How did Julie Castle ascend from ‘proverbial mailroom’ to Best Friends’ CEO? By bucking the system. – St George News

ST. GEORGE – As CEO of Best Friends Animal Society, Julie Castle runs one of the best-known animal welfare organizations in the United States. She led the nationwide “No-Kill by 2025” campaign while working at the country’s largest no-kill sanctuary in Kanab — but she didn’t start at the top.

Best Friends Animal Society executive director Julie Castle with her adopted dog Sunny, date and location not given | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

After graduating from Southern Utah University, where she majored in history and political science with a communications minor, Castle pursued a law career and completed two internships in Washington, DC

Before leaving for law school at the University of Virginia, Castle and her friends made “one last trip” to Mexico, where they were running out of money.

“We had just enough for a candy bar and gas to get home,” she said. “And we were in my 1979 Dodge Colt, which I had so many crashes in that each plate was a different color — so it was a prize.”

On the way to Salt Lake City, Castle’s friend asked the group to stop at an animal shelter in southern Utah.

“None of us wanted to,” Castle said. “Eventually we gave in and drove into this spectacular red rock canyon that would be a national park in any other state and I was just blown away by the beauty of the place.”

The group toured the sanctuary and learned about Best Friends’ no-kill movement, Castle said.

“It was a simple question,” she said. “‘Why do we kill our best friends? Why don’t we work to save her?”

Best Friends Animal Society CEO Julie Castle welcomes Bella, a three-legged Michigan dog, to Dogtown in the organization’s sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, date not set | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

Before visiting the shelter, Castle said she’d only been to the Enoch City shelter, which is a “tin shed next to the dump.”

“When I first visited there, I wanted to adopt a cat,” she said. “And when I entered the shelter, all the cages were empty and the animals had been disposed of earlier in the morning. And when I put that experience together with my experience when I came to Best Friends, I thought, “Well, that’s what I want to do.”

“So I called my father from a phone booth here in Kanab and said, ‘I’m not going to law school. I’m going to move to Kanab and work at an animal shelter.” And that was 26 years ago.”

Castle said she was “employee number 17,” and her first paycheck was $183 for two weeks of work. She lived in her van and showered at the local gym until she found an apartment.

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“It’s one of those stories that got me started in the proverbial mailroom,” she said. “And I’ve done basically every job in the organization except HR — I’ve never done that. And now I’m CEO and it’s a really great honor.”

Seeing every aspect of the organization, including operations, administration and animal welfare, prepared them to “approach work from a 360-degree perspective,” Castle said, adding that it was important for Best to have a leader who “who was there from the beginning”. Also the culture of friends.

Julie Castle helps employees prepare a pet food pantry at the Best Friends Lifesaving Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, date not given | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

“When we started, we were 17 employees,” she said. “We were a $100,000 company – now we’re worth $130 million and have 850 employees across the country. And so it was really rewarding to have a front row seat to all of the incredible work being done to save lives.”

As CEO, Castle said that one of her greatest responsibilities is to the employees of Best Friends and that when they are analyzed, it “really matters to the people who have raised their hand to join the cause.”

“As an employer, I think it’s very important that you recognize that and realize that people spend most of their waking life on a job,” she said. “And so it should be one of the greatest experiences they’ve ever had. I truly believe that if you treat them the way you would like to be treated, people will show up every day and do their best.”

to be a leader

While the most challenging aspect of her job is “not enough hours in the day,” Castle said she faced unique challenges as a woman in leadership positions.

“At the end of the day, we’re still in a patriarchal society,” she said, adding that she recently read statistics showing that there are more men with the same first name than female CEOs. For example, a 2020 report found that in the S&P 500, more men named Michael or James were CEOs than women.

Julie Castle accepts a 2022 Top Work Places Award for Best Friends Animal Society in Salt Lake City, Utah, date not given | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

Castle said female leaders are “unique” as they are more likely to work collaboratively.

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“And I think every woman you study attests to that. And I think it’s a very underrated quality because I think we’re stronger together,” she said.

Women are “well placed to do a lot of good in this world,” Castle said, adding that she thinks “we’re only seeing the first wave of it.”

“But it’s a challenge,” she said. “You know, there are a lot of firsts for Best Friends and myself as a female CEO, and I think it’s a path that I absolutely enjoy and long for – to be able to work that out on – that gets me in the game. I’m ready to go.”

Castle’s advice to young women interested in leadership is, “Don’t be put off by someone else telling you you can’t do something.”

“Defeating the system; thinking differently about how you want to approach your life,” she said. “There’s such a thing as being a professional and being a mom. There’s such a thing as making a career and changing the world . Just because men have been at the helm and in the driver’s seat for millennia — women are the ones who do the work behind the scenes. Why not be in front of the scenes and get the job done?”

animal welfare

Castle said she is most proud of “being part of a journey that is much bigger” than herself.

Julie Castle and a staff member interact with a kitten at the Best Friends Lifesaving Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, date not given | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

“I look all over the country, and I look at all the big charities out there and great nonprofits — most of them don’t have a cure,” she said. “You don’t have a solution, but we do.”

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the “heart and soul” of the nonprofit, broke ground in 1984, Castle said.

“Our entire mission is to bring about a time when there are no more homeless pets,” she said. “Our current goal is to end the killing of dogs and cats in America’s shelters by 2025.”

When Castle first started working at Best Friends in the early 1990s, millions of cats and dogs a year were being euthanized “because they didn’t have a safe place to call home,” according to a press release from the nonprofit to St. George news.

“However, after four years with Castle as Best Friends’ first female CEO, that number has dropped to 355,000,” the press release reads. “While that’s inspiring, she won’t be satisfied until it’s zero.”

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To that end, Castle led the creation of “the most comprehensive national data on protected animals available,” which Best Friends says represents approximately 93% of the country’s cats and dogs.

“This has brought animal welfare out of the dark and provided a tangible way to get resources to the areas that need them most,” the release said.

Best Friends Animal Society CEO Julie Castle hugs employee Jaimi Haig at the 2022 Top Work Places Awards in Salt Lake City, Utah, date not given | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

Castle founded the Best Friends Network, which is made up of public and private animal shelters, rescue groups and other animal welfare organizations across the United States and provides them with professional resources and mentoring opportunities, according to the press release.

The CEO also launched the Best Friends Shelter collaboration program, which connects mentors from no-kill shelters with peers who haven’t yet achieved this goal.

Additionally, the nonprofit organization, led by Castle, has partnered with Southern Utah University to create the nation’s “first university-sponsored leadership program in animal services,” the release said.

“Students can join the next generation of leaders implementing the lifesaving programs, policies and practices to achieve and sustain cat and dog killing nationwide,” according to the nonprofit.

Castle said she invites the public to visit the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, which she describes as “unique in this world” and encourages individuals to adopt pets.

“There are animals in shelters across the country that would love to be a part of your family,” she said. “And they bring so much joy and selflessness and nonjudgment into our lives.”

More information about Best Friends Animal Society can be found here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, All Rights Reserved.

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