Up Close with Carla Williams: Focus on What Really Matters


2023 WISE Women of Year honoree Carla Williams is the first African American woman to lead a Power Five athletic department. A former standout college athlete herself, Williams wasted no time when she ascended to the role, immediately launching a Master Plan initiative focused on significant facilities upgrades including groundbreaking on an $80 million, 90,000-square foot Football Operations Center to be completed in 2024. Here, the University of Virginia athletic director talks faith, focus, and finding a way to live up to the ideals set by the people who have inspired her most.

Describe a moment in your career that you would say was pivotal to your professional journey.

There are two moments that stand out: First, I left the University of Georgia after being there for 12 years as a student-athlete, graduate student, coach and administrator. My husband got a job at FSU and I didn't want to leave. Georgia was my comfort zone, but I needed to leave to grow. So, leaving UGA in 1997 helped propel my career because I grew a lot professionally and personally in the eight years I was gone (before I went back to UGA in 2004). Secondly, when Coach Richt, then head football coach at UGA, requested me as his sport administrator.

What does success look like for you, and what do you do to work toward that vision?

Personally and professionally, my goal is to live a life that is pleasing to God. Pray, study, learn and listen for guidance. If I can accomplish this goal, then everything else is additive.

Who has been your greatest role model and what did they teach you?

My parents. They loved my brother and me dearly. Once I was an adult, I came to understand and appreciate the power of what it means for children to grow up feeling loved. Because I knew I was loved, I had the confidence to pursue my dreams. We didn't have much materially, but I was loved.

How do you keep your ideas and contributions fresh and relevant? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

My staff will tell you I ask a lot of questions. I love to learn and asking questions helps feed my inquisitive nature. I'm inspired by anything that fosters achievement. I also want to make my children, family and loved ones proud. I want to inspire others.

In your career, what has been a “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moment?

Being named the Director of Athletics at the University of Virginia.

How have you helped break down barriers and create opportunities for women in the industry?

I hope my existence in this space is a clear message that it is possible. I give a lot of thought to making sure more women and people of color have the same opportunities. I want to do well to obliterate the notion that we cannot succeed in these positions.

What leadership skill is critical to your success today?


Lightning Round …

  • When I got started in this business, I wish I had known … not everyone has a sense of urgency.
  • Growing up, I wanted to be … Bob Cousy.
  • When I have downtime, you can find me … cooking, sleeping or enjoying warm weather.
  • My greatest fear is … disappointing my family.
  • I can't live without … God.
  • I can’t wait to read … The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
  • My favorite listen is … CeCe Winans.
  • The first thing I do in the morning is … meditate or listen to Gospel music.
  • The thing I still want to learn is … how to play the piano and make quilts.
  • The one thing I will always make time for is … my children.

Williams will receive her WISE Women of the Year Award at the 27th Annual Awards Luncheon on March 15, 2023, in New York City.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

1 comment


02-22-2023 08:17 AM

Great interview. Allowing oneself to grow personally and professionally can be scary, but once you step out it’s a whole new world. Thanks for the inspiration!