Building Unity: One B Corp Champion’s Path to Becoming a Successful Tech CEO Alisa Herr - CEO & Digital Strategist, Unity Digital Agency

Alisa Herr is CEO and Digital Strategist at Unity Digital Agency, a B Corp that provides web design and digital marketing services to mission-based organizations. Alisa is a thinker, maker, and doer with a knack for creative problem-solving. Born in the forgotten generation between Gen Xers and Millennials, she is passionate about using technology to bring people together and make the world a better place.

Alisa also happens to be one of my favorite B Corp champions. Between her passion for reducing mission-driven organizations’ environmental footprint to her tips on B Corp suppliers to work with (thanks to her I was introduced to Greenerprinter!), we have become fast friends. This interview took place over lunch where I was excited to finally learn Alisa’s path to finding purpose. We bonded over hating high school and the challenges she’s had to overcome with depression and anxiety. She also enlightened me as to why aspiring Arc Benders should work to embody the principles of open source. Enjoy!

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what path did you follow?

Growing up, I had a good life. My parents were great parents and, looking back on it, I had a good balance between being given structure and flexibility.  

Unfortunately, I had a really tough time in high school. In 8th grade, I was moved to a private school, which separated me from all of my friends. That’s also when my depression started. I was the girl that sat in the hallway and cried a lot. I think a lot of people figured it was situational, and when it kept going, people just didn’t want to deal with me anymore. I didn’t feel like people cared and I also didn’t have many friends, which just made things worse. Because of this, I got into a lot of trouble and, at one point, I even ended up getting suspended. It was during an exchange trip to France that I got caught drinking in a bar in Paris. They suspended me for 2-days. College applications were a lot harder after the trip because I had to write a letter of explanation for that incident.

I decided to only apply to one college and thankfully got in. Appalachian State University was a major turning point in my life and I thrived there. Before starting, I thought I wanted to major in business. However, part of the syllabus they handed out the on first day of the intro to business class specified that you had to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and cut articles out each week. I thought that was stupid, so I dropped the class that day. The only class I could pick up to replace it was Intro to Psychology. I thought it would be fun because some of my favorite books were The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I found it interesting to read about people’s hardships.

Thanks to psychology, I realized that I really wanted to help people. At the time, I was very literal in regards to a career path. I figured if I became a psychologist, it would help people. I had screwed up so much in high school that in college I kind of course-corrected. In my first year I sustained a 4.0 GPA. By my senior year, I considered going to grad school for psychology and I applied to a handful of schools. However, I only applied to the programs that took the GRE General Test and, likely because of that, I didn’t get in anywhere. After I got the letters of rejection, I realized I had to figure out an alternative plan.

It’s interesting how my career ultimately came together. My dad was a system administrator and always kept computers in the house even in the 80’s. Some of my first computer games were PC Booters on 5.5 inch floppy disks. When I was in Middle School, he taught me how to code in HTML and I was hooked. But it was always a hobby. In the 90’s, being a programmer was never a career path that anyone talked about so I never really thought of it as an option.

As a psychology major, I had been looking for relevant work opportunities in the small college town of Boone, NC. I found a role to be on the home and school teams for a kid with autism. I was a 1-on-1 teachers assistant with the child in school. At home, I did applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to help him learn how to communicate and do daily tasks. The child’s dad was a librarian and he introduced library science as a career. I thought it was fascinating. So, I course-corrected again and decided to go to library school, with the goal of helping people do research. I applied to UNC for their library science program a few days before applications were due and got in.

I absolutely loved the library science program. While I was there, there were some librarians that noticed that my skills and interests really aligned with technology. They assigned me to work in the “Collaboratory,” which was a new space they had created for students to collaborate at the undergraduate library. In that role, I was often teaching people how to use different forms of technology, such as how to use Photoshop and how to scan. I was also eventually looped into building websites for various departmental libraries.

Having a bachelors in psychology and a masters in library science might seem unrelated to the work I do now, but both degrees are actually highly applicable to the web design industry. Psychology is extremely relevant because it’s so helpful to understand people’s motivation. In graduate school, I learned how to categorize books based on the essence of what they were trying communicate. With websites, you’re organizing information and helping make sure organizations communicate their services and impact properly.

I graduated with my masters degree in 2009 and there was a state hiring freeze in North Carolina. The majority of employment opportunities for librarians are state jobs, and after months of searching, I wasn’t able to find a job as a librarian. I was unemployed for a long time. My first job was a part-time job I found on Craigslist. I answered an ad from a man asking for help with Dreamweaver. We met at a McDonalds in a town 45 minutes away from my home. The guy offered me a job as the Web Development Manager at his company that published tech books and internet marketing books. Just to give you a sense of the environment, the office was located in an old basement of the business district of a small town, and there were cockroaches in the bathroom.

I also got a part-time job at Barnes and Noble making minimum wage. Everyone I was working with there had at least a Bachelor’s degree, yet we were treated like shit and assumed to be dumb. Despite this, I’m thankful for the experience because it was really valuable to learn that level of customer service.

Right as I was about to give up on the bigger job search, one of my friends noticed a potential opportunity on an email listserv for a junior-level web developer position that was part time. I was worried I wasn’t qualified because I had self-taught myself web development and had a master’s degree in a completely different field. Thankfully the interview went really well and they offered me the job. After only being there for 6 months, the lead developer quit. That was my sink-or-swim moment where I realized I needed to figure out how to do his job or have someone hired above me. In the end, I was at that company for 4 and a half years, and by the time I left, there were 3 web developers under for me. While it was great experience, it was tricky to break down the silos between the different departments in the company. I had to fight to be part of strategic meetings and I felt I couldn’t always make decisions for myself.

Around this time, my husband, who was in law school, had an informational interview with a policy director at a nonprofit. During their meeting, he casually mentioned he was married to a web developer.  Little did he know, she was on her way to becoming the founding CEO of a new media nonprofit with the mission to uplift public education in NC. She had been advised to hire a CTO – someone young, that knew technology, and that could do the web development in-house. She recruited me when it was still just an idea. Because of that, I got to help with the vision, design the strategy, and develop the website. I’m grateful to have had that leadership experience. However, over time, I realized that my dream was to own my own agency where I could work with a team to do that same kind of work for other mission-driven organizations, while also being a changemaker in the whole creative agency industry.

Tell me a bit about your work with Unity Digital Agency and how you are making a positive impact?  

I wanted to bring together a group of people that have the drive to change the world. I wanted to create a digital agency in North Carolina that has the ability to lift up the state. I knew from the beginning that it had to be a B Corp. I knew that I wanted the business to make a positive impact on the state by giving back.  

I’m really passionate about helping people make a difference and using my strengths to help build up other people. I wanted to work with people with the same passion as me, just with different skill sets. Then, I wanted to bring it all together in ‘unity.’

I love all of the cliché’s with unity – that’s the feeling for my company that I want to embody. I believe we’re all more powerful together. At Unity, we serve nonprofits and organizations making a difference in their community.

I also wanted my agency to be a totally different kind of agency. After working as a developer in a couple different types of environments, I realized how much undue pressure is put on people in the creative field. One big problem is that quality creative work is undervalued by society, and at the same time, creatives and technologists are worked to death with long hours. The other problem is that the focus on billable hours is just about as bad in the agency world as it is in the attorney world. But at least attorneys are generally fairly compensated for their time.

One of the founding principles of Unity was sustainability, and that the quality of the work environment must support sustainability for the individuals on the team. That means work-life balance is important so as to prevent burnout. It also means that the pay needs to be fair across the board. We’ve implemented an open salary model that establishes base salaries for each type of position, plus multipliers for responsibility and experience. This allows for predictability in wages and gives team members incentives for taking on extra responsibility and gaining more experience faster. And as we meet our goals as a team, we raise the base salary for all positions.

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

Depression and anxiety. My inner voice really likes to knock my confidence down.

Also, being a woman in technology is certain a big one. When I was lead developer I was majorly underpaid. So much so that a few months before I had the other job opportunity, I showed my boss the median pay for web developers in our community and asked for a 50% raise. They gave me a 20% raise. The guy that was hired to replace me several months later was paid at least what I had asked for.

One time I was at a conference and I did this live demonstration with code. Someone tweeted that ‘the sexiest thing that happened this weekend was @isabisa live coding.’ Thankfully, everyone called him out online making it clear how inappropriate that was. While I did a great job at the conference, that didn’t mean my work was ‘sexy.’

I’ve also definitely had to work to overcome imposter syndrome. I’m a member of Tide Risers, a group of women leaders working to amplify their impact. A recent discussion that really struck me was that, if you’re true to yourself, then you don’t have to stick to a script. So when you’re networking and people ask ‘what do you do,’ you don’t have to worry about your elevator pitch. We actually practiced introducing ourselves to each other and giving authentic answers. I really felt I was able to tap deep into myself and it was amazing.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

Be true to yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Sometimes I will watch someone doing something really amazing and I think ‘I wish I could be like them…’ and then I’ll feel like I’m not as good or as worthy. Have confidence in yourself and know that you’re doing amazing things in your own way.

I also recommend trying to embody the 5 principles of open source:

  1. Sharing: Share your knowledge. When you share with others, it is so fulfilling and it builds positivity.
  2. Working together: When you’re working as a team you get to capitalize on each other’s strengths. It’s the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its part. Unity and such.
  3. Failing: Failure is something that is important to work on. I think it’s more about the way you react to failure. It’s in how you pick yourself up and move on that matters.  Something I wrote before is that “the more we see failure as an inevitability, the more it can be seen as an asset.” The quickest way to progress is to try. Also, failure hurts a lot less when you have other people working with you and you aren’t alone when you fall.
  4. Being Objective: Being objective is all about keeping in mind that the way you think about things isn’t the way everyone else thinks about thing. Your perspective isn’t always the best. Ideas need to be analyzed by their merit, not whose brain they’re from.
  5. Loving: We have to love each other and build each other up as a community.

All of these principles are the things that I try to embody in my work and in my life. There is a group out of RTP called STEM in the Park. They facilitate mentoring and hands-on engagement opportunities between STEM professionals and underrepresented minorities, girls, and students from low-income backgrounds. Every opportunity I get, I try to participate as a mentor by sharing my story, failures and all. If my story helps some girl that was like me to be more confident, it would make me so happy. I would love to know someone is better off because of my story.