The 2017 Executive Excellence Awards: Karen Lee

CEO, Pioneer Human Services

Discipline and persistence, traits that help Pioneer Human Services’ clients build productive lives while bearing a criminal history, come naturally to CEO Karen Lee, a graduate of the United States Military Academy. More significant to her, though, were West Point’s values of sacrifice and service, or “helping people and helping society.” That mission led the attorney and former commissioner of the Washington State Employment Security Department to lead this distinctive social venture. Pioneer Human Services runs commercial businesses that include sheet metal fabrication and machining for the aerospace industry. They provide training, work, treatment and housing to those who were recently incarcerated. Lee admits she came to the job with preconceived notions. “I didn’t understand my population of clients like I do today,” she says, and seeks to “make them feel worthwhile and that they’re still human.” In Lee’s first five years of stewardship, her focus on expansion and quality grew the organization’s revenues by a third, from $61 million to $81 million. “We’re a social enterprise,” Lee notes, “but Pioneer Industries is also a business, so we can’t be uncompetitive.” This growth helped develop new programs across the state for job readiness training, apprenticeship, residential treatment for chronic substance use, and transitional housing, all helping clients who were reentering the community to succeed. Lee also serves on the Washington State Reentry Council, a state initiative for which she was a leading advocate. Pioneer is well positioned to grow, Lee says, keeping its workers up to date with technology and “allowing people and their families to have a life after their mistake.”

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