Finn Partners Senior Partner Helen Shelton was featured in the 2018 PR Museum Press publication "Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership," which was designed to shine a spotlight on diverse communications professionals who share their experiences and insights in the communications industry. Published in partnership with the PRSA Foundation, the book features interviews with more than 40 multicultural corporate, organizational and agency leaders.
Recently, we spoke with Helen again about the foundations of her career, the passion that drives her strategic mindset, and what’s top of mind for her today.
PR Museum: You’re a unicorn – a native New Yorker – Harlem born. Tell me about your parents.
Helen Shelton: My mom is one of the smartest people I know – meticulous in everything she does. She was a traditional homemaker, but very active in our schooling – a big force in the PTA, raising thousands of dollars for scholarships, and keeping us all on schedule. She is a librarian by training. This is why I love to read and am rarely without a book. She worked part-time at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. As a youngster, I would sit under her desk with a book and wait for story time. I got my dreams from my mom – but I got my drive from my father. By his grit and determination, he became one of the most powerful executives in the newspaper business after literally starting in the basement – the composing room – and rose to become Vice President of Circulation of the New York Times. He was in fact, the first Black person featured on the New York Times masthead. My parents worked well together – and still do. Our beginnings were humble but happy. We had love and we had each other. My mom never let us feel sorry for ourselves. My dad would say, “The world is made of sheep and wolves. And super wolves eat wolves. I didn’t raise sheep.” Yes, I got my drive from my dad. (laughs)
You have to understand your intrinsic worth. People will come for you. You will be challenged. You have to know who you are.
PR Museum: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Helen Shelton: When I was a young child, I wanted to be an actress. I later took acting classes, but a career on the stage and screen was not for me. As I got older, in middle school, I wanted to be a judge and study law.
PR Museum: Was there a turning point for you in your teens?
Helen: I started school at the age of three – so I‘ve always been on the fast track. (laughs) I took the admissions exam and made it into Hunter High School. I was very happy in my community in Harlem – but when I went to Hunter, it was a big adjustment. I remember being shocked that one of my classmates had gone all the way to Switzerland for Christmas, or that we could just walk out of our classroom without permission slips and go to Grand Central to study the architecture.I had always been at the top of my class, and a straight A student, but at Hunter I began to appreciate and value academic challenges. Math was never my strong suit, but I was always a strategic thinker. I had a plan. I knew I wanted to go to a great college, so I got a math tutor and faced my fears. Through determination, I took trig and chemistry, which helped me get into Dartmouth.
PR Museum: Were you pressured to achieve?
Helen: I never thought I had to compete. My parents just asked us to do the best we could. I never felt I had to get A’s to please my parents.
PR Museum: So you intended to go to law school. How did you transition into PR?
Helen: Getting out of school, everybody seemed headed for Wall Street and finance. I took the LSAT and did well on it – but I decided I really didn’t want to be an attorney. I had always been fascinated by the entertainment industry. Rather than being a performer, I was always interested in what went on behind the scenes. Even at a very young age I used to follow the power moves of top entertainment executives like Barry Diller, Sherry Lansing, and Dawn Steele. I was interested in the business of entertainment. I didn’t know what to call it. That’s how I ended up in PR. I studied PR and communications at Boston University, where I received my Master’s degree as an RKO Scholar. As part of that, one of my first jobs was as an intern at KISS-FM Radio in New York, where I had the chance to handle promotions for a variety of musical artists, films and events.
PR Museum: How has this life-long interest impacted your approach to your work?
Helen: Culture and the arts are universal, they’re a connector – something that celebrates our differences, and unites us. Everyone, every culture, has a connection to artistic expression – it’s a bridge. We can all enjoy these things, and learn from one another. I’ve leveraged the arts and artists as a way of bringing people together, and raising awareness about health, particularly in the black community. The arts and culture are part of everything I do.
PR Museum: Do you have a mantra or a phrase that keeps you inspired?
Helen: Yes – I have a simple phrase my mother taught us, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.” A simple distillation of a complex idea. She emphasized that nothing and no one could hold us back. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have mentors. I had people who helped me. So mentors and the mantra carried me along. But at the end of the day, it’s all up to you.
PR Museum: I know giving back is very important to you. Is mentoring part of that?
Helen: Yes, I mentor. I oversee Finn Partners D&I program; mentorship and education are some of its principle components. Three of our mentees are now hired. I’ve also partnered with community organizations that expose students to art and culture. For example, we had an initiative to take inner city kids to the Metropolitan Museum to see the work of da Vinci. We gave them art supplies. Some of the kids had never had a sketch pad. Educating a child is also saving a life, opening up doors to a life experience that will change them and their community. I’ve always had a component of giving back in what I do. Mentorship and paying it forward is what I owe the world for how I’ve been able to persevere – and learn. It’s the least I can do.
PR Museum: Is there anything you’d like to share with us that’s top-of-mind for you today?
Helen: I am so happy to see the shift, to witness that the dialogue about D&I, women and equity is driving action, concrete actions and outcomes. Not just talk. If we all commit to it – we can make a difference. It doesn’t take a lot. I am happy to be a part of the conversation – and more so – part of the action to make a difference. It inspires me to get up every day to go to work. I want the momentum to continue.
PR Museum: Parting thoughts?
Helen: Good always prevails, but it takes a lot of strength and confidence. We were taught that nobody can stop you. If you don’t have that foundation, it’s hard. It’s hard for me, even with my solid background. I’m a gladiator – I’ve been in this arena for a long time. I’ve had my share of victories, but I work at it every day.