Unexpected Path for a Champion of First Generation College Students
From Actress to Entrepreneur
I’ve always followed my own zig zagged path through life.
I went to Wellesley College wanting to be a Supreme Court Justice but ended up going to acting school. Ah, remember the 60’s.
I was an out of work actress for seven years…and don’t let anyone tell you what a hard life that is…in fact, it’s a hell of a lot of fun! I found many unique ways to make a living during that time: I demonstrated rubber ice cube trays in Harry’s Bar at Bloomingdales; cooked with Dupont’s no-stick cookware in supermarkets around the city; and marketed Mood Stone rings with some crazy friends who had thought the whole thing up.
Once I realized that business could be such fun, I thought I’d try going legit and I went to Columbia Business School and started a career as a marketing consultant. I figured it was a good career for me because I saw a consultant as a change agent, as in “what you’re doing isn’t right, I can help you change that.” After working for a boutique consulting firm for seven years, I started my own company, Karen Dubinsky Marketing Insights. I had ongoing engagements with Chase, MasterCard and Seagram’s. I was busy and successful and life was good.
By my mid- forties, though, I had had my fill and I wanted to connect to life in a different way. At 45 I adopted my son and became a single Mom. That has certainly been the best adventure of my life and a wonderful constant amidst all the other change.
Through the Transition
After 9/11 my business slowed down and so did I. I took up yoga and started an MA program at Columbia in something I thought would be really useful to my career: Medieval Studies. Right?! I can’t even recreate what I was thinking except that it was a topic I knew nothing about and I felt that understanding the intersection of faith and civilization seemed relevant at the time.
This was the beginning of my career change. I loved thinking about ideas outside of the world of business. I liked the challenge of learning something new and testing myself in a whole new milieu. I liked the thought of working with young people. I started to picture myself teaching a course on the First Crusades at Exeter. Of course. It turns out that getting a teaching position at Exeter isn’t all that easy. But the foray into academics and the concept of teaching helped me to envision a different life for myself. And opened me to new possibilities.
I started to think more about working with young people who really needed a leg up and I began to analyze what I had to offer that would be helpful to them. Probably not insight into the First Crusades. But in running a successful business for over 20 years, one of the most important skills I developed was relationship building: connecting with people, engaging with them, and finding ways to help each other. I believed that this was a critical skill for success in any endeavor and one that would be especially lacking in young people without role models in the professional world.
A New Career at LaGuardia Community College
A friend on the Board of LaGuardia Community College brought me to a benefit for the college and I was so moved by the students who spoke that night. They had dressed up, written a short speech and, even though English was usually their second language, they were brave enough to stand up in front of a group of strangers and talk about what this school meant to them. When I met the President of LaGuardia, Gail Mellow, I immediately volunteered to help teach the students presentation and relationship skills.
She took me up on it and the more I started working with these students, the more ideas I had about how to help them get ahead. I got together with some other supporters of the college and created a program called President’s Society. We select 50 students a year and provide them with the professional and communication skills, the social and cultural capital, and the opportunities they need to be successful in today’s world. I brought in people I knew from business and the arts to speak to the students and that helped create a broader base of supporters for the college. We now have 350 alumni of the President’s Society and they’re all the hardest working, most resilient students I’ve ever met.
Another program that really took off was Pushy Moms. I got together a group of women who had all helped their own children get into college and connected them with LaGuardia students who were hungry to continue their education but had no role models to lead the way. Our students are now at a range of CUNY schools as well as Brown, Columbia, Stanford, Amherst, Wellesley, Smith and NYU. The Pushy Moms program was even featured on CBS This Morning a few years ago.
I started volunteering at LaGuardia in 2013 and today I’m the Chief Engagement Officer of the College (yes, I made up that title). I create mentorship and internship programs for students and help potential donors and employers understand the great untapped potential of these remarkable community college students.
I’ve tried a lot of different career paths, but I’ve never felt so useful and fulfilled.