Kelly Brough on snowplows, childhood lessons, and the transformative power of work

Kelly Brough on snowplows, childhood lessons, and the transformative power of work

October 15, 2019

President and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Kelly Brough (MBA ’89) has held some interesting jobs in her career, including human resources director for the City and County of Denver, chief of staff to former Mayor John Hickenlooper, and snowplow driver at Stapleton International Airport. Throughout her life, she has been a trailblazer: she was the first female to hold various positions—including her current title at the Denver Metro Chamber. 

Brough may be the perfect person to head an organization devoted to putting people to work. As a child, her father became injured and unemployed, leading her family to receive government assistance. During that time, she cleaned office buildings at night, along with her mother and brothers. After that difficult period, her father decided to get a college education, which reignited his sense of purpose. Her childhood experiences led Brough to truly understand how work affects a person’s self-worth.

She is not only devoted to getting people the right employment but also to connecting Coloradoans, in particular, to the best career opportunities. A Montana native, Brough made her home here in Denver—and even convinced her parents and brother’s family to move here. She is an ambassador for the state who celebrates everything Colorado offers, including its landscape. An avid cyclist, she has ridden almost every pass in Colorado both ways. “I love climbing,” she said—and that’s true for the proverbial corporate ladder as well.

collage of Kelly Brough's favorite things
Some of Kelly Brough’s favorite things: The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce logo, Identity Steps Untitled 6 by Sami Al Karim, a 1963 Chevy pickup, spicy nacho cheese Doritos, and Still Going (the title of her imaginary memoir).

1. Three times you were the first woman to hold a historically male-dominated position. Did you seek out roles that weren’t traditionally “for women’’ or did it just sort of happen? 

None of my career has been planned—not around gender, not around skills. The plan is how you grow up shapes you a great deal; you don’t even realize the pattern. My pattern is based on two fundamental beliefs. First, education changes lives. I don’t mean just four-year degrees; I mean being trained in a valuable commodity. My second fundamental belief, which is directly connected, is that a good job is really what changes your life.

2. Speaking of jobs, how did you become a snowplow driver at Stapleton International Airport?

When I was in HR in the City of Denver, I audited people’s jobs. One of the groups I audited was heavy equipment operators. A man I was auditing challenged me and told me I didn’t know enough about his job to be evaluating his work. So I decided to take a class offered by the city to get a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License). I passed the test and ranked very high, so I made it to the on-call crew, the first woman. For women everywhere, I accepted the position. I did it for two or three years, plowing snow on the runway from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

3. What was the best part of that job?

The crew. They wanted to figure out how to include me, how to teach me to do this job well. They took the time to teach me the art of their work—how to feel the weight of the plow on the runway, how to feel the snow. It was a wonderful way to be involved in a group.

4. I watched your TEDx talk titled, “I survived by outrunning my brothers,” and I was very moved by your story. When you were growing up, your father became injured and unable to work. How did this time in your life affect you?

My family received assistance and there are a lot of stereotypes about who gets help. That’s unfortunate because it allows that stereotype to continue. It was a long time ago now and most people know it and I acknowledge much harder things.

5. Why is it important to discuss these difficult events in your life?

Because shame destroys people. When you expose shame, it becomes other traits, like persistence, perseverance, and grit—all these positive traits that are something to be incredibly proud of. That’s how I approach life now: if it makes you feel shame, you need to acknowledge it. Shame only exists in darkness is what I tell my kids.

6. You’ve joked that you had to learn to eat quickly due to growing up with brothers. What do you now like to savor?

Man’s greatest creation—spicy nacho cheese Doritos (every once in a while).

lobby in Denver Chamber building
Light-filled space was a key part of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce office redesign.

7. I know healthy living is important to you. And when you redesigned the Chamber, you specifically incorporated healthy options into the building design. Why do you think it’s important to incorporate healthy living into the workplace?

We were trying to design a space that reflected our business community. The old space was like a 1970s law firm. Nothing against lawyers or the 1970s but it didn’t reflect our brand. I was not 100% convinced that the space would have a direct relationship to our health. It would be good; I did not realize it would be great. 

We have over three times the meeting space, we created a more open office, and we had teammates pick out materials. Colorado has the most active, leanest people. Our office now reflects our relationship to the environment. There’s nobody who works here who doesn’t have some natural light in their workspace. We opened our stairwells and put murals there so it looks like you’re hiking as you climb the stairs. The culture we’re trying to build comes way easier because our space reflects those values.

8. Artwork reflecting the Colorado lifestyle is also an important part of the Chamber building design. What’s your favorite piece of artwork in the Chamber space? 

Identity Steps Untitled 6 by Sami Al Karim. I love this piece. It uses photographs of iconic cities laid over each other, cities like New York, Babylon, Paris. This artist placed Denver as an iconic city. It feels really cool to have Denver placed that way—it’s certainly our vision, to be a competitor globally.

9. Is there a specific program at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce that’s important to you on a personal level? 

There’s so much. I really love what we are doing to help our smallest companies, getting started or expanding. That goes back to the fundamental belief that jobs change lives. 

The thing I feel most pride about is something we call Prosper Colorado. We’re kicking it off right now. It’s a community effort to understand what’s preventing more Coloradans from accessing economic opportunities and building wealth. I really love working for an organization who’s willing to step into hard conversations like this, look at the data, and use it to understand the barriers to opportunity. I deeply respect it because it shows our community does the right thing over the easy thing.

sitting area in Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce building
An old ski lift chair and snowboards get repurposed as furniture.

10. Let’s go back to your time as Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff. What was the biggest thing you learned during that time?

We hosted the Democratic National Convention when Obama was selected as the nominee. We were a small city and we had to prove that a city of our size could pull it off. What I loved most was realizing how capable we are when we all work together. State employees helped, Wyoming helped, people across party lines helped. The best part was that we changed our own minds about what we were capable of doing.

11. You speak passionately about education, whether it’s K-12 or higher ed or career readiness. Why is education such a passion for you? 

We need to make sure we can access education. When my father graduated from college, he had many more options. My own experience has been the same. I really really believe education is the first step to helping families build wealth.

12. Tell us about your experience at CU Denver. Any favorite memories from that time? 

I was working full time and going to school, but what I loved was in every class we worked on real-life projects. It was powerful to apply the knowledge in the moment.

portrait of Kelly Brough

13. In your TEDx talk, you mentioned the lesson you learned from your dad when he was teaching you to drive. Tell me about that and how you have carried that lesson with you.

I’ve used my experience learning to drive as a metaphor for my life. My dad taught us on an old Chevy ’63 pickup. No power steering, no power brakes. I was very small: I went into high school, I was barely 100 pounds and not five feet. I told my dad, “This is so hard. Why can’t I learn to drive with a car?” He said, “Honey, if you can learn to drive this, you can learn to drive anything.” Challenges prepare us for what lies ahead. My dad’s wisdom was absolutely right.

14. If you were going to write your memoir, what would be its title?

Still Going

Responses lightly edited for length and clarity.