Trailblazers: Deb Deluca

Trailblazers: Deb Deluca

A Trailblazer is someone who’s not afraid to challenge the status quo; who believes that the way we’ve always done it isn’t necessarily the way we’re going to do it.

Highlighting 7 female leaders who continually evoke a deeper connection to the reason why they’re blazing a trail in the first place: to create a new path and opportunity for others. They are inspired by a sense of community that is pervasive across the board. These Trailblazers willingly share their knowledge and encompass a vast community of learners and leaders. They embody the concept of pushing the envelope and fearlessly navigating the unknown.

In this article, we interview Deb DeLuca, Executive Director of Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

What’s your mission?
To act with integrity and kindness, commit to meaningful connections with others, seek to learn throughout life, and make time for wonder and joy.

If you could have a conversation with anyone, past or present, who would it be?
That’s tough — just one person. That might change by the day, depending on what’s happening, what I’m working on. For today, I’m going to pick Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and No Ordinary Time (about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt). I’ve read most of her books. She is a great, thorough researcher and a concise, compassionate and empathetic writer. She’s an effective storyteller, homing in on the crux of a situation or the elemental aspects of a personality. On top of that, she made important choices about balance in her own life, and that speaks to me as a woman who had made deliberate choices throughout my career based on life balance. Ms. Goodwin was a respected Harvard history professor, a successful author and a mother. She decided she couldn’t occupy all three spaces in the way that suited her view of her role in those spaces. She chose to leave academia. I would like to talk to her about the lessons she’s learned about leadership and life both via her research on the presidents and on her own life/career decisions. I know it would be a great conversation. But then, there are vibrant people in Duluth who I would love to meet for coffee — in other words, there are lots of rich lives and great conversations to have right here in our communities.

Who is your role model? Has this changed over the years?
I can’t point to one person as being a singular role model. I’m over 60 — I think someone of my age has selected a variety of individuals throughout life to role-model certain aspects at different times. I was heavily influenced by my father’s curiosity, his ability to think independently, his creativity, his huge work ethic, his love of family, and his sense of fun. He is a biochemist and an emeritus professor with an active research lab at UW–Madison; in fact, the Department of Biochemistry buildings are named after him. On the other hand, I look to my mother for her modeling of attentiveness, Zen-like ability to embrace the present, full-on capacity for love, fantastic deep listening skills, and deep empathy. I’ve learned a lot from the various people I’ve worked with through the years in ways little and big.

What is your greatest achievement to date?
I’m very proud of our team at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the work we do. I’d say building and supporting this team and the foundation we are laying for the organization, our terminal, the port as a whole and, working with our regional partners, the economic health of the region are my favorite achievements to date.

How do you define success?
The definition of success must embrace the whole person: a successful life ideally includes meaningful work with a motivated team, a healthy and loving family unit of some form, deep friendships, the ability to love and be loved, interests outside of work, and a spiritual or contemplative component that allows you to express gratitude and ponder big questions.

If you could do one thing differently, what would that be?
I wish I would have learned to network more effectively sooner. It’s still not a strength, and it’s funny because I really enjoy getting to know people.

​​How would you describe your leadership style?
We have a small, effective, highly skilled and competent staff motivated by a shared mission. I would say I am a strategic leader with a coaching tendency wielding a distributive power model. I seek the big-picture view but understand the importance of details and timing in getting the job done.

What would you say to others to encourage them to become a leader in an organization?
Work to be competent at your core skill or role, and work to understand the importance and complexities of other roles within your organization. Take on projects where you can work with a variety of people in your organization. Respect others’ work, others’ viewpoints and others’ limits. Make work fun whenever possible. Understand the mission of your organization and how you contribute to it. Be both humble enough to know your weaknesses and take the time to strengthen them, but also proud of the strengths that you bring to the organization.

Three key words to describe yourself:
Engaged, curious and open to possibility. Since that last one isn’t really one word, how about: empathetic.

Why Minnesota?
From the coastal perspective, Minnesota really is fly-over country, which perhaps is one of the appealing aspects, because it feels less crowded and rushed than the coasts. Minnesota has the right amount of everything: a breadth of cultural resources; amazing natural resources for recreation, preservation, and economic development; an engaged and caring public; a history of productive civil discourse; a good public education system; a proud state university system; a great transportation system; wonderful parks; scenic beauty; a variety of landscapes … for me, it ticks all the boxes.

What personality trait or skill do you consider your greatest asset?
The ability to integrate others’ perspectives and opinions to construct informed decisions and effective solutions.

Is there a significant decision you made or experience you’ve had that has forever shaped your life?
I was accepted into medical school — the University of Pennsylvania — when I was 25. There was a lot going on in my personal life at the time. I made the decision to not attend medical school, and in retrospect, it was not a well-formed decision. It was a reactionary decision. If I had been better at seeking help and input at that point in time, I might have decided differently; I may have simply deferred, or I may have reached the same conclusion to not attend. I thought I’d focus on research instead, but my life took a different path.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up?
First, I try to get outside and participate in a solo aerobic activity because it clears my head and gives me room to think. Next, I surround myself with people I love and value and whose thinking I respect, and ideally people who make me laugh. I may or may not discuss the hot-button issue that is the source of self-doubt or the cause of adversity. I remember that few paths are linear, and all worthwhile paths involve adversity. Then I try to evaluate the situation in a new light and form a plan of action.

What are you afraid of?

What words of wisdom would you want to tell your younger self?
I would tell my younger self that the path through life is not linear, and that there is a beauty in that. Be open to opportunity. Be comfortable sitting with your thoughts.

Favorite place in Minnesota? Why?
Minnesota’s North Shore. I know that’s a broad geography. Let me explain. Whether I’m in a car, on my bike, on foot or on skis, I love to drop down the descent from the escarpment above Lake Superior and see the blue of the Lake and the cragginess of the exposed rock against whatever sky the day serves up. Included in this vista might be a blanket of winter snow, the unique green haze of nascent unfurling birch leaves in spring, swaths of blue lupine in June or the symphony of fall colors. It’s magical and monumental.

Quote you live by: There are so many mottos or quotes that help inform my actions. For today, here are a few favorites. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (I’m not sure who this is attributed to.) From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Finally, from Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Deb DeLuca is the executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the first woman to lead the organization in its history. DeLuca is currently president of the Minnesota Ports Association and an executive committee member of APEX, a regional economic and business development organization. She is a board member of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota and the Chamber of Marine Commerce and also serves as an alternate Minnesota commissioner to the Great Lakes Commission.

Featured alongside Deb are: 


Read more of our stories in Issue 22 of Lake and Company.