Education administrator and marketing executive Karen Thomas was born on August 19, 1955 in Newark, New Jersey to Howard and Ruth Young. She graduated from Abraham Clark High School in 1973 in Roselle, New Jersey. Thomas received her B.S. degree in communications in 1977 from Simmons College (Simmons University) in Boston, Massachusetts and later her M.S. degree in sports and special events marketing in 1989 from New York University. In 2008, Thomas received her M.A. degree in educational administration; and, in 2012, her Ed.D. degree, in urban education, graduating magna cum laude, both from Kean University in Union, New Jersey.
Upon graduating from Simmons College, Thomas worked as a copywriter in the public relations and marketing departments at Chemical Bank in New York from 1978 to 1980. She joined McGraw-Hill Publishing Company as a copywriter and worked in the book club direct marketing sales group for two years from 1980 to 1982. Then from 1982 to 2000, Thomas served as marketing director at ESSENCE magazine in New York City where she was responsible for all the marketing functions across the corporate divisions of the publication group including print, event marketing, special events, public relations and research. Thomas is credited for creating and producing, The Essence Awards, an Emmy-award winning prime-time television special; The Essence Music Festival, the largest gathering of African Americans annually; and Essence television program, a nationally syndicated magazine-format television program. In 1998, she received the NAACP Image Award for Excellence in Television Production, and an Emmy Award for the Essence Awards Prime Time TV Special, Patti Labelle tribute.
In 1999, Thomas changed careers and became the lead founder of the Marion P. Thomas Charter School. In 2000, she became the CEO for the Marion P. Thomas Charter School and grew it into the largest independently operated free public charter school in Newark with a network of four campuses and serves students grades pre-kindergarten to twelve. In 2011, Thomas joined Kean University as adjunct professor for the graduate school of education where she taught organizational theory, supervision and leadership and curriculum development. She also served as an adjunct professor at New York University and Simmons University.
Thomas received the Alumnae Achievement Award from Simmons College in 2000. She was also the recipient of the 2015 Profiles in Diversity Journal Company and Executive Women Worth Watching Award for her contributions to education. In 2017, she received the Education Innovator of the Year Award from New Jersey Charter School Association.
Karen Thomas was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 26, 2018.