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Sunday Conversation: ChappellRoberts CEO Colleen Chappell extends her 'influence'

ChappellRoberts CEO Colleen Chappell says her family is her foundation."They are why I do everything that I do." Pictured are husband Dan Chappell, Colleen Chappell, son Shawn, daughter-in-law Courtney and son Ryan, Courtney's husband. Photo courtesy of Colleen Chappell.
Published May 12, 2018

Colleen Chappell sat more than 5,000 miles from the city when she learned the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce named her the 2018 Dottie Berger MacKinnon Woman of Influence, but for many reasons, the award resonated from the downtown Tampa to the Italian island of Sicily.

The vacationing Chappell thought of her longtime mentor and business partner Deanne Roberts, who died in 2012 after battling cancer. She thought of MacKinnon, the award's namesake, and her well publicized battle with cancer before she died in 2013.

And she thought of her own cancer battle and the drive her on-going survival has instilled in her. Not only does Chappell serve as CEO of ChappellRoberts, one of the nation's top branding and marketing firms, but she's constantly engaging in community leadership efforts — one of the latest being chair of the Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation in 2015-16.

Chappell, 51, recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about the award, her sense of community and on this Mother's Day, how her adult sons inspire her.

You're a Woman of Influence. What does that mean to you?

I was completely shocked more than I've ever been regarding anything in my professional career, and I was so honored because of the name associated with the award. I had the privilege of knowing Dottie, and she was a force and an advocate, but she always had such grace and the ability to coalesce differing sides to push forward for the greater good. I was always watching her in awe, not only what she did but how she achieved the results and her process. At the end of working through what she was trying to achieve, everybody felt better about it. Everybody felt like this was the right thing to do, we should go and do this and be a part of it.

I called it the "Church of Dottie."

That's the perfect way to describe it. And I don't know if I've seen very many if any, be able to do it the way she did it.

What drives you to be engaged as a community leader?

When I was young, my grandmother was very ill and she had a tiny necklace with a clear crystal ball and it had a tiny, tiny dot in it. I said, "What is that?" It was a mustard seed, and she explained to me that the mustard seed is the smallest off all seeds on earth, yet it can grow into a 20-foot tree, 20 feet high, 20 feet wide — it can grow in a drought, it can grow in terrible soil — and if you cut it down, it'll grow back. Very resilient.

I never in my life said I'm going to do big things, but I always have said I will do as many little things as I can. I guess it all added up to an impact, even though the goal wasn't to win an award or to be recognized. It was more of the belief that everything anybody can do to make their family better, their community better, the world better can add up and make a difference. That's why I raise my hand. That's why I get involved. If you believe everything adds up to a greater good, that's how you conduct your life.

Does your involvement reflect the compassion you have for Tampa Bay?

I hope so because I feel such a sense of ownership for our current place as well as our future. If we live here and we're part of the community, it's our obligation to do whatever we can to move the community forward. And moving the community forward could mean moving one student forward.

When I was in school, I had so many mentors and so many people who paid it forward. I even had a secret benefactor who paid my last college bill because I couldn't pay the last bill. I had sold my necklace, I had returned all my books, I was $500 short and I literally didn't think I would graduate, and somebody zeroed out my bill. I will never forget that.

Every single young professional with an ounce of ambition who wants to meet with me, I will meet with and I will do anything I can to pay it forward for them because it happened for me. Moving a community forward doesn't always mean taking the entire city and transforming it, it could mean moving one student forward who becomes a huge leader and they change the world.

As a woman of influence, how important is it for you to be a role model for other women aspiring for greatness.

I think it's all of our obligation to be a good example to men and women alike. There's an affinity that young women have for women of success and I understand that and I'm happy to help in that regard.

But young men or women alike, I think it's our obligation to be an example. Everyone needs to understand — whether you have the title of influence or not — we as leaders have inherent influence because our example tells stories. It tells stories to other professionals, it tells stories to the younger generation. I hope I can be a role model.

How are things at ChappellRoberts?

We are at the greatest point in out history. We continue to grow. We have clients at a global level, a national level. We have the largest team we've ever had, but as important, they're required to give back to our community. We build an entire platform, on company time, that they go out and fuel their soul and fuel their creative energy so ultimately they can make a difference.

The Internet has changed our lives. How has it changed marketing?

Digital is everything. It's the instant ability to make an impact, say something, show something, connect with someone. What we've never lost sight of, though, and I think this is important because we're a branding and advertising agency, is ... the key is the message. We can never forget the craft of the message, which at the end of the day is what matters.

Your oldest son, Ryan, is now 26. In 1992, the year Ryan was born, you wrote a piece for the Times that included this passage: "I have a tough job ahead of me. I want to give you everything, but I want you to understand the meaning of working for what you want. I want to hold you each time you cry, but I want you to learn that life is hard and the only one you can really count on is yourself. I want to be with you all the time, but I want you to learn the immeasurable value of independence." With this publishing on Mother's Day, when you look back on those words, do you feel like your sons have turned into everything you wanted them to be?

Everything and more. Everything I dreamed they could be — strong, good communicators, have a faith, be independent, have compassion, give back — and more is what they've become as men. They teach me lessons in compassion, lessons in resilience. I have learned in the last handful of years, from both my sons, more than I have in a lifetime, and I'm so grateful. When you have children, you think they'll be part me and part my spouse, but in reality, you learn they're completely unto themselves. That's the blessing I focus on. I'm a better person because of them.

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow him @hoop4you.

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