After a successful career in government communications, Lois Harris decided to step out of her comfort zone and start her own business. She’s been working as a freelance writer and editor for two years now and loves working for and with the agri-food sector. Read on to learn more about her career highs and lows and what’s she’s learned along the way.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.
I’m 52, have a husband and four rescued cats and live on 3 1/2 acres on the southern border of the village of Durham in Grey County. I’ve lived in Toronto (12 years) and Guelph (16 years) but grew up in rural southern Ontario near St. Thomas in a hamlet called Frome that had about five houses and a church. So I’m a country girl at heart.
I was a co-op student from the University of Waterloo in the ‘80s when I got the opportunity to work at Queen’s Park. I worked at several ministries and landed with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs just after a long trip with a girlfriend through southeast Asia. I started as a speechwriter for the Minister and Deputy Minister and took several secondments around the ministry. After 22 years with the government, I started my own freelance writing and editing business, Words Work Communications, in 2013.
Tell us about being an entrepreneur. What do you enjoy most and what is the most challenging?
Although it was terrifying, I’m glad I started my own business. I like the freedom and the flexibility of getting my own assignments. I like being able to help my clients communicate effectively with their audiences. I really like interviewing innovative farmers and food processors because they’re so excited and interested in what they’re doing.
I’m not a big fan of “administrivia” so I have an online bookkeeping account with Freshbooks, which makes it all easy. I also have a hard time with marketing myself; selling other people’s products and services comes to me much more easily.
How do you define success? What steps do you take to get there?
I define personal success as finding out what makes you happy and going for it. WAY harder than it sounds.
In terms of a career, I think you need to figure out what you want to do and hone your skills in that direction. Stay curious. Don’t let the haters and cynics get you down. Be positive but not Pollyanna. Play nice. Keep friends and family close. Laugh as much as you can.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face? And what did you learn from that experience?
I think making the jump from having a secure public service job to being completely on my own professionally at the age of 50 was my biggest challenge.
While I really appreciate my time at the ministry, I got antsy to stretch myself some more. The learning curve was gigantic, so I planned and plotted my brains out. My husband’s a retired editor from Reuters but the pension’s fairly modest, so I really had to make a go of it. My first year kind of sucked, but last year I did better than expected.
Biggest lesson? I thought about making the change for about five years, and could have saved myself many sleepless nights had I done it sooner.
Who would you say is your biggest influencer/mentor? What have you learned from them?
Professionally, it’s my first boss. She was tough – a former Canadian Press editor. There were soooo many red editing marks all over my copy when I started. But she saw something. She encouraged me without coddling and actually worked with me.
She taught me how to write a headline and a lede and how to tell a story. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without her influence. Thanks Marj.
Personally, it’s my husband. He’s been so supportive; he encouraged me to take the leap into freelancing. He’s as nuts about cats as I am and we share a fairly twisted sense of humour. Plus, it’s really handy to have a professional editor right in the house!
Are you willing to share a mistake you made but taught you something important?
I took a job in my mid-twenties that was too much of a stretch, when I should have taken the time to look around for other opportunities.
The job basically landed in my lap and I was bored of the place where I was working – so I jumped. I couldn’t believe they hired me. The pay was WAY above what I was making, but I was throwing up every night for weeks because I was so stressed all the time. And the new boss was a dragon lady. Nuff said. I moved on and lived to tell the tale, but it was a bit scarring. Lesson: you should get out of an unfulfilling job, but be careful where you leap, and do your homework.
What’s the most burning question for you right now in your career?
My most burning question is how can I ramp up my business so there’s steady work without going crazy with too much? I’ve had some really good success with really good people in the agri-food industry over the past couple of years, and people seem pleased with my work. But so far, it’s project-based and sporadic. I’ve only had my business for two years, so maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
How do you define agriculture?
Agriculture (or, actually agri-food) is an biologically, economically and environmentally essential endeavour that encompasses research, production, processing, marketing, distribution and sales of food, fuel and bioproducts.
What do you think is the most important topic in agriculture right now? Or what should be?
The top-of-mind topic is maintaining the industry’s social license with the public by being transparent and maintaining/building trust.
While it’s an important one, I think attracting more people (especially women) to working in all aspects (especially the leadership) of the industry should be right up there, too.
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