A Sit-down with Diana Van Leuven, Founder and CEO of The VAN LEUVEN Company
From its founding in St. Louis, MO, in 2001 to its move to Knoxville, TN, and subsequent rebranding, The VAN LEUVEN Company has been under the leadership of Diana Van Leuven for 22 years. The VAN LEUVEN Company is a boutique digital marketing and communications firm servicing local, national, and international clients. Additionally, The VAN LEUVEN Company is an agency partner of Purina Mills, LLC, the farm animal feeds business unit of Land O’ Lakes, in addition to helping hundreds of independent Purina farm retailers take advantage of the many marketing tools that are available to them, growing and building their businesses for generations to come.
Prior to founding The VAN LEUVEN Company, DVL (as she is affectionately known by her clients and employees) began her entrepreneurial journey at the age of 16, where she realized her love for entrepreneurship and serving others. After founding her first business, a customized hair bow operation, she would go on to gain a considerable amount of experience in the marketing and public relations industries through positions with Anheuser-Busch, Weber Shandwick Worldwide, and more. Van Leuven’s extensive background would aid her in her journey to becoming a business owner herself and inspiring other women to pursue leadership and alternative business opportunities. She currently sits on the board of The Toucan Rescue Ranch, has spoken on numerous panels, and most recently was invited to speak at the University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business. We sat down with Diana Van Leuven, founder and CEO of The VAN LEUVEN Company, to learn more about what it takes to be a successful business owner in the modern age.
22 years after founding The VAN LEUVEN Company, here are Diana Van Leuven’s 10 Rules of Business.
10 Rules for Aspiring Business Owners
1. Know yourself and your value.
“I always knew that I would have my own company.”
Speaking with Diana Van Leuven, it is immediately apparent that she is a self-assured woman who has an understanding of the person that she is, her strengths and weaknesses. When reflecting upon her own background that led her into the marketing and communications industry, DVL shared the fitting nickname that she earned in her childhood.
“My father called me ‘Motormouth’ because I loved to talk, so when I got an undergraduate degree in communications, that was just absolutely perfect. And then when I got my masters in communications management, he said now you can make an earning doing what you love, talking everyone’s ears off!”
Diana recounts that she had always known that she would be at home in the marketing and communications industry; she also knew that she wanted to merge her passion for both communications and entrepreneurship. She speaks of the times in her life in which she was employed by others, noting somewhat cheekily that she had never been quite able to work at her best under someone else.
“I would look at the owners or my managers and just know that we could do things differently. I wasn’t the type of employee who just got in line and did everything the way that they told us. I always questioned everything. Some managers embraced that, but others found it intimidating.”
When Diana began Van Leuven Communications in 2001, the world was a very different place. As the industry evolved, Van Leuven knew that the company had expanded its line of services and stepped beyond its original form. Thus, The VAN LEUVEN Company was born.
“In 2020, we changed to The VAN LEUVEN Company because our services had outgrown our name. We were no longer just a communications company. We do so much more than just marketing.”
Diana highlights that this rebranding came with an offering of more services, including Retail Store Design, which recognized an additional value for clients to utilize retail design services. Recognizing and trusting in the real value that you and your company bring to your respective industry is paramount in your success—and your client’s.
2. Do what you can, when you can.
In learning about The VAN LEUVEN Company founder’s background, entrepreneurship seems to have woven itself into the fabric of Diana Van Leuven’s life from the very beginning. She recounted her first experience in the world of owning her own business—a custom hair bow brand, started when she was just in high school.
“It started well before I even graduated high school. I was kind of known for wearing hair bows, so I figured I might as well make my own and save some money. So, I started Di’s Hair Bow Business, and I knew that my designs were different.”
At the young age of 16, Van Leuven found herself a brand new business owner, working as her own boss for the first time ever. While a hair bow business wasn’t her vision for her final destination, Diana Van Leuven understood the principle of blooming where one is planted. For the aspiring entrepreneur, this is a lesson in harnessing the resources available to you at a given time and creating something you’re proud to stand behind.
Although Diana Van Leuven always knew that she would one day own her own business, she was waiting for her opportune time. While working at the world’s largest PR firm, it came.
“At the time, they were looking at having a team move to Munich, Germany, and I was not fluent in German. I also didn’t want to leave St. Louis. I wanted to stay with my family, and I saw that as a real opportunity to put my plan into place: To start my company, and to begin living my dream.”
The opportunity at this time seemed to be a large-scale move to Germany; however, the real opportunity proved to be at home, right in front of her. Diana Van Leuven found her own company, while being able to put her values of family, faith, and a collaborative workplace first. For the young entrepreneur, being successful in owning your own business is all about recognizing opportunities and seizing them when they show themselves.
3. Relationships are everything and everywhere.
“Having your own business, no matter what it is, is all about relationships.”
As a 16-year-old with a passion for entrepreneurship and hair bows to sell, Diana Van Leuven knew the power of creating meaningful relationships with those whom she would call her customers. When she was invited to create custom hair bows for the wife of a St. Louis Cardinals baseball player, Van Leuven recognized the importance of noticing the relationships that can be forged in the most unlikely and unique ways.
“Just by luck—through a relationship—I had the opportunity to meet some of the St. Louis Cardinals players’ wives who had gotten ahold of one of my bows. So, that was a relationship that started my business, in terms of creating custom hair bow designs for the St. Louis Cardinals’ wives. I was matching my signature hair bow designs to their children’s outfits.”
After 22 years in business, Van Leuven believes that forming meaningful and lasting relationships in business is paramount to one’s success and continues to embody this in all aspects of her work.
4. Commit to a life of learning.
On her way to founding The VAN LEUVEN Company, Diana Van Leuven worked in marketing and communications for various other companies, including Anheuser-Busch and Weber Shandwick Worldwide. She reflects on these experiences as giving her the opportunity to learn from the industry leaders and grow in her own skill set, allowing her to eventually forge her own path forward independently.
“Especially with crisis communication work that I do, the approach and the training that I received at Weber Shandwick Worldwide early in my career has set the foundation for all of the crisis work that we do on behalf of our clients. I had some fantastic training through the opportunity to be on the team at Weber Shandwick, the world’s largest PR firm.”
Diana doesn’t believe that the process of learning ever has a true ending to it. As a business owner, she speaks of the importance of learning by trying, learning from reflection, and learning from the experiences of others.
“Every year, I sit and think about what I’ve learned. Some years, it hits me right across the face: Don’t do that again. But every year, I really think about an area that we can focus on for growth.”
5. Do the work.
As Diana reflected back on the journey of founding The VAN LEUVEN Company, she stressed the importance of preparation, hard work, and ensuring her own credibility as she ventured out on her own.
“I had to wait until I had experienced enough in terms of credibility and my own credentials so that people took me seriously. They would know: Oh, yes. We can trust her with our business. She worked with MasterCard. She’s done programs with all of these companies.”
In 22 years of business, she has learned that trust is a foundational element for a good business relationship, and ensuring that you’ve done the background work is instrumental in gaining that kind of trust with clients.
6. Know your principles and stand by them.
In business, Diana Van Leuven has been driven by several principles from the very beginning. The VAN LEUVEN Company itself was founded based on her vision of a marketing agency that was committed to serving people, above all else. Now, 22 years later, much has changed about The VAN LEUVEN Company, but its commitment to people—in the workplace and worldwide—has not.
“It’s not just about having your own company. It’s about what kind of company you want to have. Our company is based on the values of how I would treat my own family. We take care of each other, we work with each other on making sure that everyone’s voice is heard. It’s not a corporate approach, by any means.”
In addition to Diana’s valued principles of business, including mutual respect, trust, and honest communication, she is proud to share a faith-based approach in her company and her leadership.
“I trust in God. He leads all of my decisions. One thing I’ve really focused on the last couple of years is relying on God to lead me and to not question it. So, I think that’s a testament to my faith growing more, and I’m not afraid to share that because I feel that I am a better leader because of my faith.”
7. Practice servant leadership in your business.
On the topic of her specific style of leadership, Diana Van Leuven believes that good leaders are selfless ones.
“It’s important to know if you have what it takes, and the only way you’ll know you have what it takes is by doing it. When you do it, you have to have the mindset that you’re not in it for yourself—you’re in it for others.”
In reflecting upon the trials of leadership, Van Leuven remarks that being a business owner is often lonely, something that many aspiring entrepreneurs would not imagine.
“No one’s going to dangle a crown over your head and say ‘Congratulations.’ You have to be willing to not have that type of public affirmation. As a successful business owner you find ways to give yourself that accolade. When you create a company that’s built on others and is built to serve others, then you’re going to be fulfilled from that work. It is a selfless way to earn an income. You have to be willing to forgo many things in your life to make your company work. But know that when you are successful in business, there are so many rewards that come from it. To me, it fills my cup and it makes me feel that I have achieved what I need to achieve for others.”
8. Be a conduit of change.
Diana Van Leuven’s personal philosophy surrounding change is that it is the only constant in business. Rather than clinging to the old ways of doing things, this philosophy is reflected in The VAN LEUVEN Company’s desire to consistently be evolving and learning to grow with the changing landscape rather than against it.
“Overall, we have to focus on being a conduit of change, not someone who blocks the change or is a resistor of change. You have to allow change to happen. Because the people who choose not to stay ahead of it, learn, grow, and better themselves and their company are the ones who become obsolete. We’ve worked really hard over the past 22 years to remain relevant and appropriate based on the time that we’re in.”
Perhaps the best example of embracing change wholeheartedly can be found in The VAN LEUVEN Company being at the forefront of the Purina® Check-R-Board® Days program for many years.
“We took our clients’ needs for events and tried to organize them, and we’ve done that successfully to the tune of 3,000 events per year. We’ve developed and managed the Purina® Check-R-Board® Days program. We have done that for 10 years, and it is the longest running program that Purina® has in the history of the company as it relates to a consumer-facing event program. We’re very proud to support that.”
In Van Leuven’s opinion, understanding and anticipating the needs of clients is what allows for businesses to remain relevant and competitive in an industry that has near-constant shifting landscapes, innovative technologies, and more.
9. Take care of others.
In her 22 years of leading The VAN LEUVEN Company, it seems that most of Diana Van Leuven’s rules for business relate to creating and nurturing relationships that recognize and emphasize the value of human connection. One of her nuggets of wisdom for any aspiring business owner goes back to the idea of treating others as family.
“It is so incredibly important to never speak unkindly and to never burn a bridge. Don’t treat someone unkind, because you’re going to need that person again in your life or they may need you and you need to be willing to help them. Always take care of others.”
10. Show up.
“A very smart person once told me many years ago that the key to success in business is 90% showing up. Showing up in terms of being responsive, sending the emails, making the phone calls, and doing what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. The other 10% is just knowledge. We can all fill our heads with key points of knowledge, but 90% of it is doing the work.”
Diana Van Leuven’s last piece of advice? Show up. The entire philosophy of doing good business at The VAN LEUVEN Company seems to boil down to this one essential principle. Anticipating needs, creating strategic endeavors, and solving problems for your clients are all important tenets of doing good business, but they start here: With our famous VLC TLC.
That’s the VLC Difference.
Experience the VLC TLC for Yourself with The VAN LEUVEN Company
As The VAN LEUVEN Company celebrates 22 years of service, the team remains as committed as ever to their mission of supporting clients committed to healing, nurturing, enriching, and sustaining the world. With a culture that values integrity, innovation, and excellence, this dynamic marketing firm is poised for continued growth and success in the years to come.
Let’s grow together. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your business’s marketing efforts and experience the VLC TLC for yourself.