Unconventional and entrepreneurial, three women alumnae show why they deserve to be ambassadors for a Fisher education.
BY JERI ZEDER
One owns a container company. One runs a business consulting firm. Another presided over
a spare parts supplier. What could they possibly have in common?
A lot, it turns out.
For starters, they are all Fisher College grads. They are all women. All their journeys to entrepreneurship were winding and instructive. They have all been true to their professional ambitions and personal dreams. Their names are Emily Davis, Brent Harding, and June Freemanzon.
They are legacies of Fisher’s long tradition of business education for women. Though throughout most its 116-year history Fisher has been co-educational, there was a short time in the mid-20th century when it served only women as a secretarial junior college. Even as it grew into a four-year institution offering bachelors and masters of science and arts degrees, graduate and professional studies programs, satellite campuses, and online learning, Fisher has remained loyal to its business education roots—and to educating women. Today, with just over 800 students, Fisher boasts a student body of nearly 50-50 men and women.
One member of this lineage is Emily Davis ’11, who grew up in coastal Nobleboro, Maine. When she graduated high school, she aimed to study fashion merchandising at a small college in a flourishing city. Fisher College fit the bill. With the networking help of one of her professors, Davis landed a job at DKNY on Boston’s Newbury Street while she was still in school. Availing herself of Fisher’s online and summer classes, she graduated a semester early, and jumped right into her fashion merchandising career, ending up at DKNY’s corporate offices in New York. As she progressed through college and career, Davis was always certain of this: “I’ll never own my own business,” she says. She worked for DKNY for six years.
And then, her father became seriously ill.
She returned to Main, settling in Portland in 2015, and worked as an online editor for Maine-based style magazines. Her brother Ben Davis, who lived in the area, was running a successful yacht management business and a holding company. As they cared for their father together, Ben and Emily learned that they made a good team. When Ben needed her help running his businesses, Emily didn’t hesitate to join him.
After their father passed away in 2017, Emily and Ben paused to take stock. “The yacht management business was super high-touch. We were on the road a lot,” Davis says. “We just couldn’t figure out a way to scale the busi-ness, so we wanted to get into something that we could scale and create a legacy for our family moving forward.”
The siblings decided to go into business together, founding the Portland Container Company—a supplier of portable outdoor storage units—and then, within the year, OpBox, an innovative supplier of portable, versatile commercial spaces.
Both businesses are growing steadily. OpBox is the more unusual of the two. “OpBoxes” are modular, portable spaces that can be transformed into pop-up shops, trade show exhibition units, docking stations for electric bikes or scooters, even disaster relief housing. Flooring, lighting, window, and other standard or custom finishing options are available to suit customers’ needs. The OpBoxes are retro-fitted in Maine’s Aroostook County, where Davis’s company can draw on the skills of the many craftsmen and artists who live and work there. OpBox has drawn the attention of the area’s congressional delegation and folks working on rural development. “There is a lot of interest in developing jobs and a manufacturing market up there,” Davis says.
Women entrepreneurs are becoming indispensable to the U.S. economy. Since 1972, the number of women-owned businesses has increased nearly 3,000 percent. Today, 4 in 10—more than > 12 million—U.S. businesses are owned by women. They generate revenues of approximately $3 trillion a year, and employ more than 9 million people.
Nearly 6 million U.S. businesses are owned by women of color. They employ 2.2 million people and generate nearly $387 billion in annual revenues. The number of firms owned by African American women has risen by 164 percent since 2007.
One of those firms is The Brent S. Harding Company, a business consulting firm started three years ago by Fisher College grad Brent Harding. Before Fisher, Harding attended a weekend college so that she could continue her day job with the National Park Service (first at the U.S.S. Constitution in the Charlestown Navy Yard, and later at the Maritime National Historic Site in Salem). When the college shut its doors, she went in search of another school. She chose Fisher because its night school program allowed her to continue working, and she thrived there. “You were required to do the work, and I appreciated that,” she says.
After Harding received her associates degree in business management, she attended the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma, and served as an air traffic controller at the Beverly (Mass.) Regional Airport, and at Logan. She did that for a few years—“I decided that it was time for me to give it up when somebody called in a bomb threat,” she says—and then she went on to gain a wealth of varied work experience in the banking industry, in business, and in the nonprofit sector.
She traveled extensively, too, and that has broadened her perspective on succeeding in business in a global economy. “I have had the privilege of traveling to 58 countries,” she says. “I’ve lived as a temporary resident in Hong Kong, and I have lived as a short-term resident in Trinidad. We need to understand that we are global. We are not the only people on the planet, and if we are going to do business with each other and we are going to have an exchange, then we need to understand the rules of engagement.”
Harding’s mentors were her mother and her grandmother, whom she describes as “maverick women.” Her grand-mother attained her high school diploma later in life, and learned to invest in the stock market while working for a bank. She was, Harding says, “the very first black woman to purchase a piece of property on Juniper Street in Roxbury, which at the time was all white.” Harding’s mother, after being divorced, graduated from college with a nursing degree and always supported herself and her three children.
Harding started The Brent S. Harding Co. three years ago, inspired by the desire to control her professional destiny. Her business specializes in personal and professional development for minorities and women, on diversity and inclusion in organizations, and on improving the corporate bottom line by coaching employees in cultural competency and teamwork. “We are only as great as our greatest link,” she says.
June Freemanzon ’52 grew up in a small town near Worcester and chose Fisher because she wanted a small school in a big city. After graduating from Fisher with a business degree, she worked for four years in the communications office of Boston University. In the summer of 1956, Freemanzon visited a friend in New York City who had a job with United Airlines, and who encouraged Freemanzon to move to New York. “I was determined that I was going to work for an airline so I could do the traveling that I wanted to do,” she says.
So, she moved to New York and soon landed a job with Alitalia, which had just opened a small office in the city; she purchased the parts needed to keep the planes in the air. As a benefit of being an airline employee, Freemanzon got plane tickets at a discount, and she traveled the world. “I really am a people-person,” she says. “I wanted to see as much of the world as I could, to know about other cultures.” Her two favorite trips were to the Southern Hemisphere—to New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef, and to Africa—Kenya and Cape Town.
Freemanzon left Alitalia after 25 years and went to work for 9 years at Associated Products Co., where, instead of
buying airplane parts, she sold them. When the owners died, she became the company’s president. Along the way,
she says, “I wanted to do something that was outside of the business world.”
She had always loved the Boston Pops, but there was no such orchestra in New York. When she read in the newspaper that legendary bandleader Skitch Henderson was starting up the New York Pops, she mailed him a note and en-closed a donation. Three months later, Henderson, who was also a pilot, contacted her. They bonded over their mutual interest in aviation, and Henderson invited her for a meeting. She became a founding member of the New York Pops and still serves on its board. Her friendship with Henderson and his wife, and her involvement with the Pops, have filled her retirement years with meaning and connection.
Freemanzon offers this time-honored advice: Teachers of young people can help the most, she says, by “listening and encouraging, showing warmth and understanding and patience, and instilling leadership.” Students, she says, should “set goals and strive to get where you want to go.” For everyone, she says, “work hard and play hard and do both well. But always remember to have fun.”