Karen Johnson Shaheed: What was your path?

(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Karen Johnson Shaheed

Executive Vice President and General Counsel
Bowie State University

How did you choose your career path?

It wasn’t really a conscious choice, to be honest.  While I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, I didn’t have a clear idea about exactly what I wanted to do.  I discovered in college a real interest in public policy, so that was always in the back of my mind even as I started my legal career in the private sector.  I was just very fortunate to have had wonderful opportunities that ultimately led me to a rewarding career that combines law and public service.

What events — and people — helped guide your career decisions? 

A turning point in my career was when I left private practice to work in state government, first as an assistant attorney general. I was recruited by the Secretary of Labor into an administrative job that really aligned with my interest in public policy and administration, and then recruited again to work in the governor’s office by the then-chief of staff.  He was a wonderful, strong mentor who convinced me that I could do much more than I’d imagined, and that experience exposed me to so many exciting policy areas, including education.  Certainly being named Secretary of Higher Education by the governor was a pivotal point.

What were the challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

One challenge I faced was one of confidence as I pursued new opportunities without a clear roadmap for where those opportunities would lead me. You think you know what your career is supposed to look like, but then, unexpectedly, you are presented with opportunities to do something new and quite different. It takes some courage to step out of your comfort zone and seize an opportunity.  I think it helped to surround myself with great mentors who could serve as sounding boards.

How do you maintain passion for your job?

I knew that simply practicing law would never be enough for me. My passion really comes from being part of something bigger than myself, something important and from being able to make a difference.  I am passionate about education, so combining my love of the law with my administrative work in higher education has been very fulfilling. It is exciting to be a part of building a strong institution that transforms young lives. I get to mentor students and see them walk across the stage to receive their college degree, often after overcoming many personal challenges and obstacles. So I remain passionate by remembering why I am here.

What’s next for you? 

I honestly don’t know.  I have enjoyed  some success without a clear roadmap, so I suppose I should just remain open.  I am just focused on being a strong leader and adding value to my institution.

What advice do you have for younger women hoping to follow your career path?

Well, I don’t know if I’d recommend not having a roadmap!  The best advice I can give is to find your passion and don’t lose sight of what is important to you. Prepare yourself but be flexible.

Karen Johnson Shaheed

Personal: Married, with one son; born in Baltimore, now a resident of Columbia

Education: B.A. in political science, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; J.D., University of Maryland Francis Carey School of Law

Professional: Deputy Chief of Staff under Gov. Parris N. Glendening; Assistant Attorney General and Assistant Secretary for Regulatory Policy and Programs for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation; General Counsel and Vice President for Government Relations at the National Labor College; Secretary of Higher Education for the state of Maryland and CEO for the Maryland Higher Education Commission; Executive Vice President & General Counsel at Bowie State University

Hobbies: Loves dance, traveling and entertaining

This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Path To Excellence: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Path to Excellence magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Path to Excellence.

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