CU Boulder alumna and businesswoman Nancy Fisher Wilhelms shares her secrets for a successful, fulfilling career with her book, Yes! You Can Do It! The Young Woman’s Guide to Starting a Fulfilling Career
In the years since she graduated from University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in fine arts, Nancy Fisher Wilhelms has gone on to work in corporate communications for a Fortune 500 company, as the press secretary for Nevada’s governor, as the owner of her own consulting firm with several high-profile clients, as the executive director of a renowned arts center that prospered under her leadership, and more recently as an executive coach and the author of a book intended to help guide young women to starting successful, fulfilling careers.
All of which suggests a question: Did she have a sense of where life would take her—much less what she wanted to do—immediately upon graduating from CU in 1971?
“I was clueless,” she admits with a laugh. “I had no idea of what I wanted to do; I didn’t have anything specific in mind.”
In that respect, Wilhelms was like many students graduating from college at the time and today—and that’s perfectly OK, she is quick to add.
What was important were the things she was able to take away from her college experience, thanks to CU professors who she says stimulated her inquisitive nature and encouraged her to be open to new challenges.
“I had wonderful professors,” Wilhelms says. “One of them that stood out was Gene Matthews in the art department, who was always very open, encouraging and enthusiastic. Another was Dr. Kim Malville in astronomy, who was just a very dynamic professor who made us ask the big questions.”
Life plans sometimes meet detours
After graduating from CU, Wilhelms attended Rhode Island School of Design, but cut her studies short. She then contemplated heading out to the Pacific Northwest to find work and embrace whatever life might hold for her … but instead ended up in Milwaukee.
“Life sometimes comes with detours,” Wilhelms says. “I came to Milwaukee to rest and recover, because I wasn’t feeling well, and that’s where my mother lived.”
After she convalesced, Wilhelms decided she might as well stay a bit longer in the city known for its breweries to get some work experience before proceeding with the next step in her career and life.
“So, I went out to get some experience and that’s what I did,” she said. “And I landed some great opportunities.”
As it turned out, her first opportunity proved to be big: Obtaining the job as the program coordinator for the 10-day Milwaukee SummerFest, which today bills itself as being the world’s largest outdoor musical festival. Despite having no prior experience managing musical venues or stage acts, following a formal interview with the executive director and an informal interview with members of his team at a staff event, Wilhelms received a job offer as she headed out the door. “They were looking to see if I could think quickly and successfully interact with a wide variety of people.”
Wilhelms calls overseeing the festival staging the experience of a lifetime, noting that she got to interact with big musical acts, including The Doors, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin.
“The job with Milwaukee SummerFest was one of constant problem-solving and thinking on your feet,” she says. “It was a lot of work, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”
From there, Wilhelms went on to work for a small ad agency in Milwaukee, which she says was a natural fit for her given her passion for photography and design.
“I learned from someone who was an outstanding writer and a really great, creative thinker, and was someone who really cared about teaching me the craft,” she says. “He was an outstanding mentor. He taught me and believed in me, so he entrusted me to do the work I was assigned without constantly looking over my shoulder.”
Wilhelms says that experience taught her about the value of finding mentors, which is an idea she strongly promotes in her book.
Find mentors in every job you take—especially when you are starting out in your career, and don’t take a job if you’re not going to be learning from people who really know what they’re doing … and who are good leaders and teachers.”
“Find mentors in every job you take—especially when you are starting out in your career,” she advises. “And don’t take a job if you’re not going to be learning from people who really know what they’re doing … and who are good leaders and teachers.”
Trusting yourself and making the big jump
From working for the small ad agency, Wilhelms made what she acknowledges was the remarkable jump to corporate communications, working for a Fortune 500 firm—something she says would never have happened had she opted not to follow her passion and to trust herself.
“I created some good savings when I was working at the small ad agency, and I had always wanted to photograph the rodeo circuit,” she says. “So, I went out and bought a pickup truck, I added to my photo gear, and I took off for the summer photographing the rodeo circuit, because my true love has always been photography.”
Later, when she started searching for jobs, Wilhelms says she included her experience photographing the rodeo circuit on her resume—despite strong protestations from some friends who counseled her against doing so.
“And I said, ‘This is who I am.’ And so, of course I put it on my resume. I sent off my resume and cover letter, responding to a blind ad in a newspaper, because this was the day when everything was still done by mail. And I received a phone call from the head of communications for an international corporation … and he told me that out of 300 applicants for the job, I was one of three people he had selected to interview.
“I asked him why he selected me, and he said, ‘Anyone who had the moxie you did to go and do what you did, traveling the rodeo circuit and photographing it, is exactly the kind of person who would be very comfortable in this job.”
Wilhelms would go on to work for the company, a heavy equipment operator, for two years, interviewing employees and taking photos of the company’s operations across North America, gaining invaluable experience along the way.
It was an extraordinary job where I learned so much and had so many great opportunities, and it happened because I included something about myself, about traveling the rodeo circuit, on my resume."
“It was an extraordinary job where I learned so much and had so many great opportunities,” she says. “And it happened because I included something about myself, about traveling the rodeo circuit, on my resume."
“That’s really one things that I focus on in my book, which is to be yourself and trust yourself,” she adds. “You’re different; you’re unique—be who you are. Don’t stand in your own way. Don’t listen to everybody who tells you what you should do. Do the things that excite you.”
From there, Wilhelms would go on to work as the press secretary for the governor of Nevada for about a year and then to form her own ad agency, with offices in Fort Collins, Colorado, Newport Beach, California, and later Basalt, Colorado. Wilhelms describes her decision to form her own company as the next logical step after doing corporate communications for Harnischfeger Corp.
“I had a feeling for what it could look like and how it should be structured from the start,” she says simply.
Wilhelms says her business started out with a broad focus, offering advertising, marketing, communications and publicity services to a range of small and mid-size companies. However, with the passage of time, the company added Kodak Colorado and Hewlett Packard to its client roster and “grew its reputation with technology companies, so that became a focus for us,” she says. Another notable client was the Colorado Lottery.
However, when the Great Recession of 2008-09 struck and companies slashed their budgets for outside work, Wilhelms says she realized she needed to change her focus. Fortunately, an unexpected opportunity presented itself.
In 2011, she and her husband where living in the Aspen, Colorado, area when the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in nearby Snowmass Village advertised for a director of marketing. Wilhelms says she was a good candidate for the job, given her degree in fine arts and her experience in marketing and promotions.
After a bit less than two years on the job, Wilhelms was asked to become the organization’s executive director. She says the accomplishments she is most proud of during her roughly six years at the helm of the Anderson Ranch was organizing a successful 50-year anniversary celebration for the arts center and working to grow the organization’s reputation into a sophisticated venue in the contemporary art world.
“Doing that required a good strategic plan and a strong team with a shared vision for the organization,” she says. “You have to build the plan and then implement it.”
Transitioning to a coach, mentor and author
For the past five years, Wilhelms has worked as a business consultant, mentor and advisor, with a particular focus on coaching up-and-coming female business and arts professionals.
“I was really fortunate that my mom was a professional woman, so I had a role model, but so many women entering the workforce today don’t,” she says. “I enjoy being able to do my part.”
And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Wilhelms says it seemed like the perfect time to write a book so she could share her experiences and career advice with a larger audience, primarily women—although she says some men have also told her they have found her insights valuable.
First, know who you are and what you love. Second, always put yourself into learning opportunities throughout your career, working with leaders and mentors. And third, believe in yourself and trust yourself—that you’ll make the right choices."
In addition to sharing her own stories in the book, titled Yes, You Can Do It! The Young Woman’s Guide to Starting a Fulfilling Career, the book also contains short stories of seven other women who took risks to find successful, fulfilling careers, as well as worksheets designed to help readers sharpen their focus when it comes to finding the right career for them.
“What the worksheets do is keep you, the reader, from taking yourself for granted,” Wilhelms says. “They make you focus on what is unique about you? And what excites you? What is it you really want from life? What do you want people to say about you and what you’ve done with your life? And how to get off the path you’re on and to doing something that really sets you on fire.”
Among the book’s plaudits, Debra Benton, New York Times bestselling author of How to Think Like a CEO, wrote, “I wish I had this advice when I was starting out. The climb would have happened faster and been a whole lot more fun.”
Asked if she would have a few words of advice for recent CU Boulder graduates, Wilhelms says: “First, know who you are and what you love. Second, always put yourself into learning opportunities throughout your career, working with leaders and mentors. And third, believe in yourself and trust yourself—that you’ll make the right choices. A lot of people are going to tell you what they think you should do, but only you know what is right for you.”