The best way out is through
Mason City, Illinois (population 2,500)
COUNTRIES LIVED IN
– United States
– Fulbright Scholar (Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar)
– BA, Spanish (Wartburg College)
– Three semesters abroad at two other universities in Ecuador
– Telephone Interpreting (English)
– Found in Translation (English, Norwegian, Greek, Russian)
– Take Your Company Global (English)
I’ve played piano since I was 3 years old and went to college on a music scholarship.
Armed with first-hand experience, Kelly made it her mission to demystify international strategy. She became a pioneering voice encouraging companies to embrace global opportunities despite the challenges. Where others saw barriers created by language and cultural differences, Kelly saw possibilities to foster meaningful exchange.
Writing became Kelly’s channel for sharing those global insights. She authored books like Found in Translation and Telephone Interpreting while guiding international expansion for software firms. All the while, she offered her hard-won wisdom through a popular blog and speaking engagements at conferences and other venues.
Now, as demand grows for multilingual digital experiences, Kelly’s message resonates more than ever. When people worldwide can instantly access products and content, global visibility is the new normal. Gone are the days of methodically entering markets one by one. Yet Kelly understands that with this accelerated pace comes new growing pains.
While other experts focus on giants, Kelly champions entrepreneurs looking to compete on the world stage regardless of size or funding. Because she believes cross-border commerce shouldn’t be limited to multi-billion dollar brands. In Kelly’s view, global thinking must start on day one.
With contagious optimism and empathy, Kelly makes intrepid global expansion feel possible for any dreamer. Because behind the book deals and accolades stands a woman who still remembers what it takes to guide nervous patients through frightening medical situations in an unfamiliar tongue. Success hasn’t distanced Kelly from those roots; if anything, it’s strengthened her devotion to demystifying cross-border growth so we can all connect a little more easily across cultures.
What do you think would surprise people about your journey in both localization and in the business world?
Once, when I was mentoring a young coworker, she assumed that I was the daughter of a diplomat. I laughed very hard about this, but she assumed that was the case because of my international experience. She was shocked to learn that I’m actually the proud daughter of a pipefitter. My mom made nearly all of my clothes growing up. I’ve had to help shingle a roof and hang drywall, pour concrete, and use a post-hole digger. From canning our own tomato sauce (from the garden I helped my dad with) to making our own bread, the basic lesson for me growing up was this: Most jobs can be learned.
My life was very different from what I imagined it might be like as a diplomat’s daughter. I started working when I was 12 and did various jobs: from babysitting to lifeguarding, from cleaning bathrooms to serving as the church organist, from teaching swimming lessons to singing Ave Maria at local weddings. In college, I held a similar diversity of jobs, basically using whatever opportunities and skills I could leverage. As a result, I have never been afraid of hard work or to try new things. I also genuinely appreciate each and every person for the job they do and what they contribute to a business.
Were there any career-defining moments that you look back on as pivotal?
One pivotal moment in particular for me was not only career-defining but also life-defining. I was abducted and held at gunpoint in what is known as a “secuestro express,” a type of kidnapping that happens in some parts of Latin America in which gang members hold you hostage for hours (instead of days or weeks), to try to quickly extort money from you and your loved ones.
I remember, in a heated moment, seeing my life flash before my eyes. My brain kept saying, “This can’t be it. I’m not done yet.” Despite being told I would be killed if I didn’t hand over every bit of money, jewelry, and valuables, I hid some cash from the kidnappers, thinking that if I survived, I would need it. When I was later thrown out of the car in a dangerous slum area of the city, I was at least able to get back to safety thanks in part to this.
Ever since then, I never take a single day for granted. I was physically unharmed, and feel fortunate to be alive each and every day. Many people say “life is short,” but I also have first-hand knowledge of how from one moment to the next, life can be hanging by a very fragile thread.
Reflecting on your early career as a Spanish interpreter and several moves between continents, what skills did you gain that help you today as an international business executive?
As an interpreter, you have to be comfortable with things not always being perfect. There is not much predictability with interpreting. You have a very limited line of sight regarding what’s coming next. Conditions are often sub-optimal, and words can be unclear. Perhaps someone mutters or covers their mouth, or perhaps they speak too quickly or change their thoughts mid-stream. You don’t have a chance to stop, research things, and constantly ask for clarification. You have to adapt as you go along, but above all, you have to keep things moving. These can be very difficult skills to learn, and were not natural for me at all when I first started out as an interpreter!
Having faith in yourself to be able to handle whatever comes your way is important both as an interpreter and as a tech executive. I believe in having very high standards, but in business, you also need to be able to bend and adjust as you hit the inevitable tailwinds and headwinds. Interpreting gave me tremendous practice with flexibility. All these years later, I am usually able to roll with the punches, and there are many, many punches when you work in technology!
You told the story years ago on RadioLab about telephone interpreting for a Spanish-speaking woman hiding under the bed on a 911 call. What was the story, and do you have any other similar experiences?
Yes, that story is actually the opening story for Found in Translation too! When you work as a telephone interpreter, you often work with first responders. The dispatcher connects the interpreter to the police, fire, and ambulance staff who respond to the scene. These calls can be very chaotic, because you have sirens interrupting the audio and other noises; you hear many voices and it can be hard to discern who is talking to whom. Sometimes people are yelling, crying, muffled voices, slurring their speech, and so on.
While most calls are not true emergencies, a certain percentage of them are. I often worked the graveyard shift and weekends back then, which is when a lot of 911 emergency calls come in. On that particular call, the woman was hiding under the bed, and told me her husband was coming to kill her. The dispatcher asked if he had a gun, and she replied that he had a gun. She told me he was walking up the stairs, and whispered that he was opening the door. Then she hung up.
When I was an interpreter, I took many thousands of 911 calls over the years and was the voice of people who were often in trouble, at risk, or otherwise needed help. I developed an incredible appreciation for dispatchers and first responders. The individuals who arrive on the scene are often heroes, and I cannot imagine seeing many of the things they witness in real life. I felt very lucky to be able to help, but to be shielded from the harsh reality of actually seeing many of the things I had to interpret.
How do you deal with these situations emotionally?
I’ve had to tell people they or their family members were dying. I’ve had to serve as the voice of a person from an organ donation bank who follows up with the family after a loved one dies to ask questions about how and when to retrieve the suggested donations. I’ve had to interpret for domestic violence hotlines, child abuse hotlines, and court settings, for which I have interpreted some very rough witness testimony. In the moment, the best way I can explain it is that you become like a machine, focused solely on delivering the message. In my experience, the emotional processing tends to hit you later on, when you least expect it to. At Language Line, we had training on how to deal with these situations, as well as a debriefing process for traumatic calls.
Your writing has been published in the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and MultiLingual, among others. Remind us of the books you’ve written, why you write, and how authorship has changed you.
Take Your Company Global is my latest book, following my book with Jost Zetzsche (Found in Translation), which was a successful book published with Penguin Randomhouse. My first book, which I doubt anyone remembers anymore, was a book called Telephone Interpreting, published in 2008. Back then, I had carved out a reputation as a subject-matter expert in telephone interpreting, because I wrote a lot about that area of the language industry.
I dreamed of being a writer since I was a very young girl. I entered poetry and writing competitions even as a teenager. I’ve written constantly through the highs and lows of life, in every job I’ve ever had. The main reason I write is to pass along what I know. Some people do this by teaching, others through mentoring, and others by creating something. But for me, the main legacy I leave behind is my writing.
The other big reason I do it is because I enjoy building relationships with people through writing. My husband and I initially sent letters to each other, and I’ve made some amazing friendships throughout my life through old-fashioned letter-writing. In fact, my oldest and dearest friend became my pen pal when we were 10 years old. Nearly 40 years later, we’re still sending snail mail letters back and forth. We’ve vowed we’ll do this until the day we die!
In your books, you seem to be trying to put localization in the spotlight. How did you get a book deal with a major publisher on such niche topics?
You need three things to get a book deal with a major publisher these days: a great idea for a book, a platform to promote it with, and a massive amount of patience. Many people have strong ideas for a book, but very few have the ability to guarantee a publisher that they can get a return on their investment in that book. Publishers increasingly will only take a risk if they’re convinced you can reach enough people in your network — that includes blog or podcast subscribers, email contacts who receive your newsletter, and relationships you can leverage to promote the book.
I would also say timing is key. With both of my most recent books, the idea for the book came many years before the book deal happened. It also took the ability to face rejection after rejection, and to be creative to find other ways to pitch or recast the entire book. With Take Your Company Global, interest among publishers for the topic heightened when the pandemic revealed that more people could work from anywhere. This book might not have ever been a priority for a publisher had it not been for COVID-19, ironically. It takes a lot of patience to keep that idea warm and have it ready for when the right conditions happen to align.
When exploring career options, what specific criteria led you to choose Rebrandly as your next move? What made it stand out?
Many things stood out to me about Rebrandly. First, the product is incredible. It’s a link management platform that empowers businesses to brand, shorten, organize, and track links and clicks. Having been in the MarTech space for nearly a decade, I immediately saw the product-market fit and the value delivered to customers. I also love the company’s powerful product-led growth model.
Second, our CEO at Rebrandly, Carla Bourque, is a proven leader with a successful track record in MarTech and B2B SaaS. I love working with her and the team she has assembled. We are having a great deal of fun scaling this business. Third, it’s a highly global business — our customers and teams are based all over the world, which is very appealing to me, of course.
Fourth, the role itself was compelling because it encompasses growth overall. I oversee three functions at Rebrandly — product, marketing, and sales. All have to be harmonized to deliver the best growth for our business. I’ve always loved cross-functional work and aligning teams around a common mission. That’s one of the best parts of my job!
Last but not least, all my years working in tech have taught me to look for companies that have a very well-defined total addressable market but are not leaning past their ski tips in terms of funding needs. I sought a company with rock-solid fundamentals and a clear investment in future growth. I wanted to work at a business with proven profitability and solid investors, and I’m very lucky I found that in Rebrandly.
Now that you’re a top excutive at a software-as-a-service company, do you believe you have “left” the localization industry behind in a manner of speaking?
I don’t think you can ever leave the localization industry. It’s like a family. Once you’re in, you’re simply part of it, and always connected in some way. If anything, I hope that my experience and career path help younger generations in this industry understand that you don’t have to limit yourself just to titles that contain the word “localization.” I have pivoted in many directions over the years, and if I can, so can others!
I also don’t believe you must always strive for a higher-level position to feel fulfilled. I was a C-level exec when I was much younger, and I’ve been in various positions since then and felt I delivered impact in all of them to the best of my ability. I think the important thing is to make a major impact in any role you have and stay aligned with your passions and values. Everyone can lead, from any role in a company.
Between your executive role, writing, music, family time, and mentoring others, your schedule seems packed. What’s your secret to maintaining a work-life balance and finding time for it all?
I actually intentionally don’t find time for it all. I am selective. I find time only for the things that really matter to me and my family. I often notice that others spend their time differently than I do, but that has always been the case for me since I was a child. When most kids were playing on the playground, I was the one sitting under a tree, reading or writing, lost in my own inner world.
Not much has changed. Around the water cooler at work, I would often hear people talk about the latest reality TV show, and I would have zero clue what they were talking about. I would show polite interest, but I was more focused on dreaming up a new blog post or an article, which to me, would be a far better use of my time and more aligned with my unique interests and goals.
One of my core values is learning and curiosity, which I believe is important for our development as human beings. For that reason, making time to travel with my daughters and husband is very important to me. I don’t even view that primarily as a leisure activity, but rather, a vital part of living life and exploring this world while we’re lucky enough to be able to do so together.
What do you consider to be the greatest potential of Gen Z and Millennials to help evolve global business, and what have you learned from them yourself?
When I first joined HubSpot, I mentioned to my husband that everyone there seemed so full of energy and vibrant somehow. He said, “Could it be because they’re all 15 years younger than you?” He was stating the obvious (I’m 48), but I had totally failed to realize what a major age difference there was between me and most of my coworkers there at first. It’s just not something high on my radar most of the time.
I don’t want to generalize GenZ and Millennials by stating that “they” are one way or another. Instead, I just try to view people as individuals, because those generations represent a huge spectrum of people. I vividly remember how it felt to be their age. When I was younger, people often underestimated me, and I couldn’t wait to be older to escape that bias. When you’re older, there are different biases you face too, but I’ll never forget being in those shoes when I was earlier in my career and felt I constantly needed to prove myself due to my age.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you live with an invisible illness — something that you need to navigate both personally and professionally. When you have a condition that is not easily seen, how do you decide who you talk to about this, and to what extent?
So many people have invisible diseases in this world, and many of these are technically regarded as disabilities. Many people are afraid to call them that, either because they don’t want to be regarded that way, or because they don’t want to have to enter into a debate in which they end up defending their use of the term. Invisible illnesses are a blessing and a curse because others cannot tell you’re battling something unless you make them aware. But even if you do, it’s not easy to see or understand, and then you might face being unfairly judged for it.
As for me, I’m very proud of what I have physically had to overcome in my life so far, and I’ve spoken about it in public before to ensure other people fighting similar battles feel seen. Over more than a decade, it took nine pregnancies to eventually lead to my two daughters. With so many losses, my doctors always suspected an underlying auto-immune condition. After the birth of my second daughter, seven years ago, I became very ill, was hospitalized, and woke up to learn those doctors were right all along. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease without a cure. I actually refused to believe it at first and thought it had to be a mistake.
But in the years that followed, I became very ill, to the point that 70% of my hair fell out. For several years, I wore extensions to hide how sick I was, so that people wouldn’t think I was dying or something. Throughout that entire time, I was in incredible pain, but I kept working and even traveling for my job. Work has always been the one thing I choose to do no matter how sick I’ve been, and gives me stability. If anything, I leaned even harder into my work during those times. Work is a major part of my identity — it fuels my passion and purpose.
Today, I’m fortunate that medications exist to keep me in remission. There are times when I basically live with chronic pain, but I manage it, and I deal with it. I view myself as a survivor, not a victim. The lesson I take from being an auto-immune warrior for the past seven years is that I refused to let it block me from accomplishing what I want to live a meaningful life. I’m lucky that I can do that, knowing many people have it much worse than I do. I’ve also developed much greater compassion and empathy for others fighting similar battles.
Does having some control over what people know about your health make you empathize with those who face discrimination based on factors they cannot hide, like skin color, gender, or visible disabilities such as partial paralysis or visual impairments? Do you have experience to share on gender discrimination?
As for my own auto-immune disease, it’s very true that I can choose to keep quiet about it. That’s why I often choose to do the opposite. People in the localization and tech industries often seek my advice and mentorship, or ask about secrets to “success,” assuming that I have some magic formula to share. What I want more people to know that what you see on the surface, and especially on social media, is mostly just a highlights reel. It’s a curated version of someone’s life. I think it benefits us all when we share the challenges that make us human. The highs and lows of life are what connect us all.
Having worked as an interpreter for many years, I witnessed countless acts of discrimination against people with limited English proficiency. I won’t pretend that I know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of people with identities other than mine. What I can say is identities are layered and complex. Was that person treated differently because of their age, their gender, their accent, their ethnicity, their religion, their profession, their economic or social class, or a combination of the above? Often, it’s not just one thing or the other that causes someone to be treated as “less than” another.
How about being a redhead?
Well, being a redhead, despite being less than 2% of the global population, is not even in the same category. As kids, redheads are often bullied, but as an adult, the worst that might happen is that someone might be afraid of my temper, call me “hot-headed,” or use some other weird hair-color-based stereotype to describe me.
I was told once that in some villages in Ireland, if a fisherman sees a redhead before going out to sea, it’s bad luck, and they’re afraid they might die at sea that day. So, I guess I’ll just have to avoid wandering around the docks at dawn whenever I’m visiting Ireland, so I don’t create any panic situations.
What compelling nonfiction books have you read lately that you’d recommend and why? Was there a particular book that gave you an important new perspective?
Lately, I go back to many of the same books I love and read them again and again. I love poetry, and whenever I need a dose of inspiration, I look to Carl Sandburg, my all-time favorite writer. I’m a huge fan of his work because he is so prolific and versatile. His six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln won the Pulitzer Prize and he later got the same award for his collected works of poetry. He’s the only writer to ever win the Pulitzer in two different categories. I also deeply admire his journalistic work covering the Chicago Race Riots.
Sandburg was the son of Swedish immigrants and grew up in central Illinois, where I grew up. His work really speaks to me, and I’m an avid collector of his songbooks, children’s books, poetry books, stories, and more. He was also the first poet in American literature to write about immigrants as a serious subject. Until his Chicago Poems were published, immigrants were only written about as the subject of jokes or as caricatures. He showed empathy for people from diverse backgrounds in very real and tangible ways, and that legacy is apparent in his writing. Side note: I hope every reader of this magazine takes a moment to read his iconic poem, Languages.
If you could offer advice to your younger self starting out, what would it be?
I am not very past-focused, so I’m unsure what I would say to my younger self. After all, she no longer exists! But as I move forward, I would lean on my father’s advice. I dedicated my latest book to him, and he just passed away earlier this year. During hard times, he often said, “The best way out is through.” So often, we look for shortcuts to escape our problems, or try to avoid dealing with hard things. Often the wisest route is to just go through them, acknowledge that they are hard, and keep going. That’s wisdom I hope to keep top of mind for my future self!
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