By Quiana Hughes
Kathleen Henson is a mother first—the proud mother of five dynamic kids whom she loves dearly and her clients know this. Kathleen is the founder and CEO of Henson Consulting, an award-winning national PR firm, based in Chicago. She’s a fierce advocate for women. And not that she has anything against men—she has created a firm where women have leadership opportunities and the freedom to be their authentic selves. Henson Consulting started small—in true entrepreneurial fashion—in the basement of Henson’s home, and has grown from the basement to a swanky office space, overlooking the Chicago River.
This powerhouse woman in PR and I sat down and spoke about her journey.
Let’s talk about your influences growing up.
I am the youngest of four kids and grew up in Bloomingdale, Ill. My father was an executive for Keebler. My mom was a nurse, who worked at Elmhurst Hospital in the newborn nursery.
And, when I was seven-years-old, I started traveling with my mom and dad on my father’s business trips. I traveled with him twice a year and I gained exposure to senior-level executives. I observed how they operated and communicated. Those trips were very influential to me and helped shape me into a person who was comfortable around corporate leaders. I came to understand the value of relationships at a young age. I traveled on those trips with my dad until I was 23-years-old.
And, my mother being a newborn nursery nurse and an amazing mother herself influenced my motherly instincts.
When did you fall in love w/ PR?
I initially thought I would be in advertising or something—working at Leo Burnett. During my time at Purdue, I met Wendy Levi, who was a graduate of Purdue and a guest lecturer that I was assigned to host around campus. She was stylish, confident, got to travel, and loved her job. I wanted to emulate her.
So, that summer I reached out and asked if I could come see her at work and have lunch. After spending time with her, I decided I wanted to work with Wendy at the firm, Hill+Knowlton, where she worked. I then stalked Hud Englehart, who was the general manager, and consistently called his office at 7:30 a.m. every day before his assistant came and finally one day in August, he let me come in for an interview. I got the job and immediately started as an Assistant Account Executive. There were no internships at the time; I got to get right in and my starting salary was $18,000 back in 1992.
How did you advance in the industry?
No one can ask you how old you are once you graduate. During my time at Hill+Knowlton, I made an opportunity for myself by raising my hand and saying, ‘I can do this, and I’ll do that.’ So anytime they needed something done, I was like, let me do it. And, I was able to learn rather quickly.
I had an opportunity to be valuable at 21. At 23, I was recruited to lead the communications department for a title insurance company making me a boss at the age of 23. Then the recruiter called again a couple years later and said, ‘Edelman is looking for a VP.’ I was 25 and they didn’t know I was 25; I had a lot of experience and I acted more mature than to be expected for my age. I interviewed and got that job. I remember one-time my boss asked, ‘What are doing this weekend?’ I responded, ‘Oh, it’s my birthday.’ She asked, ‘How old are you going to be? I said, ‘26!’ And, she looked SICK!
So, that was a really pivotal moment for me because I believe people shouldn’t judge by what level you are or what age you are but by what contributions you make. I became a SVP at 27 — I had the corner office, the fancy title, a staff of 15, and then I had my daughter Emily.
How was Henson Consulting started?
I had to make a choice. When I returned to Edelman after my maternity leave, I looked around and saw that the women who I looked up to were really into their jobs. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job but I was into my daughter more. So I quit my job at Edelman. I started at a smaller agency and six months in I found out I was pregnant with my second child. I realized I was still working rather hard, so nine months later, I decided I was going to start Henson Consulting (HC). I liked the idea of being Kathleen Henson and consulting in my basement.
HC is staffed w/ primarily women…was that intentional?
Yes! I always knew that I wanted to create an opportunity for women. Nothing against men, but [I] noticed there wasn’t a lot of really strong role models for mothers in this business oddly since it is a predominantly women business. So, I felt that if I can give other women jobs and let them be mothers too, awesome! You are allowed to be HUMAN at Henson Consulting!
Also, as I began to really grow Rich Melman, my mentor, told me, ‘Listen, before you get too big, you need to make sure you surround yourself with people who have the same values as you.’ So, I decided to hire people who have similar attributes and possess the same value system as me. And, the core value at Henson Consulting is kindness.
What do you foresee in the future for Henson Consulting?
GROWTH! Continue to grow the firm and do good work in more sectors. I would also like to fully utilize the space. And, being a good employer of great people is important.
I never have a huge plan, ever. In business, we have plans and business projections, but as far as the agency, I believe if one door closes another one will open with something greater.
Any key lessons learned over the years?
- Act like you can!
- Fall down and get back up!
- Be a sponge!
Quiana Hughes is in her final year of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University. She interviewed agency founder Kathleen Henson of Henson Consulting for the final assignment in her Agency Management course.