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Karen Flake returns to her roots at Mount St. Mary Academy

New president has been associated with girls' high school for 51 years

Published: August 18, 2012   
Malea Hargett
Karen Flake

For 51 years Karen Flake has been associated with Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock.

She arrived at the Sisters of Mercy high school in 1961 as a freshman. When she graduated in 1965, she remained in contact with the school over the decades.

Inspired by her senior English teacher, Sister Ann Hardcastle, she went off to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to earn a bachelor's degree in English. She returned to MSM in 1972 to teach literature and a later a "marriage" class that covered a variety of women's issues, including vocations to single and religious life and sexuality. One of her students was Deborah Troillett, who went on to become a Sister of Mercy and eventually led the school for 14 years.

When Flake left in 1977 to stay at home with her two daughters, she was never too far from supporting her alma mater.

In the late 1990s Flake was a successful businesswoman as co-owner of Flake-Wilkerson Market Insights. She was tapped by Sister Deborah to help the school do a community image study and conduct focus groups with students.

By 2000 Karen and her husband, John, chairman of Flake and Kelley Commercial, knew they were committed to philanthropy. They donated money to have the Karen Elizabeth Flake '65 Math and Science Building built at her alma mater. In 2001, they set up the $2.5 million John J. and Karen E. Flake Charitable Remainder Unitrust, which will be available to support Catholic schools after their deaths. They donated money in memory of Karen's sister, Barbara Goodhart, who died in a car wreck her senior year at MSM. The back entrance to MSM used by the students and faculty bears Barbara's name.

Finally in 2006 the Flakes pledged $1 million toward the school's Lasting Efforts Campaign.

Then this year the Holy Spirit spoke to her through Sister Deborah. Flake was asked to join a search committee to find a replacement for Sister Deborah, who moved to Silver Spring, Md., in September to take a leadership position with the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

During the search process, Sister Deborah asked Flake to consider applying. After withdrawing from the search committee and a period of reflection, Flake agreed to apply. The MSM board decided that Flake was the best applicant for the job -- an active Catholic who is associated with MSM and knows the Little Rock community.

"The president of the school is the face of the school and is challenged to ensure financial security for the future," she said.

On Aug. 1 Flake began a new phase in her career: president and CEO of Mount St. Mary Academy. Flake was not looking at closing her business, Karen Flake and Associates, but she said the appointment was a calling.

"I want to spend more time on my own spiritual development. ... I will hopefully go in this direction and be a strong Christian," said Flake, who is a member of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

Being on the job as president for just a week, Flake was not prepared to list her goals for MSM.

"When you come into a situation and things are going well, which they are, you are going to come in and listen and find out everything you can before you say what you think. It would be premature for me to say what I think the school needs," she said.

She said she would be mindful of the importance of training teachers and educating students about sexual abuse of minors. In June a MSM teacher/coach was charged with first degree sexual assault for allegedly having a relationship with a female when she was a student. Another faculty member was charged with failing to report the relationship as required by law.

"We will be even more attentive," Flake said.

She said she wants teachers and students to speak out when they hear or see any type of abuse.

"Hopefully what will improve is the willingness of people to say, 'I thought something was different.' That is where we need to spend more time and talking about, doing it in a way that is appropriate," she said. "We have to get that message out and make it clear that if it is hard for you to speak up there are hotlines available and there are ways to do it that are anonymous."

Flake said she is proud of MSM's emphasis on academics and community service. She knows community leaders have a good image of MSM through the students and former students they meet. Flake wants make sure the students will become good business leaders as well.

Flake went to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the 1980s to get a master's degree in interpersonal and organizational communications. After working for several years at a market research firm, she bought out her employer in 1996 with George Wilkerson and opened Flake Wilkerson Market Insights. After 11 years, they sold the company to Market Strategies International and she opened her own market research firm in 2009.

She served and is serving on the boards for CARTI, Our House homeless shelter, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the Centers for Youth and Families and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. She co-founded the Arkansas Women's Leadership Forum.

She established herself as a strong businesswoman in Little Rock and she wants to see other alumnae follow in her footsteps.

"I want us be a compassionate, caring school where our girls have leadership capabilities. I want to see them have good business sense. I do want girls to feel like 'Yes, I can go into business.' ... It is very important we cultivate a willingness among our girls to see that being in business is important. ... We need women to be involved. We still have a shortage of women who sit on boards of directors. We need to keep producing women who are willing to go out and become leaders."

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