Celebrating a Decade with Executive Director Leigh O’Donnell

Sara WagnerUncategorizedLeave a Comment

I went through a move recently and you know how it goes; every drawer must be purged, every item designated as “keep”, “toss” or “donate”. Boxes long forgotten hold old journals, treasured stuffed animals – all sorts of memories, good and bad.

While going through my alarmingly-large collection of notebooks, I found one special spiral bound legal pad, still opened to the last page I had written on way back in 2015.

It read: Interview @ 2pm, handcrafted soap and cosmetic guild? Executive Director – Lee.

Whether you know her as “Lee”, or “Leah”, or my favorite, “Leg MacDonald” (how?), Leigh O’Donnell has been a force for upward motion at the Handcrafted Soap & Cosmetic Guild for a full decade. She’s not the type of person to grab the spotlight for herself; she prefers to hang back and let the industry and our members shine through. However, if you’ve attended an Annual Conference or observed the HSCG’s advocacy work over the past ten years, you’ve seen what she’s capable of!

Recently, I sat down with Leigh to talk about her experiences over the past ten years – and where she sees the Guild in the future.

Who is Leigh O’Donnell?

Leigh is a native upstate New Yorker and that’s apparent by her direct, no-nonsense approach to life – and her generosity. She grew up in a small, rural town upstate called Moriah (near Lake Champlain) before pursuing a degree in oceanography and meteorology at SUNY Maritime in the Bronx. Leigh has traveled the world on ocean-going oil tankers as a licensed Third Mate with the U.S. Coast Guard and holds a Fourth Degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Speaking to her daughter (and twin), Camryn, she shares that Leigh loves to cook for her family and friends and spend time on the water. “She’s basically half mermaid”, she says, “she does every single water sport known to man and she can breathe underwater for like, ten plus minutes.” (we’re not testing this)

Camryn also says that because of her love of the ocean, Leigh is very invested in environmental causes, specifically those that impact marine life. Leigh is also very family-oriented and loves to spend time with her family, which includes her dog, Sookie – who Camryn says is “the most important family member, really”.

Leigh isn’t a newbie to the soaping game either. Camryn remembers her own introduction to soapmaking, which was under Leigh’s instruction. “When I was very young, we had a soap shop in the basement of our house. She had all of her stuff set up there with shelves that had all of her essential oils. When we were kids, she taught my brother and I how to make soap. Her business was called Adirondack Soapworks, she use to sell at craft fairs.” That soap business would be the reason why Leigh found the HSCG in the first place, and the conference is how she came to be where she is today.

Why the HSCG?

Leigh attended her first conference back in 2004, and took on a bigger planning role within the event in 2006. “Planning is just something that comes naturally to me” she says, and that’s clear in the way she runs the conference. Everything, even the smallest detail, is thought of. The food, the flow of the schedule – even the decorations on the Soapers Showcase tables are given special though to keep the attendee’s experience at the forefront.

Looking back at her inaugural conference as planner extraordinaire, Leigh reminisces about running for president at the event. Her opponent? None other than industry labeling expert Marie Gale! “I told everyone, vote for Marie!” she tells me, laughing. “People were asking me what I would do if I was president; I had no idea at the time.” Marie ended up winning and lets just say it wasn’t exactly a close race…although Leigh did have a whopping ten votes!

In 2009, Marie termed out of her presidency and Leigh was elected to the position. From there, Leigh became the first HSCG Executive Director in 2011 and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I asked Leigh why she was inspired to take on such a huge role within the organization, she expressed her passion for the industry. “The idea that someone can make a life for themselves by doing something they love” appealed to her, and she’s dedicated the last decade to helping makers build the businesses of their dreams.

Let’s Talk Conference

We use the word conference at HSCG Headquarters as if we’re speaking of an actual, living thing…and we sort of are. The HSCG Annual Conference is a constantly growing, moving being that evolves with the industry and the attendees.

Leigh’s been planning the HSCG Annual Conference since 2006; that’s a fair amount of events, and she says it’s important to stay inspired. “Conference is funny; you would think it would be cookie cutter, like every year we do the same thing – but we’re always trying to improve it.” She dismisses the notion of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; that’s not her style. “I think the moment you sit back on your laurels and say ‘ah, that’s good enough’ is the moment when things start to go downhill.”

It’s important to constantly improve and bring change, something that Leigh understands and lives by. She explains that staying inspired sometimes means sifting through hundreds of comments from attendees and tweaking the schedule to give more time with speakers, or more networking opportunities – and ignoring what isn’t constructive.

“Let’s face it; I’m not afraid to take risks” she says, as she talks about how every implemented change isn’t always a winner. If a change turns out to be a fail, she says that the most important thing to do is own the fail. “Come right out and claim your mistakes. That’s how you learn and move on.” The take away: don’t be afraid to seek improvement, and don’t let a little fail stop you.

Location, Location, Location

A much anticipated and debated conference topic is: where will the conference go next? When I ask Leigh how she chooses the locations, her answer is quick and decisive: “it’s the attendees. That’s it. That’s the only thing that should cross your mind, because it’s all about them.”

When looking for locations, Leigh doesn’t take her own preferences into consideration. She’s not big on cities or crowds, for example, but that didn’t stop her from choosing a vibrant downtown property in Atlanta (2018) because of the attractions in the area, and the experiences the attendees could have. She tries to provide a good mix of city and resort properties so that attendees can turn their conference experience into a real vacation, with the conference at the heart of it.

“There are three priorities when I’m considering a property; attendee safety, cleanliness of the property, and affordability” she says. Her goal is for attendees to feel comfortable and energized during the event and to do that, she has strict guidelines for the properties she chooses.

HSCG Advocacy

Switching gears, we take a look at advocacy and how it’s evolved since Leigh began. Advocacy is a labor of love; every term, multiple bills come out and representatives come and go. Because of this, it’s important for Leigh to cultivate new relationships and stay on top of what’s being introduced; which isn’t as easy as you might think.

When I asked Leigh if she was intimidated when she first began advocacy work, her response was immediate – “Extremely!” She admits that taking on the task of advocating for the industry was daunting. ” I really didn’t know what I needed to do, or what direction I needed to go in.” In advocacy, a grassroots strategy doesn’t always work; Leigh shared that when she first started, she wasn’t sure how to be heard, who to speak to, or how to speak to them effectively.

“One thing that I took away from advocacy and I try to apply to the rest of my life is, when you’re criticizing somebody else’s work product, you’ve got to be careful. Because it’s somebody’s work, they put their heart and soul and passion into it, and you’re just criticizing it.” Leigh explains that it’s important to approach advocacy from a position of respect. “I understand why you’re doing this, I respect that you want cosmetics to be safer” is a good way to indicate that we’re at least reading the same book, if not on the same page. Leigh explains that knowing who you’re speaking to is important; staffers do a vast majority of the work, and it’s crucial to respect them and not just assume that you’re not speaking with someone important just because their name isn’t on the door.

Another important thing to understand about advocacy; it’s not about politics. “Whether I meet with democrats or republicans, I don’t think about them being democrats or republicans at the time. Advocacy should be bipartisan.” This is important, and a valuable lesson for anyone looking to advocate for the industry; when you represent the industry as a whole, political affiliations don’t matter. The only thing that matters to Leigh is protecting the makers so they can continue to create and sell their products without worrying about high fees.

It’s also important to have an experienced guide in the advocacy arena. Debra Carnahan, the HSCG’s advocate, began working with the HSCG in 2015 and was chosen because of her understanding of the struggles faced by a primarily woman-owned industry. “I wanted somebody that was passionate about the little guy” Leigh says, and she got that in spades with Debra, who has been a fierce voice for makers.

Where is the Guild Going?

She may be well-rounded educationally and geographically, but one thing Leigh does not have is a crystal ball; that doesn’t stop her from telling me exactly where the Guild is going, and how it can get there.

Leigh during our first annual Staff Soap Day

The HSCG’s membership has increased by 20% over the last year; pandemic and all. More people are opening their own home businesses to supplement their income and that means an increased need for insurance, advocacy and education. “The more people that are in the Guild, the more power we have” Leigh explains; with more members, the Guild’s influence and pull as an industry advocate grows exponentially, along with our ability to reach more makers to educate them on best practices.

With nearly 5,000 members spread all over the globe, the HSCG is the largest non-profit of its kind. Growth is key, and Leigh wants makers to know that our primary goal is, above all, the industry’s well-being. “The Guild is a not-for-profit. No one owns it, no one’s getting rich off of it” she explains. “I want people to know that the HSCG exists to help them.” Membership dues are used to fund advocacy, educational programs, and to provide benefits to help makers build their businesses; in short, to benefit the industry. Ultimately, Leigh sums it up perfectly: “I want people to know: it’s your Guild.”

Life Lessons with Leigh

When I ask Leigh what advice she’d give to a new maker who is just starting out, she’s direct (as usual). “Take yourself seriously. If you’re going to make it a business, make it a business, right from the get-go.” She adds, “Your business will be what you make it; if you don’t take it seriously, it will never be a serious business.”

HSCG Staff on our annual boat day, where Leigh takes us on an adventure and gets us lollipops. This is a great tradition that really helps us bond as a team!

When you’re starting out, even if you think you might want to start a business, get things in order. “Separate your business and personal finances, get a legal entity, register wherever you’re required to register in your state” Leigh says. If you look at your venture as a business from the start, you’ll have less issues down the road; it can get pretty messy, trying to separate business and personal spending once you start making sales.

To wrap up our interview, Leigh says that over the past year, she’s been inspired to spread kindness; and she wants you to spread kindness too. “Be the reason why someone smiles today,” she says, “do something small. Give your cashier a compliment, cheer on a random person.” Go out of your way to be the highlight of someone’s day, instead of the reason they post on social media about how awful the world is!

Final Thoughts

Leigh has taught me a lot in my time here; how a successful conference is planned, how soap is made, and how to have confidence in my skills. We’re fortunate here at HSCG Headquarters to have Leigh as a guide. Happy tenth Leigh, and thank you for all that you do for us and the industry!

It’s ok, we let her out of the tree before boat day was over.

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