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Powerful Women: Let's Talk - 109: Mary O’Connor Shaw

Mary Shaw

Shelley Irwin welcomes Mary O’Connor Shaw to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Mary O’Connor Shaw is a talented writer and artist, and leads 360 Shaw Communications. Mary is here to talk about her life and career, and a recent challenge she is successfully overcoming. Mary O’Connor Shaw joins us on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


Produced by women, about women. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world; transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Irwin: Mary O’Connor Shaw is a talented writer and artist, today leading 360 Shaw communications. Speaking of today, Mary is most likely counting her blessings. She joins us to share a recent challenge successfully overcoming in addition to a self-described excellent cheesemaker. Welcome to Powerful Women: Let's Talk, Mary. Hi, Mary.

Mary Shaw: Good Morning. How are you doing?

SI: I’m fine. Where is the cheese? I see the books. I see you. No cheese. We’ll get back to that.

MS: It's aging. Just like me.

SI: Haha. That’s good. I think I'm older. Let's get into our conversation. You grew up in Ravenna, Michigan. What? First of 13 kids?

MS: Yes, ma'am. Yes. The first. Alpha dog I like to say.

SI: And probably the leader of the pack.

MS: Pretty much, for sure.

SI: Yes. What would be a childhood memory you want to share with us with 13 kids in the family?

MS: I would say the dinner table where we're all gathered around and that's kind of where I learned how to tell stories. That became a big part of my professional life. My dad would have us go around the table and each of us had to say something about our day that was interesting. So it was timed, you know, you only got a certain amount of time because there were so many children, but it was a lovely way to learn how to express something that happened to you in a compelling way and taught me a lot about storytelling.

SI: Yes. Which is part of your life today. Your first entry into leadership. age 10. What? Selling strawberries?

MS: Yes. I convinced a local farmer. I tried picking strawberries but found that that was really, really hard. So I convinced the farmer that I could be a local sales rep for his product and I took it on my bicycle and went around the little town of Ravenna selling strawberries. Mailed my own little first sales territory. And that kind of started me off on my entrepreneurial journey that lasted a lifetime.

SI: Take me to the beginnings of this entrepreneurial journey. Educationally, what’d you study?

MS: I studied engineering at Muskegon Community College. So I always had talent and artistic endeavors, but I was looking for a little bit more practical outlet for that, something where you really could get a good job right out of school. So, I studied design engineering and spent the first part of my career in automotive product development.

SI: And you moved on from there because I have books. You have books in front of you. Where did this transition happen?

MS: Well, you know, being the oldest of 13, you can imagine you have to be pretty independent and it's a little bit difficult to color inside the lines when you're an artist. You want to make your own lines. So, very quickly after working in the automotive field, I struck out on my own and founded a video production company specializing in technical communications because I realized I could speak that language of engineers, I didn't necessarily want to be an engineer, but I could speak the language fluently and help them tell their story. And so that was a whole 20 years of doing video production and media and that kind of work in the Detroit area. And then again, a reinvention kind of midway through my life, I went into my Martha Stewart phase and I bought a farm and developed an organic farm. Raising livestock and vegetables and things like that. Teaching myself cheesemaking, you mentioned that. Making maple syrup and all those kinds of things and selling those products. And I did that for about 10 years. And then I realized this is getting hard as I’m getting toward my 50's. So then I kind of pivoted back to the corporate routes and brought all of that experience from engineering and from running my own business and then doing the organic farming to help C suite executives do complex problem solving. You sort of have to have all of those kinds of skills either as a farmer or an entrepreneur or the oldest of that many children, you have to be good at solving problems and working with lots of different personalities. And that's now where I've kind of got my focus professionally.

SI: What was it like taking these risks going from one to another? Did you have mentors? Did you discuss should I be doing this? Or did you have a pretty cool faith to take that leap?

MS: You know, change is always scary. But what you find, is if you can kind of push through that initial fear, on the other side there are things that you never possibly could have imagined. And so I think it was always knowing that if I could just get through the scary part and have faith, as you said, that's a good word to use, have faith that on the other side, things may be better, they may be worse. They’re going to be different. I kind of hate to put that judgment of better or worse on it. It's just different. And I always like to have new challenges. I get a little bit bored if I stand something for too long. So that thrill of always being able to embrace something different and learn new things, meet new people. That was always what kind of brought me to the scary part.

SI: Yes. Well, I'm going to bring a couple words you've used, challenge, scary, to present day. Back in August you went on the 100 Mile bike trip. How was that?

MS: It was great. It was great. I was living my best life.

SI: Yes, but two days later?

MS: I woke up and could not find my arm in the bed. I just thought it was asleep. But then when I got up, you know, swinging like a pendulum. And I thought, all right, I'm no doctor, but something's not right. So I woke up my husband and he noticed the signs of a stroke. I was slurring my words a little bit. And I was disoriented and plus the arm. So he immediately called 9-1-1. And the ambulance came and then sort of the rest is history. It was a stroke.

SI: Yes. So what has happened between then and today?

MS: Well, kind of like those other reinventions that you talked about or that we were just talking about, It was scary, obviously, because your body is not reacting the way that you think that it should, you know, the way that it always has, and you don't know what's around the next corner. Are you going to be like this for the rest of your life? Are you getting the medical care that you should be getting? You're not a doctor. You don't know. You just have to trust and have that faith that everything's going to be OK. And in my case, I was really lucky because I landed at a mercy hospital in Muskegon. And then they coordinated with Saint Mary's in Grand Rapids. And I got the very best neurosurgeon that I could get. Ended up needing to get brain surgery, which was just that no pun intended, but kind of mind blowing, you know, that is something that I never would have imagined. And then I landed at Mary Free bed where they gave me just wonderful rehabilitative care. Met all kinds of really cool people. So, sort of the lesson that I took from it is this is not the journey I would have chosen, but this is the one that I'm on. And, you know, let's kind of make the best of it.

SI: Yes, and obviously look at your future the same way with the current rehab and obviously serving as a role model for others going through the same experience.

MS: Yeah. If you're looking for a role model or advice, it's that you have to believe that the work that you're putting in is going to help make you better. There's no guarantee, but day by day, you know, you sort of find yourself at the bottom of the hill, like poor Sisyphus. And you have to believe that doing the work that the occupational therapist, the physical therapists tell you, you're going to get a little bit further up that hill each day and that incremental progress you have to celebrate. So I have always measured my worth in life by productivity and efficiency and those are no longer my measuring sticks. I've had to reframe around that what success looks like for me and that has been a real growth opportunity, I would say

SI: Yes. Well, before we are finished, I'm going to ask you for a motto to get us up and inspire us, but let's get back to your talents. You said reframe. There is a book called Frame Shifting. What's the frame there?

MS: Correct, this is a book that I wrote with a colleague, another consultant Alison Heizer, and we both have similar consulting practices, helping clients solve problems and imagine outcomes in new ways. One of the problems that we experienced when we were working with corporate clients is that they tend to approach a problem with the same tools that they always have, and sometimes they work, but very often they don't. So, helping the client think about a challenge in a new way and maybe bring new tools to that problem solving opportunity makes a big difference in helping them move ahead. So we wrote the book Frame Shifting with the mind for corporate clients, but then I found in the stroke journey, it's very much the same thing. So in mentioning, I always measured myself by efficiency and productivity, that is a frame that helped me determine my value. But I can't use that frame anymore. And if I kept chipping away at it with that same perspective, I could get really depressed, you know, because I'm not efficient and I'm not productive. Getting dressed in the morning is a big challenge after, like you say, riding the bike for 100 miles. So I've had to reframe how I think about myself and how I think about the future. And the same methods that worked in the corporate world are actually working in my stroke journey as well, which is kind of neat. It was not my intention, but it really turned out pretty cool.

SI: Frame Shifting. Thank you for that. All right. Let's talk about it. How are the little kiddos?

MS: Well, that's another. So I mention storytelling with my family and we have a little granddaughter, Claire, Margaret, who's 4 and a half. And she comes to our farm and does all kinds of cool things that she doesn't get to do in the city. And so we started developing the stories about her adventures on the farm. And I turned that into a series of little children's books that I illustrated and wrote and then just had it bound, actually at Walgreens. And so this kind of opened up a whole new way of storytelling that's different from the corporate world, not quite so technical and a lot more fun, more whimsical. And so that kind of taps into a different part of my personality that's a lot of fun.

SI: Wonderful. All right. Let's talk cheese. Tell me about cheese making.

MS: Well, it's something that I wanted to learn how to do and decided to kind of teach myself. But the thing that was fascinating to me about it is it involves transformation. And that's always sort of been a theme in my life of reinvention and transformation. So you have this milk and you are going to make it into something completely unique and different. And it requires time, patience and a little pressure. And if that's not an analogy for life, I don't know what is. So I started to do this and then I ended up actually teaching cheese making classes because it turns out there's a lot of other crazy people like me that wanted to learn how to do it. And so I did that for a number of years. I haven't done it really recently since the stroke, because you really have to have 2 hands at the 2 handed project, but I highly recommend it. It's really interesting to do.

SI: And what about these spoiled chickens?

MS: That is our flock of little laying hens that we have at the farm. So I had the whole organic farm with beef and pork and chicken and raising all of those different animals. But as I mentioned, that's a lot of work. So I kind of downsized as I entered into my 50's. And now we're down to just a handful of little laying hands who are ridiculously spoiled. And I I love that.

SI: Did you do a lot of learning by doing as far as being a farmer?

MS: Well, you know, the thing about farming is you don't have to do everything every day, but you have to do something every day. And I kind of like that, those challenges, always learning something different. You have to be pretty resilient. The other thing that it really taught me is that you do everything in its time. So that patience aspect that I mentioned, which is not really my personality normally, as people talk about being type A, I would say A+ because I would never settle for an A. And farming really kind of settled me down and got me working in the seasons and in the cadence of time, at the natural time, not so much in the corporate time. So, it was a good opportunity to learn to do things in a new way.

SI: So this back to the challenge that you are running through now, what will keep you motivated and keep us inspired to watch you grow in rehab?

MS: Well, I must say that the encouragement that I received from friends and from family and from strangers like, you know, go girl, that really helps a lot. You know, it might sound a little bit cliche, but all those little affirmations and, you know, people are kind of watching and cheering for you. That's really helpful. Another thing about the stroke is to realize how much you're surrounded by people who really do care and stepped in and like helped us on the farm when we couldn't do the things that we normally were doing. All of that love and support really also helped to bolster the recovery. And then again, also just being okay with a little bit each day. So bringing those lessons of farming and frame shifting and all those things in life that you learned, it all applies here. If you're willing to sort of shift your frame a little bit and think about it differently.

SI: And obviously, I do ask you for a motto. What will inspire us after all is said and done?

MS: It's going to be OK. One of the things that another thing that I learned through this is I can't really think about who I was because if you go back to that, like, you know, you said took 100 mile bike ride, super active, A plus, you know, always working and doing new things and and out into the world. Now, if I think about that, I'm not her anymore. It's an opportunity for me to really, again reinvent not in the way that I necessarily would have chosen, but lots of new life experiences and people to meet and challenges to embrace with this new me and what might she become? I think looking at it from that perspective puts a positive framing on it and not a negative. So you're not diminished. You're- you're transformed. And that opens the door to many new possibilities that I would never have experienced if I had not had this stroke.

SI: Tell me about the granddaughter.

MS: She's amazing. She's a little too smart for grandma right now. She moves a lot. But one of the things that we did is we named my left arm Lucille because she was kind of afraid of grandma in this new light. You know, I can't do the things that I used to do and we would do all kinds of things around the farm. So we named her Lucille and now Claire Margaret has adopted Lucille and is very gentle with her and very understanding. She holds Lucille's hand and helps her, you know, when to go to feed the chickens. Now she is kind of the caretaker of grandma and there again, it gives her an opportunity to shine and to do new things that she would have been able to do. If I was completely able to do all the things that I used to be able to do. So, Claire and Lucille are good friends and learning all kinds of new things.

SI: Will there be another book in your future?

MS: I think definitely. I think definitely. I got to get my drawing back. That is a little bit diminished with the stroke. Some of those executive functions that I kind of took for granted before I have to re-learn those things. But it's a good opportunity for me to get back to the drawing board and bring those skills back. Again, just a little practice will eventually make perfect I hope.

SI: And I hope you get back on that bicycle as well. Thank you very much for this conversation, Mary.

MS: It was my pleasure. If you don't mind, Shelley, could I do a shout out to all my friends at Mary Free bed? The people who held that vision for me of what would be possible because when I came there. I couldn't even sit up let alone walk or use my arm and they could see, because of their experience in this field, what was possible for me and they transferred that belief to me and then showed me the exercises that I would need to do to be able to walk again and without them and without their love and support and their beautiful talent and dedication, I would not be sitting here talking with you right now. So for that, I'm very grateful.

SI: Give them a shout out.

MS: Shout out to Mary Free Bed. Thank you so much.


Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are, and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let’s Talk? Get additional interviews at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcast. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.
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