Editor’s note: Changes were made to the online version of the story to clarify the names of the boards Julia Sands de Melendez is a part of. 

When she was 8 years old, Julia Sands de Melendez visited Pikes Peak for the first time and said she dreamed of living in Colorado.

Her dream became reality when she moved to Colorado Springs in 1987, and worked for various companies, including Allstate, New Life Church and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

In 2013, Sands de Melendez made her way to the peak of the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute, where she leads as organizational director.

Sands de Melendez is also a volunteer for several local organizations, including the Colorado Springs Rising Professionals, the Karen Possehl Women’s Endowment, the El Paso County Park Advisory Board, the Resource Exchange board and the board of the Ivywild Improvement Society.

Sands de Melendez spoke with the Business Journal about leadership and how CSLI has made a difference in the Pikes Peak region.

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What is the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute? 

Our main role is to put 16 people a year through an executive leadership training course at the Center for Creative Leadership — that’s what we were created for. Back in the ‘90s, Brenda Smith with the Garden of Gods [Collection] and Thayer Tutt of El Pomar were on the board of the [Colorado Springs] Chamber of Commerce at the time. They looked around and felt like most of the leadership in town was retiring or they didn’t have people to call on. They wanted to build a cadre of leadership in the city, and 21 years later, we’ve done a great job of that.

Describe your role at CSLI. 

My job is to coordinate with the board and make sure the committees have what they need to get their work done. We have a committee that selects the class every year. We have monthly programming for our alumni once they’ve gone through the class. … In January we meet with the mayor and city council. Sometimes we meet with the legislators from this area. We’ve done programs with Leadership Pikes Peak where we coordinated and talked about homelessness — so any kind of issue that’s facing our city. We developed a tagline a couple years ago — that we work on community advancement and leadership enhancement.

What has CSLI contributed to Colorado Springs? 

CSLI has had a huge impact. … We have great diversity amongst us, so we never all agree on everything, but pick any major initiative that’s happening in this town, pick any major board anywhere and you’re going to find CSLI alumni on that board or in those initiatives. We have county commissioners, we have city council, board members, bank presidents, leaders of major organizations — Kaiser Permanente, Garden of the Gods Collection, U.S. Bank, Ent [Credit Union], the Air [Force] Academy. We’ve got people all over this town doing great things and leading great organizations.

Why is mentorship important to you?

I took a class through the Center for Creative Leadership and one of the things they asked us to do was to think about people who’ve mentored us … and I really couldn’t find anybody in my life like that. I’ve struggled more in life than I should have with a lot of things I’ve done. I think, if I had a mentor, things would have been very different and more smooth and connected in how I went from role to role in my career. I think it’s really important to lend whatever wisdom or experiences that I have to people who might want them. I really love people; I just really like to be in positions where I can be of service.

What’s a challenge for you as a leader? 

I need to be empowered to lead. If I don’t have a position of leadership where I feel like I have the backing to the do the actual job then I don’t step up to do it, which is kind of weird, but I’ve realized this about myself — that empowerment is really important.

What challenges is Colorado Springs’ leadership facing? 

I think that Colorado Springs as a community has struggled with its identity. … We’ve been branded different things. [But] we have some really amazing leadership in our city right now. We just had our Smith-Tutt award and awarded [the city’s First Lady] Janet Suthers, [Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO] Doug Price and Katy Lally [with the city of Colorado Springs] for the branding of our city as Olympic City USA, and the mayor was a big part of that. I think we have come to a place where we really understand the need for that kind of a brand and that we’re coming together more collaboratively in the city.