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June 2, 2022 | Alumni

Bringing authentic inclusion and diversity to the marketing industry: Q&A with Shannae Ingleton Smith

By Tara Clemens

Shannae Ingleton Smith smiling happily.

Photo by Jess Baumung

Shannae Ingleton Smith (BC 2005 UTM) began her journey into influencer marketing right after graduating from the Commerce program at U of T Mississauga - with the creation of her own successful lifestyle blog. She has since launched an influencer talent agency, Kensington Grey, with the passionate mission of bringing inclusion and diversity to the marketing industry in an authentic way.

Recently recognized as a Changemaker for her remarkable work by the Globe and Mail, Shannae sat down to chat with U of T Mississauga about work ethic, advocacy, and the importance of creating a better world for her daughter.

In 2005 you started a blog based on your life in Toronto that grew to be massively successful. It was so popular that companies approached you for advertising space on your blog. Did you realize back then that you were an influencer?

When you start living in your purpose, things just start to click. That’s exactly what it felt like when I first launched my blog. I didn’t think of it as a side-hustle, or career stepping stone – it was just something that I loved doing and that other people loved as well. Then I started realizing I was at the corner of something massive, and most people didn’t know it yet.

Being one of the first bloggers in Toronto taught me that all you need is a vision and the tenacity to keep going. Very few marketing professionals saw the potential in influencer marketing in the early days. They were wrong. It doesn't matter who believes in you, as long as you believe in yourself and have the work ethic to get you to where you want to go.

You launched your company, Kensington Grey in 2019. Can you talk about what makes your agency different? 

My husband and I started Kensington Grey as a way to uplift and support women of colour, particularly Black women. Simply put, we wanted to make a difference by creating the world we wanted to watch our daughter grow up in. What makes us different is our advocacy. We really work hard to make sure our talent is getting the best possible deal because unfortunately, we still live in a world where creatives of colour are underpaid and undervalued.

Kensington Grey is different because we’re consistently trying to change the marketing industry, just by being ourselves.

As an influencer yourself, you are an expert at anticipating what will come next. How do you determine which influencers are about to be the next big thing?

It really comes down to originality and how well a person knows their audience. I think over the last few years we’ve gotten pretty used to seeing a certain type of “It Girl”. And that still works, but it’s not enough anymore. Followers want to see more personality, vulnerability and creativity. We’re seeing waves of social media personalities developing in very different markets than five years ago. Right now, there’s a big focus on holistic living, wellness and therapy pages. For fashion and lifestyle content creators, that could look like being more open and honest about their mental health and personal journey. 

The best influencers are the ones who act with integrity, are in alignment with brand values and know their audience. 

Can you talk about how Kensington Grey was impacted following the murder of George Floyd and the BLM movement?

We’ve witnessed the killings of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Michael Brown and countless others. George Floyd forced non-Black people to pay attention to a reality so many of us were already cognizant of.

Kensington Grey was born out of a knowing that more needed to be done to uplift Black people. After the protests of 2020, other companies started realizing it as well, and in full transparency, we were inundated with requests from brands and agencies that wanted to work with our talent. But diversity should not and cannot be a trend – so we asked tough questions to ensure that we weren't being used as props to "appear" diverse, and turned down a lot of business in the process. 

The murder of George Floyd and the BLM protests truthfully reaffirmed our mission. Kensington Grey exists because Black and Brown boys and girls should be able to see themselves reflected in the world they grow up in. We also realized that activism can be achieved in the boardroom, and the work we do achieves exactly that.

In 2020, you co-founded an advocacy platform, The Standard with the goal of breaking down systemic racism faced by Black women in the Canadian marketing space. Can you talk about why you felt it was so important to create this online community?

I co-founded The Standard because there was a real push on social media where consumers, influencers and celebrities alike were demanding more transparency and action surrounding diversity and inclusion from major corporations. I wanted to make sure that this push turned into a movement. The Standard is a community of like-minded Black women, in marketing and PR, who are leaders in their fields. Our collective is passionate about using our industry experience, to build a safe space for mentorship, networking and advocacy.

Shannae Ingleton Smith and her young daughter smiling together.
Photo by Shannae Ingleton Smith

This year, the Globe and Mail celebrated you as a Changemaker for your leadership, for being a champion of diversity, and for voicing the importance of inclusive representation. What does it mean for you to be recognized for your exceptional work in this way?

Anytime I receive any sort of award, I think about my daughter and what it will mean to her in the future. I think we create a better world when we act out of the love that we have for kids. She’s my why. It’s always been about impact. How can I move the dial forward? How can I change the narrative, so my daughter doesn’t have to?

Can we talk about the importance of authenticity in social media?

Authenticity is a powerful tool of connecting and building relationships with others, because by showing up as your full self, you inspire others to do the same. It’s addictive. We love to be around people who are easy-going, carefree, and honest about who they are. That translates into social media as well. 

Your audience doesn’t want perfection, they want you. So please, come as you are. The world needs more of that.

Where are you excited for Kensington Grey to go next?

I’m proud of how we’ve grown these last few years. It’s taken a lot of heart and determination. It’s also shown me that the only limits that really exist are the ones that we place on ourselves. We are creating a PR division, we are moving into product development and I’m looking forward to expanding our roster and collaborating with some of the world’s biggest brands.

What advice do you have for students graduating from university who are preparing to start their careers?

It’s okay if you don’t have everything figured out. Take the time to get to really know yourself, both inside and outside of work. Know your soft skills, your passions, your hobbies and what kind of lifestyle you want for yourself.

Create and foster genuine relationships. The people that I was friends with while I was in University are now our lawyers, our accountants and our strategic partners. We live in an age where your career is not limited to your college degree, or to your 9-5. While that is an important part - relationships, how you treat people, your confidence and your reputation will take you further than you can imagine, and there’s so much power in that.


Originally published by U of T Mississauga