From the time she was three years old, Kara Carmichael knew that going out to dinner with her family was about more than food. “My parents really had a passion for going out and sharing a meal as a family,” she says today. “It was about the experience. We ate dinner together almost every night, but the times we went out together had this special glow about them.”
As President of the Wyoming State Bar, and in his capacity on the board of several other corporations, Kara’s father traveled often. Kara, her two siblings, and her mother would join him, and they’d always go out to dinner together. At age four, she remembers dinners that would extend beyond three hours, and she can still recall one particularly exquisite meal at a five-star restaurant when she was eight. “The expression on people’s faces when my parents waltzed into these fine restaurants with three young children was just priceless,” she recalls. “But we somehow understood the code of conduct and the meaning of the meals, and we were always complimented for being so well-behaved.”
This innate understanding inspired in her a passion for food and wine that drew her into the hospitality industry later in life. But it was her love of people—and particularly her love for her son, Colton—that led her to take on the role of General Manager of the Tower Club Tysons Corner, a private business club for executives dedicated to building connections and community. “I’ve always found myself drawn to people,” she says. “I love to learn about people and connect them with others who share their interests. I love being a leader and leading my team to success, teaching them as much as I can along the way. And most of all, I love family. I’ve always been driven by a passion for growth, and now that I have a son, it’s balanced by a passion for life and for family.”
Built in 1989, the Tower Club was founded as a burgeoning community within a burgeoning community—one of the only places for executives to convene, connect, and host clients and events in the new town of Tysons Corner, Virginia. In 1993 it was acquired by ClubCorp, the largest owner and operator of private golf, country, and business clubs in America. “A business club is a place for people to host, connect, work, play, and celebrate,” Kara explains. “The Tower Club is a community of business professionals, executive women, young executives, and culinary enthusiasts. The business professionals connect and host. The executive women network and socialize. The culinary enthusiasts host and celebrate. We’re a venue for life moments like anniversaries, birthdays, weddings, mitzvahs, baby showers, and holiday parties. That’s what the Club is.”
Kara came to the Tower Club in April of 2014 after resolving that she did not want her son to have two parents in the hospitality industry. “The schedules are just impossible, and it wouldn’t have been feasible for us,” she recalls. “I remember the day I made the decision to pursue this new venture where, for the first time since entering the industry, I wouldn’t be working in a restaurant or hotel. I truly felt that I was starting on a different path, but the right path.”
She was struck with this realization one day while having lunch with Earle Williams, an incredibly kind and fascinating businessman who belonged to the Club. Another prominent CEO stopped to chat with them as they ate, and Kara began to understand how lucky she was to be surrounded by such successful, passionate, interesting people. “At that moment, my own passion underwent a noticeable shift,” she remarks. “I was still in love with hospitality and the food and wine industry, but I was really taken with the community in Fairfax County, and with its changing economics shaped by dedicated individuals. I love being surrounded by the growth and opportunity of the Tysons community, and I love even more that the Tower Club is truly advancing as a prominent force for good in this dynamic setting.”
Her second day on the job, Kara met with an architect and reviewed plans for the planned renovation of the Club, slated to start in September of 2014. Beyond the typical modernization modifications needed, the $2.1 million project was designed to expand the identity of the Club itself to provide more experiences for its members. What was once a dining room, private events space, and atrium, was refined and enhanced to include an upscale dining room and an “anytime” lounge for casual dining and a place to work. The atrium was converted into a co-working space, and “touchdown” rooms were added for private meetings. “We’re very member-centric, and we wanted our renovations to meet the needs our members were conveying to us,” she recounts.
More than anything else, however, Kara is driven by her commitment to her team. “We have such a gifted, dedicated, wonderful group,” she avows. “I love leading them to success and sharing that success. People often tell me that the Tower Club is successful because of me, but I tell them it’s thanks to the phenomenal group of people and the work we do together.” Kara and her team were given a Circle of Excellence Award in 2015 in recognition for their overall achievement across five metrics including overall member satisfaction.
In many ways, Kara’s focus has shifted like a pendulum over the years from family to work before landing in the middle, where it rests today. She was born and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming into a home where family came first. Her father was a practicing lawyer with his own law office, and her mother taught junior high social studies and political science courses until she had Kara’s older brother, when she decided to stay home and raise the children. The youngest of three, Kara spent her childhood at the nearby country club playing tennis and participating in the swim team during the summers. “My parents called me their little fish because I loved swimming so much,” she recalls.
In junior high, she gravitated away from swim team and tennis, and toward dance. She was so dedicated to the sport that she worked as a dance teacher and earned a scholarship in high school to learn at a nearby studio. She joined the cheerleading team because it also functioned as a dance team, and also spent every moment possible with her group of five inseparable friends. “We did a lot of camping, spent a lot of time outside, and went to concerts in Denver sometimes,” she says. “My childhood was pretty typical, with lots of family and friends around and summers spent outside, running around with family and friends.”
When Kara was fourteen, her father’s law firm broke up, so he set up his own practice and hired his two daughters to help set up the office. It was Kara’s first paid job, and she enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to set up the computers, printer, and fax line. She remembers trips to Office Depot to get his furniture, setting up a filing system, and enabling the initial operations of the new venture. She worked three hours a day, three days a week after school, kindling a career-oriented lifestyle that only shifted to family when Colton was born.
At first, Kara dreamed of becoming a marine biologist when she grew up. She later wanted to be a doctor, until she discovered she hated blood. Then, when she was a junior in high school, she took a television class with a closed-circuit TV, where she practiced writing news stories, producing the morning news, anchoring, filming, and doing post production on the editing machine. “I fell in love with it and decided I wanted to be a broadcast journalist,” she says.
Upon graduating from high school, Kara enrolled at the University of Wyoming, where she got a jobs at the NPR news station and a radio station off campus. “Three days a week, I would open up the radio station at four in the morning,” she recounts. “I’d do some news stories on their AM channel that we re-played on their FM affiliate, which was really cool. It was an incredible experience for me.”
After her sophomore year, Kara’s family moved to Scottsdale, so she decided to transfer to the University of Arizona. There, she focused more on the production side of the business. “I realized I didn’t want to work in a field where my success would be dictated by my haircut,” she laughs. “In broadcast journalism, a lot depends on how you look on camera. I didn’t want my job to be based on that.”
Upon graduating with a degree in film and television production, Kara decided to work for her father again, who had started a law firm in Scottsdale. She spent a year as a legal assistant, where she watched her father win a medical malpractice case after three years of fighting. “He reduced his fee down to costs plus a very small amount,” she recalls. “I calculated it out, and he ended up getting paid $2.76 per hour. When I asked him why he would only accept so little, he told me that his clients deserved it a lot more than he did. He’s always believed in doing what’s good for other people, even if that means less for him. Growing up, it taught me equality, and the importance of seeing people as people.”
Kara enjoyed the work so much that she considered law school. Instead, she opted to pursue work in production and moved out to Los Angeles, where she spent the next eight years trying to secure a career. “My brother-in-law’s aunt was a producer and offered me a job there, which prompted the move,” she recounts. “I started working as a production assistant on a popular television show called Dawson’s Creek, learning the ins and outs of LA.”
Kara worked her way up to Production Coordinator, and then went to work for production team working in feature films. As the years passed, however, the instability and stress of the industry began to take its toll. “Working freelance was hard enough, but we went through a particularly difficult period when the writers and actors went on strike and the city shut down for six months,” she says. “There wasn’t any work to be had. Then I got onto a series of films that seemed good to go—some of the most riveting scripts I’ve ever read. But each film was pulled for one reason or another, terminated or put back on the shelf. Such was the life of working freelance in LA.”
The final straw came when Kara was hired as an associate producer on a Steven Seagal film. She was thrilled to have landed her first producer title, and even more excited to go film in Tokyo and Singapore. She was told she’d be away for several months, so she decided to let the lease on her apartment lapse and put her stuff in a storage while she was away. Then, two weeks before she was supposed to leave, she was called in to the studio for a meeting. “I thought I was going to pick up my plane ticket,” she says. “Instead, the handed me my severance check. I said, no more of this. At thirty years old, after all those years of effort, I found myself with no place to live and no job.”
In deciding her next move, Kara decided to return to her roots and focus on her passion for food and wine, moving back to Scottsdale to enroll in an accelerated certification program at the Arizona Culinary Institute. While there, she starting working as a server at the James Hotel, where she did her course externship in the front of the house. In that capacity, she had the opportunity to work on the hotel’s wine program and was also exposed into management—an experience that led her into the management side of the business.
After several years, the James was sold to the Mandarin Oriental, which decided to open a James Hotel in Chicago. They asked Kara to lead the task force for that effort—a challenge she eagerly accepted. Then, after two and a half years in Chicago, they asked if she would move to Washington, DC to oversee the renovation and development of the Liaison Hotel on Capitol Hill. Again, she agreed.
At the Liaison Capitol Hill, Kara supervised the renovation of a $10 million food and beverage program and oversaw the selection of a chef and the development of the menu. “We transformed that location from an old Holiday Inn to a boutique hotel with a celebrity chef,” she recounts. “That process helped me understand that a reinvention is about so much more than paint and carpet—it’s about rebranding and redefining who you are as an entity and a team.”
Kara was only supposed to stay in DC for a year, but when the Liaison’s general manager left, she was asked to fill the role. Her sister and brother-in-law were planning to move to DC, so she decided to stay until she was needed at her next assignment in New York City, opening a James hotel in Soho. A problematic work dynamic prompted her to leave the Liaison and take a temporary job as the general manager at Potenza, another DC restaurant, until she had to report to New York. Fate stepped in, however, when Potenza brought on a new chef de cuisine, Jason Mayle. “We fell in love, and I never made it to New York,” Kara laughs. “I left that job when our relationship got serious, booked a plane ticket, and spent a month in Paris. Then I came back and waited tables for a few months as I decided what to do next. Jason and I got married, and my life changed.”
Around that time, Kara took a job as the general manager at Chef Geoff’s, a restaurant offering contemporary cuisine located just across the street from the Tower Club. The stint cultivated in her a love and appreciation for the community as she connected with the restaurant’s patrons, rounding out her mental map and nuanced understanding of the businesses, culture, challenges, and successes of the area. This experience, as well as her past achievements with the James and the Liaison Capitol Hill, would help make her the perfect candidate for the Club as it prepared to go through its era of self-reinvention.
After Colton was born, Kara returned to Chef Geoff’s briefly as a corporate management trainer, working a modest 35 hours per week. She spent eight months at the restaurant’s downtown location developing their team, and then engaged in other management training that allowed her to spend time with her new family. “When Colton was one, they decided to downsize and restructure the company,” she says. “They wanted me to run the store again, but I just knew it wasn’t going to work to have both Jason and me working 14-hour days, six days a week. Then the opportunity with the Tower Club came up, expanding my horizons significantly. It’s not where I thought my life would go, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Now, Kara has moved beyond the operations side of the business, which she now entrusts to her dedicated Food and Beverage Director. Her days are now dedicated to running and growing the business, focusing on relevance, growth, and the financials of the Club. She has a compelling passion for learning new things—a trait she traces back to her mother. “She’s an incredibly passionate person who’s always been deeply curious about the world and driven to constantly be reading and learning,” Kara says. “She loves life and is always excited about something new, and I’ve seen that in myself as I’ve advanced deeper in the world of business. My passion for business is growing as my connections in this world continue to grow.”
To Kara, leadership is about listening, and growth is about looking ahead to discern how the Tower Club can stay relevant in a constantly-evolving world. “I have to constantly be improving and figuring out what we can do to offer the most value to our members,” she says. “A big part of that is relationships and getting to know people. So it’s advancing those external relationships while still being acutely focused on the relationships within our team, ensuring things are cohesive. Truly leading means helping to develop people, keeping them motivated through good times and bad, celebrating with them, and empowering them. When there are decisions to be made, I involve my team. We’re all part of building this brand and creating a successful business, and when all our team members have a seat at that table, everyone has a chance to grow.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Kara reminds them to stay focused on what’s important in life. “At the Club, I have one rule only, and it’s that family always comes first,” she affirms. “Be passionate about what you do, but don’t lose focus on whatever it is that makes you passionate outside your career.” It’s an especially remarkable value, coming from the woman who was so career-oriented through most of her life, and reflects the relationship she shares with her husband, Jason.
“Jason is my partner and best friend, and he makes me a better person,” she says. “He’s incredibly dedicated to our family, and the best father anyone could ask for. Wrapped up in all of this is the simple truth that he loves to live. He’s taught me that we should work to live, not live to work. He loves his career and wants to grow, but when he’s not working, he’s focused entirely on family, our son, being outdoors, and enjoying life. He’s really pulled me out of my comfort zone of work, teaching me to stop and take a deep breath and enjoy things in a way I never did before. And he’s teaching that love of life to our son, too.”
Kara’s other key piece of advice is to get involved and find ways to give back to the community—something she has focused extensively on since assuming leadership of the Club. She and her team have spent the past several years developing the Charity of the Year program, now in its second year, and standing up a Philanthropy Committee to help guide future efforts. “We have 1,280 members from around the community, and it’s important that our Club be a part of that community, contributing what we can to those who need it,” she says. “Above the renovations, the membership growth, and the financials, I hope my key legacy is this program of community engagement and philanthropy. We want the world to know that the Tower Club Team is about growing, and that the Tower Club community is about giving back.”