Kara Gerson is the Executive Director of the Voss Foundation, a charity with the mission of providing clean water access to Sub-Saharan African communities. Recognizing that it is culturally a woman’s job to carry water in Africa, Kara spearheaded Women Helping Women events, which have improved the lives of girls in countries including Kenya and Liberia. She has most recently been profiled for her work with the Voss Foundation in USA Today. Kara previously worked as a journalist for The Economist's New York bureau and The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C. She honed skills in public relations and marketing at The Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the luxury fashion brand of Mulberry. Kara is also involved in charitable organizations such as FACE Africa. Kara lives in New York and holds a B.A. from Bowdoin College as well as a M.A. from Columbia University.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I have so many varied interests, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to try my hand at a number of them. Over the years, in addition to the non-profit world, I’ve worked in fashion, journalism, politics, education, PR and marketing. I’m still passionate about many of those areas; but along the way, I discovered that I need to be fulfilled in my work – I spend enough time and energy on it! I found it frustrating and unsatisfying to work for something that felt shallow or mercenary, without any underlying good beyond mere profit. As a result, I learned that the best way to motivate myself to work as hard as I wanted to, to really push myself to excellence, was by believing that the work being done was helping make the world a better place.
A friend put me up for the role of the Voss Foundation’s first Executive Director. Although I had never worked in international development and it was a departure from what I had been doing at The Economist, I figured the job sounded interesting, challenging, and fun. And I was right. You can’t be so attached to one path that you ignore opportunities that may lead you to even better places than where you thought you were going.
Q: I love the quote “the bigger the vision, the smaller the first step.” Right now, what is the big vision you have for your career?
A: I want to help make the world a better place. That’s it. If I can l look back and say I’ve accomplished that, I will be happy. It sounds really cheesy; but growing up, when I was saying my prayers before bed, I would get overwhelmed trying to figure out whom to include – my parents, grandparents, my brother, friends. The list was too long and I would always want to keep adding people! So I just started to end my nightly prayers with, “I want the world to be a wonderful place to live for everyone,” because I felt like that summed it up well. I still think it does.
Q: Can you share a story of how networking led to a great success?
A: I hate “networking” in the classic sense of sticking your business card in someone’s face. It seems so contrived. However, all of my jobs and all of my best friends have come organically through other people who I already knew, which I guess I have to admit is networking!
Ultimately, I think the lesson is to treat everyone you encounter the same way. I am always meeting people and making new friends. If I thought of them as “contacts,” it would be so awkward! But keeping in touch with individuals whom I like and admire has led me to great people and great things, personally and professionally.
Q: What do you think is the key to happiness?
A: One of my best friends made me a sign, which I hung over my desk. It says, “You’re too blessed to be stressed.” That sums it up pretty well!
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk?
A: Well first, I must admit that I happen to love taking risks and pushing my own boundaries. But that doesn’t mean I never feel insecure, afraid, or uncomfortable in doing so. When that happens, I remind myself that there will be one of two outcomes: I will either succeed or I will fail. If I succeed, the risk was worth the reward. If I fail or people think less of me, I will be upset for a bit; but that has happened before and I’ve survived. It will probably inspire and drive me to do something even bigger and better. I know this is true because many of the things I’m most proud of have come out of negative experiences or tough times. When you realize success is the worse of the two outcomes, it’s easier to take the leap. If you don’t, you will just be stuck living the same, safe, boring life as everyone else!
ON Time Management
Q: Online calendars, emailing ourselves, post-it notes… I’m still struggling to find the best way to manage my time and to do list? What’s your method?
A: I am really into Springpad right now. It’s an app that syncs lists across all your devices: To-Do lists, shopping lists, lists of wines you’ve liked, and so forth. I can take meeting notes on there, wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and have a good place to put it or jot down things on the subway that I forgot to do. I can then share certain lists with my assistant or with my husband. They’re still working out some kinks; but all in all, it’s pretty neat!
ON Giving Back
Q: Can you share with us an experience of giving that was extremely rewarding or transformational?
A: I feel rewarded whenever I see the ways my giving has affected someone. And honestly, it is transformative each and every time. I feel like one reason people don’t give more is because too many organizations keep donors removed from the beneficiaries; so, too frequently, people are deprived of that great feeling. I try to visit all of the Voss Foundation’s water project sites as often as I can, and I always invite our donors to come with me. I wish more of them would!
However, one of my most memorable giving experiences was when I volunteered in college to teach French to middle school kids in Harlem. I have spoken French since I was a baby so I had always understood that people speak different languages to communicate with each other in different places around the world; but I didn’t understand that knowing a second language was a special thing. I soon realized that before I could even teach these children any vocabulary, I had to make them understand why they would want to speak another language, that the world was bigger than what they could see and that learning a second language was something they should care about. So I stopped stressing vocabulary and started bringing them croissants and playing them French rap. By the end of the term, I had barely taught the kids any French but they all told me I had helped them want to study the language more, travel to different countries and learn about the way other people live. To know that I had enabled them to see beyond their own worlds was extraordinarily satisfying.
Q: In the world what are your 3 favorite places to shop?
A: 1. My grandmother’s closet
3. Any market in any interesting place selling goods that can’t be bought back at home
On most days, I am wearing at least one thing from each of those places and usually all together. I rock a seriously diverse arm party.
Q: What is the most valuable lesson your mother taught you?
A: Claudia and I were talking about this very thing the other day at Pulino’s! I am most grateful to my mother for taking us to incredible places off the beaten path. My parents eschewed many “normal” vacations in favor of exotic experiences and wild places. I worry when people think they should work hard now and travel later or when I encounter people who are afraid of adventure. They say wisdom is wasted on the old, but too often travel is wasted on the old as well! Travelling to new places around the globe really helps you develop an awareness and a level of comfort with difference that I really don’t think you can learn any other way.
Q: What are the beauty items you could not live without?
A: Bobbi Brown’s Shimmer Brick! It’s all I need – it’s the greatest. And I guess I should say sunscreen, right?