Hisao ’88 and Karen Kushi ’88 Offer Career and Life Advice and Reflect on their Time as Undergrads
Hisao ’88 and Karen Beaudoin Kushi ’88 hadn't visited UMass Amherst since graduation. But on a breezy, spring day, they found themselves back on campus, sipping coffee outside People’s Café on the first floor of the Campus Center and marveling at how much the campus has changed.
“It’s beautiful,” Karen, who majored in communications in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, says.
But had campus ever been described as beautiful when the couple were students?
With a laugh, Hisao says, “No.”
Hisao, who majored in English in the College of Humanities & Fine Arts (HFA), is the current co-founder and chief legal officer for Ernesta, a new direct-to-consumer rug company, though he is best known as the co-founder and former chief legal officer for Peloton, the popular technology-based home fitness company with which he spent 10 years.
He and Karen found themselves back at UMass Amherst so Hisao could serve as a judge for the 2023 Innovation Challenge competition hosted by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. The competition awards an aspiring student or recent graduate entrepreneur with up to $65,000 in equity-free funding to support their business idea.
Because of his experience, Hisao was a natural fit to judge the competition. After attending law school at Boston College, he spent the next 20 years mostly as in-house counsel and general counsel for a number of interactive and internet technology companies.
In 2011, his skills were tapped by a friend, John Foley—Peloton's co-founder and former CEO—who envisioned bringing a boutique fitness experience into people's homes. By April 2022, the company had become a household name and was valued at around $8 billion.
“The funny thing is I never thought I would be in business,” Hisao says.
Hisao, who left Peloton in fall 2022, is now entering the next phase of his career at Ernesta, the soon-to-be-launched online store offering custom sized, thoughtfully curated rugs for consumers.
Though this wasn’t Hisao’s initial plan after he left Peloton (he had been hoping to take a break), he says he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with an incredible team, including his longtime friend and Peloton business partner Foley.
“If you want to be successful in business, the most important thing is the people,” Hisao says. “You have to be working hard, for sure. But you need good people around you, people who understand how to treat each other well with kindness, respect, ethics. I believe you pick up those skills more through the humanities than you do through any other program.”
Hisao recommends a humanities degree for just about anyone, including those who dream of becoming entrepreneurs. He says his English major equipped him with key critical thinking and writing skills, important traits in any career.
“When you’re at a big university, limiting yourself to a trade education is selling yourself short, selling your opportunity short. Somebody at UMass actually said—and it stuck with me—that seventy or eighty percent of undergrads are going to eventually work in an industry that doesn’t exist at the time they graduate,” Hisao says. “So, it’s much more important to be able to read, understand human nature, get along with people, understand context. It’s critical.”
Beyond the workplace, Karen says the key to achieving a well-rounded, full life is to “understand what makes you happy and what happiness means for you.”
It’s a motto that has served the couple well. The Kushis have now been married for 29 years, have raised two children, live a bicoastal life in California and New York, and were even recently featured on the Meet Cutes NYC Instagram and TikTok accounts sharing their love story.
The couple initially met as coxswains on the Crew Team while they were both undergraduates at UMass Amherst, and the Campus Center is where they had their first date.
After leaving crew practice one day, the two began talking about their plans for the evening.
“We were on the bus and she said she was going to see ‘The Shining’ with a friend of hers and I was like, ‘Oh, me too,’” Hisao says. “But I wasn’t. I told a friend we had to go, though.”
“We showed up with our friends and I had no idea he hadn’t really been planning to come!” Karen explains. “But I guess he had told his friend that he liked me.”
They ended up dating and, together, took advantage of the many opportunities the Pioneer Valley offers: taking classes and pursuing extracurriculars like the Crew Team at UMass Amherst; exploring the local area and going to Paul and Elizabeth’s in Northampton for Friday night dinner dates; and even traveling abroad.
“I went on an exchange twice from UMass. I loved the exchange programs,” Karen says. “I even worked in London the summer Hisao was there.”
“I went on the Oxford [Summer Seminar] program,” Hisao explains. “That is a great program.”
After graduation, they stayed connected to the university. In 2018, Hisao hosted an alumni networking event in NYC; in 2020, he was part of the star-studded virtual Commencement ceremony; and in 2021, the two established the Opportunity Scholars Endowed Fund designed for first semester HFA students from underrepresented populations or first-generation college students.
So, what advice would the two alums offer to UMass Amherst students?
“Take advantage of everything! Go on an exchange if you can,” Karen says. “Coming to UMass, I saw that I needed to get out there and see things. Don’t go the easy route.”
Hisao agrees. “The downside risks of doing something new and exploring things while you’re a college student is minimal,” he says. “You won’t get this chance again to be exposed to this many opportunities or to go learn something completely outside of your comfort zone in a really safe environment. You can take a lot more risks in your life than you think. Don’t play it safe.”