Kelcy Roth: Reflections of a Brilliance-Based Businesswoman

My life has a way of connecting me with extraordinary clients who become part of my extended family. Brilliance-Based Businesswoman Kelcy Roth is the perfect example. She’s traveled the world, living her dream career and building a stellar client list, while nurturing her three now-grown children. As you enjoy Kelcy’s story, ask yourself how being bold with your brilliance could change your life.

What are the highlights of your career story?

I studied art history in college and then went straight to Columbia to get my Master’s.  But I became weary of art history – it felt too pedantic. I didn’t want to sit in a dark room looking at slides and talking to people I couldn’t see.  So I took a break. Since I spoke French, I got a job in Paris as the head of the National Student Association Travel Office – running student tours and giving discounts for American students travelling abroad. 

Shortly after I returned to the U.S. from  France, my husband was drafted into the military.  We turned around and went straight back to Germany – and that is a highlight of my career story because I became involved in languages and teaching English as a second language. In the German town where we were stationed, there was a French-German language exchange program to teach German to French students.  As the only American, I was accepted to this 6 month intensive program, so I learned German in French. 

In the second location we were stationed was the English language training center of IBM, so I started teaching English to the engineers of IBM. I was so nervous about teaching that the first 6 weeks I stood in front of class I had to take tiny chips of Valium. Eventually I mastered standing in front of a classroom and taught there for 3 years.

I found that teaching English as a second language really turned me on – especially the contrast of a highly successful professional struggling with what some 3 year-olds can easily do – speak English. And this also tapped into my communication skills.   

With my husband finishing the military, and I eight months pregnant, we returned to New York where he started his residency training in psychiatry. After living in Europe for 5 years it was a great adjustment for me to be anchored by a baby and the responsibilities of motherhood, although I was a passionate mother.

Several months after my daughter was born, I started back at Columbia from square one – to get my Master’s in English as a Second Language. They allowed 5 years to do it; I took 4.5 because I had my second daughter in the interim. We then moved to suburban DC (VA) where my husband set up his private practice. I knew there was a good chance that in DC there would be people needing to learn English. I started tapping into the large German community there – the embassy, military people, private industry – and taught English part-time. 

In an effort to expand my work, I signed up as a tutor at George Washington University.  And that seemingly small step changed my life and opened another door. After getting my name from the University, a small cross-cultural training and consulting firm hired me for a project in the Netherlands training the German Manager of General Electric Plastics in Europe. That call changed my life. I taught him for 2 weeks in the Netherlands in 1982 – I arrived at the airport in Amsterdam, realizing my young son’s Legos were still in my coat pocket as I waited for the company chauffeur. I thought, “This is nice!” And the program was a great success. 

After thinking for a couple of years about how I could reproduce the amazing experience of intensive English programs in Europe, I met with a marketing consultant. The appointment was for 2.5 hours. I paid him $250 and then went home and cried for 2.5 hours because I realized the mountain I had to climb in order to launch my little ESL consulting company. I climbed that mountain! I made a brochure.  I was no longer on Valium in front of students, but it was a quite a thing to make marketing calls in German (in my nightgown!) at 6:00 AM. General Electric Germany gave me a few projects…and I moved on from there. I also built my business from the DC German community, doing very targeted marketing.   

You never know how each stepping stone will so dramatically change your course.The first day I booked my contract with GE, I floated. I felt 10’ tall.

As they grew, my 3 kids were very proud of my successes. They understood that I could not stay home and bake brownies. They even understood I couldn’t be very active in the PTA – Executive English was my thing. All 3 of them and my husband were and still are very supportive.

One thing I am especially proud of was supporting my kids and helping them to fulfill their potential in whatever direction they chose…. and that I recognized the potential of each child equally. I never labeled them: “the athlete”, “the brain” etc. It’s my special pride that all three of my children went to graduate school in their own field of interest. That played out with the oldest going to law school, the next one medical school – and then came the youngest wanting to go to business school. Unlike the first 2 kids, I didn’t have a clue how to advise him, but I told him (on a transatlantic call from Germany where I was giving a program) that there are experts ‘out there’ in business school admissions, and I encouraged him to seek one out. That’s how he met Debra – and she changed all of our lives.

As best as you currently understand it, what are you here to do?  Who are you here to serve?  What difference do you make for your clients?

I empower my international executive clients to have confidence to manage to their potential in English. I empower people to do extraordinary things using English as a second language. Just like me, my clients do not entertain failure.

What changes have you made or experienced in your life and business that have enabled you to experience more ease?

Several years ago, when I decided to move to Cambridge, my son connected me with Debra. Up to that point, other than the $250 I paid the consultant, my husband and I were my marketing team. A psychiatrist and an English teacher: insane.

Debra opened the doors at MIT Sloan for me and I walked through them. I have the ability – whatever it is, to connect with my clients, but Debra gave me the standards, the financial vision and the confidence to charge way more than I ever had before. From Debra I finally have recognition of my worth. She taught me to believe “I’m worth a lot of money!”  I think money is important. It gives you freedom. It enables you to surround yourself with beautiful things.

How do you define “success” for yourself?

That I fulfill or exceed my potential. That I have thrilling projects to work on. That I am paid my worth. That I have strong family connections. That I have personal passions. And soon I’m going to be a grandmother, a long-held dream of mine. 

What would you love your next breakthrough to be?

The next breakthrough I’m waiting for is for my grandchild to break through his or her mother’s uterus!

What brings you joy?

The success of my children. That I’m passing into life’s next phase, of being a grandmother. I’m proud of the fact that while most people in my age group are playing mahjongg and golf in Florida, I’m checking my email to see whether my client has confirmed our next project in Europe.

I am humbled to tears that an institution like MIT Sloan has embraced me as they have.  My work there has expanded to capacity. How lucky I am! How extraordinary that they didn’t have someone before me to run an English program for their international students.  I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t address their problem until you present a solution.  

As a successful Brilliance-Based Businesswoman, what’s your best advice for other aspiring and active Brilliance-Based Businesswomen?

I learned that in business you need to persevere – to stick with it, but to always evaluate the strategies. If you don’t know how to do something important to you, find the person who’s right to help you. 

I have a treasure in Debra. I relinquish to Debra business activities that I used to insist on doing myself. What a relief. We’ve navigated our differences and each other’s lives – the ups and downs. She is a career highlight for me.