Story written by Caroline Clark
I walked into 1871, Chicago’s Technology & Entrepreneurial Incubator and heard her laughter before I turned the corner. I followed the breezy giggles into a room drenched in light. It seemed that sunlight, daylight and the spotlights brought in for the filming, all conspired to give her the perfect scene for the Equity Crowd Funding video that she was shooting with her client turned partner… KaZoom Kids Books.
I could immediately tell that she was at ease in light, the way she moved through it, exuded it and sat with it, let me know that they were friends.
I was a little early for our interview so I took a seat in the back of the room to look over some notes: she grew up on the South side of Chicago in Englewood, to a single mother, 3 sisters, 1 bathroom. Cold winters and government cheese. Her Springs spent at her eldest sister’s classical piano lessons and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Summers in Natchez Mississippi and Autumns attending the top college prep high school, HBCU, full time job, no excuses.
To show for it: 20 years in Corporate America. C-Suite stepchild, denied entry into the good ‘ole boys and girls club yet excelled anyway. Couldn’t see how companies could have inclusion without diversity in its leadership ranks. Took risks with stagnate progress. Frustrated. Resigned. Started her own Multicultural Advertising and Consultancy agency.
In between takes I noticed her talking with the crew telling spirited stories that seemed to draw them into her memory until they laughed and responded as if they were there.
She was a quiet force of energy I can tell you that. Her big yet soft gestures, lithe but formidable frame and her elegant reserve contradicting her need to touch you when she spoke, created such a contrary poise, that it almost made her appear contrived.
When she spotted me in the shadows, she flashed her mega-watt “ebony model” smile, which she would later reveal was what an old family friend, “Uncle Wess” called it, and mouthed, “one more minute please”. Twenty minutes later we found an empty room and I, just like the crew, was pulled into her and stayed there for two hours…my submission totally voluntary.
When did life turn you into a creative?
I think it was at a very young age…about age nine. I was keenly aware of the surreal juxtaposition of me playing outside of my dirty dilapidated tenement on the Southside of Chicago, hearing Tchaikovsky, Bach and Chopin from the windows of our apartment where my sister practiced classical piano. Literally I was woven…without my permission…into a beautiful inescapable score that seemed to predict the temporariness of my poverty.
I remember feeling as though I were in a period film. I think that’s why I love those types of films and classical music to this day.
She puts her hand over her heart and quietly laughs at the memory. An elegant and seemingly natural gesture that she would repeat several times during this interview as if silently petitioning me to pardon her vulnerability.
My life was filled with moments like that, moments that forced me to appreciate beauty in the unlikeliest of places.
Then why the detour? You spent a lot of time in Corporate America…Financial Services no less. I can’t imagine that was “artsy” or creative.
Fear quite frankly. When you come from a poor family, the goal is not to live the dream. The goal is not to be poor anymore.
However, I did enjoy Corporate America for most of my career. The roles I loved the most were the ones where I was solving problems creatively. By having an English Literature degree, sitting in a board room with Business and Finance degreed Executives put me at an advantage. I was always thinking differently from them. My art and creative background helped me to see things from a different perspective which contributed to a lot of success for the firms that I worked for.
An Executive at Bank of America, General Electric and most recently serving as Chief Diversity Officer for Synchrony Financial… those are some pretty big successes.
Yes…I have been blessed.
So why did you chuck it all to go back to Ad School and start your own Advertising Firm focused on the Multicultural Market. That’s pretty ballsy.
First of all thank you for calling the move ballsy instead of crazy. She laughs…hand over heart again.
(I interrupt her answer) Forgive me for interrupting…but I have to ask…why do you do that? That gesture? It’s as if you are asking me to forgive you for something?
Wow! You are very observant. I wasn’t aware that I was doing it until my business partner pointed it out to me a few months ago. As you can see I still have the habit.
I think that is why I “chucked” it all…Corporate America… to answer your question. I always felt that I was apologizing for being myself even as Chief Diversity Officer. I was always being told by well intentioned mentors and colleagues, “wear glasses so that you can look older,” “don’t smile as much,” “say it this way instead”.
There is a very real and agonizing dance in Corporate America for a woman of color… the dance between your authentic self and your corporate persona. I always had to be aware of my tone of voice, any display of vulnerability, the degree of laughter or anger I displayed and even my pragmatism, managing it so that it would not be perceived as arrogance. I was always censoring myself. So I left Corporate to take control of my own voice and to be who I am unapologetically. And that’s why I started an Ad Agency focused on the Multicultural market. I wanted to better represent our image and authentic voice in the media.
Tell me about your latest project KaZoom Kids Books.
KaZoom Kids Books is a Digital Media and Publishing Company that creates read-a-long and interactive Multicultural Children’s books and other media. My agency was commissioned to do all of the branding, marketing, promotion and website design for the Start Up. After a successful launch of the business this summer, Donna Beasley, the CEO of KaZoom Kids approached me about staying on as a Creative Director and becoming a partner. I guess the rest, as they say, is history.
I see where you are marrying your business, creative and diversity and inclusion expertise at the agency but why children’s books?
Well because only 5% of children’s books published last year featured a child of color.
When kids do not see themselves or their experiences in the books that they read, during the formative years of their development, they have trouble actualizing their dreams and aspirations. The notion of authenticity of voice and identity falls right into the Agency’s mission and extends to every client, every person and to every child. So of course it is my responsibility to help children see a positive image of themselves and help them to grow up proud. And I take that responsibility very seriously.
So what’s next for you and Ruth Devon Advertising?
We are launching the Equity Crowd Funding Campaign this month for KaZoom Kids Books. You can go here to find out more about it and invest. https://us.trucrowd.com/equity/offer-summary/543-KaZoom-Kids-Books,-Inc-Illinois-60654
Also there is a real opportunity for agencies who cater to the 3 trillion dollar Multicultural Market. There is no denying that there’s a new mainstream in town. The population is becoming more diverse and it is no longer a valid marketing strategy to assume that ethnicity and race will eventually become irrelevant and dissolve into a homogenous “general market.” Ruth Devon wants to help brands and corporations market to these new influencers and help them change the world. That’s all!
She laughs. This time I notice…with no hand over her heart.