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Women in Handpaints, an Interview with Colossal Media

March 13, 2023

Colossal Media is the global leader of hand-painted outdoor advertising. Founded in 2004, Colossal fought hard to bring back the forgotten art form of handpainted advertisement. Their memorable campaigns build curiosity and excitement through creative storytelling. Colossal describes itself as a company built by people with passion who expect something more. Billups is proud to highlight our partner Colossal’s female leadership team and showcase the work they are doing to encourage women in an industry that has historically been male-dominated.

We sat down with Colossal President Kelly Peppers and Vice President Jen Edelberg to hear their thoughts on International Women’s Day, women’s empowerment and how to better support diversity and inclusion in Out-of-Home companies.

Creating a More Inclusive Workforce 

Peppers and Edelberg say that just 7 or 8 years ago there were no women painters at Colossal. Now they are proud to boast that 30% of their painting and production workforce identifies as female.

“We work really hard to bring women to this craft that was originally a male-dominated one,” Edelberg said. “We are proud to say we have diversity and a focus on ensuring a safe space for gender identity and race and that this is a really big deal to us."

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Peppers said it’s not just a simple matter of hiring more women and diverse staff, but an operational issue as well. 

“You have to make accommodations,” Peppers said. “You have to make sure that when people arrive in your organization that they feel welcome. 

One of the accommodations that Colossal has implemented was additional locker rooms for staff so that they could be comfortable while changing no matter their gender identity. However, another challenge of shifting culture goes beyond the operational-new cultures must be blended in with the old. 

“We have to make sure everyone knows who we want to be and our values now and make sure everyone is speaking the same language and respecting one another,” Edelberg said. Their goal is to create a diverse safe space for individuals.

Peppers said that this requires a constant and open line of communication and ongoing dialogue. However, change is not easy and requires a lot of work from leadership.

“Most leaders focus on the top and bottom lines. This doesn’t make us more money and can be exhausting,” Peppers said. “Companies will do well and make money if their people are happy and taken care of but it's extra work.”

Peppers and Edelberg are happy to put in that extra work towards making their employees feel seen, heard, safe and appreciated. 

Female handpainter on a roof in the city

Colossal Vice President Jen Edelberg

Edelberg describes herself as a ball of energy with a big heart and a lot to say. It also wasn’t easy for her to get her role at Colossal.

“I wrote a sappy cover letter and didn’t get the job,” Edelberg said. However, she didn’t give up. After fighting for a 6th interview she was given a shot. That “shot” turned into a 13-year career that she describes as rooted in passion, a sense of purpose and some serious determination.

“For good or bad, I’ve never lost sight of a need to hustle and prove myself. I’m sure many women feel the same way,” Edelberg said. She counts herself lucky that hustle, combined with very supportive leadership and peers, got her to her current position as Vice President of Colossal. 

To Edelberg, International Women’s Day celebrates the strong women of our past, present and the ones to come in our future. She said she could go on for pages about women who have made a difference including Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Anne Frank, Frida Kahlo and Malala Yousafzai. We asked her more about women’s empowerment and inclusion in the interview continued below.

What makes you a strong woman and what fulfills you?

I’m lucky that so many of my friends, family and colleagues have supported (and furthermore inspired) me to be authentic, vocal and fearless. And that’s helped me make a difference and move the needle as a female leader in my industry. I’m determined to create that same environment for women, and all underrepresented groups, however and wherever possible. If I can help to inspire the next generation of women to succeed (and feel supported and safe along the way), that’s fulfillment in a nutshell.

Who is a woman you admire and why?

Can I say She-Ra? She may be fictional but growing up, she was my heroine. ;) 
IRL… every woman I named above, plus hundreds more, but if I had to pick — my grandmothers (both!), who faced so much hardship, adversity, oppression — each in their own ways- but never gave up or lost their strength.

How have you navigated an industry and company historically predominantly run by males? 

I’ve had the privilege of working alongside strong women throughout my career. I worked in TV, in Radio, in Print, in Strategy, in Sales… and came across incredible women who inspired and mentored me every step of the way (including our fearless leader Kelly!) To me that's the secret sauce [and message] for any woman who reads this. You might inspire another woman to be strong and make a difference, just by being your authentic self.

What do you do to support gender equality/women/inclusion in OOH?

I’m so proud of what Colossal has done (and continues to do) to strengthen and ever-evolve in DEIB. When we resurrected this craft as a media format in 2004, it had historically been and continued to be a male-dominated trade. We’ve worked tirelessly over the past decade to pave a new path: hiring, training, and celebrating women (and all genders and ethnicities), who are equally capable of being amazing sign painters. We're proud to say that now 30% of our production and paint staff are women, and that's growing every day.

We have also created a program called Start Today, which focuses on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion through volunteer committees within the organization. Our people come together to choose causes that are important to them, donating our walls, time and resources to raise awareness around four unique social causes a year to create murals, also donating our video and photography capabilities. 

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What are some of the barriers that women still face in the workplace? Any ideas for how it could be fixed? 

Lots. One that resonates most in my personal experience, women who are passionate about a subject at work still risk being told they’re being "emotional" whereas men who passionately raise their voice are exhibiting "leadership". 

So how do we fix it? I fundamentally believe that creating a safe space for transparent conversation among diverse groups is the most important step to break the cycle. We need to be fearless to share our stories, to help educate and ultimately build allies to drive change in the workplace and industry together.

What is your greatest accomplishment? 

I’ll get a bit vulnerable here. Leading with a lot of heart (which many of us in this industry have) can really wear on you. During my career, in a particularly stressful period, I found the practice of meditation. I fell in love, got certified as a practitioner and committed to a continuous journey to explore the human mind, which included many silent retreats where we spent 7 days without speaking. It was incredibly hard.

The hardest part was also what resonated with me most… that awareness is the key to change and empowerment. You can change your mind when you’re aware of your thoughts. In that same way, awareness around inequity, other perspectives and journeys can change the way our world functions, as individuals in a community and as an interconnected ecosystem. 

The Power of Persistence 

Though Edelberg is in leadership, she still sometimes questions her own value. “I work on it constantly. I am always questioning if I am good enough. Smart enough. Tough enough. Thoughtful enough. The list goes on. The biggest challenges are sometimes battles you always face, and there’s a lot to learn along the journey, and a lot of power in persistence.  

Edelberg had wanted to be an artist but did not pursue that path. In college, she discovered visual communications and advertising and explored many roles in the media world until she found Colossal. 

“With handpainted OOH, I knew I had found my calling. It married all my passions into one and I never looked back,” Edelberg said. 

Edelberg has some advice for women who want to become leaders,
“Be authentic. Lead with your heart. Speak your truth. Be fierce. Never give up,” Edelberg said.

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Vice President, Colossal Media Jen Edelberg is a seasoned advertising executive with 17 years of experience in the media world. Joining Colossal in 2009, her commitment to the hand paint craft for over a decade has created a permanent and well-respected space for Colossal in the OOH industry and has solidified the belief that art and advertising are intrinsically connected.

Colossal President Kelly Peppers

Colossal President Kelly Peppers has been with Colossal for almost 14 years. She started in sales when it was a small company of less than 15 staff members, including the two Founders and original team of painters. 

“It was an exciting time to join Colossal since I had the opportunity to help shape the organization and the Founders were extremely supportive of me taking on more beyond sales to help Colossal expand.”

During her tenure with the company she moved from sales, to business development, to managing director to CEO and President. Before joining Colossal, she worked in sales and marketing in the music industry and dabbled in real estate. Outside of Colossal she keeps her life simple since being a mom, wife and president of Colossal is extremely time-consuming and brings her all the joy and purpose she needs.

Peppers appreciates there is a day to celebrate women’s accomplishments.

“It is important we continue to recognize that our great-grandmothers didn’t even have the right to vote — the fact that we are now leaders in business, politics and more should be celebrated,” Peppers said. 

We talked with Peppers more about the changing and diverse roles of women and how to continue the charge towards a more inclusive workforce in the following interview:

What makes you a strong woman and what fulfills you?

I think strength comes both from our DNA and our experiences. My mom has said I was born determined. However I think my current strength is a reflection of all the experiences I have been through. I feel most fulfilled when I can help fix or build something with passionate, authentic people and even more so if we do it smiling and laughing. 

Who is a woman you admire and why?

My grandmother. She helped raise me and I have always admired her story and her will to survive. She grew up in Brooklyn spending part of her childhood in an orphanage and part in a sanitarium because she was born with a heart defect. At a young age she married my grandfather who was an alcoholic and died at 42. Despite all of this she had a big infectious personality, tons of gratitude for simple pleasures like a good meal or time in nature and she was an inspiration to all her eight grandchildren.

How have you navigated an industry and company historically predominantly run by males? 

I lean on humor a lot. I’ve walked into all-male boardrooms with a wall of multi-generational males who built a business and the second I feel like the elephant in the room I’ll crack a joke or tell a story that relaxes me and disarms the men in the room. This inevitably leads to mutual respect and an ability to collaborate more effectively. Whenever I was faced with sexism I dealt with it directly in the moment rather than keeping quiet and feeling horrible about it later. Again this is what works for me.

Someone once asked me in a one-on-one meeting, “Will I have any “me too” issues with you?” I laughed and said you will now. One of my greatest career gifts was having two extremely supportive male bosses - the Founders of Colossal always treated me with respect and I’m forever grateful to have them as my mentors, cheerleaders and friends.

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What do you do to support gender equality/women/inclusion in OOH?

My role comes with the privilege of prioritizing inclusion which will shape the future of Colossal and OOH. We are dedicated to creating diversity on our paint team by hiring some of the best female painters in the business. This is historic given the paint industry, and the creative industry is typically male. I also love when I can be a mentor to a woman looking to grow her career but lacks the confidence to really go for what she wants. Too often confidence is the only roadblock to growth and success.

What are some of the barriers that women still face in the workplace? Any ideas for how it could be fixed? 

It is extremely difficult to be a working mom. Even with the most supportive partner (which I fortunately have) moms are programmed and societal pressured to do more. Orchestrating play dates, being the class “mom,” buying clothes and school supplies …. the list goes on. Also, the mom is the one the school calls when something is wrong. A solution is giving working moms more flexibility and urging leaders to have more empathy and kindness.  

Another barrier is leaning on female staff to own mundane tasks like note-taking in meetings, event planning and team building. Give us space to think big picture and let the men pick up the pen on occasion.  

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What is your greatest accomplishment? 

My kids! Professionally, I never imagined being where I’m at right now. I was the first in my family to graduate from college, work in the city and move up the “corporate ladder” all while overcoming some personal setbacks. So just being present and grateful in this current moment feels great. Some of the days when I feel the most accomplished are the ones when I can cheer someone up at work so they can exhale and do their best work.

Tell a Story About a Challenge you Overcame and How. 

The last few years have been rough. When COVID hit there were weeks we thought we may go out of business. I had to keep calm and create a plan that would keep Colossal intact while trying to homeschool my kids. At the same time, we had some internal challenges that cost us millions of dollars and nearly cost us our reputation. Just as we were emerging from chaos, the Founders made the decision to move forward with the plan to sell the business so that Colossal could grow. 

Since the Founders were going to permanently part ways but I was going to stay on, I attended all the meetings on my own or with our CFO. We also kept the sale very confidential so I couldn’t share what I was trying to do with my coworkers. This made it even more stressful. 

In the summer of 2021, I started meeting with brokers and buyers and then in the middle of all of this, my younger brother and only sibling passed away suddenly from a drug overdose. My brother was single and my mom is not well. My father is her primary caregiver. 

The pressure on me was profound. I took a week off to get everything in order and then headed back to work. Grit, a strong work ethic and support from my husband, kids and dearest friends helped me get through this. In December that year we sold Colossal to Lamar. 

Keep Pushing Forward 

Peppers encourages women to recognize and share their strengths:

“Stop looking around you and behind you and just look at yourself in the mirror with pride, purpose, confidence, tenacity and go full speed at whatever you want. Literally visualize what you want your future to look like and keep pushing forward. The best feeling is winning when all the odds are against you so play the game and try to win. When you stumble, get back up and don't overthink it because you will always be your worst critic,” Peppers said.

Peppers appreciates the creativity in OOH and the ability to get passersby to look up, reflect and sometimes even take a photo.

“I am extremely passionate about Colossal’s contributions to our industry and our team of spirited, authentic and creative humans,” Peppers said.

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Kelly Peppers is the President of Colossal Media, the Brooklyn-based global leader in hand-painted outdoor advertising. Kelly has spent the past fourteen years growing Colossal’s business through championing the power of hand-painted advertisements, creative solutions, storytelling, and a premium OOH experience amongst brands, agencies, and the creative community. In 2020, she launched Colossal's first Corporate Social Responsibility program, Start Today, which supports DEI both within Colossal and our communities, through pro-bono murals, non-profit partnerships, and thought leadership. Prior to Colossal, Kelly specialized in sales and marketing in OOH, digital, print, radio and events at Billboard Magazine and CBS Radio. Off-the-clock, she is a mom of two, wife, and Board Member for the OAAA.

A Note on Women’s History Month from Billups

We at Billups look forward to seeing the OOH industry continue to make strides toward diversity, equity and inclusion and are proud of the work that our partners have done to support women and diversity in Out-of-Home. Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day are not just token times to recognize women and their accomplishments, but a time to hold workplaces accountable to truly embrace equity. Throughout the days, months and years ahead there is still much work to be done. 

Want to learn more about Billups? Contact us today. 

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