Storytelling as a Vocation and Occupation

Bethel MBA graduate Hillery Smith Shay GS’11 has made a career of doing what she loves: storytelling. She began in photojournalism, transitioned to healthcare communications, and in April 2021, she became the vice president of marketing and communications at Children’s Minnesota—and she says this is exactly where she feels called to be.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, content specialist

August 12, 2021 | 9 a.m.

Bethel University MBA graduate Hillery Smith Shay GS'11

Hillery Smith Shay GS'11

During September of her senior year of college, Hillery Smith Shay GS’11 left an informational meeting with the promise of a full-time position upon graduation in May 1995. The executive editor of the Baltimore Sun, who she met through her school’s alumni network, recognized her skill for storytelling through photography and offered her a two-year internship. This led to a career of storytelling—and storytelling, Shay says, is a common thread throughout all she does.

Shay’s internship at the Baltimore Sun led to a three-year photography stint at the Fort Worth Star Telegram; afterward, she moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Associated Press. During her time in D.C., she covered the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and after three years there, she moved to Miami, Florida, where her work for the Associated Press continued. 

In 2005, Shay moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where she was the deputy director of photography at the Pioneer Press. Soon, she was promoted to senior editor and director of photography. “As I tell the story of how I got to where I am, I can so clearly see the thread of every story I’ve told, and how it’s led to the next story,” Shay says. And the next story is what led her to Bethel University.

“I loved the fact that my professors were real CEOs and C-suite executives. The design of Bethel’s MBA program is impeccable.”

— Hillery Smith Shay GS'11

It was 2009, and newspapers across the nation were floundering to figure out how to get compensation for the content that readers were now able to find for free on the internet. As a result, the Pioneer Press, like many other news organizations, faced several rounds of layoffs. Shay grew as a leader while she walked with her team through an unprecedented season in the newspaper industry. “I was only 35 years old,” she says. “And I started to feel that it was time for a new career.”

That realization led her to pursue her MBA at Bethel. While the program is offered online, she opted for the in-person experience. “I knew I needed to be in a classroom. I needed that camaraderie, that motivation,” she says. Even 10 years after graduation, Shay stays connected with her classmates on social media, and she consults them when facing large business decisions. “It’s like having a personal board of directors.”

In addition to the relationships she formed, Shay says another thing that she appreciated about the program was its experienced faculty. “I loved the fact that my professors were real CEOs and C-suite executives,” she says. “The design of the program is impeccable.” 

Shay graduated from Bethel’s MBA program in December 2011, and soon after began a career in marketing at HealthEast, a healthcare organization that supported Shay’s family while her mother was in hospice care for six months at her family’s home. “They took such good care of my mom. They were there for us for everything, too, and went above and beyond for hospice care,” Shay says. 

Shay and her husband, Jeff, have a daughter who was one year old at the time, and Shay found the hospice staff to be very considerate of this unique season in their home, where one life was coming to an end as another was beginning. “It felt purposeful that my first job out of graduate school was at HealthEast,” she says. “As their manager of brand services, I got to share their story.” 

Photo of Bethel University MBA graduate with Hillery Smith Shay GS'11 with her family

Hillery Smith Shay GS'11 with her family.

In 2014, Shay took a job at St. Jude Medical where she found similar purpose due to the organization’s recent purchase of a company called CardioMEMS, which produces a pulmonary heart monitor for patients with congestive heart failure. “If my mom had CardioMEMS, she might have lived to see my daughter walk,” Shay says. “I knew I had to help the people who were creating this thing tell their story, because it was literally going to save someone else’s mom and allow them to stay around long enough to be a grandma.”

St. Jude Medical was acquired by Abbott in 2017, where Shay continued to serve in marketing and communications related roles. She led creative teams, and whether it was through words or design, she worked to share true and powerful stories that would resonate with their audiences.

Shay’s work for Abbott had her traveling a majority of the time, even into 2020. Then the pandemic hit, followed by the death of George Floyd, which caused her to reconsider her role. Shay was waiting to board a plane to Austin, Texas when it struck her: “I feel like I’m supposed to be telling the story of how we as Minnesota get through the heavy nature of what the death of George Floyd amplifies,” she thought. 

In April 2021, Shay accepted the position of vice president of communications and marketing at Children’s Minnesota, an organization that directly serves a community situated 12 blocks from where George Floyd died. According to Shay, Children’s Minnesota prioritized equity and inclusion work well before the death of George Floyd, and the organization remains committed to assessing and addressing its blindpots in the aftermath. There is still much work to be done, Shay says, but Children’s Minnesota is committed to action.

“Children’s Minnesota has one of the most diverse executive leadership teams I’ve seen in my life,” Shay says, adding that 57% of the population that the organization serves are composed of children and families of color. “We’re truly representing the people we’re here to help.” 

“We are really representing the population of this community in a way that no other health system is, and I am so happy to be part of that. That’s the story that I need to now tell.”

— Hillery Smith Shay GS'11

In her new role, Shay leads a team of 35 people, and she’s actively recruiting and hiring more. She considers it her responsibility to help people understand that Children’s Minnesota is committed to its mission and that it’s time to redesign healthcare in a way that builds a better, more equitable future. 

“This is an organization that hasn’t just said the right things post-George Floyd. They have actively done something to change. They’ve said we’ve got to do better. Our kids need us to do better.” In recent years, Children’s Minnesota has further diversified its board of directors, its foundation, and its executive leadership teams. “We are really representing the population of this community in a way that no other health system is, and I am so happy to be part of that. That’s the story that I now need to tell. We’re walking the walk—not just talking the talk.”

At this point in her life, Shay feels her vocation and occupation are aligned. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” she says. “I’m just supposed to help people talk with each other better. We need understanding, and we need people to come to the table and talk instead of running away. I feel that that’s my calling, and it just so happens to be my occupation, too.”

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