Before promo, Sandra Kelley, MAS, worked at General Motors for 21 years. “When I graduated from Michigan State University, I got recruited by General Motors. At the time, that was great because you’re supposed to graduate and get a good job.” Kelley worked her way through several different departments at General Motors, but there was something else she wanted.

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” Kelley says. “When you have a strong entrepreneurial desire, it’s hard to work a corporate, 9-to-5 job. I was helping General Motors build great cars, but my eyes and ears were always open for great business ideas.”

Twenty-two years ago, a traveling franchise show came to Kelley’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. “There was this one small table, and it was this company called Press-A-Print. On this table, they had equipment for printing promotional items. I had no idea what promotional products were. I didn’t even know that they had a name. I was intrigued. I was like, ‘I use these, and everybody uses these. This is interesting!”

Kelley followed up and bought a business from Press & Print. She worked on her business, the future Prestige Promotions, LLC, for four years part-time while still working full-time at General Motors. But when the chance to take a healthy buyout arose, she left. 

“This was the opportunity,” she says. “I could start the business and still have income coming in. And I really wanted to start my business. The most important risk I’ve taken was leaving my good paying, benefits producing job to do this.” The only thing left to do was to convince her husband, Craig, who also worked at General Motors. “But we’ve always been risk takers—both of us. We’ve never been afraid to try something new. I didn’t have to convince him too much.”

While at General Motors, Kelley worked in several different departments. She says, “All of the different departments and skills I had to learn at General Motors prepared me to learn a lot of skills quickly in order to start a successful business. When you first start out, you don’t have a lot of money. You are doing a lot of the work yourself. You are building the plane and flying it at the same time. You have to learn very quickly.”

The last department Kelley worked in at GM was marketing. “With Press-A-Print, they actually sold you the equipment to print. I didn’t like the printing so much. But I did like selling and interacting with customers. Eventually, I stopped doing the printing and at that point, I became a distributor.”

From left to right, JaQuita Kelley, marketing director,Sandra Kelley, MAS, COO, and Craig Kelley, Sr., MAS, CEO, attend a client’s grand opening.

Kelley’s first “real” client was a funeral home. When the client had an emergency order, Kelley delivered. “That was nearly 18 years ago, and he is still a client today. He’s one of my favorites, and he was also the one who gave me my very first testimonial.” 

Kelley says Prestige Promotions, LLC has always been hands-on with their clients. “We still offer a high level of service. It has proven to be beneficial because we have loyal clients and strong repeat business. As we’ve grown, we’ve learned the true value of promotional products—how to use them, teaching others how to use them and becoming professionals.” 

While she’s teaching others about promo, Kelley says she never stops learning. In 2018, Kelley started volunteering with Michigan Promotional Professionals Association (MiPPA). This year, she’s the immediate past president of the regional association after serving as president in 2021. After this year, she plans to run for the board of directors for another term. 

“I love MiPPA,” Kelley says. “It’s a great association with a great leader, Paul Kiewiet, MAS+. We have a true working board. Our board of directors actually works to make the association more valuable to it’s members, while being leaders in the industry.”

Joining MiPPA has been given my career a big boost, says Kelley. “One of the things that I did was volunteered to take on professional development within the association. That meant me co-hosting and co-producing professional development webinars. We produce two webinars every month: Tuesday Learning Lab and Wild Wednesday Webinar. I am very proud that the Wild Wednesday Webinar series was a 2022 PPAI Pyramid Award winner.” 

Kelley says it’s all about exposure. “Those webinars have exposed me to so many people in the industry—from top‐level executives to the hard‐working industry people that tune in every month. I’m also learning so much about the industry because I’m listening to industry professionals describe what they do and how to do it better, all while earning PPAI CAS & MAS certification credits.”

If you’re thinking about joining a regional association, Kelley says do it.

“There are so many benefits. First of all, you become a part of a community. There are so many opportunities through tradeshows and networking to form deep relationships,” Kelley says. “It also offers an opportunity to give back. I truly believe that if you are going to be in the industry and profit from it, you should give back to it.”

While Kelley is passionate about promos, she says acting is her first love. “If had to do it all over again—I know that’s a cliché—I would have definitely chosen the acting route. I would have put my all into it.”

But Kelley says the promo industry keeps her motivated. “What inspired and what continues to inspire me are all the really smart, creative people in this industry. There are a lot. You wouldn’t know it unless you’re in the industry. Also, when I am out at an event and I see promos in use, it makes my heart smile.”

PPB spoke with Kelley to learn more about how she stays inspired. 

I hope to see the industry evolve by… adding more diversity. As a Black woman who’s been in this industry full-time for 18 years, I would really like to see more minorities, especially African Americans, in this industry. We go to a lot of tradeshows, especially The PPAI Expo, and there’s just not a lot of us. I think it’s a matter of exposure and bringing young people into the industry. They need to see what it’s about and how you can grow and build a really great business from it. 

I’d also like to see industry continue to educate and promote ourselves as true professionals. There’s still a low bar to get into our industry, but it takes hard work to actually stay and thrive here, and part of that is education and positioning yourself as a professional. I’d like to see more people grab on to that. 

Lastly, to quote Danny Rosin, I would like us to continue to focus on keeping promos out of the “brandfill.” I love that word—thank you, Danny. We can do that by teaching our clients how to properly use promos and helping them make decisions that turn giveaways into gifts. 

I achieve a work/life balance by… making time to enjoy the little things. I love spending time with my first little grandson. He’s 8 months. I call him the cutest person in the room. I watch movies and documentaries with my husband—that’s how we relax in the evening. I also power walk with my best friend, Phyllis. Also, spending time with my little dog, Pepper, helps to relieve the stress of the day. I work a lot, even on the weekends. But when I do make time for myself, I feel better and ready to tackle the next challenge.  

Kristina Valdez is an associate editor at PPAI.