Karen Brown is the founder and managing director of Bridge Arrow LLC, a diversity & inclusion consultancy. She is also a published author, global keynote speaker, and career coach as well as a Governance Fellow at the National Association of Corporate Directors. Karen’s recent publications include a popular Harvard Business Review article, “To Retain Employees, Focus on Inclusion – Not Just Diversity.” When she’s not engrossed in making the corporate world more diverse and inclusive, you can find Karen writing poetry or hosting dinners in her home that bring together highly accomplished career women to share their expertise and experience with one another.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what it was like for you growing up?
I was born and raised in Jamaica, West Indies in the Parish of Manchester, and I’m the seventh of eight children. My mother was a college educator and my father was a farmer. My parents were strict, but for the most part I had a very positive childhood experience. I learned a rich set of values and standards that continue to guide how I live my life today. One of the values that stands out is to strive for peace no matter what. When there was an argument in the house, my dad was always the one brokering for understanding, forgiveness and compromise. It’s the reason I avoid unhealthy arguments to this day.
Another lesson I’ve carried with me since childhood is to believe in God and his might. The core principles of Christianity have shaped so much of my life. For instance, having integrity. I recall learning that all I have is my name and reputation, and no one shapes this but me — with how I live my life. As kids, we always left the house with our heads held high because our parents were upstanding citizens, pillars in the community. We knew we’d be treated with respect because we bore their name, but we also knew we had a responsibility to behave well and uphold the family’s reputation. In fact, my identity was as “Mother or Brother Brown’s daughter.”
The third important value I took from my upbringing is to have fun and be open to adventure. There was always music and singing in our house. A vinyl record would be spinning on the record player, someone hitting the tambourine, playing the piano, or practising on the guitar. My spirit of adventure also comes from moving so often from the time I was born through adulthood. My mother’s career had us moving around regularly, and through this I learned the skill of adjusting to different people and environments. I can slip in and out of any situation with ease.
In my mid-teens, two of my younger siblings and I immigrated to the United States with our parents. We landed in Queens, New York and made that our home. Soon after, I went off to college to study hotel, restaurant and institutional management and dietetics at Kansas State University. During that time, I began exploring the world on my own and set out to discover all the states in my new home country. My goal was to visit all 50 states. I still have three to go, but I know I’ll check them all off one of these days.
Are women empowered in your society? And if they are, how are they empowered?
Women are very much empowered in my society. Several of today’s movements stand out, from #Metoo and Black Lives Matter to #OscarsSoWhite. The effects are reverberating around the world. Walls that have barred women are starting to crumble, glass ceilings are shattering. These movements have given voice to the voiceless and blazed trails for others to follow. They’ve shone a spotlight on the impact inequality, unfairness and mistreatment can have on individuals and businesses. And the movements were all started by women — working independently or with others — to impact their communities.
While we have a very long way to go to get more women into leadership roles, we’re making great strides in terms of education and career achievement. Women are graduating with more advanced degrees, entering the workforce and the leadership pipeline at much higher rates than men.
Also, many women are disruptors in their industries, starting their own businesses and challenging the standard products and services we have grown accustomed to. Consider the company Stitch Fix, an online subscription and personal styling service in the United States that is changing the way people buy clothing. The company was founded in 2011, went public in 2017, and they’ve already outpaced their competitors. Immediately after the initial public offering, they were valued at $1.6 billion. As of February 2018, the company was valued at $2 billion. In this environment, the only permission needed to chase after what we desire is from ourselves.
What was your first job?
Compared to my peers, I was a late bloomer when it came to getting a job. I didn’t start working until age 18, after moving to the United States, and the job was as a housekeeper at a motel called the Kew Gardens Inn in Queens, New York City and my job was to clean the guest rooms. The money allowed me to contribute to the household and help with university expenses.
Tell us about your career journey…
While I was at Kansas State, I began working at the local Marriott hotel in the restaurant as a cashier to help fund my education. After graduating, I joined the management trainee program for the Courtyard by Marriott brand. The program allowed individuals to rotate to different departments such as housekeeping, restaurant, front office, and marketing. After rotation, and depending on your desire and expertise, you could either stay in one department for the rest of your time or become a general manager of an entire hotel.
As an adventurous person who had an endless need to learn and be challenged intellectually, I made rotation choices that took me all over the US, and at times I was general manager of hotels. I found that I loved solving problems and was a quick learner. I averaged a move to a new hotel about every two years. Sometimes the roles were ones nobody else wanted, and they were in remote locations that did not fit my lifestyle. But I relished these adventures because they hastened my career growth and opened my eyes to new people and ways of seeing the world. It didn’t hurt that each move included a promotion and increased compensation.
But as someone who gets a thrill from solving new and very provocative problems, I eventually found that regardless of how different the location, department or people, the issues were the same. As such, I became very bored. Luckily, after almost nine years with the company, I was privileged to be appointed to a teaching position in the Department of Hotel & Restaurant Management at Norfolk State University in Virginia. While I taught classes, I also managed the internship program, which allowed me to coach students and secure internship opportunities for them with a myriad of companies across the US.
Soon that role led me to Washington, DC, where I went back into operations, leading teams of up to 70 for Sodexo, a global quality and life services company. I managed the foodservice operations in buildings such as the National Air & Space Museum and the Internal Revenue Service. These roles honed my skills in leading teams, managing profit and loss statements, and exceeding customer expectations. In many ways, that operations role was just like the roles at Courtyard by Marriott — servicing customers and ensuring high employee satisfaction. But deep down inside, the creative part of my brain was no longer stimulated, and tedium began to set in. Given my years of frontline experience working with our customers, I was tapped to fill a marketing role in the corporate marketing department.
There I flourished, especially in the gentle guiding hands of my supervisor, Wendy Jean Bennett. I learned valuable lessons such as how a leader can still be her authentic self, how to give feedback so that it’s received as a gift, and how to build relationships with your team while not compromising your role as their leader. Today Wendy Jean remains one of my closest friends and champions.
A few years after I entered that role, the department was disbanded and I was asked to apply for one of several director of diversity positions in a new department that was being formed. Not understanding the job description or what “diversity” even meant, I turned down the opportunity. Twice! When the same person, a friend, returned a third time to ask me to apply, I said yes just to appease her. But from the day I started in that new role, I knew it was what I was born to do. Almost twenty years later, I still do this work that makes my heart sing. I get to influence business outcomes and effectuate change in the lives of people who are excluded.
What has been the biggest challenge with work and business overall?
One of my challenges has been effectively managing office politics and difficult personalities, especially those with great power and influence. Sometimes you have to work with people whose personalities or behaviours run contrary to the respectful, caring and warm culture you want to create. And when these individuals are revenue-generating or cost-cutting types, they are lauded and allowed to mow over others. Personalities like that are a challenge for me, especially given that I was raised to be kind to others no matter what. But I’ve learned to manage these situations by finding others who can advise me — people I can be honest with and who I trust. These confidants may be inside or outside the organisation I’m working with, and many of them sit on my board of directors.
What three tips would you give young ambitious women and young businesses?
- Be clear about what makes your heart sing. Find out what you love to do. There are signals all around telling you what your passion is, whether they come from family, friends, peers, bosses, or even strangers.
- Focus on quality over quantity when it comes to the people you surround yourself with. Identify people you can go to in both the challenging times and when it’s time to celebrate.
- Put yourself first — prioritize your own wellbeing and needs over your career. Taking very good care of yourself allows you to give to others.
What drives you?
An insane yearning to connect people to people, and people to things, so they are emboldened to make decisions that manifest their dreams. I also have a desire to plant seeds of possibility in the minds of others — in the minds of leaders who have the position and power to make a difference for someone and in the minds of emerging women so they know they can matriculate to any level they wish. And lastly, I want to plant seeds of possibility in the minds of young girls and boys about the role they play in creating a world that’s equitable for women and men.
How do you spend your free time?
Exercising — I love to exercise and do so daily by performing weightlifting and yoga to aerobics, Pilates and travelling the world. My goal is to visit all 196 countries as recognised by the United Nations. I’ve gone to about 60 countries on six continents so far, and I have a long way to go. I also love allowing my mind to wander. Think of carrying a log on your shoulder and reaching a stream where you put the log down and watch it float downstream, To me, daydreaming is like that – Freeing my mind, I allow new ideas to creep in.
I love to learn, you can always catch me with something nearby to read, attending a talk given by world experts or going to the theatre.
What principles do you live by?
“Surrender to that which I can’t control.” By living this principle, I avoid worrying about the future, ruminating about the past, or expecting others to do what I would do in a given situation. It’s kind of like air travel. Somebody tells you exactly when to board, sit, strap yourself in, get up, sit down, drink, not drink, and on and on. You have to surrender to the process. Life is like that, more so than most of us realise.
What’s next for Karen?
I’m keenly focused more than ever on living life more intentionally. As such I care deeply about curating friends and nurturing the relationships that matter most to me. Also, having just published my white paper, “Running Circles Around the Ol’ Boys Clubs,” I’m now working diligently on a book targeted at C-Suite executives. The book draws on dozens of interviews I’ve done with remarkable women in various industries and illustrates how having women in leadership roles empowers organisations to achieve their business mandates.