After nine years with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Kari Brunson hung up her dancing shoes and jumped into the Seattle food scene. She opened her first business — Juicebox Café, focused on cold-pressed juices and plant-based food — in 2012. Now, the entrepreneur also co-owns Frankie & Jo’s, the popular plant-based ice cream shop. Read about her career high points, challenges, and how men and women can improve gender equity in the workplace in this week’s installment of our Daring Women Q&A series.
1. Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.
High points of my career always have to do with people I work with. Nothing is more satisfying than intimately working with one of my team members, leading them and teaching them everything I know about a particular subject, and then they surpass my expertise and either start teaching me or doing the job that I had done way better.
What I love about my work is that it doesn't feel like work. It feels like an extension of my drive and energy manifested in experiences and products.
My proudest moment is when I see a repeat customer, or a customer gives us feedback that we have blown their minds with what we have created. I always want people to feel inspired after they eat the food at my businesses. And, sometimes people are not always happy — but there is ultimate satisfaction in winning someone back with excellent hospitality and care.
2. What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?
The majority of challenges that I have faced as a woman rely mostly in my mind and in my head. I spend a lot of time not giving enough boundaries to my work and personal life in order to be taken more seriously as a leader in my field and take care of the people who work so hard for my companies. It is funny how I still feel that I need to prove to myself that I am an effective leader even when I have many people I lead successfully on a daily basis (and this statement is based on their own personal success within my companies)! I have addressed these items by giving myself more space to be able to do something just for me and nobody else. I have recently learned how to play tennis, which to me is part exercise, part therapy, part strategy, and part meditation. I am a tennis lifer.
3. Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?
My mother, Linda Brunson. She has always said yes whenever possible to the things I wanted to pursue because she knew that is what she would have wanted from her own mother. Case in point: She let me go away to a ballet boarding school when I was in 10th grade in NYC because I wanted to become a ballerina. And, because of that, I was fortunate enough to have a long professional dance career with Pacific Northwest Ballet because of it. She constantly encouraged me to speak my mind, nurtured my interests and used her past life experiences to give a realistic perspective to what was going on in my own life — no matter the subject. To this day, she is the person I go to for advice regarding anything important to me and I find that her style is one that I use with my own team members daily.
4. What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?
One of my favorite sayings is, "Eyes on your own paper." The success of any business or individual is largely due to the fact that they have created their own path in the industry while not looking to others to dictate their way. My teams innovate and create to satisfy our customers, but also to satisfy ourselves. This focus creates a loyal following, without the noise of worrying about other potential competition. When you focus on what you do best, you can exist with tons of potential competition around.
5. What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?
My take on this is just to communicate and speak up. Each person has their own story happening in their head, and often times people do not know that they are treating someone in a way they do not want to be treated. If you say something, then you are allowing for positive assumption that they did not know. If they keep repeating the trend, then it is time to take further action. This has worked well for me and I have many recent examples of actually saying something and having a person retrace their steps and apologize. I believe this creates more respect and certainly has created more empowerment for me personally.
6. Tell us about a favorite book/show/podcast and why/how it inspires you.
I am currently obsessed with anything Daniel Coyle writes (The Talent Code and The Culture Code) and you will always find me with a Harvard Business Review 10 Must Read series. Rachel Marshal (of Rachel's Ginger Beer) just tipped me off to the “Masters of Scale” podcast by the creator of LinkedIn. I listen and relisten to NPR’s How I Built This and I desperately need something to supplement me when they are taking a production break.
7. Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
I love the summertime bounty of the Seattle farmers’ markets, which inspires me to do big projects such as making vegan kimchi, or pickling something untraditional, or creating a new (to me) dish for dinner parties for dear friends or with my partner Patrick. I love to travel (both with Patrick or solo) and see other types people, food, landscapes, and overall culture. Being in the same place all the time is stagnant and boring for creativity.
I also love my home and being at home in West Seattle with my two dogs (Cashew and Pepita) and Patrick. This recharges my Kari battery.
As far as expanding contacts, I do this the organic way. I am definitely a person who has to meet someone first to see if their energy will work with mine regardless of what job or title they have. Often, an opportunity will come out of nowhere and be a huge shift in my life. A great example of this is knowing Autumn Martin, my business partner in Frankie & Jo's, from afar, and then running in to her at my cafe, Juicebox, and striking up a conversation. That moment of openness and her amazing energy shifted my life path and now we have an amazing business and partnership together. We would never have met each other at a networking event or meet-up. I probably would have been in bed at 8:30 p.m. when it started.
8. What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?
Listening. When you listen and ask good questions, people will tell you who they are and what they are thinking. You can also make impactful changes in your business when you are open-minded and listen to what your customers want. Businesses are there for the people who come in, and when you do not listen to what they want, then you will ultimately fail because they will not feel like they are also a part of your business anymore.
9. What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over?
This is my career do-over (after retiring from the ballet) and I am in a great place. I do not know if I have another career path in me, but I do have a lot more business ideas in me! I also think I would have loved to pursue tennis the way I pursued ballet.
10. What would be the title of your autobiography?
Eyes on Your Own Paper — Lessons in Silencing the Noise and Focusing on What You Do Best.
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.