Closing out the EO Chicago Member Spotlight this year is Melissa Harris, the CEO and founder of M. Harris & Co., a marketing and communications agency, run by people who have succeeded at the highest levels of journalism. They preach brevity and clarity—because organizations that tell simple, compelling stories win more business.
Melissa earned her MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where she is an entrepreneur-in-residence. She was a journalist for 15 years, most recently as a business columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and then worked as the vice president of marketing at a private equity firm before starting her own business. Find out how she got to where she is today.
EO Member: Melissa Harris
Company: M. Harris & Co
Years in Business: 4 years
How long have you been a member of EO Chicago, and why did you join the organization?
I joined EO in early 2020. I wanted business advice from people who had been in my position.
What was your first job?
My first job was as a stringer for the Mason Pulse Journal, a weekly newspaper in my hometown. I covered high school sports for them and was paid $25 per story.
Can you describe your entrepreneurial journey? Where did you start and where do you hope to go in the future?
When I was looking for a job, people would say, “I don’t have a job for you, but I have this project. Can you do it for me?”
Within six weeks of starting that job search, I was earning more as an entrepreneur than when I had a traditional job. So I quit looking for a job and said to myself, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” The path became very clear as opportunities landed in my lap.
The agency did $1 million in business in its first year.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The people I work with. The best part of being an entrepreneur is choosing whom you get to work with—both clients and colleagues.
What daily challenges do you face at work?
Given what has happened over the course of this year, almost every client I work with has faced a crisis of some kind. And crisis communication is hard—it gives me diarrhea.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
Someone coached me to always ask on a networking call: “What’s the best way to keep in touch with you?” It’s a really great question to ask when you’re talking with a lot of people, and trying to learn from them and get to know them better.
What are your goals for the future of your business?
Two things: Continue to grow and retain my current team. I love working with them; I want them to love their work. I don’t think of my goals anymore as a race because I don’t have a number or finish line in mind.
What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?
We handle marketing and communications for Chef Curtis Duffy’s Ever Restaurant and now his new concept, Rêve Burger. (Order through Doordash.) We have been with Chef Duffy, who has three Michelin stars, and Michael Muser since day one, when Ever was just an empty box with a dirt floor, all the way through launch coverage in the New York Times and now Ever To Go.
What brought you to Chicago?
I came to Chicago because I got a job as a business columnist at the Chicago Tribune. Before that, I worked at the Baltimore Sun covering criminal justice.
Who or what inspires you?
Jane Hirt, my closest project partner, inspires me. Jane was formerly the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and the founding editor of RedEye. She started as my boss’ boss’ boss, became my mentor, and is now my peer. I treasure her.
If you could go back in time five years and share advice with your past self, what advice would you share?
Jane often says to me, “I have faith in you.” And boy does that help. So I would tell myself: Trust yourself; have confidence in yourself. But also surround yourself with people who give you confidence — because they are so highly capable and confident themselves.
What is the greatest challenge you have overcome?
One of the most challenging times of my life was balancing being in business school at Booth, being pregnant (and throwing up during my morning macroeconomics class), and writing three to four columns a week for the Chicago Tribune. So I got out of journalism, graduated business school and gave birth six weeks later.
How do you find work-life balance?
Lord, if only. The one thing that has helped is clearing our evening and weekend schedules of anything other than all-family activities.
No more music classes for the kids or weekend workouts at the gym. I moved tennis into work hours; and kids’ activities to when our nanny can take them.
This has made it possible to have more down time. My goal is to keep it up once Covid lifts and events and sports resume.
When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up?
For many years, I said I wanted to be a lawyer. I even took the LSAT and applied to law school. But I ended up becoming a journalist instead and I don’t regret it.
What are your favorite things to do outside of work?
I love playing tennis, reading Agatha Christie novels, and going to the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden has been the best place to be during the pandemic, especially when it’s warm out.
What’s one thing left on your bucket list?
Everything is left on my bucket list! If I had to pick one thing, it would be visiting the Greek islands.
If you could recommend one podcast, what would it be?
“How I Built This” with Guy Raz.
What are you currently reading?
Along with How I Built This, the book based on the podcast, I’m also reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Chicago?
Ever, of course!
What is your favorite part about working in the Chicagoland area?
Living within biking distance of Lake Michigan. My happy place in the summer is at the beach along the lakefront with my kids.
What is your top Chicago activity?
In addition to the beach and Botanic Garden, we used to love picnicing at the Pritzker Pavilion while listening to the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. We’re also Cubs season ticket holders. In the winter, I love taking my children to see The Nutcracker at the Joffrey Ballet, and going to the Joffrey generally.
Where’s your favorite place in the world to visit?
The Faroe Islands.
Thank you to Melissa for sharing her story for our December member spotlight. The Entrepreneurs’ Organization is a global business network of more than 14,000 entrepreneurs in 195 chapters and 62 countries. EO is the catalyst that enables entrepreneurs to learn and grow from each other, leading to greater business success and an enriched personal life.
If you’re interested in becoming an EO Chicago member, check our membership requirements and submit an application to join today.