04/04/2014 08:40 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Aimee Gilbreath, Executive Director of Found Animals

Aimee Gilbreath is the Executive Director of Found Animals, a non-profit organization dedicated to animal welfare issues and reducing euthanasia in shelters.

In her role, Aimee is responsible for the development and launch of all major programs including the $75M Michelson Prize and Grants program, the innovative Adopt & Shop retail adoption model, and the Found Animals Registry, a free, nationwide pet microchip registry.She also serves as an Board Member for Spay4LA and the Spay Neuter Project of Los Angeles, which together have four clinics that provide over 30,000 subsidized surgeries to underserved communities each year.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

In my career, I have studied biology, joined the R&D team at Motorola, earned my MBA and worked as a consultant for The Boston Consultant Group. These experiences were anything but linear, which has greatly shaped the leader I am today.

Having worked in both corporate America and now a non-profit allows me to sympathize with the challenges of each business model and make better decisions on behalf of Found Animals.

My diverse background helps because even though Found Animals is a non-profit organization, there are many elements that operate much like a for-profit business and need to be run as such. One example is our Adopt & Shop centers near LA, which are helping to change people's perception of adoption because they more closely resemble retail pet stores than shelters.

How did your previous employment experience aid with your role at Found Animals Foundation?

I've gained important skills at every stage of my working life that help me in my current role at Found Animals. This includes my very first job as a hostess at a restaurant. Restaurants are fast-paced environments where customers' and co-workers' tempers run high, so I learned the soft - but extremely important - skill of communicating with others to resolve conflicts. Now, as a leader at Found Animals, I give employees the benefit of the doubt and urge open communication.

From my consulting job at BCG, I learned how to be comfortable with a fair amount of ambiguity. This has been extremely helpful at Found Animals because I joined as the first employee and there were a lot of uncertainties in the first few years.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

It's difficult! But two things that help are my dog Rufus and husband.

I've always been an overachiever, someone who puts work ahead of everything else, so making time for my social life has always been a challenge. My husband, on the other hand, is fantastic at prioritizing our personal lives, which has been a huge help in achieving something that resembles a work-life balance.

Having a pet is a great way to ensure you can carve personal time into your day. I adopted my dog, a pit bull named Rufus, while working a very demanding consulting job and immediately experienced an improvement in my schedule. That's because having pets forces you to leave the office at sane times to walk and feed them. And even though I now bring Rufus to work with me every day at our Found Animals office, I know that I can't keep him here all day and night - he needs to go home, too!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Found Animals?

The highlights and challenges at Found Animals have definitely evolved over the years. When I joined Found Animals, it was a start-up organization. The challenge then was building everything from the ground up, which was an immense responsibility. However, that was also a highlight because it was an exciting time with each day presenting a new hurdle and opportunity. Plus, I believed in our mission of saving pets' lives.

As we started growing, new challenges arose, such as how to implement systems and procedures - and how to continue growing. Now that we've expanded from 1 to 60 employees in six years, we are focused on maintaining our culture as we get larger and add more programs.

What advice can you offer women looking to make their passion a career?

My advice is to think it's possible. Then, when you have an opportunity, go for it.

When I was working as a consultant at BCG, I earned a great salary but knew it wasn't my passion. Always the animal lover, I sought other outlets to fulfill my passions and began volunteering with animals. Then, I came across the job ad for my current position at Found Animals and took a leap of faith and went for it.

Leaving a successful business career to join a fledgling non-profit organization was scary and I didn't always know how it would turn out. However, I live by a motto that I found comforting whenever doubt crept into my head: You don't make the right decision, you make the decision right.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

We operate in a male-dominated system, so inherently women face sexism in the workplace. The key for me has been figuring out how to thrive in that environment despite sexism. It's important women know when it's worth confronting the issue head on and when it's better to move forward. It's definitely a dance.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Mentors have provided me with confidence and the inspiration to succeed throughout my life. Earlier in my career, my boss at Motorola saw something in me that I didn't even know existed, which immediately instilled self-confidence in me.

Other times, the benefit was not always so apparent. I had a love-hate relationship with my boss at BCG because he was very hard on me. I now see the value in that relationship because it forced me to rise to the occasion and give my all.

Which other female leaders do you and admire and why?

Plenty, but here are a few:

• Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. I admire her not only because has she risen to the highest ranks of one of the world's largest brands, but she also came out of BCG, so I can identify with her.

• Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, author of Lean In. I earned my MBA at Stanford, and some of my former classmates have worked with Sheryl. I truly look up to her because I know she really walks the talk based on their first-hand accounts of her.

What are your hopes for the future of Found Animals Foundation?

My goal is that through the success of Found Animals, we can prove there is a place for social entrepreneurship in the pet space, and that through innovative solutions, we can improve the lives of pets.

I also want Found Animals to be a leader in raising awareness of the positive influence pets have on our lives.

Lastly, on a more personal level, I want to create and sustain a culture at Found Animals that I can be proud of.