ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Karen Cashion, a trained attorney from Duke University with over 20 years of law experience, never thought she would become the CEO of a nonprofit.
She would have laughed if you had suggested it while she was finishing her degree, Cashion said. She had it all planned out. Law would be her life-long career.
But, Cashion said, life has a funny way of working out, and she couldn’t be happier with her new, unexpected role at Tech Alpharetta.
Cashion spoke at the April 16 Women Who Walk the Walk event at The Golf Club of Georgia. Women Who Walk the Walk is speaker series put on by the Alpharetta Chamber of Commerce that invites women leaders to speak about their experiences and how they go beyond their comfort zones.
Cashion worked for several law firms, both large and small, in New York and Georgia. Some of her past companies include Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, EarthLink and Travelport, LP. And in Atlanta, she got her dream job of working as in-house council for a large company.
The hours were long and demanding, Cashion said, but she thought she was sticking to her five- and ten-year plans.
She had a wakeup call after a minor health scare made her realize how unhappy and tired her job was making her. As in-house council, she was often required to travel to California to attend trials and mediations, pulling her away from her newborn baby.
“That’s kind of tricky to do when you have a baby at home,” Cashion said. “What I hadn’t counted on was the fact that it made me feel pretty miserable to be gone for two weeks at a time… I felt like I was running an endless marathon.”
Cashion said she was torn and terrified about leaving her dream job, but she knew she had to do it.
“I thought about it — what was I going to regret more when I was 65?” Cashion said. “Not climbing the ladder at this company and making it to the top? Or, not having spent time with my daughter? It’s a different answer for everybody. But I felt compelled that I really wanted to be in a different situation where I could spend more time with my family and daughter.”
Cashion then moved to Alpharetta, and, for a while, struggled to balance work she enjoyed with her family life.
“I took on what was by far the hardest job I’ve ever had, the job of a stay-at-home mom,” Cashion said. “I traded order and predictability in my life to complete chaos… I traded what was a very respected executive position for what, sadly, is still not as respected a position as it should be, to stay at home and care for your kids. But I never regretted it.”
She worked for a few years in her own law practice, when she decided in 2013 to start her own nonprofit called the Greater Alpharetta Tech Network to help connect the budding technology community.
Shortly after creating the nonprofit, Cashion’s life was once again upturned when her husband lost his job, and she was forced to quit her independent practice to find a higher-paying job in Atlanta.
But, Cashion said, she soon found herself in the same spot she was years ago — spending too much time away from family, commuting over three hours each day, and becoming miserable because of it.
She resigned, determined to find another way. It was then that she learned about the up-and-coming Tech Alpharetta, a nonprofit that grows technology and innovation in Alpharetta. City officials approached her to head it full time, and she accepted.
“It was kind of a no-brainer,” Cashion said. “I enjoyed practicing law, but I already knew from running a nonprofit that I loved that better… And I’ve been there ever since. I love what I’m doing, and when you love what you’re doing, it stops being work.”
Cashion added that she never would have predicted her life’s course, but she’s learned several lessons along the way, including adaptability and to not make sweeping predictions about life.
“Things are going to change, and the things that matter most to you are going to change during the course of your career,” Cashion said. “Don’t be afraid to take chances. Don’t let the fear of failure drag you down… And when you do fail, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and learn from it.”