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Anissa Elsey has been at Kansas City-headquartered Nazdar for twenty-two years. For all intents and purposes, she would probably have been at her previous job just as long had it not been for a conflict of interest. The then-director of human resources met her husband on the clock. “It’s a good story because we’re still together today,” Elsey says, chuckling. “Along with my husband, it gave me the opportunity to come to Nazdar.”
Loyalty, empathy, and compassion aren’t just mainstays in Elsey’s leadership over two decades at Nazdar, and currently in the role of vice president and chief human resources officer at Nazdar. It’s a practice she and her husband have dedicated their lives to outside of work by founding—in tandem with close friends Nancy Whitworth and Doug Ballou —the nonprofit In the Name of GRACE, whose stated goal is to “provide a safe and sober environment for those who are recovering from addiction to drugs and alcohol.”
During a short conversation with Profile in March 2021, Elsey spoke on the multiple initiatives underway at Nazdar on behalf of its employees, the transformational impact of being named one of the Kansas City Business Journal’s twenty-five “Women Who Mean Business” in 2014, and the work she and her husband are doing on behalf of a daughter struggling with substance use.
In all things, Elsey’s grace is what sets her apart.
A Family Organization
While trends and taglines have come and gone, Elsey’s goal has remained consistent. “One of the most important things about being here has been building a culture and environment where employees want to come to work, they want to stay engaged, and they bring their full selves to work every day,” Elsey says. “It’s just the basic idea that each person and their contributions create the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
With just two presidents during her tenure, Elsey says leadership at Nazdar has always been strong in backing her team. It’s emblematic of a wider two-way communication initiative that is prioritizing an intentional effort to make sure that leadership understands the needs of its larger team. In some cases, that includes confidential communication, and in others it means a chance to talk with the entire organization at monthly company-wide meetings. With over four hundred employees across the globe, it’s a chance for Nazdar to come together and get on the same page.
The company is also working to cultivate its next generation of leaders from inside with its Learn, Emerge, Accelerate, Develop (LEAD) program. Nazdar has identified three cohorts of prospective leaders with all varieties of experience. “These may be people currently in management, or they might be up-and-comers from our emerging cohort,” Elsey explains. “We’re identifying and continually reevaluating our high-potential employees through succession planning reviews and hoping more employees, along with new hires, may be brought up in the future.”
Nazdar has also sought to make employees feel part of the family-owned organization in meaningful ways outside the office. Every employee is allowed two days of volunteer time off every year to be put toward a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The Thrall family, who owns Nazdar, also matches any employee donation to a 501(c)(3) of their choice up to $250 annually.
Nazdar is also expanding their Corporate Social Responsibility program to incorporate a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Elsey is confident that an intentional focus on DEI will create a more innovative, positive environment and a broader, global perspective within the organization.
In the Name of GRACE
When it comes to nonprofits, Elsey is no stranger. As a founder of In the Name of GRACE, Elsey works with friends and colleagues to offset the funding pulled by the state of Missouri for its direly needed Oxford House substance abusing recovery facilities. The group hasn’t just acted as a bandage. It’s acted as a blessing.
The nonprofit was able to hire an outreach worker to begin the process of improving houses that were in desperate need of overhaul. Since 2017, of the original ten houses, four houses were closed and five were restructured or relocated. By 2020, In the Name of GRACE had opened an additional thirteen houses—all done without the aid most other states offer.
The herculean effort is incredible, but the origin is heartbreaking. Elsey and her husband are now new parents at fifty. They adopted the two children of their daughter, whose substance use disorder continues to impact her life despite double-digit stints in and out of recovery facilities. It’s an experience that many have shared with family, friends, or workmates, but one so often swept under the rug.
The years of hardship motivated Elsey, her husband, and friends to try to create more recovery success stories. “It’s ugly, and there is a stigma that comes along with this fight,” Elsey says. “But I’ll tell you this: Every single one of these people is a human being. No one would choose addiction. It is a disease that ruins lives, and the only cure is hard work and complete devotion to staying clean for the rest of one’s life.
“GRACE is an acronym for Giving Recovering Addicts a Chance to Evolve,” she continues. “Our hope is to help get our residents to a place where they can do the hard work of putting their lives back together so they can evolve from dependence to independence through safe, sober living. That’s why we love Oxford House.”
Elsey’s experience of loss and hardship isn’t uncommon. But in sharing it, in using it to motivate such a positive impact for countless other people, Anissa Elsey is the way we all hope to respond to adversity.