Entrepreneurs Corner: Entrepreneur of the heart

Change in career path has been truly rewarding for Karen Wilkins

While it often strikes early in life, the entrepreneurial bug can bite at any time in life.  That was true of Karen Wilkins, president of SafeHeart Health Screens of Hattiesburg. In a recent meeting, Karen described how her life’s journey led her to start SafeHeart.

“I grew up in New Orleans, and ultimately graduated from Tulane Law School,” she said.  “From there, I relocated to Hattiesburg and practiced law for 11 years, primarily focusing on class action litigation.”

Hattiesburg’s Karen Wilkins talks about her journey from lawyer to stay-at-home-mom to founder of Safe Heart.

Hattiesburg’s Karen Wilkins talks about her journey from lawyer to stay-at-home-mom to founder of Safe Heart.

So, how does a successful practicing lawyer end up owning a health-oriented business?

“Well, I left my law career to care for three sons,” she said with a smile.  “That was a career in itself.”

Finally, however, Karen felt it was time to re-engage in the business world.  But instead of returning to the practice of law, she decided to go back to school, earning an MBA from USM.  It was in that process that the entrepreneurial desire was born, thanks to her husband, a Hattiesburg cardiologist.  It was his suggestion that Mississippi really needed a local heart screening option.  Voila! SafeHeart was born.

Despite her experience and education, Karen found that engineering a successful start-up was “much harder than we anticipated.”  She started the business initially by marketing direct to consumers, but soon found that that model wasn’t productive.

“At the end of 2008, we changed our focus, and began concentrating more on working with corporate HR departments,” she said.  “That’s what made all the difference.”

In many cases, corporations are committed to providing health screening for their employees.  Karen says that these companies are very aware that preventive care is a much more cost-efficient option than watching health insurance premiums rise exponentially as a result of many large claims.  In these cases, the companies will pay for the screening service.  In other cases, smaller companies might simply make their employees aware of the service, and Karen will schedule her team to visit a company’s location and deliver the screening by appointment, with the employees paying a basic fee for the screen.

“One of the true rewards in this business is that we’ve caught many situations where the person was at a ‘critical’ stage … that is, they may well have been on the very edge of a serious heart problem,” she said.  “When we find someone at that stage, we urge them to go for immediate care, and visit a qualified cardiologist.  I really believe we’ve saved lives. When the screens show the potential for problems down the road, the advice is to seek medical advice within a few weeks. “

Under this model, SafeHeart has grown to be a productive and profitable enterprise, and Karen indicated that she now sees a number of opportunities for expansion to other states and regions.

“As tough as it was in the early going,” she said, “I now feel that all the challenges were worth it.  Owning a business can be very rewarding, but it can also be full of problems and challenges.”

For one thing, Karen suggests that “whatever capital and resources you think you need to start a business, multiply that number by four or five, and you’ll probably be closer to the mark.”

She says she learned the hard way that it’s important to seek the help and support of qualified counselors and mentors.

“I certainly made my share of mistakes in the early days,” she said, laughing.  “I could have saved myself some grief if I had sought the right advice.  You need a good attorney, a good CPA and others who can help you navigate.”

SafeHeart has several full-time employees, as well as utilizing a number of contractors, primarily technicians who conduct the screening.  Karen makes it her policy to personally interact not only with the companies, hospitals and agencies that utilize her services, but also many of the individuals who go through the screening.  In particular, she personally calls individuals who are identified as high-risk cases, to encourage them to get care immediately.

“Two of our recent patients wound up having heart surgery within two weeks of the screen,” she said.  “Knowing that we helped is one of the biggest rewards in this business.”

What advice does Karen have for other entrepreneurs?

“You really have to believe in what you’re doing,” she said.  “Things aren’t going to be as easy as you imagine, and if you don’t have the perseverance and dedication, you’re just not going to make it.  I also encourage anyone thinking of starting a business to really count the cost, do the homework and analysis, and make sure you have enough resources to get the business up and running.  It’s a terrible mistake to leap without looking.”

From successful lawyer to mom to entrepreneur, Karen Wilkins has managed to have life on her terms.  We have to conclude that the American Dream is alive and well.

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