Karen DeJarnette

Empowering Women in the Workforce

By Riley Bunch | Photography by Mary Grace Johnson 

For 2016 Syracuse Woman of the Year Karen DeJarnette, it’s all about the big picture.

Her day-to-day life consists of putting puzzle pieces together to help organizations be competitive in the marketplace and individuals achieve necessary skills to advance their careers. As a program manager at Fast Lane Consulting and Education, Karen sees all the moving parts of a company come together.

“I like being able to see the big picture,” Karen said, “and see what I’m doing in the picture and what drives it forward.”

After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois, Karen made the move to Syracuse to work for the Carrier Corporation. While clocking 60-hour work weeks, she attended evening classes at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management to earn a master’s degree in business administration.

“If nothing else, I guess you could say I persevere,” Karen laughed.

But that didn’t quell Karen’s thirst for education. She continued at Syracuse University, earning a master’s degree in information management at the School of Information Studies.

School was an ideal setting for Karen. The academic environment allowed her to get feedback not typically found in the corporate world. It was also the place that inspired her to use her knowledge to help other people.

Karen still remembers the moment that sparked her career in service engineering. During an undergraduate class, a professor asked her to help run the session. A lightbulb went off, and she realized, “Oh, this is what I really like to do.”

In 2003, Karen joined the team at the Manufacturers Association of Central New York, and was exposed to a wide range of companies in the Syracuse area.

“They all had a lot of different interests, but all have this one desire,” she said, “which is to make Central New York this thriving place where businesses can grow and be competitive in a global marketplace, and individuals can have a career if they want one. Nobody [is] left behind.”

Karen spent four years with MACNY before working as director of workforce development at Empire State Development Corporation. She then returned to her roots at Syracuse University as the director of the Talent and Education Development Center, more commonly known as the school’s TEDCenter.

At the TEDCenter, Karen worked to create and lead noncredit programs for students and young professionals to develop skills and opportunities. This aligned perfectly with Karen’s passion for ensuring everyone is given a fair chance.

“How do you empower women and girls to feel like they have a voice at the table?” she said.

With her background as a female engineer, Karen knows what it’s like to feel voiceless. At her first job, the closest women’s bathroom was two buildings away from where she was stationed. She’d have to walk through the factory floor and face taunts from male coworkers.

Her experiences fuel her philanthropic efforts. Karen joined the Women’s Fund of Central New York in 2010, and served as chairperson in 2015.

“Women don’t usually get money,” Karen said. “They are usually left out. The Women’s Fund was created so that women can have a voice in helping other women — so that they get money, too.”

The money raised by the Women’s Fund impacts a number of local programs tailored to help women, such as STEM-career workshops run by the YMCA Greater Syracuse/Syracuse Women’s Commission and support for unaccompanied refugee minors through Toomey Residential and Community Services.

Karen also serves on the board of Partners for Education and Business, the advisory board for Junior Achievement of Central New York and the Hope for Syracuse anti-poverty subcommittee for economic strategy.

With all her efforts, it’s no surprise Karen was named Woman of the Year. But she had no idea she was even nominated, he admitted.

“It was such a great thing, and it made me feel like the things I’m doing really make a difference and really matter,” Karen said. “It truly meant the world to me to know that.”

Karen credits her success to the support of family and friends, as well as the “web of connections” the Syracuse community has to offer.

“I think the question is, ‘How do you make that web really strong?’” Karen said. “And that’s the role of philanthropy. There are people who don’t believe they are a part of that connectivity, and we need to make sure that no one is left out.” SWM

To learn more about the Women’s Fund of Central New York, visit womensfundofcny.org.

Makeup by Julianna Pastella. Hair styling by Janet Stella Lanning.