Mother, military wife, entrepreneur, and student – Seneca Hart is a master at playing the life-balance game.
In less than a decade, Hart changed careers, started a business, moved three times, and had two children while her husband was deployed to Iraq twice. Oh, and she earned an MBA online from the University of Colorado, too.
Hart says without the option of taking courses online, she would have never been able to earn her MBA. Today, Hart applies the knowledge she learned in the online MBA program as the owner of Hero On My Arm, a business that repurposes used military uniforms into keepsakes and accessories such as purses and wallets.
While living in Colorado, Hart started her MBA on campus at the University of Colorado, knowing that at any time, the Army could relocate her family. At the time, she was working in retail management, and her employer, Victoria’s Secret had a tuition reimbursement program. She took a break from work and school after her daughter was born, but always intended to finish her degree.
“We are a military family, so we moved around a lot – 10 times since we’ve been married –so I picked the University of Colorado because I had the option of finishing online it no matter where we lived,” Hart said.
Online degree programs are increasingly popular among veterans, active duty military personnel, and their families for the very same reasons Hart cited. Hart said another perk of online education was not having to pay non-resident tuition once the Army relocated her family — a courtesy the university offers military families.
“When I went back to the program after leaving my job and having a baby, I was on my own, my husband was in Iraq, I was running a business, and I was nervous about finding the time and money to finish, but it was really important to me.”
Hart made her first bag using her husband’s Army uniform while they were living at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas. Her mother-in-law wanted one too, and soon she was selling the bags to friends, at craft shows, and online, and the company grew from there.
“Our products really represent a personal connection,” Hart said. “Your son, daughter, husband, or brother just left for nine months, and your purse is a reminder that you can carry every day. We do just as much business with moms as we do with wives. They want to show off their pride for the military. It’s a conversation piece.”
Now people all over the country send in the used uniforms of their loved ones, and Hero On My Arm fulfills 200-300 orders per month, double that amount at the holidays. Even if you don’t have a uniform to send in, the company still sells bags and accessories made from surplus uniforms.
“When I was first starting out in the business, I was working out of my house. I answered the phones, handled all the orders and shipping and receiving. I pretty much wore every hat except doing the sewing.”
All the while, she learned to conquer the elusive time management beast as she continued her online courses.
“You have to prioritize and schedule,” she said. “The trick is allowing more time than you are going to need. If I need two hours, I need to block out four hours, because inevitably, something is going to come up – the website will go down or the baby will get sick.”
In addition to the financial aspects of her MBA, Hart said she values the knowledge she gained in her human resources courses.
“I learned how to not only be a good manager, but also how to be a good leader in general,” she said. “I remember one professor telling us you have to be able to connect with your employees and look at each employee as a person. They have personal motives and feelings for everything, and you have to understand those to motivate them. I still have the workbook from that HR class.”
Hart encourages prospective MBA students to find a concentration that allows them to expand on their strengths and interests, rather than choosing a program based what they think is most marketable.
“When I was first starting my MBA, I wanted to get emphasis in finance because it would be more marketable. But that’s not what I do every day. My best advice is to learn more about what you are already doing and what you already know. You get so much more out of your education that way.”
Working in a niche craft business, Hart has learned to embrace her company’s unique appeal to consumers. All too often, businesses try to be too homogeneous, and be all things to all people, therefore missing out on customers, Hart advises.
“When people are starting up, there is a tendency to try to make yourself look bigger than you are, but the truth is, people want to know who you are, because what you are selling is not just a product , it’s a reflection of you,” Hart said. “Don’t try to be something you are not, because you will be the most successful when you are the most honest and true to yourself.”
Follow Elise Rambaud Marrion on Twitter @elisermarrion.