Leading by Experience: Karen Clark Cole

SMS alumna is a role model for all

Karen Clark Cole is CEO of Blink UX, a Seattle-based user experience research and design company that focuses on digital products. Karen graduated from St. Margaret’s School in 1986 and went on to pursue art at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and the University of Victoria. A lover of art and the outdoors, she’s also the founder of Girls Can Do, an organization that encourages girls to have big dreams and pursue them. Karen was our autumn guest speaker as part of the Inspiring Women series.

This speaker series, now in its second year, seeks to expose students to the perspectives and experiences of women from the community who have walked unusual paths on their road to success. On October 24, Karen presented to a group of our students joined by prospective families visiting the school as part of our annual fall Open House . Our interview with her reflects some of the themes of her talk, and her vision of life and leadership after SMS.

Kyle Slavin (KS): What do you remember most about your time at St. Margaret’s?

Karen Clark Cole (KCC): The most important thing to happen to me there was having a secret key to the art room, so any spare minute I had at lunch or recess I was in there working. It was my Senior Years art teacher, Mrs. Kathy Miller, who groomed me to go to art school.

KS: Why did you choose to study art in post-secondary?

KCC: I do a lot of speaking, and the first thing I tell kids about careers is to study what you love, because that has served me well. Having a school that encouraged me to focus on my passions made it obvious that that’s what I have to do. Without any pressure or discouragement from anyone, you just naturally do what you like.

KS: Your career path led you from graphic design to digital interaction design, and you eventually founded Blink UX to focus on that. Does that notion of creating a “positive user experience” translate to other facets of your life?

KCC: Of course, it’s everywhere, and it all adds up to the quality of our experiences. Our goal, and the idea behind user experience in the digital world, is that technology is out of the way and computer things are just easy to use and they actually enrich a person’s life. For me, it’s equally as important when I’m talking to somebody that they are also getting a great user experience from me. I make sure I’m fully present in each conversation, and I’m always thinking about things from the other person’s perspective. That’s user experience.

KS: That seems like it would allow you, as CEO of Blink, to build personal and positive relationships. Tell me about how you envision and execute leadership.

KCC: Leading is different than managing, and people often think they can replace one another, but they’re very different. Last year at Blink we made a huge organizational change where we got rid of titles and management layers. I believe that leadership isn’t something bestowed on you; when people follow you naturally, you are leading. It’s not about telling people what to do, it’s about encouraging people, helping them grow, sharing their vision and really caring about them.

KS: Why did you start Girls Can Do?

KCC: Often in newspapers and magazines you’ll see stories about what women are doing that focus on how many women are not doing it; they focus on the imbalance. I tell people, “Look around you. There are a lot of women doing great things out there.” Instead of sending the message, “It’s not possible, no woman is doing it,” let’s say, “Don’t wait. You can do anything you want now; all you have to do is start.”

KS: Is that discussion of gender imbalance commonplace in your world?

KCC: Because I went to an all-girls school, it never occurred to me that women couldn’t do anything. In an environment like that, differences between men and women don’t come up. I only just realized in the last couple of years that’s not how everybody sees it. What good is talking about what girls aren’t doing? I want to lead them to what they can do so they can start putting themselves in that picture and start doing.

KS: What professional and personal goals do you still hope to achieve?

KCC: Certainly growing Blink into a world-renowned user experience company. I’m planning a book on leadership, so that’s something I want to finish. I want to focus on being a great mom to my daughter Nicola—that’s the No. 1 most important thing to me. I want to be a professional kiteboarder. And I want to see Girls Can Do really grow.

KS: What advice do you have for girls as they look ahead to their futures?

KCC: Think about what you love doing and where your passion lies and focus on that, because at the end of the day, if something doesn’t work out, at least you had a good time trying. You need to stay healthy. Your health is the engine that drives you. Be a possibility thinker, because life is set up for you to get what you want, if you dare to want it.

More on Karen...

Karen wrote a bit more about her recent visit to SMS, where she shared a very touching and emotional moment with our students - that's on her blog here.

Upcoming Events...

Be sure to check out upcoming Girls Can Do events in Seattle (Feb 7), Colorado (Apr 19), San Fransisco (Sep 22)...

Our next Open House here at the school featuring yet another inspiring guest speaker is coming right up on February 20. Click here for details.


This interview has been edited and condensed. The article first appeared in our fall 2014 Spirit magazine. Read the complete issue above.

Written by Kyle Slavin

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