Talking with ... Rebecca Harris
Rebecca Harris, new director of Center for Women's Entrepreneurship, Chatham University.
Rebecca Harris holds samples and talks about past accomplishments.
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Rebecca Harris, director of Chatham University's Center for Women's Entrepreneurship, came to the job after years as an entrepreneur. Her past endeavors include founding a company that produced no-cholesterol desserts, inventing and marketing a swimming net and publishing specialty newspapers.
Ms. Harris in April became director of the center, which provides programming and assistance for female entrepreneurs, women in business and students.
Question: What do you say to women (or men, for that matter) who are trying to launch businesses in a down economy like we're experiencing right now?
Answer: You would think it would be just the opposite: that everybody should just hunker down and not do it. One of things we've been telling them is: This is a great opportunity to start your own business.
Research from the Kauffman Foundation showed slightly more new businesses in 2008, a full recessionary year, than in 2007. An average 320 out of 100,000 Americans launched a business each month, the foundation said.
Job: Director, Center for Women's Entrepreneurship at Chatham University
Hometown: St. Louis; resides in Point Breeze
Education: Bachelor of science, speech, Northwestern University, 1981; master of business administration, Temple University, 1987.
Career: 1981-83: public relations director, National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, Washington, D.C.; 1983-85: executive vice president, Nettle Not Co., Wilmington, Del.; 1985-86: research assistant for the dean, Fox School of Business, Temple University, Philadelphia; 1987-89: founder and president, Variety Foods Inc., Washington, D.C.; 1991-2000: co-founder and co-publisher, Toledo Area Parent News, Ann Arbor Family Press and Toledo City Paper, Toledo, Ohio; 2001-02: interim director, marketing and development, College of Law, University of Toledo, Ohio; 2003-04: director of marketing, WGTE Public Broadcasting, Toledo, Ohio; 2004-09: president, Harris Consulting, Toledo, Ohio; April 2009-present: director, Center for Women's Entrepreneurship, Chatham University.
This might be a time when out of necessity you have to as opposed to, "I want to do this as a hobby." So in some ways you might be much more vested and willing to take risks. ... If you can be lean and mean and work fast, this is also an excellent time to make headway. The barriers to entry are lower now than they've ever been. You can access the Internet and do a lot of research and get forms on the Internet.
Question: But what about the money factor?
Answer: Yes, it's harder to raise money. It's not as easy. On the other hand, if you have a good business plan and a good strategy, there's still sound capital available. We really have encouraged women to do it, and we're finding out of necessity they have to.
Question: You've got a very diverse resume. Did you set out to be a business owner?
Answer: I think I've always been an entrepreneur at heart. I think I was born with that blood. My first job out of college was in public relations for the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. It was the consummate nonprofit -- no money; we had to publicize a bunch of programs on nothing. So in many ways, I learned to be an entrepreneur by virtue of having to do it. That was sort of the start.
Question: How did you end up making swimming nets and baked goods?
Answer: My family spends a lot of time in the Chesapeake Bay area, and you can't swim in the Chesapeake because of jellyfish. So I invented this net you could swim in and be protected, the Nettle Not. We got a patent for it. Sales were pretty good; we made some money.
The problem was, you folded it up and it weighed 20 pounds. Somebody at the same time -- and this always happens when you have a great business idea -- developed one that would fold up to five pounds.
I started a company to make no-cholesterol brownies and cookies called Becky's No-Cholesterol Delights. I literally studied Mrs. Fields (the gourmet cookie store franchise company) and decided my dad had high cholesterol and there was a real market for this.
We actually sent a letter to Entenmann's asking why they didn't make no-cholesterol products, and they said there'll never be a market. So I baked them in an industrial bakery -- developed the recipes myself -- and drove them around Baltimore and Washington. I got stores to carry them.
But I could never do the volume that was needed to make money. And all of the people I worked with were men. I didn't have any women mentors and really didn't have anybody else helping me.
Question: Would female mentors have made a difference in your success?
Answer: Yes. I really think so. My husband was very psyched [about my ventures] and my father was sort of a co-partner with me. He's an attorney and would do some of the legal work. But in terms of product development and everything ... I think having mentors is really critical.
Women tend not to want to ask for help. ... Women tend to think, "I can do this on my own." I never had a female mentor and to this day I wish I did.
Question: You published award-winning papers in Toledo, Ohio. Why did those work?
Answer: My home run was my newspaper. We moved to Toledo in 1990 when my daughter was 4 months old. I didn't know anything about parenting; nobody gave me a degree in that.
I saw a parenting paper in Chicago and said to a woman, a graphic designer I met in a mom's group, "There's definitely an opportunity." First she said "no." Then she agreed to go out with me. I did all the marketing and sales.
The first day we went out, I sold a full-page advertisement to the biggest hospital in Toledo and a full-page ad to a department store. Then I went to a woman who ran a business paper in Toledo and asked her if she would teach me everything about newspapers, and she said "yes." Having her not be threatened by us was a huge difference.
Our parenting paper grew and grew. Then we started a monthly city paper in 1997 and then a baby magazine. All these were free and advertiser-supported, and we had 50,000 in circulation for each. By the time I sold my half of the company in 1999, we had over $1 million in annual sales and 25 full-time employees.
Question: What brought you to Pittsburgh?
Answer: My husband, David Harris, took a job as professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 2008. After I sold [my publishing interests] I did consulting work. When I moved here, I couldn't think of a business to start.
This job is the perfect thing for me: I can run it as an entrepreneur, it's an entrepreneurial center, and we make a lot of decisions on how to grow it ourselves. I can help women, which to me was critical. And I get to be around all these business people, which to me is such a charge.
Question: What's the difference between male and female entrepreneurs?
Answer: I think women tend to be much more attuned to what all of the people in their environment are doing. Women are very centered on making sure that everybody in the environment is doing well. Then when that group is nurtured and taken care of, they go out and do more.
Men don't seem to be attuned to that. At some of the businesses where I did consulting work and that were male-owned, I'd say, "Do you realize you have some real employee problems here?" They'd say, "Really?"
And women tend to be more risk-averse, and less willing to ask for money. They're inherently afraid. And that's a real problem. We try to address that with some of the programs we provide at Chatham.
Question: What's your own leadership style?
Answer: I'm very much of an inclusionist. My feeling is: provide people with the information they need to have to do a really good job. Empower them to make their own decisions. Trust that people can do a lot of work on their own and they'll come up with better ideas themselves.
I guess I lead by example. When I make some hard phone calls, I bring some of the women into my office and say: "Listen to this. I'm going to ask for some money now, and either it's going to work or it isn't."
Question: How do you juggle work with a husband and two children?
Answer: I don't think I've ever lived a 9-to-5 schedule. My husband is really supportive.
When I had the parenting paper, I had my daughter (now 19) handing out newspapers at all these fairs. One, it credentials you, and second, she saw me work really hard. So did my son, who is about to be 16.
That was a good thing, but trying to develop balance was really tough. I'm not sure any of us who are women and who have small children ever really have a good balance. I just think you do the best you can. You have to accept your house is not going to be the best and that things are going to go awry.
I try to take time to exercise. I get up every day at 6 a.m. and walk for 45 minutes at Frick Park with my husband and dog. That makes a huge difference.
Question: You've lived on the East Coast and in the Midwest. How does Pittsburgh stack up?
Answer: I'm pleased to be here. I think this city offers amazing opportunities for women in business, a great lifestyle; and I think Chatham University is a remarkable place. It has grown phenomenally with opportunities for students and the number of programs .... But you're still in this beautiful arboretum.
First Published September 6, 2009 12:00 am