COO Dzana Homan’s story is remarkable. And it’s just beginning.
By Renee Forcey
Being authentic. Having a purpose. Believing you are your word. Believing beyond any doubt that you are resilient. These are the credos that Dzana Homan, Goddard Systems’ chief operations officer, lives by. Homan’s personal and professional story has unfolded like a boot camp obstacle course. Although it is one that few of us can relate to, it is one that we can all look to for inspiration. The next time you find yourself feeling victim to your surroundings, environment, career, or life, think of Dzana Homan.
Born in Yugoslavia, Homan experienced a young childhood that was similar to that of many children in Europe. She had siblings, loving parents, grandparents, and an extended family around her. She recalls this period of her life fondly. Many strong women surrounded Homan, starting with her grandmother, who was a physician in a country with only a handful of female medical practitioners.
At an early age, Homan realized she would rather be reading a physics book than going out on the weekend. She had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and fed this curiosity through academics and music. After Homan completed high school, she attended the University at Ljubljana Slovenia and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics. Many of her textbooks included references to the works of American physicists, notably one from USC, whose work in laser research resonated with Homan.
While eager to start her career and continue her education, Homan was about to see her world come to a crushing halt. On February 29, 1992 the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovnia passed a referendum for independence from the Socialist Republic of Yugoslovia. During the next three-and-a-half years, the Bosnian War resulted in more than 100,000 deaths; 20,000 women of all ethnicities were raped; and more than 2 million people were displaced. It was one of the most devastating conflicts since World War II.
Homan lost family members, friends, and acquaintances as casualties to war, including her own father. Her home, her town, her country, and everything that once was the foundation of her life, was torn apart. Homan returned to her books. In a world where nothing was certain,offered comfort. It was concrete. Homan describes one of her theories of laser refraction as “dancing ballerinas” and found solace in the visualization. Homan also spent many nights at local hospitals, helping children cope with the tragedies of war. In many situations, there was no medication to administer to injured children. She offered comfort by singing or reading to them to help deal with the physical and emotional pain.
The hard realization eventually surfaced. Homan needed to make a choice. Stay in Yugoslavia or escape. She headed to the American Embassy and became a refugee. With several hundred dollars in her pocket, she left what remained of her family and country and headed to Los Angeles, with hopes of attending USC for her master’s degree and sharing her theory of laser research with the professor who unknowingly carried her through a civil war.
At USC, the staff recognized that the refugee needed help, and assisted her with finding a room while she figured out what she was going to do. Unfamiliar with Western society, Homan had not been expecting to pay for college; in communist Yugoslavia, education was free. She quickly assessed her situation and knew she needed a job, taking a position in an upscale boutique in Los Angeles. They found her accent very appealing, and speaking broken English actually served her well in the retail environment. Her European flair was intriguing and vogue.
Homan refocused and began researching all the American universities with physics departments having specializations in her area of study. Cold calling into admissions department heads and anyone else she could contact, she refused to turn back. Eventually, she called the physics department at the University of New Mexico. Luck finally landed on her side, and the head of the department answered the phone. Intrigued by Homan’s story and academic focus, he suggested she play an instrument, because the music department was struggling and that could be her means of entrance. Fortunately, Homan was a classically trained pianist.
Homan was accepted and quickly made a name for herself. Both her gender and her intelligence were topics of conversations in the science halls. Her dream was starting to take shape. She was admitted to work on a top-clearance program. Those dancing ballerinas seemed to be coming to life, but they were soon ripped away again. Not being a United States citizen, she could not work on a project of top-clearance security. She had to be taken off and was not permitted to continue with her research.
Feeling beaten down by all that had occurred, Homan called her mother. Be it divine intervention or just plain luck, the next conversation would alter her life. Her mother reminded her how much comfort she took in helping the children. She recommended to Homan that she volunteer at a hospital or something similar, even if for just a short time while she was figuring out what to do next.
That evening, Homan drove by Futurekids, Inc. But instead of continuing past, this night she pulled in. Introducing herself to the management, she offered to assist with teaching classes. Dzana remained with the franchise for four and a half years, and then joined the franchisor and within eighteen months she had become the CEO and president.
In 2008 Homan left Futurekids and became the CEO of Huntington Learning Center. Today, she is the Chief Operating Officer of Goddard Systems (franchiser for the Goddard Schools), the number-one ranked early-childhood education franchise in the United States. She is a current board member of Image Navigation, and previous board member of the Cerebral Palsy International Research Foundation and the Women’s Leadership Board for Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Looking back on Homan’s life offers many lessons. Out of tragedy, a modern educational trailblazer was born. Homan never let her circumstances define her future. She never allowed herself to feel victimized or defeated. She found her passion and embraced it.
While Homan was, and is, very passionate about physics and science, she is equally passionate about youth. Today, her dream is for society to recognize that the potential in our children needs to be nourished before they turn six. She argues that if we invest earlier in our children, the dividends will be exponential.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, that the task in front of you is too arduous, that circumstances are beyond your control, think of Dzana Homan. Asked about her view on the glass ceiling for women in America today, her response was simple: “What glass?”
Renee Forcey is an executive search consultant with JM Search, a national search firm based in King of Prussia, PA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.