Cammie Donaldson — 50-years-old

Executive Director of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries — Melbourne, Florida

Cammie Donaldson has been my neighbor since I was three. My parents say they remember her on a hot summer day in the early 90s shaking her malfunctioning lawnmower, swearing, and swearing that she would never mow the lawn again. She never did. Instead, she filled her yard with native plants, which after they take require little-to-no upkeep, quit her corporate job in the then cutting-edge field of software, and gradually became the executive director of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries, in the so cutting-edge that we don’t even know it’s cutting-edge yet field, of native plants.

Corporate Beginnings

img_3635Cammie’s hiring process at the Fortune 500 engineering company, Harris Corporation, took six months because she insisted on $20,000 a year, and a starting position at level 72 — Harris code for the lowest level of the engineering track.
While interviewing around in the company, Cammie said that she realized very quickly “okay, Harris is an engineering company. If you’re not an engineer, you’re shit. Basically, you’ve got to be an engineer. Now, how was I going to be an engineer?”

Cammie did not have an engineering degree. Rather, she was a recent “Technical Communications” graduate with 30 credit-hours of computer science. She worked those 30 credit hours for all they were worth, became the first woman without an engineering degree to be hired at level 72.

This was 1982, and “Harris was a terrible place for women. Most women worked as secretaries, poorly paid and badly treated” The company would have liked to put her on the administrative track in Human Resources, “a black hole for women.”  But, Cammie said, “HR was not part of the mainline function. And I even recognized that. That’s a key thing for your life: understand what is the most straightforward path to power. Focus on that. I didn’t want to become the head of Harris or anything. I just didn’t want any premature limitations.”

As for the $20,000 a year, Cammie said “I had no basis for [that figure]. But I had just spent $20,000 on my last two years of Florida Tech [Florida Institute of Technology] education, and I thought “I want that back!”

Three years later, Cammie left Harris for a small, yet successful software company. She says that she was happy at that job for three years, but stayed ten years. The money was good. The coworkers were okay.

“I see a lot of emphasis today on people having mentors,” Cammie said. “I wish that I had had a career mentor, somebody who could have given me general life strategies. Whole years went by when I should have been doing other things. I can see that in hindsight, so someone else’s hindsight would have been nice.”

Cammie’s now-husband,then-boyfriend, artist Spence Guerin, was present during our interview. When Cammie began talking about the software job, he mentioned that she wasn’t just unhappy: she came home crying every evening. “I told her to quit,” Spence said. One day, Cammie did.

The In-Between Period

Painting by Spence Guerin

Painting by Spence Guerin

“Because I burned out,” Cammie said, “I did not have a grand plan for what to do next.”

“Was that a good thing to do? Probably not. Everything you read says that you should be lined up while you’re still working, but I personally don’t see how that works. . . you’re supposed to keep your full-time job and develop a business on the side. Who does that?”

“But I had bought a house, and become more clued-in to local environmental issues, and I saw an ad for a freelance editor for a non-profit native plant magazine, and I thought “I can do that. And it will be a good opportunity for me to learn more about native plants.” And that wasn’t enough money to live on, but it was a small project.”

In this in-between period, Cammie strung together freelance positions, and she and Spence became “masters at living on nothing.” She learned to cook, used public transportation in a town where people think that public transportation doesn’t exist, and only bought clothes at thrift shops for twenty years. “The nice thing about working from home is that you don’t need this phony wardrobe to impress your colleagues, and you can wear the same thing for days, and it can be out of style,” Cammie said.

Through one of her lowly-paid freelance gigs, Cammie learned that there was money available from the state (Florida) to do native plants education. She started an after-school program in the poor neighborhood.

“[The kids] were supposed to be from around 4th grade up, but when you work in a poor neighborhood, everybody shows up or doesn’t whether you like it or not,” Cammie said. “The first graders show up and want to be part of it. They’ve got these big eyes. What do you do? We did after-school classes, planting projects, field trips. We got some of the mothers to go on field trips, which everybody swore would never happen. Lots of great things can actually happen.”

Three years later, Cammie moved the program down to Miami. Dan Austin, one of the premier ethno-biologists in Florida lead one memorable field trip. The group of high schoolers included three teens who had come from Cuba on a raft the year before.

“Dan] took us on a hike in the Fakahatchee. Now this is a swamp, and as you’re walking, you might go from ankle-deep in water to hip deep in water in one step. The water is dark, so dark that you can’t see anything. You’re surrounded by towering royal palms, and pond apple trees, and cypress trees, and maple trees, and it’s just a really glorious place, and it’s the place where a lot of really rare and endangered orchids have been stolen from.”
Painting by Spence Guerin

Painting by Spence Guerin

“It’s a fabulous swamp, and we took these kids in there, and I remember this one young girl — I wish I could remember her name, but she was from the Dominican Republic. She took my hand when we went into the water, and this was the first time that I had actually physically felt someone tremble. You read about trembling, but have you ever actually trembled? It’s hard to believe that trembling occurs. From fear. She trembled from fear. It was just such an incredible, wild environment for her. She was so scared, but she pursued with it.”

The original goal of quitting the well-paid software job was to work for, what Cammie described as, a worthy organization. She eventually found that organization in the Florida Association of Native Nurseries, or FANN.


img_3680“When you’re trying to make money yourself, you need to be always looking at, how can I expand, what else do these people need that I can do? What do they need that they don’t know they need, and need to be sold on?” Cammie said. “This little association. . . hired me initially just to do their publications, but they really needed a whole lot more. Seven years ago, I got made the executive director, so now we work much more like a real association.”

You might be wondering why Cammie identified an association of native nurseries as a worthy organization, after all, native plants are so cutting-edge that we don’t even know that they’re cutting-edge yet. I’ll fill you in: native plants are good for the environment. They don’t need fertilizer or pesticides (eliminating toxic runoff). They feed local wildlife. They interact with ecology in essential, yet still poorly-understood ways. Have you heard about the disappearance of pollinators like honey bees? One piece of the problem could be a dearth of native plants.

Yet, for all native plants do for us (example: feed pollinators, who in turn feed us), they are not a profitable industry. Neither are they supported by popular sentiment, or really any level of the U.S. government. It’s a good thing that Cammie likes a challenge.

“The thing that I like most, and that I’m most engaged with, is trying to find ways to grow this industry, and make it something where people can make a profit and sustain a business. We have demand issues, supply issues, profitability issues, maturity in the industry issues, [but most of all] we need young recruits,” Cammie said.

img_3698“[The existing native nursery owners] are exhausted. They were the pioneers. they have the arrows in their backs. They took all the hits. [People said] Your plants are weeds, your plants are shit, nobody wants to use this. . . There’s been some success, but there was this vision [in the 80s] — [native plants] make so much sense, it’s going to go gangbusters. It hasn’t yet. And meanwhile, it’s really hard work. You’re basically talking about farming, and it’s hard work. And in Florida, it’s hot hard work.”

So Misadventures readers, if decide that you want to be that young recruit, you know what you’re getting yourself into. Your work will be hard, but it will also be noble, revolutionary, and endlessly fascinating. Says Cammie, “The thing I love about my work is that I never run out of things to learn, all of which are pretty darn interesting. I’ll probably have to become an old lady that’s inept and be forced to quit.”