Q&A with Karl Mehu: General Manager, Los Angeles
We talked to the new GM of Slalom’s LA office about how being a two-time immigrant and US Army veteran has influenced his leadership style—and what’s next for Slalom LA.
You’ve got an inspiring personal history. Can you share some of that with us?
Like a lot of folks, I’m an immigrant. I was born in Haiti in the late 1960s to two wonderful parents who were well respected in their community. They were educators and also political activists, fighting the dictatorship of the Duvalier regime.
They wanted to create a better, more democratic country and that unfortunately brought a lot of attention from the secret police. The Ton-Ton Macoute—that’s the Creole name—were known to operate in the evening and people would just disappear.
My mother took on the secret police to save my dad’s life. She was able to use her family history—her lineage goes back to the thirteenth president of Haiti—and her uncle’s power and influence to have my dad released from prison.
Wow, that’s incredible. What happened next?
For their own safety, my parents emigrated to Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo], which was a newly independent country in Central Africa. My dad taught physics and mathematics at the University of Kinshasa. My mom taught preschool.
Unfortunately, like many new countries, Zaire began to deal with inflation and serious political unrest. When I was 14, my parents took another leap of faith and moved to the US. Their university degrees didn’t have the same kind of value here, so my dad did what he had to do to feed a family of five. He drove a cab and went to school at night. My mom worked in factories. During the weekend they both took odd jobs and cleaned hotels just to be able to provide for me and my sisters.
With all those experiences, how many languages do you speak?
French is my first language; English is my second. I understand Creole because we spoke it at home, and I used to be able to speak two African dialects: Lingala and Swahili. I am also learning Korean—my wife was born in Seoul and emigrated to the US when she was five years old and we have a wonderful multicultural family.
What else has been pivotal to who you are today?
The military, definitely. I had amazing experiences and it showed me discipline, leadership, and the importance of building a great team.
I was fortunate enough to go to jump school—which was really a way to overcome my fear of heights. I thought what better way to cure that than by jumping out of a perfectly good airplane?
When you do your very first jump, they tell you to get ready and that they’re going to give you a shove out the plane on the count of three. But they push you out on “one!” It teaches you that fear can be far greater than the task at hand and that you need to have the courage to take something on not knowing exactly what the outcome will be.
What brought you to a career in consulting?
Coming out of school, I worked for Price Waterhouse [now PwC] as an auditor. Then one of my very first clients recruited me to work on an automation tool for their sales force. It was a challenge because it was so far from anything I’d done before. They’d hired a third-party software engineering group to do the actual coding work, but I didn’t know how to communicate with the them. It forced me to stretch myself and I taught myself how to code in C++.
That was the moment I decided to be in consulting. I realized I had a love for technology as well as business, and for bringing the two together. I have been doing that for the last 20-plus years.
What will the future hold for Slalom LA?
I am so excited about the LA market. We already have about 140 people out here and the potential for LA is unbelievable. It’s no secret that LA is the entertainment capital of the world. Media and entertainment are obviously a big focus here, but there are other industries that people don’t think about.
For example, LA is the financial hub of the West Coast. It’s also number one when it comes to brands, textiles, and manufacturing. Then there’s the chance to impact the future of mobility—smart grid, electronic and autonomous vehicles, and even aerospace and defense. All those industries are going through tremendous transformations. I believe that Slalom can help shape those transformations and drive impact.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from earlier roles that you want to bring to LA?
That you’re only limited by your imagination. With great teams and a focus on bringing people together, there’s very little that you can’t accomplish.
What else would you like to achieve?
I want Slalom LA to be a destination, a beacon for great talent. My goal is to double the size of the market and broaden our leadership team. We want to make sure that we increase the pipeline of underrepresented talent. I especially want to see more leaders that are women and more leaders that are diverse.
Tell us about your life outside work.
Martial arts is a passion for me and I worked hard to earn a black belt in tae kwon do. I was fortunate to meet a wonderful instructor who is an immigrant himself. He was a former officer in the Korean Rock Marines. Toughest person I’ve ever met, but also very kind.
And my family is my North Star. They give me strength and they keep me grounded. I’ve been married for 20 years to my wife, Diane, and we have three amazing kids.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Leadership is about connection, about the relationship that you have with people that you serve. It’s hard to do that if you aren’t rooted and bringing your full self to an interaction. So, one of the things I would say is: Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Being yourself takes you much further than anything else.