We Are Family

December 19, 2019

Ebony Ssali

Ebony Ssali, MBA is the Sr. Brand Strategist & Creative Director of Ssali Media Group, a branding, marketing and media consultancy headquartered in Wisconsin. The firm manages regional & national print, broadcast, web and social media brands. Ssali Media creates branding identities and marketing strategies for mid-volume businesses and organizations in the healthcare, education and community development, and technology industries.

Ssali is a national guest lecturer on topics of branding, diversity in communications, and innovation as brand strategy. With her thought leadership and creative direction, Ebony Ssali has garnered awards in technology & innovation and place branding for work such as the City of Milwaukee's Bronzeville Week and Wisconsin Inno's 50 on Fire for work with high valuation startups.

Family. Definitions of familial connections are just about as varied as those for diversity. The three women presenting at The 3% Conference’s My Family of Origin shared the comforts, crimps, and pride relatives can bring to life. One speaker shared the idea that we all have unique abilities birthed by our families. As they advanced their slides every 20 seconds Pecha Kucha style, it became clear that although the audience was comprised of individuals, we are bound by the collective experiences of family. 

Kate Higgins, Youngest Child, Founder


Kate does the hard things, like ice waterfall climbing. And she makes it look easy. I gasped audibly when Kate, the youngest child, took the stage and introduced herself as the grand finale of her big, Irish Catholic family. She’s number 10 of 10, empowered to learn self-advocacy through the upbringing of a doting mother and a norms-breaking father. Kate’s childhood shattered common Iowan expectations of the early 80’s not only by steering tractors as a teen, but rounding up courage in driver’s seat while coming out to her family. 

It was the seed of that bravery that kept her sane when she would later be fired from an agency for being openly lesbian. 

Kate’s character hasn’t strayed far from her Midwestern roots. She would dig into those farm-grown life lessons to carve a path forward within her new agency. Be brave, be vulnerable, and build trust. Build unity. Whether an only child or the last of 10, leading a small creative shop or large internal department, Kate’s advice, you’re not alone in this life. 

Taking up the cause of gun violence, she partnered with a small team of interns to create impact using Wall Street’s viral sensation, Fearless Girl. Wrapping the well-known copper statue in a bulletproof vest sent a message to the world that we must be unshakeable in our stance against gun violence, even if it puts us into an uncomfortable position. 

Kate’s Life Lesson: Find your superpower to do the hard things. In a sea of voices, be brave enough to stand up for what you believe in. 

Jenny Hoffman, Global Creative Strategist, Spotify


The birth order lottery, in Jenny’s case, makes her one-third of triplets. And while she didn’t plan it that way, being born with two other people was an integral part of molding her persona. Sharing, patience, and chipping in to help are major lessons learned from her brothers, Will and Tom. Guess you could say teamwork started in the womb. 

Jenny delved into a childhood story ending with a broken birdbath in her family’s yard. Determined to discover responsibility, the team of three was brought in by the parental unit for questioning Law and Order-style. The two boys covered for their partner in what I call #TeamScheme. However, Jenny being the last in the lineup, outed herself as the culprit. (From the sounds of it, these three should've nabbed an after school special.) Jenny notes gratefulness for her earliest experiences as a trio. She likens it to “taking the one thing in your life you didn’t choose, and making it your biggest strength.” The advertising world creates environments for women to step up and take on leadership in sticky situations. But as Jenny says she didn’t mind being the only woman in the womb and doesn’t mind being the only woman in the room. #Facts.
Jenny’s Life Lesson: Teamwork. She says, “It’s only when we work together, that we can really shine.”

Vanessa Toro, VP Creative Strategy, Digitas North America


The concept of family can bring complexity and depth. Especially when it doesn’t fit a traditional middle America form. Since it’s an ‘on trend’ word...how does diversity impact family life, nowadays? Is it who your uncles are married to that matters? What countries your second cousins call home? The fabric of our American culture is a complex tapestry, but it’s sometimes forgotten there is no singular "American story." 

With a few days notice, you drop your entire life to book a cross-country flight to sit at a relative’s bedside as they pass away. You’ve never met this relative in person. Now imagine having to explain your choice to your corporate team. When a family member dies whom we don’t reside with or see often, should there be a certain level of sadness allowed? As Vanessa imagined a team member saying, "where does this loss fall on the familial hierarchy of sadness?" Ugh. 

The minority identity can be challenging as it butts up against traditional corporate culture in America. We adore and embrace inclusion. However, it is important to note the potential for cultural bias when assigning family values and degrees of closeness. In the Latin and African-American culture, being village-minded matters. Toro says, "We carry the burden for all our families had to give up." Each day black and brown carriers of culture walk shouldering the dreams of their ancestors.

And that resonated like a drum. 

Vanessa's Life Lesson: Walk with the spirit of the ancestors into the conference room.


Most childhood skills learned to cope with our varied lives become the polished qualities we exhibit as creative leaders. That may be the ultimate role of family. They teach us how to navigate the nuances of life. They wipe our tears when we’re afraid to stand in our truth. They back us when we need a team. Three wonder women from different parts of the country stood before us sharing their individual bravery. 

And the aha moment settled in.

I reflected on agency growth topics, conversations on diversity, and networking from this year’s 3% Conference. But, My Family of Origin resonated most. It’s about those BIG life lessons that we take into our pitches, standing up for work you believe in. Strengthening your team. Thanking those who came before you and those coming after you. 

As a black woman, it can be easy to ‘tuck-in’ which makes me stand out. But we all take part in humanity. From no matter where on Earth we hail, we've got an iteration of the same crazily complex family. The very things we loathe growing up turn out to be the mettle making us adults. 

The perfect picture of family may not always be a Hallmark moment, but the love is real. And that's as comforting as Grandma's pie (or Southern peach cobbler).