After losing her husband, Grow Your Value finalist Karen Millsap saw an opportunity to help other widows transition back to the workplace. She started Widows at Work, which provides training to companies to better meet the needs of widows in the emotional and fragile aftermath of losing a spouse. Here, she shares her story.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of career advice, what would it be?
Don’t wait for the right time to follow your passion. Time is going to pass anyway, so you might as well spend it doing what you love. There are going to be challenges regardless of the path you take, so it’s most important to enjoy the journey. I think people underestimate the power of fulfillment. It doesn’t matter what struggles you encounter, you will actually be more enthusiastic about tackling the obstacles when you love what you do.
What do you think is one of the most important issues facing women in the workplace?
Women are underestimated and underutilized because it’s assumed they are led by emotion – and having or showing emotion in the workplace is frowned upon. That is part of the education my company brings to organizations: judgment of an employee’s performance based on his or her emotions, or one’s belief of his or her emotional state, is discrimination. Are we accurately measuring performance and contributions? If you look solely at execution, you will find that women either perform equally with or out-perform their male counterparts.
What was most challenging about starting your own company?
The challenge was believing I could. I looked at starting or running a company as something outside of my reach – not because of lack of ability, but lack of resources (in people and capital). However, the fire inside of me to serve other widows was so intense I couldn’t deny it. I became obsessed with reading about other entrepreneurs and their journeys and realized that we all will struggle.
What motivates and inspires you?
My son is my motivation. When my husband died I recognized that how I handle that traumatizing event would directly impact his life and his character. He was so attentive to my behavior. I felt hopeless, lost, drained and broken. I had to acknowledge that this will either destroy me, and my son will lose both of his parents, or I could be an example to him that no matter how difficult life may be, you have a choice to survive. Everyone compliments that he is a special kid. I believe he instantly acquired his father’s spirit: he is incredibly mature, loving and helpful. He gives me the strength to endure this journey each and every day.
What do you think employers need to understand about grief and grieving spouses?
The most important thing for employers to understand is that grief is hard work. It requires more energy to work through than most people expect; it takes a toll on us physically and psychologically. Additionally, grief does not have a time frame and it’s not something we can just turn off. Employers must realize there are countless secondary losses that come when we lose our spouse. Those other losses also affect our grief journey and can cripple us. By imparting the proper support, the employer can help us survive this unpredictable roller coaster without risk of losing our job.
How has being a single mother shaped your career?
Being a single mother while trying to build a global company is tremendously difficult. When it gets overwhelming, I remind myself that this lifestyle allows me to put my son first in every way necessary, which would not be feasible with the restrictions of a typical corporate job. When I decided to embark on this entrepreneurial journey, it was so I would be able to provide for my son without being limited by a single family income. I could give him the opportunity to see the world and show him that despite life’s challenges, you can still create a fulfilling life.
What is the most rewarding part of running Widows at Work?
The widows I have met and their feedback on the service is rewarding, but it’s healing for me as well. The entire journey is fulfilling because every step of the way it’s revealed how incredibly necessary this type of service is. The roller coaster does not end at a certain time frame or milestone, so building a safe community where we can be authentic about our experiences, encourage one another and educate society is truly gratifying.
Part of Knowing Your Value is building a support network. Can you discuss the role of close relationships in coping with grief?
Support is vital. Imparting the proper support is at the foundation of my company’s dedication to educating employers on how to handle grief in the workplace. Employers don’t realize it’s impossible to “turn it off” when we get to the office. We spend most of our week at work, so it’s just as important to have support in the workplace as it is from our loved ones. However, the most effective form of support for a widow is other widows. This is because of our intimate understanding of the indescribable emotions, instinctive nonjudgmental compassion and exposure to additional difficulties that are associated with losing your spouse.
What inspired you to enter the Grow Your Value bonus competition?
A dear friend, who is a big supporter of the company and my journey, informed me of the competition. Before I was out of the “fog,” others told me how inspired they were by my strength. I felt numb to reality, but I realize that women often are numb to their awesomeness. It is only when we completely own our value, and aren’t apologetic about what we have to offer this world, that we can truly enjoy the journey. I am honored to be a participant in a competition that empowers women to not only know, but grow their value.
What do you hope to gain from the bonus competition?
I wanted to uncover the best version of Karen in order to be the best mom, daughter, sister, friend, leader and spokesperson for the widowed community. When I lost my husband, I lost the person who would cheer me on, help me evaluate where I am or where I’m going and push me to reach new levels. I became stuck on autopilot, just getting by. I wanted to discover my fullest potential but I didn’t know how. Being with other powerful women, and unleashing and celebrating our unique talents, is already worth more than any amount of money. It brought me back to life and restored my identity.
You can catch Karen and the other Grow Your Value finalists compete for $10,000 at Orlando's Know Your Value event on Friday, November 20 at msnbc.com/knowyourvalue where we’ll be livestreaming the event.