America’s Founding Fathers may have been an inspired bunch who forever changed the world, but they definitely aren’t known for diversity.
Half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were lawyers, and all were white and male, with an average age of forty-four. Their modern descendants, however, are another story.
In 2017 Karen Peterson, then Ancestry’s senior VP of marketing, looked around at twenty-nine descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence gathered together in one space, and she felt her breath catch. Women and men of varied ages and backgrounds posed to re-create the famous John Trumbull painting of the declaration signers as part of a Fourth of July–themed campaign.
“A few of them knew that they were descended from a signer,” says Peterson, a 2003 Marriott MBA alum. “But for a lot of them, we discovered that for them. Just having people of all different backgrounds, races, professions—and all of these people made these connections to a Founding Father and to each other. It was just such an amazing human experience to have.”
The campaign ran as a national TV spot, the signers’ descendants repeating the words of the famous declaration, and included a mural of the group painted on a building in New York City. This was one of Peterson’s final projects at Ancestry, capping off her thirteen-year tenure at the family-history tech giant.
Peterson has built her marketing career— which continues to soar—on a creative flair for telling a great story plus a scientific mind grounded in analytics. This rare winning combo moved her from a senior marketer to interim chief marketing officer (CMO) at Ancestry before she pioneered that role at two growing Silicon Slopes tech firms. She’s now CMO at Lendio, where she’s taking the lead to connect vulnerable business owners with needed capital as the world grapples with COVID-19.
“Marketers are data-driven technologists, especially in today’s modern times,” Peterson says. “The field really is a blend of creativity and data. It’s the study of language and behavior—it’s this beautiful interconnection of so many disciplines. I love it. I love everything about it.”
The Best Experience
One of the highest compliments you can give Peterson is to call her a nerd. Since her childhood in a Virginia suburb when she rode her bike along dusty roads, built forts with her sister in the nearby woods, and delved into more books than she could count, Peterson has been in love with learning.
Peterson’s high-school years were filled with STEM-oriented passions—statistics, math, biology—but when she headed to Radford University in Virginia on a full-ride scholarship, she opted to study English and criminal justice. After working briefly in contract law, Peterson enrolled in the executive MBA program at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “I took a marketing class and found all of my interests—math, science, humanities, communications—in one discipline,” she says. “It just felt like marketing was built for me, or I was built for marketing.”
BYU Marriott wasn’t even on her radar— until a trip to Utah brought BYU, and so much more, into her life. Peterson flew out during the summer of 2000 to visit a childhood friend and had a life-changing experience at Temple Square that sparked serious interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was also introduced to Jeff Peterson. The two wouldn’t marry for another two years, but she says, “From the minute I met him, I never dated anyone else, and neither did he.”
Peterson returned to North Carolina, where she continued her investigation of the Church with support, but never pressure, from her friends in Utah. Eventually, Jeff baptized her, and she moved out to Utah, where she started BYU Marriott’s full-time MBA marketing track.
“At BYU I was caught up in the magic of being a new member,” Peterson remembers. “I was out West for the first time. I was making friends. I was surrounded by people who answered my questions about the gospel and asked their own. I was in love, and I was learning. It was the best experience for me.”
BYU Marriott marketing professor Michael Swenson says Peterson stood out in his MBA marketing management class. He has followed her career closely since then, and twice a year he invites her to speak to his students.
“Karen has grown from a bright, eager-to-learn MBA student to a determined, insightful, resilient, experienced, wise, and successful business person,” Swenson says. “She represents the BYU Marriott brand: competent, motivated, hardworking, professional, ethical, honor, integrity, goodness. Her career success is a result of these attributes.”
After earning her MBA in 2003 and then working at Park City B2B firm Nutraceutical for a year, Peterson heard of an opening at Ancestry, a family-history research company that has since become a staple success story in the Wasatch Front’s booming tech industry. At eight months pregnant with her first child, she landed the job.
“I loved that it was a consumer-facing company and such a mission-driven brand,” Peterson says. “They hired me to help the marketing team evolve to be more product-oriented, focused on the historical records.”
Peterson led out in shaping how the historical content foundational to family history research—census records and obituaries, for example—is released and marketed. “We would combine records from a certain location or time period, and then I would create a story that the marketing team could use to sell to a specific audience,” Peterson explains.
“We evolved the way marketing was done by focusing on stories.”
After working two years in the US market, Peterson was asked to manage the Canadian market from Toronto, where she moved with her young family in 2008 to lead from the field.
The Right Challenge
Her family arrived in Toronto on 1 July— Canada Day—and Peterson rolled up her sleeves and got to work, becoming something of an entrepreneur. Her first tasks were scouting out office space and making the company’s first Canadian hires while building out Ancestry.com from scratch.
She created ads, launched TV spots, and collaborated with the Canadian government to acquire and release historical records, all amid balancing life with her family and commuting regularly to Ancestry’s international headquarters in London.
“I got to experience the excitement of owning my own business with the support of an amazing enterprise,” Peterson says. “I did everything from soup to nuts, including helping with the acquisition, marketing, being a spokesperson for interviews, and just general business ownership.”
It was a challenge for sure, Peterson says, but it was the right one for her. “We were a very small team with very big growth goals, and we had to become very good at prioritizing and being agile and adaptive,” she says.
The Peterson family quickly found their place in the world’s most diverse city. They made friends fast, thanks in large part to their church connections, and considered themselves lucky to rub shoulders with immigrants and converts, especially when ward activities served food from around the world.
The move to Toronto also led to new shifts in their family. The Petersons had two young children, and the youngest, Gavin, was born with spina bifida and suffered significant ongoing physical challenges. To support Gavin’s needs, Jeff sold his small business and became a stay-at-home dad.
“You become strengthened through hard times,” Peterson says. “Moving to another country was a big deal then. My husband became Gavin’s main physical therapist; Jeff even built Gavin a tricycle he could ride to build his strength. Moving was the best possible thing for our family—and for my career too. To have that opportunity was a complete game changer.”
After three years, Peterson decided it was time to return to the United States when she found out she was pregnant with her third child. With the physical and emotional trauma of Gavin’s birth fresh in mind, she wanted to be home, close to her doctors, and in a more stable situation.
“I wasn’t even sure what my role was going to be at Ancestry when I came back,” Peter- son says. “But they were supportive of me. The US team was so big that I was able to take on a big piece of the marketing team right away.”
Within a year, Peterson became a marketing VP, and near the end of her time at Ancestry, she was appointed interim CMO, an exciting role that had her traveling out of state at least every other week.
“That was a period of time when my job took way more time away from my family than normal,” Peterson recalls. “But it was a season—a period of investment and a conscious decision that my husband and I made together.”
Ultimately, Peterson decided to leave Ancestry. She had seen the company grow into a multibillion-dollar company and was interested in bringing her expertise to a firm in earlier stages of growth. Plus she wanted to be home more. In 2018 she found the right fit as the first CMO at BrainStorm, a B2B Silicon Slopes software company, where she focused on positioning the brand for growth.
Helping the Underserved
After a couple of years at BrainStorm, Peter- son again pioneered the CMO spot at a Utah- based tech startup. She began talks with the C-suite at Lendio in early 2020 and officially got started in May.
“We were looking for a CMO who has the ability to not only be creative around the brand and knows how to build and expand the brand, but also to be data-driven around analytics,” says Brock Blake, CEO of Lendio and also a BYU Marriott alum. “Usually you only find one or the other: either the right- brain creative or the left brain who gets data science. Karen is a unique blend of both.”
Lendio is a marketplace for small-business owners to find capital by connecting with lenders around the country—a role that’s become even more important as entrepreneurs struggle through the pandemic-induced economic downturn.
From April to the end of June, Lendio helped 100,000 small businesses access $8 billion worth of loan funding made available through the Paycheck Protection Program under the CARES Act, passed to provide coronavirus-related economic relief. For comparison, Lendio had previously facilitated a total of $2 billion in loans since it was founded in 2011.
Peterson feels humbled to see these numbers and honored to be on a team that’s offering a solution for so many entrepreneurs during a difficult time. She says she’s developed a passion for helping this group and loves working for a brand she can get behind. “You can feel the mission in the culture of the company,” she says. “We’re help- ing an underserved market.”
A New Normal
As workplaces across the globe grappled with a new normal, Peterson kicked off her new CMO role from home, meeting her team for the first time on Zoom and getting to know their personalities through the Gifs they posted on Slack.
After cautiously coming to work in the office, Peterson was sent right back home to isolate—when her own COViD-19 test returned positive. “It was brutal!” she says.
“I could barely breathe. And I was the careful one in my family.”
Now recovered, Peterson is focused on doing right by America’s small-business owners as she navigates her new role. During a recent leadership training meeting, Peter- son and her colleagues listed one hundred dreams they have for the future.
“That exercise is easy for kids,” Peterson says. “But as you become an older adult, you start to limit yourself.”
As she considered the possibilities, Peter- son initially thought about her new position and her goal to become a change agent at Lendio, to be a part of its growth and build an amazing marketing team along the way; ultimately, her thoughts turned to simpler, more personal dreams.
I want to be an awesome mom. I want to be an awesome wife. I want to have created a family where we enjoy being together.
"I want my kids and eventually, grandkids to come and sit around the dinner table together for holidays," she says. "It sounds like the most basic of things, but I feel like it’s probably the most important thing. The most important influence you can have is on the people you’re around every single day.”
Article written by Sara Smith Atwood
Photography by Bradley Slade
About the Author
Sara Smith Atwood is an associate editor at BYU Magazine and holds a bachelor’s degree in English language and a master’s degree in linguistics, both from BYU. She lives in Orem, Utah, with her husband and two children.