If you attended Carleton University in the mid ’80s, you were more likely to see Karen Wood socializing in the student association’s Rooster’s Coffeehouse than studying all alone in the library.
That she switched from a bachelor of arts degree in economics to hospitality and tourism management at Ryerson University was the first of many steps Wood took toward becoming a well-known public relations professional in Ottawa.
“I think inherently you end up doing what you’re supposed to do, and I was always the connector,” she says over a late-afternoon glass of white wine inside Joey Restaurant at Lansdowne.
“I’d meet people through my different channels, I’d hold a party and introduce them to each other, and the next thing you know, they’re all friends.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary since Wood launched Knock on Wood, a local company specializing in communications, event management and marketing. She’s primarily worked with the hospitality and entertainment sectors, although it’s her promotion of non-profit organizations that she’s found most satisfying.
One of her biggest challenges to running a business has been not knowing whether she’s selling herself short. She was once asked by her brother how often she wins contracts. Her success rate was 90-plus per cent, she told him. But her smugness was short-lived.
“You’re not charging enough,” he advised.
‘It’s always a struggle’
“It’s always a struggle – with the PR landscape constantly changing – to know the perfect combination of what the market will bear and what you’re worth.”
For years, Wood had an office and in-house staff on MacLaren Street in Centretown, where she also hosted annual holiday parties that were legendary for their fun. She now operates Knock on Wood as a virtual agency, with a network of communicators, digital strategists and event planners that she calls upon when needed.
Wood has balanced running a business while single-handedly raising her 10-year-old son Ian and, more recently, battling cancer.
The physical effects of her treatment aren’t obvious, but beneath her stylish wig and those natural-looking eyebrows (courtesy of friend and professional makeup artist Leslie-Anne Barrett) is a woman who’s starting to get her mojo back.
Wood, 52, learned last year she had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. It’s the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in adults. It was first detected while she was undergoing tests in June for unrelated stomach cramping.
She wasn’t officially diagnosed until September, following a biopsy. That meant she spent her summer of 2017 knowing she likely had cancer but without any idea of how serious it was.
Once the disease was confirmed, she was referred to the General campus of the Ottawa Hospital. She knew she was in good hands upon learning her hematologist was Dr. Carolyn Faught. They’d attended Sir Robert Borden High School together.
“She was the smartest girl in my high school,” Wood recalls of the blood specialist who’s as plain-spoken as herself.
Wood continued to work part-time while undergoing chemotherapy, both to support herself and her son, and to stay busy. By her fourth treatment, she learned she was in remission. She completed her sixth and final round of chemotherapy on Jan. 5.
“Throughout my illness, everyone so stepped up,” she says. “Forty people started a meal train and were dropping off meals for me. It was amazing.”
Having a brush with mortality has caused Wood to think deeply about what’s most meaningful: friends and family. “Live for the moment” is a tired cliché, yet the message remains inescapable.
“Work is always going to be really important to me, but I make time for people now. Life’s fast and work makes it seem even faster.”
“Work is always going to be really important to me, but I make time for people now,” she says. “Life’s fast and work makes it seem even faster. It’s about making the time to talk to your mother, to talk to your friends, and to talk to those people who came out of the woodwork to help me.
“Call it whatever you want; carpe diem it is. I’m a person who very often reflects on missed opportunities, things I woulda, coulda, shoulda done better in the past, or thinking about the future. How many times do I accidentally write the next week’s date down? I’m always thinking ahead because I’m a (professional) planner.
“It’s very hard to be in the moment.”
She’s currently the marketing director for the Canadian Tulip Festival, the new Garden Promenade and the award-winning Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival. She’s also consulting for the Canadian Garden Council and will produce her fourth annual Broadway for Bruyère Gala in September.
From now on, she says, she plans to apply her renewed passion for life equally to her career.
“I want to feel good about the work I do, I want to work for clients who really appreciate me and I want to earn a good living so that I can have work-life balance, to be with my son and the people who care about me,” Wood says.
Five things to know about Karen Wood
- She has twice been a finalist in the entrepreneurial category for Businesswoman of the Year. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” she quips.
- She’s an early riser. Contributing factors include her childhood history as a competitive swimmer with pre-sunrise practices.
- The best career advice she’s ever received came from Roger Neilson House co-founder Dave Ready. He once told her, when her job in promotions had stalled, to embrace change. She did by starting Knock on Wood in 1998.
- One of her first gigs with KOW was to promote the opening of the former Empire Grill restaurant in the ByWard Market.
- Wood’s work with charities has included the Snowsuit Fund, Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, CHEO, Roger Neilson House, Canadian Museum of Nature, United Way, Max Keeping Foundation, Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ottawa.