Mercedes Kerr is impressive. In 2019, she became president of a senior living organization – Belmont Village – after being the business development lead at Welltower, Inc., for more than a decade, and has served on boards dedicated to setting policy and standards for seniors housing and care.
Born in Mexico, Kerr completed her undergraduate degree with honors from the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara and later earned a Master of Real Estate Development degree from the University of Southern California.
She has been on the fast track to success over her career but has also taken the proverbial off -ramp to take time to raise her then young children.
Kerr’s path is her own. She owns it. And, she wants other females in the senior living profession, and those from diverse backgrounds, to own their own stories as well.
She shared her thoughts on what her story could do to enlighten other potential women leaders at a recent Argentum Women in Leadership Zoom call, noting first and foremost the personality traits she possesses that helped her ascend in a business world still dominated by men.
Women Everywhere, but Not in C-Suite
First, though, Kerr wants to look at the numbers when it comes to females in the workforce. Her rise actually comes at a time of an improving environment for women in leadership by some measurements among Fortune 500 performers. Citing her own research, she said in 2021 some 30% of board seats in the largest companies in the country were held by women, up from 26.5% the year prior. But, still, in 2022, only 8% of the Fortune 500 had women as CEO’s.
“Now, in looking at the top 150 senior housing companies as published every year by Argentum, in 2022 only 28 women were CEO’s, around 19%,” Kerr said. In a profession where 80% of the workers are female, less than 20% make it to the top.
Why? She said the most compelling evidence she has is that even though some progress has been made, the fundamentals have not changed. “The biggest problem is the broken middle rung,” Kerr says. By this she means that men on average get promoted faster and like a horse race are out of the gate that is their career faster than a woman.
For every 100 men promoted from the position they entered a company in senior living, only 87 women are promoted. “That progression in the early years of a professional career makes all the difference. The more likely you get promoted early, the more likely you are a candidate for further growth if you start that way,” Kerr said.
The Difference-Making Traits
Bringing it back to her story, she says despite the statistics pointing to the challenges of rising high in the executive track, the way she overcame barriers came from who she is as a person.
In terms of personality traits, the first thing in Kerr’s favor started with her overarching goal to help people. “I have some sort of deep desire to change the world around me. This sounds a little silly to say it out loud, but I always had this sense,” she said.
The biggest currency to getting this change accomplished is straight from the musical Hamilton, where the lead character only wants to be at the table where decisions are made, to be in the room where it happens.
Once at the table, it is key for other women in the profession to use their voices to be heard. Oftentimes, she noted, she was the only female and certainly the only female of Mexican descent in the room, providing the very diversity of opinion and background that has traditionally been lacking in corporate senior living and in corporate America in general.
“I found myself saying this idea or other sounds very common sense to me, but it did not sound that way to the rest of the room. As a woman, I offer a different perspective, and I am also from Mexico. This experience, growing up in Mexico, and my willingness to share often turned to my favor,” she said.
Another trait Kerr sees as helping her is the ability to be agile. By this she pointed to the positive aspects of being able to move quickly and easily through the business by being open to evolving.
“This ties into not sweating the small stuff and be able to contribute…and have a willingness to fail. If it isn’t right, learn along the way,” she said. This may bring embarrassment at times, but don’t dwell in the moment, there will be other moments to shine.
“Experiences can be very rich to add to a conversation,” Kerr said.