From a Small Town to Making it Big Featuring: Mindi Wells
In this post, I introduce you to Mindi Wells, an attorney, business advisor, educator, lifelong learner and world traveler. Mindi and I met on an unseasonably warm September afternoon and could have talked for hours. Her journey is impressive, her energy is contagious, and her down-to-earth nature makes her the ideal “small town girl” to feature!
Where did you grow up? LaFayette, Ohio – population 445. Mindi attended both Allen East High School (class size of 91 when you combine the four nearby towns) and Temple Christian, where she graduated with approximately 25 classmates. Mindi was so connected to classmates at both schools that she helped plan two 25th class reunions last year.
What has been your geographic journey from the time you left your small town? While Mindi has always had a permanent residence in Ohio, she has traveled extensively, starting with being a foreign exchange student in New Zealand during her senior year in high school. She’s spent time living in Glasgow, Scotland, Washington DC, and Florida.
What is your professional journey? You can read about Mindi’s extensive professional background here as well as check out her LinkedIn profile. What I want to highlight here is HOW Mindi moved from one area of her career to the next.
Mindi attended Ohio Northern University for both her undergraduate studies as well as her law degree. As an undergraduate, she interviewed for a scholarship and one of the interview panelists was the Vice President for Financial Affairs (Roger Young). He was so impressed with her that he asked if she would consider working for the office as a work study student. She accepted the position and this set the course of her career.
After graduating with an undergraduate business degree in economics and political science, she moved to Washington DC to work for the Canadian Embassy. At that time, she was considering whether she wanted to get her MBA or law degree. She decided that she would take both the LSAT and GMAT and whichever she scored higher on, she would pursue. She ended up scoring equally. A faculty advisor told her the MBA would open many doors and that the law degree would open all of those same doors and even more. In a conversation with her mom, she realized that law was the direction she wanted to take. She moved back to Ada, Ohio to attend law school at Ohio Northern.
While she was in law school, she went back to her job at the university financial affairs office. Upon graduation and after successfully passing the Ohio bar exam, then Vice President for Financial Affairs John W. Green asked her if she would stay on and formalize the Human Resources Department for the university. She became the university’s first Director of Personnel Services (now Human Resources). After building this function from the ground up, she was approached by the dean of ONU’s law school, David Crago, about joining his team as Assistant Dean for Administration and Student Services. She accepted under the condition that this opportunity offer her work/life balance, allow her to work on her next degree, and expose her to executive-level thinking. Mindi was in this role for eight years when she was notified by a justice with the Supreme Court of Ohio about their search for a Deputy Administrative Director (Chief Operating Officer).
Mindi relocated to downtown Columbus (still keeping a place in Ada) and after a year in the COO position, she was asked to step in as Interim Director of Human Resources. After two years in the COO position, the Administrative Director (equivalent of CEO) position was vacant and Mindi was asked by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor to serve as as interim administrative director. She worked hard for four years, rarely taking vacation or personal time, and finally came to the decision to set out on her own at the beginning of 2017.
Now, you can find Mindi doing the things she loves, including teaching, leading seminars, coaching, and serving small business clients. As for her perspective on working and a career now, Mindi says, “Money is money. Time is wealth. My goal is to build a life I don’t need a vacation from.”
The most notable part of this journey is that Mindi hasn’t had a formal career path. At each pivot in her career, someone thought she would be right for another role and asked her to switch jobs. I told Mindi I had just conducted research for a series of articles I’m writing and one of the questions I sought to answer was “does the tap on the shoulder still exist.” Mindi is proof that working hard and pushing farther than you thought you could go are keys to being tapped on the shoulder for the next position.
Mindi’s favorite song, Roots by Parmalee mirrors how she feels about her small town upbringing.
How has your small town upbringing allowed you to be successful in life? Mindi recalls her upbringing as a mix between Little House on the Prairie and National Lampoon’s Vacation. She said she is more of who she is by how she was raised than anything. She describes herself as a practical, down-to-earth person. Above all, Mindi’s family taught her about the acceptance of others, hard work, and keeping things simple.
Even though they lived in rural Ohio, Mindi’s parents wanted to make sure she and her sister were exposed to people and places different from them. They also had a calling to bring others into their home. Mindi recalls over 50 foster kids and 12 exchange students living in her home over the years. It was the story of two of these foster kids that showed me Mindi’s true spirit. Mindi witnessed a child being bullied at age 12, which led her to tell her parents she wanted to help this child. This single experience led Mindi’s parents to become foster parents.
One weekend, the foster agency called to ask if they could take a sibling pair – an 8-month-old boy named Johnny and two-year-old girl named Ashley. They weren’t set up to foster babies, but took them in anyway. That weekend led to two weeks, two months, and eventually six years. At that time, the family took a vote to determine if they would adopt Johnny and Ashley. The family agreed and the siblings were welcomed as full members of the family. As part of their adoption, the kids were able to change their names. The children chose Lyndee (to go with Mindi and Wendy) and Drew, after the family’s Schwan delivery man.
Mindi has truly never met a stranger, and it’s no wonder given the number of people who have come into her life in such intimate ways.
When did you have your first “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” moment? As an exchange student in New Zealand, Mindi remembers her first day at the inner city high school she attended in Auckland. Her new school was attended by only 10% white students, the rest being Maori Indians and Pacific islanders. She felt in that moment what it was like to be “different from” everyone else. Through her experience in New Zealand, she was exposed to the native culture, which was a significant departure from her all-white town in rural Ohio.
What experience is the most memorable from your time in a small town? Running track in school was very formative for Mindi. What started as an extracurricular activity that would allow her to ride the bus and take field trips to other schools became an exercise in persistence. She remembers her coach saying “Even when you think you will die, you can push harder.” This taught Mindi that when you think you can’t take more, you likely have more to give.
Mindi was also an 11-year 4-H member. She credits 4-H to being the place where she learned and practiced key developmental things like leadership and public speaking.
What is the most important lesson you took with you from your small town upbringing? Before Mindi started law school, her dad said something to her that frames how she shows up in all situations. He told her, “Don’t come back here and think you can use those big words on us. Don’t forget you’re from LaFayette, Ohio.” She says she keeps her family in mind when she is explaining legal issues to people. If her family can’t understand, then she isn’t being as clear and simple as possible. She describes her style as using plain language, being honest and transparent.
What advice would you give kids who are growing up in your hometown today? Never be ashamed of your upbringing. The hard work we are taught from growing up in small towns pays off. Genuineness matters.