It’s no accident that people in the business world are sometimes known as “suits” – that’s the typical uniform after all. Ruth Kelly, on the other hand, has no intention of blending in with that crowd. Kelly stood out from the pack when she launched Alberta Venture magazine in 1997. She has since built Venture Publishing Inc. into a successful independent company. The 53-year-old magazine dynamo and former chair of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce jokes that she really had no choice but to become a publisher and forge her own career path.
“My undergrad degree is in Honours English with specialization in experimental Canadian poetry and [John] Milton,” Kelly explains. “I had to start my own business because I’m essentially unemployable.” Her passion and dedication to Alberta business have won her several accolades, including the Woman of the Year award in 2008 from the Canadian Women in Communications.
“The more you get to learn about business, the more you realize that creativity is the very crux and crucible of everything we do,” she says. “You can see where the creativity comes in, whether you’re repairing windshields or making magazines or building technologies for the oilsands sector.”
Kelly’s creative flair goes beyond her publications. She is famously unfazed by the idea of wearing short skirts, kimono sleeves or stiletto heels, and she’s very frank about the importance of personal style.
So, you started out as a poet?
I’ve never had any formal business education. When NAIT awarded me an honorary degree in business I was thrilled, because I finally thought I had some credentials to do what I do. When I went to university, I had the feeble hope that I would become Canada’s best and brightest poet and/or playwright, and it was quickly revealed to me that I did not have the talent or the capacity to do that. I still love reading any kind of poetry, literature or fiction. I am a voracious reader.
Do you feel you’ve left some of your creativity behind in entering the business world?
Qualitatively, I don’t believe it’s better to do one kind of writing over another kind of writing. I think that if you are functioning at your best self, that in itself should be fulfilling. This is my best self: I would have been a mediocre poet, but I’m actually quite a good publisher.
Do you have any personal icons or heroes?
It’s funny, I have to say I don’t cotton to the idea of heroes. If you’re looking outwards, then you’re not considering who you are internally. I like to think that we should each be our own hero and celebrate our own strengths. However, from a fashion point of view, there are some people locally that I truly admire. Elexis Schloss has got more panache than any woman I know. She is one of the founders of [Sorrentino’s] Compassion House and is very community-minded. I admire many things about her, the least of which is her wardrobe. And her shoes. And her jewellery. I think Heather Klimchuk, the minister of Service Alberta, is really brave. It’s hard for women in politics to continue to be distinct, and Heather has done that. She has not let anybody take those beautiful, vibrant outfits away from her. Lynn Mandel also has great flair, and she can dress anything up. I’ve seen her look fabulous in just a black sweater and pants because she carries herself so well.
How does your style reflect your personality?
It is somewhat eclectic and hopefully not too darn serious. Overall, I think it’s a little bit edgy, and that’s OK for me. I work in a media company, so I’m allowed to be fairly bold in my choices. Frequently, I’ve had hair that’s been dyed very bold shades of red, and my clothing is not meant to fade into the background. If you think about the business world and all the business activities I’m involved in, I walk into any room and it’s usually about 90 men and 10 women, so it’s important for me to establish myself as my own person.
Where do you tend to shop?
I do shop a lot at independent stores, and not just because they’re local, but also because often they are more unique. They will offer clothing that nobody else does. I don’t want to be seen in something that another 400 people in the city will buy. I like Awear, they carry a lot of Canadian clothing. EnPrivado is a great place for shoes, and I’ve found a new place in Manulife called Pravda that’s got lovely shoes. I shop a lot at Blu’s – I find the service level there is very high. I also go to Who Cares Wear on Jasper, or Lux Beauty Boutique and Ginger on 124th Street.
Any designers or clothing styles you like to stick to?
There’s no one label that I’ll stick to, no one kind of clothing. It’s whatever appeals to me at any given time. I love reds and vibrant colours. I like the rush of adrenaline that bright things bring into your life. I love shoes and great boots, but sadly many people have interpreted that to mean they should buy me little ceramic shoes as opposed to a nice size 8 Italian leather. I like pantsuits because they’re optimal and comfortable, but I do love a great dress. When you wake up in the morning and have no idea what to wear, a dress is just easy.
Do you have a hard time deciding what to wear in the mornings?
I actually usually plan my outfits a week in advance; this was something I learned from a friend of mine when she chaired the [Edmonton] Chamber of Commerce, Maureen McCaw. When I was chair of the chamber, I did 97 speaking engagements over the space of a year – it was just an ongoing blur of activity. So on Sunday, I would figure out what kind of events I had on Monday and Tuesday and so on, and I still do that to a large extent today.
You attend many formal events. How do you decide what to wear for those?
Personally, I think being dressier is better than being more casual. I would rather err on the side of formality or overdress for something. I think that’s respectful of the people who have put the event on.
I hear you’ve lent some of your formal wear to your employees for black tie affairs.
I’ve done that several times. Clothing should be shared; I love lending to other people and giving my clothes away. That’s a challenge with having clothes that are rather distinctive – if you wear them a lot people will say, “Oh, I remember seeing that suit.” So, much to my husband’s horror, I do give my clothes away rather than let them go stale because I like to think that they are still out there enjoying themselves with new owners. I donate my things to Suit Yourself, the charity that distributes clothes to low-income women entering the workforce, and to Wings of Providence, the second-stage women’s shelter.
Any pieces you’re forever attached to?
One of my favourite things that I’ve had in my life was a pair of pink sequined pants that I bought at Who Cares Wear. I remember wearing them to The Works gala one year, and someone said, “Ruth, you should run for mayor,” and I said, “These pants are the reason why I can never run for mayor.”
Do you have any advice for women dressing for the business world, say for a job interview?
When you’re going for an interview, do make sure you wear something that helps, say, me as an employer, understand your priorities and your values. If you’re comfortable wearing piercings, then you should wear your piercings, because I would not want to hire someone under false pretenses. If [employers] only want you because you’re in essence trying to disguise yourself, that’s not a good place for you. When you’re dressing or speaking or being engaged with people, really, authenticity is the key component of what you should be.