Human Resources, Nonprofits, and Small Business & Startups

Q&A: Elissa Hillary

February 9, 2015
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Elissa Hillary
Elissa Hillary. Photo by Victoria Upton/Women’s LifeStyle

Editor’s note: Each Q&A in the Influential Women enewsletter will feature a woman from the region who’s influential, a rising face in her industry or doing interesting work. Submit tips on potential Q&A subjects to tgortsema at grbj dot com.

Since 2007, Elissa Hillary has served as the executive director of Local First, an entrepreneurial nonprofit working to build a sustainable West Michigan economy.

Her energy and creativity have helped Grand Rapids-based Local First quintuple its business membership and develop programs that promote sustainable business development, reduce waste and increase community vibrancy.

Hillary is a BALLE Fellow, Grand Rapids Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Exemplary Executive and has twice been recognized as one of the Business Journal’s “40 Under Forty” leaders.

Biggest career break? There are two that come to mind — being hired as the first full-time director at Local First and being recognized as one of the first BALLE Fellows (BALLE is a national network of organizations focused on developing strong local economies). Hand in hand, these opportunities have allowed me to bring best practices to West Michigan and to share West Michigan’s core values and expertise on the national stage.

Proudest moment? I’m always honored to be asked to speak about the work Local First and its members are doing in West Michigan. Last spring, I taught a workshop at the National Main Street Conference about the integral role “buy local” campaigns and local businesses play in building resilient economies.

Best advice you’ve ever received? As Local First started to grow and add staff, a mentor told me to keep the tasks I loved and to “give the rest away.” This has allowed me to create my ideal position over time. And by asking my staff this same question, it’s allowed me to develop a team based on people’s strengths that retains talented people.

How did you make your first dollar? In high school, I had the honor of being “the arms and legs” for a paraplegic woman. I was hired to care for her two young children, but eventually helped manage her entire household while her husband ran their business. I assisted with personal tasks, cooked, cleaned, etc.

Dream job? I’m in it! Each day, I have the privilege of supporting passionate entrepreneurs who are working to build an economy that meets the basic needs of people, builds local wealth and social capital, functions in harmony with our ecosystem and encourages joyful community. What could be better?

Last book you’ve read? I love to read multiple books at the same time. I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things” and “A Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years” by Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley. We’re bringing Vincent to speak in the spring!

Last thing you Googled? Biodynamic wineries in Paso Robles! My husband and I took a quick vacation to enjoy the California sunshine . . . and some delicious sustainably produced food.

Your worst habit? I’ve not been very good at putting my cell phone and email away (even when with family and friends). I’m consciously trying to be more present.

To unwind, I like to . . .? Being active makes me relax. I really love traveling, gardening and hiking. This last year, I ran my first half marathon. I’m training for another this spring.

Dream vacation? At some point, I’d like to take a year-long sabbatical. One of my friends recently visited a native tribe in the Amazon. I’d like to start there and see where the wind carries me. It would be such a luxury to spend enough time in each place that I’d begin to get bored!

Favorite food? Cheese! The Cheese Lady and Apertivo are two of my favorite businesses. I’d happily make dinner out of aged Prima Dona, Humboldt Fog and a fresh baguette from Nantucket Bakery. With wine. Any day.

Person you most admire? I admire creativity, courage and intelligence. And I have a hard time thinking of someone who embodies those characteristics more than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I appreciate his efforts to build a more economically just and sustainable society.  

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