It’s possible to have a 45-minute conversation with Proforma (PPAI 196835, D13) Chief Executive Officer Vera Muzzillo and Chief Marketing Officer Billie Jo Mathusek that never gets around to the business of promotional products.
They’re happy to go much deeper, focusing instead on the meaning and purpose behind the company, and their goal for it to create positive change in the world.The Ohio-based distributor’s give-back initiatives include a recently announced collaboration with an organization working to empower women in Uganda with the means and training to be self-sufficient.
It’s a cause with meaning for both women, who have their share of experience navigating historically male-dominated fields. Muzzillo started her career over three decades ago at a bank just two years after women were officially allowed to enter the bank’s boardroom, and then went on to work in Detroit’s auto industry Man or woman in business, there are decisions to be made. There are problems to solve. There are future dynamics the entire company will want to stay ahead of.
But to hear Muzzillo tell it, while these decisions are important, they are not the most important.
“We’re just a small cog on this earth,” Muzzillo says.
The Proforma CEO further explains that business ownership is one of the biggest dreams in America, and Proforma enables that dream for its distributors. But, she says, that extends to making the world a better place. “When you die, you don’t take anything with you,” Muzzillo says of business leadership. “You’re just a steward.”
And so, Profroma has donated to Threads of Hope, a non-profit dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty in developing countries. The organization creates an 18-month program that provides women across Uganda with sewing machines and the education to open their own businesses. It’s not the only charitable organization they have worked with recently. Some of Proforma’s hands-on partnerships have included Children Across Borders and Joshua House to aid underprivileged children and LAMPLighters to support homeless communities in Tampa.
But the company doesn’t see these organizations as just the recipients of one-time donations or seasonal fundraisers. It was Mathusek who found Threads of Hope through a local association she participates in near Milwaukee, where she is based. As she learned more about programs that bring educators to poverty-stricken countries, she brought the idea to Proforma, knowing the company had the power and drive to assist. It’s something that she says Muzzillo encourages in all employees. “She keeps it wide open for anybody in relation to finding their niche, finding their place, to donate on Proforma’s behalf,” Mathusek says.
The women say the culture at Proforma, doesn’t just encourage deciding who the company can help, it encourages the extra step: How can it help, and why is the company suited to help? Mathusek, inspired by the women Threads of Hope empowers, immediately made those connections in her head.
“Giving finances to buy equipment and new sewing machines is just the first step,” Mathusek says of what a donation can accomplish, before thinking aloud about the possibilities beyond that. “These women produce product, you know?We in the promotional products world could utilize this opportunity to even go a little bit further and purchase or do something where we can market their products.”
That kind of forward thinking beyond gestures is a quality that Muzzillo and Mathusek share, one that is an asset to their company, but also a necessity to their success. Both occupy high-level company-defining positions at Proforma, something that is, unfortunately, not yet the norm for women in just about any industry. Muzzillo understands that the basic gestures toward helping women are certainly welcome, but it takes critically thinking through the problems, big and small, sudden or accumulative, that women face to really create an environment where they can thrive in the workplace.
The Proforma CEO had a potentially surprising response when asked about what companies can do to improve workplace environments for women: Implementing generous paternal leave.
“I think women are very much called upon to shoulder a lot of additional responsibilities,” Muzzillo says.“Whether It’s responsibilities bridging the gap between home and work, sometimes they have to multitask more.They feel a little bit more guilt, in terms of letting go of some of the responsibilities at home.”
All of what Muzzillo gets into when it comes to these topic has crossed her mind before. And yet it’s never rehearsed. The things that she wants Proforma to stand for involve issues that are arguably much more complicated than what the company excels at from a business standpoint. It’s a good thing that she’s thinking about them, because everything trickles down from there.
“I can tell you this,” she says.“Our employees know at Proforma that Proforma is a company that's about things that are bigger than ourselves.”