Aimee Gilbreath of PetSmart Charities: “People matter most”

Embrace pets as an essential and beneficial part of families and communities and design products, services, and policies that are pet inclusive. For example — some pet owners struggle to access veterinary care because their pets are not welcome on public transport. As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, […]

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Embrace pets as an essential and beneficial part of families and communities and design products, services, and policies that are pet inclusive. For example — some pet owners struggle to access veterinary care because their pets are not welcome on public transport.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aimee Gilbreath.

Aimee Gilbreath is the President of PetSmart Charities® and PetSmart Charities® of Canada, where she oversees the direction and vision for the strategic grant-making organizations, and North America’s leading funder of animal welfare.

A seasoned leader in both non-profit and private-sector organizations with extensive experience in a range of industries spanning biotech, consumer goods and philanthropy, Aimee has a proven track record of driving organizations to achieve growth and success.

As the executive director of the Found Animals Foundation, Inc., a non-profit supporting pet owners and animal welfare organizations with a mission dedicated to saving pets and enriching lives, Aimee spearheaded activities for the foundation’s 1,000+ B2B clients and 5 million B2C customers nationwide, as well as more than 90 grant recipients and 30 strategic partners worldwide.

Prior to her role at the Found Animals Foundation, Aimee served as a principal at the Boston Consulting Group, where she created solutions for Fortune 500 clients by developing and implementing strategic and operational improvements. She also previously served as a process engineer and research associate for Motorola, launching and building the company’s start-up biotech research and development division.

Aimee holds an MBA from Stanford University and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Arizona. She shares her passion for pets and community by serving on the board of Spay4 LA and is affiliated with numerous other non-profit organizations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Arizona, the child of mid-Western transplants. We moved around a bit during my elementary years, acquiring horses and dogs in the process, but ultimately ended up back here with all the pets on a 1-acre lot. I was a stereotypical Gen X “free range” kid who roamed the neighborhood until dinner time, often on horseback.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

PetSmart Charities is all about pets and the people who love them. We recognize that pets make us better people, and that the love of pets is a uniting force. One part of our mission is to help homeless pets find loving families, and the other is to make sure that pet families can stay together even during hard times. I think most people understand the concept of placing pets in homes, but don’t think about how important it is to preserve the human animal bond through life’s challenges. During times of crisis and stress the benefits of a relationship with a pet are more important than ever and often a key to coping and healing. That is why we support programs that address pet food insecurity, accessible veterinary care, and other ways to keep people and pets together.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I was always the kid who loved animals, and I had practically every pet possible growing up (horses, goat, dog, cat, rabbit, snake, rat) so I have always been an animal lover. When I moved to Los Angeles it was the first time I didn’t have a pet in my household and I missed those interactions. I looked for pet related volunteer opportunities and stumbled into the world of animal welfare, shelters, and rescue groups. I was stunned to learn how many animals were being euthanized. While volunteering I fell in love with the stocky, blocky headed dogs most people call pit bulls, adopted one, and got inspired to help on a larger scale.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I had been working as a management consultant for quite a few years and while there was much about the work and my colleagues that I loved, the lifestyle was brutal. It didn’t seem possible that I could combine my personal passion and my professional skills, but I needed a change. I stumbled across the job listing for my role at Michelson Found Animals and it seemed perfect for me — but it would be a huge risk to leave my partner track job for a startup animal welfare non-profit. It was not an easy decision, and there was a lot of soul searching. That “aha moment” was when I realized I would regret not trying to follow my passion more than I would regret trying and failing. My family and friends were not convinced that it was a good choice, but I took the leap and have never looked back.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I have been leading PetSmart Charities for 9 months now, entirely remotely, and the first thing I focused on was people. I met with every single person in the organization individually within my first 3 weeks on the job because I wanted to hear directly from them about victories, challenges, questions and ideas. People are at the heart of our organization and the team brings our programs and mission to life, so their input was essential to charting a successful path forward.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Starting in a new leadership role in a completely online environment has some challenges — it makes it harder to get to know people, or for people to be able to get to know and trust me as a real person. I had been hosting monthly virtual coffee chats and sharing about my background and family and interests, but I kept getting vague requests for more personal insights. I was a bit flummoxed about what more I could share. And then one day my dog, who was having anxiety about our new house, pooped on the pristine carpet in my office while I was on a video call and getting ready to present. It was a hilariously messy situation. I shared that story at the next coffee chat and people loved it and shared their own unfortunate pet poop stories. It was the real-life ice breaker that I didn’t realize was needed to connect on a different level. It was a great reminder for me of the value of authenticity and vulnerability — and that pets (and their poop) have the power to bring people together.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Absolutely. My first boss after college was incredible. He believed in his people, gave you room to make mistakes, and brought as much humor as wisdom to his role as a manager. When I was less than a year into the job and just 22 years old, he let me manage a high dollar laboratory construction project for a key program. I had zero relevant experience, but he knew I was smart and committed and he had faith that I could make it happen. His confidence in me did wonders for my own self-esteem, and I delivered a great product. Thank you, George!

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Embrace pets as an essential and beneficial part of families and communities and design products, services, and policies that are pet inclusive. For example — some pet owners struggle to access veterinary care because their pets are not welcome on public transport.
  2. Recognize that nearly all animal welfare challenges are inextricably linked to poverty and unequal access to resources.
  3. Be as generous as possible in supporting animal welfare programs — they often fall to the bottom of the priority list for charitable funding and allocation of tax funded resources.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. People matter most. Early on in my career I thought the “right” technical answer carried the day. I wish I had learned sooner that there is rarely a definitive “right” answer and even if there is, it doesn’t matter much if people feel terrible about the process that produced that answer.
  2. You can be direct and kind at the same time. I used to equate being direct or tackling tough conversations as being “mean” or confrontational. One example is giving and receiving performance reviews. Early on those conversations felt so high stakes and stressful and adversarial (even when reviews were positive). I finally realized that you can be direct and candid — discussing even the toughest topics with positive results –provided you are coming from a place of genuine kindness and intention to have people win.
  3. Many things will work themselves out if you let them. My natural inclination is to jump in and “solve” an issue as soon as I become aware that is exists. But over time I have learned that issues will often get resolved if you just give them a bit of soak time. Calendars change, people come and go from organizations, other stakeholders have ideas. I don’t need to solve everything and not everything is urgent. A recent example of this was having more excellent board recruits than open seats, until a sitting board member unexpectedly resigned prior to the end of their term — a much easier resolution than trying to adjust bylaws.
  4. There is always a solution. I remember a few situations early in my career where I felt stuck in some unresolvable crisis when in reality there is always a solution. Now you may not like the solution, or it may involve strange bedfellows or an alternate timeline or a smaller profit but it is very rare that you will be forced into a worst-case scenario and panicking won’t help your creativity. Way back when I had to massively discount a deal because my team had missed a VERY important legal detail in the bid. That “solution” was not fun, but it was far better than losing the customer entirely or enduring a PR imbroglio over our mistake.
  5. Don’t take things so seriously. Stress is literally a killer and most of the things we stress about won’t matter in 5 weeks, let alone 5 years. Exercise, meditate, drink wine or laugh with friends — anything to help you regain some perspective. Sometimes I need to do all of the above — especially during this pandemic — to get recentered on what really matters and hang on to some balance and sanity.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We are all connected by a shared human experience. As individuals and families, we all experience struggle, loss, and pain — regardless of our circumstances. Everyone needs a helping hand at some point in life! When you contribute to the greater good you are helping people who are suffering now, and also paying it forward and making the world a better place for yourself and those you care about in the long run. A generous, just, and equitable society benefits all of us.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”(unattributed?) I love this quote because it reminds me not to dwell in regret but rather to take action NOW. Of course, results would have come sooner if I had started sooner, but it is never too late and I am never to old. I find myself applying this concept all over my life from subjects like fitness and motherhood to financial planning. Once my mindset has shifted, the next quote I often think of is “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” (Arthur Ashe)

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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