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Capitol Communicator is running a series featuring profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic.  In this “Up Close and Personal” profile, we feature Karen Alston, owner of D.C.-based Alston Marketing Group. Photography for this series is by Cade Martin; wardrobe styling by Pascale Lemaire for THE Artist Agency; and hair and makeup by Patti D Nelson and Janice Kinigopoulos for THE Artist Agency.

Karen Maria Alston began her career working for Fortune 100 companies such as JP Morgan Chase, MBNA America Bank (now Bank of America) and America Online. But, as a third-generation entrepreneur, she changed careers and, in 2002, launched her own marketing communications firm. That firm, Alston Marketing Group, became AM+G Marketing Communications, and in 2008, she acquired Edge Advertising, Inc., of D.C. Her firm has worked with a long list of organizations, including: National Wildlife Federation, LISC, National Trust for Historic Preservation, D.C. Government, Prince George’s County Government, D.C. Public Charter School Board, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, DCTV, D.C. Public Schools, Baltimore County, Capital Bikeshare,Capital Area Food Bank, The DuPont Hotel, Eagle Academy Public Charter School and others. Alston also is the former publisher/founder of Urban Lifestyle Report (circa 1998) which was an online urban B2B research publication focusing on the lifestyle of urban consumers. She received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Finance from Howard University and an Executive Education Certificate in Branding and Design from Harvard University.

Karen, outside of your company, are you involved in any other organizations?

I love serving on boards and giving back to the community and I’m involved in Color Comm, AMA-DC, and a local community board, Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative. This year, I’m also looking to participate on another board with a national focus and scope. 

What are the things you are most proud of?

The lessons learned and passed down to me from my family. My family brings me tremendous pride and joy. My ancestors, grand parents, parents, siblings and extended family are a great American story. I am so proud of their accomplishments and so tremendously fortunate to have them as family. My great grandparents are from African American-incorporated towns in Oklahoma. So their outlook on business, industry, education and achievement is unique and the lessons they taught each generation on self sufficiency, entrepreneurship and education are their invaluable life-skills gifts to future generations. My achievements and those of my generation of descendants are a direct result of their instilled values, examples and lessons. 

Who were your personal role models?

I have many role models but the most influential was my grandfather, Wallace C. Nash. In every aspect of his personal and professional life he succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations; and he never allowed his ancestry, racism or his environment to deter him from success. I can’t begin to imagine the injustices he endured during his life. Being a successful Army Captain and then an extremely successful entrepreneur in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 70’s in West Philadelphia could not have been easy. He never complained. He never treated anyone differently and he earned respect from his peers and rivals. The life lessons I learned from him I carry with me daily. He was an excellent judge of character and how to read people and their intentions. Those skills helped me navigate my corporate and entrepreneurial careers. He died in 2003 and I miss him terribly.

Did your grandfather offer professional advice that helped you in your career?

I am extremely fortunate to have, in total, four amazing and talented mentors in my life and, now, I am very fortunate to mentor three young people. I pass on to these young people, the skills, life lessons and knowledge that have been given to me. Giving back and teaching the next generation is a “must do” action for me. I would not be where I am today without the trusted, good and timely advice of my mentors.

What professional advice do you have for others?

My best professional advice is to be authentic. The time and energy spent trying to be someone or something you aren’t or violating your core principals/values isn’t worth it. Do what you love! Be passionate about your career! Take risks and, most importantly, don’t be afraid of failure. Learn from your mistakes, but understand that even in failure there is opportunity.

What advice do you have on what’s appropriate attire in the workplace?

I am 100% against workplace-attire policies. I believe that adults are capable of dressing appropriately, based on their personal creative style. I started my career at an investment bank and was forced to wear suits, scarves, hosiery and pumps every day for nine years. One day, I wore navy blue pants with a scarf to work and bumped into one of my early mentors in the hallway. She told me to go home because I was “naked” and come back when I was appropriately dressed. When I left banking in 2000, I swore I would never work in an environment where I was forced to wear what other people told me to wear. I still own all of my suits but haven’t worn one since 2001 or 2002. I wear clothes that I like and that fit my personal style – mainly dresses. Ironically, to this day, I only own one pair of dress pants and haven’t worn those pants in years. I should give them away, but haven’t been able to part with them. 

Where do you buy most of your clothes?

As an entrepreneur, I am a huge proponent of small businesses so I buy the majority of my clothes from small boutiques and designers. Locally, I buy from Jody Davis Designs, Hush Boutique, Tashia Senn and others and, most days, you will see me in a dress or skirt and high heels. Also, I buy from several boutiques and designers from around the country. I also like to wear clothes I don’t see anyone else wearing. Professionally, I have to attend lots of events and, often, I am photographed at these events and, so, I am in constant need of dresses. Some of my friends accuse me of being addicted to dresses and that is an accurate and factual statement. Hey, being addicted to dresses isn’t a bad thing to become addicted to in life!

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I am proud of my achievements and accomplishments both professionally and personally, and proud of mentoring and giving back to others. In addition, it is always a moment of pride – and being thankful – to drive or bike around the city and see my work displayed in advertisements or on a business that uses our branding or designs.

About The Author

The only child of a university art professor and freethinker mother, Cade Martin grew up surrounded by shapes and images. His love of art grew out of summer vacations filled with trips to galleries, museums and art studios. At home he often found himself around the dinner table with an eclectic cast of characters – sculptors, writers and painters. They paraded through his childhood, shaping his art foundation and forming his appreciation for the candid beauty found in people from all walks of life. Cade’s been chasing characters ever since. He seeks out their stories-told through the architecture of their faces or the costumes they wear-whether he’s on a commercial production or setting up an Avedon-like photo booth at Comic Con. They are the heroes in his pictures. His thirst for capturing adventures took its hold while shooting stills on movie sets and then as a photographer for National Geographic covering the railways of India. And it is that sense of adventure that Cade brings to his productions elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary with a cinematic touch. It’s not just a picture. He’s committed to the experience, building beautiful environments and, sometimes for his portraits, simply building trust. A talented storyteller, Cade splits his time between the East and West Coasts creating images for editorial, advertising, fashion, and lifestyle clients

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