While Karen Cullen has four generations of roots deep-set in Colorado, she couldn’t be much greener in her new position as executive director of Old Colorado City Associates. Officially taking over the merchants association May 30, Cullen spoke with the Business Journal about her myriad careers in Colorado, from the technical to the hospitable, traveling the world and helping businesses on the city’s Westside reach their full potential.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Castle Rock. I grew up there when it was all of 4,000 people. Now it’s 40,000. After I graduated from Douglas County High School I took my real estate license exam when I was 19. At that point interest rates were 14 percent, the oil and gas industry was tanking and I was 19 years old. Not a lot of people are interested in buying a piece of real estate from a 19-year-old who has no experience.
I quickly changed my mind and went into the retirement industry for about 10 years. I went to Resources Trust Company in Englewood where I worked my way through customer service and management. But I was so intrigued with IT and, in 1994, I was offered a job in Colorado Springs with MCI in project and program management. I was living in Larkspur and had commuted to Englewood and then to Colorado Springs. It was cool — except Monument Hill in the winter.
And you started your own business?
I branched out on my own in IT consulting. I opened my own business in 1998 and have been self-employed pretty much ever since. … I took on various contracts and then went back to MCI as a contractor on their business solutions network side.
Did you stay in IT until you came to this position?
Actually, in 2004 my husband and I were searching for a bed and breakfast. In 2004 we bought 1892 Victoria’s Keep in Manitou Springs. We rented it out for nine seasons and then went to Hong Kong for about a year. My husband was working on a software development project for the Hong Kong government.
When we got back at the end of 2012, we closed the bed and breakfast and just managed vacation rentals. We actually just sold the B&B as a private residence to a family.
Explain what OCCA does.
It’s a membership organization and a nonprofit. It’s comprised of approximately 100 members — retail shops, restaurants, art galleries — the whole gamut of merchants. … They get collective marketing and website exposure. They also have an opportunity to be on the board, and we’re members of Pikes Peak Country Attractions, which allows our members to get exposed to other markets. We send out newsletters that provide information to members and patrons to invite them to the spectacular events in OCC.
This is really new, but we’ll also be working on small business training. … I’m constantly meeting tons of people right now, and I’m really excited about this opportunity because there’s so much to do. I love the variety of people and their businesses and want to work together to make business the best it can be.
Talk about your new position.
This is a great opportunity. This job kind of found me. Some people I know had my resumé and knew I was looking for a job and thought it was the perfect position for me. I have marketing experience, nonprofit membership experience, tourism experience. Tourism in the Pikes Peak region is incredibly important. It’s also one of my passions — helping small businesses succeed in the tourism industry. And boy, we’ve had some challenges, and we continue to have challenges this year with construction. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
What are your short- and long-term visions for OCC?
My short-term vision is working with the membership and our board of directors on a strategic plan and working on specific marketing initiatives both through social media and our website.
Long-term, I’m trying to collaborate better with Manitou, and I’ve already had discussions about that. … I still need to reach out to the Downtown Partnership and businesses in Colorado Springs, but I think there are a lot of people who are excited to work together.
Have you ever considered making somewhere else home?
You know, I’ve traveled the world, all over, and I come back here and look at the beautiful blue sky and majestic Pikes Peak and go, ‘Wow! Why would I want to live anywhere else?’ Well, maybe part-time.