Member Spotlight: Holly Ashley

Mary Helen Montgomery, reporter in residence, sat down with one of our newest members Holly Ashley to hear more about her incredible work in our community.

Holly Ashley (seated in front) and Marlena Palmer moved to SOW in June

Mary Helen Montgomery: What is your organization, and what is your role there?

Holly Ashley: I am the Executive Director at the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute (CWLI), a nonprofit that aims to increase the leadership capabilities and influence of women in Chattanooga. We serve more than 650 members.

Since October 2016, I’ve been running the day-to-day operations of the organization, focusing primarily on implementing our strategic plan and developing new fundraising and marketing efforts, as well as strengthening our organizational infrastructure.

Mary Helen: Give a brief history of your background and education.

Holly: I’m a local through and through, having lived here since I was four years old (originally from Cleburne, TX), growing up in rural Soddy Daisy. I attended public school, and then I went to UTC for my bachelor’s in Human Services Management and my master’s in Business Administration.

But it’s my personal experiences and informal education that have most informed my career choices. I grew up poor — receiving Christmas gifts from the fire department, food stamps to buy my family’s groceries and covering part of my college tuition with need-based scholarships. I’ve experienced hunger and abuse; but I’ve also experienced generosity, compassion and community. It’s easier to have compassion for others and a love of community when you’ve benefited from those things personally. Now, I find great fulfillment working for organizations that impact people’s lives the way my life was impacted.

For the last 12 years, I’ve worked in nonprofit management at United Way, the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Mary Helen: Describe the evolution of your organization and where you are headed.

Holly: Our organization is 20 years old with a firmly established reputation in the community for being a great networking and leadership development organization for women. But just in the last two years, our membership has grown 150%. We’ve moved from being a volunteer-led organization to having two, and soon three, paid staff.

Our member demographics are shifting to include more young women and retired executives. The age diversity gives us the opportunity to create cross-generational mentoring opportunities and more of a leadership pipeline. But, it also requires us to rethink how we deliver our services. So, we’ve devised a new 3-tier membership track, and we’re implementing technology in new ways.

Mary Helen: Is there something that surprises people about the work that you do?

Holly: That running a nonprofit is the same as running a business. There’s a misperception that nonprofits are run by “do gooders” with bleeding hearts that don’t really operate on the same level of a for-profit venture. While it’s true that our missions are focused on social benefit rather than making a profit for shareholders, we have the same concerns about revenue generation, legal liabilities, workforce retention and market reach that businesses do. Yes, I went to school for this. No, it’s not a volunteer gig. And it’s definitely not your mother’s bake sale.

Mary Helen: When do you do your best work or come up with your best ideas?

Holly: It sounds obvious, but I get my best ideas when I’m inspired by risk takers. Whether it’s listening to a podcast or brainstorming with my program manager, any time learning about what others have accomplished by taking a risk, it reminds me that it’s good to occasionally shake things up. Even if I generate 20 ideas that won’t work, the process of exploring the options usually generates one fabulous idea. From there, I get my best work done when I dig into my laptop in a comfortable environment then work straight through.

Mary Helen: How is Chattanooga and the southeast part of your story?

Holly: I love this city, but I didn’t always. Growing up, before the renaissance of the city, I didn’t think the city had much to offer me. I stayed for college and I started my family early, getting married at 21 and having my daughter, Isabella, at 24. By the time I established my career and had time to look around, I found a city transformed into a place I didn’t want to leave. I was lucky, really. Now, my husband and I say Chattanooga will always be our home base. I appreciate the slow pace of southern culture and the local landscape now that I’m older — it’s really grown on me and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Mary Helen: What do you like to do outside of work?

Holly: I’m an introvert that operates like an extrovert for work. So when I’m not working, I like to retreat into nature or engage in other activities that balance me. My favorites are listening to podcasts/audible books while working around my house, flatwater kayaking, lying in the sunshine at the park, taking in live music and great food with my husband, and puttering around the house with a cup of coffee. I also have a pretty serious Rhett & Link morning ritual/addiction that I enjoy with my 13-year-old daughter.

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