Photography by Marie Constantin
Hometown: River Ridge, Louisiana
Family: Married for 24 years to husband, Derrik, with two sons: Patrick, 21, and Benjamin, 19
Years with company: 17
Two career decisions have significantly shaped Karen Holden’s life. The first was her decision to take a risk, leave her job and join a startup company. The second was a more personal decision to balance her life as a mom and her work as an engineer.
After graduating from LSU with a degree in civil engineering in 1989, Holden worked at ExxonMobil for five years and later secured a job at a consulting firm in Baton Rouge. In 2000, when three of her colleagues left to start their own engineering firm, called Providence, they asked Holden to join them.
“I took a risk to join Providence. It was the boldest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I was flattered because they wanted me to go right away. The decision was a little scary, but my husband was very supportive.”
Today, Holden is the CEO of Providence and a pioneer for women in the local engineering community. She was never intimidated by the traditionally male-dominated field, she says, thanks to her supportive parents who encouraged her from a young age. Holden had a knack for science and math, and was drawn to engineering because it offered a clear career path to support herself.
She also took opportunities presented along the way, like joining Providence, which ultimately led her to where she is today. She says it was a risky decision because she had two young sons at the time, but her husband stepped up to help with childcare while she adjusted.
“When you have an opportunity, act on it. If you wait too long, you won’t ever do it,” Holden says. “I’ve always been a hard worker and tried to do the right thing. Those things have served me best.”
One of Holden’s biggest career accomplishments was serving as project manager for environmental permitting to build the multibillion-dollar Shintech plant in Iberville Parish. Outside of work, she volunteers in educational capacities for local schools and, with Providence, supports the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance and Big Buddy program.
Recently, Holden has been an influential force moving the region forward in terms of transportation. Providence is the prime consultant working with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to identify improvements and perform the environmental assessment to increase traffic mobility along Interstate 10, from west of the Mississippi River bridge to the I-10 and I-12 split.
Aside from being a successful engineer and businesswoman, Holden has another dedicated title: Mother. And when her full-time career began to interfere with time spent raising her two young sons, Holden knew she had to make a change to balance her roles.
“When I’m working, I’m full steam, so at the end of the day my kids only saw tired, worn-out Karen,” she says. “What happens is you can start resenting work, or you look back one day on your family and think, ‘Wow, I missed out.’”
In 2002, Holden cut back her work hours to about 30 a week so she could have time to pick her sons up, cook dinner, help with homework and have family time without being too tired. She kept that schedule for about eight years while her children were in grade school. Although it wasn’t common to ask employers for work-life balance at the time, Holden says she knew it was both what she really wanted and what was best.
“I was very happy,” she says. “It gave me the energy to feel like I was doing my best at work and at home.”
WOMEN WHO INSPIRE HER | I think my first inspiration came from my high school freshman algebra teacher, Dr. Melanie Verges (now superintendent at the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Baton Rouge). She helped me realize I could really enjoy math, which played a significant factor in my decision to pursue engineering in college. I am inspired by so many women I encounter right here in Baton Rouge. There have been many over the years including Jodi Conachen, Sherri LeBas, Ann Trappey and Cindi Thompson. And we have so many I admire here at Providence that I do not want to list any by name for fear of leaving anyone out. I am inspired to see how they manage successful careers with families and still make time for friends, community and others.
HARDEST LESSON | Life is not fair. You must make the most of every moment and opportunity and continue to move forward. Learn from every experience, both good and bad.
BEST ADVICE | From my parents: You can do whatever you want, so aim high, and always make time for family, friends and travel. It is because of my parents’ encouragement and support that I did my junior year in college abroad (The University of Wales at Swansea) through an LSU exchange program. That year abroad helped shape my future considerably. At that time, it was not common for engineering students to study abroad. I am very pleased to see LSU highly recommending study abroad to all students.
1989 • Begins work as a facility engineer for Exxon Exploration & Production in New Orleans
1995 • Moves to Baton Rouge and joins a consulting firm
2000 • Joins Providence
2002 • Cuts work hours down to 30 per week to have a better work-life balance when her boys were young
2010 • Goes back to work full time