He’s been all around the world, but Ondra Berry is a true Nevadan. That’s how he was described by Gov. Brian Sandoval on Oct. 17, when Berry became the first black general of the Nevada National Guard, the state’s reserve military force, which can be activated in times of need. “If you asked everyone, probably less than 1 percent of 1 percent of National Guardsmen would say their ambition is to be a general,” says the 55-year-old Berry. “I absolutely never thought about it. It’s like saying you’re going to become president. The stars really have to align.”
Berry’s distinguished military career stretches 27 years, but it’s only half of his professional duties. He’s also vice president of diversity and inclusion development for MGM Resorts International, a company long known for its commitment to diversity and healthy community practices. A former Reno policeman, Berry also published Ayoba: Spirit of Awesomeness in 2010, a book about success and motivation inspired by a visit to South Africa.
How did you get started on this career path? For my freshman year of high school, I was bused from a predominantly African-American school to an all-white school, and that was kind of a turning point for me in getting a stronger foundation of education and being around people who were more focused on being someone beyond a blue-collar life. I had a [mentor] who was the football coach, and he introduced me to the concept of unlimited potential and got me focused on going to college. He’d always say, “You’re not being your best you.”
You enlisted in the U.S. Air National Guard. Why? All my life I had this secret: I was really obsessed with uniforms. In college I wanted to join ROTC, but they made you cut your hair. When my girlfriend, now wife, invited me out to Reno, I got a job teaching but also applied for the police department and got in. It was an opportunity to do something different but also pursue this secret dream of law enforcement. I joined the Guard not truly understanding what it meant. Law enforcement and military are very different, but they complement each other well.
What led to you becoming general of the Nevada Guard? Seven years ago I started working for [the Chief of the National Guard Bureau] Craig McKinley; [I was] put on his staff to be responsible for leadership training, diversity and basically going to different countries to make sure our airmen would be ready to go there if needed. I have been to every state, territory and district of this country, and many places in other parts of the world. There’s no place on my bucket list anymore.
What place left the biggest impact on you? I would have to say the territories like Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, because the people there have such a deep appreciation for our country and values, what it stands for and what we’ve done for them. When you sing the national anthem there it’s a huge deal, they’re grasping every word. They just respect and believe in it.
You were officially promoted at a ceremony in November. How did it feel to reach the rank of general? It was never my ambition. It was always more about staying prepared for opportunities. When I started traveling a lot, I saw the hard work and high demands and stress that can come with the position, and for a while I didn’t know if I wanted that life. I don’t want to be anxiety-driven. But I was kind of living that life a little bit already. I’m just amazed by the amount of talented people I’m surrounded by, and I’m in awe of what they are able to do as leaders. I just feel like it could have been anybody, and I got tapped on the shoulder.
How will your duties change? The general works directly for the governor, just as you’d work for the president in wartime. I can be assigned anything. There’s a state partnership in Nevada with Tonga, so I’ll be a liaison, and I’ll be going to Tonga.
What is your role at MGM? The biggest thing there is that I’m in a position to help influence people to be better. I’ve spent a lot of time studying leadership, what drives and motivates people, and whether it’s [military] or in business, the concepts are similar. You get people to lead themselves first and they tend to be better in whatever responsibility they have. There are similarities when you get into understanding culture and differences, working independently and as a team. The strategies and outcomes are different, but in both, it’s not about technology or resources, it’s about people and how to get the best out of people. ... Sometimes people are not that excited at first, but when they get the training and see their role, they get more excited about it. Our job is to keep that magic going, to help keep this big ship moving in the right direction.
To me, the size of a company like MGM and everything people like you are doing behind the scenes is one of the most fascinating things about Las Vegas. If you’re amazed, I’m flabbergasted. I walk through our properties and just think, "How do you do this?" They create magic every day, and there’s a great model there in terms of adjusting on a regular basis to make sure you’re providing the best opportunities for people coming to Las Vegas. I’m always thinking about what more I need to do to bring in the best innovations and training and concepts for our employees, to keep us on that cutting edge.