After more than a decade working high-power jobs in publishing and event management, Karina Wilhems has a great deal of impressive experience under her belt. However, over the years, the UC Berkeley graduate has never lost sight of her humanitarian values. “Being smart is not the core of my identity,” says Karina, whose greatest wish is and has always been to serve her community.
Karina was raised in an upper-middle-class coastal community about 30 miles south of Los Angeles. Born to a doctor and a nurse, Karina and her two sisters–one of whom is her twin–were taught from a very young age to think about how they could use their future careers to help other people. “My parents were very mindful of the impact our family had on the community,” Karina says. The humanitarian values her parents imparted to her played a significant role in her growth into the strong, self-assured, successful and compassionate woman she is today.
Karina inherited her parents’ drive to learn and make a difference. Education was highly valued in her family, and discussions about college began when Karina was in middle school. When Karina and her two sisters were toddlers, their mother went back to school to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in nursing, and their father, who had been the first in his own family to obtain a graduate degree, tutored his wife in chemistry. It was always understood that Karina and her sisters would go to college, but they were each given complete freedom to explore their own interests. Despite the fact that a large portion of her extended family was in the medical profession, there was no expectation that the girls would also study medicine. “The main messages of my family,” says Karina, “were, ‘do good in school’ and ‘be a good human’.”
Karina describes herself as a “self-driven perfectionist”. Her parents stressed the importance of performing well academically, but Karina admits, “I don’t need anyone to put any pressure on me, because I always put enough pressure on myself.” As a high school student, she was often stressed about grades. “I behaved like and was treated as the smart kid in the family,” Karina says of her adolescence. Though she wasn’t a fan of math or science, she excelled in English class. She was always good at writing and at interpreting literature, and one of her English teachers–a notoriously tough grader–even made an example of her essays, often handing out copies of them to the rest of the class. Karina had thought long and hard about what she might study in college, and English seemed like a natural choice.
During her freshman year of high school, Karina tagged along with her best friend’s family when they brought their older daughter to college at UC Berkeley. Karina fell in love. “It was beautiful and fun,” she says, “and it was just far enough away from LA.” Over the next few years, Karina’s mother helped her strategize her acceptance to Berkeley; they figured out what grade point average Karina would need to maintain and how she would need to score on the SAT’s.
But just when the path forward seemed clear, a tragedy rocked their family during Karina’s junior year. Her father, who had been diagnosed with cancer when Karina was in the seventh grade, finally lost his battle. With his loss, discussions about college changed; a significant portion of the family’s income had also been lost. However, Karina’s grandfather valued education so much that he paid for Karina’s tuition–as well as that of his five other grandchildren–and Karina was admitted to Berkeley in 1998.
Berkeley was challenging and stressful, and Karina was put off by the elitist attitudes of many of her fellow students. She felt like Berkeley students acted as though they were smarter than everyone else, and she was intimidated by the knowledge that she was not the smartest student at the university. Despite her difficulties, however, Karina found a place within this dispiriting world. She had become a Christian in high school, and Berkeley’s youth group was a big part of her college experience. It was here that her values were affirmed, where she was reassured that “value does not come from being smart, but from serving people,” and that “getting good grades is not what makes you a valuable person.”
Karina also started dating her now-husband while at Berkeley, and his easy way of going about life balanced her tightly-wound ambition. His laid-back attitude and easy success soon began to influence the way Karina thought about school; she became less performance-oriented, and she even passed Astronomy–a subject she had previously failed–because he was in the same class.
Karina’s career began when she secured an internship at Harper San Francisco–Harper Collins’ religious and spiritual division. She and her boyfriend attended a presentation by influential Christian author Dallas Willard at their church. Willard’s work had played an instrumental role in their faith, and Karina, who had always been shy, worked up the courage to approach his publicist and inquire about internships at Harper. Much to her delight, her pitch was successful; her bravery had paid off.
The internship did not pay very well, and Karina spent most of her time “stuffing galleys into envelopes”–so much so that the memory of this phase of her life is marked by the ever-present tiny paper cuts that covered her hands. But the job was fun, and it was not without its perks. “I got paid in books,” Karina remembers fondly. She also learned a lot about the world of publishing, and–inadvertently–discovered what she did not want to do with her life. She decided not to pursue working at Harper after college, because she saw that the world of a “big-time editor” was a harsh one. It was not the sort of lifestyle
she envisioned for herself. During her senior year at Berkeley, she had also become interested in nonprofit work. She still held strongly to the values with which she was raised, and she resolved to steer her career toward the nonprofit world.
Karina graduated from Berkeley in a poor economy and was obliged to make her own way in the world; her mother maintained strong boundaries when it came to helping her children financially. “She offered to pay for my health insurance until I got a job, but that was it.” Karina took on a waitressing gig to make ends meet in the meantime, and this job brought her further out of her protective shell. The shy college graduate was suddenly forced to make conversation with strangers. It was the first chapter in her transformation into a confident, outspoken woman. She spent the next several months “living like a college student,” with three or four roommates, in the same house, she had lived in while studying at Berkeley.
After less than a year, Karina began working at a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to caring for and educating homeless children in Brazil. Although this chapter was short-lived due to a lack of room for growth at the company, this job was Karina’s first foray into the world she had longed to be a part of. After that she became the executive assistant to the CEO of a nonprofit Christian pregnancy center. She was drawn to this nonprofit because, unlike many other Christian pregnancy centers, its efforts were focused on supporting the women in its care, and on getting them the help they needed.
Two years after graduating from Berkeley, Karina married her husband, who had recently found a job in leadership development in Boston. The young couple packed up and moved to the other side of the country. Although she had resolved to remain in the nonprofit world, she was hired to help the CEO of her husband’s company research and edit a book, and then she began working for them as a training coordinator. It was a far cry from the career she had envisioned for herself, but after a year both Karina and her husband were promoted. Karina was made responsible for running Women in Leadership conference and a conference on diversity and inclusion in leadership. During this “sweet phase” of their marriage, the couple shared next-door offices and went to
lunch together every day. It was a welcome comfort, as they still did not know anyone in their new city.
In 2007, the couple returned to the West Coast to be closer to family. Karina now faced a new challenge: working remotely from their tiny two-bedroom apartment in downtown LA. Gone were the days of water cooler talk; she had to learn how to connect with her colleagues from a distance. Karina’s role as program director also brought her face to face with many famous keynote speakers–from Donna Brazil to Jane Fonda to Brooke Shields. Suddenly the once-shy Karina was presenting opening remarks in front of audiences of a thousand people.
With the birth of her first son, Karina began working half-time, and a whole new host of challenges arose. “Corporate America is not really set up to allow part-time workers to progress.” Karina realized that employees only succeeded at her company if they worked far beyond 40 hours a week. She was not interested in throwing herself completely into her job, but she still wanted to keep her foot in the door while she raised her young children. “It’s really important for me to be able to use my brain and talk with other grown-ups, and to feel like I’m contributing to the world outside of the home. I think it makes me a better mom.” However, Karina’s boss had told her that it was impossible to balance life and work after having a third child. Sure enough, Karina’s position was eliminated shortly before she gave birth to her third child. She felt discriminated against, but she ultimately decided not to pursue legal action, because she did not want to
remember that phase of her career in a negative light.
After losing her job, Karina began taking on independent contract work. She found clients through word of mouth, and before long she realized that her impressive and varied work experience had left her with unique, useful skills. She decided to move away from large event management and utilize her skills in editing, writing, and research. It was at a church-based leadership conference that the next chapter of her life began to unfold. There she heard about Liz Wiseman’s New York Times bestseller Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. Karina was inspired by Liz, whose publication is one of very few written by a female expert on leadership. Before long she had become Wiseman’s editor, and she was eventually offered a full-time job with the Wiseman Group, though she decided to continue working only half-time. Over the years, what began as an editing job has grown to entail many other various duties.
“I will do anything for a short amount of time,” says Karina, recalling the various roles she has played at the Wiseman Group. Most recently, she worked on a long-term research project for Impact Players, Wiseman’s latest book.
In the middle of this project, the Covid 19 pandemic changed the world forever, and Karina found herself at home with three school children–one kindergartener, one Second Grader, and one Fifth Grader. Suddenly she had to balance managing the kids’ schooling, their piano and Zoom hip hop lessons, keeping a clean house, and her job, as well as the emotional processing of the ways in which life was changing. Soon she became convinced that she was not and could not be a good mom, homeschool teacher, or employee.
On one particularly challenging day, Karina faced the school board’s decision to not resume in-person classes, the dissolution of her two younger kids’ “pandemic learning pod,” and a sprained thumb which left her unable to work on a computer. She had begun to grow resentful of her family under the strain of being “all the things to all the people.” She reluctantly decided to take a six-month leave from work and was grateful that her boss was supportive of her decision to prioritize her own mental health and family. Though it was a difficult decision, Karina never regretted taking time off from work; in the Fall of 2020, her middle child was diagnosed with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and ADHD. Because she was not working, Karina was able to be present for her son.
She fondly remembers reading Charlotte’s Web with him. She felt the world fall slowly back into place as she leaned into her responsibilities as a mother.
Once everyone in her family was vaccinated, and once the kids were off to summer camp and bound for school in the fall, Karina returned to work, just in time to complete a full edit of the book she had been working on with the Wiseman Group before it was sent off to be published. It was the closure she needed after a stressful era.
Today, Karina continues to work for the Wiseman Group, managing webinars around the book she helped bring to life and developing hiring tools based on Wiseman’s publications. Karina still asks herself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” She would still love to work for a nonprofit someday. The desire to help people, to help her community, echoes the values instilled in her by her parents. She still works part-time, and therefore she is able to invest her free time in her community. She’s a member of the PTA and often volunteers at the kids’ school. She wants to make the school the best possible place for all of its students–not just her own children. “I want all the kids at our school to be successful and to have access to everything they can.”
Karina and her family have been happily living in SF Bay area for over ten years.