Karen Barnes: Breaking the Rules of Innovation

By definition, innovation is about rule-breaking. So, what happens when you break the rules of breaking rules? You get Karen Barnes, Executive Director of Venture Café Winston Salem. The first time I went to meet with Karen, it was a gorgeous May afternoon. She immediately suggested that we ditch the shiny indoor digs for some fresh air, and I happily obliged. We sat under a huge umbrella at an outdoor cast iron table, engaging in one of the most captivating conversations I’ve had with a leader in a long time.

Karen Barnes - Executive Director, Venture Café Winston Salem
Karen Barnes - Executive Director, Venture Café Winston Salem

I need to preface what’s to come with some context. I am a 3rd-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Leadership Studies at North Carolina A&T State University. For my dissertation, I am researching the perception and experience of authenticity among the leaders of entrepreneurial startups. Karen is not one of my research participants, but in recent months I’ve heard so much about her and Venture Café that I felt compelled to have a conversation about what she’s doing, how she got there, and what drives her leadership philosophy.

As I’ve learned more about the four dimensions of authentic leadership, I’ve been paying particular attention to the leadership styles of various people in the entrepreneurial space, and how style impacts their outcomes. In 2007, leadership researchers, Fred O. Walumbwa, Bruce J. Avolio, William L. Gardner, Tara S. Wernsing, and Suzanne J. Peterson developed an instrument that can measure where you fall in four components of authenticity. The four areas are as follows:

  1. Self-Awareness: Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? Are you aware of how your words and behaviors impact others? Are you willing to reevaluate your position on certain important issues?
  2. Internalized Moral Perspective: Do you have a set of core values against which you measure your actions? Are you intrinsically driven to do the right thing, regardless of the popularity of your decision?
  3. Balanced Processing: Are you able to listen to multiple perspectives - particularly those that differ from your own - and still make a sound, fair decision?
  4. Relational Transparency: Do you communicate openly and honestly with the people you lead? Are you forthcoming about your mistakes, resisting the temptation to pretend?

As amazing as it is to consider that we actually need an instrument that measures these elements, it’s even more amazing how prevalent inauthenticity is among leaders.

Leaders lacking authenticity wreak of distrust and ill motives. People suffer under someone who lacks self-awareness, remaining oblivious to the way his or her behaviors act as a toxin within the organization. It’s painful to work for a boss whose choices seem more deeply rooted in a juvenile craving for popularity than a clear sense of moral vision for the team. Or the supervisor who so clearly has favorites that others stop offering suggestions for fear of being dismissed or embarrassed. Or the director whose shortcomings are glaringly obvious to everyone else, yet he or she refuses to make anything close to an admission of imperfection.

Working for an inauthentic leader sucks.

And for those of us hoping to grow in our own leadership abilities, it will do us a great deal of good to consider the questions above, and tell the truth about where (and why) we might fall on the continuum.

My personal fascination with the stories of authentic leaders led me to Karen. Prior to our meeting, I’d heard her name several times. It was always followed by something like, “I love her!” or “She’s amazing!” As I read and learned more about the growing community of entrepreneurs at the new Venture Café in Winston Salem’s Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, I knew I had to make my way over there to see what all the hype was about.

So I found myself sitting across the table from a smiling Karen, enjoying the warm breeze and outdoor wifi. I started by asking the same questions I usually ask when meeting a new person - “What’s your story? How’d you get here?”

Rooted in Ideas

As is the case with most of us, there is a common theme that has continued to emerge over the course of Karen’s life. When a problem or challenge has presented itself, Karen has been the one willing to take the leap toward creating a solution. She’s been working since she was 5 years old. Her dad had an organic garden that yielded more produce than the family could consume. So young Karen would pile all the extra veggies in a little red wagon to sell them around the neighborhood. Her veggie operation was one of the first clues that she’d been born to innovate, and she’s been following the clues ever since.

Karen grew up in Winston Salem, returning in 2000 when she began working for a marketing and advertising agency. In meetings, she was always the one to ask, “Why?” And when no one seemed to have a clear answer, they’d tell her to “figure it out.” So, that’s exactly what she did. Priding herself on self-education, she learned as much as she could on her own about marketing and entrepreneurship, and this led to a series of new and exciting open doors.

She found herself working for MullenLowe in a division called Frank About Women which focused on gaining a better understanding of the motives, desires, and habits of female consumers. From there, Karen accepted a traveling position as VP of Insight with the Knoxville-based Shelton Group, translating market research into consumer insight that produced sustainable behavior change. She enjoyed the work because, again, she was finding creative solutions to boost marketing strategies in order to better connect with the masses.

After 4 years of extensive traveling with Shelton Group, she was ready to ground herself in Winston again. When the opportunity to work for another organization failed to pan out as she’d hoped, Karen finally mustered up the nerve to transition from intrapreneurship to entrepreneurship.

Time to Leap

“I never had the guts or financial resources to step out on my own until I had to,” she told me. Out of sheer frustration, and readiness to try her hand at creating something from scratch, Critical Shift Consulting was born. She describes it as one of the proudest accomplishments of her life, to date. Within 3 months of operating, Karen secured her first client, her first major project, and her first paycheck. Over the next 4 years, she never missed paying herself. She attributes her success as a startup founder to 3 rules of entrepreneurship:

  1. Work with people you like.
  2. Work on projects you like.
  3. Get paid how you like.

She violated rule #3 one time, working with a company that she had been warned about, and that had a reputation for not paying on time. Against her better judgment, she did it anyway… and when she finally got paid, the check bounced. Karen never made that mistake again.

Admittedly, the first year and a half with Critical Shift Consulting were really hard. She had been used to the safety and security of working for someone else and it took a while to get used to the sways in cash flow. An introspective extrovert, Karen learned to trust the volatility, understand it, and always believe that if she remained patient and did the right thing, projects would continue to come, and income would continue to materialize.

Two years ago, Karen turned 47 and was facing a crossroad with her business. She knew that it was time to find an exit strategy and take the next “beautiful leap.” In entered Dr. Eric Nyberg, Chief Data Science Officer for Cognistx. While Cognistx focused on building Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems to solve business challenges, Karen made the choice to join as an equity partner because she saw the potential in the market, and believed in the people. For her, it has always been about connecting with the people.

“At Cognistx, every day was a roller coaster of emotions. We were drunk on possibility and potential, but securing funding from venture capitalists was tough!” As much as she loved the work and the company’s people, her personal financial challenges made it impossible for her to stay. In December 2016, she decided to take some time off to make a decision about what to do next.

The Newest Venture

While contemplating her next steps, Karen stumbled upon the Executive Director job description for Venture Café. As she read, it immediately piqued her interest and she decided to apply. Within 3 hours, she had an interview. The rest, as they say, is history.

In January 2017, Karen Barnes became the founding Executive Director of the fifth location among the global Venture Café network designed to bring innovators together for weekly gatherings and programming. The other locations include Boston-Cambridge, MA, St. Louis, MO, Miami, FL, and Rotterdam, Netherlands. Since January, she has been hard at work, building an incredible team of energetic and knowledgable professionals. The location has quickly become characterized by a diverse, welcoming feel that many attribute to the authenticity of its leader.

“I think it’s amazing that 2 African American women and a lesbian are leading the innovation charge in Winston Salem!” - Karen Barnes

According to this study conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School, between 1990 and 2016, women have comprised less than 10% of the entrepreneurial and venture capital labor pool, Hispanics have been approximately 2%, and African Americans have been less than 1%. So, yeah. What’s been done at Venture Café Winston Salem in fewer than 6 months is pretty amazing.

Karen clearly has a love for the people part of innovation and business. And the love that people have for her is palpable, too, as was evidenced by two friendly interruptions during our first 7 minutes together. The first was Fay Horwitt, Venture Café’s Program Director. Karen introduced us, and I listened in as they talked business and engaged in hilarious dialogue that demonstrated that the two quite clearly share a mutual respect for one another.

Fay joked that “everyone’s Karen’s friend!” as our second visitor, Magalie Yacinthe, Event Coordinator, walked up to join in the fun. There was an ease with which the women communicated, and I found myself wondering what day-to-day operations must be like. Hmmm...

If the patio hilarity was any indication, it explains why Venture Café has quickly distinguished itself as a premier hangout spot for creatives and innovators of all sorts. Their Thursday Gathering - a weekly evening event with food, wine, conversation, and programming - is unlike any I’ve attended in the Triad. Held in the open, modern atrium at Wake Forest Biotech Place, my first visit felt more like a dinner party than a business function.

In fact, Karen almost forbids the term “networking,” as her team is much more focused on relationship building, story sharing, and an all around great time. Conversations were accompanied by background music that included anything from Motown hits, to classic rock, to Mariah Carey (circa 1990). I dare you tell me you’ve been to a networking event during which you caught folks mouthing lyrics like, “Boy you’re gonna pay ‘cuz, baby, I’m the one that’s keepin’ score...” This actually happened.

If you decide to attend (and I highly suggest that you do), forget about what Karen calls the “oscillating sprinkler head” of business cards and rehearsed introductions. Instead, come ready to talk, listen, laugh, ask questions, answer a few, and make friends. Client acquisition, as Karen learned through her own business, will be a natural byproduct of excellent work and authenticity. Their first Thursday Gathering drew more than 400 people, and continues to grow each week. They also offer presentations from leaders in the innovation ecosystem, meetings with investors, and other opportunities for dreamers and doers looking to connect - all for FREE.

Triad leaders mingling at Venture Café’s Thursday Gathering.
Triad leaders mingling at Venture Café’s Thursday Gathering.
An aerial view of tasty treats, wine, and conversation at a Thursday Gathering in the Atrium of BioTech Place at Wake Forest.
An aerial view of tasty treats, wine, and conversation at a Thursday Gathering in the Atrium of BioTech Place at Wake Forest.
More mindful mingling.
More mindful mingling.

Our chat ended with Karen sharing some of her favorite bits of lessons and advice, too lovely to taint with my own interpretations. So, here they are:

  1. It is practically impossible to be an inauthentic, successful entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur requires you to access parts of yourself you didn’t even know you had - grit, resilience, grace, forgiveness, agility - all in the same day. It requires all of you – all of the real and best parts of you.
  2. Never underestimate the power of presence. Commit to really being present with someone else, showing up, being fully human. Look people in the eye, really listening to what they have to say. Empathize with where they are, and share your vulnerability as well. Building relationships is powerful. The ability to connect with people in this way can be the greatest tool in your toolbox, regardless of marketing budget.
  3. Take the time to step back and do self-assessments so that you can adapt. See what’s working and what’s not. Ask, “Is this making me happy?” People pursue entrepreneurship because they want a change… so you need to understand what motivates you and gets you out of bed.
  4. It is too exhausting to go through your day not being your full self. Inauthenticity doesn’t do anybody any favors. Some days you’re gonna kill it. Other days, the best you can do is write an email with typos. Live with no regrets. Be forgiving and resilient - first, with yourself.

With all the maddening tragedies taking place in the world, it’s incredible to discover a new friend and celebrate some of the wonderful things taking place in the good ol’ Piedmont Triad. More to come.

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