Following Your Own Path Will Always Lead You To The Right Place: A Journey in IT
By Tina Pettigrew | March 17, 2021
Learning from Founding Mothers in the B Corp community is at the core of what we do in this blog. Our most recent interview features Alisa Herr, Founder and CEO of Unity Web Agency. In 2020, Alisa has also co-founded a company called Unit with RoundPeg co-founder Polina Pinchevsky and Russ Stoddard, CEO at Oliver Russell.
Alisa’s winding road to becoming the founder of her own business actually makes a lot of sense when you hear her story — from studying library science to working with people with disabilities, to becoming a leader in the local North Carolina B Corp space — Alisa’s journey, alongside her husband and two young boys, hasn’t been easy — but she’s finding a way to thrive, even though the global health crisis of 2020 and beyond. If you’ve ever thought of starting a business yourself, reading about her journey might just help you out.
Please introduce yourself, tell me a little bit about what you do, and how you got here?
Alisa: I’m the CEO of Unity Web Agency and I founded the company back in 2016, so it hasn’t been very long but it’s been quite a ride. Unity Web Agency creates sustainable and accessible websites for nonprofits and socially-responsible businesses.
In grad school, I studied library science and I really, really wanted to work in a university library. I loved research, and as an undergrad, I really enjoyed research. That was my thing. The job that I had in graduate school was at the undergraduate library at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was wonderful. I loved it.
But when I graduated from that program in 2009 there was a statewide hiring freeze because of the recession. So I ended up falling back on my programming skillset. I’d been coding websites as a hobby since I was a teen. And so one of my friends recommended me to apply for this one job as a junior developer at a local design firm.
When they hired me, I was the fourth employee. The senior developer, who was the only other developer there, left six months in. And so I had this sink-or-swim moment of, “I have to either figure this out or they’re going to hire somebody else above me.” So I figured it out. I’m really stubborn. I’m a Taurus so I think I’ve got that stubborn drive. I know what I want and I will work to get it. So by the time I left that job, I was the lead developer and there were three developers under me.
What led you to start a business?
Alisa: I had taken a two-week vacation from work. During that time, I was thinking: what do I want my future to look like and what steps do I need to take to get there? I realized that if I’m going to do certain things at work, I want to do it in a way that fulfills my personal goals. That’s when I realized what I needed was to build my own company. I think that was the moment when I was like, “You know what, I can do this myself. I’m smart enough to know how to do it, to figure out how to do it.”
“I realized that if I’m going to do certain things at work, I want to do it in a way that fulfills my personal goals. That’s when I realized what I needed was to build my own company.” – Alisa Herr
And so I told my boss that I wanted to start a company. I actually wrote a business plan during that vacation to prove to myself that it was doable. And I shared it with her and I said, “This is what I want to do. What I’d like to do is start working part-time to find a replacement for myself and get them onboarded.”
I had a four-year-old and a one-year-old at the time, and I was thinking: all right, once my oldest son is in kindergarten, then we’ll be able to afford this because we’ll only be paying for preschool — which is ridiculously expensive. And my boss said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think you should resign.” So I ended up having to start it immediately.
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Tell us about your family. You have a mission-driven business and you have kids. How does that passion to see a better world translate into parenting? What happened first?
Alisa: I’ve got two boys — one is eight and the other is five. I started my company when my youngest was one, so it was a very hectic time of my life. But, I definitely consider my company a third baby.
My husband and I met in undergrad both as psychology majors. At the time, he was working with a child with autism as a habilitation technician, which is an ABA behavioral therapy role. I ended up joining his team and also working with the same child as a student job when I was in undergrad.
We had a shared passion for working with someone who had a disability. My husband’s family is very centered in the disability community. Both of his sisters have disabilities and his mom went to law school to become a disability attorney and advocate. My husband did the same thing, but he one-upped her and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in his second year of law school a few months after our first son was born. Serving the disability community is a big passion in the family, but founding my company building accessible websites didn’t actually happen until after my kids were born.
You’re the first person I’m talking to as part of this Founding Mothers series that’s been in the time of COVID, and you have young kids who are home and doing school from home. What has that been like for your family?
Alisa: It’s exhausting. I used to block off time in my work schedule for snack breaks and transitions for my kids. And because one of my kids is in third grade and the other is in kindergarten, their class schedules are a little bit different. They’re at the same school and so their start time and the ending time are supposed to be the same, but their individual teachers have slightly different ways of doing things. So my husband and I have to make sure to get them on the computers at the right moment so that they can sign in to class, and then we have to be available for when they’re let out of class to have snacks. And then we have to help them transition back in after snack time into their classrooms and then be around for tech support, lots of tech support. Most of my job as a mom with virtual school is tech support.
And then there’s actually running a business. My business is actually growing right now, and so there’s a lot that I wouldn’t be able to do without my operations manager, Angela Liu. She’s been able to really help me figure out what I can delegate, and she’s coaching me through letting go of things.
On top of all that, I’ve had clinical depression for many years, and then there’s the collective trauma of this past year that’s really heavy. And I mean, I try — I’m still going to therapy. But I’ve also set phone calls with some of my friends at different times throughout the week, just to make sure that I’m being social. It’s really hard.
Given all the challenges of COVID and young kids and homeschooling and a growing business, you’re taking on one more thing. Tell me why you decided to start another business and why are you excited to be part of Unit Co.?
Alisa: I really love systems and I love building systems. And so when you and Russ came to me about the opportunity to be part of Unit, I couldn’t say no. There are so many reasons I couldn’t say no.
I think the primary reason was that I had the exact idea that you had in terms of the vision of who it’s for and really making it a certain way. I definitely have had the thought: “Impact Reporting is such a pain, I really wish that there was a way for me to track this impact stuff, and, there has to be something better than spreadsheets because even those, I’ll start and not pick up again.”
The way that my brain works is to think: there has to be a way that technology can help solve this problem. Working on Unit is great because I’m able to build something that can help a lot of people, but then also it’s fulfilling one of my own business needs, so it’s a double win.
What would be your words of advice to a young woman, with a one-year-old or young kids, wanting to start a business that’s a social enterprise?
Alisa: Find your community, that’s the most important thing. Find your community, whatever that looks like to you. It doesn’t have to be other women, it doesn’t have to be business owners or parents. It could be one of those things, it could be none, but some people who at least have some kind of understanding of what you’re going through because it’s so hard and you can’t explain it to people that haven’t gone through it.
“Find your community, whatever that looks like to you. It doesn’t have to be other women, it doesn’t have to be business owners or parents.” – Alisa Herr
What’s next? What are you excited about?
Alisa: A lot. I’m definitely excited about the launch of Unit. It’s going to be amazing.
I’m just excited to see what’s going to happen this year. It could be really difficult again, but even as hard as 2020 was, I think that we are in a pretty good place at the moment. We’ve definitely had losses and really, really difficult things happen in the family — things have been really hard on a personal level. But, otherwise, business-wise, I’m excited to see where we’re going, because I think that we’ve survived pretty well.
Great to hear Alisa’s story and excited about UNIT.