29 Apr 2016
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The First Five Years: Kelly McKenna (MBA 2015)

ArtLifting COO Kelly McKenna on art, inspiration, and fixing a broken sail

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Why is the mission of ArtLifting so important?

“We’re demonstrating how something as simple as optimism can change lives and create jobs. This is very powerful and very personal to me. My older brother has a rare metabolic disorder that caused him to have disabilities from a young age. His doctors predicted he wouldn’t graduate grade school, yet he graduated college with honors because my family focused on what he was capable of and believed in him.

“With ArtLifting, our mission is to empower disadvantaged individuals through the celebration—and sale—of their artwork. The celebration part is momentous. Since we launched in December 2013, we have already seen five of our formerly homeless artists gain housing; not simply because of this new opportunity to earn income, but because being validated—being shown their talent is valued rather than zeroing in on negative aspects of their situations—gives them energy and motivation to fill out housing applications or job applications that they simply didn’t have before.”

What does your role at ArtLifting involve?

“A little bit of everything! As COO, my job is to work closely with our CEO to manage our business and our people. Some of my responsibilities include overseeing finances and operations, helping set and implement company strategy, fundraising/keeping investors updated, business development, legal work, interviewing/hiring/onboarding employees, and working through a seemingly never-ending list of administrative to-dos.”

What are the most enjoyable and most challenging parts of your job?

“I enjoy watching our team continually bring new things to life, together; learn from mistakes; and gain comfort and trust with one another. I feel really lucky to have watched ArtLifting go from nothing to where we are now. Something new and big comes about every day, and each teammate has played a role in each milestone we have reached. Of course, there are always bumps in the road, but it’s been very enjoyable to see how we have dealt with challenges as a team and shared learnings as they come up.

“I find it most challenging to stay patient. There is so much we want to and could do, but there are only so many hours in a day.”

Why should companies consider purchasing art from ArtLifting?

"Oftentimes, companies come to us when they're already in the market for art. In situations like these, it's companies that align themselves with social causes or wish to bring about positive change in the world. Beyond the income these artists are receiving, the confidence and hope it instills within them touches every part of their lives. A lot of these artists bring that hope to others as well through work in therapy and support groups. It's really powerful. We have artists in 11 cities and more than 1,000 unique pieces on our site now. We've come a long way.

"From a branding perspective, a lot of companies are aligning themselves with social causes to appeal to a younger demographic, who do the same. Companies want their brand associated with ArtLifting's message of empowerment for artists who are homeless or disabled. Customers see that. Clients see that. More importantly, employees and CEOs are reminded of it every day. And then externally, the opportunities for unique product branding, custom art layouts, or employee gifting are endless. We take a lot of pride in partnering with companies like Staples, Microsoft, and Bain & Co; we even just partnered with HBS. One of our Boston artists, Allen Chamberland, who specializes in papercutting, is making five original pieces of iconic buildings on HBS's campus.”

How do you use what you learned at HBS in your role as COO of ArtLifting?

“So far, the biggest learnings from HBS that I have noticed myself directly applying relate to strategy, decision making, and communication.

“We are a team of six, meaning each team member is responsible for 17% of the company’s progress. When thinking about our strategy and how to communicate it to teammates, I walk myself through the list of each class in the RC first-semester curriculum as a sort of outline/checklist. It’s an organized way to think about how an individual’s role relates to other individuals’ goals and, collectively, to the company’s goals.

“When it comes to decision making and communication, HBS taught me that, while there is never a ‘right answer,’ effective leaders must always 1) have an opinion; 2) support this opinion with data; 3) be open to other opinions; and 4) ask questions. Post-HBS, I am more opinionated, analytical, and inquisitive than I used to be, and notably more confident in defending and adjusting my opinions. I make an active effort to instill this approach in my teammates so we can all make more thoughtful decisions.”

Are you an artist? If you are, what's your favorite medium to work in?

“I believe that everyone is an artist. Not everyone is necessarily aware of this or embraces it, but I think the more we connect with our artistic sides, the more creative and expressive, and—in my experience—happier, we become.

“I’m terrible at visual art, though I love to look at it. My preferred artistic medium is music—I played the piano and violin and sang competitively from age five through high school. I don’t have as much time for it anymore, but, growing up, it helped me to relax, to engage with and develop my own creativity, and gave me an emotional outlet when I needed it. Listening to music is still very therapeutic for me. Seeing how art has helped our artists express themselves and heal has made me want to take on painting, too.”

Which HBS course (or courses) had the most profound impact on you, and why?

“LEAD with Professor Raffaelli (thanks, Ryan!). In the end, human dynamics are the only real lever we can pull, and they are incredibly hard to learn. A business can get everything else right, but if the human dynamics aren’t what they need to be—both internally and externally (for example, with clients)—potential is limited. On the flip side, if the human dynamics are strong, magic can happen.”

Can you describe your first cold call and how you responded?

“It was first-semester RC year in TOM, with Pian Shu. I hadn’t spoken in a while, so I expected it might be coming. Even so, it did catch me off guard. I knew right away that I would have to state and defend my ‘opinion,’ but I hadn’t decided what my opinion was. Rather than say that, I just chose the first argument that came to mind and went with it. I think maybe one-third of the class agreed with me in the end, which, in an HBS case discussion and in life, I’ve learned, is a decent outcome.”

As an accomplished sailor, what parallels, if any, do you see between sailing and your career?

“I think athletics always have close parallels to business. Some examples I have noticed throughout my (very short) career include:

  1. “Being able to recognize and collaborate with diverse working styles. Part of my role on a sailboat during college was to be a sounding board for my partners, keeping them calm and in their best state of mind to sail their fastest and forget about mistakes quickly. Each of my partners had very different personalities, sailing styles, and ways of reacting to setbacks. In order to be an effective partner, I had to recognize these differences and adapt my actions accordingly. I think this kind of mindset is important for any effective manager or teammate to be able to take on.
  2. “Making decisions with limited information and adjusting as necessary. In sailing, you have absolutely no control over the two biggest influences on your speed—wind and water. But you learn to take clues as to what either the wind or the water might do, depending on factors like temperature, cloud patterns, wind direction, and time of day. Synthesizing those factors, you have to decide how you think you can best position yourself to win. You won’t always get it right, but neither will your competitors. What matters is that you stay aware of the indicators, reflect and incorporate learnings, and keep trying your best. It’s the same in business. You can only control what you can control, and it’s up to you to optimize those factors. Planning ahead, communicating, anticipating, and being flexible are all important.
  3. “The importance of building teams and relationships that stay calm during crises. I remember during an important race in college that my partner and I were winning, a line (rope) suddenly snapped that could have put us out of the race. You don’t get to bring a toolbox on your boat with you, but there are enough other lines on the boat that you can almost always construct a makeshift fix, if you can stay calm and creative. Fortunately, this partner and I had a trusting relationship and constant communication flow; so when this happened, once we decided how we could fix it, actually moving forward with the fix was essentially an autopilot experience, and we still won the race. For me, that was really cool to experience how trust and communication are so key for teams in surviving these kinds of crisis situations.”

Can you finish this statement? “Great art is…”

“Genuine.”

Learn more about ArtLifting at http://www.artlifting.com/, and follow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ArtLifting.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2015, Section H

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