FBI gives 1st-time award recognition for outstanding public service to Ariz. leader
Alicia Wadas, an advertising executive and a grandmother, has a second, not-quite-secret life: she’s with the FBI
By Tom Scanlon
East Valley Tribune
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — She’s an advertising executive and a grandmother who returns from busy days at the office to a quiet, peaceful home in North Scottsdale.
Most neighbors and business associates don’t know it, but Alicia Wadas has a second, not-quite-secret life.
She’s with the FBI.
Though hardly an FBI agent who kicks down drug dealer doors or works undercover to infiltrate gangs, Wadas’ crucial contributions were noted by the agency J. Edgar Hoover made famous.
Last month, Wadas received FBI recognition for Exceptional Service in the Public Interest.
The first-time award recognized her impact while serving as president of the FBI National Citizens Academy Alumni Association.
Wadas, chief operating officer and executive vice president at leading Phoenix advertising agency LAVIDGE for nearly 20 years, has volunteered and led initiatives for the FBI alumni association since 2008.
She said she was shocked to receive the award at a national conference.
“It really was a surprise and I have to just tell you, I was quite humbled,” Wadas said.
“I never expected it.”
Seeing the certificate of appreciation signed by FBI Director Christopher Wray “was personally satisfying because there was a point in time where the alumni associations were in danger of basically being shut down.
“And so my task — and I was interviewed by the FBI before I took this volunteer position — was to actually see ‘is Alicia going to be able to turn this thing around?’ And they trusted me and my plan of action.”
Cathy Milhoan, assistant director of the FBI Office of Public Affairs, said Wadas came through for the agency.
“Thanks to Alicia’s leadership, the FBI National Citizens Academy Alumni Association and affiliate chapters are thriving today,” Milhoan said.
“Alicia’s vision and service will influence the program for years to come. We are grateful for her dedication to the FBI and our mission.”
From ads to FBI
How did an advertising executive known for her “leadership by kindness” approach get involved with the FBI?
Wadas said her interest in becoming part of law enforcement stems from her thoughts in the aftermath of a school shooting years ago.
She pondered how her three children — then teenagers — would react in a similar situation.
“I realized that I had not taught them anything about how to stay safe .... if suddenly one of their fellow students started shooting or there was this horrific event,” Wadas reflected.
“So, I began to study the whole area of personal safety and actually got myself certified in pistol protection.”
Though she never owned a gun previously, she took a class. “And then I made sure that my children knew how to safely handle a firearm,” she said.
She added she didn’t push them to carry guns, “I just wanted them to know some safety — so if they were at a teenage party and someone had a gun, they would know how to disarm it and render it useless.”
From the small circle of her family, she decided to build out and expand into community safety.
Her work in advertising — she is the vice president and COO of LAVIDGE — led her to the FBI.
“A client at LAVIDGE asked me if I would help her with a pro bono brochure for this nonprofit she was involved with ... It was to go into schools to teach parents how to keep their children safe from online predators,” she said.
“And I noticed that this brochure was being produced by the FBI Phoenix Citizens Academy Alumni Association.”
When she first started thinking about signing on with the FBI as a volunteer, her husband, Reg Durham, smiled and nodded.
“He supported me,” Wadas said. “He was like, ‘Oh, that seems like something you’d really enjoy.’ And so off I went.”
Similar support came from her three adult children: Chad (a truck driver), Brent (CEO of a tech company) and Erica (a Valley doctor).
Alica Wadas graduated from the FBI Phoenix Citizens Academy in 2008. Shortly after, she jumped into leadership as a member of the board of directors of the FBI Phoenix Citizens Academy Alumni Association.
In 2019, Wadas became president of the FBI National Citizens Academy Alumni Association.
The FBI Citizens Academy covers everything from investigative techniques to the safeguarding of civil rights.
As a leader, she has helped implement innovative education and training programs, introducing new templates and tools for chapters.
She said she is appreciative of the award — but the real drive comes from inside: “I have always had a passion for helping others and my involvement in the FBI Citizens Academy Alumni Association allows me to help protect and serve my community.”
Not a shark
Does Alicia Wadas fit that stereotype of the conniving, back-stabbing advertising executive?
“Oh, God — no,” said a laughing Emma Wolff, an account executive at LAVIDGE.
Far from the cliche of an “advertising shark,” Wolff describes her boss as “an exceptional leader. She is crazy intelligent.
“She leads with kindness first. And she’s a very hands-on leader. Always there with a smiling face.”
Around the Phoenix office, “Most everyone would say she is one of the nicest people you could ever meet and brings such a positive energy.”
Wadas sees herself as a coach and mentor for younger advertising professionals, focusing on strengths and challenges.
“Compared to my early days of advertising, I’m more internal operations now. Whereas in the past, it was with clients and, you know, all of the excitement that goes with that daily dealing of clients,” Wadas said with a chuckle.
As for community leadership, after attending — and leading — trainings on community safety over a decade, Wadas was asked what tips she has for her Scottsdale neighbors.
“I think that the overarching word I would like for your readers to think about is awareness,” she said. “Because I’ve observed so many people over time that you know, wander around, kind of in a daze or in a haze ... and they’re just not aware of their surroundings.
“And so many crimes are crimes of opportunity. It’s not often that people are targeted for something and if you are a woman, you know, digging in your purse your attention is at the bottom of your purse — you possibly could have your purse snatched.”
Indeed, a few days after Wadas said this, Scottsdale Police announced the arrest of two “distract-and-grab” suspects — working together. One would strike up a conversation with an elderly woman at a grocery store, while the second would steal her purse.
“You just need to be aware,” Wadas advised, “and be prepared.”
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