Karen Stehlin of the North Country Small Business Development Center
Hometown: Greenlawn, New York
Family: Husband Marty, two sons Martin (25) and Ryan (16)
Education: Associate Degree in Business Administration SUNY Farmingdale,
Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a focus on Marketing Management, New York Institute of Technology
Karen Stehlin is a Long Island native who fell in love with her summer camp in Jay, New York and eventually moved there permanently. Currently the Director of the North Country Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Stehlin comes to her work with a background in management, marketing and product development. Like many young women growing up in the 1960’s, she wanted to be a school teacher. She spent summers playing school with friends and set her career compass toward teaching. But when it looked like teaching jobs might be scarce, she took an assessment test and discovered her skills were a fit for a business career instead. “At that time most girls studied to become nurses, teachers and secretaries,” she said. “I was one of only two or three girls in most of my college classes.”
Stehlin has spent much of her career in male dominated work environments where she found her confidence and learned to stand her ground. “I had to stop myself from trying to convince people I was worthy to have the job. I learned that if you do the job, and do it well, then people will realize you are capable.”
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
KS: The importance of being respectful of people and listening. When you take the time to understand where people are coming from and respect their opinions, you learn a lot. Especially early on in my career I learned the fine line between assertive and aggressive. That was the time when women were just starting to do male oriented jobs. For me, what worked best was to step back, be respectful, listen, and work really, really hard. That is how I proved myself.
SB: What do you find the most rewarding about your job?
KS: Helping people. In many cases, helping them realize their dreams. And in doing that we are also contributing to the local economy by helping to create jobs. We get paid to help people. That is pretty cool. As the director I still carry a client caseload, but nowhere near what I used to do. The administrative part of my job is necessary for the organization, but I could not do that without some client interaction. It is what makes you go home at the end of the day and know that you made a difference.
SB: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a business?
KS: Research, research, research. It is imperative that people know what they are getting into. Many people think that working for themselves will give them more time for vacation, more time for family, or whatever their dream is. We provide them with information so they can make an educated decision, and not an emotional decision. Unfortunately we have also been called ‘dream killers’ but we never tell anyone not to do something. We are here to educate them by providing really good research, and helping them make the best decision possible. Is anything guaranteed 100%? No. I’ve seen people do everything right and fail. I’ve seen people do everything wrong, and succeed despite themselves. There is no magic bullet.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
KS: Somebody once told me that I’d never get any farther than where I was because I was just too nice and not cut-throat enough. I said, “That’s fine then. If this is where I need to stay, then I’m fine with that.” During my career I have turned down opportunities to move up because I did not like what I was expected to do. I am proud that I did not step on anybody on the way up. That is one of the things I learned from my mentors — you can have accomplishments without hurting anybody along the way. They both lived what they preached and I watched both of them go very far. They were just good people who didn’t undermine anyone or hurt anyone on the way up.
SB: What do we need to do as a community today to ensure that we prosper tomorrow?
KS: We need to encourage entrepreneurship a lot earlier than we do. I don’t think children think about it. If it isn’t discussed in school or at home, they don’t consider it. If they start thinking about it early, they are more apt to discover things that their community needs, find those niches and build on them. We also need to educate people about business and support local businesses as consumers. I don’t know how else we are ever going to do it. If we don’t support local businesses they aren’t going to stay in business. Another issue is funding. There are some people who have great ideas, but have no money. We need more alternative funding options to make it easier for people to get started.
SB: What are some qualities that successful small business owners share?
KS: They are not afraid of failure. They listen to people, but make their own decision. They are open to information, but not necessarily dissuaded by it. They are hardworking, but that is no guarantee. They are passionate. If you are passionate about what you do, it makes it easier to be successful.
SB: What values are important to you?
KS: Honesty, integrity and confidentially are imperative here. I am a 14 year cancer survivor. Since that experience I am so much more focused on today — on making a difference today — and thinking less about how this might impact things down the line. I don’t let the little things bother me. Life changes on a dime. We can control some things in our lives, but we have much less control than we really think we have. Why stress over the little stuff and the things you can’t change in life. Just make the people around you happy.