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Sabrina Gaines’ job description, like many in the field, requires her to wear multiple “hats.”

Gaines is a business continuity specialist for a $21 billion dollar financial institution. She has worked in her current position for almost two years.

Along with her supervisor, Gaines handles incident response and problem management, completes disaster recovery testing and annual business impact analysis and risk assessment, develops business continuity strategies and leads tests, trainings, and exercises across the institution. She is also a member of her company’s change advisory board.

In March 2020, Gaines received her Associate Business Continuity Professional certification and plans to fulfill the requirements by December to become a Certified Business Continuity Professional.

Gaines earned her bachelor’s degree in emergency management from Arkansas Tech University. She said her professors were key to helping her figure out what emergency management path she wanted to pursue. After three years of going back and forth, she finally decided on business continuity.

“I enjoy the corporate setting and knew that I would be able to use my talent to the best of my ability with the benefits that come with working in a corporate environment,” she said.

Gaines said, “Because I work in the environment I do, I have more access to funding, support, and resources which are necessary in emergency management.”

She said she has never really wanted to be involved in public politics and knew those would be inevitable in the public sector.

When she realizes how much she has grown in her career in the short time she has been in the field, Gaines gets excited and eagerly anticipates the future.

“Looking back on my first day on the job,” she said, “I see a scared, self-doubting young female in a very large corporate setting surrounded by people in suits… when I could barely afford the shoes that I was wearing.”

When she looks at herself now, Gaines sees a confident, skilled, professional woman who takes charge when she walks into a room full of people in suits.

“I see a woman who shows that she belongs among the suits and the decision making,” she said, “one who speaks her mind and no longer slumps into a chair when someone looks at her. I have grown so much as a woman, and I am so excited to see where my confidence, skills, and passion take me.”

Along the way, Gaines has experienced challenges. The biggest one has been seeing and understanding how she is helping people, which is why she got into emergency management.

“With where I am now, I find it challenging to see the ‘people’ benefit,” she said. “My goal as a business continuity professional is to keep the business up and running during a disaster – not saving lives like most people imagine when they think of emergency management.”

Gaines often associates “helping” with being on the front line of a disaster such as search and rescue, grant writing, plan development, recovery, and more. She finds it difficult to understand that by helping her financial institution, she is helping the affected community.

“By helping keep the company afloat,” she said, “we are able to provide assistance to first responders, victims and their families, and to fellow businesses through various methods such as emergency loan funding, monetary donations, volunteering, feeding and interacting with first responders, providing supplies to people affected by the disasters, etc.”

She said a large financial institution like the one at which she is employed has the ability to help a lot of people in a short amount of time.

“I often forget that because I am not on the ‘front lines’ of the disaster,” she said.

Gaines said part of what makes her job so enjoyable is that she has a small team so communication is easy and natural. Because her team consists only of herself and supervisor, it is easy for Gaines to propose ideas, discuss problems, pose questions, or make suggestions.

“It is a very collaborative effort, which makes the job much more enjoyable,” she said.

However, Gaines said part of business continuity is working with an entire institution and having a working knowledge and understanding of what each aspect of that business does. She has had instances where some people have not seen the benefit of business continuity or think of it as “just another email” or “just another audit requirement.”

When people have that mindset, Gaines said it is difficult to collaborate to protect them and their department in the event of a disaster.

She’s been fortunate to not have had that problem too often.

As for those who have mentored her in the profession, Gaines credits her Arkansas Tech professors who were “truly phenomenal.”

“I could go on for pages about how incredible each and every single one of them was for me and continue to be for the students currently in their program,” she said.

In fact, their impact was so monumental that she gets emotional when she thinks about how much they have helped in her career. Wilson Short, who switched careers to be a police chief, was her first professor with whom she interacted at Arkansas Tech and made a big difference in her life.

Throughout her nearly four years at college, Short always provided a “fun, positive, and safe environment” for Gaines.

“Anytime I was struggling with a class or a professor, he would listen and coach me through it,” she said. “He constantly told me what I was capable of doing, even when I grew doubtful.”

She said they sat in his office for hours calling his contacts to inquire about internships, working on her resume, discussing ways to improve the emergency management program for students, planning the department study abroad trip to Ireland, and talking about both of their future plans in the profession.

Gaines said her time spent with Short was a “safe place” and he assured her she would accomplish great things in the field.

Another professor, Beth Gray, taught Gaines “that not everybody is like me. Some people are very abstract, where I am very linear.”

Gaines said because of her “abstractness,” she learned how to not only work with but also flourish with leaders who have a different leadership style than her. 

When she took her class the first time, Gaines was pushed to her limits.

“I could not follow her way of teaching because it was so different than what I was used to,” she said. “She pushed me to be able to collaborate effectively and efficiently with people who had a different leadership style than what I was used to.”

Needless to say, Gaines now wishes the world had more people like Gray.

As for changes in the profession, Gaines said she would like to see more collaboration between the public and private sector. The institution she works for has its headquarters directly behind train tracks. An exercise they would like to do is involve the local emergency management department and Union Pacific to conduct a training exercise for a train derailment. Gaines sees great potential when all parties are included in such an event.

“When you bring in people from all different aspects of the emergency management umbrella,” she said, “you also bring in a plethora of knowledge, skills, and abilities.”

Gaines offered some advice to new professionals: “Use your lack of experience to your advantage when getting your first job in this industry. At this point in your career, you are entirely moldable to be what your employer needs you to be.”

She said many employers in the industry do not have massive budgets and are looking for fresh, new faces to hire because they are cheaper to pay and easy to mold.

When Gaines interviewed for her current position, she told her interviewer that she did not have years of experience but had the ability to be what she needed to be.

“When going into a new career, you haven’t developed habits that conflict with the way the company runs their business continuity program,” she said. “Let them know that you are ready to learn and can easily adapt to the new way that they run the show.”

For new professionals, Gaines said “references will get you far and don’t burn your bridges because everybody knows everybody in this field.”

She said that just because someone lists only three people on their resume as references, this does not mean the interviewer will only call those three people. That is why professionals should work to maintain good relationships and show their gratitude to those who help them along the way.

“Everyone in this field wants to help each other and lift each other up,” she said, “so don’t be scared to reach out to someone at another company for advice or just to make or maintain a connection.”

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