Veterans at McKinsey: Meet Kelemwork Cook

After her experience with the United States Air Force, Kelem found her new wings with her McKinsey Black Network and Veterans@McKinsey communities.
Veterans at McKinsey: Meet Kelemwork Cook
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A couple years ago, Kelemwork Cook (née: Tariku-Shotts) was advising a client who was unexpectedly facing a major crisis. “Understandably, our client was very concerned—and we had just two weeks to develop a response plan that would normally take several months,” she recalls. “The stakes were high.”

The situation might have rattled many, but Kelem felt present and prepared. Having served as an air-traffic controller in U.S. Air Force, including an overseas deployment before joining the firm, she was experienced in leading and solving problems in high-stakes situations. “I wasn’t shaken—in fact, I think our colleagues who are former military personnel are used to finding solutions in these kind of challenging environments,” she says.

Based in Cleveland, Ohio, Kelem is one of hundreds of colleagues around the firm who joined McKinsey after military service. Born in Ethiopia, she came to the United States at the age of 5 and grew up with her adopted family in Indiana. She attended a high-school where 100 percent of graduates went to college, but after graduating herself, Kelem wanted to try something different.

“I wanted to do something non-traditional and my Air Force experience ended up being one of the most important and best decisions in my journey so far,” she says. “I’ve always loved helicopters and fighter jets, and being on the airfield, especially abroad during my deployment, was such a special, high-adrenaline experience.”

Kelem believes that veterans either know how valuable their experience is—or have no idea. “Prior to McKinsey, I was part of the latter group,” she says. “It took putting myself out there on LinkedIn and in networking events to get my career to take flight. I discovered recruiters valued the leadership experience, teamwork, and problem-solving ability I had from my time in service.”

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Engagement manager Kelem Cook pictured at an ancient ziggurat in Iraq.

She joined the firm’s Risk Practice in 2015, where she helped clients across industries respond to financial crisis. “I was looking for a place where I could be part of a team—that was critical to me after my time in the service,” she says. “The military is all about teamwork; there’s truly no ‘I.’ A pilot needs the air traffic controller and a co-pilot, for example.” Elsewhere, she appreciated the flexibility that consulting work allowed. In her five years at McKinsey, Kelem has gotten the chance to travel to just as many countries, working with clients in banking, risk, and reslience.

Along the way, she found support from colleagues through affinity groups such as Veterans@McKinsey and the McKinsey Black Network. Before she interviewed, colleagues from both networks shared advice about the interview process. “There is incredible community and family I’ve found at the affinity groups,” she says. “I have no doubt that I would not still be at the firm without them. There are so many resources and people who want the best for you.” Kelem considers the colleagues in these networks like Carla Huang, a dedicated MBN Professional Development Manager, to be second family, and she pays it forward by working on leadership and advancement initiatives.

Today, Kelem is an engagement manager on a rotation with All In, Diversity & Inclusion at the firm working on racial equity efforts as part of the 10 Actions and co-leading research on the racial wealth gap. “It’s unbelievable to work with leaders at the firm who are truly passionate about the importance of advancing underrepresented communities—and it’s very meaningful to get to play a role in that,” she says.

Read more profiles of our veteran colleagues here.