Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Gwen Kelly and interviewing her for our April newsletter. We talked about her transition from Corporate America and her search and success in creating projects that she called “passion projects” that allowed her to use her skills and expertise in new ways. You will see that Gwen believes in the art of possibility.
I wanted to catch up and hear how she was doing. Gwen recently joined a new organization back in her hometown of Chicago and she is truly excited to be their Community Engagement Director for the Chicago Opera Theater (COT). Here is our conversation about how Gwen navigated these past months and landed in a role that brings her home to Chicago.
Sherry: Update us on what has been happening since we last talked.
Gwen: This year has been an interesting year – there have been many opportunities that I have explored while continuing creative and fun projects. You may recall when we connected early in the year; I had just been profiled by the Wall Street Journal. They were exploring career changes and the expanding effort in diversity and inclusion. I received so many comments from those individuals making their own changes. If you recall, I had departed from Walmart after nearly 12 years with the company and the last position having been in the global office of Culture, Diversity and Inclusion.
The summer was filled with some amazing projects. One was working with a small agency, brown and browner, based in Columbia, South Carolina. There I functioned as the Account Director for a food product company and developed the first TV spot for the company. The videos created for Argia B’s Mumbo Sauce, the product of a 70+ year old Black family-owned business who received major love in a creative review from the bible of advertising, Advertising Age. It allowed me to use my experiences in the multicultural marketing space. I was able to pull on my media and agency background from earlier on in my career.
Another passion project I am proud of was serving at the executive producer on a 5-part series in development that will explore the footprint of Blacks in country music. Watch for this next spring!
Sherry: You are an inspiration for those of us in the philosophy of #RewireNotRetire. How did Chicago Opera Theater find you?
Gwen: I remained open to all kinds of opportunities where I could apply my skills and interests. Early in September, I noticed this fabulous opening for a community engagement director on LinkedIn. It was in Chicago which I love and in a realm that would be new for me. The position was for the Chicago Opera Theater. While I did not have experience in the opera world, I decided to apply for there was so much I believed I could bring to this role from the Marketing, Media, Diversity and Project experiences. I applied and a week later I had several great phone interviews. First, I talked with the Managing Director and not more than another week passed and I was set to meet members of COT’s senior leadership team. The last conversation was with the General Director. All of this was conducted via zoom.
I was honest with them about what I would bring in different perspectives and a love of music even though it was not specifically opera. Several days later they offered me a position. I feel it was being at the right place at the right time with an open mind.
I am still in my first 90 days and learning quite a lot. They wanted an infusion of different perspectives and passion for creating cultural and social impact. I will manage a hybrid commute for now until I have selected a home in Chicago.
It feels great to be returning when we see that Chicago is losing a diverse population. I plan to contribute to my hometown and become part of the cultural fabric of Chicago. There were those Chicagoans who went to Washington with Barack Obama – and many have returned to Chicago to help build the Presidential library. Who knows, the synergies may intersect with the Presidential library and foundation in ways we do not imagine today. I am energized by the possibility and change making opportunities.
Sherry: What are you learning about yourself in this journey?
Gwen: One thing about me, I have never given up. I am the little engine that could.It does not matter how high up the food chain you are, there are options on how you look at change and moving forward. It might be a setback or as Dr. Willie Jolley expresses, “a setback is a setup for a comeback.” I love that take on change and have believed in this through different kinds of speed bumps in my career. If I had those knocked down experiences, I didn’t stay down for too long. I dust myself off and get back up.
Sherry: Did you have mentors along the way?
Gwen: I had a vision for my path and was grateful for the people in my life to give guidance and mentor me along the way. As I look at my fourth career, I want to contribute and guide millennials, Gen Z and others for there is not always support for them in their careers. Not everyone gets the mentorship they deserve. I would like to see that change and be more openness to guide others in their career journey.
Sherry: What do you suggest to others who are looking at a third or fourth act?
Gwen: Find out what drives you. There are some that want to enjoy their golden years. If a situation is to step back from corporate that is wonderful. However, there are an increasing number of individuals at any age that will not be held back at this stage of life. Maybe they can take this next phase and rewire for their own fourth act. Some want to be an entrepreneur and others, an artist. If we are blessed with reasonably good health and the will to have a third or fourth career, there is no reason that you can’t pursue that.
Sherry: What excites you about the future?
Gwen: I see the shift taking place on how work is getting done. We should continue to look at how work will be reimagined in the future. It covers the spectrum, hybrid, home or remote or combinations. Inclusiveness will come into this as HR leaders guide their executives in determining what it might look like for their own organizations. I believe we will be successful in ways that are not known today. The reimagined work for those in the third or fourth acts of their career will possibly set the stage for many more individuals who are looking to expand their notion of where, how and what work will look like for our future.
More About Gwen
A visionary marketer, Gwen Kelly is known for bringing passion to the corporate sector to impact social change. In a career that has spanned 25 years, she has built marketing and diversity programs infused with creativity at a number of well-respected companies including Walmart, American Family Insurance, Proctor and Gamble, Midas International to name a few. Gwen is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where she majored in Broadcast Communications & Film. She attended Illinois State University for graduate studies. As a life-long learner, she has pursued her interest in business and theology at Webster University and Trinity International University. Most recently Gwen has been the driving force in establishing the annual celebration of Black Music Month in the Northwest Arkansas. Since 2009, she has led the effort in bringing a diverse group of musical artists and legends to the region. All of this in preparation for what Gwen calls her bonus/encore career.