Karen Wishart views her career as one long string of serendipity. Born in England, Wishart moved to suburban Toronto with her working class parents when she was six. Her good luck started while she was serving her Articles of Clerkship, the pre-bar admission internship for Canadian law school graduates. Wishart was walking down the stairs in Cassels, Brock & Blackwell's Toronto offices, carrying a pile of law books, when she encountered a partner with his African-Canadian clients, who were applying for a license for a black radio station.
"One of the businessmen saw this black person in a suit and presumed I was a lawyer in a firm that was predominately white," Wishart recalls. "He told the partner, who didn't know me from Adam, 'Hey, we want her to work on our file, and we'll consider taking our business elsewhere if she doesn't.'"
That chance encounter was the beginning of Wishart's series of successes in entertainment law. After completing her bar admission requirements, she worked at Cassels, Brock & Blackwell as an associate and then moved on to a series of in-house jobs, culminating in her current role as executive vice president and chief legal officer of TV One. The Silver Spring, Md.-based cable/satellite television network offers original and acquired programming aimed at African-American adults. This "dream job" enables Wishart to use both her legal skills and her business savvy--she is involved in strategic planning and oversees a staff of three attorneys who handle contract negotiation, risk assessment, corporate governance and employment issues for the startup.
Q:How did you end up going in-house?
A:I was split between the entertainment and government and regulatory departments at Cassels, Brock & Blackwell because at the time there wasn't a lot of entertainment work in Canada. We lost a couple of large clients back-to-back, so it was decided that the government and regulatory department was going to be folded. They said, "We really want to keep you, so you can do insurance law." With all due respect to insurance lawyers, that would have been the kiss of death.
As I was preparing to say goodbye to my colleagues, the CFO of YTV called and said, "We're looking for someone to come in-house with us.'" That's how I ended up at YTV, which is similar to Nickelodeon, but it's Canadian.
Q:What was your most interesting project at YTV?
A:Probably the most fun I had was helping to start their baby network, Treehouse TV, which is aimed at preschoolers. As I left, it was just launching.
Q:Why did you move to the U.S.?
A:My husband and I wanted to move to the U.S. because the taxes in Canada were so high. I was planning to make what I believed to be the ultimate sacrifice for our family, which would be to go back to a law firm. While I was waiting for an interview with a law firm in Atlanta, I was flipping through the newspaper. When I got to the classifieds, I thought, "Let's see what's under 'A' for attorney." Scripps had this tiny ad saying, "Wanted: Director of Business Affairs." I was like, "Scripps Networks? That's HGTV." So I sent my resume in, and I got a call the next day from the CFO saying, "Hey, can you come down here to Knoxville? We'd like to meet with you." I went, and they absolutely blew me away.
Q:So how was life in Knoxville?
A:The pace of living is a little bit slower than it is in the bigger northern cities, but when you walk through those doors [at Scripps], you work really hard and you work fast. I got there right after the initial launch madness, where they were still in start-up mode, and that's honestly the mode I like to be in.
Q:You decided to get an MBA while you were at Scripps. Why?
A:I really started to look at what I wanted to do, what my passions were, and the big hole in it was that I had a thousand ideas but I didn't know how to develop a financial plan [to implement them]. That's when I decided to get an MBA.
Q:At the time you had two children at home and a full time job. How did you fit in an MBA?
A:It was the hardest 20 months of my life. There were a couple of times I wanted to quit. But my husband was my absolute rock during that time. He would say, "You can't just walk out. You have to go down there [to Emory University in Atlanta] and tell them in person why you are quitting." Sure enough, I'd go down there and after two or three days of classes I'd be re-energized. I would think, "Wow, I can do this!"
Q: How did you land at TV One?
A:We've all decided that Jonathan Rodgers [CEO of TV One] could sell snow to someone in the Arctic. He sold me on his vision that African-Americans deserve more than just one network, that they deserve a choice.
Q: How has it worked out for you?
A:This is my dream job. It has been everything I could have hoped for, and a thousand times more. I laugh more on this job than I've ever laughed before because my co-workers are really funny. Jonathan is a great boss because his philosophy is to hire the best people and then let them make the decisions that are in their area of expertise.
Q:What are your biggest challenges?
A:When you are a start-up, you are so busy just getting the machinery to run properly that you don't necessarily have the processes in place. We're at the point now where I have to go back and establish processes, and it's been a very fine balance between providing really good customer service and becoming too bogged down in procedure to get things done.
Q:What is your typical day like?
A:Something I love about my job is that no two days are alike. The night before I will plan four or five things that I want to get done the next day, but often I don't make it from the front door to my office without someone stopping me to ask about an issue they have. I spend about 50 percent of my time in meetings, and most of the rest trying to be responsive to my team, who does the lion's share of the work.
Q:What is the biggest legal issue you've dealt with?
A:The most challenging issue is rights clearances. We're finding we have to be more creative in our dealmaking. Whereas in the past it was easy to get all rights to all media, now our third-party vendors have become a lot more sophisticated and realize the business value of the assets they are providing. They believe they missed the boat [in the past by giving away Internet rights], so they're not giving them away now. It's just the way the industry is evolving.
Q:What makes this your dream job?
A:There's a lot of learning and a lot of new experiences. And you've got to love a boss who actually lets you do your job and who will listen to you.
Q:What's your favorite TV One program?
A:I love the Barack Obama interview we did with Roland Martin very early in Obama's campaign, when some African-Americans were saying he was too black, and other African-Americans were
saying he wasn't black enough. We could ask him those questions without being perceived as offensive.