Cathy David – Inspired Leadership Initiative

Originally publish in the ILI Newsletter March 2020

Cathy David moved to South Bend (for the second time) about six months ago. She had some friends in the area but has made plenty more and also met with plenty of students. She has visited local museums, taken in theatre, hiked state parks, and could give a restaurant suggestion for whatever your taste. All this, while tackling the University of Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI) coursework and programming.

It’s David’s enchantment with the world around her—wherever she might be—that has buoyed her successful career and fulfilling life.

“I love trying to understand how people live and think and what their lives look like as a whole, she says, “So I have worked mostly in consumer products and the home industry. I am fascinated by people and ideas and possibilities.”

Surrounded by accounting professionals in her family, David says she was “born a business major.” She serendipitously wound up at Notre Dame after a high school boyfriend introduced her to the school, and she discovered its prestige in this field. She was also born a leader, and while she earned a marketing degree from ND, she served as president of her residence hall and student body vice president.

Graduating with three job offers, she spent the summer in Japan teaching children English and then started her career in California with Gallo Winery.

“My goal from early in my career has been to be happy, to be challenged, and to make a difference,” she says, and while she was at Gallo and later at Target, she continued to serve Notre Dame as the young alumni member of the Mendoza College of Business Advisory Council and Board of Trustees.

Since then, she has lived in eight different states—some multiple times—packing up “for school, for work, and for love.”

One move for school came after her time at Gallo. Planning to pivot her career toward international brand management and eventually move overseas, David enrolled in Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She earned an MBA focused on international relations and added organizational behavior because it interested her.

She also took her next job because it interested her—a lesson in following your instincts.

“I went to work for a really small company that had 300 stores based in the Midwest called Target,” she says, recognizing the irony. “There was something about the company. I thought it was fascinating.”

Believing that the more you know about a business from end to end, the more effective you can be, David was a buyer and asked for a field assignment. She worked in a store and then returned to HQ and the Merchandising team. As part of her role, she participated in campus recruiting and established the relationship between Notre Dame and Target. And when the Internet came along, and Target had not yet committed to the technology, she planned to find a new company where she could work in the e-commerce space. Instead, they asked her to stay and help launch the new venture. She became one of the first employees of, ultimately rising to vice-president and general manager.

Thirsty for new adventures, David moved to new businesses and new corners of the country. She was president of a frame company in Austin, Texas, then she went to the Great Indoors, then Kirkland’s, and then she moved to small-town Tennessee, bought a restaurant, and raced and raised thoroughbred horses (her husband’s passion).

Most recently, she retired from Pier One as chief merchant—a perfect fit role that took her around the world studying people and seeking out interesting products. She still makes her home in the company’s home of Fort Worth. It was during this last phase, and in a brief period of time, that David became both a widow and a breast cancer “overcomer” (her word, which suits her better than “survivor”). These hardships weigh on David, but they do not weigh her down. She has kept her wide-eyed captivation with the world and the people in it. She is cheerful and hopeful and grateful. She would tell you that other people have faced far worse.

It was with this mindset, she decided to take a break when she left Pier One.

“I was new to not-employed, and I wanted to take a gap year. I spent a lot of time traveling and visiting family and friends—being present and with people I hadn’t been able to connect with due to the busyness of life. I was able to do some hands-on work with charities I have supported financially, such as sorting donations at the food pantry and delivering Meals on Wheels to clients.”

But in time, this amazing freedom felt less and less so.

“When everything’s possible,” David says, “It’s almost paralyzing. It’s hard to focus on what matters most. At the time I was 55, and I am going to live to be 104, and I felt like I should have a little more purpose in terms of what was important to me.”

Still connected to her alma mater through various roles, including Hesburgh Women of Impact and the Undergraduate Experience Advisory Council, David heard about the ILI program and was invited to attend a Discovery Weekend. But she wasn’t convinced.

“Then three friends each sent me notes about the program, and said this is for you,” she recalls. “These were people who knew me, and had a good sense for me, and were people I really respected.”

Feeling like this might be a “God wink,” David was compelled to at least attend an ILI Discovery Weekend. She did so—with a list of reasons why enrolling wasn’t a good idea—but she left committed to applying.

“It was one of those things where suddenly I really thought it was the next right thing,” she says.

And halfway through her time in the program, she can confirm it was.

“I love asking questions, exploring options, being part of the University, being in classes, and having relationships with students and professors,” she says. “And I am fortunate to have some great friends outside of the program and inside the program.”

As such, David may already be playing a role in “God winks” for future fellows.

“When people find out about the program, they see the incredible value in the experience and want to be a part of the program when the time is right for them,” she says.

David believes the ILI will flourish and more and more people will be continuing their education or retiring to college communities, like her current hometowns of South Bend and Fort Worth.

They would be lucky to know David. She could offer unparalleled advice on any activity and invaluable friendship on any adventure.