Entrepreneur Who Gives a Damn

Entrepreneur Who Gives a Damn

SCAD President Paula Wallace shares lessons learned from the creative institution's first 45 years

Words by Mary Kate McGowan
Photos courtesy of SCAD


Before she founded Savannah College of Art and Design and was known as the "Oprah of higher ed," Paula Wallace was an Atlanta Public Schools elementary school teacher who sat in tiny chairs at low tables across from parents. She listened to them share their concerns, cares, and hopes for their children—all to learn more about the support they had at home and the help they needed at school.

"Your children are your life, your breath, your being," Wallace said. "Educators should be partnering with parents because the parents of our students have much to teach us about their students and their hopes for these amazing young people." 

Wallace carried their ethos with her when she founded SCAD 45 years ago. In 1978, SCAD opened its doors with 71 students, an endeavor grounded in Wallace's unwavering belief in the transformative power of art and design. Little did she know that these humble beginnings would set the stage for the birth of an international powerhouse in higher education and catapult her to become one of the few female university founders and one of the longest-serving university presidents in American higher education.

"Forty-five years ago, we had no students and naturally no alumni—not yet. If Nostradamus himself had come into our first building, Poetter Hall, as we polished and prepared it for our first day of class and informed me with tarot cards and star charts just how big and outlandishly successful SCAD would become, I may not have believed him," Wallace said. 

Since opening the school in Savannah, Georgia, Wallace has found herself in some unexpected situations, such as dumpster diving with a student who'd accidentally thrown away her capstone project and stopping wrecking balls to save the oldest extant railroad depot in the U.S., which is now the SCAD Museum of Art.  

"It might have been nice to know what being a founder and entrepreneur would require of me across the decades, though this knowledge might have overwhelmed me. Nothing can prepare you for the wildly different hats you have to wear when you lead a start-up from ground level to high-Earth orbit," she said. 


From the first graduation ceremony in 1981 celebrating SCAD's first alumnus, to the most recent SCAD commencement that celebrated the graduation of nearly 4,000 students, SCAD has grown to include additional campuses in Atlanta and Lacoste, France.  

"Without question, I am the proudest of SCAD's 74,000 alumni and students around the world. They are my legacy and my light! Their gifts of invention, their hearts of compassion, the joy and curiosity cultivated by SCAD—of nothing else could I possibly be prouder," Wallace said. 

The spirit and grit of SCAD have resulted in a 99 percent employment rate for SCAD graduates for many years running. Success begets success, and now Wallace is sharing some of her success stories. In her upcoming book, Lessons in Leadership, Wallace shares what she's learned during her four-and-a-half decades of inventing, shaping, and leading the world's elite university for creative professions to help others realize their entrepreneurial ambitions. 

"If future Paula discovers time travel (I haven't yet) and returns to visit her younger self in 1978, I sure hope she brings this new book with her—because it holds all the leadership wisdom I possess, distilled down to 10 lessons and enriched by some of my favorite stories from the trenches of start-up life at SCAD," Wallace said. "While so many leadership books make broad, sweeping generalizations and glibly rehash trite, accepted wisdom, I ground Lessons in Leadership firmly in real-world anecdotes, research, and evidence. It's not a cold or distant book. There's a lot of warmth and wit too. I have a teacher's heart! I think readers will connect with my love for students."


As SCAD stares down the next 45 years of creative innovation, Wallace predicts SCAD students will continue to apply data and design thinking to solve the world's biggest challenges in business, entertainment, healthcare, wellness, technology, and more.  

"Beyond that, soothsaying is useless. We know for certain that the world will continue to change in ways we simply can't predict," Wallace said.

This fearlessness will help SCAD students and alums create with the help of the best technology available, including AI.  

“Today's new frontier is AI. So many in higher ed have really gone Chicken Little over AI, believing it to be the harbinger of the apocalypse. Bogeyman tech! So many seem to want AI to go away, but we've learned enough at SCAD to know that new tech doesn’t go backward and doesn't go away. You have to move quickly. You have to master the tech and update the curriculum so that your students stay one or three or 10 steps ahead," she said. "While traditional universities remain mired in the past, SCAD continues to invent the future."  

To learn more about SCAD, visit scad.edu. To explore more of Wallace's story, you can find Lessons in Leadership, released in January, at Amazon, shopSCAD, and where books are sold.