Karen Shell is a renaissance woman if ever there was one. She is equal parts adventurer and heartfelt humanitarian, a dreamer with determination.
Shell was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, but she considers herself a native of Arizona. She grew up in Scottsdale and attended Saguaro High and ASU on a full-ride academic scholarship, where she earned a fine arts degree in photography.
“My first few rolls of film in college didn’t turn out so well,” she said. However, that didn’t dissuade Shell, as she would go on to enjoy a 30-year run as a much sought-after freelance commercial photographer. Business took her around the world working for various advertising clients and their national and global brands. Her work has been exhibited internationally, and her commercial work has won industry awards.
“As soon as I graduated, I started my photography business. But I knew my life had to be about more than just making money. I also wanted to make a difference in the community,” Shell said.
Her initial interest in photography – and, as it turns out, philanthropy – was fueled by a semester-long project where she chronicled homelessness in Phoenix and how people survived by living in makeshift tents.
Shell has her own story of survival as she had a tumultuous upbringing, but it worked to shape her as an adult. “My philosophy is life’s challenges can make you bitter or better, and I have chosen the latter.”
After two decades of serving at-risk youth, Shell founded Kids in Focus, a nonprofit that inspires hope in children who come from backgrounds of poverty, neglect, abuse and disabilities. The nonprofit uses photography to inspire youngsters to see things through their own eyes. Volunteer mentors take the children through this creative journey and other one-on-one nurturing experiences.
Shell says serving others has given her a fresh perspective and allowed her to “get outside my head. When you’re in your bubble, your problems are magnified.”
"I was put on this earth to do this work."
A self-professed entrepreneur, Shell has always been about facing challenges head-on. “I like coming up with ideas and then working to make them a reality, especially if they make things better than they were.”
In addition to her passion for photography and philanthropy, Shell also loves to travel. She has been around the globe, experiencing adventures and world cultures firsthand and says she has every intention to see more. “There’s an incredible world out there with endless possibilities. I have become an adventurer at heart, and the more I travel, the more I want to. My bucket list is long and ever-changing, and though it already has a lot of checkmarks, I am always adding new experiences to the list.”
Shell’s advice for the younger generation is for them to figure out what brings them joy. “Immerse yourself with things you are passionate about and take ownership of your life. Be fiercely brave and mindfully humble.”
Eric Labas, a longtime friend, said this of Shell: “Karen is like a swan on a lake, smooth and graceful on the surface, but paddling hard underneath. She makes putting forth effort look easy and is such a gifted woman.”
Regarding the youth development organization she created, Shell said, “I was put on this planet to do this work.”
Asked about her autobiography, she said, “It would be titled, ‘A New Lens on Life’ and be about a kid who faced extreme challenges and, after looking through a viewfinder, saw her future come into focus. That kid was me, and I want to help others open their eyes to the amazing possibilities in the world and how to find the limitless potential in themselves.”