Darby Affeldt isn’t your typical financial adviser. She spent 19 years as a practicing veterinarian and also operated her own construction company in Bothell for some 13 years, building more than 100 new homes and one veterinary hospital.
Since 2014, Darby has worked as a certified financial adviser and insurance broker for North Star Resource Group, a national company based in Minneapolis. Her financial-planning practice is focused on helping her individual and small-business clients, including veterinarians, navigate the complexities of debt management, saving, investing, retirement and estate planning, college funding and insurance.
Darby, a Colorado native who earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Colorado State University, now maintains dual residences in Seattle and Olympia. She is the mother of two and is married to a veterinarian.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated? When I think of women in leadership, no matter what the industry, three words come to mind: passion, transparency and empowerment. A passionate leader is incredibly inspiring to others and a sign that she loves what she does. Her work is to build up those around her and making a difference comes before personal gain. Passion is authentic and meaningful and breathes life into the leader’s team.
In turn, this passion sparks and empowers the people she encounters to search for and galvanize what is important to them and to reach for what they want. Leaders are rooting for others’ success, and they achieve this by operating from integrity and transparency.
Overrated may be the assumption that a leader never has doubts, fears or struggles. Everyone faces hardships and feels like giving up some days. The leader perseveres, shares that she is imperfect or has flaws, and can laugh at herself.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader? In the early 1990’s I started a construction company which was very successful, and as far as I know I was one of the first female builders in Seattle. What was so palpable was the doubt that so many succumbed to that I couldn’t possibly succeed in a “man’s” world. From subcontractors and suppliers to inspectors, nobody thought I could lead a team to build new homes. I fought the constant headwinds of doubt and so many other builders predicted I’d fail. Even women were dubious. I remember people saying, “You’re a builder? You? Are you sure you don’t work for a builder ― is that what you mean?” I was wildly successful. I stayed true to my passion.
In 2008 I lost everything in the real estate crash, not from anything I could have controlled, and it was devastating. I re-invented and endeavored to help entrepreneurs with their financial matters, and here I find myself in a male-dominated industry again. I feel those headwinds again some days, but it is not always obvious. From the industry meetings to clients, there can be comments or suggestions that this industry is best suited for men. I couldn’t disagree more and, since I believe in women in any industry, this won’t deter me.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? Stay the course, believe in your capabilities, and always work with passion and integrity. And remember that there is never any reason to step on anyone to get where you are trying to go. Support your coworkers and mentor others whenever possible. In time, others will notice, the doubters will fall away, and success will come. It may take time and patience.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you? I never met her, but I witnessed what she did, and I can’t ever forget that image she left me with. Here is what happened. I was competing in an Ironman in Canada in 2007. I crossed the finish line in 12 hours, and it’s customary to go get cleaned up and come back to support the other racers. The energy and love and support for complete strangers is unimaginably beautiful. Hundreds of worn-down racers shuffled in with the crowds on the sidelines.
Close to midnight, when the race is officially over ― and one must cross by that time to be considered an “Ironman” ― this woman who had to be in her late 70s was coming in. She randomly chose me ― our eyes met ― and the tears of utter exhaustion mixed with the deepest pride and joy that she’d made it were rolling down her face. It made me weep with happiness for someone I didn’t know and would never meet again.
I know how hard the training and the race was for me at age 39. I cannot imagine how much harder it was or what she went through to get there or to finish that night. And since then I think about her a lot when it’s hard, when I’m weary or when I am doubting if I can go on. She taught me to keep moving.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders? Work to connect with everyone you can, even if it is small, like a smile. No matter what their role or socioeconomic status might be, you could inspire them to change their life, or they could make a difference in your life.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts? It is one of the most important ways to succeed. Without networking, we miss the opportunity to connect with our community and share our human experience. While networking can feel frustrating ― where some days it seems like everyone is there to get something ― it doesn’t have to be this way. If one goes into it with a collaborative mindset, without an agenda or expectation, it opens up the possibilities of really getting to know some incredible women. I work to expand my contacts by teaching educational courses and taking people up on invitations when I sometimes feel like I’d rather get into some comfy sweatpants and watch Netflix. But there is no success there. Success will be found by connecting with others.
What would you do differently in your career? I am also a veterinarian (licensed but no longer practicing), and I work with many practice owners ― which has given rise to working with more business owners. I am fiercely passionate about women business owners, so I might have worked earlier in my career to focus there. But there is still tomorrow, right?
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon? I am an avid cyclist, so if the weather is nice, I’m on my bike. If it’s rainy, I like to write articles ― and I do a lot of speaking, so I could be building presentations. I really love what I do!
What would be the title of your autobiography? I actually started to write a satirical one when I was a builder! It isn’t finished ― the 2008 crash put a crimp in my humor. It is called, “The Contractress.” I should finish that ... the stories are stranger than fiction.
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Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.