Speed is Life

Dorn finds balance in juggling career, family and volunteer responsibilities

Twenty years ago and less than a year out of college, Gail Dorn stepped onto what she calls “a speeding train” when she took what was supposed to be a six-month internship in corporate communications at Target.

She found out that it actually was “a speeding train that never stopped.” The temporary job became permanent and Dorn rose through the ranks, becoming at 32 the vice president of communications and public relations for what then was Dayton Hudson Corp. and Target Stores.

Dorn also came to discover that the idea of speed and never stopping fit her personality, and she thrived in an atmosphere that led to Target becoming one of the nation’s largest retailers.

“The beauty of Target is that it’s not bureaucratic, not layered,” she said. “It’s entrepreneurial in making decisions and in making things happen. It’s very team-oriented. There is a groupthink of ‘Speed is life.’ ”

There is that word again. Speed.

“That’s not to say it’s relentless in pace,” Dorn said. “It also is very accommodating to your personal needs and your family needs. The jobs always have been based on merit and what you could contribute to the team. That propelled you forward.”

And as she would learn with a growing family that had special needs, both Target’s and Dorn’s flexibility in accommodating those needs has made all the difference in helping her find that elusive balance between work and home.

Dorn, it seems, always has been flexible. She probably     didn’t have much choice, growing up in Mankato as the youngest of 12 children of a firefighter dad and a homemaker mom.

“I joke that I went into public relations because as the youngest of 12 nobody ever listened to me,” she said, “and I wanted a job where people would have to.”

In all seriousness, though, Dorn fondly recalls spirited conversations at the dinner table about politics and religion. “We weren’t affluent by any means,” she said, “but we always felt we had enough to help other people. My parents were wonderful role models.”

She also found role models in the Jesuit priests and Notre Dame nuns who taught at Mankato Loyola High School. They instilled in her, as did her parents, the importance of giving back to the community.

Two of Dorn’s older brothers went to St. Thomas, and after one weekend visiting campus she told her parents that she intended to follow them even though   St. Thomas was an all-men’s school. Clairvoyant? Perhaps. St. Thomas became co-educational in 1977, and three years later Dorn found herself a freshman interested in finance as a major. She switched to English and studied abroad at the American University of Cairo.

After graduating in December 1984, Dorn spent a year based in Paris and mostly traveling before returning to Minnesota to look for a job. She got the Target internship, after which she intended to move to New York and look for a job in publishing or a related field.

Twenty years later, she’s still involved with Target, but that’s understandable. She was on that speeding train, remember, and it hasn’t stopped. The man running the train then and now sees in Dorn a communicator “who has common sense, is a critical thinker and always looks for innovation.”

“Gail is unflappable,” said Bob Ulrich, chairman and chief executive officer of Target and a fellow St. Thomas trustee. “She knows how to stay on message, and she gets her point across in a succinct way people can grasp.”

As vice president, Dorn also oversaw Target’s philanthropic efforts, and she described that as the best part of her job because “giving away a million dollars a week was fun. People liked you!” As Target has grown – the corporation today gives away $2 million a week – Dorn said Ulrich insisted on accountability for every dollar. “He wanted us to make a difference with the money.”

And she did. “Gail had a great sense of where we would be effective and that we would be getting value for our money,” Ulrich said. “She also had sound suggestions on how recipients could use the money well.”

Dorn also raised funds for other organizations. One was the Basilica of St. Mary. Its rector, Father Michael O’Connell, laughs in recalling how Dorn became involved in a new event in 1995 that has become a staple of summer and a factor in the church’s growth from 2,000 to 5,200 households in the last 15 years.

“Gail was a parishioner,” O’Connell said. “We were in the back of the church before her wedding and she made the mistake of saying, ‘If there’s ever anything I can do for you, let me know.’ And I said, ‘Well, yes, how would you like to co-chair our first Basilica Block Party?’ And she did.”

As smoothly as everything was running in her life, change was imminent for Dorn in 1999. The mother by then of two children and stepmother of two others, she sensed during her third pregnancy that her baby, Sarah, would have Down syndrome. “It was just a mother’s intuition,” she said. “I even told my husband on the way to the hospital.”

“That was my wakeup call,” Dorn said. As much as she loved her job, “sometimes life takes a different turn, and you know what you are meant to do.” After her maternity leave, she returned to work part time, and then Sarah got leukemia when she was two and a half. She is in remission at this time.

Dorn eventually gave up her vice presidency at Target but remains a consultant to the company in philanthropy and community relations. She serves on the boards of the Target Foundation and the Tiger Woods Foundation, and she hopes to work more as a consultant with family foundations and projects such as a school that her father-in-law established for children of cave dwellers in a mountainous region in China.

“These are the kinds of things I want my own kids exposed to,” she said. “I want to pass on things that have value. If you have benefits and advantages in life – and I have been blessed in this regard – then you need to pass them on and share them with others.”

As Dorn mixes family, work and volunteerism, she finds her life ever evolving, and she appreciates that. She also finds herself stuck on that train.

“Speed still is life,” she said. “It’s beautiful and it’s good. You can have it all, but not all at once.”

Next in St. Thomas Magazine