Patricia Shea

Patricia’s Path to Making the World a Better Place

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Key Takeaway: Admit when you don’t know something and always ask for help

Top 5% in the world at: Helping people identify their vision and become who they want to be

From an early age, Patricia Shea felt guided by the desire to make the world a better place. “For as long as I can remember, working to improve the world for all has been something that mattered to me,” she tells us. “I feel the world deeply.” Though she started her career at a market research startup, it should come as no surprise that she ended up working in the nonprofit sector, eventually becoming the CEO of YWCA Nashville & Middle TN. As CEO, she brought the YWCA out of financial ruin, created a viral video campaign to get men involved in stopping violence against women, and hosted a mayoral debate. In the interview below, Patricia tells us how she transitioned from the private sector to the nonprofit world and back to the private sector again, why she believes female empowerment is so important, and why you should always admit when you don’t know something.


I grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia. I'm one of eight children. My father was a steel mill worker and my mother was a stay at home mom. Although we were never without, we learned the importance of hard work early. For a short time I had a paper route, by seventh grade I was babysitting, and at 15, I waited tables. But I really loved working, and the feeling of accomplishing things

Neither of my parents had a college degree; however, they made our education a priority. All eight of us graduated from private colleges.

From my parents, I also learned the importance of family (however you define it.) You can access strength from your home environment — if you're out in the business community and you have a solid sense of family, people who love you no matter what, you are more powerful.

Did your childhood influence your decision to go into nonprofits?
I’ve never been of the mindset that women are more competitive (frequently referred to as catty) than men. To me, women have always been bold, beautiful and fabulous members of the human race. I think it's because I'm one of six girls and my five sisters are everything to me. Having been raised in a flock of women who love and care for each other has always made me see women as having strength and power, and when needed, providing protection and wisdom. So one of my passions has always been helping women, and I've stayed in that space throughout much of my career.

Growing up, I really wanted to live in Atlanta. Two of my older sisters had moved there directly out of college and I thought they were super cool. I was hell-bent on going to Georgia Tech to study engineering, but the University of Dayton was 4 hours away from Wheeling and it was as far away as my father would let me go. I started at UD as a chemical engineer, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. The course work was difficult, and curriculum lacked much in the way of personal interactions I needed to feel connected. Since I had a scholarship and had to graduate in four years, I decided to change my major to business. It wasn’t a very calculated decision – I just knew I could graduate on time.

Did you know what you wanted to do for your career?
For as long as I can remember, making the world a better place has been something that mattered to me. I feel the world deeply. Even as a child, I was focused on how I could make things better for everyone. The University of Dayton fed that desire. UD is a Catholic university and the community was very focused what I would call social justice. Catholicism teaches us to focus on the common good and that we were all made in the image of God so I would say that my family, the Catholic Church and the University of Dayton made me the egalitarian that I am today.

My first job out of college was working with Dr. David Furse, a professor from Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management. He was starting a market research and consulting firm, so I got the taste of entrepreneurialism early. My business background put me in the right position to be his first hire, and the first five years of my career I worked to help him build his business. I was the administrative arm and he was the product, the researcher.

How did you get the job?
I came to Nashville and started calling people. David was teaching full-time when I showed up at his office. He told me he was going to start this company and invited me to manage his research projects. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant but I agreed. This initial work grew into running his business.

What skills did you realize you needed to learn?
Managing people. That's not something I was taught and it's complicated. By the time I left, there were 10 or 12 employees.

What surprised you about the job?
How much fun starting a business was, how anything was possible. Here was a professor who had an idea to start a company and made it happen. He built a business from nothing. Watching him start with a vision and turn it into a reality, set my course. I also learned a lot about market research and realized it’s not what I wanted to do. I learned I’m not someone who personally creates; I seem to manage and facilitate. David was a brilliant specialist, and I am more of a generalist.

I had gotten to the point where I was finished with that job. I had been successful, but I knew I didn’t want to become a researcher. I took a job at HCA to start a market research consulting department. I did the same thing I had done for David, only in a much bigger pond. When I needed a local research firm, I turned around and hired David. His company became my vendor.

I was the Director of Hospital Quality Trends. We sold customer judgment systems that included patient, physician, and employee feedback to hospitals. After each hospital received their findings, my department would facilitate retreats and onsite education with the hospital’s leadership team.

In my 10 years at HCA, I was involved in starting three consulting groups. The Hospital Quality Trends was the first one. The second one was called the Center for Continuous Improvement, where I was responsible for customer feedback and business development. I was then asked by the CEO to start a third consulting group called Strategic Quality Management.

What do you think positioned you to be chosen to lead these projects?
Self-confidence, a history of success, and the ability to work with really smart people, but not in a competitive way. It's really important to know what you know and what you don't know. When you know what you don't know, everybody you encounter is a possible teacher. Also, I work hard, so if I take on a project it's going to be successful.

I left HCA when I realized my opportunities for advancement were limited and my personal beliefs weren’t really aligned with those leading the organization. Knowing when to leave, when to walk away from a project, or job, or relationship is also important.

I took a couple months off and then started a women's healthcare company called Echelon Health. There was an industry trend called Physician Practice Management, where companies bought small physician practices and created a larger company with many doctors. The new organization was much better at marketing the doctors while bringing operational improvements to offices. That’s what we were doing, and we were focused on the plastic surgery and dermatology.

Echelon was started by my business partner, Cheryl Carlson, and me. We wrote the business plan and launched the company. We were in business for about 2 years, after having raised about $1.5 million in startup capital. We were doing well, but Wallstreet decided it no longer looked favorably on physician practice management companies and the industry unraveled. We knew we wouldn’t be able to raise our next round of funding and needed to close the business.

One thing I learned is that starting a company is like you gave birth. A business is a legal entity and there's a lot of responsibility, even after you decide you don't want it anymore. The last six months of Echelon, while we were working to close it down, there wasn’t any income however we still had to work.

What strengths did you bring to the company?
I'm good at starting things, taking a vision and making it a reality.

After Echelon Health I transitioned to the non-profit world; it was not a planned decision. I was volunteering and became involved with Family and Children's Services in Nashville. They were looking for a Vice President of Development. It was there that I realized that I could raise money.

Because of my business skills, I was also given management responsibilities or as it is called in the non-profit world, program administration. I was at Family and Children’s Services for 3-4 years, and then went over to the Arthritis Foundation for less than a year.

What was it like working at those two nonprofits?
There were several key takeaways: I learned about fundraising and how raising money for nonprofits is very different than business development. I also became acutely aware of the lack of business management skills in the nonprofit community. And I realized that the nonprofit community fit my personality, my need for social justice, fairness, and for all people to be treated with dignity and respect.

When I left the Arthritis Foundation I went to the YWCA, and I was there for 11 years as the CEO. The YWCA was my all-time favorite job I have ever had.

It took them six months to hire me — they were obviously not certain that I could do the work. I almost quit multiple times during the process, but the mission of the YWCA, eliminating racism and empowering women, was exciting for me and kept me coming back.

After I was hired, I realized that the organization was in financial disarray. My first challenge was to stabilize the downward spiral. The YWCA had built a new much larger domestic violence shelter ten years earlier. It was about twice the size of the old DV program, with double the expenses. $4 million had been raised to build the shelter, but as the money came in to pay off the debt, the YWCA used the money to cover program expenses. When I started, we still owed $1.5 million and had taken out a loan to pay that back. We were strapped for cash, had too many employees, and although we had a 100+ year old brand that was well respected, no one in the community knew what we did.

And what were your highs and your lows at YWCA?
There were so many! One was launching an initiative called MEND (MEN and END) to engage men and spread the message that men are responsible for the violence that women experience. I wanted to create a way to get this message out, so we commissioned a video, We Are The Lions, which today has over 8 million views. That was a huge high for me.

We changed legislation; we wrote legislation. I love everything about the YWCA. When I walked in the door, nobody wanted to join the board and when I left we had a waiting list.

What key factors contributed to your success?
I have an ability to find, share and engage others in a vision. Because it is their passion, the vision becomes their vision. They become committed. And then when you find somebody that’s passionate about the work, you let them do whatever it is they want to do to help that helps you accomplish your goal. It becomes about the vision and it becomes about them.

One example was a brilliant local entrepreneur who became involved with the YWCA. I started recruiting her to be on the YWCA board the first time I met her. She told me that she didn’t do charities because they wasted her time. By the time I left, she was producing our largest fundraising event with over 1300 people in attendance. She adopted the vision of the YWCA. It became her vision as well and that’s when she brought all her gifts to the table.

I am currently the Chapter Chair of the Women Presidents’ Organization here in Nashville. It’s an international organization that helps women business owners grow their business. I facilitate a group of 18 women CEOs monthly and I love it.

But I'm really looking for my next adventure. I'm working on two “for-profit” business plans. One is in the world of helping women become who they are, and the other is helping charities tap into much needed resources. But both are still in the planning stage not companies yet.


Surround yourself with positive people.
We are the sum of our experiences. Specifically, I think you become who you hang out with. I've been fortunate to benefit from the brilliance of people who are kind and generous. I am a combination of other’s contributions. I think we all are.

Learn to accept yourself.
I am wonderful even with my many flaws. I think all of us spend way too much time worrying about how others are going to perceive or judge or receive us. Just stay the course; be yourself. You're not perfect, but nobody is.

Everybody wins when women empower women.
I have seen women come from the worst of violent relationships and turn around to give more of themselves than anybody could ever imagine.  Women seem to be natural givers and when empowered they care for those around them. “Teach a woman to fish and she feeds the village.”

Ask for help.
People love to help other people, in fact, they want to help. That's a well-kept secret in the world. If you honestly ask for their help, most will jump at the opportunity. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Don’t make assumptions.
Everybody's just trying to do their best. Don’t assume you know what is beneath another’s words or actions. Gather data. Assumptions are not facts.