Success isn’t a straight line. It curves, dips, reverses, stagnates, pivots and peaks. And if you’re lucky, it allows you an opportunity to come full circle.
For us here at VJ, success has always been about what you can give back. Philanthropy is one of our guiding principles. It’s a value I’ve noticed is shared specifically by many women-owned businesses that strive to create a culture of giving as we usher in the next generation of business leaders.
As a 100% woman-owned business ourselves, we’re in good company—Colorado is home to some of the most influential women-led businesses in the country. I had the chance to talk with a few of them about their path to success and how they helped pioneer the concept of philanthropy in business and set an example for brands everywhere.
Wynne Odell, co-founder of Odell Brewing Company, Nancy Richardson, co-founder of OtterBox, and Nechie Hall, co-founder of Vladimir Jones (who also happens to be my mom), are not only the women behind three of Colorado’s biggest brands—now, decades after starting their own companies, this power trio is giving back in not just personally meaningful ways but in ways that benefit the entire state of Colorado.
You worked for decades as founders of your businesses, tell us a little bit about your journey. What inspired you to create what you created, and how did it progress over the years?
Wynne: I was working in banking and my husband was a landscaper. We didn’t like what we were doing. I was tired of having a job that was meaningless to me. We started thinking about what we could do to change our jobs and thought, “well, he really likes making beer and I can run a business.” So, we decided we could start a brewery and work on things we had a passion for. The business took off right from the start.
Nancy: (My husband) Curt always wanted to come up with his own product and not be held to other people’s standards for marketing great ideas. So, he designed a small box that was a waterproof case and that was our beginning. We learned a lot of good lessons from what we call “failing forward.” We kept hitting a ceiling that we couldn’t seem to break through. Learning from a lot of prior mistakes helped us get moving.
Nechie: I graduated from college with a degree in fine arts and my husband had just gotten out of the Air Force in Colorado Springs and was a cinematographer. There were so few career options for women that were of great interest to me, nor many career paths that felt open. I went to work at a ski shop and went back to school and started taking business classes. I found that I loved business, so we decided to jump in and start a company. We didn’t know we couldn’t do it. We learned quickly and we were ambitious. We were lucky to pick up a couple big accounts in our first month in business. We also read every book we could about advertising and became avid students of the business. To my surprise, I loved the entrepreneurial challenges that came up every day.
Each of you started businesses with your husbands. Do you have any observations to share about men’s and women’s leadership styles?
Wynne: I don’t feel there were gender differences in how my husband and I approached our business. We had very different skill sets and I think that’s what allowed us to be successful.
Nancy: I’ve always been concerned about culture and people’s well-being so that’s where I plugged in. I’m so inspired by young women today—they’re so bold. There’s nothing they can’t accomplish.
Nechie: We knew we had to create a place where people had balance. It’s how we knew we had to survive as a company. I also think men are more willing to take chances.
You’ve been leaders in industries characterized by colossal change over the last few decades (Colorado beer, technology, advertising). In that regard, how did your shift from business leadership to philanthropic leadership come about? Why is giving back important to you?
Wynne: Doug and I both grew up in families that were philanthropically oriented. My mother was a teacher and was very involved in the community, constantly working on different endeavors. I had that background—it was just something you do. In starting a business, you have the opportunity to ramp that up because it’s not just you being able to offer the services or the funding. Now, it’s quite a robust program for our brewery. I’ve been able to help the brewery build up its philanthropic efforts and apply them myself.
Nancy: We’ve always lived by the motto “to whom much is given, much is expected.” When you have a business, there’s a perfect opportunity to have a captive audience and challenge people to find out their passions and give them opportunities to volunteer and get involved. It was a natural progression for me to start OtterCares and formalize giving.
We’ve learned so much throughout our life and through our successes and failures that we are in the season of life now where we can really pour in our wisdom—our failures, our encouragement—into the rising generations. That’s where I’m most beneficial and valuable now is pouring into others.
Nechie: Every year we took on a pro-bono client and we let our employees pick what cause and client we worked with. It’s part of the company’s personality and we tried to make it part of who we were. On a more personal level, I’ve found the most gratifying part of the philanthropic work is the hands-on. Not raising money for the soup but serving the soup. It’s emotionally satisfying, and I think we have a responsibility in many ways to help others.
You all came together to bring mental health resources to Colorado schools. Why was this something you all felt passionately about?
Nechie: We all met on the El Pomar North Regional Council, and, as a council, we started analyzing needs. This was way before the pandemic. Mental health continually surfaced as a need. The idea was to take mental health counseling into the schools. Every school has a school counselor, but we brought in psychologists for the students and the teachers. This is a place we could have immediate access and we felt, a long-term impact. We started in 5th grade and now we’re in elementary through high school.
Nancy: We had focus groups with superintendents and educators and had roundtables—and listening to the experts in the field. Mental health was one topic that was a recurring theme. That’s where we began to really dig in because this is a critical area for our youth.
Wynne: Personally, I had always thought that mental health issues were intractable—it’s so hard to make progress on an individual or community basis, so it’s something I had never focused on. But now, having this experience and seeing the impact that a focused effort can have is hugely encouraging to me.
Philanthropy can feel so lofty. What advice would you give someone who wants to get involved and how they can make a difference.
Nancy: Examine your heart and find out what really makes your heart sing. What’s out there that you want to plug into and make an impact on? Once you identify that, it gives you a ‘North Star’ to start exploring. Group volunteering is a safer place to dip your toe in for people who have never really ventured into volunteering.
Wynne: Get started. Sometimes you just have to walk out the door and start doing something. We have an expectation for our employees that they will volunteer 10 hours of time to do whatever community service work they choose. We think it’s good exposure for our co-owners to try out different things to see what gets them excited. By giving your employees the opportunity to do this you’re helping them connect better with each other, connect better with the community, and bring that energy back with them. It improves the environment of the entire organization.
At this juncture in your careers, you’re probably sharing advice more than receiving it. What’s been the piece of advice given to you that has resonated with you most?
Nechie: There were two bits of advice I was given early on. The first is you have to rely on your brain. To do that, you should always try to be the most informed person in the room. Be prepared and be ready to be part of the conversation. The other advice was to give people grace and try to understand where they’re coming from.
Nancy: I read something that said, “the measure of our lives is not determined at our death but rather in the lives and accomplishments of the generations yet to come.” That’s the greatest legacy that I can leave, by pouring into others and encouraging them to make a difference.
Wynne: I’m a big believer in do what you love/love what you do. When you’re starting your career or even in the middle of your career, you can end up in positions that are not of your choosing. But if you go into it with arms open and a willing spirit, you can make something of it. Be willing to do anything.
Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.