President and CEO of Revitalize Community Development Corp.
This Dynamic Leader is Focused on Community Building — in Many Ways
When Colleen Loveless came to Revitalize Community Development Corp. almost 10 years ago, she really didn’t think it would be a long stay.
She told BusinessWest that she was definitely looking for something new and different after working in various sales and marketing positions and then running her own very successful international category-management organization, and found all that in the RCDC, or ‘Revitalize,’ as it’s often called.
But down deep, she admits going in thinking that this was going to be a temporary gig. “I really thought I’d get bored and move on to something else,” she explained, adding that, overall, she is both entrepreneurial and adventurous when it comes to her career and the paths she might take.
Suffice it to say that a funny thing happened on the way to ‘temporary’ and ‘getting bored.’
Indeed, in a short decade, Loveless has taken Revitalize from an all-volunteer organization working one day a year to a year-round program with an office on Main Street, a handful of permanent employees, and, most importantly, a scope of work that keeps expanding — to the benefit of thousands of area individuals. So much so that, in 2015, BusinessWest awarded the agency (and its director) its Difference Maker award.
In a nutshell, the RCDC provides critical repairs, rehabilitation, and modifications on the homes of low-income families with children, the elderly, military veterans, and individuals with special needs. And under Loveless’ strong leadership, it now does all this on an exponentially larger scale.
Since she started, RCDC has completed more than 300 home projects with the help of more than 10,000 volunteers and hundreds of sponsors, donors, and collaborators. Thanks to this support, RCDC consistently leverages funding by a ratio of four to one, and has thus invested more than $29 million in value into the cities of Springfield and Holyoke since its inception.
While Loveless certainly hasn’t achieved all this on her own, she has been the catalyst for all that growth and expansion of the agency’s mission. It has come about through her leadership and ability to fully and effectively leverage her vast skills in marketing, brand development, and creating partnerships and collaborative efforts.
Over the past decade, she has made Revitalize, well, a household name, or household nonprofit agency (literally and figuratively), and taken its work to a plane that most could not have imagined back in 2009.
“Colleen utilizes her strong skill set in business, her professional network, and her entrepreneurial spirit to directly improve the lives of others and to rebuild neighborhoods in our community.”
“Colleen utilizes her strong skill set in business, her professional network, and her entrepreneurial spirit to directly improve the lives of others and to rebuild neighborhoods in our community,” wrote a group of RCDC’s board members, led by Chairman Gregg Desmarais, as they nominated her for the Women of Impact award. “She has successfully engaged the support of more than 90 sponsoring organizations, and has a keen understanding of how to partner effectively with the media, local government, and other stakeholders to bring awareness and support to the cause; the impact that Colleen has made in our community, and on everyone she interacts with, is undeniable.”
There have been many accomplishments and milestones recorded under Loveless’ tenure with the RCDC. They include:
• Implementation of a strategic neighborhood-revitalization plan, called GreenNFit, in the Old Hill neighborhood of Springfield. Roughly 25 homes are worked on each year as the agency proceeds, block by block, through that area;
• Expansion of the agency’s services into Holyoke;
• The creation of the JoinedForces program, whereby Revitalize CDC focuses on home-repair project work for military veterans in need; and
• The ongoing Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a partnership with Baystate Health, the Public Health Institute of Western Mass., the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, the city of Springfield, and Square One to perform interventions and improve housing conditions.
While humbly acknowledging her role in what has been accomplished to date, Loveless, not surprisingly, is looking at what might come next, and additional opportunities to expand the RCDC’s reach.
Specifically, the agency has been awarded a three-year, $730,000 grant from HUD (the federal office of Housing and Urban Development) to repair and rehab homes owned by veterans across the state. That new endeavor was announced at the RCDC’s annual fundraising event for JoinedForces on Nov. 1, and it is only the latest example of how Loveless has been relentless in her efforts to expand the agency’s reach and positively impact more than lives.
And that commitment, even more than the stunning results achieved under her watch at RCDC, explains why she is a member of this first class of Women of Impact.
As noted earlier, Loveless was enjoying a good deal of success in marketing and as an entrepreneur before she came to the RCDC.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and an MBA (both from Western New England University), she worked in various sales and marketing positions for HP Hood in Boston, the Nutrasweet Company (a division of Monsanto) in Chicago, and Heublein (wine and spirits) in Hartford.
She then started her own business, called Popmax International, with Popmax being short for point-of-purchase maximization. Working for clients such as Colgate Palmolive, Stanley Tools, and Friendly’s, and breaking ground in digital photography as she did so, Loveless would, as the name on her company suggests, help them maximize space on store shelves as well as other presentation challenges.
“I really loved what I was doing, but in the last few years I was getting a little bored,” she recalled. “And I was looking for a challenge, and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do.”
While still operating her business — and also doing some rehabbing of rental properties as another entrepreneurial venture — she took a part-time job with Valley CDC in its small-business technical assistance program. In that role, she was helping small-business owners and fledgling entrepreneurs with marketing, business plans, help with getting loans, and other forms of technical assistance.
She enjoyed the work, and, as she likes to tell people, she “caught the nonprofit bug.”
With that affliction, if one can call it that, the position of president and CEO of the RCDC caught her attention — and kept it. Summing things up, Loveless said the opportunity was attractive on a number of levels — it was a nonprofit, but it was also a startup business in many respects, and one where she could put her many talents to work for a cause she firmly believed in.
“They wanted me to make it a year-round organization and open our first office,” she explained. “And I knew it would really take all of my skills.
‘This was a startup,” she went on. “I used my entrepreneurial skills and also used my construction and rehab skills. And I also put my sales and marketing skills to work — I have an undergraduate degree in marketing.
“I realized that my role is to sell the organization to people in the community, whether it’s to recruit volunteers or recruit sponsors and donations,” she went on, summing up her job description quickly and efficiently. “I’m using a blend of skills, and I love what I’m doing now more than when I had my own business. Not many people can say that; once you have your own business, there’s no going back. But I can say that.”
What she loves is, well, all aspects of this job, but essentially the ongoing work to build it and expand its mission, positively impacting the lives of ever more area residents as she does so.
She started small, in a suite in the Scibelli Enterprise Center in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, and roughly a year later moved into a suite of offices on Main Street that would narrowly avoid the tornado that roared down that thoroughfare on June 2011, but that would ultimately change the path of the RCDC’s mission, at least temporarily.
At Home with the Idea
Indeed, after a year of carrying on as a volunteer organization, the RCDC was developing blueprints for becoming far more structured and focusing more of its efforts on healthy housing, specifically with regards to asthma.
Loveless was meeting with various groups, such as the Asthma Coalition, when the tornado tore through several neighborhoods in the city.
“That took us off course, but we needed to be taken off course,” she told BusinessWest. “We needed to focus on rehabbing and rebuilding homes for families that either didn’t have insurance, or had inadequate insurance, or that were victimized by contractors that came into the area from outside the region; we filled that role for the next several years and did a total of 71 homes across Springfield.”
Since work on tornado-damaged homes was completed, the RCDC has refocused its energies on what eventually became the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, expansion into Holyoke, and completion of the GreenNFit project in Old Hill, which is now officially ahead of schedule with just one block left to do.
The assault on asthma, still in its pilot phase, has been extremely rewarding work, said Loveless, because it yields benefits on a number of levels.
“It’s a win-win situation,” she told BusinessWest, noting that roughly 70 homes have been inspected, assessed, and rehabbed to date. “The goal is to remove the asthma triggers in the home; it makes the patient healthier, and the healthcare system saves money because individuals aren’t chronically coming to the emergency department.”
And with Baystate recently receiving a $750,000, 18-month grant from the Health Policy Commission, another 150 homes will be rehabbed, with the RCDC as the lead housing agency in the initiative.
As for the GreenNFit project, it is the RCDC’s signature event, drawing more than 1,000 volunteers for an intense day of work in Old Hill. Soon, a new neighborhood will be targeted for improvements, said Loveless, adding that, similarly, volunteers convene in Holyoke (the most recent gathering was Oct. 18) for improvements to a block there, in an endeavor called #GreenNFitHolyoke.
All this success has led to the Difference Maker award and a host of other honors and accolades for RCDC and its executive director. The biggest reward for Loveless, though, is being able to take a lead role in efforts that are literally changing lives — and inspire others to follow that lead.
“I love what I’m doing now more than when I had my own business. Not many people can say that; once you have your own business, there’s no going back. But I can say that.”
“It’s a matter of being creative, being open to change, being flexible, but also being enthusiastic,” she said when talking about one of the most important aspects of her job description. “Energy — positive energy and negative energy — are contagious, and I feel like a pretty optimistic person.
“I feel very positive about the organization, and I feel very positive about the work we’re doing collectively within the community,” she went on. “You get rewarded almost every day with a past recipient coming to volunteer and help out this year, saying, ‘I want to give back,’ or with a wonderful thank-you note. The grandchild of a recipient drew us a little card thanking us; it was a picture of a house with a pretty tree next to it. You can’t buy that.”
Nor can you easily buy the kind of leadership and direction that Loveless has given this organization — and the region as a whole — over the past decade.
It should be clear by now that, despite her early forecasts, Loveless has never become bored with her work at the RCDC.
Instead, she seems to become more energized — and more entrepreneurial — with each passing year.
The woman who has always been good at sales and marketing has sold the organization and its mission to the region, and enabled it to significantly expand its reach and its mission in the process.
As noted earlier, Loveless hasn’t done this alone. She’s had help from countless corporate partners, other nonprofit agencies, and thousands of volunteers ready to roll up their sleeves. But those contributors needed someone to lead and someone to inspire them.
And Loveless, as a Woman of Impact, has certainly done that.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]