Lesa is an Air Force veteran who leveraged her military service to become Chief Diversity Officer for Alliant University. Then she transitioned to entrepreneurship with the launch of her new venture, ProfHire, a web-based platform that connects colleges and universities with vetted scholars and industry professionals for faculty positions.
Thanks so much for agreeing to participate in our upcoming Veteran’s Leadership Summit and be profiled in you upcoming blog recognizing veteran business owners. Please review and answer these questions below to provide us with some background about you, your entrepreneurial leadership journey.
Tell Us About Your Business:
What is (ProfHire) and what was your inspiration to start this business? Who is your ideal customer for (ProfHire)? What do you do to provide a unique experience for your customers?
Through our web-based platform, ProfHire connects colleges and universities with vetted scholars and industry professionals for faculty positions. Our high-tech high-touch solution provides hiring managers with an easy to use and thorough profile of candidates, while offering applicants a single source solution to apply for higher education teaching positions.
Having been the chief human resources officer at three universities, it became clear that there is a significant need that colleges and universities have to find qualified part-time faculty. At the same time, often when I told someone my job, they would ask how they could get a job teaching part-time. That was my inspiration for starting ProfHire.
What had been some of your biggest accomplishments and challenges you’ve faced as the CEO and founder of (ProfHire)?
I was very lucky to find two very skilled and committed cofounders relatively soon after launching the company. This has made everything else easier, but making the decision to go full-time, knowing that it would be awhile before we were able to pay ourselves, was a huge psychological hurdle to overcome.
Most recently, we were named One of the Best Entrepreneurial Companies in America by Entrepreneur magazine. That feels like a great accomplishment given that we only went live with the university-side of our platform in February of this year.
Did you have an advocate that helps advise you and/or champions your efforts to launch and grow (ProfHire)?
Definitely, not one advocate, but there are many people who have provided advice and support as I launched and as we are growing. The key is knowing who to listen to and who to ignore. Once I was determined to launch the concept of ProfHire, I reached out to a few people I knew who either had connections with entrepreneurs or who were themselves entrepreneurs in technology. The second thing I did was to identify key people I knew in higher education who could assist by allowing a pilot for proof of concept.
Share your leadership Journey:
Share your military experience before founding (ProfHire)?
I enlisted in the Air Force after completing a bachelor’s degree and discovering that my dream of practicing law was not the glamorous career I had imagined. I had a college degree and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When I joined the military I had a few goals. One was to get a masters degree without incurring debt and second was to figure out if I would make the military a career or if not, decide on a civilian career. I initially wanted to get into a medical field to see if that was a career path that would inspire me. As a medical laboratory technician, I loved working in the lab, but realized I needed more interaction with people. As a very empathetic person, I realized that I could not watch people suffer and not have it impact me. So, a medical career seemed less fulfilling that I anticipated.
What positions or career did you hold before founding (ProfHire)? What impact did your military experience have on your career?
While working in the laboratory, I was taking classes toward a master’s degree. When I took a class in Human Resources and then a course in Organizational Development, I knew I had found my passion. I graduated in January of the year that I would have to re-enlist if I planned to say in the Air Force. Instead, I decided to pursue a civilian career in human resources (HR).
After leaving the Air Force, I began my career in HR. My first job was as a generalist in the manufacturing division of a major printing company. I then worked at a community college selling training, organizational development and HR programs to area businesses. I then decided to become a consultant and had my own consulting practice for several year. During that time, I consulted with more than 40 US companies including AT&T, Anheuser Busch, the State of Ohio, Kaiser, and Ashland Chemical. This worked well while I attended a doctoral program. Eventually, I returned to higher education, first at San Jose State University as a Program Director for their Professional Development division, and then at three other universities as the Chief Human Resources Officer.
What motivated you to found (ProfHire)?
Observing the problems academic administrators had finding faculty and noticing that many of the part-time faculty were brought on primarily by word of mouth. As a result of this hiring process, they were most often hiring acquaintances or graduates of the program. This did not lead to diversity in the faculty. Also, without properly vetting these employees as other employees are vetted, other compliance issues would arise.
What type of education and training did you obtain to help with you pursuing your career or business ownership?
I previously discussed my education a bit, but I have a bachelors degree in sociology and criminal justice from The Ohio State University, a masters in human resources from Golden Gate University, and a PhD in Transformative Learning from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Obviously, the masters in HR had the most direct impact on my career choice. However, to start ProfHire, I became a part of two incubators: Founder Institute and Uptima Business Bootcamp. These bootcamps had the greatest impact on the current success of ProfHire. I will be also be joining the Business Growth Bootcamp in January. I believe that getting the proper education and expert guidance at each step in the process is key to achievement. It certainly has been to our company.
Describe A Great Day for You?
A great day for me is one where I feel I accomplish some milestone toward the business, exercise, eat right, and get a good night’s sleep. Sometimes accomplishing all of that is harder than it sounds.
How would your direct reports describe your leadership style?
I asked my staff to answer this question for me. Some of the adjectives used were passionate, principled, collaborative, and resourceful.
I think I have high standards for myself and my team, and I think each member of our team has high standards for him/herself and me. I believe my background in HR, consulting and organizational development has given me a inner compass to relate to people where they are and to trust my intuition on selecting staff.
How have you leveraged your former military experience in leading your own business?
It’s funny, I tend to be a straight shooter and people often say they appreciate that I will give them an honest answer and they know where they stand. When they find out that I was in the military they often say, “Oh, that explains it.” I think the military teaches direct communication and exceptional leadership qualities.
What are some of the initiatives and programs you have in place to help your team members to develop leadership skills to contribute or improve your business?
We hold weekly scrum meetings, where the entire team, including interns, is present. We rotate scrum master and include the interns in the rotation. We also invest in having members attend targeted conferences where they will truly expand their knowledge. We have a set of 13 guiding principles for working with each other and clients. Our guiding principles include: Provide value to all parties; Be revolutionary in our approach to support all parties involved; Focus on the triple bottom line (look out for the good of all ourselves and our company, our customers, and society as a whole); Provide superior customer service; and Under-promise and over-deliver.
Those guiding principles are posted and visible to everyone in the office. I also think modeling leadership qualities with open and honest communication is one of the best ways to foster leadership in others.
What is your perspective on the value or benefits of a person with prior military experience on pursuing leadership opportunities within a corporation or an entrepreneurial business?
Having been both in the military and in the private sector, I can say unequivocally that the military has some of the best training available. That includes both skills training and leadership training. You can reach any position you want. Assess where you are and where you want to go. Talk with people who are doing what you want to do.
I also believe for a woman the military experience is invaluable because it empowers us with a strength to not be thrown by what sometimes appears to be male condescension or chauvinism. We learn to be oblivious to gender roles and move forward as an equal.
What strategies and initiatives do you have in place to foster a high performing culture at (ProfHire)?
First, my years of HR and recruiting experience taught me how to hire good people. Because ProfHire has good people, the only thing I have to worry about is demotivating them. We have our values and expectations, but most of all we respect what each member of our team brings to the team and we listen to each others perspectives. From the first day someone comes to ProfHire, we value their opinion. If a brand new intern comes and says, “I read this on the website and I don’t understand it.” It would be easy to dismiss because they may have just graduated, but we stop and listen. More often than not, because we hire smart and thoughtful people, we realize that they were able to see something we didn’t. If we don’t make a change, we explain why.
As Bill Nye, the Science Guy, says, “Everyone you meet knows something that you don’t.” It is my opinion that even in my area of expertise, I don’t always know how I am being perceived or if what I think makes sense makes sense to others.
Mentorship and Advisors:
Did you have and if so who were your role models and mentors to help you in your journey to your current position?
I never had formal mentors or role models from a professional standpoint. My parents were role models in terms of their education, behavior, ethics, compassion, and right livelihood, but not in terms of entrepreneurship.
What advice would you give to a young man or women who is leaving military service and has the aspiration of starting a business or obtaining a leadership position in private industry?
There are a lot of people willing to give advice and most of them don’t know any more than you know. Attend events like the Veteran’s Leadership Summit. Meet everyone you can, follow-up with them and only take advice from people who have actually done what you want to do. Stretch, stretch, stretch your comfort zone. There is a book by Susan Jeffers called “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway,” I recommend you read the book, but if you don’t, at least follow the words of wisdom imparted in the title.
Is there anything you would wish you have done differently on your path to this position?
Maybe learned what I know now about ten years earlier.
What message of inspiration or encouragement would you like to share with the attendees of the – Veteran’s Leadership Summit?
I know I was in the Air Force, but the army used to have a slogan “Be all that you can be.” You truly can be all that you want to be, it is a matter of steadfast persistence in the right direction. Seek good advice and keep moving forward as fast as you can.
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