Carroll Velie was the director of human resources for 29 of the 31 years she worked at Varnum LLP. Courtesy Grand Rapids Art Museum
Carroll Velie is not stopping now.
After retiring last year from Grand Rapids-based Varnum LLP, one of the biggest law firms in the state, the 70-year-old is on to her next adventure.
Velie is the manager of fundraising events at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
“I have long been impressed with the intentional commitment to inclusion evidenced through the diversity of exhibitions, welcoming programming, admission of the Grand Rapids Art Museum,” she said. “GRAM provides a cultural platform to attract and retain talent to the West Michigan community, and I look forward to contributing to the important efforts of this amazing organization.”
She said one of the things they learned through data gathering at the art museum is Spanish-speaking people could not read the signage.
“We never thought of it before we got that data,” she said. “So, we said, ‘Let’s make our signage multilingual.’ Those are little things, but they are meaningful things.”
In October, Velie said the museum will be featuring works by David Wiesner, who is an illustrator and writer of children books. Some of his books tell stories just through pictures and Velie said she believes they may be appealing to visitors.
“If English is your second language, imagine having a book like that that you can read to your children or your children can read to you and you don’t have to read the words,” she said. “You don’t even have to know how to read and you can still tell stories to your children. That is just huge to me because I think about people who are refugees and immigrants living in our community whose second language is English and having this appeal to them, see this cool opportunity to see these wordless books and share it with their children. So, I hope that one of the things that I can do is to think with the people at the GRAM who are very creative, very smart and very connected. I am just another voice but because of my community involvement, I might have some thoughts about where things might fit … and bring people into the GRAM so they can feel like it is their art museum, too.”
Velie’s passion and enthusiasm for diversity and inclusion trace back to an era when racial segregation was systemic, and the Vietnam War was raging.
She was born and raised in Detroit. She graduated from the University of Michigan, and during that time, Velie said women who graduated from colleges and universities became either teachers, nurses or secretaries. She became a teacher and began teaching at a high school in Atlanta, which at the time was ordered to integrate.
“I taught at a school that was in a very changing neighborhood,” she said. “I was teaching in a school that once was 100% white and really went to become 90% African American. It changed a lot. I was teaching psychology, sociology and Georgia history. I think it was my first involvement with communities and neighborhoods and issues related to race. Sociology and psychology; the kids loved it. They were fun classes, and I think it was important for them to know what was going on in the world because the world was changing so much at that time.”
Velie said there were a lot of people protesting, in part, because men were being drafted. Her now-husband was drafted. After he came home, they got married in Detroit. They later went to Arizona, where her husband was attending graduate school. As he was looking for a job, Velie’s mother was fighting her second bout with cancer. As a result, she went back to Detroit to help take care of her.
Eventually, her husband joined her in Detroit and found a job. She also found a job in personnel, which Velie said is now called human resources, for a chain of retail stores including Saks Fifth Avenue in downtown Detroit, where she was the personnel director. She was doing a lot of sales training during a time when Saks was opening many stores across the country.
Her husband eventually was laid off, and he found his next job in Grand Rapids, moving the family to the west side of the state. She then started her own business with a couple of her friends called Sweat Stars, selling sweatsuits across the country. At that time, Velie said Jane Fonda, actress and activist, began promoting exercise and making exercise videos.
Velie not only was selling clothing, she readily became involved in Grand Rapids by joining organizations such as Junior League of Grand Rapids and the Women’s Resource Center.
Velie and her friends eventually sold Sweat Stars, and that was when she began working at Varnum in 1987 during another time of change.
When she joined the firm, it was known as Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett. They quickly began adding locations in Kalamazoo, Lansing and Grand Haven. The firm continued to grow, opening offices in Novi in the early 2000s.
In 2013, the firm changed its name to Varnum LLP. In the last few years, the firm opened offices in downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor. The firm also merged with another established Grand Rapids firm, Law Weathers.
“From less than 100 lawyers when I joined and when I left, I think it was 170 attorneys,” she said. “When I got hired there, I was the personnel staff. So, mostly, in the beginning, I was doing things that you do when you don’t have a personnel department. I was looking at benefits, employee relations and I was primarily working with the support staff, hiring people and I was learning about law firms. I didn’t know anything about law firms. I understood the service business because I worked at Saks and retail so that was really nice. A firm like Varnum is not any different, in terms of the service they would like to provide to their clients that Saks would like to provide. You want to give them the best service, add value. You want to have a personal touch, and you want to be smart in how you do it.”
Velie’s role changed as she continued over the years. She was the director of human resources for 29 of the 31 years she worked at Varnum.
“I represented the firm as a whole,” she said. “Whenever they would open a new office, I would be involved in every aspect. When they opened the Detroit office, I was involved with the architecture and design planning. I wanted to be, especially if you worked in (the Grand Rapids office), a touchpoint or a liaison to someone. So, they felt like they were a part of this office and not just an outpost. So, part of my job was to make sure that those people felt included because inclusion is important to me. I had a great team.”
While at Varnum, Velie and two other individuals from the art museum and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) created WomenConnect to provide access to influence, especially for women of color who were new to Grand Rapids. The three women created events at the art museum for people to get to know each other and the city.
Her final two years at Varnum, she served as the director of professional development.
Now that she has stepped into her new role at the GRAM, she said her goals are the same, promoting inclusion in a diverse community.
“As I began to learn more about the art museum and what their goals were, many of their goals were similar to Varnum’s goals, in terms of diversity and inclusion,” she said.