Business Leader Spotlight: Kelly McKenna at Artlifting

Kelly McKenna is the COO at ArtLifting. ArtLifting’s mission is to empower homeless and disabled individuals through the celebration and sale of their artwork. Kelly will be speaking at the NGV #FundMyPassion Summit in Boston August 22nd.

Kelly was interviewed by Madisen Siegel, the President of Deerfield’s NextGenVest Chapter.

Where are you from originally?

I’m from Chicago and Palo Alto (moved when 15)

Education (College/Major)

I majored in History at Stanford and got my MBA from Harvard Business School. Also, I attended Castilleja high school, which is a NGV Chapter.

What was the inspiration behind your company?

My friend Liz, and her brother, also my friend, first came up with the concept behind ArtLifting. Liz had volunteered in homeless shelters and saw how lonely the people there were, and thought of art groups as a way to bring them together. Liz soon realized that most homeless shelters and disability centers have an art program of some sort. The artists themselves have incredible stories, and the art being made is beautiful, but most of the paintings were being put away in closets or thrown out. Liz saw the need to bring the art being created to a community of buyers, and decided to make an annual art show called City Art in Boston. It empowered homeless and disabled individuals by selling their art. City Art then expanded into the company ArtLifting as it is known today. We partner with art programs in disability centers and homeless shelters across the country to curate artwork and sell it. I got involved because I really identify with the mission of the company: celebrating the strengths of people who usually get discriminated against, people who are usually thought of as incapable or not good. My older brother is disabled. The doctors said he would never graduate from 8th grade. But my parents treated him normally, focusing on what he was good at, and he ended up graduating from college with honors. I strongly believe that focusing on someone’s positives and celebrating their talents is life-changing. For many of the homeless or disabled people ArtLifting works with, this is the first time in their lives that someone is concentrating on their strengths as opposed to their weaknesses. As of now, we work with 50 artists in 8 cities, and 5 have gained housing already. Much of their success comes from their renewed confidence (which leads to applying for housing applications and new jobs) and not solely from their new income. Also, when Liz started the company, I was just starting business school at Harvard. I had recently discovered my passion for entrepreneurship and ArtLifting was a great opportunity to follow my dreams.

What was your dream job growing up?

I love to create and build things. When I was growing up I wanted to be a doctor. Then I changed my mind in college. Early in my career after college I realized that my dream was to be an entrepreneur, and make an impact by building a company.

What does a day at your company look like?

Right now we have two shared spaces where we work in Boston. One is called MassChallenge, which is a startup accelerator similar to Grand Central Tech. ArtLifting is one of 26 winning companies, chosen out of 1700 applicants, that have access to the office space, mentors, and other educational opportunities for growth. It’s fun to talk to some of the other startup teams. Our other working area is at Harvard Launch Lab, a space available to Harvard alums. Coming up, we’ll also be working in San Diego through Tumml, another startup accelerator for companies that make an urban impact. For example, homelessness is a major problem that every city has to handle, and we’re trying to come up with a partial solution to that problem.

A typical day includes meeting with companies that are interested in purchasing the art. For example, Staples just bought a bunch of pieces to decorate their conference rooms, cafeterias, and hallways. After a company decides that they want to purchase our art, our professional curator helps pick out the style and guide the layout of the pieces. Today we’re also organizing some of the new artwork that our artists brought in. We’re in the process of signing up new artists in Chicago and Nashville and eventually selling work there. We also like to have group lunches. I’m in charge of updating the website and running our instagram, facebook, and twitter accounts.

Work will include some boring stuff as well, like signing insurance or bank statements, or guiding interns with projects. ArtLifting doesn’t only sell original paintings, but also lower priced prints, posters, iPhone cases, and greeting cards. We have really cool iPhone cases. It’s helpful to be able to offer more products to a wider audience. Also, it’s an opportunity for the artists to make more money from their artwork. So, we might be working on finding a high-quality scanner to blow up a painting for a buyer, or paying the bills for that scanner use. A day can be one hundred different types of things, and that’s fun. To run a business you have to think about all of these types of things. It’s not glamorous, but it’s exciting.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I love that my job doesn’t feel like work.

I really like the women I work with; they inspire me. We have different strengths that are all important to the business. I love the challenge of uncertainty that comes with a startup. I love the artwork that our artists make. I know each of the artists who made them and their story, and it makes me happy to see them succeed. It’s very rewarding to see tangible results from your own exertion. If we hadn’t done this, the five artists that gained housing would still be homeless.

When is a time that you felt discouraged in the process and what did you do to overcome that?

Kelly Peeler and I used to work together at JP Morgan. We were the youngest people there, at the lowest part of the hierarchy. We were working sometimes up to 12–14 hours a day, and not getting all the credit. More importantly, we were not making the impact we thought we could make. Kelly left JP Morgan, and I did too. I left to go to business school, which was scary because it’s two years of not making income. The challenge was feeling stuck at a company that pays well and looks good on a resume, but where I felt I wasn’t making an impact. It was difficult to get the courage to pursue what I wanted to do and what I knew was going to make me happy and have a good impact at the risk of failing and not being able to make the same kind of money at a time when I just spent 2 years without an income at business school. For a while during business school, I wanted to make a startup, but I was worried about how I would pay my bills. Later that continues during the beginning stages of ArtLifting. Before working there could give me a salary, I had to turn down a few job offers. I had to remind myself that being happy is more important than money.

How have you applied your past work experience to your current position?

Yes. I loved starting my career at JP Morgan, and I’m glad I did. JP Morgan was definitely a great place to start because I learned a lot about finance, management, teamwork, projects, and myself. The most important thing I learned was that no matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re learning from it, it’s worthwhile. Even though I would never go back to JP Morgan, I was able to learn from it and apply it in the future. More specifically, I learned about project management, having a diverse team, team dynamics, and how to work with different types of personalities. Also, attention to detail is super, super important for anything in life. JP Morgan is a well-run company, and I look up to the leaders of the company to learn about good and bad leadership. While there, I was able to observe how they make decisions, avoid risk, and stay innovative and healthy.

What’s a piece of career wisdom you could share with young people?

Don’t try to plan too much. When I was 16 I wanted to be a doctor, and look where I am now. Realize that you’re very young and that you have so much ahead of you. The right opportunities will come up at the right time as long as you continue to work hard.

Best piece of advice ever received

Whatever job you’re doing (no matter if you’re a garbage man or a CEO), your responsibility is to do the best you can because that’s the only way you can prove that you’re worthy of being hired for other jobs, being promoted, and taken seriously. Don’t think you’re too good to do something or a certain job.

What’s one mistake with money you made that you wish you hadn’t?

I shop too much. I don’t have a lot of money, so I haven’t had to make too many big financial decisions. But I wish I hadn’t bought as many clothes because now I don’t wear them and I’m selling them to make money.

How have your decisions with money allowed you to fund your passion?

When I went to JP Morgan, I learned a lot about the financial markets. I’ve always had a savings account, but I decided one year to invest my bonus for saving. I got really passionate about saving that money and growing it. Because I was researching and choosing the stocks, I felt the pressure to not touch it. That made it easier for me to chose to follow ArtLifting because I knew I had money that I never touched, and that now I might need it. For some reason, because my savings account was just sitting there, I found it easier to take out, say, $100, here and there. But because my other money was invested in stocks, I was diligent about putting it aside and not touching it until I needed it.

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