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Studio Art Alumna Brings Creativity to the Family Business

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Jessica Comola

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Raquel Isely (BA '14) puts her creativity to practice at Natural Grocers, the business her family began in 1955

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Raquel Isely sews masks for Natural Grocers employees

Raquel Isely sews masks for Natural Grocers employees.

In 1955, armed with samples of whole grain bread and lending out books on nutrition, Margaret and Philip Isely walked door-to-door educating their community about healthy eating. The pair opened the first Natural Grocers store in 1963, determined to offer affordable and accessible health foods to Colorado residents. Today, the natural and organic grocer boasts 156 stores across 20 states.

Raquel Isely, Margaret and Philip’s granddaughter, is a 2014 graduate of the University of Denver. With a BA in studio art, and minors in sociology and psychology, Isely now works in the Special Projects department of Natural Grocers, where she gets to put her creativity into practice.

“I always wanted to go to DU,” Isely explains. “I grew up in Colorado. My dad went to DU. I’ve always had a plan. Ever since I was four years old, I would say, this is what I want to do. I always knew I was going to go to DU.”

Isely’s father was a business major and, initially, Isely planned to follow in his footsteps. She soon realized, however, that she wasn’t passionate about her business courses.

“I didn’t want to disappoint my dad by not doing a business degree, but he said, 'It’s OK, you’re going to college, you’re being taught how to think differently, so do what makes you happy.' I know not everyone has the luxury to do that, but I did.”

This was a lesson Isely embraced. She began pursuing a major in art where she gained practical tools alongside a deeper appreciation for creative thinking. At Natural Grocers, Isely puts these skills to work every day.

“The main job where I use my creative skills and my art degree is working on the in-store signage. I redid all the in-store signage with a design company. I come up with the ideas, let them know what to make and they take that directive and put their own creative spin on it.”

Isely not only draws on her creativity in these projects, but also her understanding of people. In this way, her minors in sociology and psychology dovetail with her BA in art.

“I work a lot with the marketing department doing social campaigns. You have to have a good balance between the analytical and creative. I think that doing the art degree gave me the creative and the sociology and psychology helped me understand people.”

When she first joined the business, Isely's father had her work face to face in the stores, as well as in every department behind the scenes. Her adaptability has been crucial more recently as she’s helped Natural Grocers accommodate rapid changes imposed by COVID-19.

Raquel Isely
Isely learning to sew in sculpture class 

“We’ve been ahead of the curve. One of our founding principles is commitment to our crew members — making sure they’re safe, that everybody is safe. Before masks were even a thing, we were sewing them. My mom and I have sewn 400 masks, and a team of over 40 crewmembers and customers have helped to sew 1,000s more."

“Actually, I took a class at DU on 3D sculpture,” Isely recalls. “We had to make a 3D sculpture out of euphemism. Mine was ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ So, I made a tree out of Natural Grocers bags and apples and sewed it altogether. That made me more proficient at sewing, so that came in handy.”

Whether she’s adapting to new situations, problem-solving or generating creative work, Isely says she draws on her DU education daily.

Any of the classes I took that taught me Photoshop and Illustrator help me a lot. I use those in my day-to-day work. Two years ago, I created our calendar with the skills I learned taking a lot of photography classes.”

Whether in the classroom, working with Natural Grocers or infusing art into everyday life, Isely is grateful for the range of experiences she’s had and the opportunities such experiences afford her today.

“I think people in college should really appreciate the time they have there. Even though there are hard days and sometimes you don’t get the grade you want, college is something to be cherished. Being grateful, appreciative and focusing on the positives over the negatives is important.”

Even academic challenges now prove useful for Isely, who views education as more than just attending class. College is a space to exchange complex, and even conflicting, ideas — and to grow from those exchanges.

“When you make art, the critique is personal. You put your heart and soul into the work, so when someone says, 'I don’t like that,' it can be hard. Going through the hundreds of art critiques that I did taught me how to take criticism and make myself better. It was a very important part of my education.”

At Natural Grocers, Isely uses constructive criticism to always keep improving. This is an ethos built into the company for generations.

“My grandmother believed healthy food should be affordable and accessible to everybody. We have the highest standards in the industry. No other big chain does what we do. That was my grandmother’s biggest belief, so that’s what we’ve carried through; healthy food that is accessible to everyone.”

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