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How Pacific Oaks changed the life of Pasadena’s Stark Spirits owner

March 30, 2018

Published: March 30, 2018

Stark Spirits distillery co-owner Karen Robinson-Stark reflects on how Pacific Oaks influenced her career path—from childhood development expert to entrepreneur. Discover the “spirit” she found through her work.


As a single mother of two—before she knew anything about Pacific Oaks—Karen Robinson-Stark struggled to get her bachelor’s degree. Her first job (for $578 per month) was at a school district child development center. After deciding that there was “an imperviousness to children’s enjoyment of life”, she wanted to explore child development in a different way.

A PO alumna named Mary Jane Tonge encouraged her to consider her alma mater due to the school’s well-known reputation regarding early childhood education. It didn’t take long for the school to win Robinson-Stark over.

Stark Spirits distillery co-owner Karen Robinson-Stark

Stark Spirits distillery co-owner Karen Robinson-Stark

“Pacific Oaks changed my life forever,” Robinson-Stark says. “I feel very emotional saying that because I started out extremely externally focused, with low sensitivity toward other people’s views. I expected people to respond from intellect and objectivity and have a rational approach. However, Pacific Oaks demanded that I develop reflective aspects of my personality. If I had gone with one of the hard sciences instead of pursuing a master’s in Human Development, I wouldn’t have been able to develop the same kind of sensitivity.”

But Robinson-Stark did, and in 1979, she received her master’s degree.

The disconnect between activism and communication

“I was one of those politically active students who very concerned about social justice,” Robinson-Stark says. “At the time, I was in a somewhat radical organization, the Socialist-Feminist Party, and we believed that we were going to change the world peacefully.”

Additionally, she worked in a “socialist collective” that supplied food co-ops. But she quickly observed that there was more arguing and power plays than there was peace.

“I thought, if people like this can’t get along with each other, how are we going to save the world?” she says.

That observation made her take a harder stance in learning to effectively communicate with others. That’s when she made the decision to begin working at the stage of life that communication skills begin to develop: childhood.

“I spent my early career doing my best to influence adults to pay attention to children and recognize that ‘problem behavior’ is usually the result of adults not seeing the child’s real needs,” says Robinson-Stark. “Adults’ roles are to guide children into being more humane, which means using problem-solving skills to effectively manage a problem. If that goal can be achieved, then those kids grow up to be adults who will do the same.”

From child development programs to developing her career

From 1979 to 2008, she worked in a variety of programs focused on children and families. These included training family child care providers, administering child development programs, managing multi-million dollar grants, and teaching college classes. She also had an intervention consultation business, “Dr. Karen Says…,” to help child care centers and parents learn to “walk the talk”, modeling correct behavior instead of shouting and punishing “bad” behavior.

“Dr. Karen Says…” became a commonly used phrase in a long-term program she administered at San Gabriel Unified Child Development Centers.

“People were amazed at how wonderful the children were in my program,” Robinson-Stark says. “They quickly learned how to resolve the usual childhood squabbles peacefully. I recall one fellow telling me that he’d never seen a daycare center where the kids always seemed to want to be there.”

In 2008, Robinson-Stark’s mother fell ill and she became a full-time caregiver. In the meantime, her husband had been plotting on starting his own business. On March 31, 2013, his plan became a reality when they opened a distillery business together.

“Although I’ve switched industries, I am still able to use my Human Development degree while interacting with customers,” Robinson-Stark says. “During our tours and tastings for Stark Spirits, I try to be attentive to all people individually in the same manner that Pacific Oaks taught me. I’m interested in their backgrounds and what’s important to them. I really invest myself in the visitors, and as far as I can tell, that’s why they love us.”

On a mission to give back to Pasadena community

But it’s not just the customers she loves. Robinson-Stark is also heavily invested in giving back to her community. In April 2015, the distillery donated funds to Thirst Project, a company that travels across the nation to middle schools, high schools, and college campuses educating students about the global water crisis. According to the charity’s website, they’ve raised more than $8 million and funded projects to provide 280,000 people with safe, clean water.

Stark Spirits has also held a fundraiser in support of Wikipedia at the Annenberg Space for Photography on November 15, 2017.

“I’m blown away by the endeavor of all these strangers volunteering to share knowledge and improve people’s understanding,” Robinson-Stark says. “I think that’s such a significant thing to do for the entire world and in different languages. I enjoy supporting companies that help to advance people’s understanding of each other as well as be knowledgeable about where they are.

The Starks’ humanitarianism doesn’t end there. They’ve also donated to Sing for Puerto Rico fundraiser to help those affected by Hurricane Maria.

And Robinson-Stark was ecstatic to support her alma mater. On September 2, 2017, the distillery donated rum and whiskey to Pacific Oak’s housewarming—a celebration of the college’s purchase of the northwest Pasadena location where it has been located for the past 13 years.

“I am happy to give back to Pacific Oaks in any way that I can,” Robinson-Stark says. “The Pacific Oaks community helped me to make a transformation that changed my life.”

For questions or comments on our news stories or releases, or if you are a reporter who would like to speak with an expert in education, human development, or marriage and family therapy, please contact Johanna Atienza at [email protected] or 626.529.8092.