ALPHARETTA, Ga. — When Rep. Karen Handel was growing up, she aspired to be the first female professional football player.
While that dream didn’t come true, she jokes she is now involved in a different contact sport — politics.
Handel was elected this June as the first female Republican Congresswoman from Georgia.
On Oct. 18 she spoke about her own experiences navigating the business and political ladder at the annual Women Who Walk the Walk event hosted by the Alpharetta Chamber of Commerce.
“As women, sometimes when we embark on our careers and life we get caught up in the fear of failure,” Handel said. “Every one of us has had that moment where we were afraid of what’s next, where we’re going and if it doesn’t turn out.”
But in times like that, she said it’s important to be brave.
“Every single woman in this room needs to be audacious about what it is you want to achieve as a person and woman,” Handel said. “Not just in your careers, but in your lives. One thing I learned early on for myself is that where you’ve been does not get to define where you can or will go.”
Failure is a part of life, she said, and because they may experience it early on, it’s crucial to get comfortable with it.
“That’s the only way to really get out of your comfort zone,” Handel said.
She left home at the age of 17 from a tough environment including abuse in the household. Some of her friends let her move in with them, and she said she didn’t get into too much trouble even as a teen on her own.
“I’m a pretty unlikely congressman given the path I’ve taken to be where I am,” Handel said. “I have been told I’m a little too audacious. But I wear that as a badge of complete and total courage because no one is ever going to tell me I can’t. That is the spirit you have to embrace.”
She worked her way up from her first full-time job as a clerk typist with AARP, to serving in the White House and as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue.
“I was able to recognize the opportunity that was in front of me,” Handel said.
She eventually became the CEO of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, which she said was a pivotal point in her career.
Not long after she was named the CEO, she found the organization was on the brink of bankruptcy because the finance director had been embezzling money.
“I’ll never forget that meeting because several folks wanted to be quiet and not tell the membership the full extent of what was going on,” Handel said. “I had to make a decision about who I really am at the core of my being. I made the decision if we were not going to be fully transparent, I would resign by the end of the day.”
The board of directors was supportive of her decision, the Bank of North Georgia helped them get a substantial line of credit and the members rallied around the organization.
This inspired her to see what the community is really about, she said.
A short while later, she became the first woman elected chair of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners after she initially lost a race to be a board member.
“You have to believe you can do it and you cannot be lulled into complacency by being afraid to take the risk and step out and do it,” Handel said. “Who cares that I lost the commission race? Move on with life. I did, and low and behold next thing you know I’m chairman of the commission.”
She next ran for Secretary of State of Georgia and was told she was “too big for her britches.” She won and became the first Republican to hold the position.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not your turn,” Handel said. “Being in tough situations and standing up to fear is one of the most important things you can do. Every time you take a step out, it will open new doors for you.”