We had the good fortune of connecting with Kellie Wagner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kellie, let’s start by talking about what inspires you?
People’s stories– about their lives, their upbringings, their families, all of it– is what inspires me in my work and life. While diversity and inclusion work is often looked at as being very ethnocentric-focused (meaning centered on different groups of people, be they racial, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), I actually look at this work as being very human-centric.
What are the things that shape us? What are the monumental events that happen to us in our lives that send us down a certain path, but also what are the seemingly inconsequential details that mold the way we view the world? Stories, our own personal histories, and how they overlap or differ from others’ allow us to both connect and expand our understanding of the world around us.
I could sit down with a stranger and ask questions about their life all day long and be quite content.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
In 2017, fed up with feeling like most workplaces were designed to benefit a very narrow archetype, I decided to ditch my work in tech and branding and venture into the emerging industry of corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion. I had pretty much no experience and only a three-month certificate program from NYU under my belt when I decided to make DEI work my full-time career. I just knew that I wanted people like me, a woman of color who didn’t grow up rich, to be able to thrive at work. To be able to feel seen, understood, and valued by my employer.
I started Collective by using my intuition about employee needs based on my own experiences navigating non-inclusive workplaces, my skills in account management and client experience to build a solid foundation, and my love for branding and storytelling to create a consultancy that felt markedly different than old-school consultancies. By focusing on the brand experience early on, I was able to attract other DEI practitioners to partner with because they resonated with how I talked about the work. With their expertise and my ability to build strong relationships, we were able to land key millennial-driven clients like theSkimm, Glossier, and Peloton within the first two years.
I’m super proud of the work I’ve done to grow Collective, particularly as a solo founder who bootstrapped my way to a team of 30+ full-time employees. Not taking any investments and having little to no savings of my own definitely made the road challenging at times when work was slow, but because of it, I’ve never had to sacrifice my vision or integrity in building something that is truly impactful.
Not being venture-backed really taught me to be super thoughtful about growth (hint: it shouldn’t be at all costs), the importance of having a strong financial model, staying laser-focused, and keeping expenses under control, and how to attract incredible talent by centering our values, culture, and impact over splashy benefits like catered lunches and bloated salaries.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
One of the best things about living in Southern California is being able to access so many different environments so easily, from beach to city to mountains. Also, food. I just moved back to LA after being in NY for eight years, and while I desperately miss my bodega, there’s so much to love about this city. Some of my favorite places to eat would be Miz La La, an amazing Israeli restaurant, tucked away in West Adams, Gracias Madre in West Hollywood for incredible vegan Mexican food, or sushi from my favorite spot called Noshi Sushi just north of Koreatown.
Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake is always a great place to walk around and pop into cute little shops or grab a coffee, and when I’m on that side of town, I love taking my dog over to the Silver Lake Reservoir or dog park to run around. For brunch, I’m a huge fan of Bacari on 3rd near The Grove. It’s small plates, which, for a bruncher like me, who can never decide between sweet and savory, is absolute heaven. Plus, they have tons of great gluten-free and vegan options for those with dietary restrictions.
To escape the “city,” I love heading to the west side and a little north to Malibu. My favorite beach is Staircase Beach, which happens to be dog friendly (perfect for me and my pup). It’s also usually less crowded than some of the other beaches in Malibu because there’s a bit of a climb up and down to get to the actual beach. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My shoutout is to every boss I’ve ever had– both the good ones and the, er, not so good ones. Working alongside leaders who understood how to get the best out of me shaped how I lead within my own company, and also how I help develop leaders in the companies I work with. I also have had the benefit of learning what NOT to do as a leader– for instance, leading with a one-size-meets-all approach or forgetting that my employees are full humans with lives, dreams, and challenges outside of work that shape how they show up inside of the workplace. Thanks to all my past bosses, I’ve been able to learn what works and what doesn’t and be a leader that my team can be proud of.