A passion for helping people make connections

May 10, 2010
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She speaks about her experiences and career activity modestly, but hearing 27-year-old Maxine Gray talk, you begin to think she must have a clone, because there's no way one person could keep up with such a schedule.

Gray discovered her passion for marketing and communications early in her college career. It has led to her current job as project manager at Williams Group, a marketing, branding and communication firm in downtown Grand Rapids.

"What I love about marketing and communications is what messages can move people to do — being able to connect with people, but also communicate with them through marketing to take action, participate in something, or change their behavior."

A Kalamazoo native, Gray enrolled at Hope College in Holland in 2000. Initially a pre-law major, she discovered her love of communication in her freshman year.

"In high school I took law classes, and Thurgood Marshall was my hero," she said. "I got to college and I took some pre-law classes. … (Then) I started taking communication classes, and I thought, 'Man, this is me!'"

She was very active while a student at Hope. "I was in everything," she said. The list includes writing a regular column for the student newspaper and hosting a radio show, on top of leading multiple student activities.

In her last semester before graduating in 2004, Gray entered a live-work program at the Philadelphia Center, one of many off-campus programs Hope College offers. Students from liberal arts colleges across the nation came to Philadelphia to take classes in a variety of subjects at the center, lining up their own living arrangements and selecting work internships.

"I had these two army fatigue bags and took the bus. You arrive on a Sunday, stay in a hotel, and by that Saturday you had to have a place to stay and (be) close to having your internship solidified.

"And you come with strangers," she said. "You have to immediately come in, build relationships, figure out what your budget is. And — just my personality — I took charge. We ended up living in a house in North Philly. There were seven of us."

Gray's internship was in the public relations department of CBS's Philadelphia headquarters.

"That experience was amazing. It taught me that I am adventurous — I'll just take a chance. If I see something that I want or I'm passionate about, I'll go for it. 'No' isn't in my vocabulary.

Maxine Gray

Company: Williams Group
Position: Project manager
Age: 27
Birthplace: Kalamazoo
Residence: Grand Rapids
Business/Community Involvement: BL²END, marketing communications co-chair and professional development chair; Varnum Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council; Inforum West Michigan regional council; We Connect committee of Inforum.
Biggest Career Break: Working in the office of multicultural life at Hope College soon after graduating from there.

"That's probably why I did so well in fund development and program planning," she said with a laugh. "I would see the kids on (the Hope) campus and say, 'Hey, are you coming to this event? Why not? And I want you to volunteer, too.'"

After graduating, she received a call from Hope with an offer of a job in its office of multicultural life.

"It was definitely the place that put me in touch with what was important for me, professionally," she said.

"I had a pretty big opportunity to get involved with different areas of the college. I liked the variety of mixing people-to-people interaction with actual programming that will impact people. It was the first place where I thought all of my passions and experiences and skills came together."

Gray worked for Hope College for nearly two years, until 2006, when the itch to experience life outside of Michigan took hold. She took a six-week job as part of the residence life program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. She spent her free time traveling to Atlanta to visit her sister and a friend.

In August of that year, she moved back to Grand Rapids and took a job with the Women's Resource Center. Then she attended an event by a brand new group in Grand Rapids called BL²END — Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions — a nonprofit organization focused on connecting young professionals of color. She offered to help with the marketing effort.

"I came on after the first event and asked if anyone was doing their communication. We were having meetings at people's houses — real grass roots — and had a Yahoo account until 2008, when we launched our Web site," she said.

"I realized I was a start-up girl — taking something from the beginning, participating in developing the vision and then implementing."

In early 2007, having left the Women's Resource Center, she began working for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, an international foundation with a West Michigan branch. As special events coordinator for the West Michigan chapter, she organized four walks in various locations and a gala event. Those five events raised three-quarters of a million dollars.

While working for the foundation, Gray began taking classes for a master's in communication degree at Grand Valley State University. In January 2008, having left the foundation, she became a full-time graduate student. As part of her studies, she landed a graduate assistantship and a strategic communications internship with Williams Group.

"It was like a blur. I was working 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then had class at night," she said. "I was simultaneously still maintaining the marketing for BL²END (and) planning the professional development events — and I think last year was the best for professional development events for BL²END. I couldn't believe I planned it while I was doing all of that."

In April 2009, Gray completed her graduate studies and received her master's degree. Shortly thereafter, she accepted her current position at Williams Group as a project manager.

Despite her full-time job, she continues to increase her activity in the Grand Rapids business community as an advocate for young professionals and diversity.

"When I went to the first BL²END event, I thought, 'This is awesome. Sign me up,'" she said.

"As a younger minority professional, I need to make sure I'm informed of what I need to take care of professionally — but everyone else does too, and not just minorities. I did think it was important to highlight those executives in our community who are where we want to be and hear their stories."

Gray recently accepted an invitation to join Varnum law firm's Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, a group that provides a broader perspective and awareness to the firm's strategic planning efforts. 

"I've been incredibly fortunate to be recognized and provided opportunities because of my passion," she said. "I want to see change happen and people have access to those resources and opportunities."

When it comes to recruiting and retaining young, diverse talent in West Michigan, Gray sees some strengths and some weaknesses.

"Awareness is the first step to change. I think that a lot of businesses and corporations understand that a changing of the guards is coming, and with that, you have to engage people early," she said. "It's OK to have a 30-year-old on a board … because you have to begin to bridge those gaps.

"I think the whole engagement piece and mentoring piece for younger professionals is important. (Younger professionals) are hungry for opportunities to get involved, and it's having access to those resources, opportunities and networks to know what's going on.

"They may not be able to write a check for $50,000, but they can roll up their sleeves and do some work that can help the organization."

For things to change, it will take an effort on both sides, Gray said. In addition to the "old guard" beginning to accept the roles that younger professionals can play in an organization, Gray said the young professionals also must be willing to put in their time.

Often, the two groups have misperceptions of each other that get in the way.

"There are a lot of misperceptions on both parts. … The younger professional has to be willing to put those prejudgments aside and say, 'Let me get to know them. Let me get to know what this cause looks like in Grand Rapids.'"

Gray views her purpose at BL²END as an extension of the work she did in the multicultural life department at Hope College: It's all about making connections — something she tirelessly seeks out.

"Passion will always be present when you're working in your purpose. I'm very conscientious about what I get involved in. I'll never be someone who gets involved for the prestige or what the community will think. It has to be connected to my purpose, which is to connect people, places and things for successful outcomes," she said. "That's what I thrive off of; that's what I love to do."

BL²END's emphasis on making personal connections, said Gray, is what she believes has led to its fast growth.

"We're more interested in the person, because all the rest comes after that. I think that's why we've experienced exponential growth is because people have been hungry for something that's about the personal relationship. We may have a month that goes by without an event, and people are sending us e-mails and calls," she said. "We're strategically addressing the networking piece, the community service piece and professional development piece by having events that rotate."

For Gray, helping people communicate is what it's all about.

"I get so much joy from people getting connected at BL²END events or a job or volunteer opportunity. I think that's why I go so hard — because if I can be informed, then I can inform everyone I know, and it's like a domino effect."

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