Virginia Gilmore

Virginia Gilmore

Founder and Board Chairperson

Virginia Gilmore was raised in Chilton, WI, a small town in East Central WI.  She was impacted by a strong dedication to community, not only through her parents, but from stories of her grandparents and great grandparents as well.  Chilton was also the home of the family manufacturing business, Kaytee Products Incorporated, founded by her Great Grandfather in l866.  She had the opportunity to work with her father and brothers in the business for 17 years until the business was sold in l996.

Virginia was the first woman in her family to work in the business.  She served as the first vice president of sales and then went on to become vice president of customer service.  She and her brothers are grateful for the success of the business over the years as it grew and provided opportunity for over 500 employees in four different states.  Her experience there was a very strong foundation for her learning about leadership and the spirit of community in our organizations.

After leaving the company, Virginia went on to complete a degree in Spirituality and Leadership at Marian College (now Marian University).  She had a strong interest in the personal, inner journey of a leader.   “Leading from Within,” an essay by Parker Palmer, particularly inspired her, and she began to connect the importance of the personal journey of leaders to the quality of our work and community experiences. 

Exposure to the principles and practices of dialogue and Compassionate Listening further extended Virginia’s understanding of what contributes to healthy relationships in leadership.  In addition, she was exposed to the teachings of Robert K. Greenleaf, a retired executive from AT&T, in his essay, “Servant as Leader,” and other key writings published through the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership.  Greenleaf created a “best test” of leadership that is Virginia’s choice of definition for leadership and one that is used in her work.  Greenleaf also wrote, “Persons serving one another, the more and less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built.”  These words challenged and inspired Virginia, and they became the basis for the vision of the Sophia Foundation, “Creating Caring Community.”

In l998, Virginia partnered with Marian University to co-found the Center for Spirituality and Leadership.  The Center was one of the very first of its kind within an institution of higher education and fostered other similar centers to birth across the Country.   In 2000, with the learning and experience from the Center at Marian University, Virginia went forward to partner with the Fond du Lac Area Community Foundation to create The Sophia Foundation, Inc., with the vision of “Creating Caring Community” as a way to support Greenleaf’s hope for a better society.  Since its inception, the Sophia Foundation has given over $700,000 through grants and learning programs, mostly focused in the local community.  These dollars helped to support agencies that provide healing for thousands of women and children in vulnerable situations, as well as community learning programs such as Compassionate Listening, dialogue, and Opening of the Heart, touching people and organizations across the community.

As communities are changing with growing needs and possibilities, and funding sources becoming less and less, the challenge to serve the leadership potential of our community is stronger than ever.  Today the Sophia Foundation is in its second year of a transition to focus all its time and resources in leadership development in the community.    This focus will help to prepare the community for more real and meaningful conversations to birth more innovative initiatives to help the community grow in ways that nurture the spirit, dignity and potential of all of its citizens.  Sophia works collaboratively with other community businesses and organizations to bring national speakers to the community and support community leaders to attend the International Conference for Servant Leadership.  In addition, the Foundation provides education through learning circles and book circles, and hosts gatherings for thought leaders to foster shared learning and community conversations.

All of these developments in Virginia’s life reflect her deep commitment and belief in the healing and wholeness of every person.   It is her hope and dream that we as community members can grow into a deeper caring, connection and compassion with one another.  She believes the words of the Dalai Lama, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.  Without them humanity cannot survive.”  She has been deeply influenced by her teacher of many years, Jean Houston, whose words are etched in her heart:  “These are the times; We are the people.”  It is her deepest wish that the Sophia Foundation can be an inspiration in the connections and service it provides to help the community open its heart to its greatest source and capacity for caring, and that the wisdom that comes forth calls us to our greatest good…today and for many generations to come.

Virginia is married to Jim Gilmore, retired Sheriff of Fond du Lac County.  Jim serves as a member of the Sophia Board of Directors and continues to give support to the community he has served with such dedication.  Virginia has two children, Rob and Ginger, and she is blessed with three grandsons, Max, Will, and Wes.  Rob served as a founding member of the Sophia Foundation for the first 8 years, and Ginger, also a founding member, remains active on the Board today.  She and her children worked together to develop the operating principles of Sophia Foundation, and they are dedicated to living and supporting these principles in their own lives as well.

Virginia has received several meaningful recognitions from her community, including the Cheers for Volunteers Spirit of Compassion Award, the Fond du Lac Area Community Foundation Legacy Award for Outstanding Philanthropy, the Marian University George Becker Business Spirit Award, the Rotary Paul Harris Fellow Award, and the Women’s Fund of Fond du Lac Women of Achievement Award.  In 2009, she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Human Letters Degree from Marian University.