INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: SARAH CLAYTON
Keshila Vallot Shannon is the Head of Marketing. She was interviewed as part of an ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.
From her grandfather unleashing crawdads on her as a child to present, where she started a Girl Scouts’ Troop for 12 kindergartners, Keshila, or Kesh, peppers her answers with personal anecdotes. And they’re funny! We laugh our way through the interview and take brief detours to discuss life philosophies. We discover common Southern mentalities of not fighting what you can’t change and a shared love of shrimp and grits. She’s somehow everything you would expect from a woman in her position and yet completely unexpected. Tenacious to the point where you wonder how she fits it all in, (her secret, it turns out, is multiple calendars) she’s a taskmaster who has earned every single opportunity that came her way.
Her Back Story
Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood, what was your life like?
I was born in San Francisco, California and grew up in the East Bay. My parents are from the South, Dad’s from Louisiana, Mom’s from Arkansas, and they came from very big families (mom from a family of 15 and dad from a family of 6). I grew up thinking everybody had as many cousins and aunts and uncles as I did, so when I came across somebody who had one aunt or one uncle; I didn’t know how to process that – I would be like but what happened to everybody else? I do remember saying that to my friends, and they were just looking at me like well what’s going on with your family? Why are there so many cousins?
I’m really big into Ancestry.com, understanding my heritage and my lineage and just where people come from. Having parents from the South, there’s a mixture of culture and how they raised their children. My dad was in the Navy, he grew up in a very strict household and had all sisters – so he wanted boys. He got two girls. He was very strict with me and my sister, we very much grew up with the expression children are meant to be seen and not heard. We would go to other people’s houses and would have to be very well mannered – it was “yes”. Not “yeah” – yeah would get you in trouble. It was very much Southern traditions. All the cooking, all the food and my grandmother visiting every summer or us going to them. Very, family first. I consider myself a California girl by way of the South. I still do all the Southern traditions: Black-eye peas are reserved for New Year’s (it brings good luck), when you do gumbo, how you clean and cook greens, and peach cobbler is a way of life – you could smell it coming. I very much cling to the food, and I cling to the tradition of the South, but at the same time, I’m very much a California girl. I’m teaching that to my kids. Work hard, was what my parents instilled, have a plan, save money, know how to cook and eat, and be independent.
Apart from the South, were there any other major influences you think shaped who you are now?
The other interesting thing about my childhood is while African American is my ethnicity, I grew up in a very non-diverse area. You could count the minorities on one hand, and it didn’t change until I reached high school. That was a challenge: knowing that there weren’t very many people that looked or talked like you. That every time you did something that people did not understand you would continuously be fielding questions. Like why does your hair look like that or feel like that? Why do you look like that? Why do you eat that? I was answering questions every day, all day by everyone, constantly.
I don’t know how else to say this and be politically correct, but it teaches you to blend. You either blend or you don’t blend – and some people who decide to blend will either blend and lose who they are, or they’ll blend and they’ll have “on time” and “off time”. For me and my sister, we would blend. During the day we would dress, talk, and behave one way to fit in and when we got home or around family we would relax and be more natural. We always felt like there were two sides to our personalities and lives. Some people say I come across very guarded or like there’s a wall. I think the wall is from growing up and trying to limit the focus and attention where I didn’t want it. To always get questions about who you are because you’re different is frustrating, and growing up that way you just get tired.
Her Career Path
Can you tell me about your career path, how did you get to be where you are today?
I initially wanted to be a fashion designer, but my dad was like “you cannot live at home forever”, so I went to school for Business Admin and took some Psychology classes which I enjoyed. I discovered there was a different program where I could meld the two together, so I went and started studying Industrial Organizational Psychology. I had this fascination with people in the workplace. I signed up for all these different programs and participated in volunteer studies, research, etc. My dad had the mentality that if you wanted something, you should pay for it. I could live at home, but I had to pay for everything else. So, I worked full-time, sometimes two jobs, and I paid for my school from beginning to end. Nothing was free. It made me very strong and independent.
One of the jobs I had through college was working in the gift and craft industry at a company called Rubber Stampede. We made rubber stamps and I had cool clients like MTV and Disney. I started to do more marketing, including trade shows, and I was good at it – but at the time I was still going to school and pursuing this other interest in Psychology and HR. At some point, however, I had to finish school, which I took the scenic route to do, and I needed to make more money. I couldn’t live off peanuts forever. I remember trying to get a ‘real job’ at Bank of the West as an HR Coordinator. They brought me in, interviewed me and said “you’d be good for this Marketing Coordinator role.”
I ended up taking this Marketing gig and the Executive Vice President of my division said to me “what are you doing with yourself?” I took a moment and asked myself: “am I working in HR, or am I doing Marketing?” That’s when I decided to go back to school and pursue a Master’s degree in Marketing. I decided to find Marketing opportunities which allowed me to pursue the psychology aspects, which is all of marketing technically. I haven’t always worked in tech but I enjoy tech because there’s a creative side to it and people are passionate. I tend to like the products I’ve worked on, even though they’ve all been very different. I like that every day is a new opportunity or puzzle or challenge for me to focus on.
How do you deal with the challenges you are currently facing in your role?
My department is at a point of transformation which is key to the success of the organization. It’s a good time to be in the Marketing department. Our goals are big and achievable, and we are passionate and motivated. One of my main goals is to support my team and give them the tools they need to succeed. I genuinely believe that we succeed and fail together. We all have our pet projects, and those are different but we are first and foremost a team. My every day should be strategy and planning but because we are changing and growing, I dig-in. I roll-up my sleeves and I execute too.
My team is my family, and I want to take care of them. I am tempted to say it’s the Southerner in me, but I think it’s the human in me (perhaps in many of us). There will always be challenges in any given role both professionally and personally. Right now, I am under-resourced doing multiple jobs myself, and I am trying to hire quickly without sacrificing quality. How I deal is to try and stay centred so I can always put my best self forward and to have patience with myself and with others and to achieve a reasonable work-life balance. Not every day is 50/50 with balance. Some days are 70/30, 90/10, but if I normalize out my week, month, or even year it should feel balanced, and I should feel at peace. After all, if you love what you do that too has rewards and provides a balance.
I am also a religious person, so I go to church every Sunday. If you’re not religious that’s fine, find your church (religion) in whatever or wherever it may be. I have a friend who goes to the beach every Sunday. Whatever it is, find your quiet space and be protective of yourself as much as you can. Know your limits and don’t be afraid to say no. It has taken me awhile to learn to say no and to know when you don’t fit – and it’s ok not to fit. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or that you failed. It just means that this isn’t the right role, job, product, company or department, for you and it’s ok to move on. I have had to make those decisions in my past, and all those decisions have led me to where I am today.
Speaking of moving on, have you ever had an instance where something didn’t work out, and you’ve realized that you’re better off for it?
My senior year of high school, I was someone who was in everything. I did sports, clubs, student council; I was senior class president – I did everything. I applied to colleges; I did everything you’re supposed to do: take your PSATs, take your SATs, get your score – you know we were all headed off into the future. I was accepted into university when my bubble was popped. I had not had the conversation with my parents about school, and costs. I didn’t know. My dad has an associates Arts degree, and I have an aunt who has a Bachelor’s Degree, but apart from that, no one else in my family had a degree. My parents weren’t aware of costs; there was no internet, no email, none of this stuff. My dad was completely unprepared. His goal for me was to go to college, get a job, find a husband and “go get married!” But at the same time be smart, be independent, and learn a lot. It was mixed messages.
My parents told me that they were not going to pay for College and they thought my next steps were to attend a junior college; it broke my heart. I had done all this work through high school and, at that time, I thought “what a waste”. I could have just done nothing; I could have sat at home and watched 90210. After it was all said and done, I went to junior college. It hadn’t even occurred to me to go: why would I? I had good grades, I had all the activities, and I checked all the boxes. But, it worked out great because in that plan B, I went from being a Business Major to an Industrial Organizational Psychology Major and I ended up graduating with a degree in Psychology from a four-year institution that I transferred to. If I had started in a four-year school, it would have cost a whole lot more money and it would have taken me even longer to get there. It was better for me to have the opportunity to make my own choices because I was paying for it, so I could do what I wanted to do. That part backfired on my parents by the way, because they lost the ability to have a ‘say’ in my choices. I was like ”you raised me to be independent, so welcome to independent Kesh.”
You do the best you can; it’s important to not always be pessimistic and understand every experience is there for a reason and just embrace it as much as you can.
Her Lived Experience
How do you find balancing being the Head of Marketing and a mother?
Me and my husband have to partner, so we divide and conquer – we don’t have family nearby. If we want to go on a date night, I need to find a babysitter. It gets hard and we sometimes have to say no to things. I’ve been planning summer since November – I need to pick the camps I’ll send my kids to, when I am visiting family. For me planning, having calendars – both virtual and printed – is very key to my existence. I would say that I have to just make myself be present with my kids. Every so often we have an emergency happen with work and I need to stay later or I’m home and I’m trying to finish something – and that’s ok, because those things happen. But I’ve had jobs where this would happen every single night. I would be at work until one in the morning, come home to sleep for a few hours and then be back in my car again at six in the morning, drive three hours to get to work, do a long day, drive home three or four hours, cook dinner, get someone where they needed to be and then do it all again. That’s not sustainable, but that’s what happens to a lot of working mothers and there’s a stigma.
This is kind of what I mean when I say I go to Church on Sunday. I’m like “I need to go into this week with these things coming at me, both professionally and at home, how do I centre myself so that I don’t lose my mind?“ The last thing I want is to be sick and miss this time with my kids because I’ve worked my way into an illness. I want to do everything health wise to be present.
I live in a community, where 50% are working moms and 50% are not. And non-working moms place a lot of judgement on the working moms. It’s hard when you know you are going to miss many of your kid’s activities. Mom guilt is real. Sometimes I’ve taken a role backward so I can have more time with my family. But my kids know that mommy (and daddy) works. And they know why I work and what it provides. They understand that we are blessed. At the end of the day, I brought these people into the world. My promise to them is to give them a solid childhood that they can build their adult lives off of, because they are going to be adult’s way longer then they will be children and by setting the example of hard work (just like my parents did for me) is a lasting example that teaches ten-fold responsibility.
The digital age is an interesting time to be a parent, how do you navigate raising your kids amongst all the noise?
I pull from all parenting approaches. I make sure that we do crafts and we’ll make sure to have chill Saturdays or Sundays when we can. My kids are both in boy/girl scouts because I want them to have that balance of surviving in the wilderness, which is different for them. I blend – I have handed my kids an iPad, they know how to turn on the TV and that Disney Junior is channel 123. There’s a mix of technology, and I don’t fault any mom that leans on it. I remember answering the pediatrician questions like how often does your kid watch television and thinking “What’s the answer verses the answer I should say?” I’m doing the best for them, and every dynamic household is different. At the end of the day if my kids are healthy, happy, adjusted and play well – then that’s what matters.
You have the floor – any words of wisdom you want to leave readers with?
You have a lot of your life to work. Don’t rush through college. If you have the means, use that money wisely to enjoy college. Study abroad, do internships because at the end when you graduate, you don’t get that time back, so really should enjoy it. That was a different experience for me, I worked all through college and I felt like I didn’t really get the college experience, so I’m very sensitive to that. That’s something I have in mind for my kids to make sure they do get the college experience. Then you graduate college and you wonder if you should get a Masters or join the workforce – don’t go get a Masters, join the workforce.
When I was pursuing my Masters, I had some peers who graduated from four years of university, took a semester off and then jumped right into a Masters’ program. You have no work experience at that point, so you’re asking questions that the rest of us are looking at you like “if you had just worked for one year, in one corporate job you would not ask these questions.” You want to get the balance of book smart and work smart to help get you through (successfully), and I think you would get a lot more out of an advanced degree with this approach rather than going to school one right after another. Unless you want to be a Doctor, then go get all that knowledge ASAP. But if you’re studying business, or something in that realm, stop, work and then go back. It’s harder, it is, but you will get more out of it.
Network. I know that everyone says that, but there’s so much value in reaching out to people who inspire you. My suggestion is find people who inspire you, connect with them, build a sincere relationship that is two-way. it’s not about buying them coffee, just be genuine to what it is you want to accomplish and who you are.
Give yourself a break off social media. Stop looking at what the Jones’s are doing – it will drive you insane. Social Media is great and it has its perks, but it has so many cons – in my opinion it isn’t life. It’s a degradation of that emotional skill where people have a hard time relating to each other in person. From a Marketing standpoint, it has its value but from a personal standpoint, limit your exposure so you don’t forget how to relate to each other. It’s in those 1:1 relationships that we forge the bonds and we grow. We don’t want to forget nor lose that.
There is saying that my grandmother would always say and I live by it daily (and my kids know it all too well): A closed mouth does not get fed. Use your voice – be heard.
The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.