“For over 20 years, I witnessed the power that came from telling your story. For the person brave enough to share their story, and for the people who are fortunate enough to be in their presence.”
In the story of Summer Search, Katherine Kennedy has played many important roles. She was our founder Linda Mornell’s first hire in 1995, she was a mentor, an executive director, a fundraising guru, and a speech coach—helping students and alumni tell their story in front of hundreds of people at Summer Search signature events.
Katherine left Summer Search at the end of 2015 to start a new chapter in her professional career. Now, nearly two years later, we caught up with her to see what she has been up to, and how she is staying connected to Summer Search.
Katherine Kennedy with one of her mentees, Carlton Colbert, in 1998 (left) and in 2015.
Q: What have you been doing since leaving Summer Search?
I started my own presentation and story coaching business, with the tagline “Speaking to What Matters.” After 20 years of helping young people share their own stories, I learned there is no deeper way to convey your message than through storytelling. There’s a hunger out here to be authentic and telling your story is a powerful way to inspire others and lead. This has created a market among professionals for presentation and story coaching.
My clients range from people who want to speak with meaning, depth, and connection in a speech or TED-Talk-style presentation, to professionals who want to infuse more authenticity and confidence in their communications, to nonprofits who want to tell their story. I love what I’m doing!
Q: What skills from Summer Search are you bringing to your new venture?
Salman Rushdie once said, “The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame.”
Linda and the students taught me many things, but the greatest gift was learning how to listen. When you can listen, and I mean really listen, you can stay curious and communicate with your whole heart. You aren’t trying to fix, solve, or save. You’re giving someone the space to step out of the frame to retell and reshape their story, and create a coherent narrative. You’re helping someone communicate with authenticity and confidence. You’re helping someone find their voice.
And hey, I can also help people have fun speaking in front of others. Yes, you can have fun!
Q: Has storytelling always been a passion of yours?
During college, I spent a summer in Kenya which changed the way I saw myself and the world. That transformative experience led me to the assumption that the summer program component was the “magic” of Summer Search.
However, when I joined Linda in 1995, I quickly learned the transformation started in that first interview when students were asked the question, “See those shoes you’re wearing? Tell me what it’s like to be in them.”
Over the years, I’ve witnessed firsthand how telling your story creates meaning in our lives and have learned that helping people communicate what matters to them is essential in connecting with others, both on stage and off.
So yes, at the core of what I do is a belief that everyone’s story is meant to be heard.
Q: What’s one piece of advice for someone about to write a speech?
Write badly. Okay, let me explain!
So many of us doubt our writing abilities. I always did, too.
I’ve learned that giving yourself permission to write badly is the first crucial step. Writing a speech is actually a combination of bravery, ruthless editing, and organization.
Going deeper on the page makes for a deeper experience on the stage, and helps the audience feel our shared humanity. But let’s face it, it takes several rounds to get to the core of what you are trying to say.
And remember, you are not writing an English paper. Write like you would say it out loud!
Q: Have you have worked with any Summer Searchers in your new career?
Yes! One of our alums, Massanda D’Johns Chakra recommended me to her boss, Dr. Tonia Lediju, who is the Director of City Audits for the City of San Francisco. I worked in partnership with Tonia on a high stakes presentation to incorporate her story and her vast knowledge on authentic leadership and working with millennials. Imagine how my heart swelled when I got that referral!
Massanda graduated from Castlemont High School in Oakland, went on to UC Santa Barbara, and is now a certified CPA. I was Massanda’s mentor in high school and also helped her with a speech at a Summer Search Investor’s Dinner after college.
Katherine Kennedy and Massanda D’Johns Chakra in 2009.
I was also Jeremy Fong’s mentor many years ago. Recently Jeremy asked me to hold an “Own Your Story” workshop for his company, Moody’s Analytics. Afterwards, one of his colleagues said, “This workshop has inspired me to get more connected to myself and to my story so that I can connect better with others.”
Katherine Kennedy (second from the right) with Summer Search founder Linda Mornell (second from the left), and Summer Search alumni (from left to right) Jose Cortez, Miguel Gonzalez, Saul Guzman, and Jeremy Fong at the 2017 San Francisco Gala.
Q: In what ways will Summer Search be a part of your life going forward?
Summer Search was where I grew up, so to speak.
I’ve found Summer Search’s alumni slogan, “Once a Summer Searcher, always a Summer Searcher” to be true for me, too. Every time I write a blog post, it is the people I have known through Summer Search who are the first to be rooting for me. Thank you, everyone!
This April, I hosted a table of students, alumni, and former staff at the San Francisco Gala. I also find myself making lunch plans, walks, and coffee dates with alumni who are now colleagues. How cool is that? I know I will continue to find ways to stay connected to the people I love.
Another cool connection is that this summer, my oldest son Charlie is on a Deer Hill Expeditions program in Colorado (right now!) and several Summer Search students are on his trip.
I love this Native American proverb. It reminds me of Summer Search: “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
Every Summer Searcher with whom I had the privilege of working will continue to live in my heart forever and are part of why I’m able to step out and help so many other people find their voice. Because of Summer Search and the hundreds—close to 1,000—students I’ve worked with, I’ve found my calling. For that, I’m deeply grateful.