This article is all about women empowerment and diversity in culture.
I had the grand pleasure to meet powerhouse Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks at the EMA’s in 2018. Another beautiful woman Michelle Romero, who works with Van Jones non-profit – Green for All, said to me, you’re Greek? You need to meet Kelly and also Pamela Spyrs, they’re Greek! I was SO excited! This is exactly how it all happens in life women empowering women. Arianna Huffington personally empowered me on Valentine’s Day six years ago when she asked me to write for her. Energy in emotion, being at the right place at the right time, with the intention for who you are, with what you want in life, and sending it out into the universe. I connected with these cultured powerhouse ladies which has led to building authenticity, trust, kinship, happiness, joy, and most of all, a knowing that we are all on the same collective mission to support humanity and our beautiful planet.
Who is Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks?
I’m a CEO, a wife, a mom, a lifelong student, an advocate for justice, and a planetary warrior. I was raised in a small Midwestern town by my African American mother and stepfather, and I spent summers and holidays with my Greek immigrant father, who founded ECOS back in 1967.
My mother was loving and supportive and always told me that I could do anything. Her deep and abiding belief in me gave me the confidence to excel in school, get accepted to UCLA, study both of my ancestral legacies in Greece and Africa, and apply those learnings to my early professional experiences in African American art, public relations, and public policy advocacy. My father was an amazing mentor to me and a visionary leader who taught me to lead a purpose-driven life focused on both human health and environmental protection.
Did you expect to become CEO in the family business?
No. I spent my early professional life working outside the family business, and my father had two other children, 20 years older than me, who already worked for him. In 2003 the business hit a rough patch, and my father approached me again about joining. I knew I could create value by helming PR and creating emotional connections with consumers and stronger relationships with retailers. So, I joined the company. Over the years, I had the opportunity to work in all aspects of the business, and in 2012, I became Executive Vice President. I succeeded my father as CEO seven years ago when he passed away.
How did your childhood influence your career?
My life changed when I was 14. My little sister was only two years old when my mother got sick with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. I went from the social whirl of freshman year to wanting to be home with her, going with her to doctor appointments, and staying with her for days in the hospital when she had surgery. I thought I might become an oncologist to help prevent others from suffering. I’m actually doing that today by creating healthy cleaning products that reduce the toxic burdens on human health.
What was your first job out of college?
In my senior year at UCLA, I had the great opportunity to study abroad in South Africa and Swaziland. When I returned, my college professor recommended me for the Getty multicultural internship program at the California African American Museum. After my summer internship, the museum hired me to curate an exhibition of Peter Magubane’s photographic work documenting apartheid in South Africa. I had the opportunity to work under John T. Riddle, one of the greatest African American artists of the 20th century, and in 2001, I met my husband, Eric Hanks, when I invited him to speak on a panel. Eric is the owner of M Hanks Gallery, one of the top African American art galleries in the world.
How did a passion for African American art help you become a better leader at ECOS?
It was the incredible stories told through African American art that ignited my own love of storytelling. Stories of joy and pride, but also stories of struggle and hardship. I loved how they utilized the paintbrush as a tool to create the world that they envisioned. Now, at the helm of ECOS, I feel a great responsibility to create a business that builds a better world. The business serves as a canvas where we can create safer products, more sustainable manufacturing practices, and more affordable and accessible products. I can fight for environmental justice, better wages, green jobs, and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
How does diversity and inclusion contribute to your success?
I strongly believe that ECOS’s success in the marketplace is because of the diverse leadership that we have throughout our company. And I’m so proud to have an executive team that is over 50% female and 36% BIPOC. In order to win in the CPG space, you must have diverse voices at the table to truly serve the needs of your consumers. I was thrilled when the Shelby Report, the leading trade publication of the grocery industry, gave us its 2021 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Award. I hope other companies will embrace the great benefits that diversity and inclusion can bring to their organizations and to society.
I hope this article inspires you to lead, be proud share your voice, be confident of who you are, where you come from and shine bright like the beautiful human that you are.
Thank you for being apart of my journey and showing up for yourself!
Happy Women’s History Month! Make history come true!
xo Kyriaki Chonacas