2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Kendra Kelly, Washington University (Olin)

Kendra Kelly

Washington University in St. Louis, Olin Business School

“A diversity, equity and inclusion champion committed to building communities representative of and for all.”

Hometown: King of Prussia, PA

Fun fact about yourself: I was a staffer with the 2008 Obama for America presidential campaign in St. Louis, MO, where I worked to bring out the youth vote. While working in St. Louis, I  worked on WashU’s campus with various student groups aiding our get-out-the-vote efforts. Little did I know, I’d return many years later as an MBA candidate.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Georgia State University | BA Political Science & BA Journalism

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Experience LLC, Senior Direct Channel Marketing Manager

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Colgate-Palmolive, New York, NY (remote)

Where will you be working after graduation? L’Oréal USA, Chief of Staff, L’Oréal Luxe Division

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Graduate Business Student Association President
  • Student Ambassador Co-director
  • 2019 Women’s and Diversity Weekend planning committee member
  • 2020 Women’s and Diversity Weekend planning committee member
  • 2020 Admit Weekend planning committee member
  • Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management Fellow
  • Wallace L. Jones Fellowship Award
  • Olin Racial Equity task force member
  • MBA 2021 Class Gift Campaign Co-chair

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? When I reflect on my WashU Olin MBA experience, I am most proud of my consistent efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at the school. I began working with Admissions early upon my arrival to recruit more underrepresented minority candidates. I became much more intentional in my efforts to advance DEI at WashU Olin and empowered to challenge our administration following the murder of George Floyd. As a student leader, I knew that if I wanted meaningful changes to WashU Olin’s DEI strategy, I needed to engage our administration in difficult and candid conversations. I knew it would not be enough to present the challenges—I also needed to present solutions. This ushered in a longstanding partnership with the dean of our business school and other key stakeholders, including creating a Racial Equity Task Force. The task force was charged with formulating strategic and measurable DEI priorities for WashU Olin that will impact students, faculty and staff, alumni and the broader St. Louis community.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I led a complex platform migration that required immense cross-functional collaboration across multiple internal teams. The migration was fraught with challenges from the start. I learned powerful leadership lessons, managing up to my executive team, and working cross-functionally with team members whose skills ranged from highly technical to not at all technical. The experience was a marathon, not a sprint. Still, the project ultimately ended successfully when our team migrated more than 1.3 million SMS subscribers to a new shortcode and retained over 95% of our text message opt-ins. This allowed us to generate additional revenue-driving opportunities through advanced text message marketing strategies. Of all my accomplishments, this is the one I think about most often as it taught me incredible lessons that I still draw upon today when leading high-impact, cross-functional teams.

Why did you choose this business school? I was blown away by WashU Olin’s revamped full-time MBA program and the emphasis placed on creating globally-minded leaders, a vision realized through our innovative Global Immersion program. I couldn’t believe that I would have the opportunity to spend weeks traveling around the world while working on client projects and exploring various industries. Thanks to the emphasis WashU Olin placed on having a global MBA, before my first year in business school ended, I traveled for a total of 7 weeks and conducted business in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. No other school provided me with those options—especially at no additional cost. As a result of my experience, I am confident that I can successfully conduct business anywhere and with anyone.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? My favorite MBA event is our annual Women’s and Diversity Weekend. I remember attending as a prospective student and marveling over how genuine WashU Olin’s community felt, the diversity I could see represented in the students and the students’ incredible accomplishments during the program. There was something different about WashU Olin’s community that I did not experience anywhere else. WashU Olin felt like a family, one where I could be my authentic self.

It wasn’t until I had the honor to help plan this event that I realized what made this event so special–the willingness of my many classmates (regardless of their gender(s) and race(s) to participate throughout the weekend to welcome our prospective students, share their experiences, and offer to be a resource not just during the weekend, but throughout the MBA journey. That same enthusiasm from our Olin community did not waiver when we transitioned to a virtual Women’s and Diversity Weekend. A prospective student who attended in person the year before told me that we still captured the essence of what makes our community so incredible virtually. At WashU, we say we want to get to know students by “name, face and story”—I certainly felt that as a prospective student and continuously see examples of that even today. I look forward to attending Women’s and Diversity Weekend as an alumna and continuing to showcase our one-of-a-kind community.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? If there’s one thing I’m kicking myself for, it’s that I did not take an entrepreneurship class with Doug Villhard, our professor of practice in entrepreneurship and the director of the entrepreneurship platform. Doug is a wildly accomplished entrepreneur who has created and sold companies for millions of dollars. He does not have to teach but does it because he genuinely enjoys imparting his wisdom on budding entrepreneurs—and it shows. Students LOVE his classes. Realizing in my final semester that I should have taken a class with him, I put time on his calendar for a one-on-one to introduce myself, learn more about him and – despite it being a poor substitute to taking one of his classes – receive book and article recommendations to get my entrepreneurship wheels turning. Like all Olin professors, Doug didn’t hesitate to sit down for a virtual coffee chat. A great relationship has evolved from that exchange, for which I’m incredibly grateful. That said, I still wish I took at least one of his classes!

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I worked hard to build genuine relationships across the program. From admissions to current students and alumni, I got to know people with whom I truly connected. This allowed me to feel comfortable asking the tough questions to ensure WashU Olin was the right place for me and also gave me ample opportunities to share my story and aspirations. I realized if Olin was the type of place that wanted to get to know me by “name, face and story,” then I was going to do just that.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? This is challenging as I admire so many of my classmates. I’ve seen us band together and support each other in a multitude of ways—even before the pandemic. I can’t say enough wonderful things about this amazing community of ours. That said, the classmate I most admire is Lori Witherspoon. From the moment I met Lori, I was wowed by her brilliance and the deeply analytical yet creative lens through which she views the most demanding challenges facing business and society as a whole. One of the things that I admire most about Lori is her commitment to community. Lori sits on numerous councils and boards representing Olin within the larger WashU community. She is even investing her time during the MBA aligning her passion for creating equitable and inclusive workforce development opportunities for underrepresented minorities with her coursework and career aspirations. With students like Lori who take advantage of the wealth of options afforded to WashU Olin students to advance their entrepreneurial ambition, it is no surprise that WashU Olin is the number one school for entrepreneurship. Beyond being an incredible teammate and one of our class’s brightest minds, Lori is a wonderful friend to so many in our class. I cannot wait to see the impact Lori has on the world post-MBA.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? Even before the pandemic changed life as we knew it, I considered my classmates to be some of the most resilient people I have ever met. So, it came as no surprise to me that once we learned the extent of the ways COVID would change our lives, most community members were immediately trying to make the best of things amidst our grief for the way things were ending for our first year. I had only just become president of my student body a few weeks before and knew I had a responsibility to ensure classmates transitioned as smoothly as possible and that we provided outlets for virtual community building.

I am proud to say that our community has held strong despite the challenges, and WashU Olin has done a good job of providing access to resources to aid students in this transition personally, professionally and academically. I’ll admit, this last year has been challenging for me as I’m deeply social. I loved the random coffee chats that turned into life-affirming moments at the Starbucks in our building, bumping into a professor and out of that conversation learning a new interesting detail about her life, or the impromptu study sessions that would take place in the grad lounge. My peers and I have done our best to recreate these moments virtually while bringing the first years into the fold and helping them get acclimated, but it is certainly a different experience.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? I actually did not pursue business in college. In fact, I intentionally ran as far away from it as possible. I studied a double major in political science and journalism to emulate the career of one of my favorite journalists, Soledad O’Brien. That quickly changed once I realized I didn’t want to live my life in constant search of the next big story. My first supervisor, Amos Gelb, took a chance and hired me for my first marketing role. Before I knew it, Amos convinced the girl who stayed away from businesses in undergrad to get an MBA. Years later, with the guidance of my former CEO, Junior Gaspard, I began researching MBA programs through the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management. The rest is history.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list?

1. According to a 2019 Essence study, the spending power of Black women in the US within the beauty industry is $7.5B— 80% more in cosmetics and twice as much in skincare than non-black consumers. We have significant buying power but have been long considered an afterthought—despite being tastemakers. I would like to create an incubator that helps promising black entrepreneurs in beauty gain access to the resources needed to successfully scale their businesses. Black beauty consumers desire to be celebrated, seen and heard with products reflective of our needs that encompass the brilliance of Black Girl Magic.

2. A key strategic pillar of the WashU Olin MBA experience is being values-based and data-driven. Throughout my MBA, particularly in the collaborative opportunities, WashU Olin provided through courses in partnership with the Brookings Institution, I’ve been challenged to think about business’s role in creating policies and legislation that impact the masses. I am eager to take this values-based foundation and apply it to my business career and later serve through public office. I hope to revitalize communities long oppressed by institutional racism through a values-based and data-driven approach. In the past, I thought of careers in politics and business as two separate tracks. Thanks to my Olin MBA, I can envision a path where these experiences work in concert to achieve positive outcomes for communities in need.

What made Kendra such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021?

“Kendra has been an outstanding member of the WashU Olin community, in and out of the classroom. She quickly emerged as a natural leader among her peers and willingly took on a variety of roles, ranging from student ambassador co-director to president of the Graduate Business Student Association. Whether managing a team of 35 student ambassadors to enhance our MBA recruiting efforts or identifying opportunities to attract the very best students to our program, Kendra has consistently jumped at opportunities to serve our WashU Olin community.

One particular way Kendra has found her voice as a leader at WashU Olin is through her desire to advance diversity, equity and inclusion across WashU Olin Business School. Following the death of George Floyd, Kendra repeatedly engaged me in thoughtful and candid discussions about ways we could advance Olin’s DEI strategies. These discussions led me to create a Racial Equity Task Force to develop a clear and implementable strategic plan for DEI at WashU Olin. As a respected student leader and known DEI advocate, I was pleased Kendra accepted my invitation to join the task force. It was a joy to see Kendra’s impact grow as the task force progressed over the summer and fall. Her perspective was truly invaluable.

Kendra came to WashU Olin ready to transform her career and, in doing so, helped to transform our community. She did this while maintaining a sense of positivity and abounding energy amidst a demanding academic schedule in which she has shone. It’s not surprising that Kendra received very attractive job offers: the future is bright for a business leader with so much initiative, integrity and a keen ability to connect with others. We shall miss her as she graduates, but she will always be part of WashU Olin and always a great representative of the school.”

Mark P. Taylor
Dean and Donald Danforth, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Finance
John M. Olin School of Business
Washington University in St. Louis


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