“I actually never thought I’d be an entrepreneur,” Karen Herson says, laughing. The founder and president of Concepts, Inc., a Bethesda, Maryland–based provider of communications and strategic planning and consulting services, Herson adds, “I did want to make a difference in the world. I think that’s why I was put on this earth, and through our work, I believe I do. We help raise awareness about issues that impact so many Americans and their families. It is incredibly important and rewarding work, but to be honest, creating my company was a complete accident.”
For a firm with accidental beginnings, Concepts, Inc. has enjoyed a string of successes that can hardly be attributed to happenstance. Herson says that the key is focusing on clients’ successes rather than the company’s own, but since its founding in 1996, Concepts, Inc. has compiled an impressive list of accomplishments and accolades and, in 2017, ranked number seven on the Washington Business Journal’s List of Largest Public Relations Agencies.
Herson’s drive to make a difference stems in part, she says, from her determination, as a young woman, to take responsibility for her own path in life.
Herson’s drive to make a difference stems in part, she says, from her determination, as a young woman, to take responsibility for her own path in life. “I loved my father, and we were very close,” she says, “but he was pretty old-school. He always thought he would send me to college, and I would get my ‘Mrs.’ degree and have someone who would take care of me. But I knew I had the ability to provide for myself, and I was determined to make it on my own.” Describing a career path characterized by saying “yes” to the opportunities and experiences that came her way, Herson relates how her focus on hard work and accepting challenges led to winning her first contract to provide communications and public relations services to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). “I hadn’t formed my company yet. I was a consultant, working on my own, and I got an opportunity to submit an unsolicited proposal. I won the contract, and then I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a several hundred thousand dollar contract, and it’s just me.’” She found a public relations firm that was willing to house her and provide certain benefits, but she soon realized that she was still, in every way that mattered, on her own. “I was still doing all the work, and besides that, the owner of the firm was angry with me for not bringing in more accounts.”
After securing her exit from the firm, Karen realized she was better off on her own, leading her to incorporate Concepts, Inc. in November 1996. “We tell our story best by explaining what we do for our clients,” Herson says, “so that makes it a little difficult to reduce it to an elevator pitch. But we specialize in developing public relations campaigns for the federal government, nonprofits and the private sector, with a focus on disability and veterans’ issues, which my team and I are very passionate about.”
Agencies such as DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and Veterans‘ Employment and Training Service (VETS), the U.S. Department of Defense and numerous other organizations have tapped the company to develop strategic planning and outreach campaigns. Concepts’ core services include message development, writing and editing, market research, website design and content management, social media and internet marketing strategy, event planning, and executive visibility. Enhancing these services for many of Concepts’ clients is significant subject-area expertise in disability employment policy. “For example,” Karen says, “ODEP came to us and said, ‘We want to create a public education campaign targeting employers, encouraging them to hire veterans with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. Can you create that campaign for us?’ And that’s what we did. We developed a campaign called America’s Heroes at Work. We created a website, we created the tools for employers to use, we worked with various agencies to make it easier for everyone to work together, we crafted everything in plain language, and we designed an outreach campaign to educate employers and employment service providers about an important issue.” As another example, Concepts is also the creative voice behind the award-winning Campaign for Disability Employment, which has produced four nationally distributed television public service announcements that challenge common misconceptions about the skills of people with disabilities in the workplace. “That campaign is built around a simple yet significant message: that at work, it’s what people can do, not what they can’t do, that matters,” Karen says.
For a communications firm starting during the early days of the internet, Karen says one of her early challenges was simply convincing federal clients and other entities that utilizing cyberspace was an important part of effective outreach. “We would get responses like, ‘Well, it’s the government; they’ll just come to us,’” Karen says. “And I would say to them, ‘They won’t just come; they have to know that it exists in order to come.’”
Before long, however, Karen’s clients began to see the benefits of well-planned, carefully crafted outreach campaigns with online components, and word began to spread. Early on, her firm managed DOL-funded programs to help companies and trade associations promote drug- and alcohol-free workplaces and to educate employers on various aspects of federal employment law and tools to assist them in complying with them. The company’s successes in these areas soon led to referrals from former government employees who went into private-sector work at places like the Home Builders Institute, the Community Transportation Association of America, and others. “They knew our work from their previous experiences in the government sector, so they would recommend us for developing strategic communications plans or outreach programs, and often this would lead to other work like re-branding, creating marketing materials, and similar things. We’ve been very fortunate,” Karen says, “in that we’ve never been hungry for work.”
“One important person in my life was our nanny. She taught me to be grateful for everything I had, and I think as a result of her influence I chose my friends more on the basis of who they were as people than what part of town they lived in.
Though she was born in Manhattan, Karen grew up in New Jersey, where her family moved when she was three. Both of her parents were highly successful in their careers, which afforded Karen and her older brother a life of privilege in many respects. But even as a child, she shunned what many would consider the perks of a comfortable life, determined to map her own course, on her own terms. “One important person in my life was our nanny. She taught me to be grateful for everything I had, and I think as a result of her influence I chose my friends more on the basis of who they were as people than what part of town they lived in. I didn’t hang out with the ‘rich kids,’ and I refused to let my dad drive me to school in his Rolls-Royce! I would rather walk. I didn’t want people to make assumptions. I wanted people to form their opinions of me on me, to judge me on my actions and interests.”
Both of Karen’s parents worked in the entertainment industry, and both impacted her in profound but different ways. While her father’s vision for Karen’s future may have been old-fashioned, her mother, whether consciously or not, served as a role-model for the importance of independence and self-initiative. In fact, Arlene Herson produced her own local television show during the early days of cable TV. “She had worked for a newspaper for a time, and she decided to create a show. It was a talk show, and she interviewed celebrities in the area, including nearby Atlantic City, where many show-business personalities would be performing.” For a time she had a radio show hosted by an affiliate of National Public Radio where she continued to interview celebrities. Retirement has not slowed her mom down, says Karen. “She’s still very busy. She can’t say ‘no’ to anyone, and after she and my dad moved to Boca Raton, Florida, she continued to be very involved in the community, emceeing gala fundraiser events, which she still does today. Everybody knows my mom, and everybody loves her. She’s an amazing woman and an inspiration to me.”
Karen’s father, Milton Herson, who passed away in 2011, built a successful career in the entertainment industry. Born in the Bronx, his childhood was marked by the challenges of the Great Depression. “His family couldn’t support him as a young boy, so he was sent away for several years to live at Surprise Lake Camp, a place for Jewish kids, and he said it actually saved his life,” Karen says. “In fact, he later served on the camp board for nearly 30 years because he wanted to give back to the place and people who were so vital to him.” After a stint in the army, he came home and put himself through college and law school on the G.I. Bill. “He was associate producer of Man of La Mancha on Broadway and the executive producer of the last national tour of The King and I with Yul Brynner. At one time he owned a movie theater chain. In fact, my first job in high school was working at one of my father’s theaters,” Karen says. “Sometimes, I used to come home from school, and Dad would be sitting in his bed, watching TV. I would climb in beside him, and we would just watch TV together. It was a very warm feeling to be with him, even if we didn’t have an actual conversation.” Her father’s wristwatch is one of Karen’s most prized possessions.
“From my mom, I learned the importance of kindness, in all things,” Karen says. “Whether she was talking to them in a professional or personal context, she was so careful about making eye contact with people, smiling at them, and just being present. She also taught me the importance of always doing your homework, of meeting my responsibilities.” Karen’s dad, whom she describes as a “gentle giant,” also demonstrated the quality of treating everyone with respect, no matter who they were or what circumstances they were in, she says. “From the guy who was cleaning the floors to heads of state, my dad believed in treating everybody the way you would want to be treated.”
Karen is dyslexic, but over time has come to view this as an advantage. “It forces me to think differently,” she says. “I used to say things backwards, like ‘pol-nailish’ instead of ‘nail polish,’ things like that. I still do, sometimes. But because of this I have to write everything down, and I have to really concentrate, so it can work to my advantage in terms of what I retain and can process later.” Like Richard Branson, the noted founder of companies like Virgin Atlantic, Karen regards her dyslexia almost as a superpower. “My parents got me a tutor, because they realized early on that I needed some extra help. But as I began to develop my coping strategies and began to experience success in school, I started to really feel empowered. It was formative to me to realize that I could manage it myself.”
Coming from a home with two talented, successful parents, and being naturally shy, I had felt pretty overshadowed, in some ways. Until that point, my parents seemed to always be speaking for me, instead of allowing me to develop my own voice.
Karen credits a high school summer program at Syracuse University as being a real turning point in her life. “I had a chance to take some college courses the summer after my junior year in high school. Of course, my parents sent me there in a limo, which embarrassed me. But that summer was a great time for me,” she says. During that time, Karen says she grew emotionally and intellectually. “It changed my life, because I began to develop larger aspirations for myself. Coming from a home with two talented, successful parents, and being naturally shy, I had felt pretty overshadowed, in some ways. Until that point, my parents seemed to always be speaking for me, instead of allowing me to develop my own voice. It was out of love, I know, but that summer, I was on my own, so I became more outgoing, and I loved it.” She recounts a day when, accompanied by a friend, she walked all over the campus with a name tag on that read ‘Hello, my name is Karen Herson.’ “There was no alcohol involved; we were just two silly teenage girls. But when I told my parents about it later, they couldn’t believe that I would do something like that, because it was so different from when I was younger and at home.” As a result of these experiences, Karen says, she entered her senior year in high school with eagerness and a sense of “wanting to find out what I could be when I grew up.”
“I was really worried about getting accepted into college,” Karen says, “so I applied to eleven different schools, and all eleven accepted me. I had the sense that I would probably end up living near wherever I went to college, but I enrolled at George Washington University (GW) at least partly because the application was only one page.” At her mother’s urging, Karen agreed to visit the GW campus, and “I had a blast. I met a cute boy, and I decided right then I was going to GW,” she laughs. Noting she was still gaining her confidence, she adds, “I majored in speech communications because I thought it would be the easiest major. Also, I was looking for that ‘aha!’ moment when I would know my life’s direction.” If she had it all to do over again, she says she would have gotten a business degree, which would have helped her in her eventual, if unplanned, entrepreneurism.
After graduation Karen had stints at various companies and trade associations before landing at Walcoff & Associates, a management consulting company based in the Washington, DC area. “It was an 8(a) firm”—a federal designation of a firm operated by socially or economically disadvantaged individuals, as defined by the Small Business Administration—“and I was working for them on a government contract. Then Walcoff graduated from 8(a) status and lost the contract, but the contact at the Department of Labor, where the contract was housed, really wanted me to stay on and keep working on the project.” The firm that won the contract asked Karen to become a consultant, and subsequently a deputy assistant secretary at DOL, who had become a mentor to Karen, encouraged her to go out on her own. Winning this first contract would prove to be the event that would ultimately launch Concepts, Inc.
Karen says that her key principle of leadership is to lead by example. “I try to provide overall guidance, and then I let go.
Karen says that a recent major health challenge has influenced changes in her management style. “Recently, I’ve learned to let go of a lot of things: no more micromanaging, and I’ve gotten a much better sense of perspective on work and life in general.” This and other experiences have also oriented her toward embracing more volunteer work and advocacy for others facing health difficulties. “I’ve become more blunt,” she says, chuckling, “but I think I’m also a better, more honest communicator now.” Karen says that her key principle of leadership is to lead by example. “I try to provide overall guidance, and then I let go. That style helped me gain confidence when I was new to the workforce, and I hope it helps my employees today, especially my younger employees, in the same way.”
Karen also credits her daughter, Sarah Vaughn, with helping to form her outlook and priorities. “Sarah is a truly incredible young lady, and without her love and strength, I would not be the person I am today. She is 16 years old and about to start her journey as she heads to college. I know she will be a success in whatever she does. She has a kind heart and is happiest when she is helping others.”
When asked what advice she would give to younger people like her daughter and to young professionals starting out in their careers, Karen emphasizes focusing on the importance of each moment. Through various mentorship activities and even with her own staff, she urges them to “listen, listen, listen. You should always focus on being present, and you should be certain to do your homework, just like my mom told me.” While advising young professionals to keep their ears open, Karen also counsels against believing everything one hears. “Before you speak—above all else listen, and do so with kindness and respect, again, just like my mother taught me.
“Once I found my confidence and calling, I was determined to be a success,” Karen says, “and I was that person who would never say ‘no’ to anything that could help move me forward.” Even though she may have never intended to become an entrepreneur, that “can-do” spirit has been the principal motivating factor in Karen’s life. In the final analysis, that attitude has provided a firm foundation for her many considerable accomplishments—none of which could really be considered accidental.