Creating Happy Careers Leadership Spotlight: Marlene Phipps, CEO of Celarity

Leadership Spotlight, Creating Happy Careers, Marlene Phipps, Celarity CEO

Marlene Phipps is the Founder, CEO, and President of Celarity Inc. She started her career as a creative in the industry and became a successful freelancer turned business owner. In her career, she’s always followed her passion for creativity. We can learn a lot from Marlene – when you follow your passion, it can lead you down all kinds of paths to success.

Jenna Carr, Content Marketing Specialist at Celarity (JC): Let’s go back to before you even graduated high school. What were your career dreams and aspirations?

Marlene Phipps, President, and CEO at Celarity (MP): Early on, it was always something in the arts. I was not somebody who was enthralled with taking advanced math classes or chemistry. So, it was always art – and that’s where I found my sweet spot. I remember in the 9th grade, I had to do a paper, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” -a typical 9th-grade assignment. I came from a family where my mom made all of my clothes and I had a lot of fun picking out the fabrics and patterns. So, I thought, maybe I’ll be a fashion designer! I spent tons of time in my room with my watercolor set, drawing and painting fashion ideas.

Later on, in high school, I was part of a theatre group called the Thespians. I was much more interested in being behind the stage than on it. So, designing sets and costumes were the kinds of things I did.

JC: So, is that what you chose to study at the College of Saint Benedict?

MP: Anything art-related: art, dance, art history  – I was all over it. I majored in Fine Arts, drawing and painting mostly.

JC: What did your early career look like?

MP: My 1st job was working in the communications department of the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment office. I created ads for things like low-interest loans to help fix your house for neighborhoods that were in-need of rehabbing. I also did projects for the HR department like create an HR manual – anything they needed help with graphically. It was a great place to start because of the slower pace compared to an advertising agency.

JC: What were some of the challenges you faced in your early career? How did you overcome them?

MP: While I was working at an ad agency, it was common to get a tap on the shoulder at 5:00 pm on a Friday afternoon just as you were heading out of town for the weekend with a request to pull an all-nighter. You did NOT turn it down. There were times I remember working 80+ hour weeks which was good overtime pay but a great recipe for burnout. Work-life balance was not yet a concept. If you worked for a commercial art studio in the 70s, you were required to be at the office from 8-5 while earning no pay unless you were logging hours on a project that was billable. In other words, you got paid for only the billable hours. The better you were at your work, the more projects you were given and the more billable hours you got paid for. You learned to become efficient with your time.

In the 70’s and early 80’s, there were some challenges to being a woman in the creative industry. Those challenges had to do with competing for roles that were traditionally considered “men’s work” or certain behaviors in the office that today would be considered sexual harassment. These challenges were my stepping stone to freelancing. I freelanced as a production artist for almost every agency in town for over 12 years. I was successful because I learned to turn quality work out very quickly… something I learned from the studio days.

JC: Did you ever have anyone in particular who inspired you? What was their impact on your chosen career path?

MP:  I had a friend whose sister was an illustrator for one of the department stores in town. At the time, she did the fashion illustrations for newspaper ads. I love that she had a home studio and she inspired me to become a freelancer.

JC: How did you meet Doug Phipps? What led you to start your company together?

MP: Doug was actually a client of mine – he was a production manager and later an account rep for a studio in town. We decided to start our own company because we worked well together. We thought, between us we had all the skills sets to be successful at it. Our studio produced the creative overload work for fortune 500 companies.

JC: How did you foresee the opportunity to become a Creative Staffing Agency?

MP: About three years into running our own studio, we started sending freelancers to work onsite at our client offices. This came about because our clients started asking for specific designers to work on their projects and they wanted them on-site working side by side with their staff. When the projects were completed, they no longer needed them onsite but asked for them later on when a similar project came up.

JC: What do you love most about running your own company?

MP:  I love the business aspect of the creative marketing industry.  It’s being creative in a different way. Having your own company is like having a  lump of clay, and you get to sculpt it. You have an opportunity to be very creative with your decisions.

JC: What are your goals or aspirations for the future?

MP:  Well, after I step away from Celarity, I’m not so interested in playing golf, mahjong or joining a book club. I’ll most likely be involved in some creative endeavor.

JC: What advice would you give a woman who wants to start her own business?

MP: If you have a vision and a passion, go for it. Starting a business is not an easy thing and it’s not for everybody. You can’t be afraid to take a risk and the money may be tight for a while.

When we started the company, the thrill for me was making the connections and finding people meaningful work. Connecting the dots was fun and creative staffing at the time was an easy sell. Everybody wanted the ideal job and clients wanted great talent.  It was all about “Creating Happy Careers” for everyone and it still is!

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