We had the good fortune of connecting with Karen McPhail-Bell, PhD and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Karen, what role has risk played in your life or career?
Risk-taking is part of what makes life an adventure. By its nature, risk-taking requires letting go of the known path with a willingness to be bad at something. In retrospect, my greatest memories or relationships in life all involved an element of risk, grounded in my values.
The trick is in deciding which risks are worth it. For me, taking risk is just as important as the approach to risk – sizing it up, getting perspective, and understanding its potential impacts. The approach is what can empower us in decision-making, which to me is essentially about tradeoffs that are informed by values.
I have a myriad of examples for taking risks in my career and life. In fact, that’s how I ended up on this solopreneur journey. Not too long ago I left a dream job at Meta (fka Facebook) to pursue this path. I didn’t know if I would like or be good at solopreneurship, or if it would work for me and my household. But I did know that I had a vision that wouldn’t leave me, which needed different space to try and test more fully.
Making this change wasn’t simply a case of quitting my job. I got clear on what I wanted to step into, and what supports my household and I needed to make the transition. I tested all sorts of versions of what the change could look like. I had lots of conversations with my manager at the time, talked with other entrepreneurs and artists, and joined a creative business incubator program to empower myself with knowledge. I knew that to be satisfied, I had to leave my team well set up after I left, for which I put in place an exit strategy. Eventually, the day came where I simply needed to take the plunge and see how it went.
Another ‘risky’ leap was leaving our home in Sydney, Australia for the SF Bay Area. My husband’s work presented him with an opportunity that, after unpacking the implications to decide, saw us living in California 3 months later. A big personal cost was leaving my public health research and evaluation career in Australia, to start over in a place where I knew no-one and had no professional network, with the precarity of alien status. Re-building my career (and life!) in a new country took a lot of work and risk-taking, but it led me into the user experience (UX) research field and expanded my professional identity. Fortuitously, it also means that I’m now in an environment that is conducive to experimenting with creative entrepreneurship. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve totally fallen in love with California and the Bay Area, where we have wonderful friendships and community.
There are tons more examples I could share but the TL;DR is that the art of life involves risk. A twinge of fear or resistance to a risk can be a clue that life is offering a gift to change in unimaginable ways. Weighing up a risk’s implications, grounded in what matters to you, can be just the springboard needed to dive in.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I’m here for a world where health is a collective act in which art, research and evaluation are tools for dialogue, social transformation and relationship — and ultimately, health for all. There are different facets to my business to bring this vision to reality.
With a PhD straddling public health and anthropology, my research and evaluation capacity strengthening offerings incorporate arts-based and participatory processes. I also offer workshops on topics such such as arts-based approaches to health promotion, UX research strategy and product/service ideation. Co-creating and empowering people and communities to drive their own self-determined research and evaluation agendas brings me deep joy.
Making art is also an integral part of my practice. My painting involves acrylic and mixed media, poetry, and research to explore what it is to be in relationship to each other, and to a place and space. I love to use art to amplify the beauty in humanity and nature, as well as to bring attention to issues of justice and sovereignty.
It’s unusual for a public health researcher and evaluator to not only be an artist but also see a role for arts-based approaches in public health and research. For me, the combination just makes sense. That said, building a business around this premise involves lots of ‘test and see’ to find what works. I haven’t always got it right, but this is just part of becoming good at something.
My ‘why’ is clear for me though: I believe that creativity is the ultimate facilitator and sign of health in a community; and I’m so grateful to have art, research and evaluation as tools to leverage for this purpose.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I live on the peninsula in the SF Bay Area which in my view is a nature wonderland. I’m a road cyclist, so I would recommend checking out any of the loops we have that take us out of the Silicon Valley up over Skyline to the ocean side of the peninsula. There are so many wonderful wineries to visit too in the Santa Cruz mountains, which make for a perfect finish to a hike on one of the many trails in the area too. If you’re a meat eater, one of our household’s favorite restaurants is Ten Butchers in Sunnyvale, which makes a mean A5 wagyu Korean BBQ. On the creative front, there are tons of top-notch galleries and artist hubs, from San Jose up to San Francisco. If it is Spring/Summer when you visit, I’d definitely check out the Silicon Valley and San Francisco Open Studios.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My mum Jennie Bell is an artist and pretty amazing person. So much of who I am today is because of her and her mentorship in my artist journey is invaluable. Artist Oleg Tumasov has also been a dear friend and mentor to me here in the Bay Area. For my research journey, I’m indebted to my PhD supervisors, Mark Brough, Chelsea Watego and Bronwyn Fredericks, as well as the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health who partnered with me in my PhD journey – they all continue to inspire me. I also have some very special friends and an amazing husband, who keep me grounded and living fully.