All Careers Considered: Embracing Change and Why Helping Others is the Best Philosophy in Business with Dawn Ridley

This week we spoke with Dawn Ridley, African American Studies BA ‘91. Dawn currently serves as the Assistant Vice President of Institutional Giving at Howard University and has years of experience in business primarily in the Washington, DC area. In this episode, Dawn shares how her IU experience propelled her into a dynamic, successful career in communications, public relations, relationship management in multiple different industries. She also shares some great advice for students as they enter in the working world with big goals and dreams. Enjoy! 

Links Mentioned in the Episode


MOLLY: Hey Hoosiers. Welcome back to another episode of All Careers Considered. This podcast is produced by the Walter Center for Career Achievement which is the career services center that specifically serves students and alumni in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. We’re on a mission to help you achieve career success by supporting you in your pursuit of impactful experiences, designing your life, sharing your story and building meaningful connections.

My name is Molly. I’m the assistant director of strategic alumni engagement for the Walter center, and I’m also the host of this podcast. You may have heard that you can do anything with your College of Arts and Sciences degree, and I’m here to show you that that really is the case by interviewing alumni to ask them how they got to where they are now.

Next up is my interview with Dawn Ridley. Dawn is a seasoned professional who currently serves as the assistant vice president of institutional giving at Howard university and has years of business experience, including starting her own firms, Ridley and Associates and Gamma Innovation Group, as well as starting her own career development platform for the sports industry called first sports

Dawn graduated from IU with a degree in African-American studies and in our conversation, she shares from her own experience, how to build a successful business career, why helping others is the best philosophy in any business and how to be flexible and embrace change when things don’t go quite as you had planned, she was super dynamic and fun to talk to. So enjoy the episode!

Alrighty, thanks so much for being here, Dawn. 

DAWN: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

MOLLY: Yeah. So I know you recently moved into an exciting new role at Howard University. So congratulations on that role, it sounds really exciting, but I’m really interested today to talk a little bit about your experience. I know that you are a very experienced professional and, you know, public relations, communications and all of those things. And it looked like you had started your own companies. So I’d love to talk about kind of your experience as a business owner. And a female entrepreneur and all of those things today, if that sounds good.

DAWN: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you. So yeah, so I’ve had a very interesting path and I think what’s interesting about my path is that I’ve gone in and out of entrepreneurship. And I’ve done it during times where it’s been viewed differently, I think by the business world and even by society. So I kind of work my way backwards a bit, I am. So, as you mentioned, I have a great new role at Howard University and very, very excited about it. I’m working in development with corporate and foundation relations engaging in developing institutional gifts for the university. So I’m thrilled about that. And what’s interesting is that opportunity came to me immediately after I relaunched my business. And so it was definitely interesting. I was just like, Oh my gosh, I just made the decision to focus 100% of my business and left another great opportunity with AARP and, you know, I had this certain vision of how things would move forward. But, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I, after careful consideration to study, you know, what, I’ve got to find a way to do both. And so for me, what that meant was reconfiguring how I would look at my company and putting it on pause and the broader scope but really deciding to focus on just a very few things. So that was interesting. And that’s where I am now. 

So I have two companies. One is called Gamma Innovation Group and we provide marketing solutions to companies and organizations and our focus, primarily, was around design thinking and human centered design. And I did everything from, you know, conducting design thinking workshops for organizations and training individuals But what I learned was that folks really needed marketing and strategy support in addition to that. And so what I ended up doing was really going to my roots in marketing. I have an MBA in marketing. My degree from IU by the way is African-American studies. So all of you out there who have a degree, that’s a little different than what you think you might do believe me, it happens to most of us. And it’s all good. But I decided to expand into marketing strategy and solutions. And so Gamma Innovation Group is primarily focused based on that. And while previously we delved into larger contracts and pursued larger opportunities. Once I decided to go to Howard you know, I paused some of that and only work with a very small handful of clients and very much in an advisory role. The good news is, I’ve got a great team of folks who are able to dig in and really do some of the day-to-day social media, marketing, SEO search engine optimization marketing and strategy. And so we collaborate really well and it allows me to, you know, remain very committed to my new role and very passionate about it, but still keeping a little bit of a toe in my business. And I’ll maybe talk about that. Sort of from the perspective of how I started is. First Sports Shop. I created that tool. I probably should maybe talk about my career path and then we’ll make First Sports Shot, make a little more sense. 

And so when I left IU I went and got an MBA in marketing from it’s now Clark Atlanta university at the time it was Atlanta University. I then moved, I stayed in Atlanta and started my career in sports. I worked as an intern with the Atlanta Braves. And eventually I worked in retail while I was waiting for an opportunity in sports. Sports is very, very competitive field. You know, it’s tough now, but I think it was even tougher than because it was so hard to make connections with people. But fortunately, one of my professors told me about an internship at the Atlanta Braves and I was able to get it. And that was the beginning of my career in sports. Eventually when I had a sales job in the business arena away from sports because my Braves’ job was, it was considered full-time, but it was temporary until you had to sort of start over each season. And I decided that I wanted to just kind of build a little bit more business expertise. And so I began to do that in a sales role. And I always credit that role with teaching me how to sell in a B2B environment and it was great, but in the end I wanted to be back in sports. And so I called my old boss at the Braves and said, Hey help. And he suggested that I look at the Atlanta committee for the Olympic games. So I’m dating myself a bit. So we know those Olympics were in 1996. So this was all like 94, 95. So I joined Aycock as we called it and worked in sales and marketing. I sold what we called patron packages and it was a $50,000 ticket package for people who couldn’t quite afford sponsorships. And I also sold suites for some of the really great venues. The Georgia dome at the time was the home for basketball and gymnastics. And I was overseeing the Fulton County stadium. So now the Braves are two stadiums later. So again, so but that was my role at the Olympics. So I was very happy in that role and very excited.

And I then got a call from a friend to come over to the NFL PA to tell me about an opportunity at the NFL PA very long story short. I joined that organization to run their licensing for trading cards and collectibles. At that time, that was their biggest revenue source accounted for about 85 to 90% of the revenue to all NFL players. And also at that time we were launching something called Players, Inc. And it was the marketing and licensing subsidiary of the NFL players association. And gave the players an opportunity to position themselves as spokespersons to gain sponsorship and to do things that a nonprofit union couldn’t do.

So that was really a pivotal component of that job because in addition to the licensing expertise I gained, I really learned how to build a business and how to build a marketing entity. When I look back at, those were equally important. So at any rate, I did that for about seven and a half years and was promoted to vice president for corporate partnerships. And then eventually with senior vice president, by the time I left. So that is when. I began to start consulting. And so I just sort of had one, just give you that background. I also, at that time started teaching, I was an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins. Eventually went to Georgetown and GW American university and there, I taught marketing, but I also taught a lot of sports management.

And so with that, I began to talk to students frequently. And one of the first questions they had was how do I get a job in sports? And so I mentored countless, countless students you know, through coaching phone calls, connecting with other people, et cetera. You know, I’d be a guest speaker at tons of organizations, conferences, et cetera. And so I, at the time I wanted to write a book, I thought, Oh, I’m going to write a book, how to get a job in sports. And then I said, you know what? This really could be like a course or maybe even a seminar. So in short, that is how I started First Sports Job which became an organization dedicated to helping people get their first job in sports. I hosted seminars, webinars. I did individual coaching and First Sports Jobs still does exist. We are focused on developing an online course. We had hoped to launch early in the year, but again, I got this great, amazing job. And so it’s paused. And so we’ll be launching in the late spring.

But that is how that company came to be. It was an idea, then it was a book idea, then it was an actual seminar and program and coaching. So I think that what I learned from that… I think a couple things, number one was just to be able to find out what your customers need. I thought, Oh, I’m going to do, you know, first I thought, Oh, I’m going to write a book. Well, in a book, not to say, could have been successful, but what people really needed was they needed to talk to me. They needed to understand the business. They needed to be connected. They needed someone to coach them through and to help hold them accountable. And so that’s what I did. Additionally I think the other learning was just for me to be flexible and to be able to pivot when things change, you know, so yes, it’s a webinar, but that wasn’t my primary business model, it shifted to coaching, which was effective and helpful. Then when I decided I wanted to reach more people and I found that, you know, I just didn’t have the time to talk to and coach as many individuals. And that’s where I thought, you know what, I should develop an online course. And so that was really pivotal for me.

And I’m really, really excited about the course. And you know, I had to be coached. I had to develop my skills. Here’s another thought I had to develop my skillset because yeah, I’m pretty seasoned… well we know I’m seasoned, we’re talking about the Atlanta Olympics… I’m a pretty seasoned business person, but I didn’t know a lot about online courses. I’m a pretty good marketer, but you know, understanding digital marketing when you’re marketing person to person that was a different space for me. So that was important too, for me to just develop my skill sets and, you know, be able to pivot, but also be able to learn and, and, and grow so I could be more effective. So I’m going to pause there for a second, cause I’ve, I’ve kind of answered a ton of questions you haven’t even asked yet. So I’ll pause. 

MOLLY: That’s okay. That was a great synopsis of what sounds like you’ve had a very, you know, successful career in a lot of different types of interesting roles that sound like similar types of skills, like communications, you know, relationship management but in different types of industries. So I like how you kind of talked about all that. So I’d like to kind of, you know, go back a little bit and think back to when you were a student at IU and you were an African studies African-American studies major. So tell me a little bit about kind of why you chose that major, what your experience was like at IU, and I know you said you had a professor that told you about that internship. So was there any other, you know, connections you were able to make when you were a student that were helpful? 

DAWN: Sure. Sure. Sure. So I will say two things. So it’s so funny. I was on a call right before I’m talking to you. And I told someone, Oh, I’m finally using my African-American studies degree in some way, shape or form working for a  historically black institution. Right. But I will say that that major came from passion. You know, that was I came to IU to be a psychologist and all my, most of my teenage life, I thought I’m going to be a therapist psychologist. So I’m going to major in psychology and the deeper I got into it, the less I wanted to do it in the clinical way. But on this other side, I was having all these great classes learning about, you know, African-American history. And at that time it was called the Afro-American studies department. And It was very, very strong, I didn’t even know such a thing existed. I did not get that kind of exposure.

As a black woman, as a young student, as a person growing up in Evansville, Indiana, it wasn’t as if I was exposed to that kind of history and that kind of examination of culture. And I just loved it. And so I, it, it just, I fell into the major. It wasn’t, I wasn’t super intentional. I didn’t have a clear path. Toward the end of my years at IU, I started getting excited about marketing and business. And I met people who were in Kelly’s MBA program. It wasn’t called Kelly back then. And they suggested that I go to graduate school and they were the ones who suggested Atlanta, because it would have taken me longer to finish in Kelly not having started as a business major, then it would. And they were just like, just get an MBA. So going back to your question about professors. So I, two of my greatest influences I’ve lost in the last couple of years, Dr. William Wiggins, who was just an incredible, incredible mentor to me and dear friend and Dr. James Mumford. I, if I had to pick two professors, those two I, you know, I get emotional thinking about it. And if you look up anything about Dr. Mumford you’ll, you’ll see an actual, I would suggest to you and, and to your listeners that you learn about both of these folks, Dr. Wiggins. I was reading an article in GQ. I can’t even remember the topic. But Dr. Wiggins was quoted in it and I’m like, Oh my God, that’s my professor. And then Dr. Mumford is just. He was a gift to the university, a gift to the community a gift to his many, many students. We all thought we were his favorite.

You know, my daughter, who’s a sophomore at IU, I brought her back to meet him. You know, they were pivotal in my life and supporting me personally, professionally, et cetera. 

I think that I would suggest, and as I mentioned earlier, you know, your major can be different. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that degree at that time, I ended up going into business. It worked well for me, but I maintained my passion around the subject matter. I explored different ideas about, Oh, maybe I’ll go back and get a PhD. I’d love to, you know, be a professor like my professors were to me. There was a time where there’s an amazing museum here part of the Smithsonian, the museum of African-American history and culture in DC. I, you know, explored opportunities there. You know, there are things that I thought I could do that were specific to my degree, but what I’ve learned and what I try to tell my daughter is your degree is important. And I think students today are much more intentional about their career path than we were. We were kind of floating a little bit, sorry, mom. But you know, we weren’t as intentional particularly those of us who are first generation college students, which I am. So I think students are very focused on, okay, what job am I getting out of college?

And I’m not saying that’s wrong. I think that’s good. However, what I remind my daughter of who, again, she’s in the media school, she’s a film and television production major. I remind her that that’s your first job. It’s probably not going to be your only job. And so that’s great. I want you to choose a degree that you think is useful, that you’re passionate about, and all those things are important, but know that you’re not locked in. I mean, I just talked about my career path and I haven’t even gotten to the part where I went to National Geographic and DC United and the last seven years I’ve spent as a strategy director at AARP you know, I. As a student at IU I, I didn’t even know half these jobs existed much less than I would be doing them.

And so I feel that you know, I, I would challenge the students to continue to be intentional. I love what the university is doing around career development. I love that, we as parents are more focused, but I also want us to give students an opportunity to explore and to figure things out a little bit too. And it’s a hard balance again, I know both sides. I’m an IU mom. But I would challenge students to do that as well and know that you’re going to probably a few people do the same thing, their whole career, but most of us don’t.

MOLLY: Yeah. And I’m glad that you tell your daughter that because that’s what we also tell students is that, you know, you definitely want to take advantage of your time at IU and think about what’s right after IU, but you know, things change and it’s good to have some skills that can really go into a lot of different directions. Obviously like you have in your career too. So I’d like to hear a little bit about, so you graduated with your degree in African American studies and it sounds like you’re already starting your career. So, can you tell me a little bit about what it was like kind of being in your twenties and starting this career? Did you kind of anticipate the success that you were going to have or what was that like? Just kind of starting your career and thinking about what the future was going to hold. If that makes sense. 

DAWN: Yeah, it does make sense. And I think about that sometimes. It’s so hard to know. You just don’t know what the future will hold. And I think that what I, I think there’s some things I did right, and some things that I wish I would’ve done differently. I think what I did right was I was intentional. I remember again, you know, we’re talking early nineties and so there was no LinkedIN there’s no internet, well, there’s barely the internet. I created the first website for my department at the Olympics. You know, there’s barely an internet. I reached out to a lot of people. I wrote, I had handwritten letters to executives at companies saying, you know, I’d like an internship. I was very proactive in that way and I was very resourceful.

And so I think I did that well. I think that I worked really hard in the opportunities that I had. So I had my first internship at the Atlanta Braves. It was very much grunt work. I managed, how do you describe it, corporate programs or corporate programs that are happening inside this tent? And me and my teammates, we kind of manage how the little corporate parties were going with kids would come and get autographs from mascots and we do kid birthday parties and all that. Well, that’s dumping a whole lot of ice cream and cake and junk and trash bags and trying to turn the tent over for the mascots to come sign autographs, not glamorous. However, When they needed people to come work in the office to support the ticket season ticket holders and to help. 

So they tapped us for that. And those of us who had excelled in that area. So I did not know that I was going to have the career that I had, but what I do think I did right was really put my energy… I went all in in the things that I did. I think the other thing that I did well was, and I wasn’t particularly strategic some of it’s my personality in nature, but I do think these things can be taught if it’s not your nature, It’s just to be intentional about your relationships, you know, to show up and know that you know, most people want to help you. Most people want to support you, particularly if you are coming from a posture of openness and learning. And also if you can think about as you’re building your relationships and networks, how you can support and help those people as well. You know, my old boss at the Braves, Paul Adams, I always like to give him credit. He helped me not only come back to the Braves full-time, but he also directed me to the opportunity at the Olympics. And he did. So I’m one of the times when he was trying to get me to come back to the braves he had to find me. It’s like, again, cause no LinkedIn, he had to like figuring out where I was to ask me to come back. But, he did that because of my work ethic, I think, and my genuine interest in the organization and making it better. 

So I would say that I didn’t have a grand plan at the time. But I think back at the things that I did do you know, that, that I think were, were helpful. I think what I would do differently. Hm. Again, hindsight it’s 2020. It’s easy for me to say, Oh yeah. Well, I should have been more strategic. Well, I didn’t know how to be strategic. I was 22, you know, I was trying so the best I could. But I, I would say just, you know, continue to learn from people and to come from a posture of service. You know, this is something that in the online marketing community, people talk about this a lot. They’ll always talk about, you know, being of service, being of service. And, you know, I was just like, okay, what’s his deal. But I think some of it I did naturally and intuitively I am one of those helping people. If you say, you know, Dawn I’m really trying to find, you know, X in DC, I’m going to find that for you. And I’m going to say, Molly, here’s who you talk to, here’s what you do. That’s my nature. I think that even if that’s not your nature, if you go into situations, whether it’s in business and you are a business provider, a service provider or product provider, if you think about your customer, your client, you say, how can I help them? What can I do that’s going to be helpful? How can I help solve a problem they have? That’s really that mindset and that focus. 

And I think using that same focus when you’re talking about, let’s say potential mentors or professors or networking, you know, how can I support them? You know, I’ve talked to countless students and those are the same students that I’ll reach out to and say, Hey guys, you know, I’m launching my course, you know, do you know you’ve done really great in your career, do you know of anyone who might be interested or, you know, please, you know, share my blog or whatever. And my students are great about that because sometimes I need them too you know, and I always joke with my students. I say, look, you need to be great because I might need you to hire me one day. And I meant every word of it. I want you to go on and be great and do amazing things.

So. Yeah. I think that those are a couple of things that I would think about, but you know, it’s hard to know, you know, when you’re 22, 25, you think, you know what you’re doing and what you want, but it changes. And when you’re, I was very much a planner. I wanted everything to be so laid out. I wanted to know what was going to happen next. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I think just, you know, trying to be prepared. 

MOLLY: Yeah. Absolutely. And I liked that you mentioned you know, it was your work ethic and just always kind of at resistance and always working hard throughout all the different stages of your career was helpful. And that kind of takes me to my next qu

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Camryn Schreiner Videography Intern Camryn Schreiner