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Sonya Shelton: Being Present

November 15th, 2009 by Jessika

In high school, she knew what she wanted to do with her life. By 23, she had done it.

After graduating from California State University Long Beach in 1988, Sonya Shelton wrote for Screamer, a now defunct heavy metal magazine. She had not worked at Screamer long before she was promoted to editor.

“I had a list of bands I wanted to interview before I even started college,” Shelton said. “I got to interview them all.”

Sammy Hagar was at the top of her list. She interviewed him while he was still with Van Halen. She also interviewed Motley Crue, Robert Plant, and Iron Maiden.

After accomplishing her goals, Shelton found herself at a crossroads. What should she do next?


Wearing a red and black lace-print shirt, black slacks, and boots, Shelton hardly looks like someone who would have been such a heavy metal fan. She does not look like the first female abbot for the Dharma Zen Center either.

Shelton’s journey to abbot was more than 10 years in the making, ending only a few months ago.

A few days a week, Shelton travels from Sun Valley, Calif. to Los Angeles to the Dharma Zen Center, a community of Zen Buddhists that is part of the Kwan Um School of Zen, to teach and practice. As the center’s abbot, she also serves as the face of the center, and attends many of the center’s events.


Alone and with few friends, Shelton found herself living in an unfamiliar city. In the mid-1990s, she had moved to Seattle where she freelanced for Nikko, a magazine geared toward the Asian-American community, and she wrote merchandise catalogs for REI.

She first was introduced to Buddhism during college. But she did not seriously study it until she landed in Seattle.

She found a bookstore near her Seattle home that carried books on Buddhism. There she came across Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America by Natalie Goldberg.

Goldberg’s book chronicled her life as a writer and student of Zen Buddhism.

The book inspired Shelton to study Buddhism seriously.


In 2000, Shelton found herself back in the Los Angeles area. She had accepted a position with The Walt Disney Co. in the employee communications department.

Like so many of her previous jobs, Shelton quickly received promotions, ending up as the director of employee communications where she oversaw hundreds of employees.

When Disney offered her the position, Shelton had just signed a book deal with Entrepreneur Publishing. In 2003, Start Your Own Bar and Tavern was published. Three years later, a second edition was published titled Start Your Own Bar and Club.

“Most people ask me after writing the book, would you start a bar? And the answer is hell no. It’s just so complicated and risky,” Shelton said.


But Shelton is no stranger to risk. While she worked for DAK electronics before moving to Seattle in the early 1990s, she started Rocket Writing Services, providing everything from help with advertising to résumés and public relations writing.

While at Disney, she began developing a leadership consultant company called Being Present to Win. In 2007, she left Disney to devote herself to the company full time.

Shelton runs Being Present to Win alone, contacting clients, assessing their needs, and conducting workshops. She also teaches employees stress management techniques.

She was trained at the University of Massachusetts in mindfulness based stress reduction, which employs Buddhist concepts and meditation, strips it of its language, and makes it accessible.


For Shelton, starting Being Present to Win seemed like the next logical step. At Disney, she said she had five managers in the course of seven years. From this instability, she said she realized how important it was for managers to learn techniques to enhance their leadership abilities and help them reduce stress in the workplace.

In 2006, a year before leaving Disney and fully launching her company, Shelton received her Master’s of Science degree in organizational development from Pepperdine University.

A self-described learning addict, Shelton is currently working on an evidence-based coaching certificate from Fielding University. Shelton said the certificate would apply toward her doctorate, a degree she knows she will pursue in the future.


Shelton’s friends say there are two things a person remembers about Shelton. She has a distinctive laugh that can be heard in almost any situation, and she has the ability to remain calm when confronted with challenges.

Early on in her career, Shelton faced one challenge she said helped prepare her for the years that followed.

She interviewed for a position at an LA recording studio. The manager told her that he would not give her the job, because she was a woman and he did not want to ask her to lift the heavy studio equipment.

However, that experience did not stop her from pursuing industries that were dominated by men.

She set goals, and when she accomplished them, which she inevitably did, she set more goals.

She took risks, and those risks paid off.

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