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Barbara Karasek in front of an Adweek Woman Trailblazers sign

As the marketing and advertising industry changes, so does the role of the agency CEO. Inspired by Adweek’s first issue dedicated to the modern C-suite role, we sat down with our very own CEO, Barbara Karasek, for a Q&A before she traveled to New York City to attend Adweek’s Women Trailblazers conference celebrating women in media, tech and advertising.

Our CEO is a highly accomplished marketer and storyteller. In this excerpt she talks about the beginnings of her career, her first job at Busch Gardens in Tampa and internship in Miami with Crispin & Porter and her accomplished journey as a NASCAR executive. A former competitive volleyball player and team captain at Furman University, she also talks about the significance of Title IX to her achievement. In its 50th year, this federal legislation eliminated sex-based discrimination to ensure all students – male and female—have access and equality in education and which is enabled women to compete in college sports.

What was your first job?

BK: I started working at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay when I was 16. I could only work for a few weeks one summer due to my sports competitions, but it was so much fun. I was stationed in the Bird Gardens area making change for a kiosk where guests could steer little motorized boats around a pond. On my application I put I could speak a little Spanish because I had just finished my first year of Spanish in school. And we had a lot of Spanish speaking guests. I got pretty good at saying “dos cuartos,” “cuatro cuartos” and “un dolar” because the game took two quarters and people would give me a dollar for four quarters. My sister worked there, too, but she was in the fun game area. I was always jealous she got to hand out cool prizes to the game winners. Somewhere I have pictures of us in our uniforms together – we looked like little safari explorers.

Where did your love for marketing come from?

BK: As the daughter of educators and a behavioral psychologist, I was born and raised to love people and be fascinated with human behavior. I was a sociology major in college, wanting to become a pro bono attorney to help underserved populations. My senior year of college, I shadowed Chuck Porter of famed ad agency Crispin & Porter in Miami over my winter break. I was hooked. So, I abandoned my law school dreams and went to graduate school majoring in Mass Communications with an emphasis on advertising, public relations, and TV and radio production. My foundation in sociology contributes to my understanding of how people live and the way they think. When I get asked, I always say that sociology is the best foundation for anyone wanting to be in advertising or really any marketing communications field.

Barbara with Southwest Airlines' Penguin One
Barbara with Southwest Airlines’ Penguin One

How did you go from being a Division I college athlete to being a CEO?

BK: I was always involved in numerous sports at any given time growing up, both individual and team sports. I found success as an athlete in swimming, soccer, softball, basketball and volleyball. I loved being part of a team. I loved training hard and pushing my body to its limits. I loved being coached by great coaches. During my career, I have been fortunate to continue to be surrounded by amazing athletes, coaches, teams and sports organizations. I married a wonderful man who is a top athlete and coach. I never allowed my title or job to define me. I am much more focused on the titles others give me – daughter, sister, wife, Tante/Aunt, friend, colleague, teammate, and most importantly, leader and mentor. Getting from A to B carried me through years strung together by vision, integrity, preparation, and persistence; immense respect for superiors, subordinates and peers; trust in myself and others; hard work, grit, leadership, and laughter — with plenty of slices of humble pie along the way.

What was your experience at NASCAR?

BK: When I joined in late 2004, it was a critical time for the NASCAR brand. 2004 had seen a new Chairman, new series sponsor (NASCAR Nextel Cup Series), rule changes, and a new schedule and points format. We also knew that broadcast rightsholder negotiations were being discussed years ahead of those renewals, which would occur between 2005 and 2007. I was brought in to create a consumer marketing department to market the NASCAR brand directly to consumers in order to provide over-the-top entitlement sponsor value for Nextel, deepen the existing fan base, and grow the fan base.

I knew relatively little about NASCAR when I joined. My first 90 days on the job was spent traveling every week shadowing people inside and outside of the organization. I learned so much in those 90 days, from competition officials, media center, pre-race activities, team operations, pit crews, or track spotters, to sponsors, vendors, retail and so much more. I attended races and other events wearing a business hat and as a fan. No one knew who I was, so I could observe relatively anonymously because I came from outside the sport.

In my job interview, I was told my job would be to simply “put NASCAR where NASCAR wasn’t.” So, I did just that. I helped build a team with national and regional marketing managers in New York and Los Angeles, a diversity marketing manager, and a host of agency partners. Every campaign and program we executed had to ensure there was diversity, innovation, and technology components included. We had tremendous fun and accomplished quite a lot:

  • We promoted NASCAR and Talladega Nights at red carpet events in Los Angeles;
  • We created the NASCAR Street Tour mobile marketing unit with two tricked-out Ford vehicles, video games and brand ambassadors for more than 300 fan engagement events on the West Coast;
  • We sponsored the All-American Soap Box Derby while inking a multi-year ESPN partnership between NASCAR, Levi Strauss and Jimmie Johnson;
  • We created, sold, and activated NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, NASCAR All-Star Race and NASCAR Champions Week in NYC assets with sponsors, licensees, teams and media partners;
  • We developed and distributed weekly content for ESPN Radio, SBS, ESPN Deportes, Univision, and Telemundo, hosted large groups of first-time Hispanic, Latino, African American, and HBCU fans, conducted Spanish language press conferences and media events, and produced fan guides in multiple languages.
  • On top of everything else, we brought the top 10 race cars and drivers to the NBC Today Show and Good Morning America and legally shut down blocks in mid-town Manhattan for the NASCAR Victory Lap festivities and live network broadcasts!
NASCAR cars in Manhattan
NASCAR Victory Lap in mid-town Manhattan, NYC

What do 50 years of Title IX mean to you?

BK: Before 1972, 1 in 25 girls played sports. In 2022, ten times that number play sports. (Source: Women Sports Foundation). My sister was born in 1968, and I in 1970. So, fortunately for us, Title IX has been around nearly our entire lives. We were raised by parents who were athletic, highly educated, liberal sports fans. They instilled in us early on the notion that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to. When I was not old enough to join a girls softball team, my parents signed me up to play with my brother on his tee ball team. I was the starting second baseman, batted fifth in the line-up, and hit a lot of home runs.

My parents made sure I grew up with access to a quality education and had opportunities to play every sport I wanted to. I went on to earn a full scholarship to college playing Division I volleyball. Regarding education and sports, I was taught to expect respect and to value equity and equality. As a woman, I neither expect — nor do I want — preferential treatment, special consideration, or anything handed to me. As a woman, I do expect to be treated fairly and in equal light as all others are treated. I am self-confident enough to lean in and ask for what I want, be it a seat at the table, a second look, or to be heard. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I could be told no. But at least I would know that my voice was heard.

Barbara with her Furman University volleyball teammates
Barbara with her Furman University volleyball teammates

So, Title IX, to me, means that the law is there to ensure no one is subjected to any discrimination based on gender or perceived gender. And, as our world has evolved since 1972 — and will continue evolving for generations to come — I get great comfort and peace from knowing this law and others are there to protect us. To me, equity ensures everyone will be treated with fairness and impartiality. To me, equality does not mean entitlement. To me, equality ensures everyone is given the same resources or opportunities. I love being in a role where I can lead and influence change.

What does being a female CEO mean to you?

BK: Female or not, it’s tough being a CEO, period. I play the cards I am dealt and do the best I can. I don’t ever play the “woman” card – remember I was born and raised on equal footing as men, competed as an athlete with men, worked in male dominated industries, and have held my own. I want to be respected as a CEO and not because I am a CEO who is female. I stand on the shoulders of many giants who have forged the path well before me. I respect and admire every one of them – male or female. I am forging a path forward for the benefit of the here and now and for future generations. I take that responsibility very seriously. I am forging a path that allows me to serve as a role model or mentor to others along the way. I take that responsibility very seriously.

What does being a good mentor mean to you?

BK: I have had so many exceptional mentors in my life: parents, coaches, professors, colleagues and friends. It’s more important to give than to receive. I feel a responsibility — nearly a calling — to give back to others and to do for others as others before them have done for me to help me get to where I am today. I appreciate it so much when someone approaches me for advice, counsel, or guidance, or asks if I would be their mentor. I love serving and helping others learn about themselves as they work things out. I love helping them understand where they need to be or what they need to be doing to achieve their goal or an optimum outcome. I love seeing growth and transformations occur. As much as I love seeing evolution and change in others, I especially love experiencing the impact others have on me in the process.