Kelly Dolan: Putting the 'Why' in Work
Kelly Dolan, co-founder of Ingage Partners and Thrive Cincinnati, is a no-nonsense entrepreneur who has set out to redefine terms like "career" and "the bottom line." She invited us out to the Thrive office on Riverside Drive to chat. The space, which used to house an iron-works factory, calls to life a metallic motif in the spirit that iron sharpens iron.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m married as of twenty-one years. We have two kids. I have a fourteen-year-old daughter Reilly, and my son Ryan is in fifth grade. I started my career back in Columbus in the banking industry and after about a year and a half, I lost my job. So after 18 months out of college, I’m already unemployed so, might need to pick a different industry. I answered a job ad randomly for a small IT consulting company called Software Architects. My first job was a college recruiter, so I went all around Ohio and nearby states and recruited computer science grads. I knew nothing about computer science outside of that I married a computer scientist. I was actually the one in college where I’d be crying in the computer lab because I couldn’t figure out how to use the tools. So it’s quite hysterical that I now own two IT consulting companies.
After a year, Software Architects asked me to move to Cincinnati because they wanted to start a new office. So at the ripe age of twenty-four-ish, with a year of experience underneath me, they moved me here to open up an office and I shifted from recruiting to business development. At that point, I was calling on VPs of IT and CIOs, and I had no clue what I was doing. I still remember one of my first cold calls: I had a little script that I wrote out like, “Hi, I’m Kelly, and I’m with this consulting company. I’d love an opportunity to meet you.” And I would have these blanks where I would fill in the client name. And it was LensCrafters at that point – it’s Luxotica now – and it was the CIO, and he ended up picking up the phone. Like, nobody does that. You don’t pick up the phone! So I was caught off guard, like “Oh my gosh, I have a live one.” So I’m reading my script, well here I had called PNC Bank right prior to that. I didn’t change the name, so I’m like “I’d love to learn more about PNC Bank, I mean, LensCrafters.” And he laughed on the phone and he’s like, “I’ll tell you what: You call me back in two weeks and I’ll give you a meeting.” And he did, and we started doing business there, and actually they’ve been a client of ours for a long, long time, through multiple generations of companies that I’ve been with.
So, the point of me telling you this is I find it comical sometimes when I hear kids talk about what they’re gonna do and what their career is gonna look like, and it truly is out of your hands, a large part of it. It’s who you know, it’s your drive, it’s your motivation, and that’s really what helped shape my path.
Tell us about that point when you decided to leave your comfort zone.
So, I was with Software Architects for eleven years. They sold to a large consulting group and I knew that it would not have the culture that I had been accustomed to being a part of, so I left. I went to another consulting company called Centric.
And it was during that time where I was really struggling with, “Is this it? Is this all I have to look forward to from a career-path standpoint?”
It’s about, “What’s your next achievement? What’s your next job title? Are you on the ‘partner path?’” And that process was falling very flat for me. I was lacking a lot of purpose, and so getting up every day and trying to go to work just became a struggle.
Michael [my now-business partner] and I were paired together, supporting actually LensCrafters/Luxotica. And you know, as co-workers do, you commiserate. Like, “This kinda sucks. There’s gotta be something better out there.” It felt like I was wearing two left shoes, going after something that just did not fit me. It was in that place of dissatisfaction that we started really talking about what we could do about it. And Michael is a guy that’s all about action. He has a plan; he’s acting on it. So he was really pushing me along, and you know the reality of it is, it became a spiritual journey to me. My Christian faith is a huge part of me and what I do and why I do things. And I was part of this small group journey called “Free” that was all about “How do you take away things that are holding you back because of fear? How do you remove fear from the decision-making process?” And it was at that point that I’m like, “You know what? That’s what’s really holding me back. I’m afraid of not only failing, but I’m afraid of losing my identity as someone that has been well-accomplished. I’m earning great money. I’m supporting my family. People look at me a certain way, and I’m afraid I’m gonna lose that identity if I go do this and I fail.” And so it was really stripping that out of my thinking.
Along with that, I do believe it was kind of a divine influence. I was Googling one day and something that came up in my search result was a company called Impact Makers. They’re one of the founding corporations of the B Corp movement. And I had never heard of B Corps, so when I poked into their site, I was like, “Holy cow. So you could still do IT consulting and you could do something good for the world?” I’d never heard of such a thing.
It was at that moment that we made the decision. I showed Michael that model, and that was the framework I needed to check those boxes for myself, to say, “Okay, this is my purpose. This is my ‘why.’” And that was the first time that it really bubbled up to the top for me that the “why” is so essential in your career move. And that has completely changed and shifted the way that I think about my job and my profession.
So we launched Ingage. We quit our jobs within days of finding that article. We said, “We’re gonna use the talents and experiences and network that we gained over many years in this industry; we’re just gonna do it very differently.”
What was the reaction like from your friends and family?
Well, the most important shift was with my husband. I had talked about doing something on my own for years. I had always had this entrepreneurial bug in me, and it was a scary thing for our family because I was really the breadwinner for a long time. It was really nerve-wracking to him to think, “Okay, you’re just gonna quit your job, and we’re gonna reduce our income by sixty percent, and this may or may not work out. Yeah, I don’t think so.”
So I came to him and I was really wrestling with what to do. And he’s like, “You’ve always wanted to start your own business. Now’s the time. Go do it.” And not that I was looking for his permission, but it absolutely was a very freeing thing for my husband to say, “I believe in you.” And he has supported me like a thousand percent through that whole journey. He actually works here today, as a matter of fact. So now we have all our eggs in one basket, so that’s fantastic! [Laughs.]
How has being the “breadwinner” affected your relationship with your husband?
When Chris was graduating from Miami with the computer science degree, that was a very prospective career to be in, and I was graduating with a communications degree. Like, what the hell am I gonna do with a communications degree? So it was a joke when we were engaged that he was gonna have me sign a prenuptial agreement because I’m just a communications major, so what could I possibly bring to the table?
But it’s never been of consequence to us because this is a shared partnership. We’re in it together. It’s fifty-fifty…I don’t care if he’s bringing in a buck and I’m bringing in ten. It makes no difference to us. You truly cannot be successful, in my view, doing something like we’re doing, without a partnership in a marriage.
What do you hope your kids are seeing in the way that you and your husband have built a shared family unit?
I hope with everything in me that we’re showing them how a family unit is so essential and you have to work together. And I hope they see that fear should not hold them back from anything that they do. Fear is a lie, and they shouldn’t believe lies.
So, how is Ingage “doing things differently”?
The reason for us in forming Ingage, and the “why” moment for us was if we’re struggling where we were in great companies and great career paths previously, but we’re lacking purpose, how do we address that? The word “Ingage” came from “inspire” and “engage.” How do we inspire people to think differently about their career? It’s about finding your own personal passion point that you weave into your profession. We have something called Paid Volunteer Time Off, and it’s pay above and beyond your salary to go out and volunteer in the community. It’s putting our money where our mouth is as a business. We’re not gonna just say, “Go and do some nice stuff in the community and go be charitable. Go do that stuff.” We wanna actually put our financial commitment behind that because money talks, right? And we want to stress the importance of being the hands and feet in our community. And it’s not about me dictating to you what you should care about. It’s about you finding your own passion on how you want to positively affect the world. So we have people that have followed their passion about pitbull rescue, about human trafficking alleviation, poverty, cancer awareness – you name it, and there’s probably a nonprofit that someone is supporting within Ingage.
We were trying to solve the problem of going to work every day and coming home empty. Like, what did I really accomplish outside of the spreadsheet, outside of handling this meeting? Let’s weave some purpose back into what we do, and that doesn’t have to be separate. You can actually do your job with the skills that you’ve been given, and at the same time, you can be doing something positive for the community.
We also donate twenty-five percent of our profits at Ingage to charitable organizations, so that’s taking money that we’re earning and we’re turning it right back into the community.
Do you run into people who turn up their noses, so to speak? What do you say to the naysayers?
We do, and I’ll tell you a very quick story. It was month five of Ingage. We had an opportunity to go talk to a group of people … it was a minority incubator type of thing where the purpose of it was to go and present your idea as a business and then they give you feedback. So we went through the whole Ingage spiel: twenty-five percent profits, Paid Volunteer Time Off, etc., and the guy said to us, “You know, let me give you a bit of advice. You could struggle your entire life as a social worker making peanuts, trying to make some little slice of impact in the world and probably not really succeed, or you could run a very successful business and you could make lots of money, and then in your golden days you could turn that around and reinvest that in the community.”
We’re like, “So we have completely failed to deliver our message today. Because do you completely miss the point? We believe you can do both at the same time!” So that really put a lot of fire in our belly to say that we’re gonna be bold with this vision of using business as a force for good. And we’ve had a lot of recognition for Ingage, and it’s not because we’re egomaniacs; it’s because we want to demonstrate to the world that you can operate a successful, very profitable business and do good at the same time.
It’s not just about doing good and this soft like, “let’s go hug a tree together.” We’re actually doing great work in our financials and business execution because that has to be the foundation.
No one’s gonna respect a business that isn’t profitable, so it has been equally important to us to run a profitable business and a business with purpose. I guess what I say to the naysayers is, “We’re doing it. And it’s working.”
And then, you reached a point where you said, “I want to do something else”?
You mean the point that we went crazy? I’d love to talk to you about that. [Laughs.] We reached a pivotal point in business: we survived five years. We started taking a look at, “All right, well, what’s next?” In most consulting worlds, you go and you open up an office in other locations and that’s how you continue to grow, or all of a sudden you invest a ton of money in that business and you grow to 300 people or whatever. But, as “easy” as that would have been to do, just replicate our model in other places, it was feeling similar to before we started Ingage. It felt flat.
And so it was at that same time that we were introduced to a nonprofit in Cincinnati called Per Scholas. They’re located within CityLink. What they do is take people that are underemployed, unemployed, and they train them with a free eight-week course and they try to launch their career in IT. They had launched a pilot program in New York around software quality testing, but they weren’t doing it anywhere else. And so we were digging into that, saying, “Well, why not? Because that’s a really great precursor to what we do at Ingage.” And they said, “Well, we just don’t have the resources.” And so that started to really breed an idea for us.
On top of that, we were also measuring Ingage with what has been our real impact that we could feel, touch, see. We do the twenty-five percent of our profits and it goes to whole bunches of places and lots of people donate their time, etc., but like, what’s the impact? We want to feel the impact. We want to transform lives. And meanwhile, we hear every day about Cincinnati’s alarming poverty rate: 71,000 people in poverty. One out of two children living in poverty. Worst children’s poverty rate in the entire country, right here in our city.
And so we’re like, “Okay, let’s think about this, ‘cause we’re entrepreneurs. We have a nonprofit partner that does IT training and has a pipeline of people that need the training. We have a massive shortage of IT professionals. Lots of companies around here are shipping jobs offshore to India, China, etc. because we can’t find enough talent here. And we have an alarming poverty rate. What might we able to do about that? Huh. Interesting.”
So Thrive truly was created to employ people coming out of this training with Per Scholas. We wrote the curriculum for software testing, we donated the instructor, and we launched our first class last April. Twenty-one people graduated from the class. Thrive, as a brand-new employer, hired fifteen of the twenty one. And the model was, “Okay, we can’t just give these people a job after an eight-week bootcamp and say, ‘You’re good to go; go out and do that thing.’” We knew that there was a lot more work involved, so what we did as a company is take on the responsibility for growing, mentoring, developing people. We’re really a talent incubator. They’re coming here and then we pair them with senior IT professionals – people that have had ten, fifteen, twenty years of experience in this field. These people are the Michael and Kellys of ten years ago who did not feel purpose in their profession, and this is an opportunity to totally transform lives within your day job. And not only are they giving them technical skills, but they’re personal coaches. Accountability partners. We’re really taking on the ownership of training people in three core areas: One, the technical skills to do the job, because we have to provide good value to our clients. Clients aren’t gonna bring us in just because we’re doing something nice. The second piece of it is professional skills. A lot of these people are coming from hourly jobs, right? So they have not been exposed to a true professional environment. And then thirdly is we’re personal. There are obviously barriers in their life that got them to a place where they’re underemployed or unemployed. How do we help them overcome those barriers? It’s that partnering to help them get better housing, transportation, childcare – whatever the case might be that were barriers for them – let’s remove them because we’re moving on. That’s behind us now.
People are increasing their income 150 percent just day one coming out of the class. Maybe some of them this is the first time they’ve ever had healthcare for their families. They also get Paid Volunteer Time Off because we’re hands and feet here, no different.
Can you share some stories of the people Thrive has impacted?
We have a woman here, Kelly. She’s a mother of five – two with cystic fibrosis. She was married and her husband died unexpectedly and her five kids were very young. So here I am, I have five kids, I have two with major medical expenses, and I have no spouse, who was the breadwinner. I was a stay-at-home mom. I have no real applicable skills, so what do I do? And so that was someone that went through the Per Scholas class and graduated and she’s one of our analysts. She is a flipping rock star.
That’s just one out of fifty stories here. We have two brothers and their cousins working here. All four of them are immigrants – they were actually refugees from Nepal. Some of them had associate's degrees or started down a bachelor’s degree path but just didn’t have the finances. They all had hourly jobs – servers, laborers. They are the most remarkable human beings that you will ever have an opportunity to meet, and to think about their beginnings, living their entire childhood until they were seventeen years old in a refugee camp, is amazing. They are the most humble, giving, caring people, and incredibly bright. But the struggle was, who’s gonna give them an opportunity, right? “You don’t fit my job description, so I don’t have an opportunity for you.”
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
Miki Costello. Miki was my first mentor way back in the Software Architects days. She really took me under her wing and taught me the ropes around business development. What she taught me is about building authentic relationships. People hate salespeople because they feel like it’s inauthentic, so coming from a place of authenticity is key.
The other thing she taught me was how much your faith can impact your projection. And you know, not to be afraid to lead making it known that you have faith. Everything she did, it was this quiet confidence that she carried that I’ve tried to emulate.