Not all origin stories of great leaders involve blemish-free or pristine beginnings. In fact, several well-known figures share one common bond: troublemaking. President John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein and civil rights leader and politician John Lewis have all been described as former troublemakers. Mary Kelly, president and CEO of StrataTech Education Group, admits that before being a leader, she too, was part of the trouble-making crew.

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“I had a little trouble as a kid. I was extremely smart, but got in a lot of trouble and there were some issues at home, and a teacher saw me and that made all the difference,” Kelly says. “No one had seen me before and kind of put it together and basically saved my life, and that’s when I decided to become a teacher.”

Because she was truly seen by this particular teacher, Kelly says it set the precedent and passion for the way she teaches. “I got into teaching because I wanted to make a difference,” she says. 

But over time, Kelly was consumed by the challenges she faced in public school teaching, “I loved the kids. I hated the bureaucracy,” she says.

Kelly’s teaching journey took a twist when a friend suggested she try her hand in adult education. “I [told my friend] ‘I don’t think I can make a difference,’ but I tried it anyway, and I fell in love because there are so many adults out there that never got what they needed early on,” she says. “And to be able to give that to them when they’re older, they’re actually more receptive because they really are trying to change their life.”

Adult education is where Kelly has been ever since. She joined StrataTech Education Group in 2010 as the chief operating officer and was quickly promoted to president of the organization a few months later. StrataTech is a parent company of Tulsa Welding School and the Refrigeration school. “Tulsa Welding School is the largest accredited welding facility in the U.S.,” Kelly explains. “And the Refrigeration School, Inc (RSI) is the largest accredited refrigeration school in the U.S.” 

One of the greatest points of pride for Kelly in being a leader with StrataTech is passing on what she has learned. “My biggest points of pride are when people that work for me get promoted. The majority of my leadership team has been promoted from within,” she says.

Kelly is equally impassioned about her students’ success and ability to fuel the growing need for skilled trade professionals, as she is for mentoring Stratech employees. 

Of Stratatech’s graduates, she says the school has 3,500 people going out in skilled trades, “and we were doing skilled trades before it was ever fashionable, and people thought it was dirty, nasty work. We thought, ‘Hey, this is the backbone of America.’”

As for students, future leaders and those Kelly meets along the way who may share an inner — or former — troublemaker spirit, she has this to offer, “Do what your heart tells you to do. Don’t listen to what anybody else says. Just follow your heart and everything else will fall in line.”