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Change, Sports and Sponsors, with Karen Potter

Change, Sports and Sponsors, with Karen Potter

Episode 44: Change, Sports and Sponsors, with Karen Potter

Karen Potter is a Director of Social Collaboration, Talent & Learning Technology at Citi. Karen immigrated to the United States from Guatemala when she was seven with her single mom and two siblings. In this episode, Karen shares her story and memories of when she moved as a child, how playing sports had an impact on her career, and how networking and showing up brought her to where she is today.

Episode Transcript

00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations of Women Changing the Face of Business. And now your host, Kristy Wallace.


00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hi, this is Kristy Wallace and I wanted to welcome you to the Ellevate Podcast. I'm here in a tiny little conference room with Maricella Herrera, my partner in crime, as we are taping this special message to you before you hear from our guest today, Karen Potter, a director at Citi.

00:31 Maricella Herrera: I am laughing at your optimism and silver lining cause you called this thing a conference room. [laughter] This is no conference room. This is a closet.

00:41 KW: We're in a closet at Ellevate headquarters because the sound quality is much better and it's getting really hot in here, but it's all right. We're having fun. We're having fun.

00:51 MH: Yeah, we are having fun.

00:52 KW: Might be lack of oxygen, which is leading to some giggles, but okay, all right. We're owning it. It's good.

00:58 MH: You should see Katharine on the floor.

01:00 KW: Yeah. I don't think we pay her enough for her to be sitting on the floor. I hope I don't have stinky feet down there. [laughter] But our guest today is Karen Potter, who is incredibly inspirational. First-generation immigrant to the US, she talks about owning her career, how she abolished voicemail at Citi, that is an important piece, and many other aspects of team sports, teamwork and getting ahead. So, cannot wait for you to hear from her. But before we get started on that, I just wanted to talk about our poll because this is my favorite part of every podcast is hearing what our community has to say about all of these topics important to women in business.

01:48 MH: This is your favorite part of every podcast cause you get to hear my voice. That's the reality of it.

01:53 KW: Okay. My favorite part of every podcast is hanging out with Maricella in this spacious conference room.

02:00 MH: It's not a conference room.

02:01 KW: The second favorite part is the poll.

02:04 MH: So before we go into the poll though, I do wanna say I am extremely inspired by Karen not just because she is Central American, like myself, first-generation immigrant, and she works at Citi like I did, but because she's fantastic. She has quite the story.

02:27 KW: When I met her, I was speaking on a panel and she was also speaking on the panel. And it was this fantastic panel, I think it was the women in Bond Club, and Karen was just great. And we clicked and I said, "You have to come on the podcast." And she said, "Yes." And then that was it. Then we got to do our taping. But that's all about the networking. You go out there, you meet other women, you make those connections and you see where it goes, but networking is so, so, so important. And we actually were on the panel about online networking.

03:02 MH: And you just have to be open to it and then own it.

03:05 KW: Yeah. Exactly.

03:07 MH: I'm gonna keep saying, "Own it, just deal with it." [chuckle] So our poll this week, we asked our members, "What drives you the most to push yourself in your career?" Do I wanna tell you the answers or do I wanna hear what you think?

03:22 KW: Have we done this poll before?

03:24 MH: We've done this poll before.

03:25 KW: Okay. And I think I said the same thing back then that I will say now, which is, at the earlier stage of my career it's all about money and at the later stage of my career it's all about meaning and purpose.

03:36 MH: Yeah. It's great. This is one of my favorite polls, honestly, because it gives a very clear picture about the women in the community. So, what drives them to push themselves in their careers? 40% of them are driven by feeling like what they do matters, that passion and that making an impact.

03:58 KW: And we read about that a lot, too, in Sallie's book, "Own It."

04:01 MH: Yeah, "Own It." See, there it is again. 17% say they are driven by money, which could be generational. It could be where you are in your career, I agree. 15% say they're driven by learning new things, 12% by "knowing that people depend on me either on the job and/or at home," and 11% are driven by feeling appreciated.

04:26 KW: Maricella, I appreciate you.

04:28 MH: Aww, I appreciate you, too.


04:32 KW: And what you do matters.

04:35 RG: Yeah, what we do matters. If you see our values and you can see them on the site, and if you haven't, you should, the Ellevate Network core values, we know that what we do matters and we know that we are extremely privileged to be doing it.

04:51 KW: It's an honor to be here every day.

04:53 MH: And there is strength in numbers and we want to continue to grow. We want more people to join the network so we can collectively make a change and make an impact. So, a couple of asks for you. One, if you do like the podcasts, we wanna keep doing it for you, so go rate, review it, give us five stars, share with your friends cause it helps us and it helps us grow our awareness of the wonderful women who are doing great things. And, two, join the network, find a community of professional women who inspire you, who will support you, who will help you. And you don't need to do it from scratch, we have that already created for you.

05:36 KW: And let's now head over to my interview with Karen and how she's owning her career.


05:53 KW: So, Karen.

05:54 Karen Potter: Yes.

05:54 KW: You've got so many fantastic things to share and a really interesting story.

06:00 KP: I hope so.

06:00 KW: You moved here when you were seven?

06:02 KP: Yes. I moved to the US from Guatemala when I was seven years old with my mom and my two sisters. My mom was a single mom living in Guatemala and decided to make a huge change, I have no idea how she did it, and sell everything that we had in Guatemala, and just pick up and come to the US to start a brand new life.

06:26 KW: Are you the oldest of the three girls?

06:28 KP: I'm the middle child.

06:29 KW: Oh. Do you have middle child... [laughter] Please. I care very deeply about this cause I have three children and my middle child is my strongest, but I always worry I'm gonna mess her up somehow.

06:39 KP: No. I think, with us, I probably have the strongest personality, though my older sister has a very strong personality as well. So, no, I wouldn't say I have the middle child syndrome. I'm very close to my mom, very close to my sisters, so yeah.

06:56 KW: So, it sounds like your mom is an incredibly strong woman as well. I can't even imagine just picking up and moving to a new country.

07:03 KP: I know. She was 35 years old when she did it. So three kids already at 35, that's already like, "Oh, my gosh." And then, yeah, picking up and going solo at that age is just, to me, I don't know if I could take that leap. But she was very strong and she is a great planner, and she is amazing with finances. She's a woman who balanced a checkbook down to the penny every single weekend. I had to sit with her every weekend and do the math to make sure we got down to the zero pennies. I think she didn't really intend to show us this, but when we were kids, my younger sister and I would go grocery shopping with her and every kid hates seeing, kinda doing the chores and all that kind of stuff. But one of our chores was, every Friday, to clip the coupons in the newspaper by the time she got home from work every Friday and then we would watch Supermarket Sweep. I don't know if you remember that show as a kid.


07:56 KW: Yes.

07:57 KP: And it was the most fun thing. And so when we would go to the supermarket, she would assign us each, my younger sister and I, a set of coupons that we had to go and figure out who got the item for each coupon in the fastest, that she would be the validation. So, if we didn't get the right item, we had to start over again. And so she kind of made Supermarket Sweep coupon savings fun for us when we were little, going to the supermarket.

08:22 KW: Oh, man, she pulled a fast one on you.

08:25 KP: Yeah.

08:25 KW: And I need to learn from that. It's like, "Okay, kids, cleaning the toilet is fun. Who can do it faster? Let's go. Go, go, go."


08:32 KP: Yeah. She ingrained that kind of stuff in us as far as saving and doing it in a smart but also fun way that I don't think she totally intended to do, but all of us are very big on super savings kind of people. So yeah.

08:48 KW: So, do you still clip coupons?

08:50 KP: I can't say that I do clip coupons, but I definitely hate buying stuff at regular price. I will wait till I get a 20% off from Bed, Bath & Beyond or another store, something like that. But I definitely will wait till something's on sale or try to find the best way to find an online coupon now or something.

09:09 KW: I remember going to the grocery store with my mom, so I'm one of four, and we would go with my mom and she was so organized. She had all of the coupons and her shopping list organized by the aisles of the grocery store. And she had this accordion folder and would go the dairy and then the bread and...

09:28 KP: I remember the accordion folder.

09:29 KW: And go one by one, and have our little coupons in there, and she would go through every week and make sure she got all the ones that were expiring. And now I do all my grocery shopping online. I use FreshDirect and it tells me when there's coupons available, and I always look at the specials, but I feel like my kids are missing out on that supermarket experience. That's such a right of passage, right?

09:51 KP: Yeah, it's true. That is true. I hadn't thought about that. Especially in New York, I'm sure a lot of kids are in that situation where they just order online, FreshDirect or whatever else they use.

10:00 KW: And it's all access all the time.

10:02 KP: I know.

10:02 KW: I'll be sitting there, and my kids know all about Amazon and FreshDirect, and they'll just pull up my phone and add things to my grocery cart. I'd go to checkout, I'm like, "Why do we have a 15-pound bag of chocolate chips in the bag? No." It's really amazing just how things have changed.

10:24 KP: I know.

10:25 KW: When you moved here and you're seven, do you remember that time?

10:29 KP: I definitely do, yeah. I remember...

10:32 KW: Were you in first grade, kindergarten?

10:34 KP: I was in first grade. I spoke little to no English, even though I was in a bilingual school in Guatemala. But I spoke very little English. I remember landing and I just remember seeing so many lights of stores and fast food and all of that that hadn't really made it to Guatemala yet. So I just remember that there were lights everywhere when we landed and got in to Orlando. Plus it's Orlando, so it's very touristy.

11:01 KW: Yeah.


11:02 KP: And then I had to go into an ESOL program for my first two years of school. And my first week of school, I was assigned a buddy to buddy-up with because they would call the buses for you to go get on your bus and they would call them over the intercom. And my first week, I don't know if it was the second day or some day that week, my buddy didn't show up to school, so I didn't get on the bus. [chuckle] And my mom was waiting for me at the bus and I wasn't there.

11:34 KW: It must have been so terrifying. This does give me chills.

11:36 KP: Yes. I think she went into complete panic mode, chased down the bus driver. Her English was also not totally there yet, and she had to go and get me at school. And when she showed up, I was in tears and getting like, "I didn't understand when they called the bus." So, I definitely remember those kinds of experiences.

11:57 KW: So, grew up in Orlando.

12:00 KP: Yeah.

12:00 KW: And then you went to the University of Miami?

12:03 KP: No. I went to University of South Florida in Tampa. I was looking around at schools, but I also played soccer in high school, and I got really, really addicted to soccer.

12:12 KW: What position?

12:14 KP: Goalkeeper, if you can believe it. I was probably the shortest goalkeeper of all time.

12:16 KW: Oh, my goodness.


12:19 KP: I've broken every finger on my hands from playing the game, but I loved it. I was very sports obsessed, I would say, at that point. I played on a club team and so I made a lot of my college decision based on where I could play soccer. And I walked on to the team at University of South Florida along with getting a academic scholarship there. So that's kinda how I decided to go to school there. I had a friend who I played club soccer with who was already going to school there, so she also helped me out, and it was amazing. I made so many friends. We had a number of Norwegian girls on our team who I'm still very, very close with. I just visited them this summer in Oslo, and we had an amazing time.

13:06 KP: And I am totally an advocate for women in sports. I do think that it really helps mold you and mold your toughness, your dedication to anything. And the competitiveness, I really, really think that it brings a lot of value later on in your career. And even when I was in school, I was very regimented. We had study hall after practice. Every day we had to put a number of hours in study hall. So it really, really did help you make that transition from living at home to living on campus, dedicating yourself to a sport which was a number of hours a day that you had to dedicate to that and then complementing it with your studies.

13:49 KW: It's the 101 of careers, right, because it's the individual contribution but working as part of a team and always learning, always practising, getting stronger, growing.

14:02 KP: And being pushed by people who you know are better than you.

14:05 KW: Yeah. So, that happened after college?

14:07 KP: Let's see. I finished college, I got a degree in information systems during the dot-com bubble burst, not the best scenario. [chuckle] But it worked out in the long term because I started computer science and switched over to information systems. I was probably... I think it did have an influence on me that I was probably one of three women in all of my computer science classes. So, I think it did kind of drag me down a little bit. When I think back about it at the time, I didn't really connect it all together. And then when I looked at the information systems curriculum and the course, which was taught at the business school versus the engineering school, it was just a very different kind of energy, surrounded by a few more women, still not a ton, and getting more into the whole technology scene. So I did my degree in information systems, and I went back and got my master's at University of South Florida again because it was affordable really. I wanted to do my MBA and I did a master's in information systems as well. So I did a combo dual master's program then.

15:22 KP: And then from there, once I finished my MBA, I was lucky enough to be connected to a professor at University of Tampa, a woman, who was recommended to me by one of my professors. And so I went and met with her, and she recommended me, just literally picked up the phone and called someone at Citigroup, who ran a program out of their Tampa campus, and it was called... It's a management associate program. And so she said, "I have somebody here that I think would fit really well in your program. Will you please take a look at their resume and submit it for the incoming class?" And I did not expect that. I didn't expect that that would come out of meeting with this professor. And then I went and interviewed at Citigroup. And it was a big group interview session, so it felt like you were competing against a bunch of other folks. We went through a number of days of interviews.

16:18 KW: Wow.

16:20 KP: And then they picked a group that started all working together in this management associate program, and I think there were about probably 15 of us in operations and technology. And the program was three years long, and every year you would rotate into a new job within operations and technology so you get a different experience every year. In my second year, I got moved to New York and so that's how I got to New York about 11 plus years ago.

16:49 KW: Oh, my goodness. So I love the fact that this came through networking.

16:55 KP: Yes. So, I did not... I was a little intimidated to go meet with this professor cause I didn't know her, I didn't know anything about her, but I went for it because my professor had a lot of respect for him. So it was again unintended consequence of just going, showing up, taking the leap.

17:15 KW: So you're still at Citi?

17:17 KP: I'm still at Citi, though I took a break for about three years. I also had a very strong sponsor at Citi. She is the head of ventures and innovation at Citi. She's actually gonna be retiring at the end of this year. Her name is Debbie Hopkins and she was a very good sponsor, role model for me. And through working with her team for a period of time, I got connected to her and built up a relationship with her, which was really great. And at some point, Citi basically started very early on in the ventures and innovation space. She was getting ready to move to the west coast, to San Francisco, to start Citi's venture unit there. And at the same time she was doing that, Citi helped start a start-up here in New York and she asked me if I wanted to look at that startup and go from being a Citi employee to an employee of that start-up that was funded partially by Citi.

18:19 KP: And so I did that and moved really out of being a Citi employee to being an employee of that start-up, which was in the personal financial wellness space. And so I did a start-up and got it off the ground, and worked there for about a year and a half to two years. And then from there, I went to a digital agency called Razorfish, which was a great move because it was all about user experience, and all of that, before user experience was really super hot, I would say. And then that experience led me to go back to Citi to try to bring some of that experience of the startup world, digital agency, that kind of design thinking, user experience thinking, back into a huge company.

19:02 KW: So you told a story when we're on the panel together about a major influence you had at Citi involving voicemail.

19:11 KP: Oh, yes.


19:13 KW: Which really sticks with me because it solved one of my greatest problems in life. You wanna share that?

19:19 KP: So, the reason I went back to Citi was to start... Basically, it was a project that was just getting off the ground to start an internal social and collaboration network at Citi, and so we would try different things on that social network. And so one time I posted, I forget what company but they had disconnected, I think it might have been either Pepsi or Coke, I forget which one, had disconnected their voicemail. So I put up a little status update that said, "They disconnected their voicemail, why can't we? I wish we would do this at Citi." And people liked it online and then other people started commenting, and eventually somebody added to the conversation a person that was in-charge of making those kinds of decisions in voice operations. And they kind of ran with it on their own and not, I would say, probably two months later, my voicemail was disconnected and I don't have voicemail any longer. So it's definitely a way to cut expenses at the company, which we're always looking to do, and scale back on services that maybe not being used, but also my wish came true.

20:27 KW: So, you started out talking maybe technologically illiterate people through how to use a dial-up internet provider...

20:36 KP: Yes.

20:37 KW: Through to abolishing voicemail at a major company. [laughter] So when you think about where you are today, what are some of the things that you've learned? Technology is always evolving and changing as well, but how do you stay up to date with that and stay current, and it sounds like creativity is something that's so important to you, but staying creative in that environment that's ever evolving?

21:01 KP: Yeah, and I definitely would say... I can't say that I'm the creative person, but I like being surrounded or complemented by the creative folks. I'm probably more of that person that follows a plan as far as at work or getting things done. I'm definitely the person that's like, "Okay, what am I here to do today and what am I trying to get done tomorrow?" And doing those things as my measure of achievement or... That's what brings me value is executing on either projects or some kind of work, and having a strategy. I'm probably not the most creative person, but I love being surrounded by people that complement me. One of the things about how do I learn is to try to surround yourself with people that you know you're gonna learn something from. I don't wanna be the smartest person or the most creative person in the room. I wanna be there with people that challenge me or make me feel a little uncomfortable, or they're talking about something I've never heard of, I ask them, "I don't really know a lot about that. Can you explain it to me?" Or, if I'm on a conference call and I hear something that I don't know about yet or a new technology, I'll immediately start Googling and researching it, and at least doing a primer to understand where it fits into my technology understanding.

22:24 KP: And I think that that gets you really far. You don't have to have the depth of knowledge of every single thing that you learn about, especially as you advance in your career. I think it becomes more and more difficult, but I think putting together the pieces of how does that fit into my technology understanding allows me to speak about it in an informed way when I'm meeting with those people at least so that I tell them, "I have a base level understanding of it. You're the expert, let's combine our strengths to figure out what we can do here." So, yeah.

22:54 KW: I've talked to organizations that have groups for maybe senior leaders or for veterans, for women. It's kind of a big topic over the past couple years is how do you give employees support in a community within a larger organization that's really geared towards their unique perspective, needs, relationships potentially. What does Citigroup do around that?

23:30 KP: We have over 120 employee networks or employee resource groups, as they're called, with over 15,000 employees across, I believe, 30 countries. So, we have a massive employee resource group and employee network. I'm the coacher of our network here in New York City around Pride for LGBT issues within Citi, and that's one of the things that when I came back to Citi I said, "I really have to take a bigger stand in this space." So I've used that stance and that influence to try to keep the topic of LGBT awareness, LGBT just overall alliance, I would say, alive at Citi. And for me, it's built up my network even above and beyond what I already thought I had at Citi. And it's also given me a lot louder, stronger voice for when it comes to anything around LGBT topics. So Citi has really, I can 100% say, been very forthright in stepping into that space and making moves that traditionally companies weren't really able to make. So, over the past couple of years, Citi has signed an amicus brief for same sex marriage that was presented to the Supreme Court.

25:03 KP: Most recently, Citi signed a letter against the bathroom bill in North Carolina. So things like that that companies weren't as willing to do in prior years, Citi has really been more progressive in that, and I think that even if we can have... I can have 1% of making that happen, it definitely makes a big difference. And we're definitely trying to step more into that space to serve as even like an internal test bed for when we're looking at the overall LGBT, let's say, customer type, which is very hard to define because it can be a lot of different things. I'm a immigrant woman, person of color, LGBT, and that's just one person in the company representing this intersectionality, as we now call it. I don't think that word even existed five years ago. But, yeah, trying to step into that space as well and not just be, again, the network for employees, but also have a more active voice in how we're making decisions for employees as customers, and then see if we can serve as a test bed for how we might build products for our customers' external facing in the consumer space or otherwise.

26:21 KW: So you just mentioned four identities, and it's interesting to me because, growing up in my career or my early days in my career, I don't know if I necessarily identified by my gender. That didn't resonate with me, and it did later on. Once I became more and more senior in my career, and there was less people like me, sometimes less diversity of thought, because there's less diversity at the top, it is when it started to have a greater impact on me personally. Have you experienced any influences or viewpoints based on how you identify?

27:08 KP: Yeah, I think it's really interesting because, when I first came to this country, the number one thing that mattered was fitting in. So, you wanted to get rid of the accent, you went to ESOL, you just wanted to fit in and be like everybody else. Right?

27:24 KW: Yeah.

27:24 KP: And so when we came to this country, when people hear my voice on the phone, even when I take conference calls at work and then later on people meet me or what have you, and they see my last name, which is a very American last name, they're surprised sometimes. I don't know what they expected, but it was definitely... I've jarred people at times. So I think that I did so much work to try to fit in, get rid of the accent, kind of be in the mold. And that's what matters when you're young, you wanna be fitting in with the regular crew. And then, yes, definitely as my career evolved, then I felt like I had more power, so then I felt I was more enabled to stick out a little bit more.

28:10 KP: And then that becomes a diversifier, which makes you stand out, and in that point I think standing out is a good thing. So, you go from this phase of trying to really fit in, really assimilate, which I think we did, and my whole family did to the 98th percentile, and then going back the other way and the pendulum swinging the other way, to then saying, "No, these things are good, these things are what make us unique, and we have a different perspective on things because of all these experiences that we've had." So how do we leverage those, I wouldn't say to my advantage, but to at least bring a different perspective to work that you're doing, conversations that you have. So yeah.

28:51 KW: Great. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.

28:53 KP: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.


28:58 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate podcast on iTunes, give us five stars, and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @EllevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller. She rocks. And to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.


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