Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born Alexandra Beth VanFossen, and my married name is Alexandra VanFossen Mandell. However, I go simply by Ali. Apparently, when I was young, I could not spell Alexandra without great difficulty, so my name was truncated. Ali fits me much better. When I married, I kept my maiden name ‘VanFossen’ as my middle name. I have a strong self-identity with my maiden name, and my Father encouraged me to keep hold of that identity as well.
I am 35 years old, born in Great Falls, raised in Miles City. I went to college in Missoula and met my husband Matt Mandell while attending the University. We were married in 2007 and moved to Helena two years later. In 2015, we moved to the Clancy area. Clancy is one heck of an amazing bedroom community.
I am a mother of two very determined little girls; Avery is 5 and Madison is 16 months old. They are my world and continually fill me with laughter, joy, and pride daily.
I am the daughter of a retired soil scientist and retired elementary school teacher; my greatest mentors. My best memories as a child were shadowing my parents in their jobs. Those little visits made a huge mark on my future career aspirations. My parents always encouraged me to be a leader. Through their guidance, I became good at listening to both sides of the story and forming my beliefs. I was also taught the importance of philanthropy and volunteerism early on.
I am so fortunate to be the middle of two doting brothers, Dax and Drew. They are also two of my very best friends and greatest supporters. I’m very proud of them, and their beautiful and strong female significant others. Dax, Drew and I could not be more different, but together, we have a tight bond. I don’t think anyone could understand our shared humor.
Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. I was the only child I knew that looked forward to The Today Show at 7 am every morning since the age of six. I still watch the show almost daily. I guess you could say I’m loyal fan. I’ve always enjoyed learning and sharing world news, though lately, the constant feed of information has taken a toll on my disposition. I’ve had to disengage some.
In my senior year of high school, I realized my adult career would be in the communications field. Anyone that knows me well knows I’m always questioning the “who, what, when, where, why and how.” So, I guess it made perfect sense to go to college for Broadcast Journalism. During college, I realized the importance of having mentors. It was then that I had the privilege of learning from Denise Dowling, Associate Professor & Department Chair at University of Montana School of Journalism. Denise is the daughter of a Helena family, and they should be so very proud of how many young adults she has guided. Denise embodies true mentorship skills, and this is evident given her leadership of students, post-program students, colleagues, and family. I have to admit, the journalism school program was not an easy one, and I struggled at times, but looking back all of it was a lesson in disguise. I was so thankful to have that kind of competition and determination instilled early in my career because three years after college graduation, our country went into the Great Recession. Had it not been for the effort I put in during college, I don’t think I would’ve been prepared to step up and work harder during a time where peers my age were struggling to find employment. It’s important in your professional career (especially in your 20’s) to experience failures and continuously strive for more.
After college, I entered into marketing, advertising and public relations, which was an excellent fit. Broadcast Journalism hours are tough, especially for a young woman that knew spending time with and having a family, was something I valued. Today, I am fortunate to work for a Montana-based company, Opportunity Bank of Montana, who truly values their employees and appreciates a healthy work/ life balance. Plus, I get to focus daily on communicating an important mission “to provide strong financial futures for Montanans.” In my eight years at the Bank, I’ve come to realize how crucial financial security is and how it equates to independence. One’s life can be enriched (and eased) in so many ways simply by making smart financial decisions.
The work you do is so important. Tell us why you’re so passionate about financial literacy and independence, especially for women.
From a very young age, I remember my mother explaining to me how important it was for a woman to be financially independent. It was not an option for me to rely on others to pave my way for life’s necessities. Alternatively, I was told never loan out money. Financial security equals freedom in many ways. I didn’t understand it at the time, but this was very sound advice. You never know when something distressing could occur that greatly affects your financial situation.
When I started working, I was to deposit half of every paycheck into savings, so that I could learn the patience of watching my money grow. Ah, the lesson of compound interest. Interest added to the principal of a deposit or loan, so the added interest also earns interest from then on, etc., and so forth. Money management is simple really, don’t spend money you don’t have and make your investments work for you. There is good debt (e.g. mortgage), and there is bad debt (loans with no lasting value or even credit card debt). I learned early that I needed to save for retirement, and that it is also important to have money for the unplanned, for health care, and for other frivolous expenditures. Being in marketing, I’m well aware of how women are targeted by every industry. We make a majority of the household spending decisions. Given this, I think we owe it to ourselves (myself included) to become even more financially savvy. There’s always room for improvement.
When you’re not working, what would we find you doing? What is something you do strictly for fun?
I love being physically active in the outdoors of Montana. Growing up, you’d find me on the softball field, golfing, riding my bike, skiing with family, or enjoying the outdoors in some fashion. I’m still that person and am working to get back to many of these activities. I enjoy my time with family! Watching my children learn and experience their firsts is an absolute wonderment. I love living my second childhood through their eyes. I have a stressful job so vegging out is a necessity. I do this by watching a good movie or just living in the moment. I love to travel, experience cultures outside my own, and volunteer.
What is a book we all need to read?
I am very much into self-help and non-fiction literature. One book I recently read (while in poorer health due to a hyperemesis gravidarum pregnancy) is titled “Every Day I Fight” by Stuart Scott. It’s a powerful story of Stuart’s battle with cancer and his fight to live, not only for himself but his children. My husband’s mother lost her battle to cancer at a young age, and her children were everything to her. She left a beautiful legacy that was apparent by those who knew her. I knew his mother fought hard to live for her family. Having watched my husband manage this so young, was life altering not only him but for me as well. EVERY DAY is a precious gift not to be squandered.
“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live.” – Stuart Scott
This book taught me to appreciate, nurture my health, and never take it for granted. For me, this concept was even more so realized during my pregnancies. Neither was easy for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of a debilitating condition called Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG). A life-threatening condition diagnosed by severe nausea, extreme vomiting, weight loss, and dehydration (please don’t ever compare this to morning sickness—it’s not even remotely the same). It was an incredibly trying time for me that caused periods of isolation and depression. Thankfully, the symptoms ended after I gave birth to my girls, but having gone through something like this, I’ve been given a greater appreciation for my health.
Have you seen any TV shows or films lately we all need to watch?
Well, I have a very strong family unit, so one of my favorite new finds is NBC’s “This Is Us.” Ooh, all the warm and fuzzies with this show. It is some of the most real storytelling, and they do such a wonderful job fitting the storylines into roughly :40 minutes.
When you are having a less than perfect day, what are some of the strategies you use to get back on track?
I practice self-reflection:
1) I ask myself what I could have done differently to have a better outcome.
2) I visit with the person whose advice I trust the most. For me, this is my husband. He has such a wise-beyond-years viewpoint. My favorite mentor.
3) Let go of the grudges. It only ends up eating away at you, and often, the other person doesn’t even understand what they’ve done to hurt you.
4) I visit the issue and put it behind me. I tell myself to do better tomorrow. A quote I heard a while ago was “Know better. Do better.” This has so much meaning and truth to it.
What kind of women do you admire?
The women I admire tend to be true to themselves, life-long learners, confident, understanding, supportive, good listeners, intelligent, kind and honest.
What are some words your friends would use to describe you?
I hope they would say I was fun, loyal, trustworthy, respectful, honest, mentally strong, motivated, and reliable. They’d probably also tell you I’m feisty, stubborn and competitive. These are the traits I’m working on!
When do you feel the most yourself?
I feel most myself when I’m alone with my thoughts. This might be on a hike or simply relaxing after my children go to bed. I am also most true to myself when I’m listening to music, playing piano, at a concert, singing or just dancing silly with my family in our kitchen.
Coffee or tea?
Chocolate or vanilla?
I can’t pick sides. I love them equally. I’m the type to go for a twist cone.
Introvert or extrovert?
My soul is introverted, but I can play the extrovert when times call for it.
People I work with would say I’m an extrovert because I’m very vocal (especially when I’m very passionate about a topic). I gravitated towards a career path that requires me to be sociable and overtly expressive. That said, I am whole heartedly an introvert. I prefer tucking back into a crowd of people. The person that knows me best is my spouse, and I am very discreet when it comes to my personal life. Doing this interview and exposing myself is somewhat overwhelming. I value my privacy.
Rural or urban?
Rural. My younger self was urban. However, in the span of a few short years, I’ve moved away from that mindset and enjoy living away from the busyness of the city.
Dress up or dress down?
Having two small children, date nights are truly a luxury. Any occasion that calls for dress up is very exciting. However, there is nothing better than putting on those sweat pants at the end of a long day. My husband says I’m into the casual a bit more at this point in my life.
Cats or dogs?
I have never owned a dog, but would someday like to. I think they are great companions. I am currently a cat owner to the first cat I’ve ever owned (lovingly referred to as Hannibal Lector). It’s in my nature to nurture, so I think I’ll always have a pet around. The jury is still out, though.
Sunrise or sunset?
There is something extra special about a Montana spring and summer sunrise. Nature starts anew; the smells and sounds energize and invigorate me. That said, I will always choose a Montana summer sunset. It’s an opportunity to retrospectively reflect on the day in hopes that I can make tomorrow a better one. My new favorite summer activity is lounging on my deck after the work day. I try and think positively about all the good things in my life. A summer sunset typically involves all my senses; taste (if there is a glass of red wine involved), touch, smell, sound, and sight.
Detailed or abstract?
Detail person for sure. I am a “brown” personality type and love lists, schedules, and details.
Classic or modern?
I have an appreciation for both in many aspects of my life but tend to lean to the classic side.
Call or text?
Text. I didn’t have my first cell phone until after college, but even then I never really enjoyed phone conversations. I’d much rather have a face to face interaction then have a forced conversation via phone. Plus, there’s always so much more you can gage from a conversation by seeing people’s reactions. But, since my options are call or text, I go for the text. Short, sweet and to the point!
Fiction or non-fiction?
Non-fiction. I am a realist through and through. I’m a person who likes to be prepared for any and all situations. I appreciate good storytelling, but there’s something about reality that intrigues me more. Having said that, I do enjoy a good science fiction book. I get this trait from my Father, the scientist.
Salty or Sweet?
What do you love most about Montana?
Awe, so very many things. I love everything from the people, the lifestyle, down to the landscape. My experiences have taught me that Montanans are very honest, loyal, and hardworking individuals. I presume most of us live here because of the work/ life balance. Most of us are not here to be in the rat race, and our work commute is generally shorter (and lovelier). I get to raise my family in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’ve been fortunate to live and experience some of the most stunning lightning storms under the Big Sky of Eastern Montana and take in the fresh pine tree smell and mountain vistas of western Montana. How blessed are we?!
What’s a lesson you are currently learning?
How to balance my life, set new goals, and engage in activities that feed my soul. In this past year, I realized I met a majority of the goals I set for myself: I graduated high school, got my degree, developed a career path, and became an expert in my field. I also became a mother of two very special girls. They will always be my greatest successes, along with my spouse (my friend and the very best partner). The next goal I had set for myself was retirement at a relatively young age. But that was it. That was my last goal! How sad was that? So, in this phase of my life, I am focusing on family, new goals and self-happiness.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
I am most grateful for my mentors, my family, health, my job, savings, and an education—THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS! It has taken me a very long time to work on not being envious of others, and to work on not blaming others for unpleasant outcomes. A quote I most recently came across stated: “Don’t be jealous of what others have, as they probably bought it with a credit card.” Plus, I find I am at real peace with myself when I can count my blessings. I have a truly beautiful life that has had some hiccups just like everyone else. I guess I am also grateful that I get to learn from mistakes. We get one shot at life. Let’s learn and focus on the positive, help out others, and love our dearest friends and family while they’re here. Lastly, Mom, thank you for being a realist with me. Dad, thank you for teaching me to have an open mind and practice acceptance. You’ve given me the gift of important lessons at a young age. You both taught me that when we leave this world, it’s about family and the legacy we leave behind. I’m forever mindful that my path should be an unselfish one.