PR maven Helen Shelton to receive coveted ColorComm Circle Award

Photo courtesy of Helen Shelton
Photo courtesy of Helen Shelton

Meet Helen C. Shelton, senior partner at Finn Partners. A graduate of Dartmouth, Shelton earned her master’s degree at Boston University’s College of Communication. On Wednesday, July 20, 2016, Shelton will be honored at Women of Color in Communications presents ColorComm Circle Awards 2016 where CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield will deliver the keynote.

C2, short for ColorComm Conference, is the ultimate business conference and retreat for women of color in communications. Unlike many conferences with thousands in attendance, C2 is an intimate group of 300 multicultural, professional women. With innovative programs and topics presented by the industry’s top practitioners and thought leaders, this conference provides a safe place to address relevant issues from like-minded women.

Describe what you do and how have you gotten to where you are.

I am a communications professional first and foremost. I use my position to influence and promote change and awareness and to benefit communities! I have been so blessed in that regard. I have gotten where I am by being honest and hardworking, having a strong sense of self and determination. At Finn Partners, I work on multicultural, travel and lifestyle initiatives for a variety of clients. I am also responsible for the Agency’s diversity and inclusion programs and initiatives — this is something that I am particularly proud of. I actually created our program, Finn Partners DiversityWorks, and to date, we have supported many, many programs and initiatives to increase diversity in the public relations industry and to participate in dialogue and action items that are having a significant impact in this area.

What were some challenges or setbacks that you faced to get to where you are?
Having my voice heard and having people make certain assumptions or presumptions about who I am. For me this was an inspiration and not a deterrent. Having the fortitude and the training provided me with a foundation and the strength of will and determination to survive and excel in very tough circumstances.

I would say that my life took a pivotal turn at a very young age — 11 years old. Getting accepted into Hunter College High School and literally being thrown into the pool and having to sink or swim was one of the greatest challenges I ever faced. Being in such a rigorous academic environment was a turning point for me. From there, I knew that I could face anything. I often draw on those experiences even to this day.

What is the professional moment that you are most proud of?
Becoming the first-ever executive vice president at Ruder Finn’s Arts & Communications Counselors practice — the oldest cultural marketing and public relations firm in the world. At the time, I was not only the first, but the youngest and only African American to hold that title. I consider it my proudest professional achievement.

I am also very proud to serve as a trusted point of counsel for many wonderful clients who, through the years, have entrusted me to create platforms and campaigns that not only “engage consumers” but galvanize movements! I have been able to address real issues such as disparate unemployment for Black men and women, adult education, affordable housing and access to the arts through my work with major corporations and brands. I believe it is important and possible to “do good and do well at the same time,” so being in the room and being at the table are important for anyone seeking to work in the communications field

Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by people who are extraordinary at what they do — particularly artists whether they are performers or visual artists. I have been lucky and blessed to work among incredible artists — from Mary J. Blige to Yo Yo Ma to great minds like the architects Frank Genry and Renzo Piano. I also studied great artists and am a classically trained art historian. For these reasons, I always try to infuse my work with creativity and a sensibility to the culture of the communities I am trying to reach and engage.

People who excel at what they do are a constant source of inspiration to me. I am also inspired by the sheer grit and determination of my parents. I owe everything I am to them, and I take my role as the oldest of three daughters very seriously. It’s about setting the tone and creating a path not for them to follow per se but for them to look at and be inspired to create their own paths and to excel at whatever they aspire to be.

Who are your mentors?
Professional mentors include my former boss, Philippa Polskin, who now heads up her own unit at Finn Partners – the Polskin Arts & Communications Counselors division, and of course the great David Finn, founder of Ruder Finn. They believed in me and my talents and gave me a considerable degree of responsibility at a very young age to help grow the business and to be a part of some of the most landmark cultural initiatives of our times and with some of the world’ s leading figures in the arts, architecture and the corporate community.

Personal mentors include close family members such as my parents of course, as well as people like my cousin Charles F. Bolden Jr. He is the head of NASA and the first African American to pilot a space shuttle. He is also a war hero, a retired Major General in the United States Marine Corps who flew many, many dangerous missions in Vietnam. He is an American Hero who fought to break the color lines in the US military and remains a source of inspiration to me.

What is the best advice you have ever received?
Don’t compare and don’t compete. Always, always do your best. Never give up. Keep going. And my mother also taught me two important things: 1) “Ride your ride” and 2) Bring more to the table than your appetite. Make a difference wherever you are — that is the secret to success and to having a fulfilling career and life.

What dreams have you fulfilled?
Seeing my vision become a reality as a professional communicator and strategist. Setting standards and goals for myself and achieving and exceeding them. Facing challenges head on and continuing to rise. Also, being a professor of communication has been a dream of mine that I have been able to fulfill. Teaching and mentoring up-and-coming communications professionals on the graduate level is an honor and a privilege for me. Some of my students have gone on to do fantastic things in the field. This also extends to my work as a board member of ColorComm — being in a position to help this organization grow and take its place as the seminal force that it is has been truly remarkable.

What is your favorite quote or mantra that you live by?
My mantra comes from Charles E. Shelton, my father. He taught me very early on the following: “The world is made of sheep and wolves. Wolves eat sheep and Super Wolves eat wolves. Which do you want to be? I did not raise you to be a sheep.” What?! This is what gives me the unshakable core and foundation to go on even when I don’t think I can! Because of my father and Almighty God, I am fearless.

What are your hobbies and what do you do for fun?
I am an avid reader and gardener. I adore flowers and living things that I can nurture and grow. I am a true Cancerian, in that home and hearth are of the utmost importance to me. I enjoy cooking and baking for my family and in the warmer months, I am never too far from the grill. I also enjoy equestrian sports and actually grew up around horses and being a part of the horse show circuit. I am also a writer and I am at work on my very first novel.

What is your routine? How do you get centered and focused to do the job you do each day?
While I can be a creature of habit, I try to switch up my routine every now and then. I work very hard to stay on top of trends and news of the day. I begin each day by reading everything I can — browsing top news sites and of course “the blogs.” Once I read everything, I try to work out and walk a bit each morning and stretch. Then I prepare to get to the office and face the day. I read e-mails and my social media en-route to the office, and I always like to walk past my favorite shop windows between 59th and 57th streets for inspiration, before heading East to the office. Once I am in the office, it’s game on. To get me through, I listen to my favorite gospel and pop tunes low in the background — depending on my mood and the circumstances!

What advice would you give to your younger self?
It’s going to be OK. Don’t push yourself so hard.

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