Lessons on Leadership with Kerri Hoyt-Pack, Founder of The Liberty Collective

On the eve of International Women’s Day this year, a small group from Schoolhouse arrived at the foot of a charming old brick office building in Portland's pictorial Sellwood neighborhood, wide-eyed and ready to learn. Built in 1910, the traditional structure that once housed the Portland Railway Light & Power Car Men’s Clubhouse, is now home to something considerably more modern and inclusive: The Liberty Collective. 

Founded last year by Kerri Hoyt-Pack, former VP of Marketing at Nike, the mission of the collective is to grow great leaders and modernize workplace culture by cultivating an “unapologetically feminine force that helps to redefine victory.”

Kerri's office at The Liberty Collective in Portland, Oregon

What brought us to the Liberty Collective that day was both kismet and kinship of spirit. Earlier this year, our own team at Schoolhouse had come together to discuss our values with the goal of not only identifying them but living in to them – both as individuals and as a collective brand.

From that discussion, a common theme surfaced: the desire to celebrate the voices that inspire us. By having conversations that matter, we hope to encourage others to do the same. Or as Kerri would say “small ripples make big waves.” This new conversational series is our chance to celebrate the people who motivate us, who are doing the hard work, and adding sparks to make a better, stronger fire. 

Inside her colorful office speckled with Schoolhouse favorites, alongside other treasured artifacts of her well-lived life, we spoke with Kerri about her important work on behalf of women leaders and soaked up all the creative energy we could from her considered, vibrant space. Below is a condensed transcript of our discussion.

Schoolhouse: Let me start off simply by saying, what a strong mission statement: Grow great women leaders. It’s so straightforward and smart – you instantly understand what the Liberty Collective is about. 

KHP: You know, I purposefully use the word grow, because I believe that women have what they need already. It's about investing in them and giving them an opportunity to grow themselves. And often times it's right in front of them. It's about women giving themselves the permission, and the time, and the resources. 

Schoolhouse: What makes a great leader? You said empathy is key. What else?

KHP: I think the most important thing is that you have a dimensional view of that leadership piece of it, and that everybody can't be all things. But that we are actually celebrating different qualities of leadership, in individuals and across a team. You heard me say that more sparks means a hotter fire…. I think that's one of the most important things for a leader. That in themselves, in their work, and also in their teams, they recognize the importance of different perspectives and actively bring those in. Because we all have inherent biases, it's just human nature. It's the way we're wired. And we have to push beyond that.

KHP: I talk a lot about the damaging effects of fear and how I believe fear is the worst possible cultural currency for any team or environment, it's very damaging. Trust is a big one, as is being a cultivator. And at the center of it all, is empathy. It's also having a more multi-dimensional perspective — take something like strength. You know you could have your typical view tied to, for example, power. Or, as we were saying before, something like bravery can have different characteristics. So I think being more well-rounded in your approach of leadership is one of the most important things. 

Schoolhouse: True. I really enjoyed your leadership concept of “unapologetically feminine” because I think that's such a struggle for people to hear the word feminine and not think female. What do you hope this means to people in 10 years or what feminine comes to be known as?

KHP: I think what you've teed up very well, is that there seems to be a sort of binary approach to it, which means if you say feminine it's not male. And that's absolutely not true because we all have feminine qualities, we all have masculine qualities as well. It's just the degrees that we allow those traits to come out in ourselves. And so I think it's really important that we start to not just embrace, but foster feminine qualities of leadership in all of us. And that's in individuals and across teams.

 My hope is that we are way past the point of just thinking of feminine as something tied to gender. And by the way - in the fluid world we live in, where norms are shifting anyway - what a release that is, to actually look at this whole palette of attributes that we can all embrace on different levels. What a great toolkit to have, if you have different skills that are able to tap into different kinds of qualities. This isn't about negating what has historically been the way we looked at great leadership in the past— there's great qualities there. It's not one or the other. But how do we evolve... Evolved Leadership is what I focus on, because you have to evolve where you're coming from right now. And it’s urgent. But not something that happens overnight.

Schoolhouse: Do you think people who are in those leadership positions currently are capable of that evolution with the right teaching and tools. 

 That's a good question. I think some are. I do think some are. My own approach and strategy tied to my business and my brand is working with companies that are enlightened. That's the word I use, because not everybody is. And I actually made that shift from the beginning when I was at first thinking I've got to just go out and get clients, to realizing I need to be much more thoughtful of who I actually partner with. Because it's my integrity. And I want it to work. It's much more about culturally, "Are we building a system and a set of norms that everybody benefits from shifting?"


Schoolhouse: Yeah, I wonder. Have you found it’s newer companies that are more open to that versus really established big brands?

KHP: I’ve talked to a lot of business leaders, largely in the brand space because that's the marketing space where I come from and I have found it's really mixed. I talked to a woman who was head of marketing at a very big and established (and somewhat conservative) company in Paris. She talked openly about the institution, and the deep sense of history and traditional values there – and as I understood, it really wasn’t an easy place to work as a strong female leader. But she specifically had the kind of view and diligence in what she was doing to try and make a difference. So, really, I think it comes down to individuals. 

This isn't easy work. There's a lot of emotion tied to it, it's scary, it's vulnerable. It's vulnerable as hell. That's actually one of the things I would say back to the first question, one of the most important parts about leaders is to be vulnerable. And not our typical view to great leadership. But I think that if I can work on the ground game and do some amazing work at a lower level with teams, and show how things can change, that's the better way to actually create bigger change. So it is that, “small ripples lead to big change.”


 In your video, you said growing great women leaders is everyone's work. How do you think individuals can start that work, how do you think companies and teams can start that work?

KHP: That's a good question. I think it comes down to your own behavior. And that's everything from the expected… how do you behave in meetings and what kind of support that you offer, to how you overall just show up. You need to be aware of how people might model your behavior,  and how you can specifically impact people through your actions. That's one example. So I think behavior is part of it but a big part of it is just believing that things need to change and starting there. I don't think it's going to be a choice at some point. It has to change.

But the focus needs to be how - how do we actually start to look at our own behavior in the way that's honest and just ask ourselves, “what could I do to make a difference and to shift things?” It's an absolute fact that we do not have enough women in leadership positions whatever the industry is and whatever the country is. It's fact.

 Slight gear change but I did want to say - congrats on raising two lovely young women! I'm sure they’re delightful humans.

KHP: They are!

Schoolhouse: In what ways have they inspired your work and what do you hope and dream for their near future?

KHP: You know for one, they have been such a big part of my life obviously and I've had to make trade-offs their entire life to be a working mom with a pretty big job, who travels a lot. I always had to make trade-offs. But I always did it with a really good feeling that I was also setting a great example for them of what courage looks like, what commitment looks like, and what investing in yourself looks like. So I've never had any insecurity around that part of it, even though I've had to give up birthdays or sporting events or whatever it might be that I missed. That being said, I made this change largely also because of them and I didn't want to compromise my own health. Stress was becoming a factor in my life, to a point that I wasn't willing to make that compromise anymore. I wanted to be part of the solution, not adding to the problem.

Schoolhouse: Well they couldn't have a better role model to become strong leaders. Do you see that in their future?

KHP: Well I'm in an interesting place, because one's just started college this last year and the other is in her final year of high school next year and so they're both really in the throes of becoming adults, you know? And some days I still think that they're eight years old, but for the most part they're incredible young women that are finding their way — both of them. I realize it all the time now, that they have listened and learned and watched way more than I thought they did. 

Schoolhouse: Well that’s reassuring. So, what does 20 years from now in your dream scenario of doing this work that you're doing now and on a grand scale.

KHP: Well let me draw a parallel. I’m currently the Board Chair of the Oregon Food Bank, which is an incredible forward looking organization. Honestly if you talk to the CEO, and if you ask me as the Chair, we would say we want to put ourselves out of business. We don't want people to be hungry, we don't want to have to do that work. And Susannah Morgan, who's the CEO, says she really believes Oregon will be the first state to end hunger. I believe her.

 I kind of want that same thing. I want to put myself out of business. I don't want to have to be an organization that's just focused in this one area... I want to be at a place that this happens organically. And then hopefully, I can just focus on leaders, right? That's always work that we'll have to do. Right now that's what equity is, it’s over-indexing in certain areas to create a just playing field. It’s very complicated and there is so much work to do, so I doubt in my lifetime we'll get there over 20 years. But there's hope.

And remember, we can't talk about women, without talking about women of color and other marginalized people. The intersectional piece of this is very important in the conversation, I come from a very specific set of privileges. I recognize that, I want to leverage those to the best work I can on behalf of as many people as I can and specifically in trying to really look at what I can do to change things as it relates to growing not just women leaders but pushing it way beyond that. How do we actually look at the fabric of leadership and say, “let's not just catch up to the world that exists now.”

Let's not say just say then, “let's add more women to the mix.” Let's look at the women that we're adding to make a more diverse leadership view and radically change the look and feel of any organization. And as we do that work, let's make sure it truly has more diversity and more sparks - meaning more valued differences right? More cultural differences, for example. People that have different identities, which are part of who they are and how they can help uniquely lead. I want more than just catching up, I want to leapfrog and I think we can. I think this effort to change the game for women has to come with this idea of changing the outcome for everybody and getting to a much more inclusive state of what leadership is. 

Schoolhouse: I love the idea of re-imagining. Yeah, we don't want to catch up but do things differently than how they’ve always been done.

KHP: No you said it... it's so inherent in my work I forget sometimes that maybe it's not obvious. It isn't just about checking a box and adding more women in to the mix so that we get to that place. Yes, I would celebrate if 50 some percent of leadership board positions were women for example. Or the C-suite. Yeah, great. More of our community is being lead by women and that isn't enough. It's much more about “Are the norms of great leadership shifting?” 

I mean, we've seen the issue in many parts of our society when poor behavior is rewarded. There's a huge price that comes with that, so that's part of what I want to change. Again, it's not just about the demographics and checking boxes of inclusion, it's about actually changing the spirit of what a good leadership role looks and feels like. What is recognized, what is celebrated, what is practiced.  And this is all of our work.

A big thank you to Kerri for spending the afternoon with us and for sharing her inspiring space and ideas. To learn more about her work and how you or your company can be a part of their vision to modernize workplace culture, head over to The Liberty Collective. 


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