how to balance entrepreneurial risk-taking with doing the ‘right thing’

by William Anderson | Published by Austin Business Journal

Speaking at the ABJ Best CEO Awards
Gay Gaddis accepting Austin Business Journal’s Best CEO Legacy Award

[Article] Gay Gaddis is a pioneer, in many senses of the word.

She’s an advertising pioneer who cashed out a $16,000 retirement account to start agency T3 (now named Material) in the 1980s, and built it into a powerhouse that helped clients such as Dell, 7-Eleven and Pizza Hut. Along the way, the Texas native racked up awards and recognition for T3’s cutting-edge digital campaigns. And she was a workplace pioneer, starting a program where employees could care for their young children in the office, called T3 and Under, used with more than 100 kids over the years. T3 was bought by Los Angeles-based LRW Group, now known as Material, in 2019.

Gaddis went on to launch the Women Who Mean Business program at the University of Texas at Austin, which is pioneering advanced career development for a wide variety of female professionals. Its fourth cohort just launched at UT.

And she’s also a rancher in the rural Hill Country west of Austin, running Double Heart Ranch with her husband, Lee Gaddis, and refining her artistry, with paintings exhibited in New York.

Gaddis is president and chair of the Texas Exes alumni group at UT and on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the McCombs School of Business. She was inducted into the McCombs School Hall of Fame in 2020. In 2020, Gaddis won the Liz Carpenter Lifetime Achievement Award from Women Communicators of Austin.

Gaddis, winner of Austin Business Journal’s 2022 Best CEO Legacy Award, was a recent guest on the Texas Business Minds podcast. Listen to the full conversation in the player at the top of this story, or on platforms such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts. And check out some excerpts from the interview below.

On what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur:
“You have to be a risk taker. And you have to be able to see it when it comes — grab the brass ring, as my mom used to say — because if you don’t, it might never come back again. So you’ve got to always be looking at where are those opportunities and be enough of a risk taker to grab it, go with it. And if it doesn’t work, make quick course corrections and get things back on track. I was also a very quick decision maker. I didn’t hem and haw about decisions. When I had to do something, I did it, I acted on it and moved ahead. …

“Risks are taken based on information you have, and knowing how to harness that. I already knew that I could run profitable, successful accounts, because I was doing it at another agency. So it wasn’t like I had an idea to run off and start an advertising agency and I really didn’t have experience in it. I knew that I could run a profitable piece of business, I had great client relations skills, I knew how to run the business side of it. And I knew how to bring in creative people to add that spark and the innovation. So it wasn’t a complete leap to do what I did really, because I’d already been doing it, although I’d never done it on my own. That first day that I was sitting in my office, March 1, 1989, by myself, before my first two employees showed up, I was scared to death. It was different. All of a sudden, everything was me. And I realized the entire responsibility, the profitability, the client satisfaction, there was no one else to turn to. The buck stops with me, literally. And it really was a different feeling that day, I’ll never forget it.”

On supporting female leaders through the Women Who Mean Business program:
“I think that we are needing more and more support there, because a lot of women are siloed in these big companies, or the entrepreneurs who come through our program, they don’t really have the network and the support they need from other women, or from other people going through some of the same life challenges. … Not only are we providing skills, leadership, training, mentorship, all the things that come with this program, but we are also giving them this opportunity to network and reach out to each other. That is so important. It helped me so much in my career, when I finally started realizing that there were some very successful women out there that I needed to network with. I joined an organization called the Committee of 200, C200, and there I found women like me. It was almost like, I walked in the room at the first conference and I went, ‘Wow, there are other women like me.’ I had been so hard at work with my head down with my own business, I didn’t realize that there were these other women who were successful that I could learn from and get support from.”

On starting the “T3 and Under” program, after four employees became pregnant around the same time:
“I was really just kind of out because I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what if they don’t come back to work?’ Because it wasn’t just a given that they would. And so I thought, I’m going to really have trouble on this account, they’re very key. So I came up with this kind of outlandish idea, really, because this was years ago … and I sat down with them and I said, ‘Why don’t you bring your babies to the office with you? And we’ll help you take care of them.’ They looked at me like I had just lost it. …My attorney at the time called me, he found out about it, and said, ‘You can’t do that. You cannot do this Gay, you’re not a licensed daycare. The liability is just outrageous.’ And I said, I’m going to do it. And I did. It worked. I mean, we had to tweak it through the years, we put in policies, we made it work. But it worked for so many years, and it continued on. …

“It wasn’t always easy. But it was the right thing to do. It gave parents — especially with the first child — that confidence that they could bring their baby along, and then when they were ready to go to daycare, or whatever, it was OK. We all, I think, as a culture surrounded those parents with support. It just made for a wonderful, wonderful cultural experience for everyone. Even our clients liked it. I mean, they knew we had babies. And if there was a baby crying in the background during a meeting on a conference call, well, that was OK. Some of our clients would come in and run back to where a baby was and want to hold them. … It was something that, yes, as a working mother, I struggled with mightily, because I didn’t have that. And I thought if I could just give these parents that first start and confidence to continue work and not feel like they have to drop out, then we’ve all won, and we will succeed.”

On starting her agency in Austin in the 1980s:
“Austin was such a sleepy town back then. For all of us who live in this vibrant city now and watch the growth, it was very different back in the late ’80s. It was the University of Texas, it was state government and a few smaller companies. And so Austin was just kind of a quaint, smaller town. I loved it here but it wasn’t the greatest place to start a business. All of our initial clients were not Austin-based. I had a few small ones. And then an interesting thing happened in the early ’90s: Dell Computer Corporation started to make some noise. And they started to grow. And so we started working with Dell in 1992. That kind of changed the trajectory of our business. … I remember the day that Michael Dell walked into a meeting where I was sitting with the marketing team at Dell. And he said, we’re going to start selling on the internet, because it perfectly fits our direct model. And he was right. So we all rolled up our sleeves and tried to figure it out. We experimented and did some of the very first to market online advertising, marketing, search, all the things that came along, and then got into mobile very early.

“We were just innovative. You know, we were always looking at what was next. And that was our hallmark. That’s how we stayed competitive against major, major advertising holding companies. We were nimble, we were smart, we were innovative, and we were winning awards and making the cash register ring for our clients.”

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