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March 13, 2018
#WomensWork Feature: Kassie Hilgert
Written by Kate Racculia
ArtsQuest is feeding the soul of Bethlehem. Dedicated to increasing access to the arts for all, the nonprofit is situated at the heart of two of President and CEO Kassie Hilgert’s passions: the arts and urban revitalization. She joined ArtsQuest in 2008 from Air Products, making the jump from a global for-profit company to a much smaller, community-based arts and culture nonprofit—one that was undertaking a $26 million capital campaign to rejuvenate a portion of the largest brownfield under redevelopment in the United States, and at the onset of the Great Recession. It was a risk, to say the least.
It was a risk that continues to pay off. Through Musikfest, the organization’s flagship event, the Banana Factory cultural arts and education center, and the ArtsQuest Center and SteelStacks™ arts and cultural campus, ArtsQuest now reaches more than 1.8 million people a year. That’s a lot of souls getting fed.
“There is tremendous value that comes from connecting and empowering people from every corner of our global society,” Hilgert says. “The Lehigh Valley is growing, changing, and evolving as people from all over the country move here. That creates a richer, deeper tapestry for us to engage and learn from.” Encountering the variety of life, in our community and through the arts, nourishes us all.
And prepares us to grow. “Every step in your career, or your life, sets you up to meet a challenge you never thought you could,” Hilgert says, citing the apparent differences between a company like Air Products and a nonprofit like ArtsQuest. But look deeper, and you’ll see commonalities. “What I learned at AirProducts about safety, integrity, and global diversity are lessons I use to this day.”
She’s also learned the value of strength—and weakness. “Your strengths get you to a leadership position,” she says. “But it’s mitigating your weaknesses that keeps you there.” Leadership, to Hilgert, is an exercise in both humility and appreciation. “Following is a choice, just like assuming leadership is a choice,” she says. “You can never, ever forget that the only reason you get to lead is because the people who follow you make it possible.”
It’s not always easy to take that first step that sets you on a path to leadership. “[Initative] can be hard,” says Hilgert, “for a lot of people, not just women, if you haven’t been raised or mentored to take it.” She advises doing the work to earn your credibility and expertise—which will in turn give you the confidence to raise your hand, step forward, and take a seat at the table. “Do not let fear be an excuse,” she says. “Ever.”