Karen Raskopf on Innovation at Dunkin’ and Advice for Students
Karen Raskopf was named Dunkin’ Brands’ Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications in 2009, and currently serves as Chief Communications and Sustainability Officer. She brings more than twenty years of experience in the communications field to Dunkin’ Brands.
As Chief Communications and Sustainability Officer, Karen is responsible for all aspects of the company’s global public relations, including internal and executive communications, marketing and crisis public relations, event management, corporate philanthropy and community relations. She also oversees all of the company's sustainability efforts.
Prior to joining Dunkin’ Brands, she spent 12 years as Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications for Blockbuster, Inc. She also served as head of communications for 7-Eleven, Inc. where she led all aspects of public relations for the international convenience store chain. Her background also includes leadership positions at Gannet Broadcasting. Karen is the recipient of several communications awards and is a featured speaker at numerous international conferences on best PR practices. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Dallas with a degree in English.
Karen is drinkin’ a regular, Dunkin’ decaf coffee and scoopin’ Baskin-Robbins Chocolate Chip ice cream.
Business Today (Vivian Ufongene): You’ve had a long career working at companies such as Blockbuster and 7-Eleven. Could you speak about the specific roles that helped you navigate to your current role as Chief Communications and Sustainability Officer?
Karen Raskopf: I’ve always been in public relations, but I did have a stint where I thought I wanted to be an advertising copywriter. I did that for a very short time, but I realized my strengths lay more in public relations. I’ve always focused on—not by plan, but by accident—small box retailing with big brands. I started in the old days with the Tandy Corporation, the owner of RadioShack. I began with an associated brand of theirs that was in home improvement but is no longer in existence. They didn't have a public relations function when I started with them, and I just started taking on responsibilities to publicize their new store openings even though I was with their advertising department. All of a sudden, they began to realize it was driving awareness and getting people into stores, and they asked, “Hey, do you want to do this for us full time?” That's always advice that I give to students and young people: when you’re in an organization, whether it’s a corporation, an agency, or a nonprofit, look around and ask yourself, “What else can I contribute? What isn’t getting done that needs to get done in order to help the business?” Jump in, and start doing it because that's the kind of thing that gets you promoted, and more experienced.
BT: I am particularly interested in your role as a sustainability officer. Could you describe how Dunkin’s approach to environmental sustainability has evolved since you started there?
KR: I came here ten years ago, and the sustainability function was in its early, early days. I don’t think this was unique to Dunkin’; the focus on sustainability has greatly been stepped up, especially in the last five years. There's also been a lot of innovation to market that helps retailers with their innovation initiative, such as packaging. Ten years ago, when I came here on the first day on the job, they said, “You’re going to go to a meeting on our styrofoam cups. We’re interested to see if we can get out of them.” I thought, “How hard is it to get out of styrofoam cups—just stop using styrofoam cups.” That's the thing with these sustainability initiatives, you look at it from the outside and think it’s easy. We’ll be out of the foam cup by 2020 globally, but ten years ago, there weren’t a lot of alternatives that had the insulating properties of styrofoam—it keeps your drink hot, but your hands cool. The other thing we wanted is something that is truly good for the environment. Additionally, Dunkin’ Brands is 100% franchised; in other words, we are made up of 100% independent—many of them small business people—so we have to keep the price tag of our sustainability issues in mind when we propose a change. Our sustainability issues have to work for our customers, our franchisees and this planet we all call home.
BT: Dunkin’ has also been incorporating plant-based beef alternatives recently—can you speak on that movement?
KR: Yes, we are using Beyond Meat. We have the Beyond Sausage Sandwich in our New York City stores. We have said that at some point in the future we want to roll out nationally, but it was just rolled out in August. It’s gotten a great response from customers. This is a product that’s not only for vegetarians, it’s for people who are flexitarians. They want flexibility in their diet, it’s a plant based protein, and it’s really, really good.
BT: Are there any specific areas where you see room for growth with sustainability initiatives?
KR: We have been working to help make our franchisees make their stores greener. Our new store design is called Next Gen, and it is about 30% more energy efficient than our older design. More energy efficient restaurants are better for the planet and better for our franchisees’ monthly utility bills. With all of our sustainability initiatives, we like to find solutions that are good for the customer, good for the franchisee, and better for the planet. We are also working on making sure our coffee is more sustainably resourced. We’re also working with World Coffee Research and in 2018, we and our franchisees announced a five-year agreement that a percentage of sales from every pound of our Original Blend Coffee beans sold to our restaurants will be donated to WCR in support of coffee sustainability efforts. And, of course, as a brand with most of our customers taking their food and beverage to eat on the run, rather than consuming it in the restaurant, we are looking at our product packaging: “What can we do to make our packaging more recyclable or made from reusable resources?” We have some work to do in that arena. Again, it's a complicated business as we try to make sure it works for all the constituents.
BT: You deal with global public relations, including internal and executive communications, marketing and crisis public relations, event management, corporate philanthropy, and community relations. What is the most challenging part of your job?
KR: I think the biggest challenge is that you always have to make sure your communication leads come from your brand purpose and personality. We always have to work very closely with the marketing team to make sure that all the communications we’re sharing—whether it’s in a press release, in our blog, in a communication we’re sending to our franchisees, or a response to the media—we always want to make sure it comes from the heart of who we are at Dunkin’. We want to communicate in a way that is always authentic and as transparent as we can possibly be. We also want to make sure everything is aligned, whether we’re talking to our employees, customers, or the media; we want a consistent message. This goes to your authenticity as a brand. We like everything to be consistent across all our audiences to avoid disjointedness, and that’s not always easy to do.
BT: What do you feel is the most rewarding part of your job and makes you really love what you do?
KR: First, I love working with our franchisees. We are 100% made up of independent men and women, and I admire them for what they do everyday. They take care of their employees, they take care of their customers, and I am glad to do anything I can do to help support them with that. It takes a lot of courage to be an independent business person; I really admire our franchisees. The next thing is sustainability—that’s very important to me. I have kids in their 20’s, and I hope the work that the team and I do will contribute to creating less waste in our landfills overall. I’m also very involved with our foundation, the Joy in Childhood Foundation. We work on bringing joy to children who are facing hunger or illness. We give out millions of dollars in grants each year, and it’s very rewarding to see the impact that we can have through funding programs that bring joy to a child who is in the hospital or by providing food for a child that might not have enough to eat.
BT: That’s very interesting, could you speak a bit more about the Joy in Childhood Foundation? That sounds like an amazing initiative.
KR: The Joy in Childhood Foundation granted about $6.5 million in 2018 to non-profit organizations dedicated to taking care of children who are ill or who are facing hunger. We raise money and awareness through a variety of fundraisers and we’ve got an initiative right now with Waze, the navigational app, to help promote awareness of and raise funds for pediatric cancer during Pediatric Cancer Awareness month.
Waze recorded children who have had cancer or been impacted by cancer and their voices provide the Waze directions. Every time during the month of September that someone downloads the “Going Gold” voice pack on Waze and have these children guide you to your destination, Dunkin’ Brands will make a donation to our Joy In Childhood Foundation. In turn, the Foundation will make grants to summer camps for children with cancer. There’s no cost to the consumer for these downloads.
BT: What specific skills do you think have added to your success in your career and helped you to get to where you are today? What advice do you have for students who are joining the workforce?
KR: Don’t stay in a narrow lane and confine yourself to just what people assign to you. Of course, you have to do your job assignments and do them well, but when you get out of your narrow lane to work hard, support the team, and take on additional assignments, you demonstrate that you are a person worth keeping and worth promoting. Being willing to go above and beyond helps you broaden your experience, your knowledge and your resume. People at the organization will want to invest in you and become your mentors and will want to take you with them to new companies. In addition to working hard and taking on extra assignments, I always advise students to take on as many internships as you can. Some of them you’ll love, some of them you’ll hate, but all of them will help you figure out a path you might follow. You also have to network; you won’t necessarily get a job just by applying to positions online. The best way to get a job and to learn about a position is to network. Never leave one of those networking sessions without getting two to three names of other people you can network with; it’s all about making as many in-person connections as you can. You’re not asking for a job—you’re asking to come in and talk about what that person does and how they got started in their career. People are very receptive to that and happy to help you. And after you get a job, keep in contact with all these connections you made. You’ll need them again. Next, have a curious mind; be constantly interested in learning more. Have a strong work ethic, and be sure to be good at scheduling your work and prioritizing.