Sallie Hussey and I go way back. As in all the way back to summer camp, member of the wedding, blood-oath sworn to protect all the intel gathered during that murky period of maturation we call “formative youth” back. In other words, she’s a dear (trusted) friend.
When we started planning how we would show off all things fabulous in East Nashville, she immediately sprang to mind. She put down roots in this part of our city long before it was considered the cool place to live, and besides that, she’s pretty darn fabulous, too.
Currently serving as CEO of Bridges, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing communities, Sallie is capably leading her organization through an exciting period of growth and change and is known for her tireless enthusiasm and hard work. Described once as “a big heart in high heels,” Sallie, as you’ll see today, charms everyone she meets.
What brought you to Nashville?
I wound up in Nashville sort of accidentally. When I finished graduate school, I sent my resume to nonprofit agencies in every city in the South looking for a job. I never got an interview anywhere else but Nashville. At the time, I had no idea I was so fortunate to be starting my nonprofit career in one of the most philanthropic cities in the county. That was just luck. I’ve stayed in Nashville for 15 years because I fell in love with the city and East Nashville, and for my career, this is simply the place to be. Plus, it’s the first place since Corinth (the small town in Mississippi where I grew up) that felt like home.
What do you love best about East Nashville?
You know, I think it somehow reminds me of Corinth. I bought my first place right before the big tornado hit. A few days after, I came home to find neighbors I didn’t even know with borrowed chainsaws cutting down tree limbs to make a path to my back door for me. It really has such a small town feel to it. Now I like that I have such amazing restaurants everywhere (since I’m not a fan of cooking) and phenomenal happy hours! Plus, I love the charm of older homes. (Mine is circa 1930.)
I’m amazed to learn that hearing loss is considered a public health issue, given that it ranks third behind arthritis and heart disease as one of the most common physical conditions. Can you tell us a little about what Bridges does to help with this problem?
Bridges, formerly called League for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, is an amazing 85 year-old nonprofit. We provide all kinds of programs and services for deaf and hard of hearing individuals of all ages, and not just in Nashville but in Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky. We provide interpreters and transcription services, we have a wonderful after-school program and we have a fantastic education and outreach department that I think will grow and expand over the coming years.
How did you land there?
When I was in graduate school at Alabama, my schedule got messed up one semester. I had no classes to take and was working part time in a garden shop sweeping concrete floors. On a whim, I took a sign language class and it started from there. When I moved to Nashville, I got in touch with the director of the League, Mary McKinney, and followed the agency for years. Fifteen years later, the CEO position came up at a time I was searching for a new position. It was really serendipitous, I think.
You were with Ryder Trucking in Mississippi prior to moving to Nashville. Why the switch to the nonprofit world?
I was with Ryder and still love the smell of diesel. That organization taught me a lot. One day I woke up and thought if I’m going to work this hard every day, I might feel better if the money went back into the community. I quit my job, went to Alabama to get a master’s degree in public relations and headed to the nonprofit sector.
What are the biggest challenges you face with your organization?
Aside from the immediate challenge of getting our new home built (which is temporary), I think the biggest challenges are determining some programming expansion options. Of course all businesses go through cycles or stages, and we’re working now to determine what our clients’ needs and wants are in the coming years. I think we have some opportunities around hearing loss prevention, education, hearing health and generally serving the hard of hearing population in a different way. I’m not sure we’re ready to do it yet or have figured out how to start. It’s a gigantic challenge, by itself. Add relocation and we’ve got a really busy, but fun year ahead.
What do you love most about working at Bridges?
That every day is different, especially right now. One day I’m negotiating million-dollar real estate deals and the next I’m ordering cheese trays for the annual board meeting. I am never bored and I’m always challenged. I love the challenge of making an agency better – improving its programs, processes, bottom line. Of course I feel like we’re making a tremendous difference – for folks who use the agency and for Nashville – and that’s what makes me love the agency. But what makes me enjoy working there is the actual work. It can be brutal some days but never, ever dull.
You are a Leadership Nashville alumnae. What is this program and why did you participate? What did you gain from your experience that has helped you in your current role at Bridges?
I participated because if you’re fortunate to be selected, it’s just too great an opportunity to miss. It’s not a leadership training program, but a gathering each year of some of Nashville’s leaders who take a look at the city and study different issues. It was a fantastic way to learn more about Nashville, the challenges and opportunities we face, and it gave me an amazing list of colleagues and friends I can call for help and advice even eight years later. Just last month I had dinner (then went shoe shopping) with two of my LN classmates who are now great friends. We are all so different, and I doubt I’d have met these amazing women had it not been for Leadership Nashville.
What books are currently on your bedside table (or in your Kindle).
Well, I’m in the middle of the Game of Thrones series. I also usually keep a business/management book on tap. I didn’t finish the last one, Uncharitable. And, if I’m ever without a good read, I keep a tattered, paperback copy of Wuthering Heights on my bedside table. I can pick it up and start right back where I left off, even if it was months ago.
Favorite place(s) to eat out on a date night?
I’ll go anywhere someone takes me! I’m not a very adventurous eater, and I really don’t like to cook, so I need someone to help me around the menu if I go somewhere new. In East, my favorite place is Eastland Cafe, and I love Calypso, too. I wish Tin Angel would move this direction.
Favorite vacation places?
Maybe it’s because I was raised in Mississippi and have had quite enough heat, but I prefer cold weather now. I recently went to northeast Canada and thought it was heaven. I had to buy a whole new wardrobe, but that was half the fun.
What do you do to recharge your batteries?
Ah…I recharge weekly with my dance class and my standing Friday night date with myself.
A few of my staff laugh because they know I get excited when it’s getting close to “Friday night ritual” time. I need that one night each week alone. Work usually keeps me in front of people, and to have a few hours where I don’t have to talk to anyone, concentrate on anything, or think strategically is important to me. I come home from work, vacuum (I feel so much better if the rugs are clean first), grab a stack of new, glossy, fashion magazines, pour a big glass of wine, and get into an extremely hot bubble bath for as long as I can stand it.
The tap dancing is just plain, loud fun.
You’ve always had a flair for performing and I believe you were a majorette in college who twirled a mean baton! Do you do anything now that’s similar?
You just can’t outrun your past, can you? Believe me, I’ve searched for a way to continue twirling as an adult but there’s just not much call for 40-something baton twirlers! If there were, I’d be on the front row decked out in sequins, hair cemented with a full can of Rave. Tap dancing takes its place now. I danced growing up and have been really lucky to find a great adult class (Vanderbilt Dance Group) here in Nashville that feeds my need to dance and perform. Honestly, it’s the only time each week (aside from my Friday night ritual) that I’m truly not thinking about my to-do list, work obligations, family things, etc. It completely consumes me for a few sweaty hours and I love it.
Event most looking forward to in Nashville in the upcoming months?
In addition to our upcoming relocation, which will be wonderful, we were just selected as a finalist at this year’s Salute to Excellence! We are up for the Memorial Foundation Leadership award at this year’s annual event hosted at CNM (Center for Nonprofit Managmenet). It’s such a huge honor and the whole agency is buzzing. The Salute is really the Oscars for the nonprofit world. Nashville has more nonprofit agencies per capita than any other city. (I believe that statistic still holds true today.) Only nine agencies win the big awards each year, out of approximately 800 nonprofits just in the Metro area. I am so proud we’re being recognized. Our board, staff, volunteers, worked so hard last few years to make Bridges profitable and successful again, and I would love to have the agency recognized for the gem it really is in this community.
What was/is your must-have item for summer 2012?
I’m glad you said “was” because after July 4th, I moved on to fall. My summer must-haves were a pair of gold, sling-back wedges by Ivanka Trump and a pair of dark green skinny jeans. I’m already on the hunt for my fall must-haves, which include a boyfriend jacket to help transition the green jeans into fall. And, since the glossy mags say pointy toes are coming back, I’m on the hunt for a pair of nude, pointy-toe heels. It’s all about the shoes.
Best piece of advice ever given to you?
That’s easy. It was from my Daddy when he was helping me figure out how to make a decision. He said, “Now darling, think about it for a while. Mull it over in your mind and weigh the pros and cons. Write out a list if you need, then sleep on it. Wake up, listen to your gut, make your decision and never look back.” That was back when I was right out of college, and I’ve spoken those words out loud to myself so many times I’ve lost count. I give him full credit every time I pass it on.
Name three things you can’t live without (excluding God, family and friends).
- High heels. I can’t imagine living a life in flats.
- Christmas music. It plays in my car, iPod, Pandora year-round.
- Astro – my retired, champion greyhound. Life without a dog, no thanks.
Thanks, Sallie! For more information about Bridges, visit their website: www.hearingbridges.org.
And thank you, also, to Ashley Hylbert for the wonderful photography. You can see more of her work and some behind-the-scenes photos from today posted on her blog: www.ashleyhylbert.com.