Susan Harrison: Software Engineer and Nutrition Coach

PT Susan croppedWhat if you’re really good at your job and it should be your dream job, but it doesn’t capture your interest. If you’re not sure what would excite you, how do you decide your next steps? Susan Harrison is wrestling with those questions. I asked Susan how she is crafting her career. The highlights of her story follow.

In the beginning…

As valedictorian of her graduating class at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, Susan Harrison said, “I was good at school”, but she wasn’t sure what should be next.

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Entrance to the University of Dayton

Susan enrolled at the University of Dayton with a hazy idea of her future. The options she knew were doctor, lawyer or teacher. Since she liked science and math, she began as a pre-med major. That didn’t last long. “Chemistry sucks and premed is almost all chemistry”.

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University of Dayton campus

Susan’s high school boyfriend, Jason Harrison, asked, “What classes that you took did you like? What did you enjoy doing?” She told him that she liked physics and math. Since his brother was studying electrical engineering, Jason suggested it. Susan reviewed the curriculum and thought, “Oh, this looks perfect”.

“Electrical engineering had a lot of problem solving to it, where you took these basic circuit classes where they laid out a circuit and you figured out what it needed to work or how the current ran. It was just the way it worked was interesting in terms of a problem solving thing for me”.

Using her contacts, Susan found co-op internships at GM and Heapy Engineering. Her “dad worked with signal processing at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and knew guys who spun off to start company, so I got a job with them”.

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Electrical engineering soldering equipment

The company built signal processing hardware for the federal government to decode signals intercepted from satellites. “I actually learned how to design and build hardware. I spent a ton of time actually soldering parts on boards …I actually kind of miss that part of it”.

What did Susan do after graduating from college?

Susan and Jason had maintained their relationship through college and eventually married. After Jason graduated from The Ohio State University, he planned to move to Washington, D.C. to work for the CIA.

United States Capitol building in Washton, DC
United States Capitol Building, Washington, DC

Susan’s Dayton employer used their contacts in the DC area to help her find a job with TMA, providing technology services to the United States government.

At first Susan designed signal processing hardware, but within six months, the company trained her to write software code.

Within two years, Susan was bored. That “felt wrong because I had a top-secret security clearance, I was getting to travel…I just had access to really interesting things and the work should have been really interesting”. Although elements of the job were interesting, “the process of what I had to do day-to-day never really grabbed me…I still can’t articulate why…I was so young I didn’t know what to do with that…so I kind of tried to make myself like it”.

Although she was unhappy, Susan couldn’t see her options. “Everyone I met was doing some version of what I was doing, so it still didn’t broaden my knowledge about what was out there”. Nonetheless, she stayed with TMA for five years.

What did Susan do next?

By then Susan’s stepfather, Jack, was nearing the end of his battle with cancer. Since neither Susan nor Jason liked their jobs, they decided to quit and move back to Ohio to be with family.

By chance, Susan’s mother, Diane, met Tim Nealon. Nealon was working with Dayton Public Schools and the University of Dayton to design the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) to prepare first-generation urban students to go to college. Diane introduced first Jason and then Susan to Nealon. DECA hired them as founding teachers, and they moved to Dayton.

How did Susan make the transition from being a software engineer to a teacher?

Susan had considered switching from software engineering to social work, so she liked the idea of helping urban students. DECA smoothed the transition by:

  • Paying the tuition for the Masters in Education program at the University of Dayton
  • Scheduling Susan and Jason to help with the program during its first year
  • Moving them to teaching after they had their Masters

During the first three weeks of school, however, one of the math teachers left and DECA tapped Susan to take over his classes. She got her emergency teaching certification and negotiated a reduced load in the Masters program.

Dayton Early College Academy High School

Before school started, Susan and Jason visited all their students at home to meet their families and begin to involve them in the school. Throughout the school year, they worked “late into the evenings…doing stuff on weekends, doing stuff with the kids outside of school”.

Teaching at DECA was the “hardest two years of my life…I’m an introvert…I had some strengths in the relationship building with the kids, but I wasn’t a good teacher…and my personality type was working against me”. After two years, Susan and Jason left.

When Susan realized teaching wasn’t right for her, what did she do?

Susan and Jason were in Dayton for Jack’s last year and the hard year afterwards. Then they said, “We’re 30, we’re free in terms of what we want to do, let’s just do it”. They moved to New York City so Jason could to pursue screenwriting and acting.

New York City

Susan assumed she’d easily find another software engineering job, but discovered that her prior jobs had been specific to the intelligence world, which didn’t exist in New York. Additionally, without an Ivy League background, she couldn’t get past the application. Eventually, she found a job at an online Wall Street trading company on the support desk.

That was the only job Susan ever held that was solely for the paycheck. She realized she valued positions that supported either people or the interests of the United States. After four months, she left Wall Street for a technology job with the New York City Department of Education, managing the Salesforce online database.

In Susan’s first year, twenty experimental schools used the Salesforce database to track attendance, report cards, and discipline records. Susan built it out and traveled to schools to train, pull data, and troubleshoot. The job was fascinating, but she chaffed under her boss.

After two and a half years, Susan left the school system and contracted independently with Exponent Partners, which worked with the New York City schools and nonprofit organizations as a partner of the Salesforce Foundation.

Did Susan stay with Exponent Partners?

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Los Angeles

As a consultant to Exponent Partners, Susan worked from home, making her position portable. After four years in New York City, she stayed with Exponent Partners when she and Jason moved to Los Angeles and then back to Washington, DC.

When they returned to Washington, DC, Susan did leave Exponent Partners for two years, because she was frustrated. The company was growing very quickly, and everything seemed disorganized. When her mentor from her first DC job offered her a job with his new company, working with the FBI, she accepted.

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FBI Headquarters, Washington, DC

Susan was doing software engineering work in the FBI headquarters. One of her most interesting projects was designing a software threat prioritization system for cities. At first the work intrigued Susan, but again she grew bored quickly. After two years, she called Exponent Partners and returned to her prior job as an independent contractor.

Exponent Partners appears to have been a steady factor in Susan’s life. Was anything else bubbling up?  

While they lived in LA, Susan started an online business with her sisters. Building on her interest in genealogy, they created Style My Tree to design modern-looking family trees. Susan discovered that, although she loved working for herself, working with family was challenging.

During their time in New York and LA, Jason had worked as a personal trainer. In DC Susan and Jason started Present Tense Fitness as an online platform for Jason to offer wellness, nutrition, and lifestyle coaching anywhere.

After four years in DC, Susan and Jason made a fast decision to move back to Dayton to assist with Jason’s parents. They asked themselves, “Are we the people who come home and help or are we the people who just ignore it and have to come home for stuff that’s awful?”

How did Susan’s life change in Dayton?

Susan was able to continue with Exponent Partners without missing a beat. As Jason considered his options, Susan said, “Do what you know”. Since he had experience working as a personal trainer, he adapted Present Tense Fitness to engage clients for 1:1 training.

Jason rented space in two different gyms to train clients, but quickly found he was spending too much time traveling between sessions. Susan and Jason understood the advice, “Don’t open your own space until you have to”, but that time had arrived. They opened Present Tense Fitness in downtown Dayton’s Oregon District.

How has involvement in Present Tense Fitness influenced Susan’s direction? PT 1

For years Susan has “been searching for what it is I wanted to do, and all I could come up with is that I want to do something that is my own and not somebody else’s”.

Currently, Susan continues to work for Exponent Partners and also uses her skill at “taking technical stuff and making it understandable to people” as a Precision Nutrition coach. She and Jason are developing their vision for the Present Tense Daily Brief, a daily wellness guide Jason writes and emails to subscribers, by asking, “What’s your ideal day? What do you want to be doing when you’re 50 all day?” They are using their answers to “try to see what that long-term picture looks like and then work back from there. What do we have to do today to make sure we get there”?

Susan’s Observations:

  • “Do what you already know and what you like to do; don’t chase what’s currently in vogue”
  • “Your business doesn’t have to appeal to everybody”
  • “Get the people who are your champions”
  • “Don’t be afraid to make people mad. I’d rather have people have a strong feeling about us, because … there’s also the people who are going to have an equally strong like of us and those are the people who end up building your business”.
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Present Tense Fitness
222 E. 6th Street, Dayton, OH 45402
(202) 603-0926



Kathy Anderson: Owner, My Pilates Studio

-12Is your Zumba class the best part of your day? Do you daydream about leaving your job and working for yourself? Do you pay close attention to the latest developments in physical fitness?

Kathy Anderson merged her love of dance and exercise, her business background, and her desire to be her own boss to found My Pilates Studio. I asked Kathy how she crafted her career. The highlights of her story follow.

How did Kathy wend her way from high school dancer to successful business owner?

Kathy was groomed to be a perfectionist from the day she was born. The third of four children, Kathy was conceived to bring her family out of grieving after one of her older sisters died of polio. She was expected to be perfect. Kathy tried hard to be the best at everything she did, but she felt like nothing she ever did was good enough. Her solution was always to work harder. Her outlet was dance, ballet and jazz, and she relished performing with her high school drill team.

After high school, she spent a few years in New York City modeling, but she had always dreamed of becoming a Kilgore Rangerette. So after a few years in New York, she enrolled at Kilgore College in Texas and became a Rangerette, a precision dance team. The Rangerettes, known for their high kicks (they have to hit their hats) and jump splits, travel across the United States and internationally. She told me her years with the Rangerettes were “wonderful”.

Two years passes quickly. What did Kathy do after she graduated?

After graduating from Kilgore, Kathy got a job in retail, selling clothing. Her real interest was working with dance and drill teams and she fell into a pattern of quitting whatever job she had to spend the summer teaching at dance camps. Her parents told her she wasn’t on a viable career path and pushed her to get a more stable job. “You should be a teacher”, they said.

Shrugging off that suggestion, Kathy became an account executive for a cosmetic company and then, the first female account executive for WING radio. Those jobs didn’t last long, however, because Kathy kept running headlong into a problem – her own self-confessed issue with authority. She said she frequently feels like she knows better and has better ideas, which makes her impatient with employers. “I have never been a good employee”, she admitted.

How did Kathy handle her dislike of working for others?

Brainstorming with a friend, Kathy developed the idea to create a clearinghouse for people looking for rental property. She opened American Homeowners and Renters Association with a database of rental properties similar to the MLS (Multiple Listing Service), and a research department that located unoccupied units. Users could enter the type of rental housing they were looking for, the price range, and the area, and get a printout of available options. Kathy offered the services free to landlords. Her clients were families, corporations, and appraisers seeking rental housing for rent or for sale.

During the seven years Kathy managed American Homeowners and Renters Association, she got her real estate license and began selling houses for Heritage Realtors. In the beginning, Heritage wanted her to bring the clearinghouse with her, because it was a great feeder for finding first-time homebuyers. Kathy decided to sell the business instead. She kept all the information about her clients, however, so she could explore if they were interested in buying instead of renting. That approach worked; in her first month, she sold 14 houses.

Kathy and her husband met when they were both with Heritage. Her husband eventually left Heritage to start his own realty company. Kathy left, too, ran his business and worked with homebuyers until their first child was born. At that point, Kathy cut back so she wouldn’t have to work evenings. She continued to manage the business and assumed the task of training new buyer agents.

Kathy was successful in real estate. How did Pilates enter the picture?

When Kathy stopped teaching summer dance camps, she no longer had the time for or access to dance programs, and she stopped dancing. She still wanted to exercise, however. She did aerobics and weight lifting, but she hated weight lifting. Eventually she got hurt lifting weights that were too heavy. Thinking it would help to rehabilitate her injury, she took a Pilates class and loved it.

Pilates class on the Reformers at My Pilates Studio

Kathy explained that Pilates emphasizes alignment, breathing, concentration and developing a strong core – the muscles of the abdomen, low back, and hips. The choreographed exercises move the muscles concentrically and eccentrically, improving strength and flexibility. Although Pilates emphasizes the muscles of the core, the program works the whole body, stabilizing the action of the joints overall. Pilates can be done on an exercise mat or using specific equipment such as the Reformer (which sounds scary, but is actually a lot of fun), Chair or Barrel.

Kathy wasn’t content just to show up at a Pilates class; to satisfy her need for perfection, she had to understand the principles and be the best student. To feed that drive, she began more intensive Pilates training. The more she did Pilates, the more she loved it. As she learned the principles, understood their effect on the body, and mastered the movements, she decided she wanted to become a Pilates teacher. To do that, she needed to get certified, which meant taking hundreds of hours of theoretical and practical, hands-on training.

In order to get the best training, Kathy researched numerous programs, finally settling on Stott Pilates. Stott appealed to her, because the program is based on research in sports medicine, physical therapy and exercise science. According to Kathy, it is the most rigorous Pilates certification program – the “Harvard of certification”.

Did anything change when Kathy shifted her focus to Pilates?

Kathy had been running her husband’s real estate business for 15 years. Shifting her focus to Pilates was a big challenge, because her husband didn’t like the change. Kathy knew, however, that Pilates was important piece of her puzzle; it fit. Ultimately, she decided that she wanted to own a Pilates studio. Her mother agreed. “You have got to stop chasing your dreams and start living them.”

Grudgingly, her husband went along with the plan at first. Rather than rent a space, they decided to build the best studio possible. They found a piece of ground, worked with an architect and built the studio.


My Pilates Studio, 8100 Miller Farm Lane, Dayton, OH 45458

Isn’t there more to opening a Pilates studio than just the building?

Wherever Kathy went, she took Pilates classes and talked to the studio owners, instructors and receptionists, observing and asking about the best ways to manage clients and instructors. By the time Kathy was developing her own studio, she had a good idea of what she wanted and how it should look.

Equipment at My Pilates Studio

Prior to opening My Pilates Studio, she taught in another studio and worked with a number of instructors there. In addition, when she was taking classes for her certification, she met more Pilates practitioners, further building her Pilates network. One of her biggest concerns about opening her place was attracting qualified instructors, but her contacts in her network enabled her to find qualified instructors.

Based on her research, Kathy set high standards for her studio. She wanted My Pilates Studio to have the same customer service approach as the Ritz Carlton, the attitude of “It’s my pleasure”. With that goal in mind, Kathy directed the entire client experience from the greeting by the receptionist, to the workout with an instructor, and the cleanliness of the facilities.

To ensure a good client experience, she also established requirements for her teachers. They must

  • Become trained in Stott Pilates, including theoretical coursework, hands-on coursework, class observations, and a final exam
  • Understand the principles and purpose of Pilates
  • Apprentice with an experienced instructor
  • Complete six hours of continuing education each year
  • Provide their own liability insurance in addition to the liability insurance that Kathy maintains for the business
Pilates class on the Reformers at My Pilates Studio

Did Kathy have any surprises when she opened My Pilates Studio? What has she learned?

Kathy said she discovered that “people are people are people”, with the same problems and issues regardless of the business. She has found, however, that the customer’s goal impacts the nature of the interaction. People engaged in buying or selling real estate are much more anxious about money and the transaction, which colors their outlook. As Kathy said, “People are at a Pilates studio because they want to work out, feel better and, generally speaking, they’re happy to be there.”

To Kathy’s surprise, the biggest challenge is not dealing with the clients, but managing the business and the personnel. Kathy has a number of instructors, which necessitates supervising the quality of their teaching, care of the equipment, and status of continuing education credits. Her instructors tease her about being slightly OCD, but she realizes that attention to detail is crucial, because the clients have other choices.

In addition, Kathy has learned that being an entrepreneur often means working seven days a week. “You go home and take the business with you.” From a financial perspective, running My Pilates Studio doesn’t provide Kathy the same financial stability as working in real estate. She said, “It’s a challenge, because it’s a low profit business”, exacerbated by the fact that her building makes the overhead higher than the typical Pilates studio. Nonetheless, she said, “But I love what I’m doing.”

Many Pilates studios require their instructors to do their own marketing to recruit clients. Kathy has taken on that task, promoting the business through the My Pilates Studio website, social media, such as the My Pilates Studio Facebook page, ads in the local Pennysaver, donations of coupons to charitable silent auctions, and health fairs. She noted that word of mouth is actually the most productive method.

Pilates plank on the Reformer at My Pilates Studio

Kathy’s observations

  • Recognize your personality type; operating as an entrepreneur is “way more work, but I like it that way”
  • Ask questions everywhere you go and research, research, research
  • Meet challenges by asking, “How can I?” instead of saying, “I can’t”
  • Remember “for the first 40 years of your life, you get the body you were born with; for the next 40 years, you get the body you deserve”
  • Pay attention to the four building blocks of a healthy lifestyle:
    • Exercise – Strengthening, Flexibility and Cardio (aerobic)
    • Nutrition
    • Sleep
    • Mental outlook
  • Find a fitness activity you enjoy; “exercise is only as good as you showing up”