No step in Natalie Kelly’s career path has been taken with a plan in mind. From entrepreneur to corporate difference-maker, she is a hard worker who has made a living by pursuing her passions.
Prior to becoming the director of Corporate Responsibility at Brasfield & Gorrie, one of the nation’s largest construction firms, Kelly owned her own company, an environmental strategy and media agency called Sustain. It was her work there that led to the opportunity to start the Corporate Responsibility department at Brasfield & Gorrie. Kelly manages the company’s sustainability efforts, as well as Diversity and Inclusion community relations.
“I think the work that I’m doing, specifically in diversity and inclusion, which is 90% of my job right now, is so needed in society, not just in our company at Brasfield & Gorrie,” she said. “In our organization, I’m not trying to build buildings, I am meeting people where they are on very personal journeys around diversity and inclusion, I’m helping them share their insight, their concerns, helping them grow and understand difference, and I’m helping people feel included. It’s really amazing. It’s hard, but it really is a very special job.”
At Brasfield & Gorrie, Kelly works to help set the Diversity and Inclusion strategy in an admittedly “male dominated” space. The construction industry as a whole has less representation of people of color and women than any other industry in the country that doesn’t currently trend with the growth in diversity happening nationwide.
Kelly is proud of her company for recognizing the opportunity for improvement, which focuses on three areas of impact within the company: Recruitment and retention of diverse employees, increasing partnerships with minority and women-owned businesses, and inclusive leadership development of employees.
“I like to say that Brasfield & Gorrie is on a journey to reach our full potential as an inclusive leader in the construction industry,” she said. “That’s kind of the mantra I like to think about every day. Because we do have so much opportunity to increase representation in the industry and in our company, to make sure that there are equitable opportunities for minority and women owned businesses and to build up people who can champion all of this.”
Kelly is quick to point out that it’s an everyday part of their employee and personal experience at Brasfield & Gorrie, and not just a Diversity and Inclusion initiative.
“From a community relations standpoint, from a sustainability standpoint, Brasfield & Gorrie is such a community-oriented company anyway,” she explained. “I’ve always been blown away at how we give and how we impact so many organizations around the southeast and especially Birmingham. What we focus on in corporate responsibility — these pillars of sustainability, diversity and inclusion, community relations, charitable giving — I think is just a pretty special focus for a construction company. I’m really proud to be associated with it.”
Kelly is no stranger to the construction industry: She grew up working at her father’s companies, Kelly Roads Builders and Kelly Natural Gas Pipeline. At a young age, she worked on job sites, helped flag road projects and led safety meetings. From there, she decided to go into entrepreneurship. Her first-hand perspective in the construction industry, as well as her experience navigating business ownership, helped her get to where she is today, feeding her passion for the work she does now to increase engagement minority and women-owned businesses.
“It felt like all the pieces came together when I started at the company,” Kelly said, claiming that although she’s been at Brasfield & Gorrie for merely five years, it doesn’t feel like she’s ever not been there. “I’ve had a lot of unique experiences that all folded together and helped prepare me to really be successful in this role.”
Still, Kelly reiterates that her career path, as well as her life in general, has largely gone unplanned. She makes decisions by trusting her gut and going “where things make sense.”
“When I started my company, I never in a million years thought I would run a company myself and there’s a lot to learn from that experience, because you kind of underestimate what it takes to do that,” Kelly said. “But everything I’ve done, every job I’ve had, every career move has been something that has just kind of happened.”
Even her English major while attending Auburn University was chosen — much to the dismay of her parents — simply because it was something she enjoyed and was good at. She knew she needed to graduate eventually; she also knew that focusing on something she loved would get her there. Now, when she goes back to her alma mater to speak to college students who want to know what their next step should be, she has to confess she’s just not wired that way; that life plans were never in the … well, plans.
“I believe in doing what you’re excited about doing if you have the ability, and doing what you’re passionate about,” she said. “And I’m passionate about the work I’m doing now. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
The impact Kelly has made, and continues to make, through the work she does and beyond is unquestionable. She credits her motivation to remain impactful to the people she surrounds herself with; her friends, her co-workers and people in her peer group.
“I’m surrounded by so many people who are doing amazing things,” she said. “My best friend is this amazing gastroenterologist in D.C. who just opened a boutique practice. I have another best friend who is starting her new law firm. I have peers doing amazing work in diversity and inclusion that are just doing game changing stuff for their organizations. And I have friends who are moms, too. I am motivated by all of that and I don’t take for granted any opportunity I have. I am naturally a hard worker. I have been working since I was 15, so I’ve never not worked. I love to produce, I love to make an impact. I love to be a contributor to something bigger than myself. I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I do, so I try to do it well.”
Yellowhammer News is proud to name Natalie Kelly a 2021 Woman of Impact.
Sara Watkins is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and SoulGrown Alabama. You can find her on Facebook here.