Karen LeCorre Lehto has been fighting for change since the beginning of her career, working to bring women and minorities to every level of corporate America.
Born in 1960 in Amherst, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, Karen is the daughter of Richard and Eleanore Lehto. Her mom was a teacher, and her dad had several professions after he got out of college; he was a music teacher, then a bank manager, and was a salesperson for IBM in Cleveland by the time Karen was a small child.
“When I was a kid, my dad would bring home those old punch cards, and my sister and I would make stuff out of them,” Karen remembers. “We thought IBM was cool because we could make crafts out of their stuff. They were also giving away these little leather fold-over notepads I loved that said ‘Think’ on the top of them that they called ‘Think Pads.’ That was my initial understanding of the business world, was my dad working at IBM. And I think I always wanted to do something like that,” she says.
Karen is the oldest of four siblings, with a younger sister, and two much younger brothers—who she started babysitting when she was eight. “I was very bossy as a kid,” she remembers. “I was the oldest, so I was in charge. I changed diapers and did all that stuff. I think my mom didn’t like doing all that stuff, so I did it all.”
When she was 11 years old, Karen’s dad felt the calling to begin a career in ministry and had to go to seminary in Dayton, so the Lehto family made the first of many moves that would shape Karen’s early years.
Her dad began preaching as a student pastor at two country churches that Karen says were so poor that they couldn’t afford a full-time pastor. “We moved into this teeny little house in this town that was so small it wasn’t even a village. It was more like a burrough, and half the people didn’t even have indoor plumbing. So I went from Cleveland suburbs to that at age 11, and I was 5’10” and about 98 pounds. They made fun of me horribly. I went from being a normal kid to being the pariah. I remember the ladies at the church would walk up to me and put their fingers in my face and say, ‘You preacher’s kid. You’re wild! You’re bad kids!’” she recalls. “People had this idea that the preacher’s kids were awful.”
The church always moved families in June, which would give the Lehto kids the whole summer to adapt and then go to school, and Karen had a difficult time fitting in. “My life went from great to horrible overnight, but it taught me a lot of humility. As much as it was painful that first year, looking back it was the best thing that ever happened to me because you learn to deal with change. You learn who you are. You learn to hold yourself together with that kind of adversity.”
“My dad has a lot of passion toward social and human issues, and I think that’s where I get a lot of that. Some of it is nature and some is nurture, but I really think that’s what led him right into the church at 36. I think he just felt like he wasn’t doing the right thing with his life,” she says. “I’m proud of my father for doing what he did. How many families with kids would go from making good money and taking care of the family to absolutely no money and being on food stamps? But he was so good at it, and it was the right decision for everybody.”
Karen’s dad encouraged his kids to play musical instruments and sing in the church choir, even though Karen says only one of her brothers had any real musical talent. He also gave them vocabulary words every night at dinner to define and use in a sentence. “Here we were dirt poor, but he gave us all these great lessons. He was just that kind of a parent. He was doing everything he could to teach us, and grow us, and turn us into good human beings, so I admire him quite a bit.”
Karen and her sister learned to sew from her mom. “I think it’s a lost art,” she says. “I’m not nearly as good as my mom and my sister, but I remember my mom putting out a dress for me to wear, and I wanted to wear this one jumper that was my favorite gray wool and looked very ‘professional.’ And I remember thinking I was going to go to college and I was going to be a professional woman.”
“I wanted to be good at school,” she says. “I wanted to be smart. I wanted to have an impact. I just wanted to be strong, and to me being strong meant working and being independent. I actually thought I was going to be an astronaut, an archaeologist, or a college professor.”
After high school, Karen was ready to move on and out, so she enrolled at Wittenberg University in Springfield, five hours away from her parents’ home. She worked her way through school while pursuing a BFA in Fine Arts and Humanities. Soon after graduating, she was working for a recruiting firm for only two months when she was recruited herself by Rockwell Automation. Five months after she started, the company sent her to work at its headquarters in Milwaukee where she would head up the college relations program and hire roughly 200 college engineering students each semester.
When Karen started in the business world, if a job told her she was moving to a new location, she didn’t say no. If she had said no, her career would be over and she might as well change jobs, she says. The only move she made within her early career that wasn’t directed specifically by her higher-ups was when she wanted to work in Europe. She was told that the company didn’t think a woman could handle that. But Karen persevered and became the first female expat in her company’s history. They had tried to send her boss, but because of his massive culture shock, she went by default. “It was the best thing ever,” she states. “It opened up my world, living in Europe and seeing how Europeans lived. I got to go to every country and work with each country’s president on building a college relations and college hiring program. I was in heaven!”
Her early work in corporate America helped her discover that she could be thrown into any situation, and she would make sense of it, fix it up and make things happen. “I was a change agent,” she says. “I never thought of myself as a change agent, but I was. I think all the moves actually helped me in my work because I see people who struggle with change. And I know that because of my earlier life experience I’ve learned to deal with it, and I feel like it’s part of my job to help usher people through change.”
Her company had a very linear way of thinking, she recalls. The engineers were all men, and were all very logical and straightforward, but there weren’t many people in the company that came from other orientations, so when things went “off-script” for them, they needed her help. “I’m the master of off-script,” Karen says. “That’s what change agents do. They would come to me not knowing what to do about a problem, and I would tell them. Problems that didn’t allow for engineering solutions were my forté. It just was an absolute fit.”
She was only the third professional female in the company at the time, at 26 years old. Her boss was also a woman, and there was one other who worked in compensation. “We were the three. There were other women in the building, but they were all administrative or in the factory.”
“Human Resources is kind of the kitchen sink,” she says. “You do whatever the management wants you to do… hiring, firing, training, development, problem solving, employee relations is usually a big part of it. And I’ve always been good at problem solving. Even in college as my sorority president, I would sort out the tiffs going on and calm everyone down. I’ve just always been that person.”
Karen built up a rapport with many of the executives at Rockwell, but remembers that in the beginning “they didn’t want a woman recruiting their engineers. The head of sales was angry and actually kicked me out of his office during my first meeting with him and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I needed to go back to where I came from. Awful stuff.”
She says that he thought she wasn’t going to hire the right people who could do the work. “He didn’t believe that a woman could find good people. He thought that you had to recruit people in your own likeness, and how many decades of the business world was it a majority of white men? What he didn’t realize was that I had a really good eye for finding good people, and I had an affinity for the business we were in. He was the head of sales in a multi-million dollar company and didn’t want anything messing with his critical pipeline.”
She ended up winning him over, and she says, “You have to persevere. You can’t let one bad conversation, or very overt, discriminatory action stop you. That always ignited me and I felt the need to prove myself. The best way to fight that is to prove them wrong.”
Karen stresses that “the one or two bad apples do not provide an accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a businesswoman in a ‘man’s world.’ There are so many supportive men out there. When I was pregnant with my first son, there were so many men who opened up to me about their family lives, and I got to see this whole other side of them that they don’t show at work.”
Karen and her family moved to Georgia for her husband’s job after her second son was born, and she took a six-year hiatus from work to stay home to raise her two boys. She didn’t join the workforce again until her kids had begun elementary school. At this point, she was a newly single mom who needed to provide an income for her family. She got a job as VP of HR with a cabinet making company and spent over a year commuting to Texas four days per week, with a professional nanny taking care of her kids at home in Georgia. “I remember being judged so heavily by the people around me. Some were like, ‘Wow, you’re a hero!’ and others would say, ‘Children need their mother at home,” but they didn’t know the economic reality I was living in. I was in survival mode.”
“I can understand and appreciate now why men are seen as aloof with their families, and why they get that stereotype. It’s not really fair, it’s just that the job demands are huge,” she says, explaining that a woman in a high position faces the same criticism that men often do.
The Texas cabinet company folded after a year, and Karen got a job in HR at CNN, where she worked with many powerful men and women as equals. “It was awesome!” she says. It had been years since she had seen women working in powerful positions on a daily basis. (Her boss at Rockwell was her only other experience.) The women at CNN fueled her drive even further, but it was the first non-manufacturing company she worked for and she didn’t feel she was a good fit, though she learned a lot during her time there.
A proponent for change, Karen believes in moving on from a job that’s not a good fit. “Rather than staying in a place you’re not happy with, get a little uncomfortable and make a change,” she says. “I’ve seen people who have left companies for other jobs, who are now thriving in what they do. If it’s not making you happy, make a change. This is your one life; why be miserable?”
“I have this visceral sense that it’s so important right now that all of us show up and speak up in the world. Right now, where we are as a country, where we are as a human species, it’s time to stop living in our little cocoons that make us feel safe. Because I’m a child of change and bridging cultural gaps, I feel we need to speak up about why diversity is important, in business and in the world. We can’t stay silent anymore, for the sake of our children and the sake of our country.”