Written by Melinda Ennis-Roughton Tuesday, August 28 2012
Leisa Holland-Nelson, Owner and Founding Parner, Content Active
Leisa Holland-Nelson embodies the 2012 ideal of a successful businesswoman. She chairs the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce and is the co-owner/founder of a successful technology company, ContentActive. But, if you’d described that future back in her college days (where she says she sought a “Mrs.” degree), she would have been incredulous.
In 1974, native Houstonian Holland-Nelson was a housewife in Washington, D.C., with a five-year marriage to a high-powered attorney. The next step was a baby, but something stopped her. “I wanted to be ‘important’ like the men with careers that I saw around me,” she says.
It was a time of great transition for women, and Holland-Nelson felt the tug of a different life. After a divorce, she ended up running a neighbor’s junk jewelry business, which taught her the essentials of the fashion industry. That education put her on the path to executive marketing and merchandising jobs with major retail fashion companies from Neiman Marcus to Evan-Picone.
Transferring the skills she’d honed in personnel development, Holland-Nelson jumped to executive recruiting, establishing a fashion, retail practice at Heidrick and Struggles.
Heading back to Houston in 2001 as a single mom, Holland-Nelson morphed herself again to fit a different industry. Running business development for a nonprofit mail house, InfoVine, she was charged to start a web-based division. She partnered with the company’s tech wizard, Brian Gaubert, to create RentTheSite.com. The division became so successful that Gaubert and Holland-Nelson bought it and ultimately created ContentActive, Houston’s leading firm providing custom content management systems. Womenetics talked to her about the journey.
Womenetics: You’ve had a lot of career transitions. Were they deliberate or a result of one thing leading to another?
Leisa Holland-Nelson: I never had a five-year plan. I began as a housewife but then realized I wanted what my husband had: a career. The fashion phase wasn’t intentional but where the opportunities were. The rest of my career has been planned by a conscious effort to transfer my inherent skills.
Womenetics: What would you advise women who want to make a transition from one field to another?
Holland-Nelson: I actually do transition coaching, and I have three very specific things I tell people:
- Your skills are transferrable. In my case, although I was in the fashion/retail business, I realized I was really good at recruiting great people and helping them to manage their careers. So, it was a natural transition to the executive recruitment business.
- Reposition what you do: Crystallize what you are really good at and position yourself within that context instead of the jobs you’ve had.
- Ask for advice, not help: People love to give advice but run the other way if you ask for help. Call a friend and ask him or her to give you advice about the things you are interested in doing. Chances are, they will want to advise you, and it could end up with them thinking of you in a different way and for a job they might have available.
Womenetics: What is the mission of the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and how is it different than a traditional chamber of commerce?
Holland-Nelson: A traditional chamber of commerce is focused on economic development and jobs. We are focused on bringing opportunities to the businesswomen of Houston. Most city chambers have a board and composition that is not reflective of the number of professional women in the market, but I also think women have issues in the business world that need to be specifically addressed. As long as women are the ones birthing babies, there are issues of physicality that create different challenges than men have. And, professional women tend to seek each other out, so our chamber provides a platform and place for them to do so. We’re also concerned with making sure that women are well-represented on boards. We have a new initiative called “Houston on Board,” in which qualified women are identified for board positions. Another program called STEMtown is about mentoring third grade girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Studies show that girls begin to lose interest in those subjects at about the third grade.
Womenetics: Do you think young women have a better time of it in today’s business world?
Holland-Nelson: My 23-year-old daughter heard me talking to someone about “the glass ceiling,” and she asked me what that was. They don’t see the obstacles we did. I also think young women have seen their mothers work very intensely, and this generation’s girls and boys want a more balanced quality of life. They are ambitious, but the girls don’t think they have to be the “hard chargers” we were. They seem to have more fun and a sense of humor about it all.
I do think that you can “have it all,” just not at one time, but every woman and every situation is different. There’s not one pattern you can count on.
More multi-faceted career women:
After working for Goldman Sachs and founding and selling HerDollar (a discount brokerage firm focusing on women), Mandee Heller Adler switched gears to start International College Counselors, an agency that helps students get into their dream schools.
Karen Hughes always had her sights set on being an accountant, so it might come as a suprise to learn that she is now the CEO and owner of Corporate Environments, a leading office furniture company.
Not personally fulfilled by her gig as an architecht, Michelle Morgan founded HUB Atlanta, which she describes as "a community of entrepreneurs using market-solutions to solve the problems of the world."
Melinda Ennis-Roughton is the principal and owner of an Atlanta-based marketing firm called MelWorks Inc. with a range of clients from Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta to RaceTrac Petroleum. She is also a freelance writer specializing in women’s issues and film criticism, and was a film critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution from 2004-2007. Previously, Ennis-Roughton held a number of executive marketing positions at companies including Brand Atlanta, Church's Chicken, Fitzgerald & Co. and Arby's, where she was the first woman to hold the position of senior vice president of marketing.