Elise (Smith '83) Mitchell | Journalism and Mass Communication
Elise Mitchell could have gone to college close to her southern Illinois home. But then she wouldn’t have found herself doing other people’s laundry on a recent Friday night.
Mitchell chose to follow her older brother to ACU instead, turning her public relations degree into a career that now sees her in charge of her own company, serving clients as large as Walmart, Hilton Hotels and Tyson Foods.
I was very fortunate to have mentors in my life who told me I could build an agency of my own some day. There's no ideal time to become an entrepreneur. You do it when the opportunity presents itself.
But Mitchell says it was her decision to help fund the new Morris & Mitchell student-run advertising and public relations agency at ACU that changed her life and sparked a project that led her to a Fayetteville, Ark., coin-operated laundromat.
"A lot has happened as the result of that giving experience," Elise (Smith '83) Mitchell says. "Being a giver is such a priceless experience. … I decided we needed to give our employees a chance to be givers on the agency's time and our dime. Just go and experience the joy of giving."
Calling the program Ignite, the agency divided the 60 employees into teams, gave them cash-filled envelopes and told them to give it away before the end of the day, then return and share their stories.
While Mitchell's team spent the night feeding coin-operated washers and dryers and talking to the laundromat's patrons, others visited hospitals or swooped in to pay for baskets of groceries at checkout lines.
"When the teams told about the amazing experiences they had, there wasn't a dry eye in the house," she said.
Commitment to excellence
Mitchell, a 2011 Distinguished Alumni Citation recipient, has built her career and her values on the principles she learned at ACU.
Growing up in Illinois, she assumed she would attend the University of Illinois, but when she visited her brother's campus in Abilene, she was won over by its friendliness.
"It was the people," she said, "and that's what you choose a university for."
It was 1978, and Mitchell, having chosen public relations as her prospective major, was also impressed with the brand new Don H. Morris Center, home for the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication.
"I just couldn't believe a small school like this would have the technology, the facilities and the commitment to the degree plan ACU had," she said. "When my parents dropped me off for student orientation, I never looked back. I never wanted to be anywhere else."
Graduating in 1983, Mitchell said she "was exceptionally well prepared for my field" and immediately found a job working for a public relations firm in Nashville. There she met her husband, Raye Mitchell, and they moved to Memphis in 1987 so he could begin medical school.
By the mid 1990s, the couple was ready to move and looked at opportunities across the country. Raye argued they should move to Fayetteville, Ark., which at the time was a small market anchored by the nearby headquarters of the booming Walmart chain.
"We had a lot of options, but Northwest Arkansas was where Raye wanted to go," she said. "I wish I could say I had this vision of the area growing into this major commercial center it is today, but I didn't have the vision; Raye did. He said, 'It's going to be a wonderful place to raise a family and a wonderful place for your career.'"
'Never … the same again'
In 1995, Mitchell formed her own agency.
"I was very fortunate to have mentors in my life who told me I could build an agency of my own some day," she said. "There's no ideal time to become an entrepreneur. You do it when the opportunity presents itself."
Three years later, Mitchell's big break came when a friend of hers who worked for Walmart asked for her resume to pass along inside the company. Not long after, she received a call from someone working in corporate communications at Walmart.
"He had seen the resume on someone's desk," she said, and he wanted to have lunch. Soon after, she was hired as a consultant for the retailer.
In the 13 years since, Mitchell Communications Group has expanded its work with Walmart across the company, added J.B. Hunt as a client in 2000, Tyson Foods in 2003, and Sam's Club, Hilton Hotels and Procter & Gamble in recent years. Today the company employs 60 people and has more than $10 million in gross revenue.
In 2010, as the JMC Department finalized plans for a new student-run advertising and public relations agency - a laboratory setting providing the kind of experience for advertising and public relations students that The Optimist and JMC Network provide for student journalists - department chair Dr. Cheryl (Mann '76) Bacon, a graduate assistant in the department when Mitchell was a student there, called to ask for help with the funding.
"The thought that my alma mater - where I sat in those classrooms and learned how to be a professional - was doing this innovative thing, I didn't hesitate," said Mitchell, who gave a major gift to the project. "I absolutely knew it was the right thing to do."
She didn't expect, however, that students would vote to include her in the agency's name alongside former ACU President and building namesake Don H. Morris.
"The entire experience was so moving," she said. "It changed me. If it's a meaningful gift for you to give, the amount of money doesn't matter because you get tenfold in return. You'll never be the same again."
While on campus for the dedication of Morris and Mitchell, she sat in her old Chapel seat in Moody Coliseum, visited her freshman room in Nelson Hall and ate in the Bean again.
"Being back on campus was a bit like coming home for me," she said. "I can't repay this institution for what it did for me. It's where I found myself spiritually, personally and professionally. I told Cheryl, 'It's my honor to give. Consider this a small down payment on a debt I will try to repay over a lifetime.'"