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Profile: Arlingtonian Celia Edwards Karam Brings Her Whole Self to Her Work

Arlington resident Celia Edwards Karam is at the top of her game.

She is the Chief Audit Officer for Capital One, and was just named the first independent member of the Board of Directors for Zola, a popular online one-stop-shop for wedding planning services.

Zola’s founder, Shan-Lyn Ma, tapped Karam for the position, and after a series of conversations with the company’s leadership, Karam was officially in.

“I guess I must have done okay in those interviews,” she said, laughing.

While she got married before anything like Zola existed, Karam said she is joining the board to help Zola find opportunities for growth and new corners of the $55 billion wedding industry to explore.

The appointment adds to a resume that includes degrees from Harvard and Stanford universities, 14 years at Capital One and volunteer work with the nonprofit Commonwealth, which helps vulnerable people achieve financial security.

Her achievements seem to flow from one source. “It all comes back to [the question], ‘How might we make choices that are actually helping people get to better outcomes?'” she said.

Karam draws inspiration from her experience as a Jamaican immigrant. She came to the U.S. with her family when she was five years old, and watched her parents work hard to give her and her siblings access to education and better opportunities.

“Financially speaking, we didn’t have a lot to work with,” she said. “The sense you get instilled is one of gratitude and one to give back.”

This sense manifests in Karam’s concern for people, and making their lives easier. She says Capital One, Zola and Commonwealth share this customer-centered pursuit.

But these companies also share Karam.

In recent years, the chief audit officer has grown more confident in sharing her perspective as a Black woman — something that she did not always do. As a child, she was taught that the way to achieve equality was by ignoring color.

“The way to succeed, in my mind, was for my bosses not to notice the differences,” she said. That changed five years ago.

“I came to what might sound like a ridiculous conclusion: The fact that I am a Black woman actually makes me different,” she said.

Keeping in mind her bad experiences suppressing her identity, today she encourages business leaders to show employees that their perspectives, informed by their diverse identities, are valued. It is one reason she said she admires and wants to work with Ma — one of the relatively few women running successful new tech companies.

“If you don’t have the numbers, there’s nowhere to go from there,” she said. “But you only get a diversity of perspective if the people who are there feel like they can actually share what’s on their minds.”

Karam jokes that outside her work, she does not have too many hobbies she can pursue because she has three kids — ages seven, 10 and 12 — who she shuttles to “what feels like hundreds of sports activities.”

In the 10th month of remote work since the shutdown this March, she said she and her kids have started taking lots of walks with the family dog through Arlington. She, her husband and kids have called Arlington home since 2007.

“Arlington is actually a pretty amazing place to live,” she said. “It’s exactly right mix of urban and suburban for our family.”

Photo courtesy Celia Edwards Karam

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