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Jun 1, 2022

It’s her business to teach at-risk girls business

Karen Palka celebrating a grand opening

Karen Palka’s big idea came from an observation. Her daughters and their friends were growing up in a world where girls needed better self-esteem and confidence-building support. Schools offered Home Economics and Culinary courses, but no one required or even offered a class on Entrepreneurship, much less on social-emotional health. This AHA moment led Karen to launch her non-profit, A Beautiful Me in 2008 with the vision to foster self-worth in all women of all ages. Currently, they’re on a mission to build self-esteem by teaching entrepreneurship and philanthropy to middle and high school girls with intensive, hands-on programming. They run a retail store, The Closet, where teens gain professional skills to take into the job market. Reaching over 10,000 girls nationally and globally in 14 years, Karen is just getting started. She’s busy beta-testing her next big programming idea and is always looking to tweak operations for the next generation of girls.

⁠Here’s Karen Palka on all things entrepreneur:

On finding her WHY
A Beautiful Me started as a hobby to build self-esteem and it took off. I left my other job to support girls’ confidence and self-worth because building social-emotional health is so critical to being a human. I learned pretty quickly this is a global problem. Girls need self-worth beyond marriage, especially in places like Guatemala where we expanded our outreach, but also right here in Michigan.

⁠⁠Self-worth comes from real-life skill building. We tell kids to go to college, put themselves in debt, but we don’t teach them how to manage their money. Business skills are real-life skills, and teaching entrepreneurship is a way to build confidence.

⁠⁠I thrive off watching our girls grow. I want them to know they don’t have to wait until they’re eighteen to have an idea. Pitch it now in our training space. Evolve it. Make it happen.

On motivation
When I talk about my business, people say I’m so passionate. But I think passion and motivation go together. I’m motivated and driven by the girls we work with and their success stories. When I hear a testimonial of how they’re doing out in the world and how we helped them, of course I want to keep going.

On mentors asking questions
Early on we started in places like community centers, and it was a huge challenge to get the word out. We weren’t part of a Parks and Rec type program where someone could search and register their kid. So we asked ourselves, “Where are the girls?” Schools were the answer, but we had to evaluate how to reach our target audience faster without it being too labor intensive.

⁠⁠I ended up having a lot of conversations with my network of friends and my mentor. We brainstormed with white erase boards and post-it notes, and I didn’t say no to any idea early on because I knew it might evolve.

⁠⁠Good mentors don’t try to solve your problems, they just ask you questions. Mine kept asking me questions, one of which was “Would a brick and mortar work for you?” At first I wanted to say no way, but then with more follow up questions, I realized a brick and mortar was exactly the answer I needed.

On getting unstuck
When I’m stuck in a challenge I use benchmarking, which means I look to see what else is out there. You have to piggyback on what’s already working in the world. But then you have to think about how you could do it differently and make it work for your business.

On flipping the superpower question
My superpower as an entrepreneur is brand and marketing, because for me that’s a natural strength. But I like to ask, “What’s my kryptonite?” As entrepreneurs we have to understand what’s going to hold us back. 

⁠⁠My kryptonite has always been numbers and accounting. I’ve learned a lot from my accountant and come a long way managing my business finances, but I still pay people to balance our nonprofit reconciliation. I really believe that successful entrepreneurs can identify the outsourceable parts.

On staying focused
I have shiny penny syndrome, or as some people say, ADHD. I’m easily distracted and end up down rabbit holes. It’s not a bad thing, but I’ve had to learn how to narrow in and focus. My business coach helps me with planning. I also create a weekly priorities list with my staff. I’m all about attacking a list. I also shut off alerts on my phone, which helps with the shiny penny issue.

On the AHA of exercise
Exercise is definitely critical for the whole person. Unlike a lot of early rising entrepreneurs, I prefer to exercise in the evening. A lot of my ideas come during this time. The endorphins push my brain and get creativity flowing.

On what she loves about her job
Entrepreneurs are always thinking of other things, always cultivating new ideas. I really enjoy brainstorming and trying to bring ideas to fruition. When something doesn’t work, I like to push through and say “Okay, it didn’t work. But why?” I love that part of entrepreneurism. We talk about this with the girls we teach. Inventions don’t come from just starting something new. It’s about the minor improvements you make along the way.  

On the best advice for entrepreneurs  
Keep your ears open and don’t say no to something quickly, but don’t say yes to everything either. Because there might be an opportunity. Look for the gaps. That’s where entrepreneurs thrive.


Michelle Keller

UX writer, content editor, small business storyteller.