Meet Karen Alexander-Banks, CEO of the Columbia, South Carolina (USA) based Auntie Karen Foundation- a globally recognized charitable corporation.
Maybe it was her love for arts that inspired her to leave her lucrative professional position with a company like Xerox Corporation to offer something different to the world. And maybe, the programs offered by her initiative exactly do that. At the very beginning of her journey, Karen asked God for a purpose and direction that led her to use her gifts to support and encourage others using the arts. Even during the time, she would spend in absolute solitude, she would hear a voice that would tell her that no matter what she does with her life, it had to include the arts- something she went on to follow and still swears by.
With full faith in her intuition, she took a leap of faith in 2001 and established the Auntie Karen Foundation– a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ‘Empower, enlighten and educate through the arts’. Talking about her experiences of the last 19 years, she says, “The programs originated and implemented by my team and me through the Auntie Karen Foundation promote public understanding of ideas and issues related to the humanities in South Carolina and elsewhere. As President and CEO, I have been working hard to enable others to increase the quality of their lives.” Her initiative believes in creating and implementing a series of reproducible community outreach programs and events that include Auntie Karen’s Young Entrepreneur’s Conference, Artpreneur/Technopreneur classes, Gordon’s Garden, Olivia the Octopus, Hugs from Carolina, Auntie Karen’s Legends of Concert Series, and Auntie Karen’s Black History Museum Celebration. The overall work of her organisation has been comprehensive and compelling in promoting the arts, artists, culture, humanities and wellness in her state, her nation and the global platform.
However, it wasn’t easy for her to reach where she resides at present. In the initial days of her struggles, the paucity of appropriate finances that led her to be dependent on her faith, creativity and idea of relationships that she received from her days at Xerox. From spending all of her savings, mortgaging her home and surviving without an income for years, she found herself giving away everything that she had- so much so that one day, she looked at her bank account to discover that she only had $7.52 and nothing else in sight. At that moment, she decided that something had to change. Her situation had to change. Beating all the odds, she got hold of a little inventory of sorts and started creating a package of her products and services, a pricing structure and began submitting proposals and grants to different individuals and organizations. With this, her hard work paid off and just when she was able to secure some projects that allowed her to earn a fair income, she was able to hire a team to complete the rest of the projects.
At present, the Auntie Karen Foundation has created and implemented numerous programs over the course of almost two decades, out of which many are child-centred. From partnering with SC Education Television and Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital to produce educational content through original characters to travelling worldwide to address young leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow, this organisation is living an example of what all is possible if you start believing in yourself and your infinite potential.
Out of the many programs conducted by the initiative, Karen has her own favourite: “I am most proud of The Artpreneur Program in the rural schools of South Carolina. This Artpreneur/Technopreneur program allows gifted artists to teach their skills to youth. The Artprenueur/Technoprenuer classes have the goal of inspiring a new generation of business leaders through visual art, dance, etiquette, creative cooking, guitar, and other musical instruments.” According to her, several schools in South Carolina cut their arts programs due to budget issues in the state. This obviously affected the districts nearby and one of these was Lee County. Here, the youth did not have access to art classes for seven years straight. In order to curb this situation, the organisation began a summer program to bring artists to their district and in the last five years, around 14 artists have worked with more than 400 children each summer. As an outcome, this program that included a host of art and hobby classes for children and has now expanded to various other schools in the state because of its immense success and fondness among the people.
As Karen enjoys her first year of married life at the age of 57 today, she looks back at her life and believes that it is only ‘faith’ that allowed her to see her dreams turn into reality and something that made her create her own F.A.I.T.H principles:
Find a purpose (goal)
Ask for help
Invest in your mind
Take time to plan
Help someone else
And with this, she hopes that each individual finds their unique meaning on their own and follow it passionately to achieve their goals and make this world a better place to exist.