Bonnie McElveen-Hunter

Class of 2013

  • Owner and CEO Pace Communications
  • Chairman American Red Cross

All we ever keep'is what we give away.

Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, the oldest of three children, was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1950. Her father was a P-51 pilot during World War II, joined the U.S. Air National Guard, served in the Korean War, and became a career Air Force pilot. He was one of only seven pilots to fly U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

When McElveen-Hunter was 18 months old, her family moved to Germany, the first of many moves throughout her youth. "We lived in so many different places that home became wherever our family was together," she says. From Germany, the McElveens moved every 18 to 24 months, living in Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, California, and Nebraska.

Her parents told her that, despite the dislocation, hardships, and loss of friends, the best was still yet to come. "My parents had an amazing attitude that they instilled in their children," she says. "They taught us that you need roots, but you also need wings. I had wings at a very early age provided by my parents, faith, positive attitude, and encouragement."

McElveen-Hunter's mother, herself one of eight children and the only person in her family to attend college, was a teacher throughout her daughter's childhood. McElveen-Hunter believes that having a working mother helped her become independent. "I actually enrolled myself in the first grade," she says. "My mother had to be in her classroom to receive her students, and I walked to school on my own, looked for my name on the door, and then found my classroom. I think my mother's faith in me gave me huge responsibility, independence, and an advantage, and today, I never feel as if I walk into a room where I am really alone."

Her parents encouraged achievement. In fact, her mother often said, "Failure is not an option, get up right now, and try again." Those pearls of wisdom, the foundation on which she has built her life, included sayings such as these: "Time is precious; use it wisely." "Mediocrity is the greatest sin." "Work is the greatest privilege." "Failure is a comma, never a period." "'˜Can't' is a word that does not exist."

McElveen-Hunter recalls, "One day, my mother had my brother and sister and me write the word '˜can't' on a piece of paper. We then placed our pieces of paper in a shoebox, and she took us out to the backyard with a shovel. We had to dig a hole and bury the shoebox. In essence, she literally made us bury the word '˜can't.' Today when I hear that something can't be done, I think about that shoebox. The word '˜can't' now serves as a red flag to me, because I know I can do whatever I set my mind to with God's help and if I'm willing to work hard enough."

From the time she was 16, McElveen-Hunter worked part time at an Omaha department store. With her savings and help from her parents, she attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. At first, she wanted to be a fashion designer. "My first assignment was to design and sew a pink polyester dress that required a group effort in my dorm to complete," she says. "That's when I decided that perhaps my skills would be better utilized in mobilizing others toward a common goal." She quickly changed her major to business.

McElveen-Hunter was in a hurry to graduate because she did not want to be a burden on her parents. She graduated in three years and began working for Bank of America. In 1972, at the age of 22, she moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, to start Pace, the in-flight magazine of Piedmont Airlines. "I wasn't intimidated to launch a magazine when I had very little experience in publishing," she recalls. "I was young and didn't know what I didn't know. That's a fabulous place to be, because it makes you willing to take risks."

In 1983, Pace Communications was spun off from the parent company that had been backing McElveen-Hunter's work, and she was able to purchase one-third of the stock. Eventually, she bought out all remaining stockholders.

Pace became the nation's largest independent content marketing company. Its clients have included Verizon, Wells Fargo, USAA, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Southwest Airlines, and Wal-Mart. Working Woman magazine ranked McElveen-Hunter as one of the nation's most successful female entrepreneurs and Pace as one of the top women-owned businesses in America.

McElveen-Hunter then brought her leadership skills into the public sector. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed her U.S. ambassador to Finland, a post she held until 2003. While there, she led several successful initiatives, including the Stop Child Trafficking: End Modern-Day Slavery and the Women Business Leaders Summit that was in Helsinki in 2002 and was for women from the Baltic states and Russia. For her outstanding services, the president of Finland awarded her one of the country's highest honors, the Commander Grand Cross of the Order of the Lion.

"One thing I learned as ambassador to Finland is that our can-do attitude is uniquely American," says McElveen-Hunter. "When we encounter failure, we see an opportunity to learn, to grow, and reinvent. The most special characteristic of America is our confidence, hope, and faith in the future. I believe faith still plays a huge role in America, when you know that you never walk alone, you are encouraged, empowered, and uplifted. And when you know your mission in life is to be a good and faithful servant, you realize faith, tenacity, and hard work usually result in things turning out positively."

In 2004, McElveen-Hunter became the first female chairman of the American Red Cross. She led the organization through some of the world's worst natural disasters, including the Asian tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. That job took her around the world, from the refugee camps of Darfur to Haiti in the aftermath of that country's 2010 earthquake.

"One thing I believe is that all we ever keep is what we give away," said McElveen-Hunter, who has also served on the boards of Habitat for Humanity and United Way. "These were life-altering experiences for me. I may not have changed all of the places I have served, but all of these experiences have changed me."

Honored by her Horatio Alger Award, McElveen-Hunter says, "I feel as if Horatio Alger is part of my family." She adds that she believes in the Association and all that it stands for. "I am in awe of the Scholars and all they have accomplished in spite of their challenges," she says. "This award is an amazing privilege and an opportunity to continue to be inspired by and share encouragement with our greatest hope for the future, the Scholars. Giving of themselves and volunteering is one way they can do that."