Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
2018 WOMEN IN BUSINESS
Executive director runs nonprofit museum as a business By Nancy Tarnai FOR THE NEWS-MINER
renda Riley had long desired a children’s museum for Fairbanks, and after her third child was born, she said, “It’s time.” In 2009, Riley wrote a onepage business plan to bring her ideas to fruition. Starting with pop-up events in 2011 and opening in a temporary space in 2013, the Fairbanks Children’s Museum has had a permanent home since Jan. 31, 2015. As a business leader in the nonprofit arena, Riley, the museum’s executive director, said her greatest success has been building an idea from an all-volunteer team into a strong organization that is making a difference in the community. “The children’s museum has long been a dream for many families in our community, and I’m proud to have been able to help make that happen,” she said. Riley, 42, is quick to add that she didn’t do this alone. “It takes a strong team to be successful,” she said. “In our case, that team consists of our board of directors who are involved in financial and policy oversight and who advocate for the importance of investing in children and our staff and volunteers who are dedicated to providing a quality product for our customers.” Born in Ketchikan and spending part of her childhood in Skagway, Riley has lived in Fairbanks for 30 years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and worked as an archaeologist for a few years. Her Brenda Rile y helped bring th years at Image Optical e Fairbanks Child Museum from an ren’s idea to a thriving gave her insight into entity. ERIC ENGM NEWS-MINER AN/ how a small business
“Lead ding a nonproffit is simply running a business works. “Leading a nonprofit is simply running a business with a social mission,” Riley said. “While for-profit business revenues benefit the owner of the business, nonprofits reinvest their revenues into the mission of their organization for the good of the community. The donors who invest in the children’s museum see their investments returned in the form of quality early childhood education, stronger families and opportunities for children. All of these returns directly benefit all Fairbanksans.” Emphasizing that the museum is not just a play place, Riley said it is also an early childhood development agency with a broad reach in the community. She cited yearly attendance at 42,000 visitors. “We occupied a vacant building, provided jobs and have an economic impact through this cultural attraction,” Riley said. “Families come to the museum and they shop and eat downtown, and out-of-town guests come, too.” Today the museum, located downtown at 302 Cushman St., employs five full-time and four part-time staff. The importance of her team can’t be overlooked, Riley said. “Happy staff; happy life,” she said. Also, listening to customers is absolutely essential to the success of any business, she said. Riley’s advice to women considering starting a business is to test your product. “We did a feasibility study,” she said. “There are great resources in town and online. Research, research, research.”
The most difficult thing about being a female business leader is learning not to take things personally, she said. “You can’t be afraid of being perceived as mean. Don’t be afraid of making a decision that’s not popular if it’s in the best interests of your business or career.” When people assume she is a volunteer at the nonprofit, she sets them straight. “A lot goes on behind the scenes; we are serious about our business and we hustle,” she said. Some of those details include insurance, regulations, payroll taxes, background checks, fundraising and marketing. “My greatest challenge at times is fighting the idea that nonprofit overhead isn’t worth funding,” Riley said. “While everybody loves the idea of a children’s museum and there are plenty of financial resources to build exhibits, often donors directly state that they don’t fund the people or the location and utilities required to have programming. As in any business, you are only as good as your frontline staff. Having the ability to retain qualified staff is key to the success of our program, and, of course, if we can’t pay our full-market lease, there would be no museum at all.” Riley deals with the stress of her job by trying to get enough rest and by reading. In the end, the rewards outweigh the challenges. “I can go in the museum and see happy kids and know that we’ve done a great job. We have a quality museum that our community enjoys.” Nancy Tarnai is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks.
Special section highlighting woman who own or manage businesses in Fairbanks, Alaska