for Undergraduates program in accelerator-physics research through Cornell University, eventually graduating from GWU in 2001 with a BS in both physics and applied mathematics. Without wasting any time, she then completed a master’s degree in physics from Tufts University in 2003.

It was during that time of her life that she met someone who encouraged her to leave the East Coast vibe and move out to the mountains. Without much hesitation, Shannon packed her bags, headed west, and fell in love with the beauty of Colorado.  She was soon hired by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP to work in a newly created department, which was actually dissolved before she even got the chance to roll up her sleeves and dig in. So she did what she was naturally inclined to do.

“I made my own path,” she noted. “I found ways to make myself useful and projects no one else wanted to do. I solved problems for others.” From there she transitioned to Deloitte, honing her skills in global innovation as a top-rated senior manager and continued to make a name for herself by doing the work that no one else wanted to do. For Shannon, these were not just problems to solve, but challenges and opportunities through which to grow. Her skill set expanded by leaps and bounds and Shannon was soon known for her prowess in developing and achieving key strategic initiatives to further the mission and vision of world-class organizations.

After five years with that company, Shannon was named as the chief business development officer of the Denver Health Hospital Authority, managing the growth of a 500-bed hospital. That positioned her to segue to the CEO position of Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, where she oversaw more than 600 employees and 21 locations.

Then opportunity knocked again, and this time it didn’t just knock. It roared, literally. By early March 2014, Shannon got a call from Denver Zoo. How would she like to become the president and CEO of the most popular cultural attraction in Colorado that boasts roughly two millions visitors annually?

Based on her exceptional history of keen abilities in such key areas as negotiation, program management, business strategy, risk management, marketing, consisting, analytics and process improvement, Shannon proved to be the perfect fit for such an opportunity. She eagerly accepted the offer to report to a 40-plus board of trustees, provide leadership for and manage more than 600 in-house and outsourced staff and more than 600 volunteers, not to mention the 4,300- plus wild animals on 85 acres, along with the Zoo’s international conservation program that has implemented hundreds of projects spanning the globe on all continents.

“The zoo was my happy place as a kid,” Shannon recalled. “And I love the way animals have a way of bringing people together to learn, educate and inspire.” Among her primary responsibilities (besides getting to know the animal tenants on a first-name basis!) include setting the strategic direction for the Zoo, which entails a focus on their mission, vision and strategic imperatives. “We just finalized our 20-year vision for the Zoo,” she happily stated.

Fundraising is also a critical component of the job. With an average cost of $80,000 per day to operate the Zoo, funds are always in demand. The Zoo employs top-notch care for its animals, which includes a hospital, nutritionist, animal behaviorist, veterinarians and zookeepers, as well as updated software used to analyze the behavior of the animals so that they can receive the best care. It’s a full-service operation that demands a fullservice budget. “We attract the best talent here at the Zoo,” stated Shannon.

Top fundraisers for the Zoo include Zoo Lights and Do at the Zoo, the former a familyfriendly event in December and the latter a more glamorous, adults-only evening that involves food from local restaurants, wine and entertainment. “We are supported by daily gate revenue, as well as the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District,” she emphasized.

Further, Shannon works to ensure that the mission of the Zoo–to secure a better world for animals through human understanding– is securely in place and of central focus. Denver Zoo has a conservation movement that has been recognized by the United Nations and is a champion of conservation in terms of preserving, guarding and protecting the world’s environments, its resources and biodiversity. The Zoo values all animals and heralds conservation as a lifestyle for this organization. Through its partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Zoo continues to support animals through a variety of programs such as the Species Survival Plan, which is a breeding program that focuses on the survival of many species by keeping the population of the Zoo healthy and abundant. The Zoo also collaborates with other zoos and aquariums in order to promote awareness about threats to biodiversity on a global spectrum.

Additionally, the Zoo is a tremendous resource for local wildlife conservation through numerous programs designed to encourage and educate on the protection of animals and their ecosystems. Another key component of the Zoo is its educational arm. Through a team of professional educators and enthusiastic volunteers, the Zoo offers a cornucopia of programs, classes, camps, guided tours, exhibits and more to help people learn to value, respect and care for animals and their natural habitats.

Away from the Zoo, Shannon enjoys spending quality time with her three-year-old daughter, Addie, who often accompanies Shannon on weekends to the Zoo. Shannon also enjoys diving into one of her favorite books: her passport. A true page-turner, it evidences adventures the world over, including Iceland, Hong Kong, Singapore and Botswana.

Of course, Shannon is the type of person whose job is her passion. It’s what she loves. It’s who she is. It’s part of her soul. “I used to be the one who did the work no one else wanted to do,” she reflected. “Now I have the really cool job.”

She paused a moment, as if to contemplate which animal she would visit that day (she admits she has been rather keen on Jim the gorilla lately, but she loves all the animals), and smiled. “It’s good to be the zoo lady. I am definitely proud of who we are here
at the Zoo.” HLM

For more information on the Denver Zoo, go online.