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Holland Sanders: Making up for lost time

🕐 9 min read

Holland Sanders is a woman in a hurry because, in her mind, she started behind. Don’t get in her way.

She graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington at 27, which, she says, “especially in the Fort Worth world, is pretty old, because a lot of people here go to TCU, they get a young start. I left college feeling behind the gun.”

Last year she left her position as head of public relations and marketing at the Fort Worth Opera – now one of her clients – to form the Holland Collective, a broad-based marketing and public relations agency.

The first job after college came in 2009 at Concussion, now PAVLOV, with the help of her UT Arlington teacher and mentor Mindia Whittier. The marketplace was terrible as the nation was climbing out of near recession, and the only job available was as a media buyer. Sanders had a degree in public relations but not even a single marketing class in her college career, but the part-time job soon turned into a full-time job.

“Now I look back and it’s one of the most interesting skill sets in my arsenal because it is a rare quality,” Sanders said. “No one learns in college. You only learn on the job, and there are very few agencies in Fort Worth big enough to have an actual dedicated media planning and buying department. It just so happened that I fell into it.”

CLASSROOM NOTICE

All professors will have a handful of students who stand out for a variety of reasons and who draw extra attention.

“Holland was one of those students who it was impossible to not become her champion,” Whittier says now. “Holland was also incredibly focused not just on her academics, but her career. She pursued her interest in the arts before landing in college. And she was keenly aware of what that detour meant – her peers who had gone straight to college were already five to six years ahead of her in their professional progression.”

Whittier is a senior lecturer in public relations at UT Arlington and a strategic communications consultant. Her background includes 12 years at the Fort Worth Zoo, Concussion, the Medical Center of Arlington and the North Texas Community Foundation. Among her current consulting clients is Lena Pope.

Whittier says that if Sanders had graduated more traditionally in her early 20s, she would likely have been at supervisory or management level rather than just starting her last years of college.

“Her goal was to get to the place where she thought she should be professionally based on her age, rather than … her number of years in work experience,” Whittier said. “She sought opportunities for guidance. I could be a resource to her in that way because of my professional background, so that’s how our relationship evolved beyond the classroom.”

After two years at Concussion, Sanders wanted to do something more in line with her passion in life – storytelling, being a champion for a client. And a job at Fort Worth Opera opened. She had never heard an opera. But she was interested. And she had dreamed of being an arts major in college.

“I wanted to be a fine art photographer,” she said, but there was that timing thing again. The counselors told her that even with her credits from Tarrant County College it would take her two full years to get a bachelor’s degree. But she could graduate more quickly in public relations, and that would save both time and money.

“I had gone to a lot of theater. I had done a lot of acting when I was younger. I had performed as a dancer, but because of my social class, opera was just never in my universe. But you know, be bold,” Sanders said.

“OF COURSE, I CAN”

At the time, the Fort Worth Opera under the direction of Darren K. Woods was trying to grow its audience by reaching out to nontraditional fans among Hispanics and others. Many who work in arts management have been artists themselves, and that can create a blind spot when trying to reach other audiences.

She got the job in marketing and communications. “I was the person that said, ‘Well we might need to tell them why they need to love it.’ You know, that there’s not just this inherent love for opera. It’s usually a taught something or an evolution of loving things that are similar,” Sanders said.

“When we first hired her, it was the main decision of the current marketing director. She wanted someone who was the exact opposite of her who would enable challenging, robust discussions about the best way to market the opera,” said Woods, the former general director of the opera. “Holland had a great interview. She was forthright, friendly, knew her strengths and wanted to learn. I have always found that a willingness to learn makes for good employees.”

Nine months later, when her supervisor left the opera, Woods pulled

Sanders into his office and told her she was being considered for the top job. He asked whether she could do it.

“I said, ‘Yes. Absolutely I can do this job,’ ” Sanders said. She was just four years out of college and had never managed other people, and she was going to be head of marketing and public relations for a $4 million company, but she told Woods, “Of course I can do it.”

He agreed. “She is a natural strategist and, as I said, forthright. She believed that she could do the job and I believed she could as well. She is also incredibly friendly. She has proven to be an excellent marketing and PR director. It seemed a natural next step that she would now have her own business,” Woods said.

Sanders saw her objective as simple. “It was my mission to transform the way the outside public perceived opera, making it accessible and, honestly, making it freaking cool. Doing that through design and unique PR stories and running a team that felt really inspired by that,” Sanders said.

ATTITUDE

“The way Holland approached her personal goal is exactly the reason why she’s such a powerful asset to her clients. She’s smart, and she’s tenacious. Whatever her clients need to achieve, she’s going to pursue it doggedly until she gets it done,” Whittier said.

One of her clients is M2G Ventures, the successful real estate development company owned by twin sisters Jessica Worman and Susan Gruppi.

“They’re young. They’re female. They’re very powerful, very fearless and … they were looking for someone who was young, who could connect on a vision that they have for their properties, because it’s not just about buildings. It’s about lifestyle. It’s about bringing cool. They say that a lot. They say they want to make real estate cool,” Sanders said.

She tears up in gratitude when she talks about people such as Jonathan Morris from Fort Worth Barber Shop, who recommended her to the twins. They met, and the decision was quick.

“For lack of better words, Holland really ‘got us,’ ” Worman said. “She understood the balance between pushing the envelope and telling our story in the right way at the right time. She is passionate about what she does, as we are about what we do, and that was attractive to us. She gets who our audience is and how to communicate to them.”

HER BEST ASSET

Sanders is not what you would call arrogant, but she is also not modest.

“I think what has been my biggest defining thing is myself,” she says. “People want someone who is very honest, which I am, sometimes to a fault … that they feel like they could hang out with, that they trust, who they feel is part of their team … They want people like them.”

It all builds together. Sanders was not raised in an environment that necessarily encouraged college and there were some steps along the way that added knowledge but cost her precious time. She earned an associate degree at Tarrant County College, which she could afford, but there was no money for the next level at a four-year university. So, at 21, she moved to Los Angeles.

“I lived out there for a few years, just figuring out who I was and what I wanted and boundaries and all the things I think a lot of young people, predominantly women, don’t afford themselves the opportunity to do,” Sanders said. She did the kind of work many young people do in Los Angeles – maybe a little television, some performing, some bartending and the like.

“The norm, and really what most of the people in my family had followed and a lot of people that I’m surrounded by, would have been to get married and probably have a child. Even with or without a college education,” Sanders said. And while she wants that someday, it is not now.

She moved back to Fort Worth in her mid-20s, determined to finish her education. “I knew at that point that for what I wanted that I needed an education to do it. It took me a little while to get there,” she said. She attended UT Arlington on a scholarship based on her performance at TCC. “Then I bartended and I waited tables. I paid cash every single semester at UTA, and I only took one loan out, which was my very final semester because I was so overloaded with internships and all the things I was required to do.”

Sanders left Fort Worth Opera after its debut of the original opera JFK last year to open her own business, and the opera became her first client.

“I just wanted something more. … I want more value. I want more money. I mean, why can’t I have the financial stability that all these men and some very talented and gifted women do who are competing in a very competitive field?” she says candidly.

Whittier modeled it for her at UT Arlington. “She had a really nice balance between education and professional career,” Sanders said.

Sanders is the first woman in her family to graduate from college. She thinks she started late. But at 34 she’s catching up, and if you beat her out of the starting blocks, you better not look back, because she might be gaining on you.

Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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