Mar 04, 2019

The Life-Changing Value of Mentorship

By Heather Kelly

Photo credit: Getty Images

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, I have been asked to write a few words about my personal career path and those individuals who helped to inspire and guide me along the way.

For some of us, having an influential mentor early in life is crucial to career success and that certainly was the case for me.

I grew up in a lower socio-economic household in Queens, New York. My parents divorced when I was four years old and my sister, who was three years older and severely disabled, was in the hospital often. As a result, I bounced around a lot from house-to-house as a child. Without going into all the details, I moved out of my family home at a fairly young age, rented a room and I began to work in order to support myself.

By the time I was ready to start college, I was working three part-time jobs – a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office and a supermarket – to support myself and to pay for school. Though I was very busy and working hard, I was still looking for even more work.

A young woman I knew from school was working at a local Guardian Insurance agency and she was aware that two of the brokers were looking for a Gal Friday – someone to stuff envelopes, answer phones, do some cold-calling, whatever was needed. I was fortunate enough to get hired and this experience completely transformed my life because it exposed me to a culture that I had been totally unfamiliar with in my youth.

My mom was a nurse, my step-dad was a carpenter and my dad was a fireman. Growing up, I didn’t have any contact at all with professional people and this position expanded my horizons considerably.

I stayed with the local agency for a couple of years and then I was offered the chance to work at the company’s home office in Manhattan. Being a Queens girl, this was the most exciting thing I could possibly imagine. It was like clicking my heels together three times and being magically transported to the Big City.

And if things weren’t thrilling enough, this is also where I met my mentor – Beth Denning – who truly helped to change the course of my life.

Beth was incredible. She was so kind and generous with the attention she gave me. She was a high-level executive within Guardian and I had previously never met a woman like her. She was strong, she had confidence, she held her own, she showed up for work every day and people respected her.

When I was young, impressionable and in my formative years, she was a role model for me; someone that I could look up to and something I could aspire to. That kind of influence on a young woman’s life can’t be overstated.

She also helped me to determine my career path. I intended to study robotic engineering in college – a combination of computer science and mechanical engineering – and Beth helped me to analyze what kinds of job opportunities  might exist for me in that field after graduation.

We compared that with the opportunities that might be available in the insurance industry, especially given that I seemed to have an aptitude for the business and

I was already excelling in my work. She took the time to help me figure out what my options were, and what professional possibilities might exist for me post-college. I made the decision to establish a career in the insurance industry.

However, looking back on those years,  I think it’s important to note that for Beth’s generation of women, corporate success often came with a price. Beth and many women like her believed that in order to survive and thrive in the corporate world, they had to be 100% dedicated to the company. Beth was married but she chose not to have children.

Thankfully, things have evolved since then. I’m a Mom and an executive. I have and can do both. But we owe a debt to the women who went before us because they paved the way for us so we can have the opportunities we enjoy today.

We still have a way to go on issues like pay equity but we shouldn’t lose sight about how much some women sacrificed in order for us to be where we are today.

So many good things have happened to me since my days at Guardian. I married, moved to Florida, had a son, and over the years, my career path and professional responsibilities have greatly expanded.

But now it’s my turn to give back. I am mentoring a couple of young women who are developing and building their professional careers, and I encourage my colleagues to do the same. If we don’t reach back and pull the next generation up, they are going to have a harder time than is necessary to make their way in life.

We all stand on the shoulders of the great people who have gone before us and now it’s our turn to do the same for a younger generation.

Heather Kelly

Heather Kelly

Heather is the Vice President of Risk Management and a Chartered Financial Consultant at United Capital. She has been in the insurance industry more than 20 years and is a continual student of the industry. She was the first ever young professional to receive the ATHENA Award, that recognizes women in leadership.