Karen Peterson of Lendio: “Never step back because you are the ‘first’ or ‘only’ woman”

Never step back because you are the ‘first’ or ‘only’ woman. Own your worth and claim your spot. Someone has to be the ‘first’ or ‘only.’ Why not you? Be true to yourself and capitalize on your unique skills and attributes. Be confident and real because vulnerability and authenticity are what create relationships of trust. There’s a […]

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Never step back because you are the ‘first’ or ‘only’ woman. Own your worth and claim your spot. Someone has to be the ‘first’ or ‘only.’ Why not you?

Be true to yourself and capitalize on your unique skills and attributes. Be confident and real because vulnerability and authenticity are what create relationships of trust.

There’s a quote credited to Coco Chanel that I have always loved. She said, “If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.” I believe women can be fierce and feminine.


As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Peterson.

Karen Peterson is the CMO of Lendio, the nation’s leading small business financial solutions provider. Before joining Lendio, Karen served as CMO for BrainStorm, Inc. and spent over a decade at Ancestry, launching the Canadian market and rising to the position of SVP, US Marketing, and interim CMO. As Lendio’s first CMO, Peterson is excited to expand the role of marketing and lead a high-performing team with oversight of brand strategy, demand generation, lifecycle marketing, product marketing, PR, communications, and creative across all divisions of the company. Her passion for Lendio’s mission to provide accessible capital to small business owners is a driving force.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always been driven by academics. I’m one of those rare people that absolutely loves school. Through a variety of events, I started out on the path to becoming an engineer, was accepted into law school post-undergrad, and then while taking some prerequisite classes…discovered marketing. Marketing is a perfect blend of everything I am passionate about –data and analytics, technology and automation, human behavior and psychology, measurable performance, and also creative and strategic branding.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading {at} your company?

My first 90 days at Lendio were anything but typical. Not only was I leading a fully remote team, but three weeks after joining the company in June 2020, I tested positive for Covid. Recovery was slow and difficult. And then one of my children faced more health challenges. Soon after, someone ran a stop sign and totaled my car while I was driving my son to school. It was a perfect storm of challenges in a tight timeframe. However, the beauty of the story was in the support I received from every member of the C-team. Their patience, concern, and authenticity came shining through. And, my loyalty was sealed.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first began my career as a marketer, I was focused solely on outcomes and driving results. While that wasn’t a problem on its own, the singular focus came at the expense of relationship building. I was not in search of individual glory or credit. I naively believed that relationships at the office were deeply rewarding personally, but just a bonus professionally. It was one of the fastest lessons I learned. Relationships are everything.

We’re all human — and we bring our good days and bad, our quirks and humor, as well as our fears and dreams to our jobs every day. Every single one of us. Especially as leaders, we can’t just produce good work. We must meet people where they are, inspire, motivate and also, listen and learn with humility. We are all in the people business.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I was initially hired as a Senior Marketing Manager at Ancestry, my manager, Josh Hanna, was known for being direct, detailed, and demanding. He didn’t allow excuses for anything –from missing deadlines to misunderstanding even the smallest nuances of the business.

Though he may not have been well-liked by everyone, Josh was brilliant and respected. Over the years, he taught me more about leadership, accountability, ruthless prioritization, agility, and performance than anyone. He had a knack for balancing high expectations with a personal touch. At the end of the day, we –his team members– knew he cared about us as individuals.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I live an hour from the office (without traffic), and I have learned to make the most of those two hours in the car every single day. Whether I am researching a topic by listening to a book or podcast, playing music while I think, talking through a concept with my husband, or rolling down the windows to take in some fresh air and silence…I use the time to brainstorm and ideate on topics. I often bounce a problem or presentation around in my mind for days as I drive. I’m constantly looking for analogies and connections.

I have also adopted a regular practice of meditation. The Calm app has been such a fun tool to explore, and my meditation practice helps me stay focused when I am working through a problem. Meditation is like taking my mind to the gym. And just as it goes with working out my physical body, the benefit isn’t so much about spending time at the gym as it is about bringing additional benefits and clarity into my daily life. Meditation has that effect on me.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Businesses and organizations absolutely cannot assume they represent the customer’s view –even if they happen to be a customer. As marketers, we must leverage insights and data and focus on listening to internal and external customers so we gain a full picture. You see this same benefit coming from diverse executive teams. We all become more empathetic when we take a wider perspective and understand different points of view. And, that diversity in thought –which increases as we have diverse teams– brings new perspectives and innovations. Every team is better when they get out of their comfort zones and into growth mode.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Diversity is not just about being equal. It is about really seeing each other and our unique contributions. Our opportunity is to celebrate both our differences and the richness that those differences create. When we really see each other, people flourish. We are more attuned to how we can support each other and help each other succeed. We also see how much we gain from our differences.

One of my sons has Spina Bifida, which manifests primarily as a physical disability. Yes, I want him to be seen and treated as an equal. But we all benefit when we see, learn and listen to the unique experiences and perspectives that he has. He benefits as we truly “see” him and his challenges — and think of ways to be more inclusive. It’s not just about equality. It’s about inclusion and adapting the experiences. And receiving the benefits on both sides.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Early in my career, I read a story about a c-level executive at a major brand who was wildly successful in his functional role and was promoted to a senior-level position; however, he ultimately failed as a leader because the things that made him successful as a functional manager did not translate into his leadership role. I’ve never forgotten that story.

As an executive, you bring a critical and unique perspective to the table. And the combination of leaders across different disciplines creates a team that helps drive the business forward. The diverse experiences and expertise are critical to the success of a team. Executives need to be able to maintain a wide-angle lens view and look far ahead, anticipate roadblocks and obstacles, and also take advantage of opportunities.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

People may think that an executive spends their time working within their discipline. I often coach leaders on my team through challenging personnel concerns, creating accountability with team members, and many more issues that are not related to marketing. As you gain more responsibility and influence, you often spend less of your time ‘doing’ the things that initially propelled your career. We spend more time thinking through the company strategy and vision, how to optimize operations and gain efficiencies, as well as how to improve employee morale, culture, and retention. You spend less time “doing” the skills that initially propelled your career and more time focusing on the success of the team around you.

The other common myth is that as an executive, you have it all figured out. You are confident and experienced and know the right answer. The reality is that even in the c-suite, you’re always learning, growing, and adapting. We are encountering ‘firsts’ all the time.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

During a break in our weekly c-team meeting, I encountered a woman standing outside of the mom’s lounge within the restroom. Knowing that she had just returned from maternity leave, I asked her if she was waiting for her turn to pump. She said that she knew of at least three new moms returning from leave at the same time and that they often crossed paths.

When I went back into the c-team meeting, I immediately let the team know that we needed to create several new rooms for mothers who needed to pump at the office. They agreed emphatically and without hesitation, and we quickly aligned on a plan.

This is such a specific, unique need that women may face. Having four children of my own, I pumped for almost five combined years…in a variety of places and conditions. For me, it was an incredible honor that I was able to do this for my children…but, it also created some of the most awkward and vulnerable moments I’ve ever experienced professionally. I wanted to make sure that wouldn’t be the case for the moms in our company.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Before coming to Lendio, I knew that the company was mission-driven. That was a top priority for me as I looked for my next venture. After joining the team, I realized how palpable the mission is to employees across the company. We know that what we are doing is making a difference in the lives of small business owners, their families and communities. And, it’s an honor to be in a space that is solving and innovating on an age-old problem of democratizing access to capital.

I have dedicated most of my career so far to growth at a D2C company and marketing everything from consumer goods to enterprise software. And I love that those experiences and insights –across company growth phases, organizational models, challenges of scale, critical communications, operational efficiencies and more –are all more alike than they are different. The opportunity is to take all of my past experiences, mixed with intuition, gut, and strong data, and customize the solution for what Lendio needs right now.

Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

As you take on an executive role, the level of ambiguity you face in your daily work increases. You are the one identifying opportunities and charting the course. You can pull upon all of your tools –including peers, mentors, and advisors –but you need to be willing to make the call and not only accept, but own the outcome and the consequences.

Some people thrive in this type of environment. They are builders, innovators, and creators (I am definitely in this camp), while others find the unknowns of the exact same situation overwhelming.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Never step back because you are the ‘first’ or ‘only’ woman. Own your worth and claim your spot. Someone has to be the ‘first’ or ‘only.’ Why not you?

Be true to yourself and capitalize on your unique skills and attributes. Be confident and real because vulnerability and authenticity are what create relationships of trust.

There’s a quote credited to Coco Chanel that I have always loved. She said, “If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.” I believe women can be fierce and feminine.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I dedicate time consistently to work with students at local universities, from specifics around interview and resume support to longer-term mentorship. I serve on an advisory board to help evolve the curriculum to meet changing industry demands. I absolutely love speaking to and advising both undergraduate and graduate students.

When I find people who share my passion for a cause, I am now more willing than ever to ask for their engagement or support — whether it is for an adaptive sports program, an entrepreneur chasing a dream, or a friend. Relationships are so critical, and relationships often play a bigger role as you grow in your career. Influence becomes key. And recognizing how we win together is vital.

And most of all, I truly believe in a quote widely attributed to Mother Teresa: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

We have the opportunity every day to impact an individual –at home and in our professional world. I don’t ever want to miss a chance to make a difference for someone.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t let your identity become defined by your professional world. If we’re good at what we do, we are constantly evolving and improving. But we can’t evolve if we have cemented ourselves and our identity in one specific dimension, role, or place. We always need to be in growth mode. Our unique personal experiences build empathy, which creates a competitive advantage. The title at my company is part of me –but, it does not define me.
  2. Have dreams and goals, but not rigid expectations. Expectations don’t allow real life to happen. Circumstances, places, and people change. And if we hold expectations too tightly, we miss the serendipitous opportunities along the way. Goals and dreams, on the other hand, can be shaped and molded and transformed. And that’s where the magic happens.
  3. Boundaries often lead to the most creative solutions. Although Dr. Seuss has been a hot topic lately, if we look at the way that The Cat in the Hat was created, we will see how some of the most creative innovations come from boundaries and limitations. He was limited to a finite set of words to write what became one of the most popular children’s books of all time.
  4. Choose harmony over balance. I don’t think the goal is “balance,” which implies a 50/50 split in our life. We have many priorities, and there is a difference between balance and harmony. Happiness is a choice and comes from knowing what is most important to us individually –and acknowledging the season we are in– and then finding true harmony and contentment wherever we are.
  5. Embrace the contradictions. I love a million different things. I started my career pursuing a degree in engineering and then a career in law and then found a passion in marketing. I have lived by the beach, in the mountains and in big cities. I love every kind of music –from country to rap to classic rock. I used to worry that perhaps I was indecisive, that I didn’t know who I was or what I really liked. And then I realized that I like ALL of it, and that makes me who I am. So my advice is to embrace the contradiction. Take every bit of your unique self and bring it to the table. You can be both driven and content. Fierce and feminine. You CAN be an amazing mother and a kick-ass executive. Show up as YOU: your authentic YOU.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I can’t help but be an advocate for kids with special needs. Having a child in a wheelchair not only makes me see the world differently, I literally see every building, restaurant, city, or experience through the lens of accessibility (or lack thereof). And it has made me so much more aware and compassionate in general to the struggles people face.

Approximately 26 percent of Americans live with a disability, and mobility is the most common type of challenge. These numbers are significant. On too many occasions, I have seen friends temporarily park in the elementary school reserved handicap parking spots while I unload a wheelchair and help my son navigate from the far end of the parking lot. They sheepishly wave as they see us maneuver by. Being sensitive and aware is a good start.

I am passionate about adaptive sports and the confidence and exposure that they provide for young athletes. Kids not only deal with the direct impact of their disability, they also face social and emotional challenges, and even basic things like housing, educational access, and employment opportunities are limited. That needs to be changed.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My father recited what some call the ‘Serenity Prayer’ so often that it was one of the first passages I memorized growing up: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I have found that letting go of the things that are not in my control is one of the most liberating experiences. Because we cannot control anyone but ourselves. The ‘things’ we need to have the courage to change are our own thoughts, actions, habits, and reactions.

And when I feel overwhelmed, inadequate, fearful, or any other paralyzing emotion, I concentrate on the things I can control: my circle of influence and my own contributions to the problem or the solution.

This has been one of the greatest lessons my father taught me, and it has been a theme that I come back to time and time again.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I would love to sip some sweet tea with Reese Witherspoon. She is classy and confident, successful and humble, creative and entrepreneurial. And through it all, she doesn’t take herself too seriously or put herself above others. That type of authentic vulnerability is what makes people everywhere adore her. She navigates life with an infectious optimism, lightness, and humor.

Reese has never tried to fit one particular mold. She continues to innovate and push herself with new ventures. She’s a momma and a killer businesswoman. Not to mention, she’s a southern girl like me.

And, let’s face it … Sweet Home Alabama is one of my all-time favorites. A little country and a little New York. So very me.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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