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Humans of the Science Center: Meet Alix Passage

Is she an expert in creative problem solving thanks to her experience in the fast-paced world of restaurant management? Or does she excel in organization and customer service due to her time spent in event planning?

The answers are yes and yes, because Alix Passage’s career pathway has been diverse prior to her current role as Chief of Staff at the Science Center. It’s this learned adaptability that makes her perfect for a role where no two days look the same, and the problems need to be solved by someone who has a 360 view of operations.

Tell us a little bit about your story.   

I grew up in the suburbs of Boston and came to Philly via New Jersey, where I lived for five years. I didn’t exactly want to move to Philly when I did in 2009; however, within six months Philly had my heart. I moved to the west coast in 2019 because I wanted the experience – while it was life changing in a lot of ways, the most important thing I learned was that Philly is my adopted home and this is where I belong. I moved back in 2021 and have fallen in love with the city all over again.   

Alix Passage Olympic Penninsula
Alix Passage 'Disney Princess' moment on the Olympic Penninsula

So, you have a unique background that includes restaurant management and event planning. What made you choose the Science Center, and how does your background help you excel in your role here?   

With over 20 years in the workforce, my career has been anything but run-of-the-mill. I used to feel uncomfortable with the fact that I didn’t follow the traditional path of graduating college in four years, getting a job in my field of interest, and building a streamlined career. Now I realize that is actually one of my super-powers. I have created a lattice of professional experience; everything is interconnected and while it sometimes goes in a new direction, it all influences and intersects again somehow.     

I fell into restaurant management during a time of intense transition in my personal life and it turned out to be a life-altering career move. Not only did it provide a supportive community in my time of need, it also taught me how to manage people - both teams and individuals - and how to creatively solve problems. These skills supported me in event planning, which also taught me the importance of organization and attention to detail. Both restaurant management and event planning were a crash course in customer service and how to be unflappable under pressure.

Alix Passage with sister Sabrina
Alix and her sister, Sabrina

When I was looking for a new role, I had a lot of ideas of what I was looking for – most importantly I wanted to work for a non-profit under a female CEO and I wanted a role I could grow into. The opportunity at the Science Center came up and after my first interview I knew this was the place for me. I often say I’ve been training for this job my whole career; I just didn’t know it. Every career move I’ve made and everything I’ve learned in other roles has helped set me up for success as a Chief of Staff.      

What does the role of Chief of Staff mean to you?   

Chief of Staff is a unique role and is often difficult to define. It is a fluid role – no two organizations will define it the same way and no two days are the same, which I love because it keeps things interesting. I often say I have a quill in every ink pot at the org; others have called me the connective tissue. No matter what, I am constantly living in the gray area – I’m comfortable with ambiguity, I adapt easily to changing situations, I’m constantly observing, listening, asking questions, reflecting, and keeping a pulse on the entire org. I am passionate about our mission and want to do whatever I can to help it succeed.    

One of the most important ways I do that is support our President and CEO, Tiffany Wilson. As the Chief of Staff, I have a uniquely close relationship with her that we cultivated from our very first meeting. We have built a profound understanding of each other even though we are very different in personalities and work styles. We See, Hear, and Know each other on a deep level; our trust and mutual respect is paramount to our partnership.

This doesn’t mean that we always agree on everything. It is part of my role to offer different perspectives, point out things she didn’t see, ask critical questions, and provide alternatives. As her trusted confidante and sounding board, the worst thing I can be is a “yes” person. For her continued success, I need to speak freely when the time is right to yield stronger results. We spent a lot of time building trust in the beginning – I shadowed pretty much everything she did, and we spent time together outside of work - which we still do - as an informal way to connect both personally and professionally. This added layer of connection has contributed to the success of our partnership.   

Building relationships with the rest of the staff is just as important as my relationship with Tif. I truly enjoy connecting with members of the team with authenticity and candor. It’s this genuine approach that helps build mutual trust among all team members. If I need to ask someone a question and we are both in the office, I’ll walk over to their desk to ask them. Not only does it get my body moving, but that small personal connection goes a long way. Making “rounds” around the office is one of my favorite parts of my day.   

I lead by example in terms of communication, transparency, confidentiality, prioritizing rest, and showing up as my whole self.   

Being the first Chief of Staff at the Science Center has allowed me to really define and carve out the role for myself. I get to play to my own strengths while filling in gaps at the current stage of the org; I also get to prepare my own professional development for the foreseen needs of an evolving company.  

Part of your role here is improving organizational processes. What ethos do you keep in mind when advocating for changes?   

Most importantly is that it works for the whole org, not just one team or individual. In my role, it’s important for me to remain neutral. I keep a 30,000-foot strategic and hyper-focused tactical perspective on things to see how changes and ideas will impact individuals, teams, and the big picture.   

One of my favorite things to do on my office rounds is to ask people the question, “If you could change one thing at the Science Center right now, what would it be?” I want the first thing that pops into their head. If they are taking longer than five seconds, they are overthinking it. Getting real feedback from folks on the ground provides a solutions-oriented approach for me to manage up, down, and across the organization to address obstacles and improve processes.      

What’s been the most rewarding part of working at the Science Center?   

What I love most about working at the Science Center is the ability to make a difference on a micro and macro level. I love helping people – my name literally means ‘helper of humankind’ – and I get to help people every day. Whether it’s mentoring or coaching a colleague, supporting our CEO, or working with community members, I love to lead from behind to help others shine.

Alix Passage with Science Center colleagues at event
Alix Passage with Science Center colleagues at event

The Science Center and its mission have so much potential to influence change both hyper-locally and nationally. I can be a starry-eyed idealist sometimes, but I truly believe that Philly’s socioeconomic structure opens the door to out-of-the-box thinking and creative problem solving. We have an opportunity to support a growing life science industry, to help commercialize meaningful healthcare technology, to support a workforce pipeline that leads to job creation and the potential to bridge the pay equity gap, and educate the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs. If we can come together with other orgs to support and champion the work we all do, we have the tangible ability to uplift communities and improve lives. Hopefully other cities with similar economic and societal issues can use what we’ve learned and apply the lessons to their own structures.     

What projects are you most excited about in the upcoming year?   

I am most excited to keep learning and growing. I am constantly striving to achieve more and be the best version of myself, I feel incredibly lucky that Tif and the Science Center are supportive of my journey. I love helping others succeed, and honing my own skills to help them get there gets me excited and keeps me going.

What’s your superpower?   

By far it is my emotional intelligence. I identify as a Highly Sensitive Person, and it took me a long time to figure out how to use my emotions to the benefit of myself and others. Once I did it was off to the races. It allows me to read people and situations quickly and easily. I understand the importance of appropriate vulnerability, especially in the workplace, and it is a cornerstone of my leadership approach. 

Alix Passage in Iceland
Alix standing on a cliff overlooking a waterfall in Iceland

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at the Science Center?   

My alter ego lives alone in a mountaintop cabin, so I love spending time in nature and traveling. I also love an adventure – I’ve driven cross country twice, once alone using only an atlas for navigation and tent-camping every night! I can be introverted so I need a lot of quiet time to recharge, especially given the extroverted nature of my role. Luckily, Philly offers many options for my recharging needs whether it’s exploring the city, hiking in the Wiss, or road tripping to the mountains or the beach.      

What do you love about Philadelphia?   

Philadelphia is a world-class city brimming with culture, art, energy, creativity, and a robust food scene. No matter what you’re into, Philly has something for you.