From Ballet to Boardrooms – The Inspiring Story of Karen Marsdale

“Like sports, dance teaches discipline.  You have to show up and work hard.  There are no shortcuts!” -Karen Marsdale

[00:00:00] Karen Marsdale: I wanted to be a ballet dancer and I was very serious and was in ballet lessons and modern dance lessons almost every day of the week by the time I was in junior high.

I went to dance camp in the summer, went to the University of Connecticut for a summer with the Martha Graham School of Dance. And then after my senior year of high school, I spent six years in New York doing a program with the Joffrey School of Ballet. My ultimate dream was to go to Juilliard.

I did not make the cut. And I think that should have been a little bit of a signal because it’s like dance is professional sports one in, how many million really become the prima ballerina at the New York city ballet.


[00:01:45] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Karen Marsdale, a longtime contributor to the economic vibrancy of Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Karen spent almost 27 years in senior leadership roles with the Reading Chamber of Commerce and Industry before joining Hannah’s Hope as co-executive director. She took her BA in fashion merchandising and business management from Stevens College and serves on the boards of several nonprofits in and around Berks County.

Karen, welcome to NextGen Nonprofit Leadership.

[00:02:16] Karen Marsdale: Thank you, Tommy. It’s a pleasure to be here.

[00:02:20] Tommy Thomas: I’m a huge fan of all that a well-led Chamber of Commerce can do over the years I’ve observed, what good things happen when the Chamber takes a role in promoting economics and also when they take a role in incorporating the non-profit sector into the life of a community because I think that’s important.

When I learned of your background, I just jumped at the chance to have somebody who’s done that and then migrated over into the role with Hannah’s Hope. Again, thank you for joining us. Now before we dig too deep into your multi-pronged career, let’s go back towards the beginning.

Take me into your childhood and what two or three things do you remember that maybe has contributed to you being the person you are today?

[00:03:06] Karen Marsdale: I’m an only child. And so that in the era that I was born and raised, that was a bit unique because big families were more the norm then than they are now.

I think one of the things that kind of charted my course was I was always around adults primarily. Now we did live near relatives, so I had cousins and aunts and uncles, you spend most of your time with your family, meaning your parents. And so, I think that being an only child did not only, particularly for my mother, have the, maybe the opportunity, sometimes it didn’t feel so opportunistic to have someone who was just looking at you as the in, the child that they’re raising and nurturing.

[00:03:52] Karen Marsdale: So sometimes I might’ve felt a little bit overwhelmed, but when you’re an only child, I’ve read books on birth order etc. And one thing that I learned from that was an only child is like a firstborn times three.

When you’re an only child it is like being a firstborn times three. You tend to be alpha; you tend to be a leader.

[00:04:09] Karen Marsdale: So, you tend to be alpha, you tend to be a leader. And I’m not saying these things to say, this is who I am. It’s just this is often what happens. My mother was a bit sensitive. And so I was sensitive. I know I got my feelings hurt a lot.

And mother was not exactly grin and bear it. It was oh, you poor thing. So, I think, and that was a lot about her background. And it’s just so interesting. And now today, especially, my work at hand as you see how much background in childhood impacts the life and the trajectory of an individual.

I do remember one time I broke my arm, and my father was rough and tumble and praise many was a welder and, oh, you’re fine, you’ll be fine. And my mother then took me to the hospital. I got it casted up and I almost waited all day for my father to come home, jump in the driveway and say, see, I told you. It’s funny little things that you remember when you’re in elementary school.

Those are some of the things I remember.

[00:05:17] Tommy Thomas: What’d you want to be when you grew up?

Karen Marsdale: Oh, my word. This is something that when I tell people, they’re like, really, if they’ve never known this, or we’ve never talked about it.

I became interested in ballet in about fifth grade after about four years of taking classes and not liking them because I really, and this taught me a great lesson, which I’ll talk about in a minute. I wanted to be a ballet dancer and I was very serious and was in ballet lessons and modern dance lessons almost every day of the week by the time I was in junior high.

[00:05:48] Karen Marsdale: And I went to dance camp in the summer, went to the University of Connecticut for a summer with the Martha Graham School of Dance. And then, after my senior year of high school, I spent six years in New York doing a program with the Joffrey School of Ballet. My ultimate dream was to go to Juilliard.

I did not make the cut. And I think that should have been a little bit of a signal because it’s like dance is professional sports one in, how many million really become the prima ballerina at the New York city ballet. So, I did go to Stevens College. My first year, I was a dance major.

They had a good program, went there and then changed my major, but all through those years of especially junior high into senior high. And then towards senior high, I was teaching some classes at the dance school that I went to, and I had an excellent teacher.

Like sports, dance teaches discipline.  You have to show up and work hard.

[00:06:42] Karen Marsdale: She was a mentor. And I’ll tell you what it taught me was number one, discipline. Because discipline and dance is as much discipline as it is, excuse me, in the sports world. You have to show up and work out. It taught me discipline. On a Saturday morning, if I didn’t want to get up and go to a dance class at 8 or 9 o’clock, I still had to go.

The other thing it taught me, because through dance, I also did, in our small community, we had community theater. I am totally tone deaf, so I can’t sing. I couldn’t be in, and when I was in musicals, and I did do some relatively, one in particular, I did a relatively important part in a musical.

Community theater taught me stage presence.  I can speak to a thousand people because I am not really speaking to a thousand people, I am looking at and speaking to a particular person on the front row.

[00:07:25] Karen Marsdale: So, I had to learn lines. When it came to the, just to the music, I just would lip sync, but it taught me a bit of stage presence that still to this day is very useful because I’ve often said I can speak to a thousand people and not being really terribly nervous because you learned that you’re not really speaking to a thousand people.

You’re looking at somebody in the front row. And so I can do that. And sometimes I think it’s less intimidating for me to speak to that group of an audience when we’re doing a what, through the chamber. And we had some events that had over a thousand people, and I could get up and speak.

[00:08:09] Karen Marsdale: And it was probably easier than speaking to the board of directors, when I speak about something that was a bit challenging. So that, just folks don’t realize the things that kiddos can gain from being in different types of activity.

[00:08:27] Tommy Thomas: So, you graduated, you had maybe decided that the dance was not going to be totally your career. What happened then?

[00:08:37] Karen Marsdale: You mean after high school? Rather after college, right? Yeah. Okay. So, after college this is really again, something that is, typically someone gets a job looking at their major, etc. But what my husband and I did, and I will tell you, I was married after my junior year of college. My husband had come back from Vietnam. We went back to where I was at Stevens College in Columbia, Missouri.

He did a year at the University of Missouri to finish up his degree. And then we took a funny, rather interesting term because we went back to our hometown and maybe this was the best thing or the worst thing we did, but we bought a small business, and it was really in the area of, and again, your understanding, it’s back in the seventies, it was a woman’s boutique.

We sold some small, but we also sold fashion. We saw fashions, we sold gift items, we sold accessories. And my background in fashion merchandising. We decided to do this. My parents wanted us to do it. I think only children who think about this, come back home. Don’t go a thousand miles away for work.

[00:09:43] Karen Marsdale: So, we were in our own business for about eight years. And my husband also took a sort of a crash course while we were there in our hometown in upholstery. So, he opened up his own business. Here’s two 20 some year olds in their own businesses and they’re not second-generation family businesses.

So, it was a great experience. We were going to New York on buying trips. We were meeting with sales reps. We were hiring people. We only had a staff, mostly part time of about five people. And it was a great experience. I look back now and think, through my life it really made us the people that we are because it did not turn out particularly well.

[00:10:27] Karen Marsdale: Maybe we were more naive than we thought. And after about eight years, we had to liquidate the business. We tried selling it. It was not a good time in our community. And so, we weren’t able to sell the business.  By this time we had two kids and a house and we had to liquidate everything to pay off our debt, and I’m very open to tell the story.

Our first business failed. We had to liquidate everything to pay off our debt.  We walked away with less than a thousand dollars.  We moved to Reading, Pennsylvania and started over.

[00:10:47] Karen Marsdale: We had to pay off all our debt. We walked away with under a thousand dollars. We moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, where I had some family and uncle and his family. And my husband had gotten a job prior to before we moved, and we started all over again. And we were still young enough to, it was a blow, and it was emotionally challenging, but we just picked ourselves up and said, you know what we’ve got is ourselves.

And we both have skills that we can hone and give to someone. And one thing that it taught me, and this is why I think my career at the chamber was so rewarding and why I understood to some degree what it takes for a small business owner, because if you’ve never signed the front of the paycheck and had to make payroll, you don’t know what it is.

[00:11:42] Karen Marsdale: To really understand what business is all about, even the smallest of businesses. So that was a great life lesson. Amazing. And I just feel that everyone needs to take everything they do as part of a life lesson to move to wherever they go from there.

[00:12:04] Tommy Thomas: So how did you get involved with the Chamber of Commerce?

[00:12:07] Karen Marsdale: Okay. So that was a little bit down the road. When we first came here, I did a couple of jobs that were, I would say not temporary, but not what I would think would be my career. Again, it’s that world of knowing people who know people and networking, which I just can’t say enough for knowing people and networking and being a true person that cares about others and networking in that fashion.

So, I had a very dear friend. She’s still my best friend to this day, 40 years later, she was on the board of the chamber of commerce and a small business owner, had a couple of businesses. She is a very outspoken wonderful individual, with great high moral character. She went to our then CEO and my first CEO of the chamber and said there was an opening.

There was not an opening. But she went to him and said, I have a friend and if you hire her, I’m going to guarantee she’s going to make you look good. And I had an invitation to speak with the CEO. We had a great conversation, not really an interview. He said, you know what, Karen, I don’t have anything right now.

[00:13:19] Karen Marsdale: He said, but the next time there’s an opening that you seem to be would fit, he said, I’m going to call you. And within, I think three weeks, he called me because the director of marketing gave her notice and was going someplace else. And he called me in, and he said, do you want the job? And I said, absolutely.

I didn’t even ask what the salary was. We negotiated that after I got the job, it was crazy. But so that was my introduction to the chamber world.

[00:13:46] Tommy Thomas: At that time, I guess you had a staff when y’all were in the retail business, but yeah, think back to the first time you really had a group of people reporting to you, what kind of memories do you have of that?

[00:14:00] Karen Marsdale: It was challenging because again, we, most of the women that worked for me, and they were women, obviously, it was a woman’s boutique, as they would call it back then, were much older, they were my mother’s age, some of them might have been a little bit older. But I think what made them respect me as this small business owner was the fact that I respected them and got to know them and cared about them and their families.

And we were a team together doing this work. And they chose to be working where they were because they really enjoyed the atmosphere, the customer experience. And, I was a rookie, you’re 23 and you’re managing people who are 55 years old and you’re just, I think one of the keys is you always have to respect those who are working for you while making it clear what the expectations are of the job.

Servant leadership doesn’t mean you’re anybody’s lacky.  It means you put that person first and find the greatness in them.

[00:15:01] Karen Marsdale: But leading as I call it and, servant leadership, which doesn’t mean that you’re anybody’s lacky, but it means that you put that person first and you find the greatness in them and help them. When that happens, I think I just did it at first, not knowing necessarily what I was doing.

I was thrown into that. And my husband is also, he’s an extremely intuitive person. He was the partner in the business. So, we did this as a team. And I think that was a good mix that we were both there working with and managing this small staff of people who really wanted us to succeed.

It just, it was organic, I think.


[00:15:49] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most ambitious project you and a team have ever undertaken and how did it work out?

[00:15:57] Karen Marsdale: So, I will tell you, fast forward to the Chamber of Commerce. And one of the things that I loved about the Chamber is very entrepreneurial.

Now that does not mean that I didn’t have to work really hard. I should say entrepreneurs work. They never don’t work. I think that’s the thing that I loved about that and small business owners and people who were growing businesses, but I was in a position of leadership.  I had earned it.  I had proven myself, and I had some really great women in leadership in the community.

[00:16:26] Karen Marsdale: And we just began to see that our women’s programs at the chamber and most chambers will have some kind of women’s programs, quote unquote. And they said, we’re not really, we’re just doing the same old thing and having a luncheon and, then people go away and, oh, that was great, but how does it help me in the workplace? So, we undertook to take, basically, a year to create an organization and this is how it was defined. It was an organization within another organization. And so, we created what we called Women to Women, and that was an organization within the chamber.

[00:17:05] Karen Marsdale: We had our own programming, our own model. And it was really to help women in the workplace find their skills. And how could we help them move into leadership roles and again, from my background and from who I am as a person, this was never meant to be. And this is why I think it was so successful and why even men in the community said this is the greatest thing to really have a place where women can feel safe.

They can build and develop skills and training because it was never women against men. These were not, we were not looking at men as chauvinists. Men and women can work together so well, and women at the table bring so much to the table. That was the essential foundation of what Women to Women was about.

[00:18:01] Karen Marsdale: It was very hard work. I went out and got businesses to underwrite the work of what we were doing. We built our own membership within the membership of the Chamber, and it was a huge success. And I can remember we worked so hard. And that was not only getting the credibility of what we were doing, but pushing the sort of boundaries of we’re going to do our own programming aside, along with the chamber that your chambers often do workshops, etc.

But we really had some amazing successes. And we get a national speaker woman to come in. In the beginning of the fall of the year to kick off the whole year of training and development. And there were companies that joined the Chamber in order to be part of Women to Women.

[00:18:53] Karen Marsdale: And to this day, it is the most successful program in their over 100 years. And it’s going strong. And as a matter of fact, I’ll just tell you a little aside. Last night, I was at a function, a gala for a nonprofit and sitting with a group of younger women, and the one woman said, I was just at lunch, and I overheard a group of women behind me, and they were talking about Women to Women.

And she said, I wanted to lean over and say I know the founder. And again, Tommy, this is a big deal in a small market. So, I’m not talking about a national movement, but I had chambers around the country call and ask, how did you do this? I don’t think I could ever get our board to do it.

[00:19:36] Karen Marsdale: And I’d say, yeah, you know what? You have to keep working and working. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Primarily made up of men. We’ll embrace this. And see the value and say, this helps my company because I have women that I want to promote to leadership or their women in leadership.

And there’s all kinds of things we did mentor programs, lean in circles from Cheryl Sandberg from Facebook, who wrote this whole curriculum on, how do women navigate in the world of business. There were all kinds of things going on. And still are. And I will say one thing that a staff person I’m still in contact with, and she’s done amazing things, moved from the chamber to other nonprofit work in development.

And she said to me one day, this is really hard. And I said, yeah, Carolyn, this is very hard, but if it was easy, wouldn’t everybody be doing it? That’s just my mantra.


[00:20:32] Tommy Thomas: You mentioned you had to go out and get your funding and I’ve noticed on the Hannah’s Hope website, y’all have what seems to be a very robust corporate community of sponsors.  What did you learn about fundraising during those early days?

Everybody is in sales.  Even if you are the receptionist in the dentist office, you are selling something.  We must develop that mindset.

[00:20:47] Karen Marsdale: Okay. The thing is, I’ll just say this one thing, everybody is in sales. I don’t care what you do. If you’re picking up the phone at the dentist’s office and you’re saying hello and you’re selling something.  And so therefore, we all have to have that kind of mindset.

I learned very quickly that you’re going to get more no’s than you are yeses, and you have to believe in what you’re doing. So I took that to heart and I really don’t give up on things.

[00:21:19] Karen Marsdale: So again, if I know that this is good for people, I know this is good for your company to be a part of say Women to Women, or now Hannah’s Hope Ministries. If I know, because what we’re doing is so important, I want you to be a part of it. And you need to assist us in making an investment in what we’re doing.

And that’s how I always really knew that you have to get as much value as the customer as we’re getting, as the product. A good thing to remember is you need to, if you’re getting those, you’re doing a good job because you’re going to get more no’s than yeses.

[00:22:02] Karen Marsdale: But again, and I, and a dear friend of mine who was a major player in the banking world here, a female, said, it’s just a matter of the numbers. If you make this many calls, you’re going to get this many no’s. And now again, this is not just, this is saying you’ve got a good product. You understand your product.

In sales you will get a lot of nos.  There is an old saying – “is this no for now or no forever”.

It’s beneficial to the customer. You’re going to get no’s. And you know the old saying, is it no for now or no forever. And so you hang up the phone and say, okay, that was a no. Let me make three more phone calls and I might get a yes. And I always wanted to end the day saying, gosh, I should have made those three phone calls.

[00:22:38] Karen Marsdale: I’m going to make those phone calls before I leave the office. And so even with Hannah’s Hope, quite frankly, I don’t want to say it’s an easy sale, but what it is, it’s an investment. And it’s funny cause I just sent an email to somebody who people say, you’re never going to get him.

And he’s one of the premier car dealerships in our community. And I sit on a board with him and it’s like I’m not going away, John. So the reality is, let’s have a conversation because I know you want to invest in people. You have the fortitude to do this and not take it personally when someone says no.

[00:23:15] Karen Marsdale: And again, I don’t take it personally and I just move on to the next. And then I go back to that person. And yeah, I might not be making sense but again it’s how successful people have to do this. It just doesn’t come easily.


Next week, we’ll continue the conversation with Karen. In that conversation you’ll learn about the comprehensive programs at Hannah’s Hope that empower women to achieve independent living, Karen’s innovative leadership and mentorship strategies, and how Karen and her co-director are making the model of co-director work in an amazing way. I hope you will join us for that conversation.

“Community theater taught me stage presence.  I can speak to a thousand people because I am not really speaking to a thousand people, I am looking at and speaking to a particular person on the front row.” -Karen Marsdale

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