A SINGLE MOTHER OF TWO GIRLS, Kathy Penny successfully balances mothering while running her own strategic human-resource management firm, KAT Consultants. After gaining 20 years of experience with entrepreneurial startups like SunRocket, CrossMedia and Optoro, as well as working with MindShare and Novak Biddle Venture Partners, Kathy combined her many impressive skills to start her own business and now specializes in working with early-stage and emerging-growth, venture-capital-backed, high-tech companies.Your career history is interesting and impressive. Let's start with MindShare. This program sounds like an incredible gift to the community. How did it start?
In 1995, Harry Glazer, my then-boss, chaired the Emerging Business Committee of the Northern Virginia Technology Council with Anne Crossman. As part of their work, they targeted entrepreneurs in the Northern Virginia region and sponsored informal meetings for them. Right from the start, these meetings attracted great speakers.
What were those initial meetings like?
At the beginning of each meeting, the attendees would each give a simple “elevator pitch” on who they were. These introductions would be followed either by a speaker or a panel, a Q&A and discussion and then further networking.
As these meetings became popular with entrepreneurs and CEOs, service providers were inevitably attracted, and the attendance swelled to more than 100. Harry and Anne eventually decided they wanted to put the focus back on the entrepreneurs, and they hit on the idea to form MindShare. The mission, from the start, was to provide a forum for CEOs of emerging technology com panies to get to know the leaders of other early-stage companies, enabling them to learn from each other and to interact with experts on subjects that were relevant to their growing businesses. By early 1997, the first MindShare meeting was held. Members of the group were hand-picked by the board, and the location was a private, upstairs dining room at Clyde’s in Tyson’s Corner—the same room used for the meetings today.
At the end of the first year, the board decided that the members of the group would “graduate” and become alumni, and a new “class” of members would be selected for the following year. I was instantly enamored with the thought of working in one of these startup companies and, shortly thereafter, I joined CrossMedia, an angel-backed startup. In order to remain involved with MindShare, the role of MindShare Alumni Director was created for me, and I’ve been a member of the group ever since. In its 16 years, the alumni organization has grown to over 660 members. I’m the most proud of having had an impact on the engagement level of the alumni. I’m passionate about MindShare’s mission and find it gratifying when 50 to 100 of our alumni members gather for an event, and I know that I’ve helped create value for them.
Describe the journey that led you to launch your own consultant business. What was the most difficult aspect of this career transition?
I had actually formed KAT Consultants in 2004 when I planned to do some short-term consulting, but I shelved it temporarily when I joined SunRocket as a full-time employee. In 2009, less than a year after joining PeopleCom, one of my daughters experienced some serious medical problems that kept me out of the office for a couple of weeks and working from home instead. When the owner told me she would no longer pay me, I knew the time had come to dust off KAT Consultants, re-launch my own business and be my own boss. Participating in a decade’s worth of MindShare meetings was a priceless experience and prepared me well for running my own company. The most difficult aspect of the career transition was knowing that there was no one to rely on but myself for sustaining the business.
What do you find the most rewarding about running your own business, and in what ways do you find aspects of your job informing your other interests?
The most rewarding aspect of strategic human-resources management is having an impact on my clients’ companies, from building a high-performance team to creating the culture to supporting that team and seeing the companies’ performance improve over time. I find that my HR expertise and years of MindShare experience have provided me with the opportunity to help entrepreneurs, former co-workers and friends who may need either general advice for running their companies or help with finding a job.
Your two daughters are lucky to have such a strong, dedicated, and motivated mother; what a great role model you are for them. How do you find the skill set needed for your work life overlapping with your home life, and in what ways has this been surprising to you?
Thank you for the kind words. I’m very proud of both my daughters. I have a 14-year-old daughter, Katharine, and a 10-year-old daughter, Alex. I’m fortunate that they’re good students, good athletes and just overall good kids. Many skills from work come in quite handy for being a Mom (AKA: the CEO at home). You have to be organized, a good communicator, patient and able to multi-task. What I’ve found most surprising is that I’ve been able to juggle it all—running my own business while being a single mom.
Any final thoughts about your endeavors that you’d like to share with our readers?
There are a few, especially for younger readers who may just be starting their careers. In 1990, I lost my stepmother to cancer. She was only 44 years old, but she lived her life to the fullest. That devastating loss taught me that life is short, so love what you do. I’ve also learned through my experience that I have to respect who I work for and, if I don’t, then it’s time to move on. Don’t be afraid of risk; the rewards can be great. I absolutely love being in control of my own destiny and being a strong role model for my daughters.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her work has been published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others and is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain and Rock & Sling. She teaches composition at Indiana University’s Southeast campus, and she lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome daughter.