Women of Western Wake: Karen Russell

As a standout basketball player for Georgia Tech in the early 1990s, Karen Russell developed a strong work ethic, an understanding of teamwork, and the ability to rally in the face of adversity. When she left the court, those traits didn’t disappear, she just channeled them into her career.

Russell is Chief Financial Officer of TrialCard, one of the fastest-growing businesses in North Carolina. Companies hire the pharmaceutical services company to perform services from helping patients find ways to afford or gain access to their medication, to helping doctors in the same realm, Russell said.

Since she became CFO in 2019, the biggest part of her job revolves around providing financial analysis and insights to help TrialCard grow, be profitable, and best serve its customers and shareholders.

“I absolutely love it,” Russell said. “I feel fortunate; I work
with amazing people.”

In her 30-year career, Russell put in the hard work to earn the CFO title. She graduated from Georgia Tech with a management degree and a minor in accounting, and went on to become a Certified Public Accountant. She joined EY, a major accounting firm, but found auditing wasn’t for her and moved to corporate accounting, first at Golden Corral in Raleigh.

“I realized early on it was my desire to work for a large company where I could hold a number of roles over the years and grow my experience,” she said.

She joined GSK next and found that opportunity. In her 18 years there, she held more than a dozen roles. Russell left GSK for a new challenge, working with smaller companies looking to grow. TrialCard is her third such role. Asked if she has an ultimate career goal, Russell answers, “I’m doing it right now.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a CFO of a company,” she said.
“I really love TrialCard and will stay as long as they’ll keep me.”

After spending most of her career in the health care space, she said the work feels personal and she enjoys making an impact. “We’ve all been a patient and had family members who are patients,” Russell said. “We know how hard it is sometimes to afford a medicine and get access to a medicine.”

Contributed photo

In her leadership role, she also relishes helping her team grow and develop. “I’ve had a lot of people mentor me,” Russell said. “I find it really rewarding to support others in their careers.”

Innovating, growing, solving problems, supporting her teammates — it all has a familiar ring for Russell.

She played high school basketball in Poughkeepsie, New York. Georgia Tech recruited her, offering a full scholarship to play. Her high school coach and mentor, Brian Giorgis, thought she might spend most of her time on the bench at Georgia Tech. Russell wanted an education from a top academic program and decided it didn’t matter.

What happened next defied their expectations. Russell started 114 games. She set Georgia Tech career records for most points scored, most three-point field goals, and highest free throw percentage, as well as the most three-point field goals in a season. Russell finished her career by leading the team to the 1992 WNIT Championship. She was later inducted into Georgia Tech’s Athletic Association Hall of Fame and named an ACC Legend.

“The things I’ve learned from athletics have been invaluable,” Russell said. “Playing college athletics at that level is like a full-time job; it’s about discipline. Your life is very scheduled.”

It’s where her work ethic comes from.

“You have to give your all in every practice and every game,” she said. “And it doesn’t always go right — you have to learn to shake things off and look forward. It’s also the mental, positive, can-do attitude that it taught me. I remember if I missed a shot, I would tell myself, the next one is going in.”

She exercises regularly, and to decompress when life gets stressful. Her biggest challenge has always been balance. Russell has two children, Kate and Colin, who are now adults.

“If you work in the corporate world, you have to put in the hours and you have to take chances,” she said. “It’s been about maintaining balance — being here for the kids, working full time, and having to travel.”

Russell also relies on her faith and a circle of close friends who support her. She finds time to volunteer on the finance committee for the Durham Ronald McDonald House and with the nonprofit Living With Autism, founded by one of her closest friends, Hannah Ellis.

Ellis calls her friend of 17 years “a beautiful person inside and out.”

“It is evident her excellence on the court translates to each part of her life,” said Ellis. “I have been witness to the rise in her professional career, and although she makes it look easy, she has a unique tenacity and personality that leads to her success.”

Right now, Russell is enjoying TrialCard and life in Cary. She appreciates the thought put into Cary’s revitalized downtown, as well as access to cities like Raleigh, or an easy drive to the coast or mountains. Mostly, it’s that Cary feels like home.

“To me, home is where your family and your close friends are,” she said. “I’ve got amazing close friendships, and they’re all super close by in Cary.”

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