SOLES Alumna Spotlight: Amber Setter '07 (MA), Leadership Studies

Amber Setter
begin quoteMy experience at SOLES was exactly what I needed. I had the business part, but I didnt fully understand the art of working with people.

Tell us about your degree program and why you chose SOLES.

My undergraduate degree is in accounting. It took me only two busy seasons to I realize I was not an accountant. I could do the work but it was not my zone of genius; it felt like I had to put in twice as much effort to be successful. I took a step back and asked myself what really lights me up? I saw that what I truly enjoyed was all the activity I did as a member of a professional business fraternity--like talking to people about possibilities for their careers.

My first career pivot from accountant was to being a campus recruiter for an accounting firm. It was ideal because the role entailed talking with people about careers! At the time, I also wanted to earn a graduate degree, move out of the Bay area, and create a different life experience. While researching grad schools, I quickly realized I didn’t want an MBA that would require me to take more accounting and finance courses. What appealed to me about SOLES was the interdisciplinary specialization that would allow me to follow my heart and take graduate courses in any of the departments. My experience at SOLES was exactly what I needed. I had the business part, but I didn’t fully understand the art of working with people.

How did you complete the international experience requirement?

I took maximum advantage of the SOLES Global program. In my first semester I learned about SOLES Global, which was offering a winter intersession course on Multicultural Counseling. I thought, “Hmm, do I want to take an intercession class in San Diego, or do I want to go to Thailand for two weeks for an extra 500 dollars?” The accountant in me saw a lot of value in that incremental cost. Thailand was AMAZING! We participated in a global conference that brought counselors together from all over the globe. The conference took place recently after the devastating tsunami. I learned how they supported children in processing their traumatic experience of this natural disaster through art. It was so illuminating. I was also able to get know the students from the counseling program at SOLES. This turned out to be pivotal. I ended up taking several electives in counseling and marriage and family therapy based on what the counseling students shared with me.  

While I was in Thailand, I met a professor who had retired from SOLES. His name is Phil Wong. He mentioned that he was going to organize a leadership conference in Shanghai that spring. Phil also had worked for Center for Creative Leadership, as an executive coach and knew many other executive coaches. Phil asked me if I was interested in helping him with this conference and I seized the opportunity.

I did an independent study course to support this conference. Dr. Ken Blanchard delivered the keynote. I was also able to meet Susan Fowler, who works at the Blanchard companies. It was an amazing experience for me. Not only did I get to go to Shanghai and meet all of these speakers, but I got to orchestrate and plan an international conference as Phil’s independent study intern. I was required to read “The World Is Flat”, which was an excellent way to incorporate academic rigor with a very practical experience in leadership consulting.

I also went to Mondragon and took “The Participatory Models of Leadership” with Dr. David Herrera. This was a phenomenal class. To this day, I work with many in the accounting firms that are set up as are partnerships, with means equity ownership in the organization. In the accounting firms, only the top of the pyramid that has the economic, “skin in the game” financial. In Mondragon, the lowest level employee has a financial stake in the game; even if they can’t afford to buy in, they can get a loan. Learning about how business are run in Mondragon was very, very illuminating. I would love to go back and take it again now, knowing what I know and just asking different questions.

I’m a huge fan of SOLES Global. They have many different opportunities and ways for a graduate student to have a global experience. Due to other life commitments, graduate students often don’t have the luxury of taking an entire semester aboard. SOLES has done such a good job of still creating that component. For me to go to Spain for a week was tremendously valuable, eye-opening, and really helped me in thinking through how organizations are run/how do they set up their partnership structures. Whenever I donate to SOLES, I always denote for my funds to go towards SOLES Global because the experiences were invaluable. 

Who was your favorite professor at SOLES?

Dr. Terri Monroe. The innovative way of leading 550/600--sitting down and saying, “Where should we begin?” and the experience of a living laboratory. Each week we read articles on a theme. Then during class we talked about the articles and observed how voices are heard, why voices aren’t heard, how people are marginalized. It was fascinating to practice being on the balcony to observe the group dynamics in the moment. I use this skill all the time today. I will sit in a board meeting and think, “I need to get to the balcony. What is going on here?”

Where is your favorite place on campus?

The SOLES building didn’t exist when I was a student; it was under construction. As a student, I would say the Reflection Room over in the IPJ. In the SOLES building today, my choice is the Reading Room. It’s been the space for transformation during the many Leadership for Change conferences I have participated in. It’s magical and sacred to me in that regard. I know that my life has been fundamentally changed through those conferences, and I’ve observed transformation in others as well. 

Were you involved in any student organizations on campus?

That’s sort of me in a nutshell--always volunteering and being active. I was president of the SOLES Graduate Student Association during my second year, and then I rallied up my friend from the counseling program to join the board with me. 

What stands out for me about that role is that I was able to contribute at a higher level. I was able to work with staff on campus and all of the presidents from the other graduate school organizations. To be honest, in a way for me, it was challenging being on the GSA because I was very business, business, business, and that’s just not how SOLES rolls necessarily. I didn’t have enough awareness yet of different styles of communication--all the things I teach now.

What is your fondest memory from your time at SOLES?

Being in the staff room for the Leadership for Change conferences. It’s hard to choose any one moment, but just the amount of heart, intellect, and service during those conference. The people on staff are there to transform other’s lives and to learn; and it’s such a magical experience. Honestly, it’s a very spiritual experience.

Tell us a little bit about your journey since graduating from SOLES.

When I was accepted to SOLES I was working for a very prominent Silicon Valley firm. I resigned since I was moving to San Diego. The firm countered and let me work remotely at a 75% schedule. Once I graduated, I scaled back up to a 100% schedule and took up a new initiative—I was creating a corporate university. This evolved into a new role, Learning and People Development manager. I was responsible for all aspects of learning as well as compliance. CPAs are required to meet specific continuing educational requirements that vary based on the type of services they provide. I also began to deliver many of the non-technical trainings.

I had a wild idea to take the CPA exam after I finished my Master's in Leadership Studies at SOLES. What really happened was my ego told me that to be somebody, I needed to be a CPA. But in the moment what my rational thought was, “If I have the CPA designation, I can be more influential in the profession. I can bring more of the humanity that I want.” I passed the exam but it killed my spirit. After I completed the experience, I dug really deep in my heart to uncover what was next for my career.

Eventually, I enrolled in a coaching training certified by the International Coach Federation. Through that experience, it became clear I wanted to coach full-time and leave the company where I had been for 10 years.

I was an independent coach and trainer for three years. A USD alumnus that I had met over in the School of Business introduced me to a professional coach who was working internally within PwC. He suggested I speak with her, and our conversation was just mind expanding. I ended up working for PwC as an internal coach. It was an incredible learning experience for me. But it wasn’t a right fit for me. I like to work with clients for months (sometimes years) and at PwC I coached people for very short intervals. I am very grateful for the learning experience but decided I would be happier back with my own private practice (Amber Setter Coaching). 

Do you think that taking classes in the Counseling and Marital and Family Therapy department has helped you do a better job with coaching the social emotional aspects?

Yes and no. The “yes” is that those classes really helped me understand me. If I don’t understand me, then I can’t be of greatest service to others. I had to do a lot of my own inner work to be able to get to the place where I can help others.

The “no” is that coaching is not therapy nor counseling. My clients often remark that they learn more from me in a few sessions than they have learned from years of counseling or therapy. My work pairs deep introspection with action that propels their lives forward. We only look to the past when they hit a road bump with their plan. My communication style is direct so we get to the heart of the matter very quickly.

I feel like my period of time at USD was much more about my internal growth, and that’s a big part of how I coach people. Your inner thoughts, feelings, and beliefs impact your behavior and performance on the job. Actualization coaching makes the unconscious conscious. It surfaces all the ways a person has blocked themselves to the highest levels of happiness and meaning.

What advice do you have for a current student at SOLES?

Really take advantage of the community. A lot of people choose to come to USD because of the small environment. It is really connected and supportive. Like the story I told: one USD alumnus made an introduction to a coach he knew within his company. He didn’t have to do that. But this introduction was significant. I eventually got a spot on a team of 20 coaches that had thousands of applicants. More recently, I am rebuilding my business. I reached out to USD alumni to ask who they know that I should talk to. I want to be of service and help companies that might not know that I’m back in business. Bottom line: don’t limit yourself to connecting just within SOLES. The connections I’ve made, including connections across the campus, have really been very helpful!


Amanda Gonzales
(619) 260-4539


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