The first time Karen S. Carter played golf, she was as prepared as she could ever hope to be with all the necessary equipment stuffed in a purple golf bag and the clothes to match. She carried it and her characteristic optimism out to the golf course. It was a business event, her playing partners composed of a combination of her colleagues and clients, out on the Medinah golf course in Illinois, which has been the setting of several PGA championships over the years and serves as a doozy of a first course for a beginner golfer like Karen.
Still, she was unphased until it was her turn to swing. When she first stood on the tee box and looked out over the fairway, the flag was nowhere to be seen. Intimidation started to set in, her playing partners watching, waiting, for her to take her shot. But she could not make a move.
It was not until her dear friend and colleague—who thankfully was a member of her foursome—whispered, “Just take a swing.”
Karen’s professional career can be boiled down to a handful of moments just like this, where the helping hand of a boss or colleague has guided her down an intimidating, new path. And now, as Dow’s first Chief Inclusion Officer, Karen makes it her mission to ensure all people feel like they have a place on Dow’s team.
It is a story all too familiar to Karen, who has spent over twenty years with the chemical company. Born and raised in Witchita, KS, Karen was the baby in the family with two older sisters who have always been there to support her. After her father’s sudden death when she was twelve years old, she was raised by her mother—her hero—who instilled in her a sense of resilience, determination, and her perpetual optimism. Since starting her career with Dow during her freshman year of college, she has not always felt as comfortable in her job roles. That is until the day that a boss of hers went out of her way to make sure she knew she was a crucial part of the team.
“I think most people have a ‘defining moment’ in their careers,” Karen said.
These “aha!” moments, when everything starts tumbling into place, come in all sorts of ways—a discussion with a friend, a moment of quiet, solitary reflection . . . anything.
“I wasn’t looking for mine when I got it,” Karen admitted. “But I knew the instant it happened that what just occurred was something important.”
She was still rather new with the company at the time, having interned for a while before making her mark and earning a full-time position in the sales department. One day, one of the leading female executives in her company took her to the Dow executive wing. Karen could hardly believe where she was, passing by the massive offices until they stopped in the behemoth that was the CEO’s office with an invitation for Karen to take a seat in THE chair.
“That might not sound very exciting,” Karen confessed, “but for a twenty-something, young, black female in corporate America, it was perhaps the most exciting field trip I had ever been on.”
Reluctantly, Karen sat down in the CEO’s chair, her boss across from her on the other side of the desk and then heard three words that changed her mindset toward her job and eventually shaped her entire career.
Karen was told: “You belong here.”
Suddenly, Karen knew she had possibilities, not only with Dow; she had the possibility to do anything that she set her mind to because that barrier—the uncertainty about her place in the corporate world—was no longer the loudest voice in her head.
That moment was the catalyst to Karen’s success with Dow and helped elevate her to her current position where she is chiefly in charge of maintaining Dow’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do,” Karen added. “Team Dow must reflect the world we compete in today and will compete in tomorrow.”
This move doesn’t come from trying to jump on a corporate trend or fit into any demographics numbers game. Dow, with Karen’s help, knows that employees are more content with their jobs and bring better, more competitive ideas to the table when every person knows they belong and they feel safe to bring 100% of themselves to work 100% of the time.
For Karen, there is power in invitation; but there is also just as much to be said for the power of allowing yourself to accept that invitation in the first place.
“We don’t always control the invitation,” Karen said, “but we do control the RSVP. And accepting means we are both willing and able.”
Even if that means embracing something new and unfamiliar—like Karen did with golf.
As someone who has spent her entire career at different levels in the business world, Karen knows firsthand just how much business is done out on the golf course. And even though she wasn’t—and still doesn’t claim to be—a very good golfer, that never stopped her from accepting the invitation to go.
“I knew that if I didn’t, there would be something I would miss,” she said. “We must be present in these dialogues, which means we must be present on the golf course.”
Like business, golf requires preparation, practice, patience, and perseverance. And when facing a new chapter in life, whether that be applying for a new job you’re not sure you’ll get, moving to a new city you’ve never been to before, or playing golf, it’s important to be open to change.
“When one door closes, another one opens,” Karen explained. “But we must be prepared to walk through it with confidence. But even with all of that—even when you step up to the tee box, and you are unable to see the flag—you still have to take a swing.”