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September 15 2017

Karen Maria Alston

by Charlotte Hays

Meet Karen Alston, now a D.C.-based entrepreneur and founder of a mentoring organization for young women, but once a new Howard University grad who knew more about J.P. Morgan in New York than some of the people who were interviewing her for a job at the global financial services firm knew.

Alston had been studying J.P. Morgan for several years. While at Howard whenever she met somebody from the famous private bank, Alston politely asked for a business card (at that time emails were just coming to college campuses) and then wrote a formal note saying how much she had enjoyed meeting them. She kept a business card holder full of contacts made who all worked at J.P. Morgan. Her interest in Morgan had its genesis while she was a student at Howard University majoring in Finance.

"This is such a great story," Alston says, laughing. "I knew nothing about Wall Street, nothing about investment banking or J.P. Morgan. One day I was sitting in my commercial banking class, the first class I had taken in my major. I'll never forget it. There was this beautiful African American woman who came to speak to us.  Her name was Donna Chapman Wilson. She had on a gorgeous fur coat, nice suit and she looked so elegant. I was so impressed. She was from J.P. Morgan. I said, 'I've got to find out about this J.P. Morgan.' I started researching J.P. Morgan. Back then the Wall Street Journal gave Howard University business students free subscriptions. I'd read my Wall Street Journal daily and look for articles about J.P. Morgan. I read The House of Morgan, I read their annual reports, quarterly reports and began to search for anything that mentioned J.P. Morgan. Every visit to Howard University from an employee of J.P. Morgan came to Howard, I'd make a point of meeting them. By the end of my senior year, I probably had 40 or 50 contacts at Morgan."

Alston was a B student and J. P. Morgan generally hired only those with straight A's. But Alston made an impression. It was impossible to miss her zeal for the company. She was hired to work in domestic custody and later in private client banking. 

"I worked ridiculously hard," she recalls. "One of my mentors had told me, 'When your managing director gets to work, that's when you get to work. When your managing directors leaves the office, that is when you leave the office.' Well her arrived at 7:45 am daily and left around 7:00 pm. My managing director started to notice that I was always there when he was. He'd say when he left, 'Okay, Karen, it's time to go home.' It was through him that I got my first promotion. I learned a great deal about people, money and corporate culture at J.P. Morgan."

Alston had grown up in West Philadelphia in a middle-class family of successful African American entrepreneurs and college graduates. One of the family's heirlooms is Alston's great-grandfather's framed diploma from Tuskegee University in Alabama. Alston was especially influenced by her grandfather, Wallace C. Nash. Nash got his start in the Army, in which he rose to the rank of major, through a program aimed at racially diversifying the U.S. military created by Franklin Roosevelt. Post military he went on to become a successful businessman based in Philadelphia. Wallace Nash made sure his children went to college. One of them is Alston's mother, Faune Watkins.

"My parents made sure their kids went to college," Alston recalls, "so I am a fourth-generation college graduate and a third-generation entrepreneur. Which is a source of pride for our family and it wasn’t until later in life that I fully understood it was rare to have four generations of college graduates, especially from communities of color. The fifth generation of my family has started college and its first graduate is expected next spring."

"I was told that, if 20 doors shut in your face, keep going until the 21st opens," says Alston. "Talk to any successful person, and they'll say that they had a hundred doors slammed in their faces. It blows me away that many people don't persevere and give up when we have infinity opportunities in this country."

"We are proud of what he accomplished," Alston says, referring to Major Nash. "I look at the world through the lens of what my parents, grandparents and great grandparents were able to accomplish. My great grandfather James Russell Council was the most senior black man in Oklahoma government in the 1920’s. Occasionally, there was racism. But their premise was that racism existed, but you deal with it and you work and achieve. I was told that, if 20 doors shut in your face, keep going until the 21st opens. In reality, talk to any successful person, and they'll say that they had a hundred doors slammed in their faces. It blows me away that many people don't persevere and give up when we have infinity opportunities in this country. As kids, my siblings and I were told we were just as smart, just as talented, and that we had the skills and background to succeed and that we owed it to our ancestors to be successful. Our ancestors sacrificed and worked under difficult conditions and circumstances to give us opportunities."

Even so, J. P. Morgan might be culture shock for any middle class kid from West Philly since the company specialized in dealing with the richest of the rich. "At first I was overwhelmed and then I became intrigued," says Alston. "You want to know how people made all this money. Sure, some inherited it, but many made it. You realize that there is opportunity. It motivated and inspired me. It made me work harder. Yes, I saw some classism, but I also saw a traditional old company that lived by its values."

Alston had planned to build her entire career at J.P. Morgan, but after four years, she had an offer to work at MBNA. She was promoted rapidly and eventually found herself in the NYC office of the late MNBA cofounder and CEO Alfred Lerner. MBNA was a giant credit card issuing entity and bank holding card company that, after a dramatic series of ups and downs, was bought by Lloyds of London. At the time Alston was hired, Lerner was one of the hundred richest people in the world and a philanthropist who owned the Cleveland Browns. The ambiance was different from that at the blue-blooded J. P. Morgan. 

Alston loved MNBA. "It was a great company for teaching and educating employees. It fostered a sense that everybody's contribution was equal. Every four months executives had to work in customer service, listening on the phones to customers. We learned on those days on the phones what it was like in the trenches."

After MNBA, Karen joined America Online--AOL--as an associate. She describes AOL as the "wild, wild west in the nineties." She adds, "Steve Case (cofounder and CEO of AOL) was a visionary but maybe the vision was too soon. But AOL was a great place to work." AOL, unable to pay competitive salaries, paid by giving employees stocks. "I saw a lot of people make a lot of money fast," Alston recalls. "Secretaries became millionaires."

On going to work at J.P. Morgan right out of college: "At first I was overwhelmed and then I became intrigued," says Alston. "You want to know how people made all this money. Sure, some inherited it, but many made it. You realize that there is opportunity. It motivated and inspired me. It made me work harder. Yes, I saw some classism, but I also saw a traditional old company that lived by its values."

Alston left AOL in 2002, shortly after it merged with Time Warner. "My boss, whose judgment I trusted, raised his hand and took a buyout at that time. We had lunch a few months later. He said, 'Don't stay. You are brilliant. Start your own business.' So, I raised my hand at the next meeting and took the buyout and walked away." The upshot was that fifteen years ago Alston founded the Alston Marketing Group, now AM+G Marketing Communications, based in Washington, D.C., which creates advertising and branding campaigns. Her clients include charter schools and D.C. government agencies. If you've seen those ubiquitous red bikes known as Capital Bikeshare, you'll have seen a logo designed by Karen's company.

Alston has worked for 4 years for Eagle Academy, a public charter school which serves nearly a thousand low-income kids in preschool through third grade in grades on two Washington campuses. Eagle was founded by the late Cassandra Pinkney, a mover and shaker in the charter school movement. In addition to providing traditional schooling, Eagle Academy helps students obtain medical and dental care and also runs programs to educate parents. "I am not against public schools," Alston says. “I believe there are many ways/methods to teach children and I believe in the charter model. There are great schools providing exceptional learning opportunities for students. Eagle Academy is one of them. Eagle emphasizes STEM classes but it also has mental and behavioral health professionals on staff because some of the kids have come from homes that have suffered from "trauma and issues around poverty." Eagle goes out of its way to hire a diverse teaching staff – it is extremely fortunate to have many male teachers and staff members.

Eagle Academy also has another claim to fame--a relatively calm visit from Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos, who is often greeted by raucous protests when she visits a school. Secretary de Vos came to a science fair at Eagle and it was largely without incident. Alston explained one secret of this success: except for parents and school administrators, nobody was told until 4:30pm the day before the visit. "There wasn't any time to arrange a protest," Alston says. It is true that the trendy Huffington Post showed up and later carped in print that, despite being at a science fair, De Vos declined to answer questions on climate change, "one of the planet's most pressing problems" (hey, Huffers, give it a rest: maybe educating kids is pressing too?). Still, the visit went off well. "Betsy said it was the best visit she's ever had, and her staff raved about it," Alston says.

At The Spectrum Circle event, the women debated “Just how accepting is the DC region to creative businesses? Can DC ever be known as a creative powerhouse?” At the end of the discussion, they concluded that Washington is a good place to be for female entrepreneurs.

In 2015, Alston launched The Spectrum Circle, which is geared towards mentoring the next generation of women entrepreneurs through panels and speakers. "I was talking to younger women," Alston says, "and I was disappointed by some of their strategies for navigating success." Alston says that too many had bought into a reality star  notion of success and believed

Photo from the awards luncheon.

 that having a lot of Twitter or Instagram followers was important to achieving success. "I was sad to hear some of their stories and the images of success they derived from television and reality stars like the Kardashians," she adds. The Spectrum Circle hosts programs that encourage women to view success differently and become part of what Alston calls "the creative economy."

For the past two years, Spectrum has sponsored an awards luncheon to honor women for innovative achievements in technology, business, government, finance, and the media. In April, Spectrum hosted adiscussion held at events venue Studio 52.  It was led by Melanie Gamble, owner of RE/MAX Supreme, and featured such female entrepreneurs as Julie Weber, chief marketing officer at a firm called Brllnt, and events planners Sugar Taylor and Nar Hovanian. The women debated “Just how accepting is the DC region to creative businesses? Can DC ever be known as a creative powerhouse?” At the end of the discussion, they concluded that Washington is a good place to be for female entrepreneurs.

Other events have tackled how a female entrepreneur should present herself to the public and prospective clients, and the importance of dressing professionally. Alston spoke to IWF shortly after a controversy had erupted around what is called the Capitol Hill's Speakers Lobby dress code. Some women were upset that they were warned that sleeveless dresses and open-toed shoes were not considered proper attire. What does Alston think about this?

"There should be standards for dress," she says. "When you work some place, they have the right to dictate attire, and those are the rules. The definition will depend upon your industry, but you need to dress professionally." While a stickler for the dress code, Alston, believes that the sky is the limit for the creative entrepreneur, who is willing to follow the advice her parents gave her: knock on doors until you find the right one that opens and gives you a path to success.  

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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