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Hodges’ talents take Des Moines by surprise


Kevin Hodges knew what he was doing when he got a job at the Embassy Club. Being new to Greater Des Moines, it was a deliberate move on his part to bring himself closer to local executives, the club’s clientele.

When Hodges, now 33, moved to the area, he had never set foot in a schoolhouse, which he knew would be an obstacle to getting a good job.

“In Des Moines, I knew that I wanted to get a good job with a good company, but I also knew that without any formal education, the average HR department wouldn’t look twice at my resume,” he said.

But Hodges had the qualifications to work at the center of a powerful company. In fact, he was probably overqualified. This was a man who spoke eleven languages and studied extensively all of his life. After all, you can pick up a lot of amazing information when you read, on average, six to seven hours per day and have a natural talent for memorizing most anything.

Hodges became the person he is as a result of an unusual set of circumstances and reinforcement of his desire to learn. His mother, a “hippie,” included Hodges in her travels across the country from commune to commune, he said.

“The good thing about that is that I was raised without a television and we had a lot of visitors from other countries around most of the time,” he said.

What he picked up from his unconventional upbringing was to follow his passions, which involved learning about anything and everything he could think of.

“Looking back. I don’t know how my mother dealt with it,” Hodges said. “I was the type of kid who was always asking questions, and not only did she tolerate it, but she actually encouraged it.

“Even though she may not have been interested in what I was, she encouraged me. Whenever we traveled, she would call ahead to see where the good bookstores were, because she knew that would be where I would want to go.”

As he got a little bit older, he did go through a “rebellious” stage like most teenagers. However, this period in his life didn’t involve drugs or other rowdy behavior. Instead, a rebellion for him meant incorporating a bit of conventional style into his life.

“My way of rebelling was that I cut my hair off and taught myself Latin and Greek because my mother hated the classics—the dead white guys were way too conservative,” he said.

After more years of traveling, reading and developing his intellect, Hodges found himself in Vancouver, where he considered marriage. When that didn’t work out, he thought of moving to a totally new place. His days with his mother had taken him mostly up and down the West Coast and across the South. He’d also been out East some, so this time he thought, why not the Midwest?

“I looked at a few locations and I heard that Iowa had a very tight labor market, that the cost of living was very low and that the crime rate was very low, so I thought I’d give it a try,” he said.

Once in Des Moines, he set out to find the right people. He met with M.D. Isley at the Des Moines Higher Education Collaborative to find out what his options might be. Isley, taken aback, took time to absorb what Hodges had told him.

“His history and situation was so unusual that I was somewhat skeptical initially,” Isley said. But, soon after, he asked Hodges to be his right-hand man.

“He proved to be an excellent employee with the unique ability to automatically relate and communicate very well with the wide variety of people we serve,” Isley said.

“We quickly became friends, as I was quite impressed with his intelligence, demeanor, sincere compassion and wonderful people skills.”

Though Hodges was encouraged by this new connection with Isley, he sought out another way to make an impression on people who could help him get where he wanted to be. He didn’t worry too much about being pegged as a person in the service industry when he started working at the Embassy Club.

“A couple of weeks later, a gentleman came in, a Principal [Financial Group Inc.] employee who had a Chinese guest with him. I spoke Chinese with her, sat them and got them situated,” Hodges said.

It didn’t take long for word to get around about Hodges. Soon, he had an interview set up with Norman Sorensen, president of Principal International. Hodges wasn’t discouraged that the interview was only for a part-time job as a “meeter and greeter” for the company’s eclectic visitors. With a little planning, he knew that he could sell himself as something much greater than an occasional escort for business guests.

“I wanted a real position, so before the interview, I read about 5,000 pages about the pension industry. I read about Principal…so, I went to this little, nothing interview for this part-time job and instead, actually spoke about the business, and a few days later I had an offer.”

In July 2001, Hodges landed a position at Principal International. Just eight months ago, he transferred to Principal Global Investors, the company’s asset management division, where he is now an investment communications adviser. He develops marketing materials for the different countries Principal serves. His linguistic skills are an asset in his position, so much in fact, that it surprised co-workers like Christopher Reddy, then chief operating officer of Principal’s Asia- Pacific unit.

“When I was told that Kevin would be a good resource, I was skeptical,” Reddy said. “It’s one thing to be a ‘good speaker’ by U.S. standards, another to be proficient by overseas standards. But, Kevin’s certainly proven to me to be the real deal.”

Reddy also found out that Hodges was a resourceful researcher, in addition to being an excellent host for international visitors. Hodges incorporates learning about etiquette into his studies of other languages and cultures.

“It’s one thing to just sort of be a busy individual coordinating and getting things done, but he can do it with the cultural awareness and sensitivity to why it’s important to do things that way,” Reddy said.

To do his job well, Hodges also keeps up on global economic and geopolitical issues every day though newspapers Web sites.

“I read anywhere from six to nine newspapers a day in five or six different languages,” Hodges said. “I really try to keep up with, on a daily basis, what’s going on in the countries where we do business. I like to keep up with global economics and geopolitical events that might affect business. If I’m putting together marketing materials for Hong Kong, I think it’s very important to know what’s happening in Hong Kong.”

Hodges has also learned an additional language or two since starting at Principal. A work-related trip to Brazil introduced him to Portuguese, which is says is now his favorite language. He’s also taught himself Spanish.

“I didn’t learn Spanish before I came here. The reason was that I was more attracted to obscure languages,” Hodges said. “But after you learn three of four languages, it becomes easier from then on. You learn how to approach a language and you learn which types of words you need to learn first.”

As of now, German, French, Dutch, Icelandic, Russian, Thai, Chinese (Mandarin), Latin, Greek, English (old English, middle, you name it), Spanish, Portuguese and American Sign Language are in his repertoire. Hodges is self-taught, and it’s interesting to hear what triggered him to pick up books to learn some of these languages.

“When I was 15, there was a young lady I met,” he recalled. “She was a few years older, but she was very attractive, so I learned German because she was German and I wanted to impress her.”

Though his education doesn’t bear the stamp of a Harvard or Yale, Hodges thinks that his background proved advantageous for getting the job he has.

“I don’t know that I would have gotten the job that I have at Principal as easily if I had gone through the traditional channels,” he said. “People can see that I’m able to work independently, I’m able to solve problems and that I’m self-motivated. Principal recognized diversity when they chose me—a diversity of experience and learning.”

Now, Hodges is pursuing a classroom-based education for the first time in his life. Last September, he started working towards his masters of business administration though the downtown Collaborative. The pace is a little slower than what he’s used to, but the interaction with others is what really counts, he said.

“It forces me to really hear a lot of different folks’ views on a subject, which is very good, because everyone, including myself, tends to look at material and make very fast judgments about it,” he said. “It does cause me to step back and evaluate my own position.”

In his spare time, Hodges is an avid distance runner, a musician and a Scrabble enthusiast. He’s preparing to compete in his first Scrabble tournament in Chicago later this month.

His interests might seem varied, but he views them as being all connected.

“I think that anything you learn teaches you how to learn and makes you better at everything you do,” Hodges said. “I play some music, so by practicing the piano, that helps my linguistic abilities, it helps my mathematics, it helps my long-distance running. It all ties together because you’re focusing your attention.”

When it comes to learning, Hodges offers one main piece of advice for others.

“Stay in school, but don’t let it get in the way of your education,” Hodges said. “It’s so easy to have the attitude that ‘I’m going to sit in the class and they’re going to give me an education.’ I think that you can’t get an education; you have to go out and grab one.”   

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