Q&A WITH MCCOMBS SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEURS
by MeyersJ | Published by Texas McCombs Alumni News
[ARTICLE] For over 30 years, Gay Gaddis was CEO of T3 – The Think Tank – an Austin-based advertising agency and marketing consultancy that she founded and grew into the largest woman-owned agency in the country. With over 230 employees in Austin, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, Gay helped companies like Dell, UPS, Chase Bank, Allstate, Marriott, Pizza Hut and 7-11 evolve from traditional marketing campaigns to sophisticated digital programs. She is literally a digital marketing pioneer.
She graduated Magna Cum Laude from UT with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1977; however, because of her extensive success and leadership in the business world, she was recruited to serve in multiple capacities at the McCombs School of Business. From serving on the McCombs School of Business Advisory Council and its diversity and inclusion initiatives, to founding and co-teaching a women’s development program, Women Who Mean Business, Gay Gaddis has been a powerhouse of support for the next generation of McCombs leaders. This year, she is being honored by being inducted into the McCombs Hall of Fame as the 11th female recipient since the awards’ beginnings in 1980 and the only BFA recipient ever.
We spoke with Gay about her career shifts, her bestselling book Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business & Life, about her inspiration in developing the Women Who Mean Business program, and about her recent pursuits as a fine artist.
Please give a brief summary of your early career and why you became a businesswoman after receiving your Fine Arts degree.
When I was 13 years old, my father passed away leaving my mother and me to manage his business. We ended up selling it and not very profitably at that. So, I started working when I was just 13 to help keep us afloat. I had to learn how to manage money for us, because it was not one of my mother’s strengths. Looking back now, the fact that I majored in fine arts was kind of odd in a way, but my high school art teacher really encouraged me because I showed a lot of promise. I attended The University of Texas on an art scholarship and I earned money as a teacher’s assistant to pay my way through school. I did have a little help from my Godfather for my sorority dues, but the rest I bootstrapped along the way. I finished school early, which is a miracle in itself considering how all-consuming the studio time commitments were. As a studio art major, nine hours of studio time per week was required for three hours credit. Still, I got out after three and a half years and went straight to working full-time. I knew I needed to make money, so I utilized my drawing skills to fall back on and went into the advertising business. In those days, you had to hand draw everything, and I knew how to write copy. For a few years I was writing advertising copy and drawing illustrations for various companies while working for The Richards Group in Dallas.
One thing led to another and I ended up in Atlanta, Georgia working for four guys with MBAs from Harvard. Their business conducted leadership training, team-building, and decision-making for Fortune 100 and 200 companies. It was at that job I was first exposed to Myers-Briggs, DiSC and strength tests. I was finally able to get my head around who I really was, which was so very valuable. The other realization after being around them and working with big companies was that I didn’t really understand the language of business. So, I went back to school at Georgia State University to work on my MBA. I was on a path to finish but I needed to return to Texas for personal reasons.
I came back to Austin in 1982, and at that time there was not an Executive MBA program or night classes available. I knew that in order to finish my MBA, I would have to quit my job and go back to school full time, which really wasn’t an option for me. So, I returned to the advertising business in Austin. However, with a lot of business classes already under my belt, and great experience learning from those men with MBA’s from Harvard, I considered myself to have an honorary MBA by my own right. I worked for an Austin advertising agency for a number of years, but we fell into a deep recession in the late 1980’s, and of all things I decided to start a business in the middle of this recession. I decided to be bold and cashed in a $16,000 IRA, and that is what I used to start my business. It was all the money I had, but with that 30+ years later, T3 grew into what it is today.
Tell us about your involvement with McCombs, and with the university in general.
I joined the McCombs School of Business Advisory Council a number of years ago, and later on their Diversity and Inclusion committee. I have led guest lectures for Executive MBA classes and I have given a McCombs commencement speech. It’s funny, you can just say that this was one fine arts major who was very happy to be adopted by the McCombs team, of whom I have had a nice affiliation with for many years now. University-wide, I do still have one foot in the art department. And, due to my career in advertising, I am an honorary alumnus to Moody College of Communication and I sit on advisory committees for them from time to time. Ultimately, I’m most excited about the Women Who Mean Business program that I founded and co-teach with Lynn Utter.
How did you get involved with the Women Who Mean Business program?
It became an important project soon after I sold my business, T3, in November 2019. I had lunch with Jay Hartzell (he was Dean at the time). He suggested that I become more involved with McCombs by either leading an entrepreneurship program or a guest lecturer. We were just brainstorming and I thought we would regroup after the holidays. But before we knew it, he became the interim president and the pandemic hit. All our ideas went to the back burner.
Several months went by and more and more women were being forced to leave their jobs due to the pandemic. I started thinking about how important it was to offer women with great experience and initiative a life line to prevent them from dropping out of the work force. I went to Jay and told him of my idea of a women’s development program, and he suggested it become a part of the executive education program at McCombs. I also had the idea of bringing Lynn Utter on board to teach with me. Lynn is not only a fellow McCombs Hall of Fame inductee, she’s also a corporate executive giant with experience that compliments my entrepreneurial point of view. When we teamed up, we agreed to open the class to both entrepreneurs and corporate women because we think there is a real value in putting those two types of business mindsets together. It has been so exciting to watch it all come together and to learn about the talented, dynamic women who apply. Our first cohort started this Fall and we are already planning for a second cohort to start soon.
What sort of things do you have planned for the curriculum and what can the cohort expect?
If you visit the Women Who Mean Business website, it outlines all four in-person sessions. Lynn and I are seasoned executives when it comes to the material, but we are also going to be flexible as the cohort develops, and as current events possibly shift the business climate. In the beginning, we really want each person to understand who they are. Similar to how I built my company T3, I believe understanding personality profiles is a really strong tool that most leaders tend to gloss over. It is so important to really wrap your mind around who you are, where you are in your career, and the strengths you should build upon to reach your goals. After this work is done, then they can create a path doing what they do best. That’s all part of the first session, and then we go into the art of negotiation. We also teach them how to make tough decisions and we dive deep into understanding how to create value and financial decision-making. We will also cover managing a P&L and what works in that realm. However, something that really makes this program unique is that Lynn and I both have outstanding colleagues and contacts in the business world to tap into. Many of them have graciously raised their hands to participate in lectures and roundtable discussions offering our students the chance to meet and learn from real-world business luminaries. It is also a component that will accelerate their network. Making powerful connections is a big part of our discussions and essential in propelling careers forward. Lynn and I tell it like it is, and participants can rest assured that they are learning from two people who have the experience and knowhow to achieve success as we’ve both done.
So much of your career has been about uplifting women in business. Where did that inspiration come from and how did this integrate into your career?
It really just fell into my lap in a way, because several years ago I received a call from the Tampa Chamber of Commerce in Florida. They were searching for a woman who had built a business from the ground up and they had heard about T3. They invited me to share my experiences as a woman in business as their keynote speaker at their “Women of Influence” Conference (highlights of Gay’s keynote can be found here). After that, I felt obligated in some ways to continue this work, so I wrote my book, Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business and Life. I wanted to tell my story because not many women have built a business completely from the ground up without borrowing a dime or bringing on investors, and then scaling it to something of significance. Today, I continue to share entrepreneurial lessons learned and leadership advice through my leadership training and in a bi-monthly newsletter.
Then I was fortunate enough to be invited to join two women’s groups that significantly transformed my relationships. The first was the Committee of 200 (C200). It’s a very powerful women’s leadership network for both corporate and entrepreneurs, and the bar is set high for membership. If you’re a corporate woman you have to actively manage a P&L of over $250 million and if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to have minimum net sales of $20 million. That’s actually how Lynn Utter and I became friends. We both joined C200 at about the same time. Relationships with these women helped my business grow providing me with a real sisterhood and support system through it all. Supporting women in business inside and outside of the organization is C200’s mission. Everyone in C200 is eager to get out there and lift other women up so they can succeed. In addition to C200, I was also invited to be a part of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Network, which exposed me to powerhouse women, and not just in business. They also feature women from different government sectors, professional actresses, athletes, and women in all sorts of careers who have succeeded in their own right.
These opportunities provided me with groups of women to turn to for support and to be inspired by. After selling my business T3, I now have more time and flexibility to focus on things that are really important to me, like paying it forward and supporting the next generation of leaders.
Why is it important for you to remain engaged with McCombs, and the university in general?
I have to admit I’m a big Longhorn football fan, and I’ve always loved the university. I knew I wanted to be a part of it, but for so long it just wasn’t something I could spend that much time on because I was so busy running T3. Over time, I was able to dedicate more time and support for the university. I’ve also enjoyed a really wonderful relationship with Red McCombs. His commitment to the university is unmatched. As a funny aside, my husband Lee and I have been very involved in the Longhorn cattle business for a number of years, and of course, Red has too. We used to go to his cattle sales and we would laugh as we carted cows back and forth that we bought from each other over the years. He was kind enough to endorse my book when it launched. He really liked it. I would have great discussions with him on the phone from time to time, and would always see him at the Advisory Council meetings when he could attend, so that’s another fond attachment I have to the school.
It’s been an interesting journey to come back to UT and to work with the next generation of business students. I get really excited when I see the demographics of each class. We’re seeing more first-generation university students coming through the doors now. Some students are becoming game changers for their family. It’s exciting to see the net go out to a wider group. I do think that because of my experience as a woman, other women aspiring to join the business world can learn from my story. However, I’m really interested in helping all students. Being part of a state university means we’re able to open doors for students with a wide variety of backgrounds. I am proud of my humble beginnings and that without significant wealth behind me, I was still able to get a great education through The University of Texas.
What would you say your goals are for the future, career-wise, and in relation to McCombs?
After growing T3 for over 30 years, I first had to take a step back and ask myself if there’s another runway out there for me. I imagine that if I can stay healthy, I could be active for another 30 years, so I might as well spend my energy on what I love most. And now that I have more flexibility in my schedule, I am using some of that time to hone in on my art skills. I spend most days in my art studio or gallery at our ranch in the Texas Hill Country capturing the ever-changing beauty that I see around me on canvas. I was never a fine artist in my career so when I took a hard look at the competition, I discovered that women are greatly underrepresented in galleries and in compensation for their artwork. My main drive with my art, aside from the fact that I love to paint, is to show that women can be just as successful both monetarily and with our influence in galleries and in the art world as men. Fortunately, because I’m a marketer I have found some success in art with recognition from various publications including Texas Monthly, Artnet and Paper magazine, solo art shows and with loyal art buyers around the world. I am truly grateful to be able to return to something that I trained to do but had put aside all these years.
As far as McCombs, I would love to instill in the students that if you really want to be great at something, you have to work hard at it. Those are the individuals who stand out, who leaders want to hire and to promote. They come to the table with the mindset of “no job too big, no job too small”. They’re team players, but with a drive to develop strong leadership skills. I would love to see McCombs students continue to rise to the challenge and become instrumental players in the world at large. I also want to foster a desire to give back, to engage in philanthropy and make sure that the next generation is successful as well. If we can plant those seeds students will go on to fulfill that mission. With Lillian Mills as the new Dean, McCombs is embarking on an exciting new chapter. I look forward to working with Dean Mills and championing her success.
Any other hobbies or tidbits you’d like to share?
Staying in physical and mental shape has become such an important part of my life. Like I said, I’m trying to stay sharp for another 30 years, so I’ve been very committed to strength training and working out. I call myself Mighty Mouse now because I’m much stronger than I used to be. I’m devoted to my personal wellbeing, mentally and physically. Continuing to mentally deal with complex issues is key.
At home at our ranch we are active ranchers with Texas Longhorns and Border Collies that help work the livestock. I’ve been involved in a lot of nonprofits through the years and philanthropy. My husband and I have supported a scholarship at McCombs the past few years. I’m focused on increasing my impact in my passion projects. I’m not an idle person, and I feel like if I don’t have three or four things going on at any given time then I get restless. It’s also really a great time to just watch how innovation is changing the world around us. Even though we’ve all dealt with desolation and feelings of despair during the pandemic, many innovations came about because of it. I try to remember something my mom taught me and that is if you’re feeling low, go out and do something for somebody else. That will make you feel better, and then hopefully at the end of it you’ve done something good. That has been a driving force and motivating message behind everything I do.