Karon Ohm: “Learning Is Making Mistakes”

Headshot of Karen Ohm

SoHE’s 2019 Wisconsin Idea Alumni Award winner learns by doing—and she encourages others to do so, too.

This article is part of a short series profiling the four winners of the School of Human Ecology’s 2019 Alumni Awards. View all the winners in this earlier article, and see their individual profiles week by week in our news & events newsletter. Then, be sure to join us in honoring them—and connecting with SoHE friends old and new—at this year’s Back to School event September 27, 2019.

SoHE’s Wisconsin Idea Alumni Award recognizes a graduate who has endeavored to improve human life by creating new or innovative projects, public engagement or service, and other avenues that lead to greater individual, family, community or consumer well-being.

It is perhaps appropriate, considering the countless smiles and laughs she sparks in those who know her, that Karon Ohm, winner of this year’s Wisconsin Idea Alumni Award in the School of Human Ecology, spent part of her early career helping to build and expand a dental practice. Over the years, the mother of four and SoHE ’84 Consumer Science major has brought her infectious humor and sense of curiosity to each new chapter of work she has pursued, and according to her, each has rewarded her with important lessons for business and life.

After a childhood split between country and city—an apple and honey farm in the Holy Hill area of Wisconsin, and Milwaukee, where her parents ran an ad agency—Karon headed to UW–Madison. Here, she pursued an accounting major until, envisioning a cubicle-bound future, she had a panicked change of heart at the end of sophomore year. She transferred to agricultural journalism, which her brother and father had studied, only to find that didn’t quite fit her either. Finally, she found SoHE, or as it was known at the time, the school of Family Resources and Consumer Science—“fracas,” the students affectionately termed it.

Ohm dove into coursework, which ranged from consumer science to design studies, finding passion and talent for both. She remembers the rigor of the curriculum and feeling grateful for her advisors along the way, but she learned much from her peers as well, whether selling local donuts and cider to raise money for design students’ supplies or simply marveling at the diverse areas of study to which her fellow students applied themselves.

In the decades following graduation, Ohm would apply her business acumen to help her first husband build up his Neenah, Wisconsin, dental practice and would earn her own hygienist degree, traveling to the Oneida and Menominee reservations to perform routine services. In the late 1990s, while simultaneously preparing for the birth of her fourth child and mourning the sudden death of both of her parents, she would take over their advertising firm in Milwaukee, working with two of her siblings to sustain and then slowly sell its various divisions. Finally, in the mid-2000s and in the midst of a divorce, she would help to develop and grow what would come to be known as Hands On Art Studio, a creative playground and makers-place in Door County for the general public to access and experience art. Hands On was also where she would meet her second husband, an artist himself and founder of the business.

“Who knew I was coming up with a major that would serve the art studio so well?” Ohm said of her winding path to Consumer Science at SoHE and her enjoyment of the discipline’s variety and rigor. What may have felt like mistakes at the time—accounting, then agricultural journalism—in fact eventually complemented her knowledge base for successfully running an art-based business.

“Learning is making mistakes,” she added. “It’s not about being right, but about realizing when you’re wrong and making a new decision to correct course or even make another so-called mistake. That’s learning.” Ohm notes that too many people, and especially young people, don’t allow themselves room for error, indeed fear doing so. She wants them to let go of that fear, to know that her own missteps and wanderings informed and made way for many of her own successes. She often repeats to Hands On staff one of her favorite quotes, from Dilbert creator Scott Adams: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes; art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Today, Ohm continues to practice the curious, hard-working, and good-humored habits she sharpened at SoHE: she reads business books for fun (yes, really; see a few recommendations below), continues to grow Hands On Art Studio, encourages her own four children to embody the Wisconsin Idea—as well as make some life-enhancing “mistakes”—and cares for a small zoo’s worth of animals, including bees, a llama, a horse, a dog, several cats, and a not-so-miniature potbelly pig. She also volunteers with a number of nonprofits local to her, including Therapy Dogs International (her dog is a certified therapy dog), Door County Bee Club, the Fish Creek Civic Association, and various town events in Fish Creek, especially the local Winter Festival.

Ohm’s involvement with SoHE has also been remarkable. She served on and chaired the Board of Visitors and gave extensive counsel on the school’s rebranding in the early 2000s. In 2010, she made a 100 Women gift in honor of her mother, Jerry A. Goen Ohm, who left college to raise Karon and her siblings, a job she did beautifully and that both Karon and her father wished to recognize. The gift supports the Karon Ohm Teaching Enhancement Fund. And just this May, her youngest daughter proudly graduated from SoHE with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies.

As winner of this year’s Wisconsin Idea Alumni Award, Ohm lives a life informed and guided by values of public service and engagement, creativity, and making life better for others—whether she’s crafting an airtight business proposal, hosting a family reunion at Hands On, or simply making some teachable mistakes.

Karon’s top business book picks

  • Jim Collins & Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
  • William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
  • Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

She notes her favorite quote from Built to Last is from Theodore Roosevelt: “Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory, nor defeat.”

And her favorite chapter: “Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG).” “I always have one on my list,” she says. “My current BHAG? Run the Boston Marathon before I am 70!”

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