The Corner Office: Karen Civil, CEO of Live Civil & Always Civil
Words: Julian Mitchell
Images: Tasha Bleu & Ja Tecson
Images: Tasha Bleu & Ja Tecson
Some of the most successful people in the game refused to follow the rules to make it happen, they did it their own way. Welcome to the Corner Office.
For some, the path to entrepreneurship is an enchanted journey marked by a sudden epiphany that sparks a breakthrough idea. For others, becoming a founder is a formulaic process of spotting the evident void within an industry and developing a smart solution to fill the space. Yet, for many of today’s most disruptive entrepreneurs, the road to launching a company reflects a more unconventional story.
Beginning her career on the brink of the blogging boom, Karen Civil built acclaim by launching a music-driven lifestyle platform that featured exclusive interviews with budding artists and superstars alike. Seeing digital and social media traffic soar, she quickly established Live Civil Enterprises, a parent company that would house her growing media imprint, brand marketing agency and consulting services. For nearly a decade, she has been a sought-after strategist for an expansive roster of Fortune 500 companies and top-tier celebrities.
Leveraging her social media presence and strong network of artists and influencers, Civil joined Beats by Dr. Dre in its early stages as Social Media Director. In this role, she played a pivotal part in elevating the brand’s profile to becoming a relevant staple within pop culture. Following a notable run at Beats, she helped advance the brands of artists like YG, Jeezy and Nipsey Hussle, launched her own apparel lines and assisted Hillary Clinton in her pursuit of the Presidency.
I spoke with Karen about her inspiring run, lessons learned, and the keys to building a future-proof business rooted in your passions.
You've worn many different hats throughout your career, both as an entrepreneur and collaborating with brands -- How would you describe the work that you do?
Karen Civil: I would describe it as unorthodox marketing, helping brands at every scale come up with out-of-the box ways to tell their story and connect with culture. That includes different levels of marketing – from social media and content, to brand building and strategy. I love to collaborate with brands and imagine new ways to impact culture or deliver messages that either inspire people or influence the way people think. So much of what I do is centered around building digital brands and creating conversations online that develop into experiences offline. My work is focused on turning fans into loyalists and then turning those loyalists into supporters of the brands I work with.
You came in the game at a time where digital marketing and brand building were still fairly new concepts -- How have you seen the landscape evolve and what was the turning point for you?
Karen Civil: When I started my career, companies weren’t thinking about partnering with an influencer or working with individuals to tell their story or shape their strategy. They were focused on traditional marketing and sticking to old methods that worked for them. No one was really taking risks or trying new platforms. Brands didn’t really have any personality or point-of-view behind their marketing strategy. When the opportunity to work with Beats by Dre came along, I knew they were different. I didn’t have an agency background or a degree in marketing, and I didn't even have to present a resume. They were interested in the brand I had built online, and how it was influencing culture and creating digital conversation, especially within music. So, what I was able to do for artists, they wanted me to do that for the brand. To me, Beats was one of the first companies that really leveraged influencers and understood millennials. For a startup company, that was a disruptive way of thinking and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Now, there are so many other brands copying the model, looking to participate in the culture and talk like us. Beats by Dre paved the way.
What made the Beats by Dre experience so meaningful for you and how did it shape your perspective or approach to building your own enterprise in the space?
Karen Civil: Having people like Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine and Luke Wood -- who are very out-of-the-box in the way that they do business -- set the tone for how the company changed the music and consumer electronics industries. They brought in an influx of care-free marketing people from all walks of life, with their own voices and points-of-view. They hired us because of who we were as individuals and how we each brought something unique to the team. I always use this example – when you walk into a cafeteria, there are all of these different tables. There's the cool kids, the nerds, the jocks, and so on. I always said Beats is a part of every table, and made sure to tap into every audience. Traditionally, when you get hired by these companies, they try to change you or force their ideas on you. Beats didn't do that. That helped me see my worth and broaden my perspective of what’s possible. It helped me realize how powerful and influential I was, which honestly shaped my entire thought process. For a long time, I thought Beats was the only brand that would hire me. But, after having so much success with them, all of these other companies started reaching out, because they all saw the brand that Beats was turning into. They saw Beats become an influential global corporation that was built on culture and organic relationships.
How important is taking full control of your career – Taking ownership or your influence and building your own brand?
Karen Civil: I’m grateful for being able to partner with so many great companies, but I always knew there was another level. Eventually you have to evolve, and I reached that point. I grew up watching successful black men like Diddy, being their own bosses and shaping culture. To me, they changed the way black businesses and black businessmen are perceived. When you understand the importance of ownership, that’s when you see what’s possible. In 2018, I had to really tell myself, “Karen, you grew up inspired by Diddy and other icons, who all let you know ownership is key. You know having your own brands and having equity in these companies is what's next.” 2018 is the year for me to truly understanding my brand and where it’s going. I don’t want to just align with a brand, be the face of it, and tell people to buy it. I want to wake up knowing that I'm wearing my own brands that genuinely reflect who I am and what I value. The same way we love other brands, I want to love my brand. It only made sense to take that next step. That’s why I created a shoe with K-Swiss. I grew up on those shoes. I wore them in high school. If this is a company that understands my brand, understands my vision, and wants to release a signature shoe with me, it was the perfect fit.
How important is appreciating your process and trusting the timing of your life?
Karen Civil: Access has made this generation impatient and we’ve all become clock watchers because success has a time limit. People think their return on investment has to be immediate. I don’t follow those rules or guidelines. I have to continue being Karen and refuse to set a timer on myself. I can’t put a limit on my success, a limit on my failures, a limit on my business, or accept any type of limit, period. While the world is continuing to go in one direction and you feel like this is the trend, see that as a sign that it’s time to check yourself and make sure you’re moving in your own direction, on your own time.
What have been some of the notable challenges you’ve faced breaking into the game?
Karen Civil: I feel like I have two strikes-One, I'm a woman and I'm a black woman. I've walked into plenty of rooms where people wouldn’t shake my hand because they’re not looking for me to have an opinion. They look at me as a girlfriend or an assistant before they look at me as a CMO or the CEO. It’s a challenge changing that mind frame, knowing that people will believe you slept your way to the top before you worked your way to the top. It’s unfortunate, but I can’t let other people’s perceptions or stereotypes stop me from getting to where I want to go.
What would you say to people who feel like they need a college degree, a decorated background or co-sign to achieve their goals?
Karen Civil: You may feel like you need to have the degree or go to grad school, or a certain level of experience. Maybe it’s working with a company on your bucket list. It’s all about how you’ve programmed your mind to believe what it will take to reach your goals. There’s no right or wrong way, because they're your dreams. I didn't necessarily want to take the standard approach. I wanted to go all in, have real life lessons, and let that be my way of kicking in the door. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a digital marketing, media or branding degree for me to get but now most schools are offering those programs. I left college because I said to myself, “If this internship doesn't work out, I can always come back to school. But, this opportunity to be an intern is not going to be given to me again.” So, I took a chance on myself and thankfully it worked. If I was coming up today and wanted the same career, I might take a different approach. Life is about betting on yourself and taking chances.
What have been the keys to building your business and being able to continuously expand your brand?
Karen Civil: One of the keys is having a great and dynamic team that I can flow things through. You need people with smart minds that you can communicate with and understand your core values. I don't necessarily need like-minded people around me but they have to understand what works. As much as people like to say they did it alone, that’s rarely true, and I definitely didn’t. It takes a crew to run a ship.
How important is building real relationships and what have you learned as you’ve developed a strong network?
Karen Civil: I would go to different events by myself and would make it a mission to meet new people. I wouldn't run towards the talent, or towards the person that everybody wanted to be around. I would gravitate towards people who were hustling just like me. Like Issa Rae said, “Everybody wants to connect up.” I would connect across, with someone on a similar path, but maybe they were in a different industry. That’s why one day you can see me with Teyana Taylor, and the next day you might see me with Hillary Clinton. My approach was never how someone can help me, or what can we do right away. It’s about continuing to engage in a conversation that could potential lead to helping each other on the path to success. Networking is about following up and following through.
What makes someone an influencer?
Karen Civil: To me, an influencer is the person creating the conversation, setting the trends, and introducing new ideas. They may not be someone that people necessarily idolize, but they inspire other people of influence. They are the voices that brands turn to when they want to organically translate their message to their audience. An influencer is truly someone who inspires action.
How do you handle failure and what keeps you motivated in the face of adversity?
Karen Civil: God prepared me to deal with adversity early on in my life. You can’t take anything for granted and I learned that by dealing with the losses of friends or people around me. Those experiences taught me that life is not promised and every day we live is literally a blessing. I've been given this opportunity to do what I love and make an impact on the world. Failure is just a bump in the road, it’s not the final destination. You're going to have setbacks, but I'd rather have a setback doing something that I love rather than at a job I despise. I don’t run from adversity, I embrace it. I push forward, learn the lesson and prepare to face what’s next. At the end of the day, I love my life too much to let a setback stop me.
How has your definition of success evolved from when you first started to now?
Karen Civil: When I first started, success was a dollar value. It was measured by the amount of money I wanted in my bank account but when I got the money it didn’t make me happy. In fact, it was probably one of the weakest moments in my life. Everyone else looked at me like it was an incredible year for me but I was mentally drained and physically tired. That's when I realized that I stopped chasing my dream and was chasing a check. It was no longer about pursuing my purpose, my passions, or achieving my ultimate goal. When you make it about money, everything changes. You lose appreciation for the space you’re in and forget about your purpose. Once I realized that, I had to go back to the mind frame I was in before. Since then, I've never been happier. When you're living in purpose, all of the other stuff will come-all of the money, opportunity and rewards. You have to know yourself, be yourself and believe in your process.