December 11th, 2009 by admin
November 4, 2009, Vienna, VA
Karen Bybee healed from the death of her first child by throwing herself into the planning of the 1994 Soccer World Cup event. Since then, Karen has developed a career in international sports management, and has been involved with six Olympic Games, four Soccer World Cups, and numerous other international sports events. She is returning to work now after a four year hiatus at home with her teenaged sons.
I graduated from Brigham Young University with clear expectations: I would have marketable skills; I would have a job; I would get married; and I would have children. I believed that I could “have it all” but I also understood that I couldn’t have it all at the same time.
After majoring in Public Relations, I got a job in Washington D.C. as an assistant press secretary to Representative Ron Mazzoli, a democratic congressman from my home state of Kentucky. After nearly three years on the House side, I had the opportunity to join Senator Orrin Hatch’s office as a Legislative Aide – transforming overnight from the House to the Senate, a Democrat to a Republican and a moderate to a conservative. Quite a shift! I married when I was a few months short of my twenty-ninth birthday. As I anticipated the birth of our first child, I resigned my Senate job and pursued an opportunity to do some part time consulting on political women’s conferences as a new mother. Then the unthinkable happened.
My baby died. This was in 1989, and although technology should have told us she had problems, we just didn’t know until she was born. Our daughter, Kara, was a Trisomy 18, which means she had an extra eighteenth chromosome. She also had a congenital heart defect, along with severe neurological challenges… We kept her on life support for five days until the tests came back and confirmed that she really had no chance of sustainable life. We were told by the doctors that this was a genetic problem. And that we would never have our own children.
Senator Hatch was an incredible support to me at this time. We had just moved into a new home in a new area. I had no job, no baby, no life. I was a mess.
It was at that low point that I was offered the opportunity to join the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee. In 1989, the United States had recently been awarded the rights to host the 1994 World Cup [the most important world-wide soccer tournament held every four years] and a long time friend, Scott LeTellier, had just been named as the head of the organizing committee. He called me and asked me if I would come on board for the next five years to organize and stage the 1994 tournament. I was the third person hired for the committee.
Did you have any experience in sports management at that time?
My brothers and I were always involved with sports growing up and I had event experience from my job with Senator Hatch, but I had no direct sports management experience. I knew that soccer was the passion of the world, even though it is not as popular in this country. I didn’t know at that time that the World Cup was 30 days, 24 teams and 9 cities… but I knew it was a big deal.
It was a complete surprise when I was offered the position to join the organizing committee. But I’ll tell you where the connection comes in: The World Cup is held every four years in non-Olympic years and the 1990 World Cup was being held in Italy. As head of the Organizing Committee, Scott knew that I had been a missionary in Catania, Italy, and spoke Italian. My initial primary responsibility on the organizing committee was to act as a liaison with the Italian organizing committee in order to learn everything possible from them before we had to host the event ourselves.
I had never planned to go on a mission. As I neared completion of my junior year in college, I was contemplating my options after graduation and praying for guidance on the direction I should take. I kept getting the impression that I should go on a mission. In my not so humble fashion, I went back to the Lord several times and said, “I’m sorry, you don’t understand, that’s not really what I want to do.!” And I never had as powerful a response to anything in my life as when the response came back to me, “No, you don’t understand.” The mission changed my life in many ways, but who would have known it would set me on this career path that I could never have anticipated! My Italian gave me my entry into the 1990 World Cup, where I made international contacts and received great training in international sports.
Being hired onto that organizing committee allowed me to heal from the death of our daughter. It was a blessing from the Lord. I was so devastated after the loss, coupled with the thought that I would never be able to have children that I spiraled into a darkness that I couldn’t get out of. If someone touched me, I felt like I was a piece of glass that would just shatter. The job allowed me to build my confidence, to pour my energy into something and move forward. In many ways I felt like I gave birth to that organizing committee. We started with nothing and had to build it up completely. It was a rare opportunity for me to start at the very beginning stages of planning and see it all the way to fruition — to see it become the huge international event that it was.
When I was working with the Italian organizers for the 1990 World Cup, the first question people always had was, “Why do you speak Italian?” Of course, I didn’t have any of the proper vocabulary — words like player, goal, team, doping. All I knew was, “Let me tell you about Joseph Smith”! So I really had to learn a whole new business vocabulary. But “Why?” is the first question I am often asked on any event, which then gives me an opportunity to say, “I was a missionary for the Mormon Church.” That is always out there, first and foremost. I have had many, many opportunities to talk about my mission because of the language. There is a lot of socializing, a lot of partying in these sports events, and I’m fortunate that I’ve worked with really good people who respect my standards.
You now have three children, three sons. Are they your natural born children?
Yes. After our daughter died, we went through a lot of genetic testing and were ultimately told the doctors had been wrong — our daughter’s genetic problems were just a fluke! We then knew that we had a good chance of having our own children, which we very much wanted. It took me a long time before I felt like I could take that step again. It had been so devastating to me, I needed to be totally ready. Eventually, I gave birth to a healthy baby, Christopher, but he didn’t have a name for five days. I didn’t set up the nursery for five days. I just couldn’t emotionally go there until I was sure he was going to stay with us. And then after that five day mark when Kara had died, I figured he was going to stay around. So Christopher got a name and we set up the nursery. For me, it had just been such a blow to the gut that I couldn’t emotionally take those steps until I knew I wouldn’t be hurt again.
My boss, Scott, and everyone in the organization at work was so supportive. My colleagues knew my history and knew what this meant for me to have my own baby. They were thrilled when I had my first son, and two years later I had another son, Cameron. Later, our third son, Matthew, was born… They worked with me on figuring out how to make it all work.
How did you work child care when you were working?
We had a wonderful nanny, a live-in Latter-day Saint girl from Idaho, Angela, who shows up in all the preschool drawings: there’s the family, there’s the dog and there’s Angela! She came when my oldest son was nine months old, and except for a brief period, she stayed with us for seven years. She was part of our family. I took her with me when I travelled so that the kids could come along. Now she’s married in the temple and has three children of her own and I tell her, “I was raising you too, you know!”
It’s not easy to be a nanny and have the mother in the home but we worked very hard at making that relationship work. I worked from my home office which also isn’t easy for children. They grew to understand that if my office door was open they could come in and color and sit on my lap or whatever, but if mom’s door was closed then I was working. I also have a mother who lives about 20 minutes away from me, who was very happy to be involved in my family and has been a huge support to me over the years. I have a husband, Jeff, who is phenomenal. He understands that I have this need to have something that is my own, that I am actually really happy when I am engaged in a project. He is not one who comes home and expects dinner to be on the table. We work together as a team. We each do what we can. But it helps me that he is there and very open minded about this. He was the one who suggested, before we got married, that I keep my maiden name: Bybee. I think that speaks volumes about who he is, how confident he is, and what he feels about me. We could not be more different in terms of personality and style — he’s quiet and reserved — and I tend to be more flash and less substance! He is my rock and I’m firing in every direction. We don’t have a big social life — we are spending time with our kids and doing church and family things. I won the lottery in terms of finding a husband who is supportive of me.
Have you worked continuously since 1989 when you started planning the 1994 World Cup?
No. Upon the conclusion of the 1994 World Cup I worked from home for almost two years with a sports marketing firm and later worked on my own. I was not interested in starting up my own business or incorporating myself. Instead, I was more comfortable working my relationships, letting my work product speak for itself, and seeing what opportunities came my way. (In this business, once you have carved out your “specialty” many people go from Olympic Games to World Cup, to Goodwill Games, etc. The same people in similar roles keep showing up over and over again.) I worked on various projects, often with long breaks in between (sometimes anywhere from 6 months to a year) when I was a full time stay at home mother. And, even when I was working on a project, I was working from my home office until the time of the event when I had to be on site.
I am in the process of returning to work for the first time since the Torino Olympic Games in 2006. I am now working on the hospitality program for a major sponsor of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games and it is the first time I have taken on a major project in 4 years — the longest period of “down” time I have had since graduating from college.
How have you maintained your contacts over the past four years?
Well, my contacts are dwindling — they’re getting voted out of office, they’re retiring, they’re dying — and I’ve worried that with such a large gap in my resume I might not be able to get back into the industry. But I’m okay with that. I have no regrets that I’ve stepped out to spend more time with my children.
At every juncture, every time I was offered an opportunity to work, my husband and I would ask each other, “Is this something that works for our family?” I haven’t worked for four years. But that’s not because there weren’t opportunities. It was just that with two teenagers and a “tween” at home, it wasn’t the right thing at this point in my family’s life. I’ve always felt like I’ve had the strength to say, “Sorry, I just can’t do that right now. It sounds like a great project but I’ll have to pass.”
Unlike many working women, I am fortunate in that I am not the sole source for my mortgage payment. This has given me the flexibility to pick and choose those projects that work for me and my family. I guess I reconcile the counsel of the Church for women to make home and family a priority by believing that I do. I prayerfully consider every opportunity and my family is the first consideration in anything I undertake. I have stepped anyway from many professional opportunities because it wasn’t the right situation for us. If I never work again, I am okay with that knowing I have had 20 years of “once in a lifetime” experiences!
What do your sons think about your professional life?
It helps that I have three boys who are really interested in sports. Unlike an attorney who does contracts or an accountant who balances books, my kids can really get into what I’m doing. I have always tried to negotiate that my children will be involved in the events I’m planning – so that the organizers know up front that my children will be coming. That’s the beauty of what I’ve done: it’s worked for my children. When this Vancouver opportunity came up, my son, who’s a junior in high school, was like, “Mom, we will kill you if you don’t take this job!” They want to come to Canada for the Olympics! They have had some terrific opportunities to travel the world, learn about other countries and cultures and to participate in my events. So they get into it, and it becomes a family project.
I think they are proud of what I do. I hope they also feel that I am involved in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty events of their lives — making lunches, getting them off to school, driving the carpool, homework, sports practices and games, etc.
What have you done to help your boys be supportive of women the way your husband is supportive of you?
They are very independent. They pick up the slack a lot. They do their own laundry from the time they’re ten. No allowance unless their rooms are clean… We’ve always done a job chart… They take care of themselves. They also see a wonderful example in their father. I hope they know that women can fill many different roles and it’s okay. What really matters is your commitment to the Gospel and building that family unit.
Did you always know as a child that you would pursue a professional path?
I got launched into this career by chance, and absolutely love what I do. Since then, we’ve made it work. Going back to my childhood, from the very earliest years, I never thought about my wedding or what my bridesmaids were going to wear. I came from a very strong family, parents who loved each other, and three brothers. My mother stayed home with us until my father lost his job and became ill, and my mother went back to work. My mother became the financial provider for our family when I was about 15. So I saw this complete role reversal, but I always felt that my parents were equally yoked. My mother had marketable skills, she had always been involved in my father’s life and in the church and serving others and volunteering in organizations…. She took all of that charitable work and turned it into viable employment. I had a profound role model in that way: I understood the need to prepare yourself because there are no guarantees in life.
Another element of my youth that shaped me was that at the end of my sophomore year at BYU, I ran and was elected as the ASBYU Women’s Vice President. At that time, in 1978, there was a furor across the country: the Equal Rights Amendment was at its height, Congress had appropriated money for the International Women’s Year (IWY) and IWY women’s conferences were being held in every state across the country.
I was trying, in the context of this student government office, to bridge my personal feelings about being a modern woman with the demands of the gospel. I attended some of the national women’s conventions that were popular at that time and, among other things, they were all into cohabitation and the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. At the conventions, I tried to be a voice of representation for BYU and the standards we believed. But then I would come back to the campus and try to make some small progressive changes there for women and education. So there I was, organizing “Bridal Fair” on campus, but also trying to help advocate classes for women on finance and communication in marriage. I wanted to find a way to be a voice, to represent a Mormon woman who is articulate, who is thoughtful, who can understand both sides of issues and find where we have common ground. It was a very difficult year. But then I went on a mission and worked out some of those rough edges!
I do feel like the Lord’s hand has been in the unfolding of my life. I absolutely feel that putting me on this work path was the Lord’s way of allowing me to heal from the tragedy of my daughter’s death. It launched my life in a different direction than I had planned, but it has allowed me to go around the world and talk about my faith, my values, to combine what is important to me as a woman with what I believe. I certainly don’t have the answers. I’ve just done the best I could to make the opportunities in my life work together.
At A Glance
Location: Vienna, VA
Marital status: Married 24 years
Children: Four (18, 16, 13, and one deceased)
Occupation: International Sports Consultant and mother
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, BA 1981 in Public Relations
Languages Spoken at Home: English, occasional Italian
Favorite Hymn: “How Great Thou Art”
Current Church Calling: Recently released early morning Seminary teacher; now happily teaching 16-year-olds in Sunday School
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.