RapidChat: Karen Tracey

Today we meet down the street from Karen Tracey’s home in Baxter Neighborhood at Brewery Vivant— an area that once wasn’t so thriving and full of life. Now, after many community members have taken a vested interest in the area (including Karen's founding business, The Image Shoppe), it’s one of Grand Rapid’s most coveted locations in which to live and work. 
Karen Tracey is a Baxter resident, a small business owner, and a parent who's passionate about her community and her environment. Rapid Chat correspondent Jenna Morton sat down with her and got her views on leadership, sustainability, and her work with GR for Animals, which works to end circus cruelty. 
Rapid Chat: How long have you lived in the Baxter neighborhood?
Karen Tracey: We have lived here for 16 years. Back when we moved into the neighborhood it was a very different place. There was no booming Wealthy Street business district, Cherry Street was an area full of blight, and there definitely weren’t the masses of local restaurants and shops we all enjoy here today.
RC: What initially drew you over to this area?
KT: It wasn’t at all my idea. My husband Rob was thrilled that we could afford a big, beautiful home relatively close to Heritage Hill, and he had faith that over time the area would come around—and he was right.
RC: It’s not very far away from your office at The Image Shoppe, either, which is the business you started nearly 14 years ago. Can you tell me what inspired you to start this business in 2000?
KT: Initially I started the business as a freelance designer. At that time it was called ‘Karen Tracey Design’ and I actually worked for the first few years out of our basement and then later our attic, which we renovated into a combo studio and living space. We even worked from the attic after I had hired our first employee (outside of my partners Rob and Troy).
At the time I chose to go out on my own, Rob and I had returned from extensive traveling in Mexico after quitting our jobs, and I was really looking for flexibility. Plus I was ready to call the shots and be able to choose who I worked for.
RC: The Image Shoppe’s business model vastly revolves around sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line. What are some of the things you do to help promote and implement this strategy?
KT: A very important aspect of our business is that we are very passionate about sustainability and the environment on a personal level. If it were solely our business model, it wouldn’t be implemented in quite the same way. We don’t only promote the Triple Bottom Line to our clients; we live it both personally and professionally. And that goes beyond just Rob and I. One of my mottos is to lead by example. You can tell people until you’re blue in the face “do as I say,” but they will only come along when you set an example by the choices you make day in and day out. Today, most of our employees also share the desire to be environmentally conscious and that makes me very proud.
RC: Personally you are involved with a lot of local nonprofits that promote the environment, sustainability and support the growth of our community, such as WMEAC and Local First. How did you get yourself involved in these organizations?
KT: The major turning point in my life was when I had my son, Brannon. I had been concerned about the environment and human rights for most of my adult life, but it wasn’t until after he was born that I really became invested in those issues. It started with examining how every choice we made—from what kind of diapers we were buying to the food we put into our mouths—would affect Brannon’s future. Fair labor practices and sustainability naturally led to animal welfare—another passion of mine—when I saw how interconnected it all was. It became unreasonable to me to continue consuming goods and food that were not only unnatural, but also were bad for our environment.
RC: You are also the founder and director of the ‘GR for Animals' organization. What inspired you to start that nonprofit on your own?
KT: Grand Rapids For Animals is a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting animal welfare here in our community. Our primary focus is to end circus cruelty.
As a child, I remember my mom taking me and my brother to the circus and not liking it very much. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but something just didn’t sit right with me. Years later, when I was doing some research on some other anti-cruelty topics, I stumbled across a bunch of information on the circus. At that moment, I knew that this was something I wanted to bring to the attention of others.
When the Ringling Bros. circus first came to Grand Rapids, I knew I had to stand up for what I believed in, so I marched myself down to the Van Andel Arena with my homemade sign and stood out in the pouring rain. My mom came along, which I know wasn’t easy for her, but she was so supportive. We were the only two people out there telling folks, “Hey, there’s something not right here… take a look.” As awkward as it was, it was also invigorating and set me on a course to take a stand.
RC: How did you spread the word and get the support from others?
KT: GR for Animals started out as me and a like-minded acquaintance standing up for anti-cruelty issues we believe in. Thankfully due to the proliferation of the internet and social media, word of mouth referrals spread fast from other passionate individuals in our community. On day one, we started with 3 members. Today we have a Facebook community with 850 followers and just held our largest demonstration ever at the Ringling Bros Circus this past September with nearly 150 protestors.
RC: How can people further educate themselves on some of these topics and get involved?
KT: Our Facebook page for Grand Rapids for Animals is a great place to start. Additionally, a few of the organizations that I follow who provide great information are:
End Circus Cruelty - banning the circus in GR; here you can sign a petition
Born Free USA - animals in entertainment
Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine - anti-vivisection, healthy diets

Mercy for Animals - compassion, vegan lifestyle
WMEAC - local environmental action
Local First - supporting local businesses

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.