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Meet Kellie Wagner of Collective in Mid-city

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kellie Wagner.

Kellie, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’m the child of an interracial union. My mom, who was Black, died when I was seven, and I was raised by various relatives on my dad’s side in often all-White neighborhoods and households in suburban and rural Ohio. Being biracial and often being the “only” in the room made me super in tune with cultural differences and bias from very early on.

My passion for bridging cultural divides led me to pursue journalism and later non-fiction writing as a graduate student in NYC, but it wasn’t until I took my first “real” job in corporate America that I began to understand just how deeply our differences were shaping people’s experiences at work.

I spent my 20s job- and industry-hopping trying to find a place where I felt like I belonged, a place where I felt supported and empowered as a woman of color. At some point, I think I realized that this feeling wasn’t unique to me and the dynamics of bias and exclusion weren’t siloed in a particular industry.

Like many entrepreneurs before me, I found a problem that I wanted to solve for myself, and I took the skills that I’d developed over my years in tech and branding to build out Collective, a diversity, equity, and inclusion company that helps build organizational cultures and practices that empower all people at work, not just those from majority groups.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My journey to success with Collective has definitely not been easy. I spent a good chunk of my career in venture-backed startups and tech companies, so my understanding of how to grow a business was centered around spending excessively in dogged pursuit of growth.

Small, revenue-driven businesses do not work that way. I made hiring mistakes that I couldn’t afford, had to learn how to be a manager of people for the first time, and struggled to figure out all the business side of things like pricing and financial models in the most painful of ways.

Right before COVID-19, we found ourselves falling further and further behind financially and reduced our staff to a lean full-time team of two and a handful of contractors. A long-time client of ours pre-paid for future work to keep us afloat. When COVID-19 began to hit businesses hard in March, our entire pipeline of prospects disappeared overnight. It was devastating. I literally thought we were through. The first round of PPP ran out of funding and we didn’t get approved in time.

Thankfully, we received the loan on the second wave of funding and were able to hold on a little longer. And then Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd blew the nation apart and overnight we went from crickets to hundreds of inquiries a week. Our team has grown to 12 full-time employees since June just to be able to keep up with the work, and we’ll likely be closer to 20 before the end of the year. 2020 has been wild in so so many ways.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Collective is a diversity, equity, and inclusion company, which means that we help brands and startups assess their company culture, policies, and practices to make sure they work for all their employees, not just some. We spend time with their employees, surveying them and talking to them in one on one interviews or focus groups to understand how the company helps them do their best work and where their identities actually shape their experiences in less than positive ways.

We work with our clients to bring their employees into the solutioning process, building out long-term, holistic strategies for making sure that their company is fair, just, and inclusive of people from all different backgrounds, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, parental status– the list goes on. Our goal is for companies to be able to successfully build teams that reflect the actual world around us and to help those teams thrive so that the products and solutions they create can better serve the world.

One of the things that makes me most proud of Collective is the fact that we are incredibly values-driven– from humility and curiosity to our commitment to true partnership and integrity in our work– our values show up not only in the way we work with our client partners but also internally with each other.

We are incredibly human-focused while being grounded and impact-driven. It’s been cool to see our imprint on some of my personal favorite brands and companies.

What were you like growing up?
I was all over the place growing up! I had step-siblings and a half-sister, but I was primarily raised as an only child and really loved being with the adults and taking center stage. I did musical theatre from the time that I was nine until I graduated high school and would run around the house singing “Tomorrow” from Annie.

I was pretty stubborn, curious, and competitive. I was a huge bookworm and kind of a nerd, in general, despite doing all the stereotypical stuff like cheerleading and student council. In elementary school, I was in a before-school math club that met weekly and built a virtual Jeopardy game using Powerpoint that got presented to all the district teachers as an illustration of how to use Powerpoint in the classroom. (I am aging myself!)

I also loved to draw and was (and still am!) a huge animal lover!

Contact Info:

  • Website: www.hello-collective.com
  • Email: team@hello-collective.com
  • Instagram: collectivedei
  • Twitter: collectivedei

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