A Delicious Start to a Charitable Finish

By Shayna Mace | Photography by Hillary Schave

After 40 years in the hospitality industry, Lea Culver has finally had time in the last few years to reflect on her career journey. Back when she was working in operations at Culver’s, the fast-casual restaurant chain she co-founded in 1984 with Craig and his parents (and her in-laws at the time), George and Ruth, she didn’t have much time for contemplation. During those hectic early years, she was busy as a full-time, working mom of three.

The burger-and-custard chain started without much fanfare with one location in Sauk City. Lea says during Culver’s first year of operation, there were many slow days. As the restaurant charged through their second and third years, business picked up, and word spread about their food and friendly staff. This year, Lea says they’re slated to open their one thousandth restaurant.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself … in July, we’ll be celebrating 40 years. It feels really good, and I’m really proud of everyone on our team and how they’ve grown and become a force in their own communities.”

In 1993, Lea became the executive director of Culver’s Foundation, the company’s charitable arm. Every year, the foundation gives over $500,000 in scholarships to Culver’s team members.

Today, philanthropy continues to be Lea’s main focus. She co-founded the nonprofit Big Dreamers United in 2018 with friend John Urban. Big Dreamers United assists other nonprofits with small marketing projects for free, such as shooting promotional videos, social media needs and designing promotional materials. Each year, Lea says they help 30-plus nonprofits.

She’s even found a way to connect her passion for painting with her philanthropic efforts. Lea took art classes in college and has since picked the hobby back up. In the last few years, she’s hosted two exhibitions, with proceeds of her artworks going to charity. The sales from one exhibition went to River Arts Inc., a Sauk City arts nonprofit. At another remarkable event in Madison, she sold 25 paintings, netting $35,000 for Big Dreamers United.

“It was one of those shocking, unexpected moments,” Lea says modestly about her Madison show. “It gave me a little more confidence in my painting. I was lucky!”

As the duo celebrate their nonprofit’s sixth anniversary, she continues to self-fund Big Dreamers United, with the goal of helping even more nonprofits and expanding their reach.

“Our tagline is, ‘An unstoppable force for good,’ and I want to live my life that way.”

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