Success Profile: Margot Copeland, chair and CEO, KeyBank Foundation on Career and Giving Back

At the end of the day, we all should recognize the opportunities, the people that have enabled us to get to where we are.

Margot Copeland is the Executive Vice President of Corporate Philanthropy and Civic Engagement for KeyBank, chair and CEO of the KeyBank Foundation, and the immediate past national President of the Links, Inc.. More impressively, she is gratefully and joyfully living the life of servant leadership she envisioned for herself at the young age of 24! Margot’s gratitude begins with her loving parents, and extends far and wide to the many sponsors and mentors who have helped to shape the path she has ultimately trailblazed. There are so many nuggets of wisdom tucked into her thoroughly enjoyable interview, this is one we think you’ll return to time and again. We definitely will.

What is your “day job”?

I am the Executive Vice President of Corporate Philanthropy and Civic Engagement for KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest, multi-state banks. In that role, I am the chair and CEO of the KeyBank Foundation and lead all of the philanthropic and investment efforts for the organization.

I’ve been in this role for 15 years. How I came to this role is a good study on the value and benefit of relationships. If there is any common theme that runs through my background, it is the importance of solid relationships. As I grew up, received my education, and launched my career, I was the beneficiary of people who invested in my life. In many ways, those relationships are what led me to the position I am now in at KeyBank.

Who were your heroes, or mentors?

My ultimate heroes, mentors and sponsors were my parents. Do you want to know what makes me tick? Well, the people who knew my parents, Thelma and Lloyd James, see my parents’ reflection in me. They were very strong but loving people with a vested interest in service and community. My Dad was a Baptist minister and Mom an 8th grade math teacher.

Along the way many individuals in my work life and community life helped launch and support me in countless ways. Mentors and sponsors were crucial in my career evolution and I stand here today as the beneficiary of their active and hands-on engagement in my success.

What is the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?

Mentoring relationships are ones in which you find a confidante in the person mentoring you. You can bare your soul, you can vent, and sometimes you can even cry. Mentors helped me see that I belong where I am as well as feel comfortable and confident as my career progressed.

Sponsorship is a bit different. A sponsor is an individual who will go in and advance your name and your ability to complete a particular assignment, task or hold a position. They “advance” you, by putting their personal brand behind you. They are willing to go the extra mile on your behalf. They believe that you are the right person for the opportunity. I have greatly benefitted from and am forever grateful to mentors and sponsors in Cleveland that helped position me for my current role as CEO of the KeyBank Foundation.

For example, Carole Hoover advocated, exposed and positioned me before the business community in Cleveland. In addition Reverend and Mrs. Otis Moss, Jr., the late Congressman Louis Stokes and Arnold Pinkney were individuals who saw something in me at a young age. They helped me advance in my career as well as create a powerful network of relationships.

Among my current mentors/sponsors is KeyCorp Chairman and CEO Beth Mooney. She is firmly committed to advancing education, workforce development, diversity and inclusion and quality of life for underserved people and communities. In 2014, she presented my name to American Banker, which led to my receipt of their national Community Impact Award. My CEO recommended me for this incredible and very prestigious award in the financial services industry … amazing. I’m still elated. The 2014 American Banker award ceremony where Beth received the honor of #1 Most Powerful Woman in Banking and I received the Community Impact Award in front of 2,000 industry professionals in New York City was a moment for which I will always be grateful and cherish the significance of the honor.

When did you decide you were a corporate executive, that this would be your journey?

This question makes me smile from ear to ear! I made that decision when I was 24 years old. I was interviewing for a frontline supervisory role that would put me in charge of the customer service department for the Polaroid Corporation. The job was in Cleveland, but I interviewed in Boston. They flew me to Boston to meet the Executive Vice President, and that was the first time anyone (other than my parents) had flown me anywhere. They treated me like I was so important. I’ll never forget meeting with the man in charge, who was a 6’5” white gentleman. He was very nice, and he asked me, “20 years from now, where do you see yourself?” I told him that I saw myself with his job! He said “I’m an Executive Vice President!” And I said, “Well, that’s what I want to do. I want people flying in to see me!” I have often thought back on that time, shake my head and wonder how in the world did that come out of my 24 year old mouth?

For the most part, my entire career has been in corporate America. During parts of my career, I did run two nonprofit organizations, but they were both part of the business and corporate community. Philanthropy revealed itself as a career option to me when Henry Meyer was named CEO of KeyCorp. He had passion for community and inclusion, and he wanted to make sure he had women and people of color on his senior leadership team. His head of philanthropy was retiring, and, although I had no specific background in philanthropy, they had observed me in other settings and thought I could succeed as the head of the KeyBank Foundation. I’ve been in the role 15 years and so proud to be a part of a company that believes in serving people and making transformational philanthropic investments.

In the beginning, the job was a bit more challenging than I had predicted, but it makes me reflect on something a mentor once shared with me, “Success is achieved when preparation meets opportunity.” Having experience and being prepared is vital to anyone’s success. You must always operate at a level of excellence as if the entire world is watching you. Your contribution will distinguish you and your work, and you will know that you are indeed making a difference. Early in my career, I prayed that the Lord would put me in a role that would allow me to help others. It looks like I had a plan, but I really didn’t. Rather my steps have been divinely guided.

I have been extremely fortunate on my path. I enjoy walking into a room anywhere and being able to connect with people, whether they are corporate executives, or in centers serving the poor and disengaged. I realize that some people feel comfortable on one end of the spectrum or the other, but I enjoy knowing people from all walks of life, a trait I naturally inherited from my parents. At this stage in my career, I can say that this is a gift, but I wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago. I have a genuine affection for people and the ability to quickly engage with them. I love meeting people and I am very interested in learning about them and what they do.

Recently, while attending a business meeting, I noticed one of the individuals leading the sessions was the son of a colleague. His father was in the room, representing a different entity. Although I didn’t know this father and son professionally, after the meeting I said to the dad, you must be extremely proud. The father beamed with pride. I knew he had to be proud, because I would have been proud if that were one of my children. Our humanity connects us to each other. We need to cherish and nourish the relationships that connect us and celebrate the victories of others.

If you weren’t a corporate executive, what would life look like?

I don’t know! I’m living my life, the best life! I really can’t imagine what it would look like. I guess I would be engaged in something that affects humanity, I am sure of that. I can’t imagine not being active in the issues that matter, that impact and improves people’s lives. I would be involved with something that helps transform communities in positive ways, issues and programs that advance others.

My current position is optimum for someone who wants to affect change and cause transformation. It’s a blessed role to be in.

If you had it all to do over again, would you do anything differently?

Probably the only thing I would do differently centers on my time as a student at Hampton University. I have a physics degree; however, I wish I had a business degree and an MBA. The Physics degree has served me well, but in hindsight I wish I had an MBA.

What do you do for you that brings you absolute joy or peace?

At this stage of life, I enjoy traveling and connecting with friends. Because of the many experiences and opportunities I’ve had, I have friends throughout the United States and several places outside the country. I always enjoy being with my friends. I feel very fortunate to have a network that is expansive and diverse, with so many different people who matter to me. I enjoy Facebook. It helps me keep current and stay connected with the people that matter in my life.

When I was traveling as the national President of The Links, Inc. I met many wonderful individuals. I don’t want those relationships to end, so I make a point of visiting them, when in their cities for business or pleasure and several come to visit me as well. I love that. At the same time, I have a community of friends and colleagues in Cleveland that is very rich and wonderful. I’m blessed by my friendships in Cleveland and my loving family in my home state of Virginia, where I grew up. I am blessed by love. With all of my travels, I try to make sure to carve out the time to nurture the relationships that matter so much.

However, with all that said, the center of my life, the center of my joy are my three children, Kimberley, Gary and Michael. They are my life and each one makes me very proud. I’m so fortunate to have seen them grow in their own right as loving, engaged and contributing adults. I look forward to weddings and grandchildren. I relish my times with Tony “my special someone”, and our growing family. I am delighted by this new dimension to my family and the complement it brings to my personal world.

What would you like your epitaph to be?

She lived a well-lived life: She tried to help somebody.

I think people should strive to live lives that support or influence others. I think of pebbles thrown into a pond and the ripples that circle outward. I’m like one of those pebbles. The first ripple may be the extent of the impact that I have, but then you take a look at the ripples, the succession – in other words those you’ve helped or influenced, the good you’ve done goes on and on and on. For some, I am a pebble, but I certainly am a ripple as well for those who dropped a pebble that improved my life.

There are some young doctors and medical students at the Cleveland Clinic that come to mind. I would like to think that in some small way I’ve been helpful to them as they’ve launched their careers. There are nine of them — eight African-American and one Hispanic. Through the KeyBank Foundation, we’ve supported their education with the Lerner College Minority Fellowships. I consider the thousands of patients they will treat over the span of their careers, many of whom will be from underserved communities. KeyBank scholarships have not only directly enabled those nine or 10 young doctors, our investment will in turn into how thousands of patients are treated, healed and cured.

In one word, what is it that you want people to remember about you?

She was “Good”.

Even though I speak about excellence all of the time, excellence is a high bar to maintain every day. I do want excellence in my relationships, and excellence in my endeavors, and excellence in my work. I wake up every morning committed to whatever I am going to do that day knowing that I will give it my best. I want to have a good day, and be good at what I do. Good — it’s a solid word, and it is sustainable.

Is there anything else you wish I’d asked you?

I wish you had asked, “To whom, or what, would you credit your success?”

At the end of the day, we all should recognize the opportunities, the people that have enabled us to get to where we are. In other words – live a life of gratitude. Be grateful. The time that I spent volunteering and subsequently leading The Links, Inc., has been of tremendous value to my career. Dr. Dolly Adams and Dr. Adrienne L. Jones, in particular, are individuals who, when they were in the prime of their careers, pushed me and advanced my name in the organization. They supported me in untold ways and I will be grateful to them forever. Another ardent supporter is Charlotte Polk. Charlotte was a mother confessor, confidant and quiet strategist. Yes, a strategist for my personal growth and development. These women, my friends are now in their 80’s. They are still mentors, but above all are my friends. I get emotional thinking of them. There are many other women and men who have been so important to my life. Their love and support has enhanced my existence and I can’t imagine where I’d be without them. There are too many to name, but they know who they are.

I am blessed, because the work that I do has been enabled by very powerful people. Incredible things can happen when you are empowered by incredible people. Incredible things can happen in your life when you open your heart and mind to all of the possibilities. Incredible things happen when you allow yourself to be intellectually curious, but maintain a child-like faith in the future. The future is very bright.

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