Katie Nelson

Creating Win/Win/Wins

Although Katie spent most of her childhood in Arizona with her father and stepmother, she was born in the DC area where her mother and maternal family remained. After college and a few years working in the southwest, Katie turned to her new husband Adam, and asked, “Why don’t we try somewhere new?”

“We thought we were footloose and fancy free. We had no kids and nothing tying us down anywhere so we could throw a dart on the map and move,” Katie laughs. “Then we looked at each other and said, ’We are not good at darts and could end up in a remote part of Saskatchewan.’ We knew that wasn’t a good plan. We did it the smart way and actually wrote down the places where we would want to live and where we knew people. That led us back to Virginia.”

Moving across country was a big change because for the first time, Katie decided to think seriously about what she wanted her career to look like. She began applying to jobs in the DC area and was open to whatever new opportunities might arise. “I had an interdisciplinary degree in communications and sociology which means my degree was not marketable,” Katie jokes. “I’m not a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, or anything that had a clear career path. In the weirdest turn of events, I looked at my family and work history, where I came from, and what I loved to do and decided I would go into sales. I would have never predicted that before our move. I applied for sales jobs. It was a defining moment because until that time I never thought it was something I would do or be.”

She took a commission-only sales job selling office supplies for Miller’s Office Products. It was a woman-owned small business, and the job allowed Katie a great deal of freedom to set her own schedule as long as she hit her goals. Katie took to the work and realized that she loved the products and building relationships with clients. She learned how to cultivate customer relationships and spoke with them at length to determine what problems Miller’s Office Supplies could help them solve. She also discovered the joy of residual income. “If you need paper this month, you will need paper next month,” Katie explains. “If I build a strong relationship with you, you’re not going to another company next month to buy paper. In a sense, there was an aspect of guaranteed income, if you could maintain that relationship.”

“In the weirdest turn of events, I looked at my family and work history, where I came from, and what I loved to do and decided I would go into sales.”

After 12 years in sales at several different companies including two where she was the minority owner, Katie was finally tired of selling and making money for other people. She grew tired of being the one bringing in customers, building relationships, and building a client base, without reaping all the benefits of ownership.

“I had met a woman once who assumed I owned my firm, but I told her I was a minority owner and only owned a small piece. She viewed me as the gal Friday who got everything done and who brought in the business. She told me, ‘That’s what I do, and I own my own company.’”

“She asked me a question that changed my life,” Katie recalls. “‘If you had your own company, what would you really want to do?,’ she asked. “I told her three things—I didn’t think I’d be able to own my own business, what people want is for me to sell for them, and I was exhausted of having to vet someone else’s dreams and integrity before I would sell for them. I then told her that I would love to teach people what selling is really about and how to do it. She said, ‘Okay, go do that.’ But then I pushed back—telling her, ‘No one wants to be taught something like that. They only want me to make them money.’ She thought my defensive nature was funny and told me she would hire me to be a sales coach. And my response was simply, ‘What’s a sales coach?’”

After this eye-opening exchange, Katie immediately started researching what services a sales coach might offer and how. Within a couple of weeks, she found that the career she envisioned for herself was a real possibility and that the marketplace was hungry for coaches with a skill set like hers. Thus, in August of 2016, Sales UpRising was born.

The name is important to Katie. She wants salespeople and business owners to feel proud of their work and empowered to build their sales in mutually beneficial ways. As Founder and CEO of Sales Uprising, Katie and her team work with small businesses to quickly and intelligently expand their revenue. Their ideal client is a service-based business that’s been operating for about three years and has yet to break $250,000 in revenue. “At $250,000 in revenue you know this is a good quality idea and there’s proof of concept,” explains Katie. “But there are some foundational business pieces they need to understand to take it to the next level and one of those is selling. If you haven’t hit $250,000 yet, you haven’t mastered it yet so let us help you.”

The focus on elevating businesses above the $250,000 threshold has provided Katie with a guidestar for growing her own business, and it has paid personal dividends as well. “It’s gratifying to see someone get over that hump,” smiles Katie proudly. “And while I work with both women and men, seeing women achieve that success point is so special, being that the success rate for women business owners is currently very low.”

Clients of Sales Uprising can be from any sector or any industry. The principles they teach are universal. Katie’s team analyzes clients’ business needs, works to create a more efficient sales process and pipeline, and helps create a business strategy with a sound and profitable structure. For the first couple of years, Katie was the sole employee of her firm, but in year three, she began to bring on additional staff.

As a businesswoman, Katie stresses the importance of relationships that serve all the players involved. “When a salesperson helps a customer, it should never be to the salesperson’s detriment or the customer’s detriment; it should be a win/win,” she explains. “I had years of experience working with government contractors. And in that case, I had a client, and the client had a client—the government—so I had to make sure they are also winning. Ultimately in sales you’re looking to create win/win/wins.”

Although she’d never seriously considered sales as a career before her move to DC, she has roots in the industry on both sides of her family. Her maternal grandfather, a Captain in the Navy, went into commercial real estate after his retirement. His wife was in residential real estate. Katie’s mother was in retail, a buyer for Macy’s, while her father was in insurance and real estate. Meanwhile, her stepmother, Sally, worked for her family’s business selling guardrail, fencing, and highway signs. “Everybody in my life sold things,” reflects Katie. “But I never thought I would do it as a profession when I was a kid.”

Katie had an unusual childhood. Her parents divorced when she was four, and her father was able to get full custody of her and her younger sister, Meagan. At the time, Katie’s mother was suffering from alcoholism. But after her children moved to Arizona with their father, she was able to get and stay clean and sober. Throughout her childhood, Katie and Meagan would fly back to the East Coast to spend a month with their mother over the summer, or several weeks during the Holidays.

“My dad is 6’3’’ with massive hands, and I remember him French braiding and putting pom poms in our hair, if you can imagine that,” she laughs.

Katie remembers a little bit about the first few years of her life in Arlington, Virginia, particularly spending time with Nana, her beloved maternal grandmother. Arizona was an adjustment—some good and some bad. Her father had to take on more parenting responsibilities. “My dad is 6’3’’ with massive hands, and I remember him French braiding and putting pom poms in our hair, if you can imagine that,” she laughs. She enjoyed being near her paternal grandparents and extended family and getting to go to the pool all year round.

Her elementary school was down the block, and she could safely walk through the community to her babysitter’s house when her father was at work. After several years of single parenting, Katie’s father met Sally, and the two eventually married. Sally had two children of her own—Nicky and Toby—and blending the families wasn’t always easy going. “Sally and I had a really contentious relationship for a long time,” remembers Katie. “There was nothing wrong with her. In fact, she was lovely. And she was 100% different from me. We butted heads a lot through high school and part of college. And we developed a great friendship later in life.”

Now, in retrospect, Katie is unendingly grateful for what she calls the “north, south, east and west of parents,” referring to her mother, father, stepmom Sally, and stepdad Francis. “I was so lucky to grow up with the whole compass,” she reflects. “There was a purpose for each parent, and I’d go to each one for different things.”

Katie remembers that her mother was always her emotional support. When she needed advice, she could always call. She learned hard work from her mother who had a 25-year career with the post office after entering sobriety. Meanwhile, Sally was a whiz with finances, and a responsible role model. She kept the house in perfect order, made floral arrangements, reupholstered couches, and generally modelled successful adulthood for young Katie. Francis, himself 51 years sober, imparted the importance of value, meaning, purpose, and direction as a former Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps. And from her father, Katie says she got her positive attitude. He always taught the kids that no matter how tough things get, you keep your head up and keep going.

Katie enjoyed school but more for the socializing than for the academics. She had trouble focusing in class and preferred to chat and giggle with her many tight-knit friends. In fourth grade, she changed schools and met Margo, the long-time best friend who was a bridesmaid in her wedding. To this day, they and their friend Erin have virtual Zoom happy hours each week. Katie recalls that she may not have been the class clown but she was “the one encouraging him.” In middle school much to her teachers’ dismay, she recalls that she was often reading fiction in class instead of her textbooks.

Katie’s parents emphasized activities and community involvement, so Katie was constantly being shuttled from one extra-curricular to another. She played soccer, softball, and tennis. She sang in the choir, played viola in the orchestra, and participated in Campfire Girls—a girl-scout like program that taught wilderness skills. By high school, she was very committed to tennis and made the varsity team as a sophomore. Through it all, she continued to make friends. “I was the person who could get along with anyone,” smiles Katie. “I hung out with all the different groups—the jocks, the nerds, and the emo kids. I was a little bit like all of them and still am, truth be told.”

Being immersed in diverse social groups and community activities brought Katie a love of interaction, and she soon gained a reputation as a straight-shooter. Ever since adolescence, Katie’s friends have called her for her no-nonsense advice, knowing full well that all her insight comes from a place of love.

As a teenager, Katie decided she wanted to have her own money. She first got an under-the-table job at a local florist shop before she was old enough to work (legally, and not as a babysitter). At the age of 15, she got a part-time job at a call center over the objections of her dad and Sally. “We were not well-off people and didn’t have a ton of cash given that they were raising four kids. If I wanted something, I didn’t want to have to ask for it,” says Katie. “But looking back on it, that call center job was hysterical. I was a 15-year-old girl coming in with her viola and backpack after orchestra and sitting in a cube next to a guy who’s around 40 years old smoking a cigarette! I loved that job. I made around $420 every two weeks and saved most of it.”

Now, in retrospect, Katie is unendingly grateful for what she calls the “north, south, east and west of parents,” referring to her mother, father, stepmom Sally, and stepdad Francis. “I was so lucky to grow up with the whole compass,” she reflects.

During her junior and senior years, Katie began focusing her energy on trying to get out of applying to college. She wanted to work and not spend four more years in school, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it. Finally, they compromised; Katie agreed to try out a local community college. After a year, there she transferred to Arizona State University where she moved into the dorms even though the campus was nearby. She got a job at the campus deli for about three months where she “created the best sandwich ever.” But she soon realized she hated the food service industry. She then took a job working for her dad at his machines company selling wire stripper blades. At school, she spent two years taking courses in various fields, but nothing was quite resonating with her yet. After her junior year, she decided to take a break. “I told my mom and dad that I loved them, that I tried it their way, and that I’m done now,” she remembers. “I told them that I would go back to college when I was ready to get my degree but that I wanted to work and make money now. They weren’t happy with me.”

Katie scored an inside sales job in posh Scottsdale, AZ for Club Med, where she sold all-inclusive high-end vacations to tourists looking to go abroad. Although her family had been reluctant to support her decision to leave school, they had to admit that the commissions and the perks that Katie was receiving were nice. With her excellent sales record, she was able to send her brother on an all-expenses paid trip for his honeymoon and take her mother to the Bahamas. She loved every minute of it, and in her three years working there, she ended up the number one salesperson in the company.

After Club Med, Katie hit the road with her boyfriend Adam. He was in the radio frequency world and helped Verizon set up their first national digital network. This involved travelling across country running computer programs; Katie was the driver. After three months of that, she decided it was time to go back to Arizona State University to complete her degree.

For the first time, she actually met with a career counselor to talk about her degree. “I showed them the credits I had and asked about a course of study,” she laughs. “They told me I was one year away from two different degrees. I had enough credits to get a degree in either communications or sociology. I didn’t want to make a choice, so they helped me set up an inter-disciplinary studies degree. I loved it so much that I got a 4.2 GPA in my final year of school.”

After graduation, Katie took a job at an Anheuser-Busch distributor where she quickly found a model of sales she did not want to emulate. The business was sexist; women were expected to market by putting on skimpy clothing and going to bar parties sponsored by Budweiser. She was ready for a change; and after she and Adam got married in the fall of 2003, they decided to take a risk and move to the East Coast. “He stayed in Arizona to sell the house,” she notes “And for the first year of marriage we didn’t live together!”

After four years at the office supply company, she was being aggressively recruited. After turning down the recruiter several times, he finally told Katie point blank that there were five companies who wanted to hire her and that she should at least come in and meet with one or more of them. One of the businesses was a small, friendly staffing firm called Prism, and Katie felt at home there right away. Over the course of several years, she became their Business Development Manager. Her mentor, coincidentally named Bill Gates, at the firm asked her to go into business with him.

It was the first of two businesses where Katie owned a minority interest. But after her second experiment with minority ownership went bust, she knew she needed to try her hand at something else. That something else eventually led to Sales UpRising. And no one was more supportive of that decision than her husband, Adam. “I told him that I thought I needed to start my own business and warned him that there might be no income or lower income at times. I even told him that I wasn’t sure what I was selling yet. His response was an emphatic ‘It’s about damn time,’” Katie remembers. “He knew I made a lot of money for the people for whom I worked and asked me if I knew that. He has been supportive of every crazy thing I’ve done. He has worked for the same company for over 16 years and has consistently grown with them. So we’re sort of 180 degrees different. He is the anchor that holds down my fly-away-ness!”

Katie always tells those who attend her seminars, “Sales is my love language!” It’s a mantra that she strongly adheres to, especially when see sees colleagues or clients doubting their own ability to sell. “People should be proud to be in sales: you’re providing a solution to someone in need, and that’s nothing to be afraid of or ashamed of,” she exclaims!

As a leader, Katie says she embraces a servant leadership style and prefers to be at the back of the pack helping stragglers and strugglers than at the front taking credit. “For me, it’s not about a title or a position or what’s on your business card,” she says. “It’s not about any pomp and circumstance. It’s not about the paycheck that comes with it. It’s about being able to stand 100% in who you are, taking care of your people, and living and walking in integrity. That’s the leader I aspire to be.”

To young people entering the working world today, Katie encourages patience and openness. “You may or may not get it right on the first try,” she points out. “Don’t worry about it too much, you’ll figure it out. College is amazing, but that doesn’t mean it gives us everything we need for the rest of our life. We have the ability to make our story different if we want it to be.”

Katie Nelson

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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