After 20 years helping low-income students, Katherine was feeling stuck and called to do something new. She has leveraged her talent and passion for helping others tell their stories to launch her own business as a presentation and story coach.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the youngest of four. My parents met on a blind date in high school in upstate New York and were ambitious to create a different life for themselves and their children. My father ran a small secretarial school business that flourished under his leadership. With success, my parents also drilled the notion that with privilege comes responsibility. I thought I wanted to be the head of the United Way or a teacher growing up. I knew I wanted to make an impact in people’s lives.
In high school, I met a woman through my parents who would change the course of my life. Her name was Linda Mornell and she was starting a nonprofit in San Francisco, Summer Search, to help low-income students break out of their limitations and change their lives.
While I attended the University of Pennsylvania, the real learning for me during those years happened on a summer internship to Kenya, where I lived with a Kenyan family and taught math at the local village school. A Summer Search student was on that program. I understood immediately that it didn’t matter where you came from, but who you are on the inside that matters most. I was determined to work with Linda and for Summer Search someday.
I graduated college with a degree in African American Studies then did Teach For America, which at the time was a new program placing recent college grads in inner-city schools for two years. I stayed in touch with Linda and, after visiting her twice, we made a commitment to work together. I moved to San Francisco in 1995.
I met my husband at a party here. He heard me laughing and sought me out. We laughed, danced, and sparks flew. When he didn’t ask for my number, I thought, “Well Katherine, it wasn’t meant to be. You’ve thrown yourself on enough men in your life, it’s time to let them lead the way. Let it go.” That Monday, he called me at work. Our first date was on my 27th birthday. I had to stand on a phone book in front of my apartment building to kiss him—he’s 6’7”. We never really let each other go after that. It took some the courage to let someone in that much, but I have never looked back. We got engaged a few months later and married that year.
We have three children, Charlie (14), Joey (12), and Kate (10) and a very cute but fearful dog named Augie (3).
When did you start to think about making a change?
As I said, I was the founder’s first hire at Summer Search and was on staff for 20 years. Because I joined so early in the lifespan of the organization, I was part of the formative years of growing a small nonprofit. I loved Summer Search with all my heart and never thought I would work anywhere else.
It was impossible to push students to look at where they let their fears and self-sabotage hold them back, without looking at how I did that to myself too. I felt this enormous debt of gratitude to Linda and the students for all the ways they pushed me to grow. (Read more about how much Linda influenced my life in my post here.)
I held several roles within the nonprofit, including Executive Director and managing a $20 Million Growth Campaign. My mantra in the middle years when my kids were essentially still babies was to be helpful and useful, which I was.
Yet over time, I no longer wanted to fundraise, and despite the fact that I was a leader who yielded some influence in the organization, I was feeling deeply stuck and torn by my years of devotion and desire to grow in new ways.
It was very confusing time for me because I had committed so much of my professional and personal life to this organization. I had personally mentored close to 1000 alumni. I felt like I was leaving behind a family. But in my heart, I knew I was no longer growing and I knew it was time to move on. So yes it was brewing for a while, but it took me a long time to admit to myself, let alone others.
At the same time, I recognized that my kids will be off to college before I know it. Maybe dramatic since my youngest is currently nine years old. But my oldest just started high school and I see the end of an era coming down the pike.
What is your next act?
I am now a Presentation + Story Coach. I launched my company, Katherine Kennedy, with the tagline Speaking to What Matters in January of 2016 at the age of 44.
I work 1:1 to help people craft their message and speeches. I believe everything you need to tell your story and connect with an audience is inside you. So my job is to help you access, organize and deliver.
I am also coaching people of all ages (executives to teenagers) on speaking with authenticity and confidence in business and informal settings.
I love the variety of people and am having so much fun in the most soul-affirming way. My clients have ranged from a 5-hour project for a speech the following week, to preparing for an on-camera interview, to crafting wedding vows, to a 4-month partnership to develop a TEDMED talk.
I recently helped the wife of the doctor who wrote When Breath Becomes Air. She was asked to speak for a Stanford Medicine X as well as the lauded TEDMED. We dug deep to lift her story and her message (not just her late husband’s) about love and loss. Lucy referred to me as having an “emotional divining rod” that can sift out what is essential to the person giving the speech as well as what will land emotionally with the audience.
Why did you choose this next act? What other options did you consider?
The one thing that kept me going at Summer Search for so long was the work with the student and alumni speakers for their signature events. I loved this work so completely. It was creative, courageous, and deeply connecting. Each speech would take an overwhelming amount of craft and care, but it was exhilarating to play a part in helping someone tell their story with vulnerability, triumph, and confidence.
And thanks to some soul searching, I was moving in the direction of wanting to start my own consulting business. Could I transfer my ability to get close to people, understand what it is like to be in their shoes, decipher their hopes and dreams, their past and their future, and help them tell their story?
What do I call myself? A speaking coach? A story coach? And was there a market for this?
I wanted to work for myself, and I wanted more flexibility to be with my family. And I wanted to devote my professional time to helping people develop their message, and ultimately their confidence. Like my calling to Summer Search 20 years ago, this presentation and story work was calling me, too.
So that’s what I am doing!
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Well as you have heard, the transition to decide to leave was painful and I didn’t even know how much I needed to move on, or how ready I really was.
I took a course called Playing Big with Tara Mohr. I looked at all the ways I was holding myself back and the fears and self-doubt that were keeping me there. I especially saw how the anxiety I was feeling about leaving had a direct relationship to old behaviors of people pleasing and not listening to the sound of my own voice. That voice inside that’s trying to be listened to but gets shut out by the more critical anxious voice of fear.
I drew upon the strength of my prior students and did my own research, too. I read the book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. He kept illustrating how every new beginning must start with an ending.
I also found ways to build energy for my next act. Help and clarity came in the form of a new friend who was also a writer. I whispered to her on a walk that I wanted to help people find more meaning in their lives. That a part of me believed that the gifts I had of helping Summer Search students and alumni tell their stories and craft a compelling speech could be translated to others, but how? She offered, for a price, help with creating content for a website. I bit the bullet and hired her. I still wasn’t convinced I was leaving Summer Search but I knew that I had to take leaps in other ways if I was ever going to feel the confidence and clarity to live a creative life again.
Then I quit. The day after the Summer Search 25th Anniversary. The event and the speeches were a huge hit and yet, I knew it was time to go.
So I enjoyed the holidays and then started putting one foot in front of the other: developed my website, took on a few clients and started learning about social media. That was a year ago. I have learned more in this past year, than the 10 years prior!
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband had been let go from his safe but unfulfilling sales job with a software company the year before and had been exploring becoming a full-time personal trainer. After college (eons ago!), he was a US National Rower, and the athlete and trainer in him was aching to get out.
My husband also saw my growing discontent with my role and with the office politics that are inevitable with a growing organization. I think when I called him from New York the day after our 25th anniversary to tell him I quit, he wasn’t surprised.
Since we are in similar phases, we keep reminding each other how we are doing the right thing, for ourselves and for our children, and let’s face it, for the people we want to serve through our new businesses!
I thought my parents would be disappointed (must have been some old voice inside) and to the contrary, they were so proud of me. My mother exclaimed,
“Oh Katherine, you can finally take care of yourself!” My father knew I had been struggling and said, “You now know what being in limbo feels like. I am proud of you for making the decision. Cut the cord. It will get easier.” I think they are thrilled to hear me so energized and excited about this next act.
I was worried about how Linda would feel too. While she was no longer officially on staff at Summer Search, we were still close and weathered a lot of the storms there together. Linda understood though and, with my departure, has also been able to move on more as well.
My close friends were thrilled. They knew I loved Summer Search but were tired of seeing me feel undervalued and stifled.
The most interesting part was my children. They were old enough to share some of my thought process about why I was leaving Summer Search and how important it was for me to take the skills and passion I developed there to others. That it was time for me to grow.
I was able to share with them the letter I sent to my former students, where I talked about my care for them, and how I had to confront my fears the same way I had encouraged them all along. My kids are proud of me, and frankly grateful to have some of their mom back. Most of my time is working on moving my consulting business forward but I have more flexibility and less stress, if you can believe it.
What challenges did you encounter?
The greatest challenge I have encountered is patience—patience to find clients— and humility—humility that I still have a lot to learn. Both feel good though, and I know I am on the right track. I want to honor the stage of life I am in with my children and want to build this business over time.
Practically speaking, I am breaking out of my own limitations with technology and social media. I am proud of my website but since launching, I have been hired to help with one TEDMED speech and three TEDx talks, and it hit me recently, I have nothing on my website about that! So I have thrown in some language about it but still have to figure that out.
Another challenge is putting myself out there in my blogging. I have never dreamed of being a writer. And, I panic just like the rest of us when it comes to public speaking. To the outside eye, I am confident and persuasive, but it still makes me nervous. What I love about it is the challenge though and the joy and confidence that comes from just doing it.
And I have had to do everything myself, from the Quickbooks to the networking, which is part of what I have loved.
I am learning how to keep enough time open in my calendar for clients who need me in a pinch and also plan my weeks out to accomplish what I set out to do.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
When I am doing this coaching work, I loooove it. My brain hurts in the best way. I am using all faculties. I am using what I learned through opening up people with care and directness. I am using my years of understanding behavior and speaking to what’s not being said. I am using my ability to interact with people to make them feel safe and able to share what’s most deep inside. And of course, I am using my creativity to make each speech, presentation unique to my client’s true wishes and message. What keeps me going is that I love this work and I know it is my deepest offering to the world.
In fact, I just got off the phone with a Temple Board President who gave a speech for Rosh Hashanah. He was thrilled with our work together and said he would never give a speech again without my help. I was on speakerphone with his brother and son and they kept asking how, how did I help? We re-wrote the whole speech and as he said, I gave him the space to learn how to be himself and craft the words like a conversation. I feel overjoyed that I can help people be their best version of themselves in moments that truly matter and that will make an impact.
Every time I listen to Tom Petty’s acoustic version of “Learning to Fly,” my heart swells with gratitude. I never thought I would have a next act. I thought it was me and Summer Search for life. I am learning to fly – and it feels great!
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
I have learned that I have a lot to give—and a lot more to learn! But that I have a gift for helping people access what is inside of them, organize their message in a compelling way that is true to them, and connect with an audience, big or small. That feels good. I didn’t set out to have this passion or skill 20 years ago, but here I am.
I have also learned that letting go and moving on isn’t as hard as one thinks. It is the thinking about it, not the doing, that’s hard.
And that the only person who is accountable for your growth is YOU.
And that it’s never too late. Should I have left Summer Search earlier? Oh, who knows. I choose to feel proud of my 20-year commitment and beyond grateful for a next act!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
This one-liner helped me enormously: Every new beginning must start with an ending.
As well as all of these:
We are all called to something. Yet callings need to be activated.
In order to say YES, you have to say a lot of NOs. Be super duper selective.
And schedule your workouts like a doctor’s appointment!
Watch your tendency to be a martyr.
Keep listening to the sound of your own voice. The coaching folks call it your Inner Mentor. Whatever you call it, trust yourself.
What resources do you recommend?
B-School online marketing course with Marie Forleo
Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, a book by William Bridges
Jac McNeil, Business Coach for Women
Katie Monkhouse, Creative Services (website help!)
Kathleen Duich, Writer
The Copy Cure, Online copy course
SpeechSkills in San Francisco and New York has a great one-day class called “Projecting Yourself with Confidence and Credibility”
What’s next for you?
Change and establishing yourself take time. I am coming to the end of my first year as a Presentation and Story Coach. I have realistic goals for my earned income over the next three years.
This past fall, I invested in myself with a business coach. She helped me see my specific strengths, clarify my offerings, work through some tricky client situations, and establish goals for myself. I highly recommend her!
So with that said, this year I have bigger goals in terms of income and impact and have hit the ground running. I feel grateful!
Contact Katherine Kennedy at Katherine@katherinekennedysf.com