Karen Civil says that she’s all about, “creating moments in lifestyle and in culture.” To that end, she’s an author, philanthropist, media maven, curator and Harvard Business student. Boasting 707,000 followers on Instagram alone, her biggest accomplishments to date include speaking at the White House when Barack Obama was in office, the Lil Wayne and Beats by Dre play, coordinating Pusha T’s team-up with Hillary Clinton for a voter registration drive, and even working closely with the late Nipsey Hussle.
Civil is no cookie-cutter exec — she has her fingers in a lot of pies — but “media mogul” isn’t inaccurate. On top of being her own boss, the Brooklyn, New York–born, Elizabeth/New Jersey–raised entrepreneur and CEO has had considerable success with her own Always Civil creative agency, which focuses on brand imaging and laying down the foundation for success and visibility.
“Karen is the ultimate executor. There’s nothing I can’t ask of her that she can’t make happen,” explains Pusha T. “There’s nothing she can’t facilitate. There’s nothing. If I want to be connected in any way, shape or form with anything that I have no access to, I usually call her first. Not knowing if she has the connection, but I know that’s my one-stop shop to get the answer. Lo and behold, she always puts it together for me.”
Originally born in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, a young Karen had to relocate to Jersey because her school had an asbestos issue. They didn’t have enough space so they tried a girls and boys program, “and our parents weren’t having that” she says with a chuckle. So starting in the middle of first grade, she and her brother woke up every morning to take the drive from Brooklyn to Elizabeth, New Jersey to go to school on time, then go home right afterwards.
Civil is extremely grateful of the decision her parents made to ensure she and her brother could receive a better education and live the lives they wanted while remaining open to all opportunities. Even as she fondly remembers getting upset when her parents couldn’t come to everything, Civil also realizes their diligence and work ethic. Thanks to their sacrifice, an 18-year-old Karen didn’t have to run and get a job — she could attend college and absorb all that life had to offer.
Being in Elizabeth encouraged Civil’s skin to thicken. While learning a lot, she was also in for a rude awakening. “That’s the first time I really got an understanding of color and segregation,” she recalls. At that point, Jersey wasn’t as diverse as New York. “I knew I was Haitian but OK, it’s Haitian and black. It’s Haitian, black and Dominican. It wasn’t quite yet a melting pot — all these different nationalities and things that existed, but they didn’t coexist together.”
The Haitian kids made fun of her and her brother, who weren’t in the ESL classes most of their peers were. When her parents tried to enroll them, the school assumed “they’re Haitian, they have to go here.” Her parents demanded, “No, they went to a regular school. I understand because we’re not from here, you’re assuming our kids don’t speak English. They speak English. They’re at reading grade level, you can test them. I want them to be in regular classes.”
Moving to a predominantly Haitian block, this didn’t sit well with other kids in their neighborhood. Like any other place, it takes time. Elementary was rough, but come middle school Civil found her footing (and great friends). High school was even better, as she began to find herself and figure out who she was.
While her family and loved ones are back on the East Coast, she’s had the pleasure of calling Los Angeles home for the past decade, living her “most incredible life” after purchasing her own home in the heart of Hollywood. She says, “It’s really about me taking a chance on myself. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh it’s so far, you’ll get lost.’ But being in Los Angeles has helped me find my footing and understand who I am. Grow as a person, as an adult, as a woman, as a woman of color in every facet. From my health to my education to family to friends, I love it here.”
Civil’s first moments on the West Coast were far from regular — as with anything in her life. With absolutely no clue what was in store, she crashed at Vanessa Anderson’s (founder of AM PR group) crib, who promptly took her on the West Coast tour. She didn’t walk the Walk of Fame or go to Michael Jackson’s house, she visited landmarks like the car wash from The Wash, The Slauson Super Mall and Nipsey’s store (Nip was actually behind the counter with his daughter).
“It was real nice, I got to see real L.A.,” she says, “I went to Randy’s Donuts because of The Bernie Mac Show. I went to La Cienega Boulevard because of The Proud Family. La Cienega Boulevard, it took me a minute to realize. I went to Leimert Park because of Moesha. Everything that was a staple growing up, I wanted to stand there and immerse myself in it.”
When it comes to music, Civil was simply a fan. Thanks to her mom setting all bathroom radios to 106.7 Lite FM, “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” played constantly. One day, her brother brought home a Teen People magazine in which the Backstreet Boys did a whole takeover, saying, “This is the group you like.” She then became so immersed with them that she joined a fan group online.
This gave Civil a connection to a world outside of Elizabeth. “Being Haitian-American, the black kids didn’t consider me black and the Haitians didn’t consider me one of them,” she says. “I’m a kid who likes the Backstreet Boys so [once] I was able to go on the internet, it didn’t matter what you looked like.”
With a mere screen name, Civil was able to connect and talk to people all around the world who loved the Backstreet Boys. She then tried out for MTV’s FANatic — unfortunately she didn’t get on but it made her realize the importance of giving things a shot.
“I was proud of myself for even trying, taking that attempt of creating a video, writing a letter,” Civil says. “I’m always one for being able to take that first step.”
The same thing happened with Angie Martinez and her apprentice “intern” contest. While KC didn’t make it past the top three candidates, it opened the door to get inside the building at Hot 97. Immediately, she went from a fan to seeing the importance of the structure inside a radio station.
Civil’s career began when she launched Always Civil, with Lil Wayne her first client. On her birthday in Miami she reached out to Mack Maine while simultaneously building her website. She said, “Listen, I see what you guys are doing. If you ever need any support on this side…” As Young Money expanded their roster (Tyga joined), she helped with anything they needed: radio runs, digital marketing, etc.
But when Weezy went to jail, Maine hit up Civil, saying, “He’s getting all these letters, want to figure something out?” On Father’s Day, Weezy Thanx You was born. During a time when you couldn’t interact with artists as with via social media today, fan letters were the only route. Wayne answered 100 lucky fans — they’d have to go to his site to see if he answered theirs. Civil thought, “OK, this is technically marketing. It’s digital branding.”
Lil Wayne would go on to release his Rebirth album, which became the number one album in the country. Civil says, “It was great they entrusted in me because from there, it created a domino effect with all these other people. Like ‘Who is this girl? We need to hire this girl!’”
“Karen Civil is straight up one of the most creative people in this industry, but she’s also one of the hardest working,” Lil Wayne tells L.A. Weekly. “To say you have someone like this you can call on any time is awesome. To have someone that’s both is a blessing.” From there, Funkmaster Flex (who she used to intern for) reached out to build his online presence, and together they built InFlexWeTrust.com.
2011’s All-Star weekend in L.A., however, would change her life forever. After meeting VP of marketing at Beats By Dre Omar Johnson, she began to gift product to emerging artists that she worked with. A media-savvy Civil looked up the Beats By Dre Facebook and saw there were hardly any updates. She thought, “Let me give them some content, maybe we can work together where they can link back and give me credit. I’m building out my portfolio, and helping them with theirs.”
Johnson was so impressed, asking her where she got this content from. Her response: “What do you mean? It’s mine. These are my pictures.” Not even a month later, she became an L.A. native. Her greatest memories include having a Nerf gun battle with Ab-Soul in her boss Omar’s office, while riding skateboards with Machine Gun Kelly throughout the office. It was a very calming fun place. Her tactic was to simply let loose and have fun, allowing artists to let their guard down and be silly.
By now, the theme is apparent: Just be you unapologetically. She says, “I’ve had some hits and misses throughout the years, but I’m me. I never try to be perfect, and that’s what works for people.”
Civil never aspired to be popular online, describing herself as, “An introverted girl in an extroverted world.” Whether she liked it or not, she knew she had to get out there, “be that social butterfly and just be yourself.” Of course, in Los Angeles you can get lost in the sauce, but she believes you can find yourself.
“I love the change and what it’s done for me, how it’s helped me grow as a person,” she says. “I want to be myself. I’m not trying to be anyone else. I’m a goofball, [and] kind of not. I have a dry sense of humor, I want to let that show. This is a time when bloggers weren’t really showing themselves. For some reason, everyone thought we all lived in our mother’s basement. Nope! I’m outside. I want to take silly photos. I started with my MacBook Photo Booth, put out my little Hello Kitty video recorder. I did my interviews and kept it going from there.”
Starting her own company wasn’t necessarily a walk in the park — but as always, the hard work pays off. The name came from Brian “B. Dot” Miller who suggested “Always Civil Enterprise. The acronym is ACE because you’re an ace at what you do.” Civil understood the importance in social media and connecting with people, especially for those who were too busy to manage their online presence.
Being a media mogul means bridging together the corporate world and music world to create things you normally wouldn’t see. Working on the Hillary Clinton and Pusha T campaign was something she wasn’t used to, but Civil’s adamant when it comes to the value in learning. In fact, she recently returned to school enrolling in Harvard Business School… on her own terms. She left college after obtaining her associate’s, proving there’s no right or wrong trajectory to follow when it comes to education.
She says, “This may sound cliché but waking up every day knowing I’m living life on my own terms — which is really hard because being out here, it’s not easy. People are sleeping in their car, doing this, doing that. Being able to provide for me, provide for my family, those are large key moments. When I spoke at the White House, that was an incredible moment for me.”
Pusha T entered the conversation with Hillary Clinton primarily because he cared about prison reform (as did she). The candidate received some flack after doing a contest on her social media, tweeting “register to vote for a chance to meet me.” While some media tried to portray it negatively — “Hillary partners with a drug dealer,” etc. — Pusha registered over 30,000 young millennials to vote with that one tweet.
“The Hillary Clinton campaign was really good. Of course she didn’t win, but we tried,” the G.O.O.D. Music label president says. “It was a good time, again another moment for me and Karen to come together and show how much a team we are. Nothing she ever has to ask of me twice. I’ve been in the industry for some time now. I love a person who values my time, knows that I don’t want to play around and toy around with situations, and is going to call me for the perfect situation every time. When she asks me to do something, it’s something I don’t have to think about because I just know. Regardless, it’s for my best interest or a goal that either she wants, something I want, or something I should be doing good for myself. She has that type of trust.”
Civil remembers the importance of Rock the Vote and even Diddy doing Vote or Die t-shirts. “It opened me up to a whole new feeling of realizing you’re not just living for yourself,” she says. “You want to see the change in the world. I want you to be informed about what’s happening in our country, with legislation, with laws on an everyday scale. You decide who you want to best represent you, that’s the message I continuously pushed. I felt compelled now in this social media era, we can help bring that back.”
Piggybacking off that, Civil’s Live Civil Academy provides a one-stop shop of information for creators and entrepreneurs, for anybody looking to grow their business, grow their following or grow their social media/digital presence altogether. Recently celebrating their two-year anniversary, she’s had over 10,000 download the digital booklets — which are environmentally-friendly. Options include boot camps, ebooks, her 2020 planner, branding yourself, how to monetize, grow your Instagram following, affirmation cards, and her Building An Empire Journal which tracks your work throughout the week, month and year.
But things aren’t always grand. In the past two years, Civil’s lost two close friends in the industry: Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle. She first met Miller at a show after interviewing Young Chris of Young Gunz. She says, “Instantly he’s somebody I absolutely adored and loved. He was such a realist. You walk into a room, it didn’t matter if you’re sad or angry, he knew how to light it up. So funny and so great to be around. You can call on him for anything. You can’t hear anyone say anything negative about him because he had this way of bringing people together.”
While attending the late Pittsburgh rapper’s show in Toronto, Civil got to meet The Weeknd, Wiz Khalifa, Future, and TDE. Their blossoming friendship included Sunday dinners at his house, sitting with him, Dash, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, and Yams (her first intern) while Miller’s mom cooked. At his Studio City crib, Miller threw an incredible Christmas party, a New Year’s Eve party and a Halloween party.
Holding back tears, Civil remembers, “We had the best, most intimate, great conversations right before he transitioned. Our last conversation was in such a healthy good place where I can’t even be mad. There was nothing left unsaid. We appreciate each other, we gave each other our flowers while we’re still there. It does still hurt because there’s no time limit to mourning. There are days I feel good and there are days I don’t, because I miss my friend.”
Nipsey is someone Civil wanted to work with from the jump. She first interviewed the late Slauson rapper at Jonny Shipes’ house in New York (who was managing him at the time). “Nipsey was one of those people where he was never late. He showed up, he was articulate. He made you a better person. My mom says ‘you leave people better than how you met them,’ and that’s what Nipsey does. He was a glue to a lot of situations. Seeing what him, [Joey] Fatts, Adam Andebrhan and [his brother] Sam built collectively was incredible, seeing how they really changed the narrative of buying a block.”
“Nip really loved L.A. As far as business moves, it was a mutual relationship. From the Beats by Dre commercials to a commercial for Jordan to his $100 Crenshaw mixtape, there were so many different business things he said “yes” to and a lot of things people don’t even know he said “no” to — a testament to the type of person he is.”
Nip is the reason Civil has a particular bookcase in her home. While at his studio, she asked him where he got his bookcase. He said “I got it from Ikea but the thing is, you can’t just put books on a bookshelf. You have to read it, then put it on.” To this day, she’s read every single book on there.
“Nip’s changing the narrative about what people thought was a gangbanger or somebody from the streets,” Civil says. “Because he speaks so eloquently, he’s such an incredible person. Knowing what Nipsey meant to this community, just being able to say he was a business partner and more importantly, a friend. I got to do the Victory Lap with him all the way to the end, so that was a moment to be able to send him back home to God in such a high-regarded fashion.”
Civil plans to do the same for the community with her Live Civil philanthropy. Live Civil actually began as a brunch her first year in L.A. After attending an event for Qream Liqueur, it was a convo with Pharrell that sparked the idea. Manny Halley (at the time Keyshia Cole’s manager) let her use his beautiful restaurant and she invited all the women she met that year in different settings to come together.
“Live Civil started as a brunch the first year I moved to L.A., this was when Pharrell had his Qream Liqueur,” she says. “I went to an event for it, it was absolutely beautiful. I had a great conversation with him, that conversation sparked me doing the Live Civil Brunch. Pharrell’s liqueur actually sponsored my first ever brunch. Manny Halley (who’s a producer now) let me use his space, he had a beautiful restaurant. That way all the women I met that year in different settings, we’re able to come together.”
But she wanted to take a step further. For her 30th birthday, she decided to mold her brand exactly how it reads: Live civil and giving back to the world. From there came the Live Civil playground in Haiti, along with Live Civil school and computer lab. Next year will be the 5th annual Live Civil Day at the Barclays Center, with proceeds from ticket sales going back to the inner-city schools in Brooklyn. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, Live Civil Day is officially June 22, 2017, when she received the key to the city.
“Planting seeds into a world that’s given me so much, to help the next generation of entrepreneurs, educators, just human beings able to blossom,” she says. “I like to do stuff in June in Jersey because the kids stay in the house, their parents are working trying to provide. I don’t want these kids stuck on the TV, stuck on their phones. I want them to feel good about themselves, have a great day playing games.”
Civil is big on pushing the power of play. Partnering with Adidas, these kids come in and get a book bag full of new uniforms, new sneakers and a change of clothes. They go play a fun game of basketball. There’s food, nutrition, snacks, water, a DJ. They get to meet local celebrities, it fuels them and makes them feel good. Last year, they gave out scholarships to two incredible ladies.
“It’s building community morale,” she says. “It’s about growing.” She hopes to expand to L.A. and work with the Crete Academy, a school she favors — praising principal Hattie Mitchell on what she does for the community. The two have been chatting, and Civil assisted to bring Go Hoop Day with Chris Paul.
As far as upcoming business endeavors, fans can expect her new book titled Civil Disobedience: Entrepreneurial Lessons from an Extraordinary Life, a self-help book giving you a deep dive into your purpose. In addition, she recently partnered with best friend Ming Lee on a K Swiss BFF shoe arriving November 2020, and released two new collections with Ethika whom she’s partnered with for five years. Last year, she donated $15,000 to the Keep A Breast organization Ethika partnered with.
Civil hopes to inspire others to chase their dreams and know that they’re going to have hits and misses. “I don’t want people to look at my life and feel they can’t relate, they feel jealous. I like them to feel inspired, and that’s a lot of feedback that I get. It makes people feel good. For the first time in a long time, being mentally OK with the place I am in life. You know how we cross things off like ‘what’s next?’ It’s being in the present and being okay. Taking some me time for my mental health, where I don’t have to always be on the go. I always have to be x, y, z. Continuing to grow my imprint and take one day at a time.”