Spotlight on Michelle Cardinal, Supporter and Women on Water Leader

Haley Walker
Haley Walker
Communications Director for The Freshwater Trust
English   |   Español

Spend ten minutes with Michelle Cardinal and you’ll learn a few things about her immediately. She’s fought to get to where she is. She’s got empathy but also takes no crap. And she is a vocal, fierce, and strategic advocate for other women.

Cardinal is the CEO and Co-Founder of Rain the Growth Agency, a full-service advertising agency in Portland. Cardinal first became involved with The Freshwater Trust (TFT) years ago, when her husband Tim O’Leary joined the Board of Directors.

In 2018, she attended TFT’s inaugural Women on Water (WOW) rafting trip, an initiative founded to bring women leaders into the discussion of water conservation. In 2019, she was a trip leader and helped fund scholarships for new members. Last year, her company Rain the Growth Agency also donated countless hours to help TFT fine-tune its brand positioning and tighten up media targeting to reach new audiences. We had a chance to spend a few moments talking to Michelle about her background, why she supports TFT, and her hope for the growth of the WOW initiative, which will celebrate its third year this summer.

How did you get your start?

“I’m a child of the seventies and grew up watching television. I am one of nine children to a single mom. TV was a huge escape for me. As a kid I’d concocted delusions of grandeur that I would work in television one day; I wanted to be Oprah. I went to college and majored in Communication. After college, I got any job that I could find remotely tied to the TV industry and went to work at a video production company near Boston. I answered phones, cold called prospects, and assisted on TV production shoots. I did everything and anything that needed to be done. In 1991, I drove cross country with a few friends and landed in Santa Barbara. With no job, no real plan, I scoured the classified ads (well before LinkedIn) and found a sales assistant position for a local TV station KADY. I terrorized the sales manager for weeks, calling him every day, until he finally relented and hired me. While there I parlayed another job from one of my clients down in Los Angeles buying TV media at an ad agency. While there, my career in TV advertising took off. The agency specialized in direct response television, and my timing was great—it was the heyday of infomercial marketers selling everything from fitness equipment to vacuums. It was a fast-paced and crazy business. I was lucky enough to have wonderful mentors, who taught me the business and I soaked it up, learning everything—media, creative, client service, research—and I loved every minute of it.”

What made you want to break off and start your own business?

“During my time in LA, I noticed that direct marketers were really good at selling tons of product but terrible at building brands. I saw that wastefulness, and surmised there was an opportunity to create a new kind of ad agency, one that could help clients develop a strong brand while also selling product, lots of product. The beauty of direct marketing is its ability to scale consumer product companies quickly.

By 1998, I had fallen in love with my husband Tim, so I packed up again and moved north to Portland to be with him. This time I had a plan, it was to start my own media agency Cmedia. The company took off. In our first year, we did over $1 million in gross revenue. The second year, over $20 million. The rest is history.”

Would you start another agency now?

“Hard to say, probably not. We live in different times now and the competition is fierce. There are lots of small shops, with vertical expertise that make it difficult to scale an organization. And as we know, scaling is the key to big success monetarily.

Speaking of scaling, I recently started a new initiative called SheScales. It is a marketing accelerator for women-founded companies, with the sole purpose of helping women scale their businesses fearlessly. The sad truth is that women are still woefully underfunded in capital (only 2% of VC money goes to women founders). Hearing this I decided to use our marketing skills to help women-owned businesses grow using tried and true direct marketing principles. We advise on everything from branding, creative, media strategy, fundraising and finance.”

What’s one of the top things you have learned about leadership?

“I made a ton of mistakes in the beginning. I did all of the things that entrepreneurs do. They act erratically. They are explosive. They think they are the smartest people in the room. I realized that smart, talented people don’t want to work for people like that. I think it’s important to acknowledge your behavior. I got above myself and looked down and asked myself why I was doing certain things. That took me a long time to master. My biggest learning about being a good leader is being able to admit mistakes, give credit where it is due, and, above all else, encourage everyone else to do the same.”

Why is WOW such a valuable, important experience?

“Women do not generally do things for themselves, especially take trips with other successful women. There aren’t that many opportunities to rub shoulders with other women who might be able to help them in their business or career. I’m not talking about taking spin classes and going to book club. I’m talking about real opportunities to collaborate for the sake of women helping other women be more successful in their careers. The idea that a man would go on a fishing trip with other men who could help them get further in their businesses is not at all unusual, it’s expected. So when TFT reached out and asked me if I would attend such an event, I said hell yes! The timing couldn’t be better.”

Michelle (in back) and other Women on Water participants

What did you take away from the experience?

“Women truly showed up excited and committed to helping each other. The WOW network was created instantly, we have email and Slack feeds to help one another on everything from legal advice, marketing strategy, hiring, financial, anything that arises. We show up to celebrate awards and honors and try to give support for the difficult personal times as well. One of our members is a crack poker player and is teaching us to play Texas Hold’em. We’ve had a few tournaments. It’s funny to watch women lose money playing poker—they don’t like that part—throwing money away is anathema to how women entrepreneurs think, that’s why we make great business partners. But it sure is fun to watch us all out of our comfort zones.”

What has drawn you into TFT?

“First and foremost, I love water. I love the outdoors and am very concerned about the future and access to clean water with climate change and pollution upon us. I’m committed to the work TFT is doing, because they are forward thinking. It’s not just about “fixing rivers,” which they do brilliantly; it’s about creating technology and systems to do it efficiently and at scale (there’s that word again) and keep all watersheds clean.

TFT has developed technology that could potentially help watersheds globally, and that is very impactful. I think marrying the water mission with WOW is one the best ways to speed up the success trajectory for clean freshwater. When you engage women, things happen, because women get shit done. And nothing could be more important than protecting our most precious resource of water for our children and their children to come.”

What’s a quote you live by?

“The Golden Rule and the Serenity Prayer are two things I live by. The Golden Rule says treat people the way you want to be treated. Then, there’s the Serenity Chant, which I practice daily: Please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. When I can show up and make an impact, I’m all in 100%.

March 8, 2020


#water    #women on water    #WOW    

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