A Grandfather’s Legacy Shaped This Woman’s Entrepreneurial Spirit

Entrepreneurship runs in Karen Alston’s blood. After serving in the U.S. Army, Alston’s grandfather returned stateside and settled in 1950s Philadelphia, where he built a successful business as one of the only African-American entrepreneurs in a heavily white area.

Alston spent most of her childhood in West Philadelphia and Delaware County where her grandparents lived. She watched her grandfather run his business on weekends and during her summer breaks.

“He was powerful, a leader and I didn’t realize it at the time but he had a work ethic that taught me to work hard and enjoy life as well,” Alston told Opportunity Lives. “My mom, brother, and many other family members are entrepreneurs. I have watched them have good and bad years and learned many lessons from my family members who run businesses.”

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Photo: Karen Alston

When it came time for college she preferred New York University but didn’t get accepted; her mother recommended Howard University, a well-known member of the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) community.

“I really did not know much about African-American culture or history at this time,” Alston said. “I am thankful I made the decision to attend Howard University as it prepared me and helped me to become the woman I am today.”

As a sophomore, Alston took a course on commercial banking, an introductory class and the very first class of her major. She said she chose finance not truly understanding how hard of a degree it was but wanting to get a business degree so she could get a good job after college. Alston’s professor in commercial banking would invite industry leaders to class to share their stories of working in banking.

“One day a beautiful woman came to class,” Alston said. “I will never forget her — and its has been over 20 years — her name was Donna Chapman Wilson. She was a beautiful brown woman who wore jewelry and had a fur coat. She worked for a company named JP Morgan. I had never heard of JP Morgan nor had I heard of Wall Street except for the movie. That day, I asked her for her business card and kept in contact with her for years.”

After the meeting with Wilson, Karen continued to study anything and everything about JP Morgan.

“To this day, I have the House of Morgan in my home library,” she said. “I read every Wall Street Journal article. I studied the annual reports. I was focused and hopeful that one day I would work for JP Morgan. Every person that came to Howard University School of Business from JP Morgan I tried my best to meet and I kept a folder with all the business cards of everyone I met. I sent letters. I sent emails.”

Her persistence and dedication paid off. One day during her senior year, the call came for her to interview. She began working at JP Morgan in November 1993. And she never thought she would leave.

“My intention was to work there until 65 or 70,” Alston said. “However, God had a different plan.”

Alston said the biggest lesson from that time of her life was to listen to her inner voice and trust her instincts after she fell into marketing while working at MBNA America Bank (now Bank of America) and started testing ads for the accounts.

Through convening focus groups and talking to customers about why one design would spark their interest and another would not, she learned to love marketing and branding and started to move outside of the account management arena into more marketing and advertising. She later moved to America Online at an in-house advertising agency, where she combined her banking, account management and marketing skills. This blend of hard and soft skills empowered her to take the leap of faith and start her own business.

“Back in 2002 — when America Online was undergoing a turbulent time in the company, I raised my hand to walk away and decided that I wanted to run a marketing business,” Alston said. “Granted at that time I did not know what I was doing but I stepped out on faith and made every mistake possible but 14 years later, I am still here.”

Alston said she draws inspiration for ad designs and creative communications from an array of sources. Alston said she is still learning how to monetize her creativity. Over the past two years, she has been asked to speak publicly on her journey and her creative process and energy. Typically her clients are referrals or people who have seen her work or follow her on social media.

“I find inspiration in people living their authentic lives. I love storytellers,” she said. “I seek goodness and joy that exist in all of us and I try my best to create campaign that inspire and showcase positive images.”

Alston said she thinks part of why racial minorities are under-represented in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship is that many African-American and Latino parents and families see traditional, established companies and fields as longer-term prospects with good stability.

“I heard a great quote recently and that was ‘Innovation happens everywhere,’ and all people are innovative,” she said.

“Part of our issues as black and brown people is that tech is a foreign field to us and our families. Most people are raised to get a job in a field that your parents or grandparents know and would be proud of and technology is new as a career choice,” Alston explained. “Tech is starting to understand — the world is changing and it needs people of color in the room, creating the technologies and discussion the future.”

Alston says she is excited by what she’s seeing in the realm of business and entrepreneurship. “Minorities are starting businesses at record numbers. Due to glass ceiling issues, bias, lack of mobility etc., in corporate America so many people are venturing out to pursue their passions and create businesses,” she said. “The businesses are being created. The challenge is the access to capital and opportunity to present products/services to those who can assist with capacity and supply chain management.”

“The talent is there,” she added, “it’s access and opportunity that have yet to become a level playing field.”

“The talent is there. It’s access and opportunity that have yet to become a level playing field”

In January 2015, Alston launched The Spectrum Circle in Washington, D.C., as a resource for women to help grow their professional development by sharing their authentic stories of success and challenges navigating their careers. Alston envisioned The Spectrum Circle as a professional development content platform for women to connect and share career and personal experiences through honest conversations to educate and inform about their life journey.

Women featured at The Spectrum Circle include innovators, leaders, creators and influencers in all aspects of business and industry. The Spectrum Circle holds numerous events throughout the calendar year to appeal to a wide range of women. The branded events create networking, professional development and recruiting opportunities for companies.

Alston said she is excited to grow The Spectrum Circle, in the short-term to expand its capacity and increase monetization; in the long-term to see it expand to other cities and create a website similar to TED where users can search for insightful content.

“I am blown away by the support and positive feedback,” Alston said. “Every woman has a story to tell. Every woman has a purpose. It is critical we share our stories of success and failure. I believe this now more than ever! Our stories are our own super powers. We must share them to teach, grow and learn.”

Carrie Sheffield is a senior contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.

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