Presentation and style are Harriette Cole’s calling cards, but writing and mentorship are the pillars of her astounding career. Harriette is an original BAUCE woman and was born of BAUCE blood. Over the course of her career, she’s held leadership roles at various flagship publications including Essence, Uptown, and The Root. She’s also discovered and provided counsel to today’s biggest stars before they were known and leveraged her skills and connections to launch her own media consulting and coaching firm, Harriette Cole Media. Harriette’s insight is sought after by CEOs, superstars, and future generations looking to make their mark. Tours and cover stories with Prince, teachings with everyone from Mary J Blige to Misty Copeland, she’s a successful example of a woman who does it all with the class of a wife, mother, author and designer.
In this interview with BAUCE, Harriette shares her journey to success and schools us on how to reach our full potential as BAUCE women.
You’re the Founder and CEO of the inspirational and educational initiative DREAMLEAPERS. When did you begin manifesting your career and now that you’re a mentor and inspiration to many, who demonstrates success to you?
Harriette: “That’s a big question. In a sense, it started when I was about 12. Part of why I started DREAMLEAPERS is that I’m a big believer in dreams. My dream as a child was to be a writer and to be involved in fashion. I was the tallest, skinniest one at age 12 [and] that was pretty awkward, but by 13 I began modeling. I went from having my mother make all of my clothes because nothing fit me because I was so skinny, to being the perfect size for really great designer fashions – that was really fun.
My mother and father were both very into fashion. To actually feel like someone who could be glamorous and live in that space began at around that time. I was also writing poetry and short stories. I was really shy so I would hide it in my closet, which was very funny. But I was prolifically writing, and that lasted forever. I have built a career in one way or another that is based on presentation and style and it started from back then.
Success for me along the way has been from both women and men, and in different ways. It started from a man – my father (his name is Harry A. Cole, I’m named for him – RIP 1999) was an incredible force in my life, he was the first Black State Senator of Maryland, and the first Black State Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. He was a larger than life figure in our household, but also in our state. He was a man of great conviction, style, and integrity. He and my mother taught my sisters and me that excellence was the only option.
My mother is Doris Cole, a kindergarten teacher who retired to take care of my sisters and me when my younger sister was born. She is a delightful person full of love and joy, inner beauty as well as outer. She taught us to be kind to people. One lesson I constantly follow is to notice the bright lights in the room and align with them. Her mother Carrie who lived to be 101 years old and was a domestic worker, taught me and my sisters to honor all of the people in our lives, and to do our work with love and focus.
Wow. Such powerful influences!
Harriette: I worked at ESSENCE for 11 years so Susan Taylor certainly was a mentor for me in my early years. I worked at ESSENCE during what I would call its tremendous ascent, in the lifestyle department running that for a long time, then I ran the fashion department for a number of years. My younger sister Stephanie Hill being the most senior African American woman (SVP for Corporate Strategy and Business Development) in all of Lockheed Martin. She is incredibly brilliant, second to the CEO who’s also a woman, and one of the kindest people you could ever meet. Though she’s fierce, she’s married with three children, still cooks dinner, and has this amazing very well balanced life. That’s some of the people.”
You recently hosted a DREAMLEAPERS panel on the topic of Financing Your Dream. What’s one piece of advice you’d like to share from that experience?
Harriette: Great question, I had six professionals there to provide different windows into financing your dream. The biggest takeaway before you even get to the point of asking for money, you need to be crystal clear about what your dream is, and how you believe it can take root in the marketplace. It’s only then that you can attract the funding you need. Before you ask for that funding really hunker down and figure out the value of the project you have in mind, the market in which you want to introduce it, and how viable it is.
This year you launched a new Radio Show DREAMLEAPERS with Harriette Cole. How do you determine your guests and Sweetest Thing features, and who would you like to be your next guest on the show?
Harriette: I’m thrilled I just launched a radio show. Part of how I got to launch the show is I said it out loud that I want to do it. When you want to make something happen you dream it, access that dream, write it down, but then you have to declare it. You have to claim it this is what I want, I wanted to have a radio show and I said it, now I have one. You have to be ready too.
How do I select the guests? I’m looking for people who have accessed and activated their dreams, who have good perspective on how they did it, and are willing to share aspects of their journey that will inspire other people. It’s not just somebody who’s interesting, but hopefully, someone who has done enough processing of their life and dreams they’ve built, who is generous enough to talk about it in a way that may help other people. I’m very fortunate to know a lot of great people. We’re only a few weeks in but I feel there’s an abundance of riches of who’s next.
Regarding The Sweetest Thing, which is my version of My Favorite Things. When there’re so many wonderful things before you, the question is what are you going to pick. Thus far I’ve been basing it off my gut, and from week one I’ve been getting inquiries from publicists and others. It’s things I really gravitate towards. For example, I just talked to Leila Noelliste, who has a blog called Black Girl Long Hair (BGLH). She launched a line of shea butter products that are whipped. Her story is incredible and her product is excellent, so I just interviewed her. Who do I want to interview next? What I’m doing is what I learned editorially for so many years: look at what time of year we’re in, and what would best suit that moment in time for listeners.
As President and Creative Director of Harriette Cole Media, you’ve coached and consulted top recording artists and corporations. What are the non-negotiable tools you provide to all clients?
Harriette: “Number one: every client learns it is essential to paint a picture with your words. Show me rather than tell me. That is the best lesson I’ve ever learned. People listen when you take them into an experience, and that’s how you express yourself. It is not easy to do. It’s one thing to do a thing and another thing to describe how you do a thing. You must learn how to tell your story, people are often living their story rather than telling their story.
If you want to succeed, it is essential for you to understand where you’re going, what is expected of you when you get there, and how you can enter an experience being empowered – and I teach people how to do that.
You also train recording artists and corporate executives on how to engage the media. Sprinkle some PR gems on our BAUCE readers please! Which stars or executives had the most satisfying transformation, and how can a BAUCE make a lasting professional impression?
Harriette: “I usually work with people who are not yet known, before they launched their careers. I call Alicia Keys my prize student because I worked with her before anybody knew who she was. She would come to my office every week for several weeks for media training. She wanted it bad, I always give homework, she did the homework. She was focused and took in everything I gave her and made it her own.
The person I worked with who was most famous before working with her was Mary J. Blige. I worked with her many years ago at the beginning of my business, but she was at a low in her career. She’d gotten a lot of bad press, she’s talked about how years ago she’d had substance abuse problems. I worked with her during that period, and for me what was a sign of success, was helping her to see that she had control over herself and her future. That she could step into that place of power, and change her course. I did far more than media training, I built a new wardrobe for her, we did a lot of things together that helped to set her on a better course. She was already a star, but so she would feel empowered as she was moving through her life.
The road to success is knowing yourself, where you want to go, and making sure you have the tools and skills to get there. When you’re looking to engage the media or even other people, you’re sharing things you’ve already processed about yourself. Rather than what my mother would call spouting off, that’s not helpful. You don’t want to force people to listen too long. Share something that can have an impact on them that will help them to remember you.
I teach a workshop called Perfecting Your Elevator Pitch that I’ve done through DREAMLEAPERS for years. The point of it is for you to learn how to share the important things about yourself concisely, and with enough enthusiasm and conviction that people want to know more.
Many BAUCEs still discover they are a “diversity hire,” or the only person of color at their place of work. What should you do if you find your coworkers or superiors make uninformed, distasteful, or downright disrespectful comments?
Harriette: There’s not one answer for that question — you need to evaluate the moment. This is tricky because you do need to be fully present in yourself so you aren’t reactionary. Look at the person who’s made whatever the comment is, instantaneously to the best of your ability, evaluate from where that person is coming. Sometimes things are just simply ignorant which doesn’t make them any better, but sometimes they’re mean-spirited, and sometimes they don’t know any better. Sometimes it’s a situation where there are multiple people in a room, and if you say something publicly it can backfire. If you say something privately just a little bit later, you might create an ally rather than an enemy. Try to figure out how can you best be heard.
Humor is a really good way to get people to be self-reflective. If someone’s rude, you can say how would you feel if I said that to you? Some version of that, with a chuckle – someone’s touching your hair? Oh, let me touch yours! Usually, we’re so shocked, even though these things happen too often, that we don’t know what to do. But if they have actually put their hands in your hair and you put your hands in theirs, they may feel that feeling of violation.
I never would say to someone, let people treat you in a disrespectful way, but often a private conversation is more effective than a public one. Privately you can tell your boss, I don’t know if you realize it, but that thing you said was really hurtful – or, that was off, I’m outraged, and I don’t think you heard how it came out. I don’t think you meant to hurt my feelings or make me uncomfortable, but you did. It takes a lot of courage to say that. Do it in a way where you give the person an out, where they can be apologetic, hear what they did wrong, and you’re not lining them up against the wall ready to fire.”
You’ve been quoted saying ‘allow yourself to be still to access your dreams.’ You must be still to access dreams, but make moves to activate them. Having manifested seemingly endless dreams, how do you prevent over-extending yourself?
Harriette: [Laughs]That’s funny! I don’t know that I prevent it. Being on a balance beam requires you to constantly balance right? When I’m in the gym there’s this pole thing my trainer has me hold, it’s a balance stick, and literally, you’re just standing, or maybe standing and sitting holding this thing. The beads inside, still as you sometimes sway back and forth, even as you’re focusing on balancing. It’s really difficult to do. I liken that to the notion of balancing your life. I would be telling you a lie if I said my life is always balanced, and I’m never overextended. But what I do, and I’m better at it today than I was even a year ago, I devote a lot more time to tending to my body. A year ago in April, I started walking Central Park, I got up to about six miles a day. I’m committed to my physical body’s health, meditation practice, family, and career.
I believe in and make lists [A practical must!]. Every single day including the weekend, which includes everything from having a meeting, to drink water, to call your mother. If I write it down and check it off it gets done. When I’m really busy I block it off in terms of projects. My list has 40 things on it, I don’t necessarily do all 40 things, but I know what I’m supposed to be doing.
Now that’s real!
Harriette: Another thing I would tell BAUCE women is to be persistent. There’s something you didn’t ask me that I think I should tell you, cause your audience would know her. I always have interns, and bring young people into my world and work. One of the greatest success stories I have to that is Elaine Welteroth [one of my idols!]. Her persistence – she basically stalked me. I started working at Ebony and wrote a cover story about Alicia Keys. Essence and Ebony were courting her, and I called her mother and said would you please tell her it’s me asking? She gave me the story. Elaine read the cover story, learned about me, wanted to learn from me, and sent me a mock-up of a magazine she wanted to make. She was relentless. She called and called until finally, I talked to her, I was going to give her fifteen minutes, which turned into an hour. She was such a remarkable woman that I convinced Ebony to hire her as an intern because there was no job for her, she came and worked with me, and ultimately became a part of the team.