A self-made successful woman hailing from Elizabeth New Jersey, Karen Civil leveraged her skills to create opportunities and forge key relationships that helped those around her and also helped her to grow to the next level. Ever since launching her site in 2008, her career and her brand has continued to evolve because she isn’t afraid to go for what she wants. As she carved a niche building the brands of others she built her own following, earning a spot in Ebony magazine’s “Power 100” and Billboard’s Twitter 140 among numerous other awards. Today, she has nearly 300,000 followers on Twitter, and her site, KarenCivil.com, is visited by millions of users per month.
Even if you don’t know Karen, if you are on social media or watched a certain star go from unknown to viral sensation, then you know her work. She’s shaped the digital direction and strategy for major brands and artists including Beats By Dre, Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Mary J. Blige and Marc Ecko. On top of all of that she also manages Nipsey Hussle and has a book coming out next year called “Live Civil: 5 Ways of Unlocking Your Potential.”
On December 11th, Karen stopped by as a featured speaker during our #HerAgendaLive conversation. She offered us an inside look on how she got started, and what motivates her to keep going.
Her Agenda: After reading about all that you do, I’m particularly drawn to how you started and the way you created your own opportunities through the Internet even before social media existed. Going back to the AOL chat rooms and the Backstreet boys fan pages. Can you tell us how those things lead to the jumpstart of your career journey?
Karen Civil: I always had a fascination for the Internet because I was a Haitian-American who dressed like Wednesday Addams, who loved the Backstreet Boys, so unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of friends or people who understood me. Now here is this world on AOL where I joined this Backstreet Boys fan club and where I found other African-American people who liked them too. I was like, “This is cool. I finally found this whole other audience of people around the world who have things in common with me.” I wasn’t so stuck in my community. I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. If you didn’t like Biggie or Tupac, nothing else mattered. Here’s this other world where I had people in common from around the globe, and that really started it for me. I have to figure out a way to make money because this is a hobby. I want to talk to people around the world all the time, and I just have to figure it out. I didn’t know what it was yet, but I knew it was something.
Her Agenda: So what was the first step? How did you figure it out?
Karen: I used social media to get what I wanted. In the sense of, I started my Backstreet Boy fan site because I wanted to meet them. I thought maybe one day they’ll see my site or Jive Records— or just their manager— would reach out. I entered [into MTV’s TV show] Fanatic. I didn’t win. They picked another girl, but one of the executives of Jive Records reached out. They liked my site. They liked everything about me, and they gave me the opportunity to meet them. Now I’m like, “My fan site got me what I wanted.” This was my first inkling into [the fact that] the Internet [would] be that driving force for me.
The Internet is going to be that place where I can feel that everything can happen. It started with the Backstreet Boys. Then, I had a love for this actor named JD Williams who was from North New Jersey. He was Bodie on The Wire. I loved him. I started this Yahoo Group for him. I was just like, “I feel like he knows about the group. I want to find out if I can meet him, if I can do something. So, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to say I’m going to sell T-Shirts.” I’m going to pretend I’m making money off of his name. I went to cafeexpress.com and I made all this fake merchandise and pretended that I was selling it. Not even 48 hours later, his lawyer contacted me. He said, “You know, you can’t sell this merchandise.” I was all like, “Yeah, yeah, you know. Well, I already made $2,000.” He was like, “Yeah, well, I’m going to connect you, and I think you two should speak on this.”
Finally, when I got the chance to speak with him, I was like, “I wasn’t really selling your merchandise. I just wanted to talk to you, and I just lied to get what I want. I knew you were checking out the site! I knew it!” I got to talk to him. He actually took me out for my birthday to IHOP, so it was great.
Her Agenda: You describe yourself a lot as an ‘antisocial girl in a social world.’ To do something like that, you have to be bold! It doesn’t sound like a shy girl would do something like that. How do you overcome your natural shyness to go out there and get what you want and do what you want to do?
Karen: It’s weird because it is sporadic for me. I am an introvert. I like to be home. It’s very hard for me to talk in large groups. This is very intimidating for me right now, but I get that burst of courage because it’s now or never. It’s either you do it or you don’t. This is your one opportunity, so just do it. I just continue to tell myself that. “Karen, if you don’t do this, it’s never going to happen for you.” I’ve let so many moments go by in my life that I regret. I should have said something. I should have done this. I should have been a better person. I just didn’t want to live that shoulda-coulda-woulda life.
Her Agenda: Is there one moment where you regret not saying something that really propelled you to say, “Okay, I’m just going to do it. I’m going to continue to put myself out there when I want something. I’m not going to let another opportunity pass.”
Karen: I think for me, it was more on a personal level with one of my friends. I started to see them go down the wrong path. With me and them being best friends, I should have stepped into that role and said, “Listen. Look at what you’re doing. Look at the choices that you’re making.” I didn’t do that. I just let them be, and they are no longer here with me. That was really the start for me because I should have said something. I could have been the difference in this person’s life.
Her Agenda: I really want to focus on your beginning. I am really fascinated how everything lined up. It makes since now, looking back, but I’m sure you were going through you were like like, “Oh my god. What is happening?” You went for that opportunity with Angie Martinez, and you didn’t make it. Then, you ended up interning with Funkmaster Flex. How did that happen?
Karen: So, let me tell you about Angie. I wrote her an e-mail. She did this apprentice contest. This was her second annual one…and Mike, her apprentice at the time, responded and said, “Angie loved you, and we want you to come down to the station.” I got so excited. I was telling everyone about it. I was like, “Oh yeah! I’m about to work with Angie Martinez!” I was just excited! I get down to the station, and I’m like, “Okay, where is my desk? Where am I going to set up?” They told me, “Yeah, you gotta go to the back.” I go into the back room. It’s a room full of people like this. I was like, “Oh? Are you guys having a staff meeting?” They were all like, “No. We’re here for the internship.” I was literally about to cry because I thought I got it. I didn’t think I’d have to compete. I didn’t think I’d have to do anything.
I found that burst of courage. I was like, “Listen. You want to work for Angie Martinez. You want to be a part of this. You don’t want to be stuck in Elizabeth, so you [have] to get it together.” It went from sixty down to thirty down to fifteen. I made the top three, and, unfortunately, she didn’t pick me which was okay. Two weeks later, I happened to call into Flex to touch base. I was like, “Hey, do you need an intern?” [Someone] happened to answer the phone and said, “Yeah, actually, I had your information here and I was going to call you. We actually do need an intern.” It started from there.
Her Agenda: You’ve been calling yourself a Cultural Artige’ in recent interviews. Can you explain what that means?
Karen: Cultural Artigé, to me, is [a continuation of me cultivating and building within the culture.] I am doing so many different things with my digital media company, with my website that continues to showcase new talent, [and] the work that I’m doing when I manage Nipsey Hustle. I also work with YG and Young Jeezy. There are a lot of different things that I continue to build inside this culture. That was my name for it because it was so many different things.
Her Agenda: You have a lot of wheels turning. Everything is amazing and super inspirational, but how do you overcome obstacles and what has been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced building your career?
Karen: I think an obstacle I’ve faced on a daily basis is being a woman of color in a male dominated industry. You know, you’ll walk into a room and people may not necessarily hear what you have to say. They don’t take you serious. When you speak with passion and conviction, unfortunately, you are labeled as a bitch. These are things that I constantly go through, but, at the end of the day, I’m the kind of person who lives off the notion of my glass is half full. I don’t care how you feel about me. I don’t care if you feel I don’t belong here. I work twice as hard. I know my ideas are great, and my work speaks for itself.
Her Agenda: That’s very purposeful. Where does that come from and what’s that daily practice like? I know you write down what you’re grateful for before you go to sleep. What other things do you do to keep out that negative that’s around you?
Karen: This is not something that comes easily. This is something that definitely took awhile. I had nights where I cried constantly because I would care what my male counterparts and what other people thought of me. After a while, you just get tired of crying. I realized I was spending all these nights and all these thoughts and everything on people who didn’t matter. I decided I’m going to find my inner strength. I’m going to find what works for me. It’s not something that happens overnight.
I have to remind myself, “Karen, do not let these people paint your walls with negativity. Do not be bothered by it. Do not give it any attention. Do not give it any light.” I have my blessing jar. Whatever it is—key moments in my life— I drop it in this blessing jar and, at the end of the year, I dump everything out. It’s crazy because we live in a society where we remember everybody who did not call us back, who owes us twenty dollars, who says something shady on an Instagram comment. We remember all those negative things. With this blessing jar, it reminds me of all the wonderful things that have happened to me, for me, and to the people around me. That sets me up for the following year. It puts me in a better perspective to see life and how I should be grateful. That’s one.
The second thing is I do is list five things I’m grateful for before I go to bed because I’m a thinker of all thinkers. I’m like, “Did I e-mail this person back? Did this person call me back?” I worry so much. So before I put my head to the pillow, [I put five things I’m grateful for in my jar] on my nightstand…It can be the smallest things like I didn’t have M&Ms today. The check came on time. I felt pretty. I got some shoes on sale. It doesn’t matter. It’s five things I’m grateful for, and it’s five things that matter to me. I write them down, and it helps. I continue to reinforce positivity in my life.
Her Agenda: You spend a lot of time on social media. On social media, while it can be inspirational to see the best lives that everyone is living, sometimes it can make you feel bad about yourself. So how do you avoid falling into that pitfall looking at everyone’s highlight reel? Sometimes there is a lot of negativity on social media. How do you avoid that?
Karen: You have to remember that social media is whoever you want to be. You can depict whatever you want, and a lot of the time its other people’s highlight reels. For me, I don’t necessarily focus on everybody else. I’m not worried about the latest Kardashian is doing, I have to focus on myself. It’s cool to see what everyone else is doing, but I can’t focus on that. I’m not saying I’m not looking. I see it. But I’m not obsessing over, “Oh my gosh. I need to have this like this person. I need to do this like this person.” [Doing so means]…I’m not living for me. I’m trying to be someone else…That’s one thing that I’m not going to do. I did that for so long growing up. In high school [I was] trying to be everyone else but myself to try to fit in with people who didn’t matter, so I’m not doing that now. I’m content with who I am. I’m happy for the people around me because I understand that someone else’s success doesn’t mean my failure. Someone else can be doing great. It may not be my time. My time will come.
Her Agenda: Let’s go back to a career moment in 2008. You were working with Dipset. They split. You were working with Max B. He went to jail. I read that you actually took a job at a financial brokerage firm during that time because it was hectic. There were a lot of things that were falling apart. What was that moment like for you and what was going through your mind when you took that job at a financial brokerage firm and walked away from what you were doing?
Karen: So, the funny story with that is before I applied for that job, I was watching Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. In that movie, she lies to get her job. I didn’t want a new job, but I wanted to focus on my website. I went to CareerBuilder and Hot Jobs or whatever it was. I lied and I made a resume. I made it all fancy. I used all these ten dollar words, and I got a job on Wall Street. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what was happening, but there was a girl there that used to do all my work for me. I would just sit in my office and focus on my website. I’m not saying that’s the thing to do. That worked for me. I was able to make some income and work on my website.
Her Agenda: When were you able to leave that job and work on KarenCivil.com full time?
Karen: They eventually kick you out when you aren’t doing no work! You’re always on the computer! This time my site started to make money with Google Ads
Her Agenda: What’s your team set up look like for your multiple companies?
Karen: It’s so many powerful women of color. It’s beautiful because its extraordinary to see people think we don’t get along and we don’t work well together. Absolutely not true. We make so much money together. We’re very happy. I have four guys that work for me, but the rest are women.
Her Agenda: What’s next for you? Who do you want to collaborate with next? What projects are you going to work on next?
Karen: In February, I’m going to be doing my first New Era Cap which I’m excited about. It’s going to be a fedora. Fifty percent of the proceeds are going to go back to charities in Haiti. This is going to be my first New Era cap and inside the fedora you’ll get to see quotes and different things from me. This is their first time actually partnering with an Influencer. That will be available in various New Era stores. Then, my playground in Haiti is going to officially open. My book, I’m looking to release that around my birthday.
Karen: I think it will always be to have patience because I am one who lived off the notion of if didn’t happen right now, it is never going to happen. The way social media and society is set up, the way we see how everything is happening for folks, the way other people’s lives are going at one hundred [miles per hour] and ours is going at a standstill, it can through you off your game. But just having that patience and that understanding [is important.] It’s going to take time. It took time for me to get to this moment now.