Longtime UX leader Karen Clark Cole on staying present and learning to tell good fear from bad - GeekWire
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Karen Clark Cole kiteboarding in Mexico, her favorite place to practice her sport. (Photo courtesy of Karen Clark Cole)

If it wasn’t enough to be a co-founder of what could be the longest running UX shop in the U.S., Karen Clark Cole would also like to be a professional kiteboarder, racing over the waves at 25 miles per hour while grasping a kite with an area equivalent to three queen-sized mattresses.

The two might sound unrelated, but for Cole, who is CEO of the Seattle-based UX company Blink, kiteboarding plays a big role in her success on the job. In kiteboarding, one launches their kite — and themselves — into winds blowing 20 knots. That moment of release, said Cole, is terrifying.

“I’m scared every time and I’ve been doing it for 10 years,” she said.

The sport requires tremendous focus and is a perfect way to unwind from work, while also pushing her out of her comfort zone — a healthy act of risk-taking that feels a lot like what’s required of her as a corporate CEO. It has helped her learn to recognize good fear — the stretch into the unfamiliar — from bad fear that emerges when something is genuinely going wrong and needs corrective action.

Cole came to UX from an art background, earning a fine arts undergraduate degree in British Columbia. It was the mid-1990s and her uncle, a graphic artist, showed her a CD-ROM with interactive animation and songs featuring the musician Peter Gabriel.

“I said, ‘That’s it, that’s what I’m doing. I’m putting my art into interactivity,’” she said. Cole took an intensive, year-long course in IT and began working in what was then called information architecture. She moved to Seattle, worked briefly at a web development company and then convinced a colleague to start a company with her that focused on UX.

Karen Clark Cole, CEO and founder of Blink. (Blink Photo)

In 2000, Blink was born.

The company grew slowly for years before ramping up. A couple of years ago big corporations began knocking on the door, interested in buying Blink. Instead, Cole and co-founder Kelly Franznick launched a strategy to themselves acquire smaller companies, aiming to become the biggest UX business around.

The plan required money they didn’t readily have on hand, which led them to partner with an investment firm and grow their own employee count while researching companies to acquire. That’s when the ability to tell good fear from bad fear became crucial: the deal with the investors felt wrong and both parties walked away.

Blink still grew significantly. The company has made six acquisitions, runs offices in five cities and has a headcount of 130-to-140 employees, including contractors.

There was an upshot to the failed deal, Cole said. Thanks to the experience and their investments in infrastructure, the company was able to quickly change gears when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted work and it gave her confidence for weathering the economic downturn.

“We are tough and strong and been through tough times before,” she said. “None of this is going to hurt us.”

Embracing the widespread surge in awareness over racial injustice triggered by last month’s death of George Floyd has presented another leadership challenge.

“I get goosebumps thinking about it. It’s been the most powerful two weeks in the history of company,” Cole said. The business is not as racially and ethnically diverse as they would like to be, and Cole has focused on listening empathetically to employees who do belong to underrepresented groups. She has talked openly with her company about racial injustice.

Talking about those issues, “that was probably the hardest leadership moment of my career,” Cole said. “I am not qualified to do that, and yet I need to. It was an intense learning curve and a lot of listening.”

As a company, Blink is committing to making diversity in hiring a top priority, while also making sure their work is inclusive and represents diversity.

Blink’s current projects include a 7-year partnership with NASA to redesign NASA.gov, unifying 3,000 sites into a modern web experience that will allow them to share data internally and with the public. It spans everything from satellite data to information for kids to content on space missions. Another project is with a virtual reality company, designing the equipment worn for VR experiences.

Outside of work, Cole is the founder of Girls Can Do, a nonprofit that hosts events akin to “TED Talks for girls,” particularly girls from racially diverse and low-income families. The organization has put on three events, two in Seattle and one in Washington, D.C. that included a welcome address by video from former first lady Michelle Obama. The effort has slowed due to a lack of funding, but Cole hopes to ramp it up again. The focus is to share stories about grit and overcoming adversity.

We caught up with Cole for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle

Computer types: Gold iPad Air, Gold MacBook Air

Mobile devices: Gold iPhone 8 Plus

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: OneNote, 1Password, Excel, Keynote, Photoshop, iMovie

The glass walls in Karen Clark Cole’s office helps her feel connected to colleagues even when sequestered in back-to-back meetings. (Blink Photo)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Pink and dark green velvet chairs, birch trees, glass walls, a few plants, a bookshelf, several large paintings, photographs, and a standup desk.

My desk area is very small at the back of the office. I have two comfy chairs for one-on-one meetings and a round table with short, velvet stools for meetings. Glass walls let people know I’m in the office (we have five locations), and help me not feel out of touch if I’m in meetings all day. My office is strategically placed across from the main client boardroom, which is also glass, so I can jump out and say hi and thank them for their business anytime they are in.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? I always say we all have one life and it needs to be balanced. I work very hard at this. Family, sleep, exercise, work and then healthy eating — in that order. I know my priorities and that allows me to show up fully present, in the moment and focused for each one. Even when I walk my dog, I chat to her and make sure I’m seeing the world with her, not doing something else. Being fully present with everything makes for a richer experience. It makes me a better listener; I learn more and therefore I’m always getting new ideas. It also shows the people that I interact with that they are important and I respect them.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? LinkedIn is the only social network I’m active on. I post articles and updates, and as often as I get time I read what’s there. I use Twitter sporadically, email and Slack daily, and that’s it.

Karen Clark Cole and her daughter hit the slopes. (Photo courtesy of Karen Clark Cole)

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? About 140. I have three inboxes, one for anyone on the Blink domain, one for all other mail, and then one for flagged mail. The flagged mail are ones I’ve seen but not read. The rest gets deleted. I have someone helping me sort through this and getting rid of the junk a few times a day.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 30 on average every week. I block Tuesdays and Thursdays for no meetings most weeks, so the other three days are packed.

How do you run meetings? Fully present, no phones or multitasking, only computers open for presenting and occasionally notes, but most people use paper or iPad. Any time it’s a conversation it’s no machines, and I always get up from my desk and sit beside the person to give them my full attention if they come into my office.

I ask people if they have things they need to multitask to pick one and focus on it, and do a great job. I am actually happy if someone leaves a meeting, because it shows they know their priorities, and take their work seriously, which is important.

Everyday work uniform? Professional. Suit pants or skirt and shirt, full suit if a client meeting and some company meetings. Colorful, fantastic shoes are important as is nail polish!

How do you make time for family? My daughter is my highest priority. Spending the evenings and weekends with her changes my focus and clears my mind from work, giving me a much needed break. As a result, the next day I’m clear headed and low stress. If I worked all night I would just be fried, which I could easily do.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Daily morning running, which I consider active meditation, listening to my breathing and the birds, no music. The physical side of running is also critical for me to keep my stress down. At the end of the day, the transition between work and 凯发官网登录手机版home life involves one stiff drink. Tequila or bourbon depending how the day went.

During the COVID closures, Cole invited neighbors to decorate river rocks using paint and materials that she supplied, and place them under a tree in her Seattle 凯发官网登录手机版home’s front yard. (Photo courtesy of Karen Clark Cole)

What are you listening to? My 11-year-old runs the playlist, so there’s a lot of Miley Cyrus and Kelly Clarkson. I get the occasional Lake Street Dive, and dinner music is Bocelli or Diana Krall.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? GeekWire daily, Quartz daily, Twitter for quick-hit news.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Apollo 13” by astronaut Jim Lovell and journalist Jeffrey Kluger, “Bend, not Break” by Ping Fu, and “Lunch with Lucy” by Sherry Stewart Deutschmann.

Night owl or early riser? I am a night owl, left to my own devices. But I force myself to get up early, and then I’m so tired I get to bed early. 6 a.m.-10 p.m. is my typically weekday. On the weekends I love to sleep in.

Where do you get your best ideas? The time between waking up and getting up is most prolific for me. The shower, of course, and other unstructured times like when I’m gardening or driving.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Bill Gates. I wish I could read as fast, as much and retain like him.

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