Amy K Harbison

Amy K Harbison is currently a certified coach ( working in private practice with women in professional transition and development, as well as leadership development. Prior to that, she was a communications and marketing professional working with nonprofits, associations, and in philanthropy, healthcare and higher ed. She also creates and facilitates leadership development training. She is married, lives in suburban Maryland in the US, and has two grown children, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. She cares deeply about social justice issues, the arts, nature, and wellness.

What were your initial years of growing up like? Tell us about your life before starting your corporate journey/venture/initiative. 

I had a middle-aged upbringing in suburban New York. I was the youngest of three children. I know I lived a life of privilege for most of my early childhood; I had good schools, caring parents and siblings, and my needs met. I was pretty introverted as a child, but loved to write, play with my best friend, and ride my bike and go in the summer to the beach. My father died suddenly when I was 16, and it forever changed my life in many ways. I realized how short life can be, and how important it is to let people know how much they matter to you, and how a sense of security and safety can be snatched away when we don’t expect it. After college I had no clear career path, but moved to Washington, DC and did what many did — took the first job that came my way. It wound up being a great first job, in the advertising department of a major higher education newspaper in Washington, DC. with a wonderful mentor/boss. The first quarter of my career was really just building, one step upon another, without a clear chosen path. Each job informed the next.Then I was able to look behind and see the patterns and chose communications. It served me well and I loved to use my writing skills to tell stories about wonderful organizations and people. 

My role models: my sister (who created a performing arts school in East Harlem for kids who were not responding well to traditional schooling and was very involved in social justice issues), Jane Goodall, Gloria Steinem, Michele Obama, to name a few.

Was there any turning point in your life that changed your journey? If so, what was it? Please tell us the backstory behind it.

I was in communications for many years and was starting to feel that it was not enough any more. I was not enjoying it as much after about twenty years; I was a bit uninspired. A friend of mine in a leadership program we went through together years before had said that I would make a good coach. She was a coach at that time and encouraged me to try the coaching program she used. So I remembered what she said, and I did just that. After one weekend of training, I felt so excited and energized, I knew I was on the right path. So I continued with the training, then got certified. And I  have been coaching for the last 10 years. It is aligned to my values, my strengths, and helps me feel that I am having the kind of impact in the world that I’d like to have. I also do pro-bono coaching for Women’s Impact Alliance, a great international organization for young women who are trying to create social change.

Every industry that is now a large-scale, top-notch business once started as a small idea in the minds of entrepreneurs. What was that idea or motivation that made you start your business /initiative? What motivated you within to say “YES, go for it!”

I started my business, Open Window Creative Strategies LLC, when I was laid off from a philanthropic organization after an economic downturn. I never saw that layoff coming; I had just gotten a major bonus months earlier. I had planned the idea of starting my own communications consultancy before the lay-off, as I was ready for change. I was no longer able to implement new ideas there and I had done all the major work for them within the first year there. I was ready for change. The change came — and while it was a huge surprise, it was the “kick in the pants” to get me started with my business. Since then, I have moved into coaching from that communications work. So the “yes” came from external factors I didn’t expect, but the “yes” had really started as a seed when I felt that I had already had the impact I could have working for others and wanted to work for myself as an experiment. It’s been 13 years since I went off on my own, and I’ve never regretted it.

Everyone has their own set of challenges when starting an entrepreneurial journey. Still, the most essential part for others to learn is how you deal with those. Would you like to share with us your challenges and your coping mechanisms?

My challenge was coming into coaching later in my career than I might have — and not having a foothold in the corporate world where pay would be more lucrative. But then I realized that this was not really about pay for me at this stage as much as passion and impact, and I let go of the regrets and really embraced where I was in my career and what I had to offer. I don’t like to live a life of regret; I like to acknowledge the gift in each of the challenges I face. Being an entrepreneur requires business development while you are also doing the day-to-day-business. It requires tenaciousness. My coping mechanisms are talking to others that do this work to have a peer community that I trust; adjusting my expectations, continuing to learn and grow in areas that have meaning for me, and giving myself the rest and restoration I need through exercise, meditation, dog walks.

While the global pandemic of COVID-19 is associated primarily with adversities, it has also brought about a true boom in startups, with successful entrepreneurship in many countries. The pandemic has impacted all of us in one way or another. Would you like to share your experience on a personal and professional level?

The pandemic was an interesting time. It was frightening, and devastating on many levels. For me personally, I learned to really accept the small pleasures of every day, and spent a lot of time in nature, writing, connecting with friends. Professionally, I felt that coaching helped my clients to still focus on what was important to them, how they were living their values, what the pandemic taught them or how it may have reset their priorities or goals. I would never wish the illness of the pandemic on anyone, but the greater pause that it offered us globally to live a slower, more intentional life, was an intentional gift.

Your journey and your vision are very inspiring, but are there any achievements or accomplishments you would like to mention?

My work as a communications person, especially in the area of institutional storytelling for annual reports, was well received and received gold awards from the Council on Foundations. I received a local civic award for creating a clean-up day in our community. But nothing has meant as much to me as raising two wonderful children — now adults, and being a grandmother to two wonderful grandchildren.

Would you like to share with our young budding women entrepreneurs the change you would like to see in the world if given an opportunity?

I would like to see a world where women get paid equally, get the access and visibility that they deserve, and a world where people are no longer judged in any stage of life by their age.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your personal life and professional journey? What is your personal motto in life?

I’ve learned too many things to state here. I’ve learned to truly see and listen to people, to identify people’s talents/strengths, to recognize there are many ways to do things, many possible answers. I’ve learned to remain open to other perspectives, to make for simple pleasures, laughter, and deep connection. That women friends are critical to our health and well-being. My personal motto is “Lead with love.”

Women are a growing force in the workplaces worldwide, standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. There are cracks in glass ceilings everywhere, with many women breaking through to carve out a space right at the top of the pyramid. What are your thoughts about women’s leadership today?

It is an exciting time to be a woman leader today, but it is not without its challenges. There are more opportunities, but there is still a glass ceiling for many. There are systemic conditions in place that keep women–and particularly women of color — from having the power they deserve and have earned in terms of salary and status. Women are often lacking in confidence in their abilities, taking on the role of pleasers and caregivers and not trusting their skills and strengths in the workplace. It is time for women to continue to claim their place, put themselves first, reclaim their time, and make choices for their own growth, health, and well-being. Women leaders are our future. Women have the empathy, strength, and smarts that is needed in our world for us to create a better tomorrow.

With your grit and determination, you are making a considerable impact, breaking through, and serving as role models for many budding entrepreneurs. What would you want to say to our young women leaders/audience reading this?

Some days are going to be hard. Don’t give up on yourself. Keep asking yourself, “What’s most important NOW?” so that you stay laser sharp on what matters to you. Even if you take a baby step forward, it is a win. Align yourself with other women peers who will build you up but also tell you the truth. There is no one like you out there. You can do this. 

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