Heart Raves Local Company Proud of National

How do you react when your only account executive announces that she has been selected to be a national spokesperson for the Heart Association's 2010 Go Red for Women campaign — a position that will take her out of the office for meetings, days and even longer?

"I was thrilled, to tell you the truth," said Thom Dahlen, branch manager for Access Information Management in Madison, when Jennifer Engel, 34, received and relayed the news. Engel, also the company's only female employee, learned last May that she had been selected to be one of nine spokeswomen.

"I couldn't believe it!" she said, "I was so excited … but then they told me I wasn't allowed to say anything until September. That was agony," she laughed.

Engel, who considers Madison home after 15 years here, had worked in real estate for 10 years before joining Access, a records and information management company offering hard copy storage, media backup, and secure shredding. She wasn't there long before, on a whim, she attended a casting call at West Towne Mall for the spokesperson position. "I told my story," she said, which impressed the powers that be enough to move her up to the finals early last year.

Choosing to Live
Her story didn't involve heart symptoms or complications, but it easily could have. Her story was about being 30 years old, weighing ten times her age, and being a heavy smoker. It was the story of a woman who finally realized that she needed to change.

"That's when I chose to live," she said. "I'd never had a heart incident that I was aware of, and in fact, during the interviews wondered if I even had any business being there." But her decision years earlier to set a new course was enough to attract the attention of Heart Association representatives.

Now, about 120 pounds lighter, Engel works with a personal trainer three times a week in between interviews, meetings, and the travel demands required in being a national spokesperson, such as a trip to Dallas for a photo shoot, and New York to launch the campaign in September.

"I knew this appointment would be busy," she said. "But it is still a little shocking to see my image in different places" like national magazines and bookmarks. "When I started talking about myself, about my own demons and issues, it was really hard at first. I was feeling judged, and that was difficult. But I had to refocus and let my faults and issues inspire others."

With February being National Heart Month, a major focus of the annual campaign occurred on February 5 with Go Red for Women Day, when all were encouraged to wear red to raise awareness of women's heart issues. Even the State Capitol and numerous Dane County businesses were alight in red.

"Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S.," Engel said, putting on her marketing hat. "More than all forms of cancer combined. One in three women will die of cardiovascular disease. I tell women, 'Look to your left and your right. Which one will it be?'"

Looking back, Engel knows she was heading down the wrong path. "I had factors and didn't even realize how bad they were. [I didn't realize] I had been having heart palpitations. My body was trying to support more than twice what my weight should have been," she said. Now, even though she said her knees are "like cracker jacks" after supporting so much weight, she's set a goal of running a 5K sometime in the near future, and she did a sky dive last fall.

"I'm getting in touch with myself and doing things I never thought I would do." Again she reiterated the Heart Association slogan: "I am choosing to live!"

Company's Loss is Company's Gain
While Engel is doing all this living, how is her company doing back home?

"Jennifer has a lot of energy," said Dahlen. "Her Go Red activities haven't been a detriment to her work responsibilities. She puts in the extra time and makes up time if she misses a day. She has just done a tremendous job of meeting her job responsibilities."

In the days leading up to Go Red day, Engel worked part-time at Access, and spent the rest of the week meeting with the media, legislators, and heading up the Red Dash, a quick sprint from Monona Terrace to the Capitol by participants donning red dresses over their running clothes.

And that was just fine with Dahlen. "Any good sales person never stops selling. I know she slips in plugs for Access as she meets people, and she's meeting a lot of people. Any publicity good for Jen is good for Access, that's how I look at it," he said.

Engel, might be able to shift her hours, but what about her pay? Being a Go Red gal is entirely voluntary. She earns nothing, but is reimbursed for travel expenses by the Heart Association. They won't pay for the required red attire, however. "I've tried on every red dress from coast to coast!" she laughed, though the dresses can get expensive. As an account executive for Access, the amount of commission Engel has earned during her Go Red tenure has "definitely dropped," she said. "But that is our bottom line, our sacrifice," she said of she and her husband, Kevin, who works in tower operations at Chicago's O'Hare Field.

Still, it's clear Engel wouldn't have it any other way. It's a cause she is honored to represent, especially when statistics show that businesses spend $12.7 billion every year in obesity-related medical expenses, and $225.8 billion in health-related productivity losses. Engel encourages all businesses to allow or reward employees for physical activities. "Allow your employees to walk," she advises, "or reward them with a day off for [accumulated] physical activity. Just 20 minutes a day will help," she said, "and will result in a more stable, healthy work force."

The work force at Access Information Management — though seven of eight are men — participated fully in Go Red for Women day. "We all wore red, company-wide," Dahlen said. "Our drivers all had pins, and literature was posted in the lobby." As a company, Access also made a sizeable contribution to the cause, he added. It's an exciting time for the small branch, with headquarters just outside San Francisco.

"She's a good influence on the male staff here," Dahlen said. The boys are very admirable and respectful of her.

"As long as she's out there passing out business cards, that's great for her," he said, "and for the company."

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