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Uncommon Talent: Kailee Scales, Aiming High and Staying Focused

Staying focused and seizing opportunities has been the formula for success for fundraising professional Kailee Scales, who most recently was chief development officer at Building Markets. Commongood's Maria Peralta spoke with Scales about her work at Building Markets and what motivates her as a leader.

Maria Peralta: How did your career path lead you to international and economic development?

Kailee Scales: Fundraising has opened up many opportunities and brought me to a lot of exciting and different places. My career has been an interesting mix of work with a wide range of organizations. My first fundraising job was an extraordinary experience; I was the fundraiser for Barry Ford, a candidate for the United States Congress. It was fast-paced, grassroots, with 24/7 demands. The experience of working with constituents, the candidate, a field team, and raising money was intense. It was baptism by fire. And it created a fire in me to succeed.

I also worked for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, where I raised an unprecedented $7 million for ALS research, and for the Boys and Girls Club and Jumpstart for Young Children. By then I knew that fundraising was what I was meant to do. Working as the fundraiser for the Queen of Sweden was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was very hard work, but I knew that going in, and that's why I wanted the job. It introduced me to international philanthropy and to the strategies of building relationships with world-renowned philanthropists.

As a start-up social enterprise with a focus on economic development, Building Markets gave me the opportunity to do something new and fresh that still had an international focus. Working with people from all over the world, I was able to put my international relationship-building skills to good use and challenge myself even more.

MP: Tell us about Building Markets' approach to job creation in developing countries.

KS: Building Markets creates jobs in developing countries by providing services that connect local entrepreneurs to new business opportunities. It all started through on-the-ground experience and analysis, when Building Markets' leaders realized how great the need for job creation and economic development in many of the world's poorest countries was. They also realized that the lowest-hanging fruit was to encourage the local procurement of goods and services. Unfortunately, many international agencies and NGOs don't know how to procure locally. So Building Markets developed and deployed a series of activities in that space, including a business directory, matchmaking local businesses to international buyers, and helping local entrepreneurs find, bid on, and win international contracts. Ultimately, the goal of Building Markets is to educate and equip entrepreneurs in developing countries with the resources they need to thrive, and to that end it has launched Sustainable Marketplace Initiatives in Afghanistan, Haiti, Timor Leste, and Liberia.

MP: How did you affect change at Building Markets?

KS: When I joined the organization, the focus was on bilateral donors, international governments who were able to support our mission while meeting their own development goals. But there were other donors interested in the organization, and my role was to engage them. I had to think about what the organization's value proposition was and figure out what we offered the broader donor community — our measurable impact, the opportunity to make their own supply chains more sustainable — and then develop a giving and outreach plan for those donors.

I also led the team that created partnerships with multinational corporations. Many corporations that work in developing countries have, as part of their agreement with the host country government, agreed to contribute to and benefit local communities. So I created a giving plan around engaging corporations and trained local staff on how to approach and sustain long-term relationships with corporate donors.

MP: What are some of the leadership lessons you've picked up?

KS: One of the things I learned mid-career is how important honesty is to a team. As a leader, I try to model honesty whenever possible — honesty about challenges, about successes and things that go well. I've learned that people want to come along with you on the journey as you all work to realize, through all the ups and downs, the vision of the organization. They don't want to be with someone who is closed off in their office, internalizing things; they want someone who is open, who shares information, who says what they mean.

MP: What was the best advice you ever received about leadership?

KS: A real leader thinks about the group and not herself. I learned that through my work with Barry Ford when he ran for Congress — it was the best example of leadership I could have had early in my career. I learned that it's extremely important to ask yourself what is best for the team, for the organization, for your constituents. Once you do that, the leading part sort of falls into place. First and foremost, true leaders understand and address the needs of the group.

MP: Did your parents influence your leadership style?

KS: My father came from a poor background and yet built a successful career and raised his daughters to be ambitious women. I had to figure out how he was able to do it, to overcome the many obstacles he faced. And I realized it came from his belief in himself and from assuming his own personal power. My father had the drive and energy to achieve. I also learned from my father to bring knowledge, passion, skill, and focus to my work and to make sure that what I am doing always reflects the highest level of integrity.

I think we all have the opportunity to be self-actualized, but it doesn't just come. You have to seek out opportunities, take advantage of them as they come along, and not allow yourself to be distracted. You have to focus your personal power on being who you were meant to be and never look back.