From aerospace to the fast pace at Porsche Cars North America.
You might think that working at Porsche Cars North America would be a thrill in itself. The world class sports cars, the sound of them zipping around the track, the racing leadership, the reputation for innovation. But for Keitha Blackburn, manager of experiential marketing, the thrill is in “the amazement that I have when I see young kids who are so knowledgeable and fascinated with our product. I met a young girl who was 12 years old. She ran up to me and said ‘I’m a Porsche enthusiast!’” Keitha said. “When young people come up to me, see me driving my car,” (a 718 Boxster, for the record) and want to know more, how I got it, “I tell them to lay out the plan, go to school, invent something that people can’t live without, get a good job, or create a business, then buy a Porsche. And buy your mom one.”
Engineering a Passion For Cars and for Learning
Keitha always assumed she would find herself in the car industry. Her father retired from Chrysler as an electronic engineering technician when she was growing up in Huntsville, Alabama.
So it was only a slight surprise that she decided to study engineering at Spelman College in Atlanta and industrial and systems engineering at the University of Alabama Huntsville. Home was “Rocket City USA” after all. Cars, and engineering, were familiar to her; she’d been around them all her life.
Her passion for engineering led her to a job at Boeing, but her curiosity quickly transitioned: “I got a chance to start seeing the marketing side of the business,” and it was fascinating. “I had the opportunity to learn how important it is to tell the story to the consumer,” she said.
When she came to work at Porsche Cars North America she had the insight to grow in the job: “Even if I’m not the one developing the products, I still need to know about them to be able market them,” she said. How does she, as a marketer, tell that story to consumers? “Through enthusiasts, history and the heritage of Porsche,” she says. And tapping into new customers who will be inspired by the stories—women and younger consumers.
The Fuel For a Great Career? Mentoring
“I’m an unapologetic mentor seeker,” Keitha said. She seeks out people she can learn from and asks them share their insight. She also wants and tries to be that person for others. It’s not the easiest thing for people to do, she recognizes. But she learned early, at Spelman College.
Spelman offered its students the opportunity to join a corporate women’s round table. A group of about 15 women from the highest levels of corporate America volunteered their time to help mentor the college students for a year. “Students had to apply for the program. They gave us profiles of these women and they asked us who we would choose. I wanted all 15 but I knew I could only choose one,” so she did. But through the program she got to know the other leaders and decided to reach out to another woman who she knew she could learn from. This woman is still her mentor today.
“My mentor now was another student’s mentor at that time,” Keitha said, and she still keeps in touch with her original mentor, too. “But I thought, I liked what [this woman, who is a leader in the automotive industry] had accomplished in her career, so I said ‘I would love to get to know you.’” And she agreed. “She has done some amazing things,” Keitha says, so she’s grateful that she can pick up the phone and call her mentor about anything. “She’ll give me nuggets on how to approach the matter, and also challenge me and ask her how I can make the situation better. ‘How are you going to solve it?’ she’ll ask.”
But people shouldn’t feel they can have only one mentor, Keitha says. If she meets someone she admires “I’ll invite them to coffee or lunch.” Not all women or young people can find the confidence to reach out to someone,” she acknowledges, “but if you just reach out to those people you will be surprised at their positive response; they may be someone who can guide you along your path.” One secret to successful mentor-seeking, she says, is being very intentional about the person’s time. “Everyone’s time is limited; make sure to be very specific about what you want to discuss.”
Being a Mentor Is Also a Great Reward
“As a mentor, I have several mentees, and they are in different spaces,” Keitha said. “I actually have one that is a former employee of mine from a previous company. When I left the company, she said I could leave the company but I couldn’t leave her,” she said with a laugh. “One thing that I have always felt as a leader is that I always wanted to surround myself with young people and colleagues who are just as talented or more talented than me because I feel I have way more to learn from them.”
“My goal as a mentor is for my mentee to be challenged to think through the process, to see things from another person’s point of view. So, when mentoring younger people, women in particular, my goal for them is to be my rockstar and not me being their rockstar.” Keitha finds that everyone’s challenges are different, so she tries to give them guidance to look at a situation differently.
However, there’s one piece of advice she gives everyone: “Be a rockstar in their own right, not a people pleaser. Do the best that you can with the resources you have.”
Work Life Balance: Family Life And Downtime
As intentional as she is with her work and with helping others to develop their talents, the effort plays out in her personal life, too. “I spend a lot of time with my girlfriends. We actually just went to see Oprah on her 2020 Vision Tour. We try to find enriching things to do” to spend time together. Her intention for balance in life led her to a bucket list adventure a few years ago: She spent two weeks completely off the grid in Costa Rica. “It was a self sustaining community, electricity only lasts for a certain time, no internet,” she said. “I had become overwhelmed with having to be connected” and this experience did the trick. She was able to completely unplug.
The Surprise at Porsche? It’s Family, Too
“People have a tendency to think Porsche Cars North America is a big company, but it is a small family environment. I love that about my job,” Keitha says. “We have less than 400 full time employees. If you get a chance to be in a corporation where you build camaraderie with people, you don’t get lost in the crowd. When I worked at Boeing we had 3,000 people just on one campus and there was no way to develop meaningful relationships with people who had different positions than yours.”
The sense of family plays out in Porsche Cars North America’s culture, too, with a more diverse workplace than one job Keitha had early in her career. “They diversified the group with one individual. That was me. I was the only woman, the only minority and I was the youngest by 15 years.” At Porsche diversity is an ongoing effort that is creates opportunities for everyone and is emphasized with employee programming around events like Black History month, Women’s History month, Asian Pacific Heritage month, Pride month and Hispanic Heritage month.
And, diversity of thought and experience results in cross-organizational benefits, too; people are able to collaborate across the company. “I work with the public relations team and the Experience Center team because we are all right there together and we see each other a lot. I’ve never had the chance to know a CEO like I do at Porsche Cars North America,” she said.
Connecting Her Passion to the Customer’s Passion
As the head of the experiential marketing team for Porsche Cars North America, Keitha is in charge of customer touch points such as product launches, sports marketing and go-to-market strategy that gets the cars into customers’ hands. The challenge to Keitha is that she has to answer the question of “what creative and innovative, yet authentic method are you going to deliver to the customer?” But it’s a challenge she loves because customers reward her with their enthusiasm. “I love seeing people who are stoked over the brand. I became stoked over the brand when I saw 16 Candles. Molly Ringwald got the cute guy with the cute car!”