I found myself at Kelly’s home in Fayetteville one sunny afternoon last summer. She welcomed me with open arms and we plopped down on her living room couch making, which made for a much more relaxed and comfortable interview than most. I was impressed by how kind she was to basically a complete stranger.
Name: Kelly Zega Location: Fayetteville, Arkansas Job Title: Director of Development at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Educational Background: B.A. in broadcast journalism + political science
We began our interview by talking about her childhood, and she explained to me that she was raised in the small town of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. However, she went to school in a larger town a short drive away because her parents wanted her to have the best educational opportunities possible.
I was fortunate enough to go to elementary school within walking distance of my house. Most of my friends lived a bike ride away, which made it easy to meet up and play on the weekends. Kelly, however, didn’t have those opportunities, which put her at a significant disadvantage in the friend department.
On top of that, the kids who did live near her thought that she believed she was too good for them because she went to a bigger school in another town. Because Kelly didn’t have many good friends her age, she often spent time with her parents and their friends—which actually had a very positive impact on her life.
Being around adults all the time opened her up to more meaningful conversation at a much younger age than most. She was able to hold her own at a dinner party while most kids her age had trouble keeping eye contact when being spoken to. Her parents were both well educated and taught her that knowledge was a tool and with the right implementation it could bring you success.
She referred to her mom as a “force of nature” and said, “she’s not afraid to try anything, she’s also not afraid of failing.” Because of her mom’s risk-taking attitude, Kelly always thought she could do anything she set her mind to as well.
Kelly and I have a lot of similarities in our upbringings. Our parents are very strong-willed people who taught us to always chase our dreams, we had to learn to converse with adults at a young age, and we were always encouraged to do what others wouldn’t do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat at the kitchen table complaining about being average and how there’s nothing special that sets me apart from the rest. My father always hits me with the same line: “Well, then go out there and do things other people your age won’t do.” Kelly’s father also pushed her to do the things that others may be afraid to do.
Oftentimes, we’re held back from reaching our goals because we’re scared of failing. Armed with her mom’s fearlessness and her father’s risk taking, Kelly was a force to be reckoned with.
Fast-forward to today: She has a beautiful daughter who is pursuing an acting career in New York, and Kelly really feels as though her life is coming together. She went through a divorce a couple of years ago — the circumstances of the divorce really took a tole on her mentally and she became very unhappy. Kelly shared with me that what got her through those tough times was friendship.
She told me about all the women who rose up to support and love her through this period in her life: “There wasn’t a single second that any of my friends left me to my own devices. People were checking in, making sure I was doing things, going places, you know just being there.” With her daughter gone and now no man in the picture she completely devoted herself to friends and the result was amazing. Because she put so much into these relationships she got back just as much in return. She says she feels “incredibly lucky” to have this wonderful, supportive group of women.
As far as her professional life goes, Kelly is a total boss. At the time of our interview, she worked for Cox Communications. A lot of the upper-level management in the company were females, so she’s had a lot of powerful women mentoring her from the start. She says she was happy to see “some phenomenal female leaders that are just as respected as the men.”
What I Learned From Kelly
Kelly taught me that it’s ok to not just accept my femininity but to totally own it. I admire her strength and enthusiasm in any situation — I learned to look on the bright side of things because something beautiful can always come out of bad circumstances. She also taught me that we, as women, can do it all. We can be successful, powerful, and beautiful all while being a kick-ass mom.