How Aimee Gilbreath Of PetSmart Charities Is Helping To Address The Growing Challenge Of Food Insecurity
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Take more risks. If you’re not failing ever, you’re probably not pushing the envelope. Failure isn’t fatal and it is a fertile breeding ground for growth. Don’t fear it!
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis of people having limited reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. As prices rise, this problem will likely become more acute. How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who are helping to address the increasing problem of food insecurity who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve this problem.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Aimee Gilbreath.
Aimee Gilbreath is the President of PetSmart Charities® and PetSmart Charities® of Canada, where she oversees the direction and vision for the strategic grant-making organizations, and North America’s leading funder of animal welfare.
A seasoned leader in both non-profit and private-sector organizations with extensive experience in a range of industries spanning biotech, consumer goods and philanthropy, Aimee has a proven track record of driving organizations to achieve growth and success.
As the executive director of the Found Animals Foundation, Inc., a non-profit supporting pet owners and animal welfare organizations with a mission dedicated to saving pets and enriching lives, Aimee spearheaded activities for the foundation’s 1,000+ B2B clients and 5 million B2C customers nationwide, as well as more than 90 grant recipients and 30 strategic partners worldwide.
Prior to her role at the Found Animals Foundation, Aimee served as a principal at the Boston Consulting Group, where she created solutions for Fortune 500 clients by developing and implementing strategic and operational improvements. She also previously served as a process engineer and research associate for Motorola, launching and building the company’s start-up biotech research and development division.
Aimee holds an MBA from Stanford University and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Arizona. She shares her passion for pets and community by serving on the board of Spay4 LA and is affiliated with numerous other non-profit organizations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I have been a lifelong animal lover — I get it from my father — so as a kid I had almost every kind of pet. We had horses, a goat and rabbits in the backyard and dogs, cats, snakes, gerbils and rats in the house. My original career goal was to be a large animal veterinarian, but that changed after a ride along with our vet during middle school. That was when I realized the level of hard physical labor required for that job…and that some of your patients want to kick you! After that, I went into biology and didn’t think there would be an opportunity to combine my passion for animals with my professional skills.
Eventually I got my MBA, went into consulting, and was trying to fit in volunteering with animals around my travel schedule at work. I adopted a pit bull named Rufus, who was an amazing dog, and I decided that I would like to be home enough to walk him myself. That’s when I realized I needed to make changes in my career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There was a point in my career, after I got my MBA, that I realized that I really needed to find a way to combine my passion for animals and pets with my skills. I found an opportunity to help Dr. Gary Michelson start his animal welfare foundation, the Los Angeles-based Michelson Found Animals, where I became Executive Director and began on this amazing journey of saving pets and enriching lives, including my own. I would tell people just starting out to stay open to opportunities that come along. It’s great to have a plan, but stay flexible and curious, because sometimes an ideal role or mission will present itself. When your work is tied to something you truly care about, it makes the long hours and sacrifices worth it.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Learning how to communicate directly with kindness and empathy made for a huge turning point in my career. When I became a manager, I dreaded giving feedback and performance reviews because it felt so adversarial and awkward. And yet, it is an important part of being successful as a leader. After stumbling into some outside training to level up my emotional intelligence and communication, I completely reframed my viewpoint and experience of having “difficult” conversations in the workplace.
My career really took off after that and I have stayed connected to coaching or coursework in the art of leadership. If I were giving advice to another leader, I would emphasize that your mindset and communication style have a huge impact on the culture of your organization and the performance of your team. There is tremendous value in pursuing coaching and support to help you excel in that area.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I was fortunate to have a first boss after college who had great faith in my skills and potential. He gave me so much responsibility and room to grow. He was tasked with building a biotech research lab within an existing tech campus and he essentially delegated the entire project to me — even though I had zero experience. It was an important project — with a large budget — for him and the organization. In hindsight, I don’t know if most people would have trusted a new graduate to take this on, but he did trust me, and I rose to the occasion. Succeeding in that project gave me a huge confidence boost and the understanding that I could figure out new things and manage complex projects. It taught me right from the start that I could take on big risks and succeed and set up a wonderful career trajectory.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I am a lifelong animal lover, having grown up in a household of pets. My advice to others is to pay close attention to what comes very naturally to you. You may decide to only pursue something you’re passionate about as a hobby, or, find a way to serve that interest in your career.
I love to learn, and believe that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, thanks to what my parents instilled in me. I have used this love and belief throughout my career, especially early on when my first boss out of college gave me a huge project to work on. Getting smart on everything I needed to know helped this project become a success.
Communicating with kindness and empathy has helped me lead one of the largest nonprofits in the country. It’s also prepared me to work with our diverse partner organizations. While our initiatives are about pets and supporting them as part of the family and keeping them together when they need each other most, my day-to-day work is to inspire people to discover their strengths and leverage those, while finding ways for them to invest those talents to make sure PetSmart Charities continues to take risks, innovate and lead animal welfare across the U.S. and Canada.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can,” by Arthur Ashe. It resonates with me because it’s a reminder that I am always doing something to make a difference, no matter what the situation.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you describe to our readers how your work is helping to address the challenge of food insecurity?
Sadly, 1 in 6 Americans are struggling to put food on the table and we know that if people are experiencing food insecurity, their pets are, too. We believe the value of caring for pets resonates with people from all walks of life, which led PetSmart Charities to partner with Feeding America for a response to the continued hunger crisis by delivering pet food right alongside food for their people. In 2021, PetSmart Charities contributed $10 million in donated pet food to Feeding America when the pandemic left many families in need. This continues to be a priority for our organization. In 2022, we’ve given more than $7.9 million in donated pet food that is distributed to affiliate food banks across the nation. Because of Charities’ relationships with vendors, we can provide quantities of food to help organizations in the way that they really need. This innovative multi-year partnership with the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization has served as a model to others. Addressing food insecurity is a priority for our organization because when families have the resources they need, their pets have a better chance of staying out of already overcrowded shelters and in their homes with the people they love.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
We are the top funder of animal welfare in the country and what many people might not realize is that we have incredibly generous customers that help make our welfare initiatives happen. By donating an extra dollar or two at checkout at PetSmart, consumers are contributing to our initiatives that help support pets and people and keep families together with their pets, from disaster relief efforts to adoptions to pet food insecurity. I hope shoppers are proud of how they help contribute to the lives of pets and the people who love them. It goes to show that millions of small gifts given with great love can add up. With their help, PetSmart Charities is now the biggest grant maker in animal welfare, and the impact on improving the lives of pets and their people is enormous!
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share a few things that can be done to further address the problem of food insecurity?
Pets are often an “entry point” to connecting with people in need of support since pets are considered family. We encourage social service agencies to consider integrating outreach for pets because when people struggle for refuge, food and shelter their pets do too. As a starting point, shelters, such as domestic violence housing and those set up when crises strike, can take steps to make provisions for pets to keep families together and safe. We also encourage business leaders, such as pet food manufacturers and specialty pet retailers, to contribute to addressing food insecurity by donating pet food to organizations that also serve people.
All in all, I hope more business and civic leaders can see the benefit of a more pet-inclusive society as they’re so important to the well-being of their people. If public transit systems were to accommodate pets, it would make it easier for people to take them for medical screening and care. If hotels accepted pets, people would be more likely to evacuate from dangerous situations.
Helping pet parents care for their pets when they struggle, in turn, helps people overall.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address the challenge of food scarcity? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
Meals on Wheels America is a key partner of ours and does incredible work to alleviate food insecurity with pets of seniors. For them, pets are often their sole sources of companionship. A fact that resonated with me was that Meals on Wheels volunteers noticed that older adults were leaving the meals that were provided for them on the floor for their pets to share. The organization took that knowledge and acted on it by developing programs to ensure seniors didn’t have to make the impossible choice about whether to feed their pets or themselves. In support of this, PetSmart Charities has provided critical support to help local Meals on Wheels America member organizations deliver pet food alongside human meals since 2019 to support the companion pets of older adults.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
In the realm of public policy, there is one area that I would prioritize to make a significant difference for pets and people — requiring rental housing to become pet inclusive. Two-thirds of U.S. households have a pet, and yet, the vast majority of rental housing policies pose significant restrictions ranging from no pets to limits on number, size and breed. For lower-income families who already struggle with housing affordability, these pet restrictions mean that they are often faced with the brutal choice of keeping a roof over their heads or keeping their furry family member. This results in heartbreak for the family and puts the pet at high risk of entering an overcrowded shelter system with an uncertain outcome. We know that pets are good for people and communities. Ensuring there are housing options to keep them together is a goal that would benefit both ends of the leash. The Pet Inclusive Housing Initiative is an organization that is doing great work on this topic.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Life is long, and so are careers. When I was younger I wanted to do it all and do it all well. Now I know that my work life is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Take more risks. If you’re not failing ever, you’re probably not pushing the envelope. Failure isn’t fatal and it is a fertile breeding ground for growth. Don’t fear it!
- Get a mentor. There is so much to learn about your role as a professional and navigating your work life. Seek out someone you respect who cares about your success enough to give you direction, feedback and encouragement along the journey.
- Being a working parent is demanding. I wish I’d understood earlier in my career the impact of having a family can be. I’d have even been more supportive of those on my own teams before I became a mom.
- Have more FUN! I’m a serious person and want to get the best results from my team and for our mission. But we spend a lot of our time at work. We should find joy and have fun there, too!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Our friends at PetSmart have a saying: “Pets make us better people.” It’s so true. Pets bring us the kind of unconditional love and comfort we crave. Giving our pets full, active lives improves our quality of life, too! I’d encourage us as a culture to welcome pets into public life more broadly. Pet-friendly housing, restaurant patios, hospitals, museums, schools, etc. will bring people together in so many ways. Our culture may be divided, but so many of us love pets. The common ground they bring can start conversations and friendships, and maybe just make us a more peaceful and less lonely society.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Like so many professional women, I’m also juggling parenting. My four-year-old keeps me on my toes every single day. I have two demanding full-time jobs and I’m constantly switching gears and trying to keep all the balls in the air. So, I’d love to meet Dr. Becky. Her parenting advice and tips for dealing with tantrums to toilet-training are spot on. I need all the help I can get!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We’d love for them to connect and share with PetSmart Charities on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube or by visiting our website at petsmartcharities.org. You can also find me on LinkedIn, where I often post news coverage around the work our partners are doing for connecting and supporting pets and people.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.
How Aimee Gilbreath Of PetSmart Charities Is Helping To Address The Growing Challenge Of Food… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.