Kate Meghji recalls her time in the MBA program at the University of Illinois in her home town of Urbana.
When students were called to work on projects, many focused on larger businesses, but Meghji preferred to examine the nonprofit business community.
"It was me and all these guys who worked at banks," she said. "There weren't very many nonprofit people."
Meghji graduated from Evergreen State College in Washington with degrees in molecular biology and biochemistry, she said.
Initially her plan was to study infectious diseases or work for the Centers for Disease Control. But after graduation, as she prepared to take her Graduate Record Examinations, Meghji said she was hired as a medical assistant for the local humane society — a job that would change everything.
"That sort of did it for me. I got bit by the shelter bug," she said. "I had never considered animal welfare as a career. I didn't even know that was a career you could have."
Within her first year at the shelter, Meghji was promoted to manager, she said. From that position she spent the next three years broadening the organization and connecting with local nonprofits.
Those connections led to a discovery, Meghji said. Although she knew animal welfare was where she wanted to be, she also knew she would have to go back to school to do the job well.
"Nonprofit organizations are filled with these amazing, energetic, caring and compassionate people who love their mission," she said. "But they don't always know how to run a business well."
Meghji moved back to Urbana, enrolled in the MBA program there and accepted a position as the executive director of the local synagogue.
"I'm not even Jewish," she said with a laugh.
During a five-year stint in her hometown, Meghji said she earned her MBA, learned more about business from her position at the synagogue, got married and gave birth to her daughter.
As her daughter, Nora, grew out of infancy, Meghji said she was once again ready to finish what she had started.
"I missed animal welfare," she said. "And now that I had the time and energy I wanted to get back into the field."
Meghji passed on an offer in Las Vegas; she said she couldn't picture raising her daughter in Sin City.
Rather, she was drawn to another offer in Lawrence.
The college-town atmosphere reminded Meghji of home, she said, and in August she took over as executive director of the Lawrence Humane Society.
"I love it here. I've never met nicer people in my life," she said. "People are so polite and kind and that has been mind blowing for me."
As Meghji took over her new position she hit the ground running, said Humane Society board treasurer Brandon Young.
"From day one she dug in her heels and rolled up her sleeves and got to work," he said. "I think she saw Lawrence as an opportunity to get back into an executive role, and she saw an organization that has a lot of opportunity for her to make her mark."
Jennifer Stone, the Humane Society's doctor of veterinary medicine, said Meghji's background made her the clear choice for the position and her past positions gave her the right skills to effectively lead the facility.
"She just happened to have the right qualifications, a lot of nonprofit experience, fundraising experience and a significant amount of shelter experience," Stone said. "She was the perfect person for the job."
One priority Meghji has focused on is the way animals are processed and moved through the facility, Stone said.
Shortening an animal's length of stay at the shelter decreases the spread of disease in the population and increases the amount of animals the shelter can help, Stone said.
"The faster they move through the shelter the more we can save," she said.
Aside from changing up the way things are done within the shelter, Meghji has also cast a wide net to businesses throughout Lawrence to increase the facility's presence and give it a more personal touch, Stone said.
That personal touch has also been extended to her employees, Stone added. Work in the industry can commonly go unrecognized, but Meghji makes sure to communicate with everyone in the shelter.
"We employ a lot of really intelligent people and it's not an easy job," she said. "She's always getting people's attention and getting them engaged and helping them feel like they have a stake in what's going on."
Although Meghji hasn't lived in Lawrence for long, she said she knows she can be a positive influence in the community.
By providing volunteer opportunities, helping animals with behavior difficulties, collaborating with other agencies and acting as a cornerstone for animal information, Meghji said she's confident the Lawrence Humane Society can change the way people think about animal shelters.
"A lot of people assume an animal shelter is a sad, scary place, that we're a doggy jail. And that's not who we are at all," she said. "We provide the service of taking in these animals, but that's such a small part of our identity. I think this humane society can and should be the central pet resource for the entire community."