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Barbara Quijano Decker: Women of Influence 2023 Honoree

Executive director, Catholic Charities - Des Moines, Iowa


Click here to watch Barbara’s video

Education: Juris Doctorate degree from Drake University, Master of Public Administration degree, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and sociology

Hometown: Des Moines

Family: Parents: Frank and Mary Quijano (deceased); husband: Larry Willis; son and spouse: Casey and Karen Decker; granddaughters: Grace and Lily

Hobbies: Reading, walking, plant and flower gardening

Words to live by: To have courage for whatever comes in life. 

Three notable accomplishments: 

  • Serving as president of Mercy College of Health Sciences, engaging with students, faculty, staff, donors and community partners.
  • Serving at Drake University as vice provost; president of the law board of counselors and student employment. 
  • Academic achievements: Parents encouraged lifelong education and service.

How have you helped improve organizations you’ve been a part of? 

Leading, mentoring, coaching and building relationships. My employment experiences and positions provided me an opportunity to engage with many individuals at all levels throughout the organizations. My strong ability in planning and organizing multiple and diverse programming and activities has resulted in favorable outcomes and results. I’ve focused on quality improvement and high standards of excellence and productivity. I’ve facilitated various conflict situations requiring strong problem-solving and decision-making skills. I taught leadership and management classes as adjunct faculty and business consultant. 

What motivates you? 

My parents provided an environment that embraced faith, education, family and service.

Is there a memory or experience from your formative years that continues to influence your approach to life? 

Throughout my life, I have been blessed with wonderful mentors – brothers and sisters, teachers, professors, business colleagues, and my husband who encouraged and supported me in my endeavors. Two particular memories include my older sister, now deceased, who guided me in choosing to go to college, and my elementary grade teachers (nuns and lay teachers), who recognized and valued my academic abilities. My lay teachers were role models as they represented different ethnic backgrounds, which I was inspired by.

What piece of advice would you give to others who hope to make a difference in their communities?

Be present and informed on topics of interest and need within your communities. Actively listen to others from diverse backgrounds and value all perspectives. Be patient and professional. Articulate a clear and compelling narrative, recommendation and/or action. When challenges or confrontations arise, respect the person and appropriately address the behavior. Look for alternatives and options in problem-solving and decision-making. Offer realistic solutions to concerns and needs. Be willing to compromise.

Tell us about a time you failed (or at least you did from your own perception). 

Throughout my life, there have been defined challenges and difficult choices. It is true, disappointments and missed opportunities are hard to embrace and experience. I have grown from these life lessons when I recognize that all of us encounter times when we need to reflect, learn and take the next step forward, no matter how disillusioned we may feel. I believe in prayer and my faith life to sustain me. This brings meaning and hope for myself and others who may have similar experiences. 

What is a favorite book, show, movie, podcast, etc. that you’d encourage others to consume? 

As a history major, any book by David McCullough – “1776” provides instruction. Any book about leadership or women who inspire. 

How do you try to find balance and joy in the many activities you take part in? 

I enjoy multiple and varied activities – from the ordinary to the extraordinary. I find joy in washing dishes, watering the plants and doing the laundry. I am at peace reading books on many topics. I am happy to be at work responding to the complex and everyday activities that occur. I appreciate meeting with colleagues and all who want to visit. I seek solitude and contentment in prayer and saying the rosary. I seek balance in my home life, with my husband and family. As I grow in age and hopefully wisdom, balance and joy are all around us; it is taking time to truly embrace life’s moments. 

What is one of your guilty pleasures? 


What’s something many people don’t know about you? 

My strong commitment and conviction regarding fairness, honesty and justice. 

Anything else you want to add about yourself? 

About 18 months ago, my husband was diagnosed with a progressive health condition. While difficult and life-changing, we are blessed in many ways. We remain steadfast and find peace in the comfort and love for each other.

What do you consider the greatest barrier to gender equity? 

Our willingness to discuss and discern how to respect and value each person. When we are open to honest dialogue, we can better connect with others, seek deeper understanding, and find common ground. While we may differ in our perspectives, how can we come together in care and support for each other? 

Who is an empowering woman that you look up to? 

My mother. She married at age 16 and had eight children. She was a strong and courageous woman who experienced both joy and sorrow in her life. She loved and was committed to the welfare of her children throughout her life. She was married to my father for 70 years. They were hardworking people who lived through the Depression and had a modest life. At age 90, she returned to school to complete her high school diploma. The next year, she traveled to Italy, as part of her family’s heritage. My mother loved her vegetable and flower gardens. She helped everyone she encountered with food, clothing and other needs. She had a strong faith and spirit in serving others. I remain dedicated to her memory and the lessons she demonstrated to our family.

What will it take for women to achieve gender parity in leadership positions? 

Changes in our leadership culture, business models and in education. Valuing qualities that demonstrate how women are effective and provide leadership in the workplace. Women mentoring and helping women. Advancing women to assume leadership roles in their personal and professional lives. Empower women to achieve their full potential. Sharing testimonials about women in leadership positions. I am grateful to have been associated with organizations, such as Drake, Mercy and Catholic Charities, where women and men who are leaders are valued and recognized. 

What support would be most helpful for business leaders to provide for their women and nonbinary employees? 

Recognizing the potential of all employees by business leaders through formal and informal growth and development opportunities. Providing educational support and on-the-job training in fostering future leaders. Recognizing leaders, like the Business Record, in support of mentoring and role modeling. 

Fill in the blank: If gender equity were achieved, the world would look like ____________.

A more welcoming and supportive environment where each person can flourish.

See all of the past Women of Influence Honorees

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