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Karla Martin

Karla Martin

Interim head of retail business development and innovation, Shopkick

Karla Martin Takes Care of Business

The first African-American woman partner at Booz & Company, now interim head of retail business development and innovation at Shopkick, explains her passion for consulting.

by Jen Swetzoff

“When my children were younger, we told them that I was a business doctor,” said Karla Martin, a sought-after retail and technology strategist. “We’d describe my work like this: If businesses have some aches and pains, they call people like Mommy. She tries to diagnose what’s making them sick and then comes up with a prescription to help them get better. Of course, it’s more nuanced than that, but in many ways, that’s still the core of what I do.”

Today, Martin continues to take care of businesses. She’s a managing partner in a VC advisory practice and serves as the interim head of retail business development and innovation at Shopkick, a mobile shopper marketing platform. She consults with a number of pre-venture and venture-backed companies. She serves as a “thought leader in residence” at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center and sits on several private boards. She was recently accepted into the Stanford University Fellows Program, and a year ago, when she was the director of global business strategy and strategic planning at Google, she gave the keynote speech at the World Strategy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

Previously, she worked with Booz & Company for more than 16 years, rising through the ranks to become the first African-American woman partner, running the retail and luxury goods practice, and driving the firm’s diversity efforts. At different times during her tenure, she also served as head of the San Francisco office and director of global marketing. She’s published in retail strategy and operations, organizational effectiveness, and complexity reduction.

“I don’t know that I was always particularly career focused, but I was certainly ambitious,” Martin said. “And, I would say I got more focused once I went to college. College was always the expectation. Even my grandparents went to college, which is not all that common in African-American families. My father was the superintendent of a school district. My mother was a learning specialist. Once I got to college, it became clear that what I was passionate about was helping people solve complex problems.”

Martin grew up in Detroit, then received her A.B. in sociology and economics from Harvard University, before joining a two-year research analyst program at Booz Allen Hamilton. She left to get her J.D. at Harvard Law School and worked as an intellectual property and securities attorney for six years before returning to the firm.

“Some of the best work I’ve ever done, some of the best people I’ve ever worked with, most of my lifelong mentors, and some of the most defining moments for me — personally and professionally — happened at Booz & Company,” she said.

Martin remains involved with the Strategy& alumni network in San Francisco, where she lives with her three children. During a recent conversation, she discussed the importance of prioritizing family, hard work, and being T-shaped.

What are some highlights from your consulting career with Booz Allen Hamilton?

When I returned to the firm in 1997, after practicing law for about six years, I joined the communications, media, and technology practice. We did a lot of great work in Silicon Valley, like starting a technology incubator. Lehman Brothers invested capital, while Booz Allen invested in time and consulting services to help early-stage companies get off the ground. One of those companies created the first prototype of digital paper. Another exciting project was working with companies that created the first 3D avatars for videoconferencing. You could create a 3D avatar of yourself to have a virtual presence at a videoconference. This was long before the ubiquitous emojis, but it was the start of that technology in certain ways.

Did you have many opportunities to travel?

Yes, and I liked being on the road. I had the opportunity to work in the U.K., France, and Germany, among other fascinating places. One of my most meaningful professional experiences was a project with World Vision International — a global relief, development, and advocacy organization dedicated to working with children, families, and communities to overcome poverty and injustice. We worked with the organization from 2002 to 2005, assessing its global strategy and helping improve its efficiency.

This organization had more than a billion dollars in donations each year, but it was a federated charity, which meant that it had lots of governing bodies rather than one leadership board. As part of the project, our team was required to spend time in the field, to see how the World Vision teams did work on the ground. I went to postwar Armenia and Bosnia. Some of my colleagues went to Thailand within days of the tsunami.

After our field observations, we made a range of recommendations. For example, the organization was buying more than 100 Toyota Range Rovers a year, one by one, which wasn’t cost-effective. So we went to Toyota and set up a bulk order system to get them a huge discount. We also helped with their child-sponsorship programs, and we did macro work related to organizational DNA. A lot of people on the client side had Ph.D.s in sociology, human psychology, and global development, rather than MBAs. It was everything I’d ever hoped for to learn about managing change across different cultures with diverse stakeholders. To this day, I remain in close touch with my team members (from Booz Allen and the client). It remains one of the highlights of my life, not just my professional career.

How did you manage the balance between work and your personal life?

I spent some time working with the inside service offering leads. That was one of the first innovative efforts the firm made to create off-track, on-track options. For example, after the dot-com bust, I worked on the transformation of Booz Allen Hamilton’s marketing organization. We looked at how we were spending marketing resources, how we were producing intellectual capital, and ways we could be more efficient with our spend across all practices and regions. We updated our marketing [to get more] bang for the buck. After a while of doing that, I switched over to do strategy work for what was then called “the functional agenda,” as we were trying to sort out and codify what our functional practices would look like and how we would go to market and what the key service offerings would be.

At another point in my career with Booz & Company, I had some serious family and health issues and I was blown away with how the firm rallied around me at all levels. There were amazing small and large acts of kindness and compassion, many from people I didn’t even know. I always felt privileged to work with a group of partners, principals, associates, and support staff whose instinctive default was to have a human response. Everywhere I have worked post–Booz & Company, I have stressed that everything I know about how to be a good manager of people I learned from every single person I came in contact with at Booz & Company.

Why did you decide to move on from the firm?

As my kids got older, I wanted to travel less and get back to my roots in technology. So, in 2014, I took about six months off to explore different opportunities and spend time with my family. Then I got a call from Google about an opportunity to work on some exciting projects related to creating a new strategy and strategic plan for the Google Ads business and, ultimately, the work that helped shape the creation of Google and Alphabet. It was a great job with a great company.

How did your current role at Shopkick emerge?

After I left Google, I joined a few private boards and I started advising some portfolio companies, particularly in the technology and luxury retail area. As part of that work, I met with the Shopkick folks as they were going through a change in their leadership. They needed somebody to drive sales, reshape the model, and think through the business strategy for retailers. So, I took on that role in addition to keeping my advisory practice. It’s been a great opportunity to actually get back into the field and help drive sales and build something lasting. And it’s always a plus when I get to reconnect with my retail clients.

What’s the most fulfilling part of what you’re doing now?

I like the diversity of the work. At Shopkick, we have a varied client base, with so many emerging uses for the technology. It’s fun to think about digital retail in new ways. It’s a great merger of my two passions: technological innovation and retail. When the art and science come together in the right way, it’s pretty powerful.

What’s the biggest challenge?

Managing my time. It’s easy to quickly get overrun with travel and meetings. Startup culture is fast-paced and ever-changing, so you wake up every morning not knowing exactly where the day will take you. I make sure to keep my family time off-limits as much as possible. My kids remain my best and most important job, so their needs (within reason) always come first.

What advice would you give to aspiring consultants and entrepreneurs?

One of the best things I learned at Booz & Company is to be T-shaped. In other words, you should have one content area where you go deep — that’s the leg of the T — and one area where you can cross multiple industries. It’s important to have a functional tool kit that you can deploy across a variety of industries. That makes you a broader business executive. For me, that cross-functional tool kit and expertise within strategy execution led to writing a Harvard Business Review article on organizational DNA. Creating T-shaped consultants was unique to Booz & Company’s culture of development. When I got the call to keynote the World Strategy Summit in Abu Dhabi, it was because of the functional expertise I had developed at Booz & Company.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I’m proud of being the first African-American woman partner at Booz & Company. Given that Booz Allen Hamilton was my first “real” job right out of college, it was so amazing to be able to become a partner there years later and actually get to serve with some of the friends and mentors that I met during my first stint at the firm. It was a perfect full circle.

What’s the secret to your success?

I think, at some level, you just have to decide that you’re going to do it. And I worked really hard. It helped that I loved my work. I loved the people I worked for, and I had great mentorship and sponsorship at Booz & Company, so I felt incredibly supported because I knew the firm’s partners were invested in my career and my being happy.

Once I had children, my number one priority was my family, and I wanted my teams to be able to have their own priorities as well. It’s hard to be home at 5 p.m. every day, but I tried to focus on managing outputs rather than inputs. I tried not to be overly prescriptive about when or where people did their work. We didn’t all have to be in the same room at the same time as long as we did the best possible work for the client and we were functioning well as a team. And when I had to be away from home, I was always reachable. I made sure my kids knew that they could call me anytime, day or night, wherever I was, and I would answer.

How would the people closest to you describe you?

Kind, smart, irreverent. Hopefully in that order.

Who do you admire?

I admire people who have the courage of their convictions — who care about fairness and who do the right thing. I learned that from my mentor leaders at Booz & Company, who taught me to always stand up for your team and to do the right thing. That’s what defines your character as a professional.

When and where do you find yourself happiest?

Whenever I’m doing something with my friends and family, I’m happy. We cook. We have dance parties. We get out in nature and go hiking with the dogs. And shopping. If I don’t say shopping, I’ll get hundreds of emails.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Shoes. Anyone who worked with me at Booz & Company knows I have a weakness for shoes and handbags. It’s not Imelda Marcos level, but it’s kind of a “thing.”

What’s something you could live without?

Probably another pair of shoes or another handbag.

What’s next for you?

Over the longer term, I’d like to be on the board of a publicly traded company. They face a different set of challenges than the management team and I think that that experience would help me be a better businessperson wherever I choose to work.

What’s your motto?

Be. Here. Now. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. While I love technology, I strive to have it be the least intrusive part of my day. I try to have screen-free meetings, so people can talk, engage, and solve problems without having half of their attention on their computers. In general, I strive to give the people I’m with — whether they’re my clients or my team or my children — my undivided attention. I think of it as a sign of respect.

Effective November 2016, Karla Martin has moved on from Shopkick and now serves as the Chief Operations Officer at InspiredLuxe.

Jen Swetzoff is a freelance writer and editor. Previously, she worked with Strategy& as the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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