Cindy Gillespie would be the first to admit that her career path doesn’t make sense.
“You have no idea what will come along,” she said. “You work hard and you take the opportunities as they come. And it’s wonderful, if you just let God’s hand lead you where He wants you to go.”
It’s a philosophy and a belief that has often guided Gillespie along her “round-about” career path.
After graduating from Trevecca with a double major in communications and business administration in 1979, Gillespie enrolled at Auburn University for grad school. During grad school, Gillespie got involved with a political campaign for an area congressman. After graduation, she went to work as his press secretary.
“I moved to Washington, thought I’d stay for a year, then go get my Ph.D. in communications and teach,” Gillespie said. “Instead, I wound up on the Hill for seven years.”
Next, Gillespie, who had mostly advised the senator on armed services issues, took a job as the director of federal affairs for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. A native of Columbus, Ga., Gillespie spent the next seven years helping to organize the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
After the games concluded, Gillespie went straight to Salt Lake City, Utah, serving as a senior vice president for the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, responsible for hosting the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games.
“When I think of the things in my career I most enjoyed, it was the 13 years I was doing Olympic Games,” Gillespie said.
During her work with the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, Gillespie met Mitt Romney, then the chief executive officer of the Olympics organizing committee. After the Olympics concluded, Gillespie joined Romney’s team, moving to Massachusetts to help run his 2002 gubernatorial campaign. When Romney won, Gillespie joined his office as a counselor to the governor.
“That was an incredible experience because in that role I was able to work across all the different areas of the state,” Gillespie said.
One of Romney’s key initiatives as governor was healthcare reform, an initiative Gillespie led. The legislation provided healthcare to nearly all of the state’s residents, moving uninsured residents to a form of private insurance.
Romney served one term as governor of Massachusetts, then ran for president. Gillespie served on that campaign, though John McCain was eventually chosen as the Republican nominee. During the campaign, Gillespie began consulting with states and other officials about healthcare reform.
That led to Gillespie joining a law and public policy firm—then called McKenna, Long and Aldridge, now known as Dentons—and started a health policy practice. She continued that work even as she worked on Romney’s second presidential bid, becoming a respected voice on health policy issues at both the state and federal level.
In February 2016, Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas named Gillespie the director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS). She began the job in early March and regards it as a homecoming of sorts.
“This for me is a dream opportunity,” she said. “I get to go back into state government, which I find rewarding because you can actually touch peoples’ lives and see the good that you’re doing.”
As the director of DHS, Gillespie oversees the largest cabinet agency in the state, supervising approximately 7,500 employees. The agency provides health coverage options for about 1 million Arkansans and also includes child welfare services, foster care programs, and all other programs that insure the health and wellbeing of the children of Arkansas.
“The mission of the department is to care for those who are most vulnerable in our society and to focus on insuring the health of the citizens of Arkansas,” Gillespie said. “It really touches the lives of most of the people of this state in one way or another.”
For Gillespie, the work is rewarding because it allows her to make a difference in peoples’ lives.
“What I’m passionate about is looking at this from the eye of that individual who needs help,” Gillespie said. “How do we make it easy for that person to get help? How do we actually get in there and help them to make their life better?
“When my life is centered around service in some way, then I feel like I’m in tune with God,” she continued. “I also feel like I’m making a difference in the world and I’m doing what I was put here to do.”