Cambridge’s Karen May … a proud yet humble QSM recipient

Like so many others put forward for such a high level of commendation, Karen prefers to hide her light under a bushel.  But when she gave it more thought, she realised that while the honour had her name attached to it, the recognition it gave was for something far greater than was offered by any single individual. It validated, she felt, her innate belief that individuals and communities are made immeasurably better by the simple act of ‘giving back’.

Decision made, Karen signalled her acceptance. That was late last year. Then last month, she and husband Vernon donned their best bib and tucker for a splendid Government House ceremony where Karen was formally presented with her New Year’s Honours QSM award by New Zealand’s Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy.

“It was an utterly fabulous, humbling experience,” she revealed, explaining how recipients of the New Year’s honours had been given the choice of attending ceremonies either in Auckland or Wellington.

Karen wanted hers to be in Wellington.  There was something about the gravitas attached to Government House that felt right to her. Nonetheless, there was little in her life leading up to that auspicious moment that could have prepared her.

“There were so many protocols, some I expected, some I didn’t. All the recipients were taken off into a special room where we were schooled on what to do and how to do it.  Things like how to address Dame Patsy – it had to be ma’am as in jam, not ma’am in ‘arm’. We all got to practise that, and were advised against letting ‘jam’ slip out in case we were over-awed by the moment!

“Government House staff were amazing; they were so welcoming, and Dame Patsy herself was lovely, very down to earth. She chatted to every one of us. She seemed to know a little bit about each of us, and given the numbers of recipients over multiple ceremonies during the week, that would have been quite daunting!”

Karen and Vernon were invited to attend a special dinner the night after her ceremony where she said nothing done by staff appeared to be “too much trouble”.  She remarked on the elegance in moving purposefully from the dining to the drawing room, and described meeting other recipients as “humbling”.

“I looked at those people, listened to their stories and wondered why I was also being given an honour.”

While talking to Cambridge News about her experience, Karen agreed that it was probably true to say that few people fully appreciate their own story.

“My philosophy in life is that if you think you are having a bad day, trust me you’re not. There is always someone else having a far worse day than you are.”

With that as her standard, Karen exemplifies the spirit of giving back, and not always only in a financial way. She has quietly put her mark on some of Cambridge’s best-known brands and continues to support various organisations without seeking plaudits for any of it. Through it, however, Karen has become one of Cambridge’s best recognised individuals.

Her community service has been across a variety of fields.

After experiencing her own benefits from joining the Hamilton chapter of Business Network International (BNI) in 2002, soon after starting her local design business, Karen made moves to establish a new chapter of the American franchised networking organisation in Cambridge.

“About three to four years after joining BNI, I felt sure there was enough going on locally to warrant us opening a chapter here to cater for Cambridge businesses,” she said. “Besides, I was tiring of having to take my then baby daughter to early morning meetings in Hamilton. Having a branch here was so much easier!”

Karen has also supported the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and the Waipa Business Awards, leading branding strategies to raise the profiles of both organisations, and from around 2003, she was involved with the publication of what was then called The Rotary Community Directory, now known as CambridgeFindIt.

She had earlier worked for that publication, selling into it for over a year and coming to a new appreciation of the role.

“I take my hat off to sales reps. I will never be rude to them, as I know just how rude some people can be when you’re trying to sell to them.

“I learned a lot about the Cambridge community through that job.”

From 2010 to 2015 Karen was a Board member of Cambridge Lifeskills, the free counselling service available for Cambridge only school-aged children. She was responsible for rebranding Cambridge Lifeskills a few years ago, and has spearheaded fundraising ventures to get behind them.

Although she has stepped away temporarily from the Board as her family focuses on seeing one of their own through a health crisis, she is still active in encouraging business support for the organisation.

“I will go back to it when I’m ready.  Cambridge Lifeskills and what it represents is massive for me.”

Karen’s altruistic side has grown through the years.  Now, when any organisation with which she has been involved enjoys success, there’s a nugget of satisfaction at having been part of their story.

After leaving school, she worked in an accounting office before becoming a typesetter for the Rodney Times, then owed by Tony Cook. His forward-thinking views led him to bringing into New Zealand the country’s first Apple Mac, a novel beast complete with an “external hard-drive and floppies”, and Karen was sent to the United States for training on an integrated newspaper system.

“The first Iraq war was on … I was very apprehensive about going.”

She later worked in a design company and then moved to Cambridge where she worked with Shoof for a while before starting her own company – a move that saw her take her both own advice to never turn down an opportunity, and her husband’s prompting to just “go for it”.

Kaz Graphic Dezign began life in the couple’s spare room in 2002, with a handful of clients. It has grown like topsy since then, something she attributes to the sound BNI advice she received early on around the value of networking.

“When I started the business, I thought of myself as standing on the edge of a precipice. But at the end of the day you have to think ‘oh bugger it’, and take the risk anyway.  I don’t want to be on my deathbed and wonder ‘what if?’.

“I think that in life, if you believe in something with such a passion you will make it a reality.”

Because she is known for her community input, Karen’s business is often tapped for some form of help or contribution.

“We will consider it if it fits with our values. It would have to reflect what we believe to be important – honesty, integrity, service to others. And there are many ways to give.”

Her own family have always been a source of strength.  Vernon, she said, is constantly concerned that her heart will give out and she is deeply grateful for his focus on keeping her going.

Karen’s empathy has become a gift to their daughters, Jacinda and Edyn.

“They are both really caring girls,” she said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself how lucky I am.”

By Viv Posselt.

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