NEW YORK—Karen Elizaga, a gorgeous, charismatic woman with a law degree from American University, has a coaching business where she helps people think positively of themselves. But she wasn’t always confident in herself.
“There were many years when I thought I wasn’t smart enough, not pretty enough, not funny enough, not not not enough,” said Elizaga, 42.
Founder of Forward Options, Elizaga coaches people—from high school girls to corporate executives—on personal and career development.
After achieving a career in corporate law, and leaving it all behind to work at a start-up, she discovered she had led most of her life with negative thoughts. But, she said, we don’t have to live in the negative, if we only pay more attention to our thoughts.
“We can only hold one conscious thought,” she said. “You spilled your coffee. You feel dumb. You can literally push that thought out by saying you are excellent.
“One of the exercises I have people do is flip things around and say what is good in my life?” she said. The answer can be something as simple as “the sky is cloudless,” and it will change your day and productivity.
A turning point that compelled her to pay more attention to her thoughts was becoming a mother.
“It sounds corny, but my kids are inspirational figures in my life,” Elizaga said. “Having my daughter made me realize that all the negative thoughts that were going through my head were going to be passed on to her.”
She believes the underlying cause for all negative thoughts is a lack of self-love.
“The most important thing to teach children is to have love for themselves,” said Elizaga, who has two children.
She said if children have love for themselves it is easier for them to believe in, as well as forgive, themselves.
“Think about a person in your life that you love the most, and think about how you can forgive them and how much faith you have in them,” she said.
Finding Forward Options
Elizaga grew up in Hawaii, where her family had emigrated to from the Philippines. Her father was a doctor, her mother a dietician. From a young age, Elizaga wanted to be perfect. And for that reason alone, her heart was set on becoming a lawyer.
On paper, she had perfect grades from schools including the University of California, Irvine; Barnard; and American University—where she obtained her Juris Doctor in law in 1996. She got her perfect career in corporate law. But she wasn’t happy.
“I would sit at my desk and think what else I could possibly be doing,” she said.
An “epiphany moment” came when she moved to London to work with her husband’s startup, Urban Fetch, a company that delivers goods such as beauty products, electronics, and groceries within an hour.
There, Elizaga worked on the company’s business development and spent most of her time meeting with people.
“I was a people person. I realized I could actually love what I do as opposed to going to work to collect a paycheck,” she said. “I would have done that job for free. It was an eye opener.”
A part of Elizaga’s job was to interview people, which she often did from eight in the morning to eight in the evening.
“I realized that even though people may have amazing resumes and great grades, they needed [more] communication skills,” she said. “They needed to have positive energy and engage people.”
This experience led her to begin holding personal development workshops for high school girls in 2004. She still does the workshops today, which now incorporates workshops for boys. It is a part of Forward Options.
The content in the workshop is based on interviews with 200 successful professionals she met during her years as a corporate attorney. In the interviews she asked them what regrets and lessons they learned along the way.
She shares these practical tips with 15 girls at a time in her six-hour workshops completed in two sessions.
“I really wanted girls to understand they don’t just have to go down a [career] path where they feel like it’s what they are supposed to do,” she said.
She said there is always another option, and it starts with a positive mentality.
The workshops are centered on self-esteem and confidence, as well as nutrition and exercise. After some successful workshops, she went back to school at NYU to get a coaching certificate.
Elizaga is publishing a book in January that covers her coaching process: Find Your Sweet Spot: A Guide to Personal and Professional Excellence.
“It’s about pausing to look at yourself internally,” she said. “What are the things that you are saying to yourself?”
Help for Asian Domestic Violence Victims
Elizaga believes there is always something good in life, no matter how desperate the situation is.
“Even in dire situations…you can think ‘I’m still breathing, I’m still alive,'” she said. “That’s pretty powerful, but only if you take the time to embrace it. In the rush of everyday, we often gloss over those things.”
Outside work, Elizaga is the board chair for the New York Asian Women’s Center (NYAWC), an organization that helps survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual assault.
Due to language and cultural barriers, many Asian women never leave violent homes, and NYAWC was founded in 1982 to help overcome this barrier and assist women.
She finds the victims she meets at the center profoundly inspiring.
“They are women who smile and look like you and me if you see them walking down the street,” she said. “After everything they have gone through, to see that they are still strong and see opportunities in life.”