Women in Business Q&A: Kelli List Wells, Executive Director for Global Education and Skills, GE Foundation

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Kelli List Wells

Kelli List Wells is the Executive Director for Global Education and Skills at the GE Foundation in Fairfield, CT. Her portfolio focuses on building education, skills and training initiatives to prepare the next generation for the demands of the workforce and the changing labor economy both nationally and globally.

Wells joined GE in 1995 as an Investment Broker with GE Asset Management. In 1996, she was appointed to Quality where she became a Black Belt in Six Sigma. After her role in Quality she managed International Marketing for GE's Retail Services Division. In 2001 she joined the corporate citizenship team at GE Capital where she held responsibilities around global programs. In 2004, she was appointed to her current role at the GE Foundation. Prior to joining GE, Wells spent 5 years as a licensed financial advisor, holding her Series 7 and Series 63 Investment licenses.

Wells is also a member of various non-profit organizations. She serves on the board of directors for the Bridgeport Public Education Foundation. She has served on the executive board of GE's Volunteer organization in Stamford; President of the Fairfield County Contributions Group; served on the distribution committee of United Way; the board of the Parent Leadership Training Institute; the board of the Connecticut Academy of Education; and member of the Stamford Mayor's council for School Readiness. She led the Stamford Achieves initiative in Stamford, CT that brought the community together to look at and address the Achievement Gap.

Wells studied International Relations and Japanese at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and continued her education at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. She currently lives in Stamford, Connecticut with her husband, Kyle and two children, Cameron and Alysa.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
When I was growing up, my parents taught me the importance of giving back, so I've always been passionate about doing what I can to create access and equity for people, especially children. Equally important is the travel I have done and the travel opportunities I have given my children. We have visited some of the poorest countries in the world. Helping to build a house, cleaning a yard or bringing clothing to children who have none - these are the things that have shaped my life and that of my family. I believe that a leader can bring passion to her work and passion is contagious. I think a leader can encourage others to care about access and equity if she has seen it lacking.

Throughout my 20 years at GE in particular, I've had experience in a lot of different areas: asset management, quality, international marketing and, eventually, corporate citizenship. Having the opportunity to touch so many diverse areas of the business really shaped who I am as a leader. As I moved between roles, I learned the importance of being able to adapt and having a willingness--and eagerness--to take on new challenges. This is particularly important in today's environment, where industries companies are undergoing total transformation. As a leader, you have to keep up with and stay ahead of these changes. My own career has taught me how to do this, namely by being agile and embracing challenges. This is a fundamental part of who I am as a person, and as a leader today.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at the GE Foundation?
I've worked for GE since 1995, and the company's culture has been influential in shaping how I approach my work at the GE Foundation. For instance, GE has a really strong culture of volunteerism and wanting to help our communities and, more broadly, building a world that works better. I carried this with me when I took on my role as Executive Director of Education and Skills at the Foundation in 2004. Our most recent work with our Developing Skills platform is focused on working with communities locally and globally to solve one of the most prevalent issues facing millions of people today--the skills gap. As I visited schools and businesses throughout the country and brought international business and education leaders together to collaborate, I found that we shared what we saw as a real threat to our youth and the global economy and that is the skills gap. Together, we are going to narrow this gap for everyone's sake. By addressing this critical challenge, we hope to help people around the world by building a collaborative culture, boosting employability and helping equip people for the future of work.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the GE Foundation?
One of the biggest challenges--and also biggest opportunities--during my tenure at the GE Foundation has been tackling something as daunting as the skills gap. Current forecasts predict that by 2020, there will be a shortage of 40 million high-skilled workers and an excess of 95 million low-skilled workers worldwide due to the skills gap. This is such a pressing challenge, some would think, "Where do you even start to address this?" We've been fortunate to work with really strong partners to hit the ground running with our efforts to close this gap, collaborating to create training modules and learning experiences, and also fostering strategic partnerships between the business community and schools.

In terms of highlights, we've made tremendous strides with our Developing Futures program, which focuses on advancing education reform by engraining STEM into schools' curriculum and building leadership and management capacity. To date, this program has reached more than 10,000 teachers and 1.3 million students across more than 2,000 K-12 public schools, and has also saved school districts more than $20 million. Now we're doubling down and extending our efforts to the training pipeline with our Developing Skills program. I'm expecting to see similar success with this as we equip people with the education, skills and training required to meet the demands of the evolving global workforce.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Women who want a career in philanthropy need many things--a passion and personal commitment to doing good, a strong background and knowledge of the space, a willingness to build and learn as you go. However, my best advice is to make an effort listen unconditionally--it not only shows that you're eager to learn, but also that you care. It's critical to listen to the expert voices that are out there already doing the work because you can learn so much from them. This will help shape your path and direction. It's equally as important to listen to individuals or organizations in the community who call just to make a connection. When you take the time to listen to people, even if it's just for 10 minutes, it goes a really long way to show how much you care. Passion is really important in my industry, and that comes through when you make an effort to listen.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Never be afraid to come up with big ideas. You'll never know where you can lead or what you can create if you're stuck thinking, "I could never do that." First, come up with your big idea, then get creative and problem solve to make it come to life.

I learned the importance of this through my work with the Developing Futures in Education program. We were originally in the K-12 arena, but eventually realized we needed to pivot and address the skills gap. We knew we needed really big, bold ideas to tackle the big, bold challenge of the skills gap, and now we're turning those ideas into a reality through Developing Skills. For instance, we're rolling out our GE Brilliant Career Labs, which are physical and virtual learning experiences that help students explore careers and understand the skills required for the jobs of the future. At one point we didn't have any funding for this and it was just a concept. Now it's really taking off, and is a key part of the philanthropic commitment we recently made to Boston Public Schools. This never would've happened if, at the outset, we said, "we could never do this." You can't be afraid to come up with big ideas and take risks. When you need to change course, you pivot in a new direction and go for it. You have to be willing to try something new and see what happens. When you do, you might be surprised at what you can create.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I find balance primarily by making time for my family. I've always put them first, and I think that's important. I'm fortunate to be able to arrange my schedule around my kids. That usually means I leave work early so that I can spend the afternoon with my kids watching their soccer matches and basketball games and having pizza after. Then I get online for a few hours at night. I think having a work/life balance means doing what you're passionate about and balancing that with family time.

Of course, this is something that comes gradually! You won't have the perfect balance every day, or every month, but there are times in your career and in your family life that you have to scale back or push forward--it's all about having a balance over the long-term. I had to do this when I was pregnant with my first child so that I could explore daycare options. You have to figure out what your priorities are, and then make time for them.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Unfortunately, today's reality is that, for working mothers in particular, flexibility is a huge issue. It's so difficult to maintain a career and a family. Often times, women feel like they have to choose one or the other, and that they can't do both. Then, when they leave work and focus on their family, they have a difficult time getting a job after being unemployed for several years. I've been very fortunate to have flexibility from day one at GE, which I've always appreciated and I think makes me a better employee. For instance, when I was pregnant with my first child, my manager let me work part-time so that I could explore day care options without having to leave work entirely. I have also been able to work remotely to care for my parents when my mother had a terrible fall and my dad was diagnosed with an illness, and have had the ability to adjust my schedule to be at special events for my children. I think companies are just now starting to understand the importance of flexibility and how much it impacts women.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My parents were my first real mentors. They were always heavily involved in the community, so I grew up learning the importance of giving back. For instance, my dad founded Clothe-a-Child in Arizona. We would go to K-Mart at five or six in the morning, and children would come with holes in their shoes, needing clothes. They lacked essentials that we were able to provide. Being part of this led to my passion and commitment to creating equity and access for all kids.

I have other figures in my adult life who have mentored me professionally. Art Harper used to be the CEO of one of our businesses at GE, and he was the one who really guided me into the work at the Foundation. While I was on the corporate citizenship team at GE Capital, I was doing targeted work in local communities with a program that helped K-12 students go to college. I worked with one of the highest poverty elementary schools in Stamford and we stayed with the students through middle school and high school. I also led a community wide effort that brought together business, government, school leaders, faith-based organizations, after school providers, and community leaders focused on ensuring that students were supported. I helped establish community forums and discussions aimed at creating avenues for student success, and created a steering committee to lead the work.

Art pushed me to think big and ask myself, "How can I do this work on a larger scale?" His support was so incredible, and I continue to seek out individuals like him. For instance, I tap other educators for their guidance and advice when looking at school systems because they have a different perspective and can offer their own expertise.

Within GE, I have a coach who mentors me on the Fast Works process, a framework that encourages us to think like a startup, be lean and learn fast. We talk a lot about coming up with big ideas and how to implement them. I believe you have something to learn from everyone you engage with, both on a professional and personal level.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I'm surrounded by a lot of wonderful female leaders who are incredibly thoughtful. They have knowledge and experience that I constantly learn from and apply to my work and personal life. One is Barbara Morgan, an educator and former astronaut. She's a good friend of mine. What I admire about her is that she always takes the time to listen and is never too busy for anyone. When she gives presentations, there's always a line of people out the door waiting to talk to her. She makes every person feel like they're the only one in the room. This has influenced how I interact with people through my work with the Foundation.

There are many women that I admire. I look at women leaders in GE such as Beth Comstock and Susan Peters who are passionate about their work, they are not afraid of challenges and pivot when they need to. I admire Deb Elam, the GE Foundation's President, for her leadership for expanding diversity across the company. I admire Lindsey Miller on our HR team for reminding me the importance of developing meaningful relationships.

Outside GE, I admire Condoleezza Rice for staying true to herself and being a voice of change and reason. Barbara Diggs Brown and Lillian Gonzalez for focusing on equity and access for all. All of these women have seen success through hard work and determination - they did not shy away from difficult situations instead stood strong and faced the situation.

What do you want the GE Foundation to accomplish in the next year?
Earlier this year, GE announced that Boston will be our new home. Over the course of the next year, my work will be focused on our philanthropic efforts in the community. Right now, we're doing listening tours and engaging with local leaders and educators in the Boston Public School system to find out what their students need, and where we can add value. This includes building out our first ever GE Brilliant Career Labs, which we're planning to launch in September. Eventually, I hope that our engagement in Boston will serve as a model that we can scale globally.