Every Friday, Karin Schwartz’s grandmother would buy a small toy or piece of candy for each of her grandchildren. To an outsider, this ritual might not seem exceptional, but to young Karin, it was nothing short of rebellious. “My grandmother was expected to cash out her weekly paycheck and then bring all of the money home to my grandfather,” she explains. “Even though she was told not to, she continued to buy us gifts, and no one ever knew.”
Born in the 1920s, during a time when women’s rights were at the forefront of our nation’s political stage, Karin’s grandmother possessed a natural inclination to go against the grain, and Karin herself inherited this defiant spirit as well. While her grandmother passed away when she was just three, she can easily relate to the independent attitude she observed in those very earliest years in the woman she so admired. “I’m not much of a conformist, and I often tend to buck the system,” she says today. “The last thing I want to hear from a company is, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’ If you think that way, how are you going to improve as a business?”
Karin’s knack for shaking things up is why she’s now the CEO and founder of Springboard, a business development consulting firm. Founded in July of 2008, Springboard aims to create sales opportunities for government contractors and professional services firms that lack the time, resources, or ideas to increase their sales value. Whether it’s a company that’s growing rapidly or a business looking to enter new markets without committing the full resources business development typically requires, Springboard allows its clients the freedom to improve without expending the full resources or overhead to hire a full-time salesperson. Its unique business model affords clients the opportunity to lease consultants, which ultimately translates into more freedom and flexibility when companies need it most.
While freedom and flexibility aren’t often associated with the world of sales, Karin hopes Springboard will challenge and overcome negative preconceptions of the industry. “There’s still a lot of animosity around sales,” Karin says. “Of course there are people who still treat sales like transactions, but for our company, those transactions are born from trust and genuine relationships.” Karin’s personal commitment to transparency translates to a company culture of openness, and as a result, Springboard’s salespeople are extremely forthcoming with their clients. In initial meetings with clients, Karin sets realistic expectations, and she’s honest about what her team can deliver. “Our justice streak and desire for honesty is what makes Springboard different from what you see in other organizations,” she affirms. “We only succeed if we help our clients to succeed.”
Springboard’s innovative approach to sales has allowed it to grow in both size and reputation since its inception in 2008. Karin originally came up with the idea for the company after she came into contact with business owners who showed opportunities for growth but who lacked the funds to hire experienced people, and as someone who was experienced with forging connections and executing a process, she attracted many clients who craved sales opportunities but who were too busy to manifest growth on their own.
Most of the overwhelmed small businesses owners who became her earliest clients had companies earning $3 million or less in revenue. Today, armed with twelve experienced consultants, Springboard now serves companies earning as much as $30 million annually. This dramatic shift in its client base occurred after Karin went on maternity leave following the birth of her son, Kyle. The extra time afforded her an opportunity to reconsider the future of Springboard and the ultimate goals she had for the company, and always itching to reinvent the wheel, Karin decided to focus her hiring energies on people who did business development on an outsourced basis and had experience serving a number of different industries. Thanks to that time of reflection and reinvention, Springboard now works with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, as well as the commercial market. It has a strong focus on finding good fits for their services, utilizing a Client Acceptance Protocol to ensure a successful relationship. “Companies that make decisions solely based on money are not good fits for us,” Karin affirms. A strong corporate culture, goals, and purpose are what drive Springboard clients.
This focus on increasing the diversity of Springboard’s team has not only set it apart from competitors, but has also resulted in savings for clients and expanded opportunities for the company. “Our clients like the team approach because, in business development, it’s all about the people you know and the relationships you have,” Karin explains. “In our industry, success depends on the conversations you have.” With this in mind, her continued goal as CEO is to make sure her team has the support and resources to get the job done. In the past, Karin worked for employers who focused too much on vanity or wealth—empty values which she refuses to bring to Springboard. “As an entrepreneur, your goal should be to create the business you love and do it with the people you care about,” she affirms.
Karin embraced this “do what you love with who you love” philosophy watching her grandfather, who was one of the founding members of the Baltimore Colts marching band. Two of his sons, including Karin’s father, also played in the band. The three men were extremely passionate about music, and they loved to play together even more. “It was a different time, when the guys who played football worked at Sparrow’s Point, had regular jobs, and didn’t have multimillion-dollar contracts,” Karin reminisces. “Everyone hung out together.”
Through those precious years together, Karin’s family acquired a collection of memorabilia that now commemorates those close ties and good times. The collection includes part of the goal post from the 1959 championship game, a ticket book from that season, and two footballs signed by the entire championship team. “Those relics are kind of like the ties that bind my family together,” she says fondly. “My siblings and I grew up on football. We have a really close family, and a lot of that closeness comes from sports.”
Indeed, athletics dominated Karin’s childhood growing up in Fallston, a Maryland suburb just outside of Bel Air. From soccer to softball, she played just about everything. “Our family had the flattest yard and longest driveway in the neighborhood, so if you wanted to play sports, you came to our house,” she recalls. “As long as it wasn’t raining, there was a game in our yard.”
In addition to recreational sports, Karin also took an interest in gymnastics, and through this passion she was able to land her first job. Between the ages of thirteen and 26, she coached girls’ gymnastics, while also working some retail jobs and taking on the occasional babysitting gig. The work ethic she developed as a teenager was necessary to fund anything outside of basic necessities. “A lot of people thought my siblings and I were spoiled because every Christmas there was a lot to go around,” she says. “If we needed anything for the rest of the year, however, we had to buy it ourselves. Our parents wanted us to learn the value of a dollar.”
While work played a formative role in Karin’s life, education played an even bigger part. Her father, a hardworking man who spent his life in telecommunications, didn’t attend college. In fact, he missed 47 days of school in the second grade, preferring to play Cowboys and Indians in the woods.
Karin’s parents decided a college education was non-negotiable for their children. Her mother, a homemaker who later took a job in retail, stressed the importance of a college degree—a piece of paper which began to carry more weight for Karin’s generation. Given the choice between Towson University and Essex Community College, she chose Towson, where she pursued a degree in finance with a minor in economics. Her choice to pursue finance was influenced by her high school accounting teacher, a man who often talked about his mutual funds and money with extreme openness. “In the 1970s and 80s, you didn’t talk to your parents about money,” Karin describes. “As someone who loved numbers, it was really intriguing to hear my accounting teacher talk about where and how he invested.”
After Karin graduated from Towson, she worked as a financial advisor for several large institutions, and during that time, she learned a lot about herself as an employee and as a woman. Her experience with one client in particular, a large physicians group, stands out in her memory with particular color. “The planners for the group made no bones about the fact that they wanted a young and good looking woman at the front of the room when we gave presentations to the doctors,” Karin remembers. “I was used to attract the specialists with the larger paychecks. But in the end, I was placed with the researchers who made a lot less, and barely a few years out of medical school all their disposable income went to pay their student loans.” Karin soon realized she landed the position with the physicians group because she was female—a reality that compelled her to set the bar high for herself. Never one to adhere to stereotypes, she chose to prove her worth through hard work and business acumen instead of just skating by. “It was important for me to make my mark where I went,” she stresses. “No matter what path I take, I don’t ever want to be the person who was handed something; I want it to be earned.”
By April of 2000, Karin had accrued years of invaluable experience as a financial advisor and reached a point where she felt she was treading water. While exciting, the stress of those years had also taken a heavy toll on her health, but actually enacting a change would take an extra push. Karin continued to advise business owners in the construction industry until that push came. “I ended up in the hospital with an asthma attack, and then my dog passed away unexpectedly,” she explains. “Ultimately, those experiences led to me leave the industry after years of having stomach ulcers and being sick all the time. That series of unfortunate events enlightened me to other opportunities where I could gain more independence and change my life for the better.”
Ready to create a new life, Karin was offered a position with Syndicated Research Group, which provided human resources and financial consulting for Fortune 500 companies. When the company went under after the events of 9/11, Karin went to work for Gevity, a national human resources consulting firm. Too independent to follow the traditional path of a standard employee, Karin then went on to start ImpactHR, a human resources consulting firm, with a retired executive and another consultant from Gevity. At ImpactHR, Karin cultivated new skills and gained the knowledge necessary to found Springboard. “I learned a lot about marketing from my time at Gevity and ImpactHR,” she says. “It’s really important to understand who your client is, who you’re targeting, and what you’re saying.”
While ImpactHR was a successful business, Karin still craved more autonomy—a desire that ultimately gave her the courage to strike out on her own. And now that she’s a mother of one with another on the way, the flexibility and freedom of entrepreneurship is even more important. “From a mom perspective, owning your own business allows you to take on multiple roles,” Karin says. “There are days when I work fourteen hours, and then there are days when I can take my son to the zoo.”
Today, Karin plans to buck her own system and change the direction of Springboard once again, keeping things growing, transforming, and relevant. In its next iteration, the company will take a special interest in helping small businesses build structure around business development. “I’ve had a lot of small companies who’ve said to me, ‘I don’t know where to start,”’ she explains. “We want to answer that question for them.”
While the reinvention of Springboard will require a lot of work, Karin is confident she’ll be able to pull it off. “Every time I’ve stepped away from the business, I’ve come up with a crazy new idea to change things for the better,” she says. “And I do think those changes have been key in our success and relevance to markets, both old and new.” Karin also knows her husband, Matt, will be a great support as Springboard enters its next phase. “If I’m getting in the way of my business, Matt will call me on it,” she explains. “It has been extremely helpful for me to have someone who can see how my patterns can affect my company, and how to safeguard against that.”
While Karin’s trajectory to success and freedom has required her to buck the system from time to time, her advice to young college graduates is more timeless. “Do your homework,” she says simply. “I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve had where a young person didn’t know a thing about our company.” Karin urges young people to take advantage of all the resources available to them, most notably the internet, and to come prepared. “You need to be able to say why you think you’d fit in at company, what skills you bring to the table, and how you see your role evolving over the next couple of years,” she affirms. “You also need to have a thick skin in a culture where everyone doesn’t get a trophy. I look for self starters who take initiative and don’t need babysitting—people who are willing to be mentored, attend training courses, and read everything on business, leadership and mindset.”
As CEO of Springboard, Karin always strives to be better, even if that means taking a risk or challenging the status quo. To reach great heights, one must be confident enough to go against what’s comfortable or expected, just as Karin herself has time and time again. “My ideas don’t always fit the norm. They aren’t always welcomed with open arms, but it’s important to think outside the box and buck the system every once in a while,” Karin says, reminiscent not only of those secret Friday afternoon gifts from her grandmother, but also what they stood for. Karin, like all good rebels and like her grandmother before her, is led by her ideas rather than her fears, and has been able to lead others to success because of it.