Monti Becker Kelly: When Black Women Thrive, So Do Their Communities
Monti Becker Kelly, the Senior Vice President of Customer Engagement and Strategy for a leading software company, describes her transformative experiences helping black women in the Greater Charlotte Area thrive in the face of poverty and discrimination.
My mother, Stanli Kay Becker, taught English at Cuyahoga Community College in the inner city of Cleveland. She founded the Jesse Owens Olympic Youth Development Program, a summer program designed to provide cultural enrichment, sports programs and personal development for black youth in Cleveland from eight to 17 years old. In 1983, she was honored at the White House as the founder of this program and for her accomplishments working with inner city youth. My father, John "Tom" Becker, held a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and was a distinguished professor at John Carroll University. Both were very strong civil rights activists and were prominent educators and volunteers in the community. My mother was black and my father, white. While I respect my full heritage, for numerous reasons I’ve always considered myself black and have had a strong affiliation with the black community.
Because my mother had juvenile diabetes, she had severe complications stemming from my birth. Later, she and my father decided to adopt four children over the course of five years. Two of my brothers are black (one is now deceased), another brother is white and Hispanic and my sister is black, white and Hispanic. My parents did not learn until after the adoptions that all of my siblings suffered from various physiological and psychological challenges—including fetal alcohol syndrome and prenatal heroin exposure, along with childhood schizophrenia. Two were also severely physically and sexually abused as very young children.
My parents instilled in me a profound drive to excel and help others. I immersed myself in my parents' causes at the age of 13, including working in the Jesse Owens Youth Development Program. After receiving my B.S. in Business in 1992 from Miami University in Oxford Ohio and studying abroad in Luxembourg, I started my career as Key Account Representative at Ceridian Employer Services. I married at age 26, in 1996, and had three wonderful children: two daughters and a son. I divorced at age 39, becoming a single mom to kids who were 10, 6 and 4. Despite many financial and job-related struggles along the way, I rose to the executive rank.
Currently, I am the Senior Vice President of Customer Engagement and Strategy for 7.ai, a leading software and services company that uses artificial intelligence to significantly improve customer experience. I'm also the founder and executive sponsor/chairperson of 7.ai's ConnectHER Women's Leadership Organization.
Despite the demands of work and family, I strive to continue my parents' legacy of supporting civil rights, social justice and equality for black people, women and anyone less fortunate. For the last ten years, I have been a member of Women Executives (WE) in Charlotte, a diverse group of accomplished women who support and nurture each other's personal and career growth. WE provides a forum for professional interactions, sponsors programs for professional growth, and encourages its members to develop their leadership potential and to give back through its sole philanthropy called WINGS.
WINGS, which stands for "Women Initiating Nurturing Growth through Scholarships," is a scholarship-mentorship program for women over 25 years of age in non-traditional situations seeking to earn their college degree in the Charlotte community. The organization has given me the opportunity to work with many inspiring and resilient students, but one experience in particular has made a profound impact on my life and encouraged me to continue my work in the community.
After surviving a car accident, one of my scholars suffered a severe head injury that negatively impacted her ability to synthesize information. This was a major setback that inhibited her ability to meet the expectations of her school program. The mother of four young children, she was living in poverty due to a lack of education, divorce, absence of transportation and her medical condition. She applied for the WINGS program and enrolled at a local university—but unfortunately, her troubles continued.
When her ex-husband who would occasionally provide financial assistance became ill and was hospitalized for an extended time, she became his primary caretaker, further impacting her ability to succeed at school. Her children lacked transportation to school, so she was taking the bus every weekday with them and the time investment was causing her to fall behind in her studies. To make matters worse, she was also unjustly accused and harassed by Social Services who believed she was receiving support from her ex-husband's pension. Navigating this was stressful and challenging for both of us. I encouraged her to make choices that prioritized her and her children's future.
Given everything she had experienced, we had hoped that the university would have been a safe space for her. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Throughout her education, she experienced racial discrimination and was belittled by faculty and others. I mentored her through each of these experiences and encouraged her to stay focused on achieving her degree. COVID-19 brought additional obstacles: Her classes moved online, which was extra challenging due to her injury. Her children attended their classes at home, causing additional distractions. She and I worked with the university to get her disability accommodations of extra time for assignments and exams and additional tutoring for classwork.
Through all of this, she has persevered and will receive her B.A. in May. This black woman has determination and stamina like I have never seen before. Despite experiencing some of life's hardest challenges, she always figures out a way to take the next step. I'm so proud of her and amazed by her resilience. I am honored to be her support, cheerleader and guide. We continue our mentoring as she seeks employment. Currently, she is working with Dress for Success for graduation attire and assistance with resume writing through the WINGS program.
My community outreach work has shown time and time again that black women have a unique and difficult journey at each step: learning life skills, playing a myriad of roles, achieving gainful employment, earning college degrees, climbing corporate ladders and serving as leaders in the community. They need support and help within the community in order to move forward. This need was unnoticed and unaddressed by society for centuries, making black women invisible. As I mentor black women who are burdened with tremendous problems, I guide them and encourage them to overcome those obstacles with steadfast determination and proudly earn their degrees. Their fortitude in the face of adversity is admirable and they inspire me to keep doing this work.
I will never give up on paving a path for all women in society—especially black women—and will seek out ways to continue to make a difference and open doors for my sisters. I have been exhausted at times, worn out from constant challenges, even in despair, but the inspirations I see in those I can help keeps me focused. I want to create a world full of opportunities for my three kids, and for all children.
Monti Becker Kelly is focused on bringing diversity and inclusion to the forefront of business conversations. She has led multiple initiatives to support women in leadership. She served two terms on the Board of Directors for WINGS in Charlotte, NC, and has continued to lead mentoring for WINGS scholars for over ten years. She is passionate about mentoring women to further their education and goals to rise as leaders in business and other fields.