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Interview: Abby Paige Fenton

Interview: Abby Paige Fenton

Tell us a bit about yourself: how would you describe yourself and your life in a quick snapshot?

Girl about town comes to mind – I’m a ridiculous extrovert and a connector by nature.

I grew up in Western Massachusetts. I loved Massachusetts, though I grew up as far away from Boston as you can get. New York was my city, not Boston. I lived there all my life, I went to all-girls schools, and I ended up at Kenyon College. Kenyon is definitely part of my personality and who I am, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the years doing alumni work with them.

After college, I ended up in Baltimore doing theatre work. I decided that I didn’t want to perform, but that I wanted to work in the theatre community and choose the support route – it was something a bit more stable than a lot of theatre jobs. I worked in fundraising and development at Center Stage, and it turned out that I was strangely good at capital campaigns. I worked on a campaign there raising $12M, and then ended up finding a job at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in DC based on my performance at Center Stage. I became Woolly’s Development Director at a really young age; I was rising $7M for a capital campaign at 25 years old, which was a crazy responsibility for someone so young. I thank my lucky stars they took the chance on me. I was there for six and a half years, and then did a tiny stint at the DC Chamber of Commerce before I landed in TV at DC’s local ABC affiliate.

One thing that strikes me about all of my roles is that they were about connection: knowing people and serendipity. Being in the right place at the right time feels like part of my trajectory.

I worked there for seven years. It was a great job; I was helping people in a different kind of way, connecting my community to the media. After a number of years, I started to feel like I wanted to be in a role where I could make a direct impact at an organization again. I had coffee with a friend who asked, “What do you want to do next?” I said that I wanted to work in one place, doing development and communications in a really comprehensive way. She introduced me to my now-boss, with whom I had a very long lunch. And now I’m Chief External Affairs Officer at Whitman Walker Health!

  

If you had to describe yourself using three adjectives, what would they be?

Happy, outgoing, and thoughtful.

 

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was really young, like four, I told my mom I wanted to be a cocktail waitress and a part-time brain surgeon. That’s what I wanted.

 

What was your very first job?

I was the caboose of a trail riding expedition. I was an avid horseback rider growing up, and the stables where I trained had summer trail rides, so at 13 I was the caboose – the very end of the trail ride.

 

What do you do to occupy your time: work, family, community?

I have a really adorable rescue dog that I spend a lot of time with. I recently lost my delightful canine creature Tony, who was with me for 12 years, and I knew myself well enough that I needed to get back in the saddle again. Rico – my new rescue dog – wakes me up at 6am by slamming his bone on the ground.

Office life is busy – I run three different departments – and I have a team of eight amazing staffers, so it’s a lot of sort of stage management. There are always balls in the air and things to get done.

I also walk to work and home most days, which has been such a great thing. At night, I’m either home with Rico watching bad TV and reading or I’m out with friends. I love good restaurants, I love food. I do have a lot of events in the evenings, but less so than when I was in TV.

  

What are the hardest decisions you’ve had to make? 

Probably two things: letting my dog go and then decisions related to relationships.

Putting my dog to sleep was a really, really hard decision. It was something I never thought I would have to handle. It felt very adult.

Those other decisions come with relationships. I’m someone who will only be in a relationship that’s worth being in, so I’m often single because I won’t put up with it. The hard decisions are when you are finally with someone and you realize that, long-term, this isn’t the person you want to be with and you have to say goodbye to them. For me, it takes so long to find someone worth putting into my life, someone who is worthy of my friends and acquaintances. Recently, I was with someone for two years and, when we broke up, my decision to not be friends with him afterwards was hard. He had two daughters, one of whom I became really close to, so letting go of him meant that I had to let go of this really delightful 11-year old, too. 

It was a hard decision, but the right decision.

  

Tell us about any mentors or figures that are crucial to how you see the world or what you’ve chosen to do.

I have a lot. One of my mentors who I still speak to now is my American Studies professor from college; he was the person that really taught me about the world and brought me new perspectives about people and places using artifacts of history. Peter Coleman and Marilyn Powell at Center Stage absolutely shaped my career.

But my biggest mentor is really my mom. My mother and I, because my parents divorced when I was young, were really roommates and best friends and mother and daughter. She sacrificed a lot, always put me first, and taught me a lot about respect and dignity.

Someone once gave me a piece of advice: always enter every conversation thinking about the other person, not yourself. That’s how I try to live my life. People won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. My mom embodies that and I try to embody that. You end up a much better active listener.

 

What do you consider to be your greatest success thus far? 

I actually think there have been so many joyous moments that feel like success to me, maybe because, for someone who is 42 years old, I feel like I’ve lived a lot of different lives.

And then there’s also a lot of personal stuff – you would hurt me the most if you told me I was a bad friend. So I’m so lucky and fortunate to have a wide array of friends for whom I have a deep affection. What makes me happy? Being happy with the people around me. That’s a huge success: having people that I have great relationships with. I’m still close to people I worked with years ago.

But it’s something people don’t think about – it’s not a “success” success.

I produced a feature film at one point, and people still watch it, so that’s exciting. It’s so hard to pick just one!

  

What has been your greatest failure and what did you learn from it?

I try not to dwell on the failures. I’m definitely a glass-half-full person. I try not to live my life with a lot of regret.

I don’t know if it’s a failure, but I’d love to spend my life with someone. But I tend to not spend as much time working on that – my romantic life – as other things, and while I’m not sure that’s a failure, it’s definitely something I’m cognizant of. I guess I’ve learned that I have to force myself to be more available in that way. I’m using a stupid dating app and it’s not going well, but I’m on it. I force myself to do it. You have to get that mojo back. You have to work on it.

Over time, with the relationships I have had, I’ve realized how important it is to be your true self and stick up for yourself.

  

Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years? 

I love my job so much, I feel like I could be here in ten years and that would be totally fine with me. Professionally, I want to be doing something for the greater good and that has impact. I think I’ll be in DC. I feel like it suits me. I will have a vacation home on the water somewhere. That’s my thing. I’ll have dogs, and hopefully I’ll have a partner.

 

What is the top item on your bucket list – something you’d love to do but haven’t yet?

I need to get to Paris. I haven’t been to Paris or Italy. My mom was a travel agent growing up, and we always went to the Caribbean. So when I plan trips I always go to the Caribbean. I need to somehow switch my brain to think that Paris is where I want to go. I need to travel in Europe.

 

Describe your personal style: how does it reflect your day to day and your values?

Um, accessories. I love accessories. I’m a big earring person. I’m not a necklace person; I like cuffs, bracelets and earrings. I think my haircut is really important to me. I just chopped all my hair off and it feels amazing. My hair has to always be a little bit edgy.

I tend to like lots of eclectic things, but comfort is number one. If it’s a pair of beautiful heels, they better be comfortable heels. I tend to like knee length over short and I love to show off my shoulders. 

 

If you ran into your 18-year old self, what advice would you give her? 

Stop being so critical. You’re super hot and your body is rocking. Shut down the shame and get on with yourself.

I just saw tons of pictures of my 18-year old self and was like, “Oh my God, I had a super hot body, why was I eating fat free Fig Newtons and being so self-critical all the time?



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