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Gwen Kelly's Reverse Mentoring Adventure

Last month, the Wall Street Journal produced a special report called, “What’s Keeping Black Workers from Moving Up the Corporate Ladder” and one interview was with Gwen Kelly, a self-described “multicultural marketing evangelist and thought leader.” Her story was fascinating and I reached out to her to learn more. She graciously returned the call and took the time to share her experiences beyond corporate life.

Her third act started in 2018 with an opportunity to participate in a “reverse mentoring” cultural apprentice program at an impressive and forward-looking cultural intelligence firm based in New York and Los Angeles.


Sherry: What made you decide to apply to this unique reverse mentoring apprenticeship?


Gwen: My 30-plus year marketing career came to a screeching halt in April 2018 when my department at Walmart was reorganized. I had been there for nearly a dozen years in a multicultural marketing, diversity and inclusion role. Just as I began to ponder what I would do next, I learned rather suddenly the answer. It came from a LinkedIn connection, who suggested I apply for the newly created Senior Cultural Apprenticeship program at Sparks & Honey advertising consultancy in New York City. They specifically wanted people with at least 30 years of work experience. Six weeks after packing up my desk and four telephone interviews later, I left Bentonville, Arkansas and moved to Madison Avenue.


Sherry: Tell me about this creative new role?


Gwen: For more than ten weeks, I worked with Fortune 500 clients and co-authored a report called “Future of Work 2030” with fellow apprentice, Sharon Lewis. We reviewed cultural trends, handled the agency’s daily live cultural briefings on Facebook and interviewed industry thought leaders. I felt I was living the dream and learning so much from the staff as well.


The experience itself was tremendous, and it felt like it was "ripped from the pages of the script" of The Intern starring Robert De Niro as Ben, a 70-year-old who is bored with retirement and re-enters the workforce at the lowest rung of the career ladder.


Sherry: What were the take-aways for the team?


Gwen: The learning worked both ways. And the founder and CEO of Sparks & Honey, Terry Young said, “they are teaching our teams invaluable lessons, drawing on decades of experience and success from their own careers."


When we interfaced with millennials, Gen Z and even Gen X, there was an opportunity to engage with individuals in a different way. Several said that as a result of our collaboration, they “thought about looking at a trend or situation from a new angle.” My apprentice partner and I came from work environments that were so different, but to go into a situation, where you have life experiences to offer, and you are learning as well made for a very impactful experience for all of us. This was truly intergenerational learning.


This was the inaugural program that Terry Young envisioned so we mapped out how we could support the team and saw this as an experiment.


Sherry: What was your deliverable in this experiment?


Gwen: My partner and I authored and presented the Future of Work 2030 document that was the result of research and interviews with industry thought leaders. We produced and presented this to the entire organization.


Another example of the impact we delivered, was when we were asked to give feedback to a leading cosmetics firm client on their brand and products targeting women over 40. This was part of a cultural brief developed for their clients.


When we looked at trends in culture – we brought our perspective, an alternate point of view. One example of how we as baby boomers communicated was in a more forma choice of language. The younger employees were more free and deliberate in how they communicated. They didn’t worry about being “proper” for they were all about just being themselves. That was refreshing.


Their offices are set up as a newsroom. News is happening around you and engaged all of us in more freedom to have conversations with each other which makes everyone accessible and facilitated greater collaboration.


Sherry: Tell me about how you see mentoring working today?


Gwen: I suggest you read about mentoring from Morgan Stanley Vice Chair, philanthropist and author Carla Harris. She is widely known for speaking to the differences between advisors, mentors, and sponsors throughout one’s career. For example, mentors are someone you have a relationship with and sponsors are people who invest their capital on your behalf especially when one is not in the room.


I was the beneficiary of mentoring, for both personal and work times of my life. I saw the power of this when attending a networking event of executive women about a dozen years ago. Indra Nooyi, the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo shared the support she had throughout her career which allowed her to integrate work and family without shortchanging either. Support turned into sponsorship. Her story had me realize that she had received something special during the course of her career. It prompts the question, “How do we make it more accessible to others?” What she had been gifted allowed barriers to be dropped so she could achieve.


Mentoring today needs to start much earlier in the lives of young people of color. There is a church in Chicago, which I am affiliated with, where their youth groups are helping middle school students prepare for college.


I come from a family of teachers, preachers and social workers. When I had a sense of what I wanted to do and I was looking at advertising, my parents questioned it. My family was a labor family. My dad wanted to use his social capital to get me into the labor community. I am so grateful that my father was eventually able to see me succeed in the advertising industry.


We reach back and pull up and help others so that we can help the next generation. That is what mentoring is today.


We have a first wave of black professionals that are now retirement age. There is growing understanding that those who have come through are helping the new generation, the millennials, and Gen Z and Gen X.


Sherry: What have you observed is the most positive change in diversity and inclusion?


Gwen: I am glad to see C Suite leaders recognize the need and focus for DEI. It is clearly a business imperative. I am disappointed in the fact that I see all of these openings for leaders of DEI posted on LinkedIn and wonder what they are responsible to do and is the desired impact clear? I don’t think you will see corporate give up their profit seeking imperative. I wonder if the new Diversity champions have the necessary influence to impact real change.


One of my challenges when I led DEI initiatives was in the partnerships or lack of partnerships with the chief marketing officer or the brand officer. It was more typical to see the Chief Diversity Officer in HR. It seemed that critical dotted lines to other business leaders and the CEO were missing.

It is going to be tough to make a massive change requiring a changing of the sails. Imagine the Americas race – it is arduous race. Our journey with diversity is like changing the sails while you are racing in the America’s Cup yacht race.


Learn more about Gwen and her work on LinkedIn.

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