Growing Admiration Series: Donna Letier
Donna Letier, retail maven and co-founder/CEO of the Gardenuity, is assuming the leadership mantle with unparalleled enthusiasm and a fresh perspective on life, entrepreneurship, and joy. She shares the things that make her happy, offers her views on balance, and gives advice on how to be an effective leader.
Every day, without fail, Donna needs to be showered, dressed, exercised, prepared for work, and car-loaded by 6:45 a.m. so she can help her special needs daughter Jillian get ready and get to school.
In other words, she’s up at 4 a.m. She begins her morning by reading and planning her day. By 5 a.m., she’s on a run. Which, let’s be honest, is impressive by any standards.
According to Donna, this 2 and a half hour block of time—the wee hours of the morning everyone else sleeps through—is vital to her day. In fact, that first 15 minute chunk of her day contains the most important minutes. In that time, she establishes the whole cadence and tone of her day by using the time to breathe, to plan, and to collect her thoughts.
Besides, she tells me, any doubt about the early hours being worth it are eradicated when she watches the sunrise every morning. As the sun dawns, so does the realization that Donna has the whole day ahead of her to accomplish anything she wants to.
And, although perhaps a little extreme, this practice seems to be highly fruitful. Because that’s just her morning. Once she arrives at work, she immediately adorns her CEO hat and gets started on whatever it is that needs to be done, leading and directing Gardenuity towards her vision.
Luckily, as she begins her workday, she sits next to her best friend Julie Eggers, the woman who inspires her most. Together, the two women founded Gardenuity, the new e-commerce, direct-to-your-door gardening company.
As a company, Gardenuity is passionate about bringing high quality and inspiring products to consumers. Specifically, Donna is interested in creating products that are cost efficient, simple, and fit into busy lifestyles, but are simultaneously healthy and joyful. Many products choose one side or the other (fast-food is low stress, but not healthy; workout regimes are good for you, but often complicated and difficult to implement). With Gardenuity’s urban garden systems, Donna’s creating a product that checks all the boxes: simple, healthy, and happy.
More than unique products, Gardenuity is providing everyone, including gardening rookies and urbanites the opportunity to garden. This is an opportunity Donna thinks should be proffered to everyone, regardless of location, experience, or time availability. She says, “If you tend to a garden, you’re nurturing something. And growing nurturers is good for everybody.”
Gardenuity is cultivating a culture of nurturing, and it certainly seems that a more nurturing spirit is what the world needs. Don’t we need people who practice compassion daily, who appreciate the process of growth, and understand how it feels to reap the rewards of one’s labor? Donna continues, “Nurturing—whether that be nurturing friendships, children, healthy habits, marriages, or even bank accounts—can only lead to good things.
Although it mostly monopolizes her nurturing power at the moment, Gardenuity is certainly not Donna’s first go-round with leadership. As a 50+ women who has always worked, she’s been in the retail world for a long time, working with companies such as Neiman Marcus, Barney’s, Borders and RSH. She tells me that each of these experiences revolved around growing businesses. Barney’s was about growing market share; Neiman’s was about bringing steps in the door.
These experiences have provided her with several great mentors who have helped her become the best version of herself. She self-describes herself as lucky. Because she’s had the right people assist her to her leadership position, and because now, she’s consistently surrounded by people and products she loves.
In other words, Gardenuity is emerging from the perfect storm of elements—a combination of career women with 30+ years of professional experience, an inspired vision, an innovative product, the best tech minds in the field, and Donna, an attentive and motivated leader who cares about her customers and her co-workers.
Caring about the people around her is obviously a cherished tenet of Donna’s life philosophy, and it’s part of what makes her such a beloved leader. When I ask her about the roles she fulfills, she vaguely mentions her role at the office. When I ask for specifics, she shrugs. Although technically CEO and founder of Gardenuity, she says that she fulfills whatever role is needed of her that day—“chief bottle washer to chief creative designer.”
Hollie Butterfield, the customer service representative for Gardenuity, speaks to Donna’s leadership, “She’s the most impressive multitask-er I’ve ever seen. Her drive is contagious.” She continues, “Of all my time in the workforce, I’ve never had female leadership. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to work under not only one, but two fearless female leaders.”
Donna spends many hours a day at the office, and she often works on the weekend. She’s committed, and she’s willing to go the distance to achieve what she wants. But still, before telling me anything about her career, Donna tells me about her friends and family.
First and foremost, she is a wife and mother and sister and daughter. Scott is her husband; he’s patient, smart, and, in her words, “literally the best dad I’ve ever seen.” Donna is also mother to two incredible girls: Madison, a 22-year-old currently enrolled in university (and probably going to change the world), and Jillian, a 20-year-old superstar at living life and Special Olympics.
One of her most important roles as a human is that of a friend. In her eyes, friendship is like anything; you need to nurture it. Above all, Donna values being present in a relationship. One of her founding principles in life is that when somebody—friend, acquaintance, or foe—takes the initiative to ask for help, you stop and help them.
Specifically in regards to women, she adds, “Because sometimes women have a hard time asking for help. So when someone does ask, you stop whatever it is you’re doing and you help them in that moment.” Although Donna believes that, despite their hesitancy to ask for it, helping one another is something women are particularly good at. That, and pivoting, according to the information they receive.
Pivoting is a skill that makes women extraordinary leaders—especially as entrepreneurs. It’s also something that is quite difficult to teach. In Donna’s experience, helping people to pivot is the single hardest part of being a leader.
She explains. Often, the best way for people to learn is to go down a path and realize for themselves that the path must be malleable. As a leader, Donna teaches people that it’s OK to pivot—natural, even. Leaders must be aware of the value the “art of the pivot” has in businesses, and be willing and able to recognize the need for pivoting in their own and their employee’s paths.
That being said, Donna very clearly distinguishes between pivoting (a valuable asset) and giving up, which is never an option.
Donna is mother to two unbelievable girls. Madison, is a 22 year old superstar, currently enrolled in university. Jillian, she describes, she’ll “have the opportunity to be a hands-on, everyday mom for the rest of my life or as long as her life is.” Jillian is an exuberant special needs girl who wasn’t supposed to live past five. Even in the face of medical evidence, Donna felt giving up wasn’t an option. She elaborates, “My kid was going to live. So I didn’t give up on her, and I proved them all wrong.”
And the rewards of not giving up always outweigh the effort of the moment. She tells me that, although perpetual hands-on motherhood was slightly daunting at 30, she now understands it as a gift because, she says, “I’m reminded of what true love is every time I get her out of bed and get her dressed for the day.”
This same tenacity applies to business, she says. If Donna hearkened to everyone who said gardening wouldn’t work on rooftops or patios, she wouldn’t be talking to us today. There’s no business that everyone thinks is a good idea. However, she counters, “Be sure to take the negatives and listen. Someone who is willing to share their thoughts about why your idea won’t work is just as valuable as someone who thinks it will. Then, trust that you have the intellectual capacity to choose what to heed and what to toss aside.” `
Just for kicks, I play the devil’s advocate. Sometimes, I say, negative feedback is not constructive. Sometimes, it’s just rude. She responds, “Just toss it.” When I ask how she deals with disappointments like this, she chuckles. “Chocolate and chips and salsa always help.”
These disappointments are bound to come up when engaged in the entrepreneurial pursuit, but the good news is that there are huge boons as well. When I asked what the most fulfilling part of every day is for Donna, she replies, “The most rewarding part of my day is getting to work with people who inspire me—and they inspire me not only with the work they do, but with what they do out of the office as well. Seeing other people find balance in their lives is hugely inspiring to me.”
Donna is a huge proponent of balance, which she says comes, “minute by minute, not day by day.” We all have choices, she declares. And the truth is, balance comes by the choices you make every day. If you chose to work at nights, and you’re not home to help your sophomore prepare for her algebra test, that’s a choice you made—good or bad—and you should accept it and move on.”
When I ask Donna about the best advice she’s ever been given, she tells me that the most valuable advice she’s ever received is to understand the consumer—to try and step into their shoes and empathize with their experience as they engage with your product. Healthcare, steel industry, Gardenuity…she doesn’t think that this rule could ever be voided.
But, as for advice she’d give? It’s not complicated. She says, “Listen. Listen to yourself and to those around you.”
And maybe this is the stuff of true leadership—the kind of leadership we need in this world. Leaders who listen to themselves and to those around them, and more importantly, leaders that do as Donna does and care. For themselves and for everyone else.