From Challenges to Catalysts: Kathleen Van De Loo, President and CEO of the Association Development Group, Inc.

Kathleen Van De Loo is the President and CEO of the Association Development Group, Inc. However, it was not a straight path from university to her current career, now managing professional trade associations with thirty-six employees. ADG is moving into its twenty-first year of working with professional trade associations, non-profits, as well as various other societies and foundations. At the same time, I am moving into a post-graduation life with much career uncertainty ahead. So I thought I would ask my mom; local President, CEO, and role model to reflect on the steps she has taken, which have lead her to where she is today.

Emily Van De Loo for Her Campus McGill (HC McGill): What did you study in college?

Kathleen Van De Loo (KV): I was a communications and political science major. One of my biggest regrets educationally is that I was very close to completing my masters, with one or two courses left to go, and I got so immersed in political campaign work that I didn't finish.

HC McGill: What in your undergraduate experience lead you to where you are now? Or were your goals entirely different?

KV: I thought I would be a lawyer. During my senior year, I was an intern to then-Congressman Stan Lundine. Lundine served as a congressman for the Southern Tier of the state of New York from 1976-1983 in the House of Representatives. Lundine was running for lieutenant governor with the first Governor Cuomo. My job at the time was constituent casework; any constituents could call if they had questions about veterans’ benefits or to offer their opinion about a congressional matter. Governor Cuomo was re-elected, which meant Lundine would become the lieutenant governor of NY. I was always a very strong copy writer and the congressman said to me that if I wanted to pursue a career in politics or public policy to please let him know.

I was a girl from Buffalo, New York. I was pretty idealistic and had decided at that time that I would first get my masters in political communications and then go to law school. I applied to a fellowship in Albany, New York, and I thought I’ll move to Albany and the lieutenant governor will hire me and I’ll get my masters and go onto law school. I graduated from college, I worked for about six weeks as a waitress and I saved every penny I could.

I bought an old car from a once boyfriend for a couple hundred dollars. It was a Horizon, like the worst car ever, and I filled it up with everything I could and drove to Albany with probably a couple months rent. I drove right to the state capital. They didn’t have the same security they have now. The lieutenant governor's office is on the same floor as the chamber in a very beautiful part of the capitol building. I found his office, he was reading the newspaper and I walked right in, it’s kind of amazing if you think of it now. I introduced myself and said I was an intern in your congressional district office and I’d very much like to work with you.

He looked up from behind his glasses and then proceeded to put his paper down.

Then, he said something like "As much as I’d love to hire you, it is August, the legislature is adjourned, and I can’t even entertain a conversation like this until January of next year. . . If you want to go up and see my chief of staff, please give her your resume and perhaps we’ll talk again in six months."

A young Kathy Whalen left her resume with the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff and walked out of the capital knowing very well there was no chance she would hear back from them. What came next was a series of interviews and odd jobs including several waitressing positions. Finally, one day, Kathy had an interview at a law firm for a position of communications assistant. She walked into the firm with a beautiful new crisp green suit and a pair of classic black pumps. After a gruelling interview with three head partners at the firm concluded, she walked out feeling uncertain and perhaps a bit discouraged. Little did she know, this would be the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

KV: The government relations department was, at the time, one of the largest law firms in the capital region. I was really under qualified for the job but I made up for it by immersing myself in the work. I read every newspaper I could get my hands on so I understood what was happening politically... I worked late at night, weekends, I made sure that I really did quality work.

So it was there at the law firm that I actually realized what I did not want to do... It became very clear to me that I did not want to be a lawyer. When I speak to groups and young professionals, I often share the fact that in your first few years out of college, sometimes part of the journey is finding out what you don’t want to do, and that’s a gift.

While I was at the law firm, I was covering governor's press conferences, meetings at various agencies. I was doing a lot of writing back then, I’d spend the entire weekend reading the legislation and flagging things that could potentially impact our clients. I helped form a professional trade association and we had to incorporate, to form a board of directors, it was a very exciting project - little did I know that it was the seed of a long-term career.

"After five years at the firm, Kathy's phone rang one day. It was the partner from another government relations firm. They had never met; though the firm had a reputation of being one of Albany's "top five" lobbying firms; which meant they had a large client base. Kathy met with the partner, they offered her a job to help manage their association and communications; ready for a change, she took the job. "

There was a year when I brought $140,000 of business into the firm. That year, the principal of the company gave me the same bonus as he gave his administrative staff. I went in to the senior partner, and I said to him, you know, I brought you $140,000 the last year, and I’d like to be recognized for that as you would anyone else who does government relations work in this firm. He merely said, “I appreciate all the good work you’ve done for us, however, I will not enter into this conversation with you.” I said that I thought it was an important conversation for us to have and he said, “Please hear this respectfully; this conversation is over.” So, on some level, that was the beginning of me owning my own company.

HC McGill: Why do you think he acted that way?

KV: The senior partner of the firm was a very bright, well-respected man who I really thought very highly of. However, we clearly grew up at a different time. This was an older gentleman, I was very young, twenty-six years old. He was at the end of his career, I was at the beginning of mine. This is a man who, when a woman stood up, he stood up to. It was truly a generation gap. This was in the early 90s, I used to joke and say, oh you’re such a man of the 90s... the 1890s! He’d laugh because he knew it. It was a generational divide I recognized and I respected him for who he was although times were changing. He was not going to have my time and talent much longer, and I walked out of there knowing that. There would be no opportunity whatsoever for me to grow; as long as I showed up did a good job and made them some money, everybody was going to be happy with the status quo - but not me.

Kathy spent five and a half years at the firm. Within that time, in 1993, she met a man named Joe Van De Loo working on a political campaign. Little did she know, he had been working in the same building two floors below her the whole time. They dated and got married two years later on October 7th, 1995. They are now celebrating their twenty-second anniversary!

KV: I remember I was sitting in our living room, it was Christmas time, I was on maternity leave... they only gave me 6 weeks maternity and only paid me half my salary in that time. I remember nursing my beautiful baby girl while the tree was lit with white lights, and I remember thinking to myself, dear God, how will I leave this child and go back to a seventy-hour work week. Literally, as I was sitting there on that December day, my phone rang, and I answered it, and it was the president of one of the associations who was my client at the firm:

“Kathy, we’re in negotiations with the firm, but here’s the scoop, we’d rather work with you.”

“Are you progressive enough for me to attend a board meeting with a baby on my shoulder?”

“Absolutely, we’ll make that work.”

“I’m in.”

I spent the rest of my unpaid maternity leave writing a business plan with my baby on my shoulder. I incorporated and knew that I wanted to work with professional trade groups, foundations, societies, NGOs, with boards of directors and to help them grow and tell their story - I knew this was something I could do. After I wrote my business plan, I scheduled an appointment to see the senior partner of the firm. I knocked on his door and explained that I had this opportunity and didn’t want to do this behind his back. That same man who grew up in a different time stood up, came over to me, shook my hand and said, “You have my blessing. If you continue to work this hard, you will be very successful.”

I will say, it is not always easy being a woman-owned business in a male-dominated town, but at the end of the day, we are very good at what we do and it is really about immersing yourself in your profession. That young twenty-one-year-old girl that thought she was going to law school, well... one job led to another that led to another that organically allowed skills to build upon each other without really even knowing it. One of the clients I was working for when I was at the firm and pregnant was the Women’s Bar Association. The president was one of the most brilliant, progressive women I have ever met in my life. I remember feeling so empowered as this now twenty-nine-year-old woman thinking to myself, I can do this. I worked until the day before my baby was born and loved every minute of it, I loved being a newlywed and pregnant woman and working with all these brilliant women, it was that particular woman, who, without knowing it, had such an influence on my perspective of empowering women.

One of the high points of my career is when Hillary Clinton decided to work for the NY Senate and I was chosen as one of twelve women in the community to meet for a very intimate lunch with Hillary. I was struck by this woman’s intellect. She is probably one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. I really saw her genuine commitment to her country. We can see somebody’s persona through a TV screen, but it was very different to be in a setting with a person like that who was eventually a very viable candidate for president of the United States of America, and you felt it when you sat in that room with her. This First Lady of the U.S. was poised not only to serve us as a congressional representative but for much greater things. You just knew it. To this day, I’m often the only woman in the room. It’s about being true to the message or cause, what it is you’re trying to achieve, and really through a respect for all humanity; if we come from that place, we don’t have to be the loudest voice. We can still be true to who we are. If you exude that, it levels the playing field.

As much as I've had challenges, they have been my greatest catalysts.

 

Images obtained from:

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