LIFE AND WORK WITH GAY GADDIS
Published by VoyageAustin
[ARTICLE] Editors share a Q&A with entrepreneur, author and artist Gay Gaddis.
Today we’d like to introduce you to Gay Gaddis.
Hi Gay, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I am an entrepreneur, business founder, author and artist, but much of it started with my college education. I graduated from the University of Texas with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Studio Art, where I learned the value and importance of how to take a critique–something that helped me as a business leader later. After college, I worked in PR and advertising until I got the bold idea to start my own business. So, in 1989 while Texas was in a deep recession, in (at the time) sleepy little Austin, Texas, I founded T3 (The Think Tank), an innovative digital advertising agency. When I started T3, I knew we needed to stand out from our competition, so we offered our clients measured results. Everything we did needed to be measured to prove to our clients that we could build engaging brands and break barriers. And we did. In fact, Forrester Research named T3 one of five innovation agencies in the world. We built digital solutions for world-renowned brands like Dell, UPS, Allstate, Reliant Energy, Staples, 7-Eleven, Chase, Marriott, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola and Hallmark, to name a few.
Along the way, I broke barriers in other ways as a business founder including starting one of the very first family-friendly employee programs entitled “T3 and Under.” Quite controversial at the time, I was featured on The Today Show, ABC Nightline, Bloomberg and numerous media outlets for creating a program that allowed employees to bring their newborn children to work until they were six months old. It provided options for working parents and helped us retain valuable talent at T3. I was also honored and recognized by the White House for creating a family-friendly workplace. Over the years, I garnered numerous awards including the McCombs School of Business Hall of Fame Award, The Liz Carpenter Lifetime Achievement Award, Fast Company’s “Top 25 Women Business Builders,” Inc Magazine’s “Top 10 Entrepreneurs of the Year, “Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and C200’s Luminary Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence. And it was just announced that I will be receiving a Distinguished Alumni Award by the University of Texas this fall 2022, and I am beyond humbled.
After leading T3 for over 30 years, I grew the company into the largest independent female-owned agency in the U.S.. When I sold T3 in 2019, to a leading private equity firm, we had offices in Austin, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta, with an annual net revenue of $40 million dollars. More importantly, I had the joy of providing hundreds of employees jobs to support their families and a place to hone their craft.
Today I empower the next generation of business leaders through my public speaking career, my board work, my book “Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business & Life” and through a new program I founded entitled “Women Who Mean Business.” Taught at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas Austin, it’s a women’s development program that I co-teach with corporate business giant, Lynn Utter. Over a course of four sessions that span six months, we provide high-achieving businesswomen the tools they need to propel their careers and organizations forward. We offer real-world training along with interactions with other successful business leaders to share their experiences. It has been very fulfilling giving back while building a community of like-minded businesswomen, that we hope, will continue to support each other throughout their careers.
We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Absolutely not, in fact, I say in my book that “the path to success is not a straight line.” I grew up in a small town in east Texas called Liberty, as an only child to a school teacher and a businessman. Sadly, my father suddenly passed away when I was only thirteen years old, leaving me no choice but to find work and help my mother with our finances. This started me on a path to support myself and work hard to reach goals.
In business, building a company from the ground up without financing or investors wasn’t easy, but I learned the value of knowing myself well. Once I truly understood my strengths, I created situations for my skills to shine – and I learned how to surround myself with smart, talented people who could offset my weaknesses. I taught my employees to do the same when building teams. I also learned the value of having a vibrant network of connections. Something my father taught me was to “meet people where they are” and this is something I do every day. You never know when the person you meet on the street is your next connection to open a new door or perhaps you’ll be their stepping stone.
Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
After growing T3 into the largest independent female-owned agency in the country, I decided to return to my creative roots. First I wrote my book, “Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business & Life,” published by the Hachette Book Group. Something that most people don’t know is that a lot of business leaders hire ghostwriters to pen their books. However, I knew I had training as a writer from many years of writing advertising campaigns, so I wrote every word myself. I even read the audio edition myself, because I knew nobody else could tell my story.
The book launch was wildly successful with an international tour that grew my speaking career significantly. Something that makes my book unique is that at the beginning of every chapter, I profile a historic cowgirl, connecting one of their strengths with a leadership skill I needed in my career. While researching the book, I visited the National Cowgirl Museum Hall of Fame in Fort Worth and I realized that many of the traits successful businesswomen have today are not new at all. Just like Annie Oakley, the most well-known sharp shooter in history, women have been harnessing their strengths and working together to survive, and often thrive, in male-dominated industries for years.
I also returned to painting, something I excelled in as a child, but was put aside while I built my company. Like all things in life, I had to work at it. I practiced and painted a small collection that I showed to a prominent art curator. She was extremely helpful in guiding me and advising me on how to find my unique painting style. She even flew in from New York to stay with us at our ranch to look and critique my artwork. After taking in her suggestions, I kept at it, painting and painting until one thing led to another and I booked a one-woman art show at The Curator Gallery in New York City. Leveraging years of connections, I invited everyone I knew to the show. To this day, walking into that show was one of the scariest moments in my life. So many thoughts ran through my mind. “What if nobody likes my work? What if none of my paintings sell?” Pushing those negative thoughts aside, I walked into a packed gallery filled with friends, clients and a lot of new faces and was blown away by their response. My artwork didn’t just sell — we broke the gallery’s record in purchases that night. Paper Magazine named my show a “Must-See Exhibit.” Once again I learned that success is possible with hard work and determination.
Since then, I’ve continued to pursue my art career. My artwork has been featured in several galleries including the Curator Gallery in New York City, as I mentioned, the Octavia Art Gallery in Houston, the Submerge Gallery in Austin, and the Worrell Gallery in Santa Fe. I am honored to have art collectors around the world and Texas Monthly magazine named me one of “10 Top Artists to Collect Now.” As an artist, I paint what I see in the skies and landscape from my home in the Texas Hill Country and there’s something about the simplicity of connecting with the land and our surroundings, that draws people in.
What were you like growing up?
As an only child in a small east Texas town, I spent a lot of time with adults vs. children my age, and they imparted their wisdom to me. We were often outdoors watching the skies for the all-important rain, as well as working the land and raising livestock. I learned early on to watch how Mother Nature and how animals deal with conflict and challenges. As a contributor to Forbes and Fortune magazines, I’ve written numerous articles about how to apply “ranch rules” in business. My personal journey pushed me to be resourceful and to “thrive on ambiguity,” a term that later became our mantra at T3.
No matter the task, as a child I was always creative. Whether it was leading a dance troop or performing in a school play, artistic endeavors came naturally for me and excited me. Therefore, even though I knew I needed to make a living, I knew I needed to find a way to leverage my creativity in the pursuit of success. And, that’s how I was naturally attracted to the creative side of advertising.
About Gay’s artwork: Paintings vary in size and pricing. Her “Jewel Box” collection includes small original paintings starting as small as 2×3 inches for $165 to as large as 8×8 inches for $615. Her larger, statement paintings featured in her “Vistas”, “Silver Linings” and “Violet Crown” collections range from 8×10 inches for $985 to 48×60 inches for $12,495.
Visit her website to view and purchase her artwork or to request a private gallery tour at her Texas Hill Country ranch.
Select photos by Mark Seliger.