Daniels alumna, professor, student, entrepreneur and mentor Colleen Reilly finds alignment in values, purpose and passion
Growing up, Colleen Reilly (MBA & MS 2000) wanted to be a doctor, like her neurosurgeon father. She pursued that dream through college as a pre-med major. When her dad died in her 20s, she realized it wasn’t actually her dream at all.
“He was the only neurosurgeon for many years in southern Colorado and was always working,” Reilly said. “He saved lives, took care of his wife and five children and was very involved in the community. Yet, there never seemed to be time for exercise, healthy nutrition or stress management.”
Reilly realized this was true for most people in nearly every profession.
“So many people in corporate America are unfulfilled and seem to be on autopilot,” she said. “They go to work, come home and have a drink, eat dinner, watch TV, work on their computer and then go to bed. Each day they do the same thing, over and over. There’s no joy, no meaning and often they don’t realize they could be living their best life with just a few small habit changes.”
Reilly decided she didn’t want to work with sick people. She wanted to “help people prevent and reverse the most common conditions and understand that thriving and flourishing is possible.”
That is how Reilly’s career in corporate wellbeing and health education was born.
She earned her MBA and Master of Science in Management at the Daniels College of Business, then joined MillerCoors as the health and productivity manager. Reilly then joined the Mayo Clinic, where she consulted with Fortune 50 companies on adopting the first e-health platform within their organizations.
But, working for large companies with frequent travel wasn’t aligned with her values. She wanted to make a bigger impact.
“What I thought my life was supposed to be started melting away very quickly, and I realized I was not making time for my own health and wellbeing,” Reilly said.
In 2008, newly divorced and with an infant daughter, she started her own wellness consulting company and software as a service technology platform.
“It was really awesome working with leadership and getting them to understand what it takes to create and build a culture of wellbeing,” she said. “And making connections with the employees—actually including them in creating the culture versus a top-down approach.”
When a disease management client asked to buy her business, Reilly had been at the helm for eight years as a single mom. Exhausted, she agreed.
“I had been going nonstop for so long and I took a big break for two years, because I didn’t know what to do after that,” she said. “I felt like I had reached the pinnacle of being an entrepreneur and a successful selling campaign.”
She practiced some serious introspection—evaluating her past achievements (running seven marathons, winning two fitness competitions) and what she still wanted to do (ski, teach spinning and yoga classes, learn to play golf). Reilly dove deeper, asking herself who she was at her core, what she wanted to do and how she could be of service to others.
“As I reflected, I realized that behavior change was a struggle for me, just as I had struggled with relationships, parenting, money, fitness, employee management, business decisions, business startups,” she said. “But, my personal and professional struggles allowed me to understand and empathize with others who are struggling to make changes in their life, to succeed in their goals. My dream was to be a doctor and I realized maybe I was not going to be a medical doctor.”
That’s when Reilly discovered Daniels’ Executive PhD program.
“I started thinking, ‘What if I can help our future leaders and see what’s going on with this younger generation during these turbulent times when wellbeing is finally becoming a priority?’”
Two years into her PhD, Reilly is researching a scalable solution for corporate wellbeing using virtual reality technology.
Lisa Victoravich, associate dean of faculty and research and director of the Executive PhD program, is Reilly’s dissertation advisor.
“Colleen’s dissertation research will be the first study to test the use of virtual world technology to promote an integrated approach to wellbeing with a sample of adults,” she said. “Specifically, it will evaluate technology acceptance of a virtual world from an individual perspective through the lens of the health belief model.”
Reilly also is an adjunct professor for Entrepreneurship@DU, where she teaches the Fourth Industrial Revolution course, lending insight from her background in entrepreneurship, wellness technology, health promotion and personal growth.
“There’s so much opportunity to help students through the self-discovery process,” she said. “Getting to know them and what they’re struggling with—you can create an environment where they start to realize that wellbeing needs to be a part of their life, no matter what class they’re taking, and whether they decide to go into corporate America, a nonprofit or stay home.”
Director of Entrepreneurship@DU Joshua Ross said, “Colleen is flat out impressive. She is an exceptional professor with the unique gift of possessing in-depth experience in both business and academia.”
In line with her PhD research, Reilly also consults with ImmersiveWorlds, a technology company that’s building a tablet-based virtual world focused on physical, mental and financial wellbeing. Participants create avatars in their likeness and travel to different “worlds” to learn skills, complete challenges and develop social connections with others, resulting in the ability to tackle big health issues like weight loss and anxiety management. She is bringing this innovative technology to market as the senior vice president of business development.
“We’re right in the middle of the most impactful digital health revolution with telehealth and starting to connect AI,” she said. “This technology has created a new marketplace to address some of the most common and costly conditions that are reversible, avoidable and preventable through lifestyle change. Everybody’s trying to figure it out, so I’m excited to be at the forefront.”
Reilly remains most passionate about helping young people. She is working with Chancellor Jeremy Haefner’s 4D Student Experience initiative to broaden the University’s wellness education for all DU students by 2025. Oh, and she’s writing a book for students about finding alignment in values, purpose and passion.
“I think that’s where people fall down; they start to make decisions unconsciously that don’t align with their values because they’ve never really done that self-discovery process,” she said. “If you can align your purpose and passion with your values and sprinkle in some humble pie and resilience, you can really succeed in life.”
Reilly plans to graduate with her Executive PhD in spring 2022.