Master of reinvention
In her line of work, Karen Barnes ’90 enjoys “creative collisions.”
Early in her career, Karen Barnes worked as a reporter, covering a nearby, sprawling county for The Roanoke Times.
One day, she found herself racing to the scene of a trailer fire where three small children had lost their lives. Barnes wrote of spotting “burned children’s clothes, a melted orange plastic wagon and a doll covered with soot and ice” at the scene.
It wasn’t until that night—after she’d filed her story—that Barnes allowed herself to process what she’d seen.
“The realization that I came to was that I didn’t want to be the person who was asking the grandmother questions [after a tragedy],” she says. “I wanted to be the person who was trying to help.”
Barnes isn’t bashful to admit she later got fired from that job. “At the time, I was super upset about it,” she says. “I look back on it now [and see] that getting fired from journalism … really forced me to take a look at what I’m good at and what I’m not good at.”
Barnes, who majored in English at Hollins and earned a master’s degree in journalism and public affairs from American University, went on to work in advertising and marketing, a field in which she excelled. “Worked my way through several agencies as a copywriter and won big awards,” Barnes explains.
Barnes noticed that on the job she was forever asking “why?” She wanted to know how things worked and how they could work better. She realized she liked looking at numbers and studying data.
She decided to become a strategic planner. “Listen man, I’m nothing if not a master of reinvention of my career,” she says.
Barnes worked her way up to a job as vice president of insight at a Tennessee advertising agency that served clients in environmental sustainability businesses. “It was the first time my values aligned with my work,” Barnes says.
Eventually, the traveling that job required wore her down. She briefly launched her own marketing and strategy consulting firm and became a founding partner in an artificial intelligence start-up business. While she believes the company has great potential, she decided at the end of 2016 that “at some point, a girl needs to get paid.”
Barnes was just starting to toy with the idea of getting a regular 9-to-5 “job-job” when she came across an employment listing looking for someone to fill the top post at a new nonprofit organization designed to spur the economy. The first sentence of the ad hit Barnes so hard, she memorized it: “We believe in using innovation to improve the human condition.”
Barnes threw her hat into the ring and started as the executive director for the Winston-Salem Venture Café the following month. Winston-Salem follows Miami, Florida; St. Louis, Missouri; and Rotterdam, Netherlands, in opening Venture Café locations since the first one launched in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2009.
“Our mission is connecting innovators and entrepreneurs to make things happen,” Barnes says of Venture Café. “What I’m excited about is the creative collisions that happen when you get people together eyeball to eyeball.”
Barnes, who lives in Winston-Salem with her wife and golden retriever, thinks she’ll stay in this post for a while. “I feel like everything I’ve done up to this point in my career has led me here,” she says. “I’m looking at this as my legacy work.”
—Beth JoJack ’98
Learning About Life Stories
Meet Olivia Body ’08, a self-described word nerd—and class letters editor.
First jobs. Weddings. Cross-country moves. Babies. Promotions. Moves to retirement communities.
Olivia Body ’08 hears it all as the editor of class letters for Hollins magazine, a job she’s held for the last eight years. “I’ve had some lovely conversations with alumnae,” she says. “I’m getting to know women starting in classes in the 1940s all the way to new graduates.”
Three times a year, Body edits and lays out the news she receives from class reporters. She also serves as reporter for classes who don’t have someone in that post. The attention to detail the job requires would give many of us a migraine, but Body enjoys hunting down errant commas. “I really love copy editing,” she says. “I’m a word nerd.”
That was apparent to Body’s English professor at Virginia Western Community College, who told the then 24-year-old that with her writing skills, she should consider applying to Hollins. Around the same time, Body met a woman who had attended Hollins as a Horizon student, the program for women of a nontraditional age returning to school.
“I’m a big believer in the stars aligning and fate pushing you in a certain direction,” Body says. “I thought, ‘This must be a sign that I need to look into this.’”
She did. Body thrived at Hollins, double majoring in English and studio art, all while raising a toddler and volunteering for four years as an English tutor to a Somali family.
After graduation, Body launched a photography business in Roanoke. In 2010, she returned to Hollins to work as multimedia coordinator in the marketing and public relations office, where she’d once worked as a student assistant.
In 2013, Body moved with her husband and three sons to Charleston, South Carolina, after her husband’s company transferred him there. She continued editing class letters in a freelance role.
A promotion for Body’s husband brought the family back to Roanoke in 2014. Body began working as an English-as-a-second-language instructor to college students. She quickly discovered she loved the work, which allows her to get to know students from other cultures and bask in her love of language. “I can get real technical with grammar,” she says with enthusiasm.
Body recently started working toward earning her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction online from Concordia University with the goal of eventually opening an accredited language institute or teaching college-level ESL in the Middle East.
While she’s busy juggling graduate school, her career, and family, Body plans to continue editing class letters. “I love working with the alumnae and learning about their life stories, connecting with them,” she says.
—Beth JoJack ’98