Practiced career-switcher Karen Hayes, MBA 01, offers advice for taking your work in unexpected directions
Karen Hayes, MBA 01, is a master at reinventing her professional life. Over the past 26 years, she’s worked as a fast-rising executive at Procter & Gamble, an entrepreneur in the beauty industry, and now as director of advancement for a school in Oakland. Each time she’s transformed her career, she’s gained more self-awareness and fulfillment, proving that starting anew, while scary, can also bring great rewards.
It would have been natural for Hayes to stay at Procter & Gamble. She began interning there at age 17, then started full time in sales after graduating from Howard University. She built a name for herself as someone who could handle resource-constrained, open-ended projects. Her last roles included successfully selling off the Pringles brand and serving as digital and mobile manager for North America, leading the company’s overall strategic direction. But after marrying and having her son, the travel her job required became too much. So began her first career change—a foray into entrepreneurship.
She opened Bounce Blowdry Bar in Oakland, a beauty salon specializing in all hair types to celebrate diversity and build community. “I wanted women of all backgrounds and ethnicities to be able to come together and have the same experience with a beauty regimen and not be made to feel as though they were too different or an inconvenience,” says Hayes.
The venture became a success, earning her local recognition as well as national attention from the likes of The New York Times and Good Morning America. She opened a second salon in Berkeley and created a pop-up at the W Hotel in San Francisco. The salon did so well, in fact, that she knew she had to sell it. “In order for me to grow the business I was going to have to expand,” Hayes says. “That was going to take more time and emotional capital than I was able to give with my new family.”
Hayes again found herself at a crossroads. “One of the things that my journey has brought me to is this place of being completely open and not pigeonholing myself or putting myself in a box,” she says. This time, she followed a passion for education, accepting the role of advancement director at Escuela Bilingüe Internacional (EBI), an independent pre-K-8 school in Oakland offering a multilingual, international education.
It’s a role she’s shaped herself given the inchoate nature of the school. Soon after Hayes started, the director of admissions role was vacant, so she assumed that role too. She led an effort to rebrand the school and under her leadership, it saw record results in both fundraising and admissions. Hayes has essentially become the school’s chief experience officer. “It’s all work that’s very different than anything I’ve done before, but I’m making a difference in the world,” Hayes says.
Hayes readily admits that changing not just job titles but also industries isn’t easy. It requires a great deal of self-reflection, self-confidence, and honesty. But sometimes the most worthwhile endeavors are the most unexpected ones. In this time of great work upheavals, Berkeley Haas sought Hayes’ insight into taking your career in an unpredicted direction.
How did you decide what you wanted to do after 17 successful years at P&G?
I spent a lot of time reflecting and thinking about when I felt the most vibrant. What were the types of businesses that I enjoyed building? When was I most energized? I realized that I was passionate about beauty in the sense of being able to tap into women’s inner selves and allowing them to embrace their uniqueness. I was at my best when I was building and growing with people, women in particular. I’ve been a mentor, a coach, and those are the types of things that I’ve done that made me feel the most fulfilled. So I wanted to do more of that. At the time, there was nothing that really created a platform for women of all backgrounds to come together.
What challenges did you encounter as a first-time entrepreneur?
I learned that being a leader is hard. Yes, I led things at Procter, all the time. I was first in my class to get promoted. I had a lot of robust, cool assignments. But it was very safe and controlled at Procter and that often left me wondering how much more I could learn and contribute to my community if I put myself in a new and uncomfortable space with more unknowns. When I got out into the “real world,” that’s when the true, meaningful growth really began.
Managing on a day-to-day basis was difficult. Knowing that there were people, my employees, who were relying on my success to be able to maintain their livelihoods was challenging yet motivating. I’m grateful for the support that I had at home, for those moments when I just didn’t know if it was worth it, to be reminded that my work was much bigger than me. That it was about making a difference in the community. Bounce was a platform to change lives—for employees, for clients, for myself!
When you sold Bounce, did you have your next career move in sight?
It was bittersweet when I sold, and I wasn’t in a place where I was really thinking about what was next because I put everything into that business. I didn’t know how to emotionally disconnect. So I took six months off to heal and reflect.
That was a painful period, but I got even more clear on not just what I would do but what I wouldn’t do. I began to map out my next venture. I knew I was an entrepreneur at heart and that I needed to contribute positively to the lives of others. That’s when the position of director of advancement was created at EBI, and I knew it was the job for me. I’ve been able to shape my role going well beyond the limits of what a traditional director of advancement does. I’m able to leverage many of my strengths (strategic thinking, communication, creativity, and leadership) to positively impact our school, and our students will ultimately impact the world. I could not have envisioned this work for me but I’m so thankful to have allowed myself to be open to letting my heart, and my mind, guide me.
The beauty of reinventing yourself and doing things that you’re really passionate about is that you don’t define yourself by a role or a job description.
What’s your advice to anyone seeking to switch careers?
First, find a few mentors who are the opposite of you. People who are working in different industries and who are doing things that don’t look like your job. When you’re open to hearing, experiencing, exploring, you can then see how your skills are transferable into an arena that you hadn’t even considered. Also, find people who are going to hold you accountable, who will say, “Here’s what you said you were going to do. Where are you?” I also recommend being a mentor. You start to tap into your inner spirit when you’re giving in the most unexpected ways. You never know the spark you’re going to create in someone else, and I promise you that will create two to three times more sparks in you.
Second, look for opportunities to leverage your skills in the community, doing work that you don’t have experience with or lending your expertise to others in need. Doing so will give you new perspective, additional purpose, and likely new inspiration for future endeavors.
Third, do one new thing professionally and personally a year. Say yes to more discussions outside of your industry and to different industry volunteer opportunities.
How do you negotiate the emotional instability of reinventing yourself
You’ve got to be willing to put one foot in front of the other. Set a small goal and work toward it. Don’t allow yourself to become too complacent or stagnant—the more time you wait, the easier that is.
Before, I was caught up in the prestige of Procter & Gamble, the pride in the accomplishments I had, the recognitions. And I was getting further away from the things that would make me happy. Once I took that first step everything else became easy. Learn from any mistakes along the way, but be committed to the end game, which for me is happiness. Happiness is a choice, one I strive to make every day. Exploring and embracing new ideas and opportunities is now a way of life. There was a time when fear held me back, though I didn’t acknowledge it as fear at the time. And now it’s the attitude of possibilities.
How did you build the skills your advancement director job requires?
The beauty of reinventing yourself and doing things that you’re really passionate about is that you don’t define yourself by a role or a job description. It’s all about being authentic. I fundamentally am passionate about helping people realize their fullest potential, about helping them do good and be good. And I do that by just being true to myself. I have no false pretenses. Regardless of who I’m talking to, I am authentically me all the time. People connect with that and it’s that connection that facilitates me being able to be successful in my role.
Any final advice for someone reinventing their professional life?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Especially in this environment, at least two or three times a day I’m asking someone, “Can you look at this? Am I missing something?” And I always end everything with, “How can I help you?”
This process of reinventing myself isn’t something that will ever stop. I had gotten stagnant because I was doing what people thought I should and it was lucrative and I did it well, but I wasn’t being fulfilled. And now, being in a position where I’m doing what I love, I get to define that in so many different ways that I probably would never have done before. The possibilities are endless and that’s what’s fun. It’s not as glamorous as what I had envisioned I’d be doing at this stage in my life, but it’s definitely more meaningful, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.