Spotlight: Q&A with Kelly Fair

Kelly Fair is founder and executive director of Polished Pebbled Girls Mentoring Program. She was paired with Eleanor ‘Tabi’ Haller-Jorden, president and CEO of The Paradigm Forum GmbH, a global consultancy and think tank operating at the intersection of social justice and workplace innovation. Here is our conversation with Kelly, reflecting on experiences shared during GAP Chicago 2017. See also Tabi’s blog about working with Kelly.

What interested you in the Global Ambassadors Program (GAP)?

I was interested in GAP after I was recommended and referred by Topher Wilkins from another international program that I participated in a couple of years ago. And, even though my organization is Chicago-based, and we’re just starting to grow nationally, I see the importance of thinking bigger, especially considering we’ve grown the program from two to now having served two thousand girls just here in the local Chicagoland area. So, my thinking and strategizing is moving beyond just the south side of Chicago, thinking beyond the USA, and I’m beginning to ponder what the issues are affecting girls and women all over the world. And one of the things that I think is really critically important is although there are sometimes some distinct differences, at the end of the day, in a lot of places all over the world they’re all the same girl with the same issues.

Kelly Fair introduces herself and Polished Pebbles to mentors, mentees and trainers at GAP Chicago

I wrote a book entitled They’re All the Same Girl to talk about the differences between girls in the African American community that we serve in Polished Pebbles. But, when you look at the issues and challenges girls and women are having all over the world when it comes to poverty, when it comes to equal rights, and participating in the work force, it’s a lot of the same issues. So when I’m working with my colleagues from across the globe I can learn about innovative things that they’re doing to solve some of the issues women and girls are facing in their part of the world. So GAP for me has been a sharing of ideas, opportunities, and ways that we can increase the impact that we have with Polished Pebbles here, and beyond.

Has any element of the program stood out to you as surprisingly effective or meaningful or relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish?

I think the constant focus on respecting diversity and women’s leadership among this group stands out the most. It’s been great to learn not only from the GAP mentors, but also learning from the stories and tips shared by my fellow GAP mentees. As a social entrepreneur, it seems like keeping the organization afloat is often my utmost concern. With organizational survival as a primary focus, it’s easy to forget about making sure I’m giving enough attention to leadership development among the women on my staff and leadership team. Tabi has been really helpful in ensuring that I stay focused on making sure my entire team is really well versed on our mission, and more importantly why I’m so inspired by the mission as the leader.

Kelly and Tabi describe their journey together — lessons learned and plans for change at Polished Pebbles

This week, Tabi has been constantly teaching me and reminding me of the importance of sharing my passion, sharing the mission, sharing the vision, and the detailed aspects of my work with my team to empower them to lead. Additionally, these steps this will equip my team to continue to enhance both the mission and vision. With this “sharing” as one of my newly adopted best practices, my team will continue to create innovative approaches to achieving our mission of ensuring the employability of young women in the future workplace. So, my new goal is to think less in terms of  “I,” and thinking more in terms of “we,” and sharing the leadership with my team. With the shared focus on staying on mission, I know we’ll be opening the door to creating space for the growth of the diverse leadership of the women on our team. 

Can you identify an interesting takeaway from the GAP week experience?

As women we are constantly trying to play so many roles as we’re working to advance our missions. So, I know for me there’s such a vast and diverse group of stakeholders that I work with. I’m often trying to be what I think will be “appropriate” for the girls, for parents, for school and business partners, etc. But, with all that morphing into what I think will be considered “appropriate,” sometimes I feel like I might be potentially losing my own voice. In one of our GAP workshop conversations we discussed how important it is for us to preserve our vital voices, our authentic voices, in our work in our organizations. We acknowledged that as female leaders it’s important to make sure we’re speaking our truth, and being our authentic selves in our work no matter how tough that may be. Lifting my voice as a female leader doesn’t always have sound, or look the same either. I’m learning new tools from Tabi on how I can successfully have impact. But, I’m also learning that being impactful doesn’t have to be “loud,” or “obvious.” In fact, I’m excited to learn new ways to create change, in ways that aren’t always so detectable. I’ll be gaining confidence that these new approaches don’t detract from my authenticity as a female leader, it’s just another way of coming at it. I’ll be a force that they won’t even see coming! 

Do you have any advice for future GAP mentees? 

My advice to incoming GAP mentees is to know that your voice is really needed in this space. Sometimes there are negative perceptions, beliefs, and myths that may be perpetuated about the communities, ethnic groups, or parts of the globe we represent. Mistakenly, we may also adopt these negative perceptions, and attribute them to our own perceived worth as leaders. So I think it’s critically important that you be open to the high value of what you have to bring to even an accomplished group of global female leaders like with GAP. I remember a good portion in the early days of me running this business, I was happy to be invited to the “party.” The “party” being partnerships, programming opportunities, sponsorships, etc. I was less experienced, so I often would be thinking things like, “Thank you business XYZ for inviting me to this event…or partnering with me.” And then when I got to the “party,” I realized the “party” is often much better when I’m there anyway. And, in some cases, the “party” didn’t start until I got there. These are in fact many of the lessons that we share with some of our Polished Pebbles mentees, especially those at Duke University, who are all young women of color. We’re helping them to not think about their diversity as an obstacle, but instead consider how their diversity, and perspectives make them an asset to their university, and future workplaces. So, I think if I was to give that advice to a mentee it would be that your diverse experiences and opinions should be shared, because others can learn from you, and taking the risk to share your truth may provide a voice for someone else thinking the same thing, but too afraid to speak up. And, that is leadership personified.

Kelly and Tabi, GAP Chicago 2017