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EP 254: From Corporate Relaunch to Senior Executive Leadership to a NonProfit CEO with Kerry Carter

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Episode Description

After her relaunch and subsequent rise to senior executive leadership roles in the distribution and logistics industry, Kerry Carter made the leap to the nonprofit world, taking on the role of CEO of Hope & Comfort. Hope & Comfort provides basic hygiene products to tens of thousands of adults in need in Massachusetts such as deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo. Before her current role, Kerry led a national same-day specialty logistics company focused on the medical and life sciences industry and had a long career at Staples Business Advantage, where she held numerous senior executive leadership roles and roles in sales, marketing, merchandising, strategy and acquisition integration. Kerry’s story also includes taking a six year career break to care for her family. Hear how she maintained connections during her time away and how she made the shift to nonprofit.

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Hope and Comfort

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Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return-to-work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. And today's guest is Kerry Ann Carter. Kerry Ann Carter. CEO of Hope and Comfort, a Massachusetts based nonprofit working to end hygiene insecurity.

Hygiene insecurity refers to situations in which people cannot afford basic hygiene products, such as soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo. We're going to talk to Kerry about her amazing career path which began in the private sector and moved on to nonprofit, the nonprofit world. But I want to focus on her rise at Staples where she returned to, it was her original employer, after a six year career break, and her subsequent moving up the ranks over a 15 year period. And she can talk to us about her career progression after that. But Kerry, we're excited to speak with you and welcome to our iRelaunch video series.

Kerry Carter: Thank you so much, Carol. I'm really excited to talk with you today and share my story in the hopes that maybe somebody might get an idea from what I'm talking about today that will help him or her.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes. And you're such an example of the potential for relaunchers once you're back in the workforce and our demographic, our population, we're known for being high caliber, and people who are mid-career, who are poised and ready to move up in an organization once we come back in. So I want to get more details from you about this and want to spend most of our time talking about your career progression since the time of when you relaunched at Staples after the six year career break, understanding that you had a number of years before that at Staples. So maybe you can please start there, and tell us a little bit about what happened in the first few years after you relaunched.

Kerry Carter: Sure. I'd love to. So set a little bit of background and context for you. I worked at Staples prior to my career break. I was the director of strategy and integration as my first role there, and ended up right before taking the career break is being a director of marketing and also director of merchandising. So a couple different roles. Prior to that, sorry, and there was also one other one, I was another director of operations, so about over a six year period, I had three different roles. And then I went on my career break. For me, the career break centered around my family.

I had a daughter at the time who was 18 months old, and then I had twin boys who were born. So with three, we had a crazy house at the time with three little ones and decided to take a career break because it was the right thing for our family to do at that time. To get back to your original question, I came about six years later, full-time to Staples, and I was on the business to business side of Staples, so not the retail side, but the business to business side. And when I left, I was at a director role and when I came back, this might be of interest to folks, I actually came back at the vice president level.

I was hired to be the VP of E-commerce. And, the reason why I was hired, I think is over the course of that six years, I had kept in close touch with the context that I had at Staples, done some part-time consulting work, you know, at night when the kids were in bed or period of time when I, one summer I hired a babysitter and did a short three month project for them.

So I, I kept my hand in the game, so to speak, and kept up my connections. I kept up my reading on the industry. I remember, this is a long time ago, so digital wasn't as big as it was today. But I had an HBR subscription that I would make sure that I read that if there was any pertinent articles for my contacts, I would send those on to them.

So I kept my hand in the game and kept my contacts up. And some of the key people that I stayed connected with, one of those people was the person who hired me when he had this open role as VP of E-commerce. And he thought, I didn't have direct experience in e-commerce. I had a lot of transferable skills in terms of how I thought about big problems and thought about how to scale things and was able to bring disparate teams together collaboratively, which is what that role at the time required.

So I came back as vice president of e-commerce, which is a really cool job. Loved that job. Again, this is a while ago at the time, Staples was one of the top five e-commerce companies in the country. And, my job, as I said, was to be this person who brought groups together. I was working with the tech side of our business and the business side of our business to make sure that the business goals were achieved through the skillset of the tech people.

So that's what I'm talking about when I talk about transferrable skills, and I think that's something that's important for relaunchers to think about. So that was my reentry job back as VP of e-commerce.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So I think it's, it's really instructive for people that, as during your career break, you did a project or you did part-time work and you did it for Staples, you did it for the company that you were ultimately returning to, and I'm guessing that was a big contributing factor to them bringing you in at a higher level than where you had left off, after a six year period, given that the last two years of the, that six year period you were doing this work for them. Was that a long conversation? Was that a negotiation or how did that happen?

Kerry Carter: Well, you know, as you probably find out that most people end up getting their roles through some connection somehow. Yeah. In my experience, it's rare that you can go onto a job site and just cold, coldly get a role. So it was a huge part of why I was able to go back was maintaining those connections. And was it a long conversation?

No, the person that I had been in touch with very consistently over the course of those six years, I had done that three months project for him. Before I left, I didn't work for him directly, but I worked for him indirectly and I made sure to do a lot of things to help him out, because he was a really important person to our organization.

And helping him out would make us better. And it ended up being one of the, frankly I didn't do it for selfish reasons, but it ended up being one of the best career moves I ever did. I was just trying to help out somebody who was important to us as a company. So it was that particular person who picked up the phone one day. He called me and said, I think it's time for you to come back to work full-time. The boys are full time to kindergarten now, right? They're in full days, and I said, yeah, they are. And I actually am thinking about this. He said, I have the perfect role for you. It fell into, I got lucky. It fell into my lap.

So on the one hand I got lucky. On the other hand, there was a conscious intent to keep up those connections and to keep my hand in the game.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, really, really good, good lessons for people in a very unusual situation. Kerry, was there any period of time that you felt that I'm really back, like I'm back to where I was even before I left, or did that take a while, or did it never even occur to you as a milestone?

Kerry Carter: It never even occurred to me. Like I never thought of, I guess I didn't really think of it so much as I was gone and then I was back because I was so involved in my daily life trying to make the Carter family move forward and we all stayed alive, frankly. There's a lot of little bodies running around at that time..

So yeah, I felt like I was back on day one. On day one, and it wasn't like I felt like I was a relauncher, it was that I was in a new situation with a new job. Luckily for me, it was at a place where I didn't have to have 100% new learning.

Like, where's the bathroom and where's the cafeteria? That's helpful. So yeah, I felt like I was back on day one, and a new job and all the things that a new job entails. So I, over the course of my career, I've had probably at Staples alone, I probably had 12 different jobs over the course of that time period.

I was there, and I've had others as well. You know, when you start a new job, it's anxiety ridden, no matter who you are or what the job is, whether you're a relauncher or you're someone who's just not, I shouldn't say, just in the same organization and taking on a new role. Yeah, there's always that level of, maybe anxiety isn't the right word, nervousness that goes with it.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, sure. I remember myself when I was back after my 11 year career break. I was working in an investment firm and felt the same way. Yep. Actually, your comments made me think about that, you had all those jobs over a period of time. I'm really interested, and I'm really interested in having our audience hear about your first promotion and how your career seemed to move so fast.

How did you navigate that rise through the ranks? And were there any milestone moments or, maybe just re recall for us what jumps out in your mind?

Kerry Carter: Sure. Well, the first promotion, as I said, was the one where I actually came back. So that was moving from the director level to the VP level.

And that was a really big deal at that company because, it's very thin in terms of the hierarchy, there's the ceo, the senior VP and VP level at that time. That's how it was structured, right? And there were different, couple different levels within the VP level, but that was a big deal to get to that first advancement of the first level of VP.

And I think, what was behind that was, like I said, the ability to have transferable skills for the problem at hand. I think that's an important thing to keep in mind is that people are hiring for whatever challenge at hand they have, whether that's, and it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to have direct experience doing a particular thing.

You might need to have experience like I had at the time, which was bringing people together and being thoughtful about sequencing and planning of events to get to a certain outcome. That's what was important at that time. So that was my first promotion. And then, like I said, I had several different roles after that and the impetus behind that was, I was someone who could morph and change and adapt and listen and learn fast and willing to take risks and chances.

So I was in the VP of E-commerce role for two and a half-ish years, approaching three years. And then, a big milestone after that, you mentioned, what are some milestones was, we were in the midst, we at Staples at the time we were in the midst of acquiring a company called Corporate Express.

And Corporate Express was going to be our first huge acquisition. This is a 4 billion acquisition. It had 8,000 employees across two continents, eight countries. and I was on the due diligence team, looking at that. And because prior to my career break, one of the roles I had was director of strategy and acquisition integration, I was asked to put together my thoughts on integration for this mega acquisition.. And we had done regional acquisitions, any, anything from 5 million on the small size to, I think the largest one at the time was 120 million. So I had worked on those as my first role there. So I remember thinking at the time when I was putting together my thoughts, this feeling coming to me. I don't want anyone else to have this role of integrating. There's nobody else that has the experience that I have and the willingness to also figure it out with different people. And I started getting this feeling of, I don't want anyone else to have this job. I want whatever this next job is going to be.

And I ended up getting the VP of integration role and a milestone moment was, I remember standing in the office of the CEO at the time, and he had called together a small group of us who had been big players in the due diligence of that deal. And it was late in the day and the word came through that it was gonna go through and he called us together and, we were all in our jeans and t-shirts at the time and just, had a toast to, hey, this thing's gonna really happen and this is gonna change the course of our company. And it ended up very much doing that. And I ended up for a period of time reporting to the CEO on that.

So I did that next role for about two years, first just focused on the US and then also had Europe as part of that. So that was a milestone moment. And then my progression after that was another milestone moment. Again, keeping an open mind, and really being someone that goes out of his or her way, I think is important for people to help other people, because then you're at the forefront in others' minds like, oh, I want to, I want that person to be on my team next. So an opportunity again dropped into my lap after almost three years of doing the acquisition integration stuff. Took a long time to integrate huge companies. I had someone call me up and say, Hey, have an opening and I think you might be a great fit. Can we go talk? Like everything, the only one that I actually thought about, I really want this was that VP of acquisition integration. And then when I said I wanted it, it was available to me. But the other ones were people approaching me, saying, Hey, we have this challenge, this problem. Think you might be a good person to help the company out by taking it on.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. Well, that's pretty amazing. And I'm guessing you're not saying this, but obviously you were putting in a superstar performance and had been identified as someone who they wanted to be in a position of I leadership in the company over time. And I just really love the idea that you planted those seeds pre-career break and then you had that connection and then the, just the arc of what happened afterward is this pattern of people coming to you to ask if you want to have the next highest role.

So that's pretty outstanding, Kerry, and I just want to say congratulations. And also point out to our employers who might be listening about this particular story of career progression and what it looks like when a relauncher is back at work for a number of years too. Thank you for walking us through that.

I want to know what happened, what was the point where you decided you were gonna leave Staples, and how did you make that decision and what was, what did you do next?

Kerry Carter: So my career progression was a couple of functional leadership roles like the e-commerce one and, leading the inside sales team that was a 300 person team, a billion dollar -ish sales portfolio.

And then after that I advanced to running business units. So the last, my last role there I was, vice president of furniture. And that was running that, having P&I responsibility and running that team, which included sales, operations, marketing, merchandising, all of that.

And I did really love that. I love the general management type of role, and all the different challenges that encompass it. And I had an opportunity to work for a company as a CEO. I left Staples to take on the role of CEO of a national logistics firm called American Expediting.

American Expediting is a fantastic, mid-size company with locations across the US, 55 locations across the US. And what American Expediting specializes in, it's a third party logistics company that caters to the life sciences and medical communities and really does high touch delivery, everything from kidneys to, we did a lot with the vaccine trials, tho those types of things where it requires specialized documentations and high touch situations.

And for me it was just a great next step of my career.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. And then, so you moved into that very top role, the CEO role. And subsequent to that, you ended up taking the role that you have now. I want to know if you can tell us a little bit about that transition and your move to the nonprofit sector also, and what your thinking was behind that transition as well, private sector to nonprofit sector.

Kerry Carter: Sure. So I think, this is something that I've thought about literally since my first job out of college. I was a sales rep out of college, and I took a role as a sales rep because I had a lot of loans and it paid me the most. I had been thinking about doing something where it was a more direct connection to giving back to my community.

I went to Boston College and, mantra is men and women for others. So that sort of gets branded into your soul if you go there, which is a good thing. Yeah. So I had been thinking about it for a long time, and as I was taking a step back and thinking about, okay, what do I want to do next? I'm in the, I'm in the second half of my life and I'm probably in the, to use a sports analogy, I'm a big sports person, the fourth quarter, so to speak, of my career. It's time to do something that I've thought about for a long time. So I thought about, what's my purpose? And I think of, I strive to be a servant leader who helps others be their best.

And I thought, how can I find something that fits that? So that's how I ended up here, at Hope and Comfort. This is an organization started 11 years ago and the founder is just this amazing guy by the name of Jeff Feingold. And he was looking, he had a career in the private sector at Fidelity for years, started this.

And he was looking for someone with experience like I had to scale our organization to meet the need that's out there. So that's how I ended up here. It was me looking internally at what do I really want to do? What am I passionate about? What am I good at? Where do those two things intersect? And, can I add value somewhere?

. And we ended up, the universe I think was aligned and I ended up meeting Jeff again on a weird fluke where, you know, I read a newsletter that he was featured in as a CNN hero, and I said, Hey, I'm thinking about, I'm thinking seriously about going into the nonprofit sector, and I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee and learn about how you made the transition and what it's meant for you.

And this story, I still am amazed. So he graciously said yes. I came into the office. We ended up talking for two and a half hours. At the end of that conversation, he said, it's not public yet, but I'm actually working on a draft job description for a CEO role because I'm the founder and I've recognized that it's time for me to bring in someone with a different set of skills.

Are you interested in continuing our conversation?

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.

Kerry Carter: Is that another crazy thing? But put yourself out there.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah.

Kerry Carter: And good things can happen.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. That's great messaging for our relaunchers no matter what stage you're at, whether you have not relaunched yet, whether you've been back at work for a number of years and are thinking about the next step.

I love that idea, and also the example. So can you talk a little bit more about Hope and Comfort and what you do as CEO, and how big the organization is and how you get these critical hygiene supplies to people who need them and why that's important. I am asking because I had the benefit of watching a video that was very compelling about this, but maybe you can tell us the backstory.

Kerry Carter: Sure. So what Hope and Comfort does is we provide hygiene products to people who can't afford them or get access to them on a consistent basis. We're based in Massachusetts, and just to give you an example of how big this problem is, there are 2 million people in the tiny little state of Massachusetts that have this challenge of not being able to afford hygiene products. And if you think about it, I'll use a phrase that we recently used, it's not just toothpaste, it's about health. It's not just soap, it's about confidence. It's not just deodorant, it's dignity. So if you get, think about how you started your morning this morning, Carol, I can see you look quite lovely today. You probably took a shower. You might have washed your hair, you put on makeup, you brushed your teeth, you put on deodorant. All those things sort of arm you to feel confident and take on the world. The world can be a tough place sometimes, and if you don't feel that confidence, it really can be debilitating.

I mean, and sometimes it's actually physically debilitating. We hear stories about people who have horrible dental health and pain that they wake up with every day, because they haven't been able to afford toothpaste and toothbrush. We hear stories of children who don't take their coats off even when it's hot out because they know that they smell and that they're gonna be bullied.

And that's just a terrible thing. That affects, I was just yesterday at a school system in south of Boston and she was talking about how kids don't go to school, that the level of truancy is much higher for kids who can't afford these things because they know they're gonna be singled out and bullied.

So it affects people's confidence, which affects their, their schooling, their education, and affects employment, you know, somebody is for lack of another word, unkempt. Are they gonna get a serious look by a potential employer? It's really challenging. So these things mean so much more than just a bar of soap.

They really speak to how someone can go out and take on the world and live their lives in a way that makes them feel good and contributes to society. So that's what we do.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Kerry, that's amazing. It's an incredible mission of Hope and Comfort. And before we end, I'm gonna ask you how, to give us information on how people can find out more about Hope and Comfort.

But before we do that, I have a couple more questions for you. And one of them is, have you ever had a relauncher working for you?

Kerry Carter: Right now, as a matter of fact, we have a wonderful woman who's very talented, who recently decided to come back into the workforce. It's interesting, she's, I've been in my role now for two months.

She was hired by our founder Jeff, prior to my starting, and when I heard her story, she's really talented. I was thrilled to have her and she was the first phone call I. which was to say, I'm starting, I'm really excited and I just want you to know that your part-time, she works part-time. Your part-time role is safe. It's appreciated. I'm so excited that we could get a talent like you into an organization that's relatively, that is small, not relatively. It is small and you're safe. I'm excited that you're here. We're gonna do great things together. And I think she felt, and by the way, I said to her, I know, I have a parallel situation and I respect that.

And I'm just super excited.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So I can only imagine if I was the person you're talking about who was a relauncher back in the organization and having that conversation with you and then finding out that you took a career, break yourself and look where you are now. That, I mean, how inspiring can you get?

So I love that.

Kerry Carter: That's good. And actually, if I can add, I was hired by Jeff and the board to scale our organization. So the need again, to give you an idea, the need in Massachusetts is, we're gonna distribute 2 million products this year. In order to address the total need, we'd have to distribute somewhere between 60 and 70 million.

So that's a huge jump. Yeah. That's what we're gonna be doing. We're gonna, we're gonna scale this organization to address that. And the steps between here and there, there's going to be a lot of steps and I foresee that there will be a lot of opportunities to talk to people who may have taken a career break, and perhaps don't want to work full-time.

Or maybe they or maybe they want to work on a contracting basis. There will be, in my organization, I see that there will be opportunities for relaunchers and I would encourage others, any other employers who might be hearing this, to think about it in that way. There's an amazing group of talented people who can help out in a variety of situations.

And for me, we're not ready to have a full, make it a full marketing staff or full operation staff, which, is great, could be a great stepping stone for someone who's looking to come back into the workforce. And a great way also for employers to try out a new relationship with someone.

Yeah. So super excited. And I absolutely will be looking at relaunchers when we look to expand after we complete our strategic plan..

Carol Fishman Cohen: I hope relaunchers are listening, and, you are also demonstrating something that Vivian Rabin and I were envisioning when we wrote Back on the Career Track, at the end of the book, we had a whole chapter on the future, and one of the elements of what we were envisioning was that there would be not only of critical mass of relaunchers in some organizations, but relaunchers in an organization who would then be interested in hiring more relaunchers to work for them because they know about the caliber of the relauncher pool, and could be a leader and a lead manager in that regard.

And here you are doing that already. So I love that. Kerry, I want to wrap up by asking you a question we ask all of our guests and that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

Kerry Carter: Great. I'll leave you with two, if that's alright.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. Absolutely.

Kerry Carter: The first one is, take your time and be brave enough to really reflect on what you want to do. Sometimes when people make a decision to get back into the workforce, they might be sort of clutched with, Oh my gosh, what am I gonna do? Who's gonna want me? I just gotta do anything that presents itself.

No. You don't have to do anything that presents. You should really take, do some internal self-reflection, and be brave enough to be, I'll call it quiet with yourself. Think about what do you love, what do you love and what do you good at? Where do those things intersect because that's gonna help you find the next role, whatever that might be.

Take that time to think about it because you left for some reason that was critically important, and what I thought about myself and what I hear from other people is there's gotta be an equal or better compelling reason to come back. So make sure that you take the time to think about what's gonna get you out of bed in the morning, so it's not a chore.

So you're filled with excitement.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's good advice that I know that's advice number one. There's another one coming, but this idea about taking, it's hard work to take the time to really examine where your interests and skills are now and what you want to do. And that process that you're talking about is the main driver for a relaunch.

And, it's so important that people start out with that. So thank you for that being advice number one.

Kerry Carter: I think it's hard work and I think it's scary.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Absolutely.

Kerry Carter: To really be quiet, look inside, turn off the distractions, whether that's going for walks in the woods or runs or meditating or whatever it is. Like, it's scary having been there. But do it, it's gonna be worth it. So the second piece of advice that I would give is be confident. Why not you, whoever's listening out there. If you're gonna, if you're, you might be thinking, oh, they, should I go for this or not? Or, you know, after you've taken this period of reflection, why not you? Who's better? Have that confidence. You may have not been in paid work for a period of time, but you've certainly been working and evolving as a human being, and you had a set of experiences before you stopped getting paid for the work that you're doing. You may have continued some form of work while you were on a career break or not.

Perhaps you were sidelined by health issues. It could be for a variety of reasons, but even if you're sidelined by a health issue, as an example, it did something to your inner psyche and core that helped you evolve. Why not you? Be confident when you go after this. We have a huge dearth of talent and enthusiasm out there, and there's a labor shortage still.

Why not you? Be confident and go for it. Reach out to, you know what? Whatever you're thinking about, if somebody's listening right now and you're thinking, should I reach out to that person? Like I didn't know if Jeff was gonna say yes to my, I never met him to my note about having coffee. Why not reach out?

Why not you? That's my last piece of advice.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, I love that. I love ending on that note. Kerry, before we say goodbye, I want to know if you can tell our listeners how they can find out more about Hope and Comfort. Is there a website or some other place that they can go?

Kerry Carter: Yes, there is. They can go to our website, which is HopeandComfort.Org.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Is it Hope and Comfort? The word "and" comfort?

Kerry Carter: Yes. Okay. The word and is spelled out. Thank you for clarifying that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, great. All right, Kerry, thank you so much for joining us today.

Kerry Carter: Oh, thanks for having me, Carol. Good luck to everyone out there. You're gonna be great. Yeah. Take care.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Love it.

Thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. I want to remind our listeners who are actively relaunching to make sure to register and upload your resume to our iRelaunch Job Board.

Employers looking to hire relaunchers regularly peruse our Job Board for candidates for their career reentry jobs and programs. And be sure to visit iRelaunch.Com to access our many return to work tools and resources and to sign up for our mailing list so you can receive our weekly return to work report featuring career reentry jobs and programs.

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