December 17, 2008

An Entrepreneur With An Unsinkable Spirit

After reaching her goals in the White House, real estate, and a board-game company, Karen Fried Young ’84 is onto her next venture

By Nora Isaacs ’94

Karen Fried Young ’84 doesn’t like to take “no” for an answer. Her eagerness to take on challenges, shatter boundaries, and let intuition be her guide has been a hallmark of her personal and professional lives.“When people say, ‘definitely not,’ my first question is ‘why?’” says Young, a board-game company founder once called a “game maker with unsinkable spirit” by The New York Times. “I don’t rashly make a decision, but I do find it enticing to find out why something can or can’t be done,”

This persevering mindset has worked well for her. In her successful career, each time someone told Young she couldn’t do something, she went ahead and did it anyway—finding great prosperity and joy along the way.

Tenacity is her familiar companion. While at Lafayette, the economics and American studies double major studied economic policy for a semester at American University in Washington, D.C. During orientation, the speaker mentioned a young woman who worked in the White House. Young turned to her friend and told her she wanted to work there. “I just said it because the idea was so far-fetched,” she says. “But I thought, if another person can do it, I can do it.” Through hard work and several connections, she ended up working for the business liaison between the president and the women’s business community—in the White House. At the end of the summer, she was offered a White House staff position, but turned it down to finish college.

This boundless energy, confidence, and ambition weren’t just the stuff of college dreams. After Lafayette, Young went into commercial real estate in Manhattan. “At that time, it was not a place for women; it was a man’s business,” she recalls. Instead of crumbling, she used this to her advantage. “I found being a woman an asset and a door opener. I think closing deals is more about being competent, creative, and a good communicator than whether you’re a man or a woman.”

Perhaps her biggest coup has been her foray into the gaming world. At a dinner party in Miami, friends started playing a word game where players gave clues for a two-word phrase that rhymed. She loved the idea, and although she had no connections or knowledge of the industry, she used proceeds from a real estate deal to develop, package, and market the game, Think-It Link-It.

She ignored those who told her that 95 percent of games never make it to market. “If you live your life by the odds, you might not get anywhere,” says Young. “If you look at the numbers, there are so many ways you can defeat yourself in life.” The game ended up at Manhattan’s fabled game store, FAO Schwartz, where it quickly outsold all other games in the store combined.

Instead of looking at the failed path of others, she blazed her own. Her mentors and critics told her that she would never make it unless she licensed her idea with a big company. Instead, she licensed and manufactured it herself, in the process creating the award-winning TLI Games, which now includes other games like Zing! and City Go. Each new game brought with it a bigger launch at FAO.

TLI Games enjoyed so much success that by 2007, it needed to significantly expand its staff and infrastructure. Instead of blindly moving forward, Young took some time to consider her options. “I realized that if I was going to build a larger infrastructure, it would be in many ways like starting a new company, and if I was going to start a new company, I didn’t want it to be a board game company. I’d already reached most of my goals and enjoyed terrific success,” she says.

So she decided to slowly phase out of the game world and take her next leap of faith: a business on Manhattan’s Upper East Side called Sip and Swirl Caf�, which will serve healthy food in a stylish, fun, family environment. “People have told me that retail is horrible, there is a food crisis, and that I’ve never been in the restaurant business before,” she says. “But it feels like a very natural next move.”

While running her game business, she took accelerated food and beverage courses at night to learn the ins and outs of the restaurant industry. “I fully immersed myself and it’s been exciting, a lot of learning in it,” she says.

A keynote speaker at several business conferences, Young possesses the alluring combination of instinct and business savvy. Her advice to other entrepreneurs is simple: First go with your gut and ask yourself what you want to accomplish. And then methodically build a plan and a goal.

For Young, half the fun is the learning process of starting a new venture: “There is inspiration everywhere; it’s important to open your eyes,” she says. “Usually when you do, you see there is more than one way of doing things.”

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