Building a better Memphis is woven into Gretchen Wollert McLennon’s heart and soul. An “almost native” Memphian (she moved here at age 5), Gretchen got her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and her MBA from Wake Forest. In 2007, she joined the Hyde Family Foundations, and in 2009, she was named to the Top 40 Under 40 list by the Memphis Business Journal. She serves in countless capacities around the city, sitting on boards of various nonprofits. And while it sounds like free time is rare, she does enjoy cheering on the Grizzlies with her husband Kojo. Welcome Gretchen Wollert McLennon, today’s FACES of Memphis feature!
Describe your early career. Where did you work and what did you do?
After college, I returned to Memphis and taught high school English and World History for a couple years. Though teaching was fulfilling and an education itself, I was ready to move on to another professional challenge. Pursuing a graduate degree seemed to make sense (either that or it is just in my DNA, since both my parents have advanced degrees) and attending business school specifically appeared to offer new learning and skills development that would help round out my education and work experience.
Was working for a nonprofit your ultimate goal?
No, not at all. Which is not uncommon in my field. Many nonprofit and philanthropic executives take a circuitous path to their ultimate destination. I thought I’d be working in marketing and brand management for a Fortune 500 company. However, a nonprofit fellowship opportunity presented itself between my first and second year of b-school, and I jumped at the chance to apply. I was selected and was sponsored by the Kresge Foundation to work with Ronald McDonald House Charities in North Carolina on their marketing and communication plans. It was during that brief time that my personality, passion and purpose aligned, and I was set on the professional course I walk today, 12 years later.
What’s the mission of the Hyde Family Foundations, and what is your role?
In a nutshell, the Hyde family and the foundation staff work to make Memphis a world-class, 21st-century city. We focus our efforts in a couple areas to help achieve that goal, but at the end of the day, it is really about empowering the people and programs that are making real differences in the community and providing engaged, hands-on partnership and leadership on issues that will continue to transform our community.
What’s the best part about your job?
Getting to work with dynamic, visionary folks who wake up each day inspired to make our city better. Be it via the arts, education or helping to create more livable neighborhoods and communities, I feel supremely lucky that I get to impact our city in multifaceted ways.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Having to say “no” to organizations who have requested funds from us. There are so many strong nonprofits in Memphis doing important work, I wish we could partner with them all.
You’ve recently come full circle back to one of your earliest loves: ballet. Tell us about that journey.
I grew up taking ballet and at age 11, auditioned for and was accepted into Ballet Memphis’ school (then known as Memphis Concert Ballet). When I left the junior company five years later, the organization had changed their name to Ballet Memphis, moved into a new, renovated space and had started hiring professional dancers. Flash forward to now, and Ballet Memphis has evolved into a nationally respected company with 21 professional dancers and a school that serves hundreds each year. Their growth and development over almost 30 years has been astounding, and to think that I have been there since almost the beginning is crazy to me! When I began working for the Hyde family, it was edifying to get to interact once again with Dorothy Gunther Pugh (founder and CEO) and Ballet Memphis, though obviously in a much different capacity. I have served on the organization’s board of directors for several years now, and last year became president. Dorothy and I both enjoy telling people that I am her first student to serve the organization in this capacity. Just when I think it can’t get any better, Ballet Memphis decides to stage Swan Lake this season. Swan Lake is a huge undertaking on so many levels, and requires a lot of dancers for the various acts. I was blown away when Dorothy asked if I would be willing to appear in the ballet as a “lady in waiting” to the queen. I, of course, immediately agreed! Obviously, as someone who no longer trains on a regular basis, I didn’t dance in the show. I did, however, get to wear a beautiful costume and be on the stage for two of the four acts. Lots of facial expressions and waving of my fan—total fun! It was fun getting to know the dancers on a more personal level, see them up close practicing their craft and share a wee bit of the limelight with these amazing dancers. I was so inspired by being in the show, I am now taking a regular ballet class again every week!
What are your hobbies and how do you unwind?
I am always reading! Books and periodicals are everywhere in my office and home. I read for work-related reasons, but I also read for pleasure. Catching up with girlfriends is always affirming and an important part of maintaining balance in my life. It may be over a long walk, a Grizz game, dinner or drinks, but visiting with friends in some capacity is part of my weekly ritual. Of course, hanging out at home with my husband and our dogs is always the best part of any day!
Where’s the first place you take an out-of-towner when they come to visit you in Memphis?
Well, first on my mind is always food, so:
- For breakfast, Brother Juniper’s if eating out, Bryant’s or Gibson’s if picking up
- Beauty Shop for brunch
- Bar DKDC or Mollie Fontaine’s for drinks
- Hog & Hominy, Tsunami, River Oaks are some of my dinner favorites
- Finish the evening queuing up at Jerry’s Sno Cones for a wedding cake supreme
What’s your favorite Memphis attraction?
I enjoy sharing our rich history and heritage with visitors. The National Civil Rights Museum and The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum always meet the mark, and usually engender remarks from guests like, “I had no idea,” “I can’t wait to come back” and “I need to bring the rest of my family to see this!” Those types of reactions are so gratifying. If we are taking it easy, the Levitt Shell represents the best of Memphis to me—good music and a crowd whose diversity represents the best of our city. Of course, if the Grizz are playing we have to make an appearance at the Grindhouse!
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be . . .
I think I would definitely avoid a superpower where I could read people’s minds or see into the future—that is more info than I need, and it would lead me to constantly fixate and give my energy over to the wrong things! Do I really need to know when that meteor is going to crash into planet earth or what that person over there thinks about my outfit? No, ma’am, I do NOT! I would be better served with a fun superpower, so let’s go with flying. Flying seems cool. Birds look like they have a good time.
What inspires you?
Smart, driven, passionate people. Challenges that are close to resolution, and breakthrough points that I can impact in a positive way. Open-minded people who are willing to do the tough work of community building.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Kiehl’s lip balm, my Kindle and coffee!
Thanks, Gretchen! And our thanks to photographer Micki Martin for the great photos of Gretchen at work (and play).