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The Wixii™ Project: Kara Penn

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Kara PennName: Kara Penn

Location: Denver, Colorado

Professional Industry: Management Consulting

Company: Mission Spark

Job Title: Principal Consultant & Co-Founder


“I had to really rethink what I wanted because while it was an interesting, potentially socially impactful, and higher-profile job that used my entrepreneurial and MBA/MPP skills, it wasn’t particularly conducive to having children and being available to them once born.”


Meet our featured Wixii™, Kara.  She is in her mid-30s and mother to a young daughter (age 3).  Her husband practices and teaches emergency medicine.  She has her B.A. in Psychology & English/Creative Writing from Colorado College; her Masters in Public Policy (focused on Social Justice and International Trade) from the University of Chicago; and her Masters in Business Administration from MIT Sloan School of Management (focused on Sustainability and Social Ventures).  She is currently the Principal Consultant and Co-Founder at Mission Spark, a consulting firm that partners with philanthropy, nonprofit, and social enterprise leaders to achieve transformative social change and to strengthen the social sector.  She is also currently working on a general management book with a co-author, tentatively titled failGOOD: Designing Everyday Action to Deliver Extraordinary Results.

One interesting aspect about Kara is her love of travel.  Though Kara didn’t grow up traveling a lot, she soon caught the travel bug in college and really prioritized opportunities to visit and learn from other cultures and countries before having her daughter.  This wandering nature led her down the path of some very memorable adventures like getting deported from England and getting engaged at the Taj Mahal.  She now enjoys a very multi-cultural family life, and credits this early and often travel.

Though family has always been a priority for Kara, she never really understood how important achieving a level of work-life “balance” would be to her.  She’s always focused on living very intensely and working hard, thinking the rest could come later.  Now her mindset is much more about enjoying and celebrating life, pursuing diverse interests, and embracing a different pace and focus that is much less achievement-oriented.  Making this transition wasn’t easy, and she describes herself as “impatient by nature,” but the path to having her daughter and then focusing on being fully present in her daughter’s life, really forced a shift in perspective and priorities.

Kara is the partial breadwinner and shared caregiver in her family.  In a typical week, she devotes approximately 40-50 hours to what she refers to as “mission-based” work—which includes 25-35 hours of management consulting to nonprofits and 5-10 hours of volunteer work serving on community and alumni committees and boards.  She strives to connect with loved ones daily, and pursues some level of healthful activity weekly.  Getting less focus, but still within reach on a monthly basis, Kara pursues hobbies (like creative writing and art), catches up on sleep, spends time with friends and extended family, and travels.


I’ve always cared a lot about social and environmental justice, and community service.  If there were one uniting aspect about my path (as there have been MANY twists and turns) this pursuit of mission-based work would be it.  A critical moment for me came in late 2008.  I was laid off from a job that I “commuted” to in NYC from Denver when the economy dropped out.  That was hard for my self-esteem, and I had to really rethink what I wanted because while it was an interesting, potentially socially impactful, and higher-profile job that used my entrepreneurial and MBA/MPP skills, it wasn’t particularly conducive to having children and being available to them once born.  In a way it was a blessing in disguise, as I went on to a much more flexible and balanced lifestyle, but sometimes I still don’t know how to make sense of that difficult, soul-searching time.  It was a wake-up call.

There have been many reasons I’ve changed up my career path—primarily, the biggest influence in stepping off of a traditional leadership path—especially right after the opportunities that were open to me post business school was my desire to be a mother, and an involved parent.  I wanted to help achieve a work-life balance in our family, after a long stretch of intensive work and study for both my husband and me.  My husband also continues to make choices that help support this balance, though his career path is much more clear and his achievements more tangible, recognized, and financially-rewarded within his career system vs. my own.  We do look at our lives, family, and careers as part of our larger life system in which we are all intertwined and trying to support individual and shared happiness, health, and fulfillment, so this helps us all as we balance and make tradeoffs/decisions.  We both really value family highly, and so this is a huge priority for us.  Our shared values make these decisions easier.

Describe a “day in your life” from waketime to bedtime:

Oh dear, every day is very different!  I’ve never done well with routine, but having a toddler helps force the issue.  Sometimes, a (bad!) day starts at 2AM and goes until 5PM to get everything work-related done if I am under deadlines.  It may involve travel on red-eye flights to Boston or elsewhere to work with my co-author or to conduct interviews for a fellowship committee I just served on, or it may be project-related, like facilitating a retreat, meeting with clients, writing a report.  Usually two days a week, it may be trips to the museum or zoo with my daughter.  And usually sprinkled in every day are some sort of cleaning, chores, and procrastination.  Mostly, everyday involves e-mails, some work, family dinner (if my husband isn’t working a shift in the ER), reading books to my daughter, and having a dance party.  Eventually I end up reading flip board on my iPad in bed.  It may or may not include enough sleep, exercise, a home-cooked meal, or a shower!

What specific actions, choices, steps and/or decisions have you made (or would you like to make) to better manage your work-life mix?

Before my husband and I got married, we had many discussions about work-life balance.  At that time, we discussed the fact that I would likely never make as much as him working for nonprofits but that financial aspect didn’t make pursuit of my career less important or necessarily the obvious tradeoff in family situations—as long as we were meeting our financial needs and could pursue shared goals.  Of course, sticking to this is easier said than done, because I often downplay my work since it is more flexible, but my husband has been great about making tradeoffs to support my ability to pursue unexpected opportunities this year on the publication of a book and to serve on a national fellowship selection committee (Watson fellowship), both of which required frequent travel.  I tradeoff during times when he has grants due or is up for promotion, and this give and take has helped us both, and certainly our daughter.  It has also allowed us to be more engaged in our extended family.

What do you currently find most challenging/concerning about your work-life mix?  What areas do you most needs support?

I still work some crazy grad school-like hours to make everything happen, and there are intense and slower periods that are hard to predict.  Also, with consulting, it is hard to time deliverables for multiple clients and spread out the process of continuous business development.  It seems like for my business partner and me, our plates are very full and there is more work than we can take on without growing.  Sometimes this seems like a nice dilemma to have, but it is also stressful and difficult to see where a break can come in.  From a career perspective, to create this flexible life has required tradeoffs—lack of benefits and employer-matched retirement plan (I am very fortunate that my husband can provide benefits through his job) and lack of professional development and “advancement” opportunities.  Still, I wouldn’t trade it for what it’s afforded my family and me in terms of flexible time to be together and travel.  Mainly, I feel like I need to be more open to getting help to assist with all the things that are less important to me, like meals and cleaning.

What advice would you give an earlier version of yourself?

The advice I would give an earlier version of myself would be to think about work-life mix sooner—in terms of considering career options, building support systems that can enable whatever my passion and career might bring me, and seeking mentorship and role models.  I continue to be glad I traveled the way I did, and would push that sense of risk-taking and adventure even earlier on!  And I would stress the importance of finding a life partner who is supportive and communicative.  Choosing such a wonderful life partner has been the number one most satisfying and enabling aspect of my adult life.  Partner and support networks are of CRITICAL importance.  I also would advise myself to be more open to help and assistance—I am still hindered by the mentality of do everything well and do everything on my own.

Is there anything you would like to share about work-life mix?

I really struggled with moving off a more traditional career path, even though I’ve always valued risk-taking.  I wondered if I was shutting doors for myself down the line in exchange for a vision of life I wanted now.  I am so glad I took the path I did, though there are still disappointments and frustrations.  One real trade-off, as a self-employed person, is that there is no safety net.  My husband and my fantastic business partner are my safety nets.  If I take maternity, sick, or personal leave, there are no paid benefits and I may actually lose business and opportunity.  Still, I am glad that I spent careful and conscious time trying to craft a better work-life mix for my daughter, my relationship with my husband, and my own quality of life.  The flexibility can’t be beat, even if sleep is sometimes at a premium.

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