What’s the opposite of inertia? Mel Ulle is.
I had the opportunity to sit down with this whirlwind recently and find out how she rolls.
Her road to how she got where she is follows a twisting path from Denver to the east coast and back again.
In 1996, Mel was a junior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. She was serving as an intern for the Colorado Democratic Party and attended the 1996 National Democratic Convention. When Bill Bradley spoke to the Colorado delegation, she decided she would work for him one day. She wrote a letter to his office saying she wanted to work with him and the fundraising department responded.
“It’s funny how a small thing, can turn into a big thing”, Mel says. “That started me on the path that I follow today. That’s why I’m a fundraiser.”
When Mel was living in New Jersey, she attended an event with Congressman Diana DeGette in New York City. By this time, Mel missed the ambiance (people and weather) in Denver. She told the Congresswoman that she wanted to move home. Congresswoman DeGette told her that if she did move home, she would have a job. She moved back to Colorado, and lucky for us, has put down roots here.
From there, Mel worked on Tom Strickland’s US Senate Campaign and then a bunch of other campaigns – “So many, that I don’t even remember the number,” she says with a laugh.
She moved from politics and worked with Eric Sondermann and his firm. She left Sondermann’s firm to work on the Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum. Now Mel does only a little political work and mostly works with not for profits. “ Fundraising for nonprofits is much more meaningful for me,” Mel says.
She has established not just one company – Philanthropy Expert – but two; with Women In Kind. She also found time to be a founding member of GALS and lends her energy and support to a lot of other nonprofits in the area.
What is Women in Kind (Wink)? When I asked Mel about the genesis of Wink, she laughed and said it started because most offices are too cold. Yes, offices are often more comfortable for men wearing long sleeve shirts or sport coats. WINK was established to be for women, by women, and it’s working. (more later)
I know I a speak for a legion of her fans when I say that it's great to have her here.
Your website for your company – Philanthropy Expert - indicates that you work in a lot of different areas. What makes you the happiest?
Probably not what you expect. The fundraising is still the most fun. I get more adrenaline from asking for the money. Fundraising is very concrete.
What was the Genesis for WINK?
Working in offices that were too cold. Temperature set for men and men’s clothes.
That’s why I won’t be here (Colorado) in 15 years. It’s too cold. I hate being cold. That’s why you often see women wearing coats in the office. We wanted a place where we could control everything – the temperature, the configuration. Create our own environment. We opened in mid-august. It has been a very challenging year with two companies, but we are on track. They say you should break even in a year, and we are there.
How did travel around the world happen?
One of my friends was asked by a casting director – would you like to try out for a travel show? She called us and we went and tried out. I said “ok”. Albin said we won’t get it, and he was feeling sick. But we went anyway. 900 couples applied and through a process of elimination we were chosen to go around the world. We went around the world for 5 months. There was a crew of 10 people filming us. Bhutan was my favorite spot. It’s on Amazon - 1000 Places To See Before you Die.
What are your favorite organizations?
GALS. I say it’s my fifth baby. I was a founding board member. Mile High Early Learning is doing amazing work. I love PeaceJam and Colorado Public Radio.
What are your favorite events?
My husband’s event – the Santa Claus Pub Crawl. It started in 2001. The idea behind that was 8 dudes wearing Santa Claus suits giving unwrapped toys to charity. Now it’s 1500 Santas giving money. Albin has done such a good job, I’m so proud of him. He has a very deep civic commitment.
I’m a sucker for DAM Uncorked. I love the GALS lunch. I also like Do at the zoo.
You seem pretty darn busy. How do you handle life/work balance?
I haven’t figured it out yet. When it was philanthropy expert, I was holding on, and now there is this other layer of hell that I didn’t even know existed.
What does a typical Friday or Saturday night find you doing?
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I’m really tired on Friday. I want to stay home and watch movies with the kids. Saturday is usually a gala event, but honestly, I’d rather be watching Netflix. I’ve just recently binged “Looming Tower” on Hulu and it’s fantastic.
Who is the most interesting celebrity you’ve met and why?
I usually find it disappointing to meet celebrities. I was disappointed to meet Betty Friedan when I was 18. She didn’t make any sense and was disheveled. I thought, “this is my idol?”
Phil Jackson is really smart and a nice person and also very gracious.
The most interesting was Calvin Hall who is Grant Hill’s dad. He co-owned the Houston Oilers with George Bush. I was staffing a Bill Bradley event, and I picked him up from the airport. We were driving to the Apollo. He asked me about Al Gore and George Bush. I put my foot in my mouth both times. He is very well-rounded and didn’t make me feel stupid (of course I did that myself). He was very gracious not to reprimand a stupid 23 year old kid.
What is your proudest personal achievement?
GALS (Girls Athletic Leadership Schools). I’m a founding board member. GALS is a charter school in DPS, we believe that your brain functions optimally when you are engaged physically, and we have the science and now academic evidence to back it up. The students run or practice yoga every morning. They take brain breaks. Instead of walking through halls in an orderly fashion, they are encouraged to crab walk or otherwise strut their stuff.
We now have middle school, high school, a boys’ school and a location in Los Angeles. If you take away PE or recess, kids don’t perform well. This also helps avoid childhood obesity.
What do people not know about you?
I have a horrible anxiety disorder. I don’t drive on highways and haven’t seen it since 2002. A really hard job and a really hard boss caused that.
If there were no impediments with respect to time or money, what skill would you like to have?
I’d love to be a novelist. I’d like to write beach novels that don’t have an impact on society or anything.
What word best describes you?
Restless. Editor’s note: I suggested “determined” so we settled on restless and determined.
Secret History by Donna Tartt.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Former Lieutenant Governor, Gail Schoettler. I don’t hold to it as much as I should. She said, “Do what you say you are going to do.” That has served me well over the years…. In part because there are a lot of people that don’t.
Do you want to weigh in on the ME TOO movement?
I have strong thoughts. It is about time.
What’s it like to be quoted in national publications about philanthropy?
I am good at chasing media and having them chasing me back. It is nice when a reporter calls me more than once. It doesn’t hurt that I had media training, in terms of knowing what the media wants.
How did you come to be a Cavaliers fan?
Albin went to the same school as Lebron James, and we’ve been fortunate to see him play. I’m a big fan, and of course we are rooting for them this season. (This was written before the finals. As they say: Better luck next year.
What do you want to add, that I haven’t asked?
I’d like to add that as stressful as it has been running two companies, I am so extremely grateful to this city...my beautiful hometown, for giving me an endless stream of support and opportunity.