Published: May 10, 2016

CU Denver Alum Karen HinkelLaying on Little Beach in Maui, HI, Karen Hinkel had an epiphany. As an international flight attendant for United Airlines, traveling the world, working routes to Bangkok, Singapore, New Zealand, and Japan, Karen was happy with her life. She says, "I can still see this exact moment in my mind...lolling around on the beach with the cumulus clouds rolling by, I realized that I did not know how to bring my thoughts to fruition." This was the pivotal moment that she decided it was time to go to college and develop critical thinking skills. She didn't need a college degree for a job—she had a job she loved. Her goal was to go to college to improve herself.

"I wanted to go to school to learn, because I realized in my mid-thirties that I didn't know a lot. I knew everything when I was 18," she laughs. "But at some point, I realized that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was."

A United Airlines employee with seniority, Hinkel could transfer to just about any United hub city to start her studies. She knew she wanted to buy a house she could live in and make a home for herself while she went to school. She says at the time the most affordable real estate market was here in Denver, and she bought a condo near Cheesman Park. She was also impressed with the number of colleges to choose from in the Mile High City, but intimidated at the same time. She remembers, "I started at the Community College of Denver, because at the time I didn't even know how to write a sentence. I only wrote long sentences. I didn't know where to stop my sentences. I hadn't been in school for so long they just kept going and going!"

After getting her feet wet and gaining confidence, Hinkel transferred to Metropolitan State University and took her first philosophy class, which was a revelation. She says she was excited to find other people who asked the question, "How do you know what you know and what can be known?" Epistemology, Greek philosophy, social justice, and human/women's rights all sparked new questions in her mind. When she transferred to the University of Colorado Denver she took classes with Associate Professors Candice Shelby, Cathy Kemp, Mark Tanzer, Rob Metcalf and Senior Instructor Sam Walker. She describes the faculty as dynamic and inspiring, and the experiences as transformative. Hinkel remembers Prof. Kemp telling her class that by taking a philosophy class, reading philosophical books, or engaging in thoughtful conversation they were entering into the universal dialogue of philosophy that began with the Greeks more than 2000 years ago. This remark drove home that philosophy was indeed a serious field of study, and one she was awed to be a part of.

"People would say, ‘What're you going to do with a philosophy degree?' and I would say, 'I don't know, be a smart flight attendant?'" She continued working full-time with United while attending CU Denver, one or two classes at a time, and graduated after a decade with a Philosophy BA in 2005. "I liked being in the classroom. I wasn't in a hurry to graduate, so it was a lot of fun for me to be in school. My brain was really happy thinking of Plato at 35,000 feet, serving meals in an aluminum tube hurling through space!"

Because Hinkel's mortgage was her biggest expense, she found a way to purchase rental properties so that rental income could pay her mortgage and she could go to school more and work less. She purchased a house that had been split into apartments and lived in one while renting out the other three apartments. From her studies she learned to ask "Does this make sense?" She decided that this investment definitely made sense. Karen bought two multi-units and a single-family house while in college, even using part of a student loan to buy one. From this experience, she developed a seminar she called "Live Rent Free" and encouraged people to look at what she was able to accomplish on her flight attendant's salary. She particularly reached out to single women to purchase real estate as a means to build a financial foundation.

In 2007 Hinkel "clipped her wings" (as they say in the business) when she left United Airlines and got her real estate broker's license. She now sells real estate full time alongside her husband Tony. In 2012 they created TKH Realty, The Philanthropic Real Estate Company™ with the goal of donating 25% of their net commission to local non-profits.

Recently, Hinkel reconnected with Prof. Shelby on Facebook and realized she wanted to help the college that had given her so much. Hinkel says, "Our thing is we have always donated to smaller, hyper-local non-profits, CU Denver is the largest organization we've ever formed a partnership with. We work to get referrals from the relationships we form so we can keep the cycle going. Our goal is the win-win model, the more we make the more we donate." In the past, TKH Realty donated to local organizations including Food Bank of the Rockies, Washington Street Community Center, Firefly Autism, Rock the Earth, Historic Grant Ave Community Center, Wings of Hope Pancreatic Cancer Research at Anschutz Medical Center, The Women's Bean Project, Mi Casa Resource Center, and Denver Urban Gardens. Citing Paul Newman as a role model, Hinkel says businesses like hers are forging ahead and establishing new models of how philanthropy can function alongside profit earning: a 'give while you live' model.

Conversations with Shelby and Philosophy Department Chair David Hildebrand helped Hinkel discover how she could give back to her alma matter.

Hinkel says she learned her passion for giving back while considering the philosophical implications of being a part of the middle-class. "A political philosophy class taught by Sam Walker gave me a framework to think about societies, and what makes a good society. And when you look at the people at the lowest socioeconomic level of a society, barely sustaining, and then you look up high and see who's at the top, and then you see the disparity... well that's a way to gauge our society," Hinkel says. Being in the middle, for her, means philanthropy should give those with less a leg-up. She says having this philosophical perspective gives her a better life. "If we all just give a little, our society as a whole prospers. This idea is catching on." Hinkel says.

TKH Realty donation to the CU Denver Philosophy DepartmentBecause the Hinkels like living in an educated society, TKH Realty is sponsoring the Philosophy Department's 2016/2017 Philosophy Department Colloquium Series. In addition, Tony and Karen are establishing a scholarship fund to encourage students to enroll in the Philosophy Department's Minor in Ethics or the Ethics Certificate program. She sees ethics study as critical to all sorts of careers—from law enforcement, to medical fields, to being a flight attendant—and she hopes providing funds will encourage more students to choose the Ethics Minor or Ethics Certificate to augment their studies. She is looking at ways to promote a "Get an Edge with Ethics Scholarship" to local businesses. In this way, Hinkel hopes to improve the critical thinking and analytical skills of the workforce, and give other adults experiences similar to the ones she had while studying Philosophy at CU Denver.

Hinkel gives of her time as well as her profits, undertaking new volunteer activities all the time. This summer she's volunteering for a new project with Discover Denver (a Historic Denver program) to help document all 160,000 buildings in Denver, which is now in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood collecting data on houses. In 2012, as Board Member of the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association (WWPNA) she and her husband co-chaired the West Washington Park Home Tour 2012, raising a record $14,000 for WWPNA, Lincoln Elementary School, and the Washington Street Community Center. Her passions for historic preservation led her to research and write the application for the Lincoln Street Historic District in 2013. She also served as Docent for the inaugural walking tour with Historic Denver, showcasing the architecture and history of LoDo and Denver Union Station. She and Tony volunteer as Community Foresters with The Park People's Denver Digs Trees program, where they plant trees for their clients and promote Denver's Urban Forest. In the summer of 2015 Karen organized the Historic South Broadway Walking Tour to raise funds for the Historic Baker Neighborhood Association, and to bring awareness of the historic buildings that line South Broadway, which she describes as, "my ‘hood."

Hinkel loves all of Denver, but will always have a special soft spot for the Auraria Campus. "I just love that there are campuses like this that are welcoming to people like me!" Hinkel says it's critical that other life-long learners find the support and encouragement she did, in order to continue on as educated citizens and maximize their potential. Hinkel says with real emotion, "I took a journey on this campus, and I love this place! This campus was very welcoming. Everyone I met here was super, and I liked all my teachers. What's not to love?"