Wednesday, May 12, 2010


This painting "Transitions" represents the changes and obstacles when I was going through one of my biggest personal growth periods. In embracing and overcoming those obstacles, it has led me to an amazing transformation that has brought me so much more happiness and peace.

I painted this painting "Transitions" when I was most scared, during the time of intense painting in 2002. I felt I was perched on the rickety bridge in my painting, scared to death and about to fall into the rapids. Somehow I knew I had to continue, one foot in front of the other with no idea where I was heading. I did not have a job and was living out of my savings.

I had left the computing industry in 2001 after 16+ years. It had been fun, challenging, lots of travel and very long hours. Work was my life – my relationships and dance had to work around that. I was laid off in Jan 2001 but it was really a firing as I no longer wanted to cooperate with what was going on at the company I was working for. This was the company (CommerceOne) that acquired the winning startup I was in – As Director of Sales, in the first year of a start-up with an ever changing sales target increased from $2M to $7M to $14M in 8 months, my team finished the year with $15+M. In most other companies, this would be recognized as an amazing success but that was not the case for us. was my last breath. I had already been in 3 other failed startups before joining Microsoft. I didn’t think I had anything left in me for another startup. But I did. I would not have left Microsoft if the universe did not conspire to place another obstacle in my path that forced me to re-evaluate my goals. I realized I really wanted to ‘retire’ before I was 40 and I only had 4 years to accomplish that. That was not going to happen at Microsoft even though I really enjoyed working there. The decision to leave was easy.

I learned enough from all the other failures to pick a winner - within 2 months, was sold for $200M and my stock options were worth more than a million. I was 38. As part of the sale, I was forced to stay on for a year with the acquiring company (CommerceOne) and as my stock options had a vesting period of 3 years, I really had no choice. I think this was the first time since I walked out of home at age 18 that I experienced a loss of freedom. It did not sit well with me.

After the acquisition, our start-up was set-up as a division in CommerceOne. From the day of the acquisition onwards, CommerceOne did it’s best to shutdown our sales division ( My revenue goal was increased from $7M to $14M on the day of the acquisition and I only had 3 months left in the year to bring that in. Don’t forget I started with a $2M revenue goal. I had to hire quickly, build alliances, fight a lot of internal battles to protect my sales staff. I felt the weight of their whole family on me.

After we ended the year by over-achieving our revenue goals, I could see the writing on the wall. The 2 owners of the start-up had left. I was now reporting to the VP of Sales in the acquiring company, CommerceOne. The new revenue goal CommerceOne was expecting from my sales division was ludicrous. The hidden agenda was to close us down. I did my best behind the scenes and secured new positions for my sales staff with the other sales directors in CommerceOne. I was being recruited by other divisions but was stalling on making a decision.

The new VP of Sales I was reporting to did not have the guts to tell me his intentions to fire me. I was suddenly left out of a sales management meeting in Dallas and a week later, I received a call from another VP saying that I was now working for him. I said I was not interested in working for him. Not too long after that, in January 2001, when I could not log into the email server from home (this is always the first sign), I received a call from yet another VP informing me that I was laid off along with many others, just 2 weeks short of a major vesting period of my stock options which would push my net worth to over a million +. I could have taken this to court and spent every day of my life in court fighting over money for several years. It was an easy decision for me – I decided not to fight, collected my commissions and left.

It had always been a dream of mine to go to Brazil. I flew to Rio de Janeiro in time for Carnaval and learned how to dance samba. On my return to San Francisco, I performed Samba with a local Samba dance troupe – imagine me at the grand age of 38, in feathers, bikini, and high heels shaking my tail-feathers with 21-year old dancers!

One of my friends from the old Oracle days was trying to recruit me into their startup company as VP of Sales. But when the owner reneged on our agreement and sneaked the change into the offer letter, I decided not to hang around and flew out to Cuba (my second trip) to study dance with a top Cuban dance troupe. While I was in Cuba through a series of amazing coincidences I met a wonderful loving man. He was black, lived in New York and was a director. We fell in love and it seemed for the first time in 16 years, I was seriously contemplating marriage. I would never have met him if the owner of the startup had been upfront with me.

On my return to the Bay area, we continued our relationship long distance, meeting up in Los Angeles, New York and Jamaica. In between, I was invited to be co-founder of a startup with ex-Oracle friends and we made the round of pitches to Venture Capitalists. We did receive some funding but on the condition of going back to the drawing boards and reengineering the product - there would be nothing to sell for over a year. So I bid that startup – bye bye and continued on my merry way.

I started painting 3 months later. I woke up one day in Nov 2001 with this conviction I should be painting with the Chinese brush. After my first lesson that Saturday at the China Institute in San Francisco, I fell in love. I had never painted before and this compulsion to paint would not stop. I sold all my possessions, moved from Northern California to New York and lived out of 2 suitcases in my then boyfriend’s apartment. (See for more about the art side).

I would get up every day and paint for hours. I would paint anything and everything around me. Even though I studied with a few teachers in San Francisco, I had to leave when they started imposing their style and preferences on me.

After moving to New York, I found a really great art teacher Mr. Jin. Every Friday, I would get on the subway at Hell’s Kitchen and head to the China Institute on the Upper East Side for my art class.  My walking route from the subway included stopping at a French Patisserie for the world's yummiest lemon tarts which I would proceed to demolish during art class.  This was an advanced art class – we brought in our paintings and Mr. Jin would critique them and offer suggestions for improvement.  Sometimes though, some things were lost in translation and I had many funny moments with Mr. Jin and the translator.  Unlike most other Chinese art teachers, Mr. Jin did not paint for us, nor did he try to impose his style on us. He encouraged us to develop our own style. My class-mates in this class were all amazing artists and I found it very inspiring to see what they created every week.  I was always criticised by my previous art teachers for using colors that were too bright, too bold, too strong, too much contrast etc.  I remember the day when Doris, a lovely German lady brought in an amazingly colorful, large bold abstract painting of the Taj Mahal using bright vivid watercolors, tissue paper, lipstick and a huge bold Chinese Challigraphy character on one side.  My heart just soared when I saw this .... oh it's ok to be colorful and big and out there.  After I got to know Doris better, I thanked her inspiring art and the impact it had on me.

I also took private lessons from Mr. Jin’s home in Queens on Saturday mornings and bring him little Malaysian snacks if he did not have enough time to get through my art on Friday class. My class-mates usually brought in 1-2 paintings.  I would have 6-10 paintings for review every week.

Every now and then, my practical side would kick in and I would panic about my lack of cash flow. Especially when my then boyfriend’s business went bankrupt and I was suddenly supporting the 2 of us and pumping money into his business.

However, the thought of writing my resume or looking for work would make me sick to my stomach. This is very unlike me as I used to panic if I didn’t have another job lined up when I was ready to leave a current job. I now had difficulty with time, returning phone calls and responding to emails. I used to be anal about being on time or early for meetings, always returning phone calls and responding to all emails even when I used to get several hundred a day at Microsoft. It seemed like the left side of my brain had completely collapsed and I was operating solely on the right side. I even had difficulty speaking, often stumbling over words. I could not keep a train of thought in my head for longer than a few seconds. I used to speak in public seminars regularly in Australia and all over Asia. I was known for my ability to focus and my intensity. My friends did not hear from me during this time. They would have said “What are you doing Karen??? Get a job!!”.

All I was familiar with was swept away by the force of this tremendous compulsion to paint. The worst thing that happened was my inability to manage my emotions. I would cry at the drop of a hat – when I saw something beautiful, I would cry, when I was angry, I would cry. I used to be very judgmental of women who cried in the workplace. At that time, I did not understand artists. Why are the creative people in the PR agency I hired always moody, affected easily by the environment like the weather or the color of their room and many had difficulty meeting their deadlines. Looking back, I must have been a machine, with my intensity, tenacity and focus on my work. I did discover salsa in 1991 and ballroom dancing in 1994 and that was my stress reliever during my corporate years.

My college degree was in Chemistry and Computer Science and my graduate degree was in Chemistry (Australia). My working life was in the computing industry (Australia, Asia-Pacific and US). I started on the technical side in computing before moving to marketing and sales. So the people I knew were either geeks like me or in marketing or sales. I had one really close friend –who was a salsa dancer and later a holistic healer but she has an amazingly logical brain and I could easily relate to her. I didn’t understand about the other stuff she did. To a scientific head like me, it was all mumbo jumbo.

Until I started painting, I didn’t have friends who made a living solely through their creativity. Other than my close friend and my then boyfriend. Even then, I related to them on the left side of the brain and paid no attention to their creative pursuits. Can you imagine how scary all this stuff that was happening to me? It was such an out of body experience, I thought I was going mad!

My then boyfriend was there to witness my transformation from geek/business to art. He had a lot of difficulty when I started crying every time we fought. Because I was cool, calm and collected pre-painting.

Even though it didn’t reassure me at that time, he understood my crazy non-stop obsession with painting and my dissatisfaction with my results as “I was still trying to find my ‘voice’”. He himself had always made a living through his creativity, first as a successful photographer (touring with Lionel Richie, Earth Wind and Fire, Police etc), then as a music video director for RAP artists like Snoop and Shaggy. The transition into film directing was tough. All his friends were artists. He did say “Great, now we have 2 starving artists in the family instead of one”. He had just been screwed by his friend who had not paid him for the work and expenses he had incurred working on the “Pope project” in US, London, Rome and Cuba … hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was facing bankruptcy – he didn’t have any cash reserves. He was a very generous and kind person and when money came in, he gave it all away helping his kids, relatives and friends.

At that time, the plan was to build our production company, he would do the creative and I would do the business-side. I did manage to pull myself together and represented him on a couple of deals. That left me with a major ‘eck’ feeling – the business partner in the other production company was really sleazy and indicated he would agree to the deal if I slept with him. Yuk!

After doing some major research, working on the business plan and getting more exposure with the people in the entertainment industry, I decided it was even worse than the computing industry. The lack of integrity was astounding. I told my then boyfriend that I would support him behind the scenes by funding him and giving him moral support but the entertainment industry was not for me.

All this time, I was painting in secret. Other than the students at my weekly art class, no one else had seen my work or knew what I was doing. One day, I met an artist (my first one) who was exhibiting in the gallery downstairs. We became friends. She had real difficulty selling her artwork and did not have the courage to approach the gallery owners herself. No problem – I said! I used to be in sales, I’ll cold call for you. I think I made about 20-30 calls before discovering her art didn’t fit into what the galleries in New York were focusing on. When she found out about what I was doing in secret, she asked to see it and liked my art. That gave me a little bit of confidence and I showed another new friend who is a Tax attorney (hates her job but loves art and is always taking classes in photography, interior decorating, fung shei etc in search for her next career. She just has difficulty with the money part). She immediately commissioned me to paint a painting of 2 peonies for her close friend’s birthday. That is how I started selling my art.

This journey through art has led me to the most wonderful people in our society whom in my corporate life, I didn’t understand and could not relate to. They have beautiful hearts – warm, kind, empathetic, sensitive, always willing to help, with a lack of guile or meanness. These are the artists - creative people who feel things intensely – joy or sorrow - often too painful to bear. This is what propels them to create, the force of their emotions is so strong, it has to come out in some way, or they would go mad. That is why some artists seek to mask their pain in destructive behavior like alcohol and drugs – because they feel it so intensely. If only we can protect our truly creative spirits from the pain of this earth …. but we can’t. It is their journey and that is how great art is born.

Since then, my journey has led me to Southern California and teaching art and dance to amazing people. I have moved beyond the rickety bridge in my painting and feel I'm now climbing the stairs along the side of the mountain. It's a lot of work, I feel out of breath and a little giddy at times but I know I'm on the right path. I have more clarity in what's ahead ... and a clearer vision as to what's at the top.

My life is so different now. That’s because I am so different now. Ever since I left home, I have always maintained my freedom and happiness. However, I knew that there was so much I needed to change to be a better person. I used to be somewhat of a control freak … I used to be filled with insecurities. Moving from Australia to the US was a very difficult adjustment for me. I was not happy at work and I had difficulty adjusting to the social scene in Northern California. I used to worry incessantly and had difficulty relating to creative people. I could never sleep well. I hated being alone and was frequently bored – but I refused to spend time with toxic people. I used to hold 15 min meetings and rushed everywhere. I had difficulty receiving help and asking for help. I used to love in a conditional way. I was at war with myself and burned out from the world. But even when I was deep in a disaster trying to work my way through it, there was tiny part of me that would say “oh goody I wonder what wonderful adventure will happen next”. That’s because I had faced enough obstacles to know that every time some disaster happened to me, it would knock me off my path but lead me to a really good place, which, without the disaster, I could never have imagined. During this time, it was the discovery of dance that kept me sane, bringing me joy and relieving my stress.

Now, I choose to spend time with whom I want and when I want. I have eliminated all toxic people from my life and only spend time with good people. I choose who I want to help. It fills me with a deep sense of satisfaction and joy when I get to share my love of art and dance with my students and watch them take their first baby steps, or when I share my business and life skills with my students, friends and clients and watch them flourish as they find their own happiness and prosperity. I am at peace with myself. I can sleep at nights. I’m so much better at receiving help and asking for help. I’m no longer afraid of being alone. I’m happy and excited to be part of this world. I want to make it a better place, helping one person at a time. I have learned how to love unconditionally. It is very liberating. I’m so glad all these things happened to me. It has led me here. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Thank you for reading my story. I would love to get your feedback, your stories of overcoming obstacles and answer any questions you may have.  Please write to me in the comments box below and I will respond as soon as possible.


ps. you can see "Transitions" enlarged here

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