The Pathfinder: She Blazed a New Trail. Now She Helps Others Find Theirs.

Kelly Robinson’s unconventional road to her dream job

July 28, 2020

min read

Every October, Kelly Robinson fields questions from eager young grads at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s annual Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C. Most ask how they can parlay their education into the career of their dreams. Kelly tells them dream careers can be easily derailed – and that's a good thing. It's exactly what happened to her.

Kelly had a plan. She’d earned an MBA and was making her way up the corporate ladder on the budgets, spreadsheets and contracts side of the business world. A previous employer tried to lure her to human resources, and while she was tempted to try something new, Kelly had already given notice at the company and decided it was better to stay on track. Interviewing in 2010 at manufacturing and refining company Flint Hills Resources in Wichita, Kansas, Kelly knew from her first on-site visit that she’d found a home. “It was so welcoming and inviting,” she remembered. “Every person who interviewed me made it feel like we were just having a friendly discussion.”

As a single parent with a teenage daughter, Kelly was looking for a good work-life balance, but also a job that would allow her to do purposeful work. Based on her conversations with Flint Hills employees, she decided it was a perfect fit. After working as a procurement analyst supporting the biofuels group, Kelly, who believes strongly in giving back, started volunteering for a companywide effort to build a new diversity team. She didn’t realize this momentary decision had started her on a new path that ultimately would transform her entire career.

Kelly’s primary assignment with the diversity team was college engagement. She discovered a talent for recruiting fresh graduates and interns, and to her surprise, that it was a lot of fun. “I realized that I really, really enjoyed it,” she said. “I was so fulfilled, talking about my role and the culture at Koch.”

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While she’d always been a good communicator, Kelly found guiding the students, helping them learn corporate norms, navigate new situations and plan for their futures was particularly rewarding – and she was good at it. Her own experiences as an African-American woman gave her unique insights and made her an empathetic sounding board. She’d faced some of the same struggles and had to overcome setbacks, just like many of them. These recruiting experiences prompted her to seriously consider switching careers. “If I liked it this much as a volunteer, how great would it be to do it full time?” she said.

It took Kelly nearly five years before she finally brought up her interest in HR with her supervisor. She wasn’t sure how it would be received. But she had his support from the get-go. Her supervisor promised to help her find a path – or blaze one – from procurement to human resources. He introduced her to an HR leader who set aside time for bi-weekly meetings with Kelly to talk about next steps and encouraged her to keep at it.

Seven months later, her dream job opened. “The notification popped up that there was a position in college recruiting – in Wichita, in my building, in this company and for the group that I'd been volunteering with for a very long time,” Kelly said. “I saw it and was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

She’d barely finished training for the scheduling job. Kelly didn’t know how to say she wanted to move on, or if anyone would even let her. She agonized for days, then decided it was too good an opportunity. Kelly’s new supervisor, Kari Rahm, became her chief cheerleader. “She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Kelly, those roles don't come open often. You should apply.’ ”

Kari said being a supervisor at Koch means helping employees find fulfilment in their roles. “Kelly had been consistently working on a development plan towards realizing her goal of being in HR,” Kari said. “When the position opened, it was a simple decision to support her.”

Kelly was shocked – and thrilled. “It was humbling, that Kari didn’t worry she might have another opening to fill, she just wanted me to find a role I was passionate about,” Kelly said.

Kelly got the job, and the last year as a talent operations coordinator in early careers has been everything she hoped. Skills she used in previous positions, like negotiating, evaluating and determining company needs, translate almost seamlessly into recruiting. Plus, it’s just as much fun as she’d dreamed. “It's such a blast!” she said. “I’m here because this is how we do things. We talk about self-actualization, about integrity and respect and incorporating them into our jobs. Those are the guiding principles this company is built on, not just stuff we say.”

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Kelly continues to work with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the nation’s largest organization exclusively representing the Black community and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and a key Koch pipeline for diverse new hires and interns. For the past three years, Kelly has been one of the Koch recruiters at the Leadership Institute, TMCF’s signature student development event, which the company helps sponsor. The convention gives Koch and other TMCF partners an opportunity to meet and interact with a diverse group of students from around the country. A $25.6 million gift in 2017 from the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries helped launch TMCF’s Center for Advancing Opportunity, which expands educational, social and economic opportunities in fragile communities through original research and direct engagement with residents. The company provides ongoing support for scholarships, fellowships and grants to faculty to establish university-based research centers on education, criminal justice, entrepreneurship and other issues.

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At the annual TMCF convention, Kelly finds it invigorating working with the students, discussing the company, her job and her atypical career path. She particularly enjoys a Koch-sponsored breakfast plenary that gives student recruits time to learn about the company in a more intimate and relaxed setting. She’s found that the students, many coming from large cities or urban backgrounds, can be hesitant about moving to a smaller town like Wichita. “They ask about the city and the company, whether we have a diverse culture, what their opportunities will be,” she said. “I love telling my own story of how everyone helped me fulfill my dream.”

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She tells them Koch is a company that values entrepreneurship, fresh perspectives and new ideas – and her career proves it. “I tell recruits if they come with an entrepreneurial spirit, they will learn to collaborate, innovate, automate,” she said. “They’ll meet people across the company, so they may start in Wichita but end up in Atlanta – or anywhere else in the world they want to go.”

Kelly tries to explain the foundational Koch ethos of self-actualization and finding fulfilling work to the college recruits she now works with every day. “I've pushed myself continually in new ways, and never once did I feel like my current role supervisor was holding me back,” Kelly said. “Instead, I always knew they were rooting for me. I know it probably sounds cliché, but I tell them to find and use their strengths to create their own path, because I really believe the opportunities at Koch are endless.”