Howard University – Bachelor’s Degree, Speech Pathology + Minor, Psychology
University of Iowa – Master’s Degree, Speech Pathology and Audiology
A speech pathologist by training, Kelly Fair sought her degree so she could help individuals facing communication challenges. But, after managing a nonprofit college prep program for high school students on the far south side of Chicago, Kelly began to think another path – the nonprofit world – might help her best use the gifts she’s been given to aide others. She also tried out jobs in the educational and private sectors, including marketing for textbook publisher McGraw-Hill. But Kelly found she wanted to have a more direct impact on young people from the communities she grew up in and that helped to mold who she is today.
Various influences, experiences and education all taught Kelly the power of different view points, and she works hard to share that with young girls through Chicago-based girls mentoring program, Polished Pebbles. The nonprofit serves nearly 1,000 girls ages 7 to 17, with a primary focus on ensuring girls are great communicators at home, in school, and one day, in their future workplace. The workers at Polished Pebbles do this through a variety of afterschool programs in Chicago Public Schools, University of Chicago Charter Schools and for girls living in Chicago Housing Authority communities.
You have to be comfortable asking for – and receiving – help.
What is your typical day like, and how do you prioritize it?
No day is the same! Each day I’m hustling, but there are some things that are consistent. I always work out in the morning. Many times my evenings are filled with meetings, so I try to start my day at the gym, and before that with prayer and meditation. I love my gym because it’s also a great community of women from various careers and walks of life. We encourage one another’s health, wellness and fitness. It’s important I start my day with them.
What is the best career advice you have received?
When I was working at McGraw-Hill as a marketing manager it was interesting. I was a speech pathologist by training, so I hadn’t really had any formal marketing training. And there I was, a 26-year-old with an office and very few African American managers. One of my mentors whom I had connected with prior in my career gave me some advice I still remember. When I was sitting on my office chair saying, “I don’t know what to do. This is something new. I didn’t get training on this,” she said, “You are going to have to work with people, build a team and ask for help.” I’ve applied that advice daily in my career.
You have to be comfortable asking for – and receiving – help. You also need to be open-minded so when a volunteer, staff or board member says, “Why don’t you try this?” you don’t shut them out immediately. Being open to hearing them, receiving them and saying “yes.”
What are some of the challenges or worries that keep you awake at night? But at the same time, what have been some of the rewarding moments with those as well?
Payroll. It’s something huge, and I don’t know too many small business owners who could honestly say making payroll isn’t an issue. When you’re responsible for raising money, paying yourself and others, it’s a huge responsibility. It can be scary at times, especially when business is down – or even up. Also, when I’m waiting for invoices to be paid or funding to come in, it’s a challenge. You’ve got people you’re responsible for who have trusted you to keep them employed and that’s a challenge always on my mind.
The other worry is having courage. It’s tough to constantly be taking new steps and risks. Often, I think a lot of us – female or male – look and ask, “Why isn’t this being addressed? Why didn’t this person say that? Why isn’t this being done that way?” But we are often hesitant and too afraid to step out there. Being comfortable enough to step out and be in your own level of greatness and be okay with it is something that is really huge and important, but I think it’s a challenge. I think that piece-by-piece, day-by-day we can all keep pushing ourselves to bring out our courage.
What do you believe is the most important lesson Polished Pebbles teaches girls involved with the organization?
Our participants are comprised of 98% African American girls. With this in mind, I think a part of what we see with the girls we work with is a sentiment of crisis and challenge with all that’s been happening with low-income African American boys. That’s gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so. But, I think a lot of people don’t realize the urgency and effect the crisis has had on adolescent black girls who live in these same neighborhoods. They are exposed to the same threats of violence, and this aspect has been largely unaddressed.
Nobody understands what it’s like to grow up in a community with trauma. Nobody understands what it’s like to grow up with trauma in your home and what kind of pressure affects a girl before she even enters her school each day. With Polished Pebbles we try and help these girls understand that they can create a network of trusting adults. We tell our girls they can find people to trust, who they can communicate with, talk with about what’s happening at home and then find outlets to express that. But, we also teach them the importance of being mature and responsible enough to find those healthy outlets and to find ways to express feelings and communicate about what’s happening in life without taking it out on others – from teachers to peer conflicts and authority figures.
One of the ways we do this is by partnering with business likes Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, ThoughtWorks and Blue Cross Blue Shield. We provide experiences for girls to job shadow, meet with employee-mentors and learn more about how everyday women throughout the city all find ways to channel some of their challenges in their personal life into their careers. We teach them to communicate for success through this network.
Where do you see Polished Pebbles in 5 years?
Of course I want to continue to grow Polished Pebbles, but I envision it looking a bit different. We launched in 2009 and have been at this for 5 years. That means a lot of the girls we originally worked with are beginning college, and I’d like to see the Polished Pebbles experience on college campuses. With this, we could support African American girls as they go to college and equip them with a mentor, whether they’re moving to a new state or not. I also want to connect them with vital work experience and internships by partnering with universities. I want to do all I can to give them the type of experiences that will solidify them as candidates for great jobs when they graduate from school.
What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a younger version of yourself?
I wish I would have trusted myself more. There’s a part of me that feels like if I would have had the kind of confidence when I was 21 as I did now, it would have been helpful! But, to be honest, I don’t know that I would really change one thing, because my experience is what makes me an effective teacher, coach and mentor.
Is there anything else you would like to share with I Want Her Job readers?
Many young, professional women and men, particularly millennials, are very invested in philanthropy. It’s almost just an in-tune part of who they are. One aspect of my life that has served me well is being committed to service. Whether you’re training or mentoring, the process of service takes patience. I think being committed to service and helping others – and if you have a nonprofit, supporting the work of other fellow organizations in the growth of your own entity – is really key and should never stop.