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Center for Professional Development
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Dartmouth College
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Alumni Stories: Leslie Fleming '82

Different Shades of Green by Lisa Birzen '03

Leslie Fleming had the Big Green spirit within her long before she ever set foot on the Dartmouth campus in 1978.

During her time at Dartmouth, she would further solidify her appreciation for the outdoors, learn more about herself as an artist and, ultimately, discover a way to combine these interests together on the canvas of her life.

Fleming came to the College on the Hill from the Hawaiian islands that her family has called home for several generations.  Despite the attachment and connection to her home, she says, "it was always expected that I would leave the islands for school and higher education."

When her parents offered to cover her tuition at any college, she literally "took them at their word," she says.  "I came as far away as I could – not so much from home but to a different experience."

The enormous number of backpacking and hiking opportunities, the "falling snow" and the "pretty, rural" surroundings, all captured Fleming’s attention and met her criteria for college: "a really good school in a place very, very different from Hawaii," she adds.

She had always loved nature but realized too late the difference between her native mountains and the New England landscape.  "Hawaii is much tamer than New Hampshire!" she discovered, after already having signed up for one of the advanced freshman hiking trips during her freshman fall.

In addition to the outdoors, Fleming has always had a passion for the arts as well.  Being "fortunate to go to a good high school" with a good arts program, she knew that she wanted art to remain a part of her life.

In retrospect, however, Fleming is "sure that for a fine artist, Dartmouth was not the place to go."  She remembers the Studio Art department faculty’s definition of a fine artist being much more limited than what it may have expanded to today.

"At the time, the Art department saw graphic design as selling out," she recalls.

With the help of the Center for Professional Development, Fleming secured for herself an off-term internship at an ad agency in Boston, MA, where she unexpectedly discovered "a way to combine art with other things and make a living."

After this first introduction to "applied art used in a corporate setting," Fleming was certain of the direction she wanted her career path to follow.

She hopes that despite the Studio Art faculty’s initial opinion of graphic designers, they have since realized that this new market has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for artists.

"Now, maybe the department has more open-mindedness or, certainly, more understanding" of the career possibilities, she says.

Fleming had a "good experience" going through senior-year corporate recruiting along with the rest of her class but says, "I didn’t find a position for me."  At the end of the process, she ended up refusing an offer to work as a management trainee in a chain of department stores to pursue something that would more meaningfully influence her future career plans.

After graduation, Fleming joined up with several of her friends and, at the same time, appeased her parents by moving closer to home.  Relocating to Palo Alto, CA, she went to work for Strategic Decisions Group, a management consulting firm.

She puts her job title of graphic designer in quotes because, she says, "I did what you do now in PowerPoint but by hand in the pre-computer days!"

At the same time, she took night and weekend classes, she says, "to put my portfolio in order," ultimately, obtaining a certificate in graphic design in 1984 from the University of California.

At a party with friends, Fleming got "the names of the next tier of people to contact in San Francisco’s graphic design world." As a direct result, she landed a job with Harrison Design Group, where she worked as a graphic designer and later as an Account Executive for five years.

In 1990, hired by Perrin Brew ’83, Fleming began her eight-year tenure at the renowned outdoor equipment and clothing company, The North Face.

Through this employment, Fleming reunited with Sally McCoy ‘82, whom she remembers as a "go getter and leader" even during their days at Dartmouth, when McCoy served as the Dartmouth Outing Club’s first female president of Cabin and Trail.

Infused with enthusiasm for the outdoors, McCoy went to work for The North Face and while there, "hired a bunch of her friends" into the company as well, Fleming explains.

Fleming points out that this kind of hiring practice "was not nepotism."  "You hire your friends because you know you can trust them and they have the skills you need."

"Of course," Fleming says, "we saw different sides of each other working together," but at the time, McCoy and Brew "needed someone who had the skills I possessed."

At The North Face, Fleming was happy to find a perfect match for her "unusual combination" of interest in both the outdoors and graphic design, she says.

Within this capacity, she managed both people and the graphic design process as well as doing marketing for the company.

Around 1998, The North Face and other companies experienced "major changes as the outdoor industry grew."

The outdoor industry became a mass market and due to the "high cost of living many San Francisco companies relocated and consolidated," Fleming explains.  Faced with the same predicament, Fleming chose not to relocate to Colorado with her The North Face branch.

"I maxed out what I could do there," she says.  She also, honestly admits, "I didn’t like the new leadership."

Next, Fleming seized the opportunity of the Internet phenomenon and applied her skills to the webworld as V.P. of Marketing for GearGoddess.com.

This website provided sports gear advice to female athletes and sports enthusiasts.  If a woman wanted to purchase a bicycle, for example, she would enter various parameters and the site would output a list of retailers and product options for her to consider.

In theory, Fleming agreed with the site’s founder, Lori Bamberger ’84, that this type of service was a "good idea." In reality, however, this site, like many others, "ran out of funding" and was forced to shut down.

Afterwards, Fleming moved onto Sierra Designs, a small company similar to The North Face in outdoor clothing and equipment output.  Not wanting to make any long term commitments, however, Fleming only remained there a short time.

Fleming’s next and most recent job offered her further graphic design exposure and several pleasant surprises as well.

Fresh out of the Internet crash, this time, Fleming went to work as Director of Marketing Communications at Ariat, a company Fleming describes as a ‘recession-proof’ footwear and apparel company.

Ariat manufactures footwear and clothing for the equestrian market or, more specifically, "for people who ride horses and have a lot of money," Fleming clarifies.

At Ariat, Fleming helped to launch a new apparel line by "promoting the high performance fabrics and features that it incorporated," she explains. "There were direct parallels to my marketing communications work at The North Face and Sierra Designs, albeit for a different consumer."  Having never worked with the particular attire required by the equestrian industry, she says, "it was nice to know that I can transfer my knowledge to another kind of company."

Fleming considers herself "someone who doesn’t like to have a lot of superficial friendships, but meeting many people and staying involved in their lives has certainly helped move my career forward," she points out.

She sympathizes with recent graduates and, remembering herself recently out of college, offers the following reassuring advice:

As you graduate from college, you think you don’t have any specific skills but as you move along in your career, you realize that your liberal arts degree is an asset not a liability.

"Someone with more specialization may not have the ability to work with people or be able to use both sides of their brains," she remarks.

But "a liberal arts education," she continues, "gives you broader skills."

As a fine artist, herself, she chose her particular career path for "personal interests and needs." It was the "right thing to do" for her, she says.

"I enjoyed not just creating fine art pieces but solving clients’ communication challenges" as well, she says.  "I find it’s easier to solve clients’ problems than fine arts problems such as, ‘How are you going to put paint on that blank canvas?’"

"I have the skills to work as part of a team," Fleming says, preferring to work with people as opposed to "by myself in a studio."

An active alumna, Fleming lives in San Francisco with her husband and a daughter that they recently adopted from Vietnam.  Currently, she is taking time off to care for their child but plans to return to consulting at least part time, within a year or so.

Fleming’s ultimate decision to go far from home for college helped take her career even further. 

Attending Dartmouth has "helped me get every single job I’ve ever had," she says.  She herself is surprised most of all at how well networking has paid off. 

In the end, through the joint efforts of her passions and persistence and other people’s timely help, Fleming was able to weave her varied interests together into a fulfilling and meaningful career, a feat that is nothing short of a true work of art.

Last Updated: 10/9/13