An interview with CEO Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, Elizabeth Dole's former chief fund-raiser.
As primary and caucus voters go to the polls, one politically active CEO sits on the sidelines
Bonnie McElveen-Hunter's entrepreneurial pedigree is well established. Pace Communications, her boutique publishing company, creates in-flight magazines for blue-chip clients like United, Delta, and US Airways. The business racked up sales of $80 million last year and continues to grow by 28% annually. Although she owns 100% of the 26-year-old company, McElveen-Hunter is not content to spend all her time vetting stories about great hotels and new airports. She's also an able fund-raiser and has spearheaded lucrative campaigns for the United Way and Habitat for Humanity.
Last June, McElveen-Hunter, 49, dipped her organizational toe into electoral waters, hosting a luncheon for presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole. The event, in McElveen-Hunter's native Greensboro, N.C., collected a whopping $115,000 in contributions -- an impressive sum for the Dole camp, which had publicly struggled for financial support. Dole then pressed McElveen-Hunter to join her campaign full-time as national finance chairwoman, and the CEO accepted the portfolio. But, as we all know, the former Cabinet secretary pulled out of the race in October, citing an inability to amass campaign contributions. The ever optimistic McElveen-Hunter refuses to concede that she failed at her task. But this month, as the remaining GOP hopefuls duke it out in Iowa, Alaska, and Louisiana, she must watch the action from afar. From that vantage, she talked with staff writer Mike Hofman about her brief foray into national politics.
Inc.: When did you first get involved in the Dole campaign?
McElveen-Hunter: Actually, I can give you the date. I read an article in the Wall Street Journal on April 16 about the campaign, and I couldn't believe that a man named Gary Bauer, whom I had never heard of before, was ahead of Elizabeth in fund-raising. I felt she was a great candidate. She had proven herself to be capable and competent. She had a brand worth millions of dollars -- a recognizable name that stood for honesty and integrity. I was appalled that she was trailing Bauer in fund-raising. I thought to myself that I had to be part of the solution. So I picked up the telephone and called some people I knew in politics, and they gave me the name of a man at her campaign.
Inc.: How did he react when you called?
McElveen-Hunter: I asked him, "What do I need to do to help?" And he asked me, "Can you raise $100,000 at a fund-raiser in North Carolina?" Well, I had never been involved in politics, and I had never written a check for a candidate. So I paused. And I swallowed. And I said yes. And on June 3, I hosted a luncheon for Elizabeth in Greensboro. We raised $115,000 for her that afternoon.
Inc.: When did you join the campaign full-time?
McElveen-Hunter: Five days after the luncheon in Greensboro, Elizabeth invited me to a formal sit-down meeting to discuss my becoming national finance chair. Obviously, some information got back to [the campaign] about all the fund-raising that I had done for Habitat and the United Way. I accepted the position with one caveat: I wanted to have the blessing of my company and of the people I work for here. (I have 150 women on staff and 50 "token" men.) So I had a meeting with my staff, at the end of which they gave me a standing ovation.
Inc.: How did the company run without you?
McElveen-Hunter: I was in my office quite a bit, and the door's always open, and I went to lunch with some of my people every day, so I got the scoop. My employees essentially took over the company. I'm smart enough to hire people who are smarter than I am, so everything ran quite normally.
Inc.: What made you so passionate about Elizabeth Dole?
McElveen-Hunter: She is obviously a candidate who is mighty qualified. She is competent. She happens to be a North Carolinian. She's an incredible person -- by any standard, overeducated. She had the privilege of serving six presidents. And one of the important things is that she was able to take over the Red Cross and manage an organization with more than a million volunteers. Any person who has ever managed 10 people should stand in admiration of her managing a million volunteers.
Inc.: Did her stands on policy issues also attract you? What about small-business issues?
McElveen-Hunter: Business had nothing to do with it. I don't look at candidates to see what they're going to do for me. I look to see what a candidate will do for the country. I loved her courage. I loved the fact that she was aggressive to come out for gun control even though it didn't represent the party line. It's common sense that we don't need AK-47s or Uzis in the hall closet. I thought she had taken a very courageous step by saying, "I'm going to stand for what I believe in."
Inc.: In fund-raising for Dole, what was your target market?
McElveen-Hunter: We looked very hard at what the opportunities were for bringing new people into the party. A tremendous number of people do not feel a part of the process. Eighty-five percent of our contributors had never written a check to a campaign before, and 85% of our donors were women. My company has been on the list of Working Woman magazine's 500 largest women-owned businesses, so I called some of the people I knew from that list. One is named Jhane Barnes, and she's the CEO of a menswear company. I asked her if she would give me $1,000, and she said yes. And then I asked her to help me raise $9,000 more, and she said yes. And then I asked her if she was willing to participate in organizing an event in New York, and she said, "Yes, Bonnie, I'll do that, but there's just one problem: I'm not registered to vote!" So many women like her, who'd never been politically active, stepped forward. Largely, they were entrepreneurs, though we had some corporate women as well.
Inc.: Working with people who were not part of the process must have made fund-raising more difficult.
McElveen-Hunter: Well, look, it was inefficient to work with people who had never written checks before, because they didn't really know the process. But I turned to my Rolodex because I had to operate within my sphere of resources. Someone joked that instead of EMILY's List, we had Bonnie's List. Besides, the traditional sources of funding were somewhat limited. The normal Republican machine had already given money to George W. Bush. I would call people, and they would tell me they had already given to him, and my retort was that I've never seen a pair of pants with only one pocket. Still, we didn't have the lists that other campaigns had. We couldn't mail an invitation to a list and assume that everybody would come. We would call people personally and ask them to come. That takes time.
Inc.: A number of Democrats also contributed to Dole, correct?
McElveen-Hunter: Twenty to twenty-five percent of the people we brought in were Democrats. I'll tell you this: after Elizabeth bowed out, I got a letter from one man who said, "The upside of this is that I can go back to being a Democrat."
Inc.: Is it upsetting that you failed to raise enough to keep the campaign going?
McElveen-Hunter: I don't think we failed at all. I feel exhilarated by the experience. Raising $5 million from a standing start is nothing to be ashamed of. Look, as a business owner I'm used to fighting insurmountable odds. This was a case of David and Goliath, and George W. was Goliath. We knew that when the process started. We had to focus on continually loading the slingshot. Money was the ammunition, and it was coming in, but it was coming in slowly. The reality of the numbers was that Elizabeth would have to be in two places at one time to catch up to Bush and Steve Forbes, each of whom had spent about $19 million by the time she dropped out of the race. She didn't have enough money to pay for TV ads when they were breaking in Iowa.
Inc.: Could Dole have been elected?
McElveen-Hunter: I think Elizabeth is very electable. Look at the polls. At the time she dropped out, she was beating Al Gore and she was beating Bill Bradley. The only person she wasn't beating was in her own party.
Inc.: Should she be on the ticket?
McElveen-Hunter: My hope is that the Republican Party will be wise enough to select someone with the talents and the credentials of Elizabeth Dole. If I were George W., I'd be at her door knocking right now.
Inc.: Did you learn anything from Dole that will help you as an entrepreneur?
McElveen-Hunter: Elizabeth is a person who really does seek consensus. She knows how to lead a team. I think the best thing to come out of it is that team -- a network of mostly women -- which we built across the country. Many of them are entrepreneurs, so they had a bright, can-do attitude. They said, "Forget the odds. Let's charge ahead." We were very entrepreneurial -- the truth is that her campaign was the most entrepreneurial. We had a shoestring budget and only a few people. It was like guerrilla warfare. Now we've got a trusty, passionate network that can be ignited again for the right cause or the right person.
MIKE HOFMAN was previously editor of Inc.com and a deputy editor at Inc. magazine, which he joined in 1996. The site was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Digital Media in 2010, and was named the best business website by Folio Magazine. In 2006, Hofman was part of a team of writers nominated for a Webby Award for best business blog. He lives in New York City.