After a successful career as a graphic designer, Nancy decided to leave that world behind and start working with her sister Amy. Together they founded The Passionistas Project to share the stories of strong and empowered women who are following their passions to inspire others to do the same.
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Passionistas: Hi and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast. I'm Amy Harrington and today I'm interviewing my business partner, sister and best friend Nancy.
After a successful career as a graphic designer, Nancy decided to leave that world behind and start working with me. Together we founded The Passionistas Project to share the stories of strong and empowered women who are following their passions to inspire others to do the same.
Nancy doesn't just talk the talk, she walks the walk pursuing her own dreams by working with me to build our growing movement. In addition to this podcast, Nancy and I will be launching a subscription box of products from women owned businesses and female artisans later this fall. So please welcome to the show my very special guest, Nancy Harrington.
Nancy: So nice to be here.
Passionistas: Always a pleasure to have you here. What are you most passionate about and how does that translate into what you do for a living?
Nancy: I'm most passionate about giving a voice to women who aren't ordinarily heard. I feel like in this day and age it's really important that women's voices get louder. And I think with The Passionistas Project we are supporting those voices and inspiring other women to have voice. So I want to help shine a light on the women that are doing good for the world, that are bringing happiness to the world, that are bringing a positive message to the world because I feel like everything is so dark and scary right now and I'd like the compassion that women have to be the feeling that permeates throughout the world.
Passionistas: You started your career as a graphic designer. What drew you to that field?
Nancy: I grew up with my dad owning an advertising agency, so all my life there were magic markers and t-squares and drawing pads and rubber cement and triangles and all these tools around the house that I thought were really cool.
But as a typical teenager, I rebelled against everything my father did. So I didn't want to do that, but I knew that I wanted to do something creative. I was really into music and radio, so I thought that I was going to be a DJ, so I went to be you because they had a really great student run radio program. And the first class, the first day was a mass comm class where we had to go home, cut up magazines and tell our story in a collage. And I had so much fun and I used rubber cement and t squares and Exacto knives and drawing pads and all the things that were around the house. My whole childhood that I thought I didn't want to have any part of. And then I realized that that's kind of all I wanted to do. And it was like having an art project that you could make a career out of.
So I studied mass communications, I studied advertising, but I also got permission from the school to take art classes in the school of visual arts as part of my studies. So I actually studied in both the College of communication and the School for fine arts at Bu. And when I graduated I always been extremely independent and I didn't really want to get a job in advertising. So I right away just started finding clients and working for myself. And I started my own graphic design business right out of school. I had one part time job for about six months after school and then I just started working for myself. And while I was in college I was art director of a rock and roll magazine in Boston. So when I was 19 years old I was designing and laying out on national magazine and I just loved every second of it.
So that's what I did for almost 20 years. I had my own graphic design business.
Passionistas: And why did you stop doing that?
Nancy: I kind of got into a rut. I found my way into this crazy boring world of public utilities. One part of the job was really cool cause I got to do annual reports every year and for a graphic designer, that's like a big coup to get to design an annual report and I love doing that. But most of the time I did these, like the newsletters that come inside your electric bill, so you know, there was a lot of how many different ways can you illustrate a light bulb or an electric outlet and it just got a little boring. I was ready for a new challenge. I think that that's part of my makeup too. I get bored really easily and I love to challenge myself and I just was in a Rut and I wanted to do something new.
At the same time, my husband, who's a musician, was writing musicals and writing songs was feeling like Boston wasn't the place for him to be and so I stopped being a graphic designer and we'd packed up and moved to Beverly Hills.
Passionistas: Before you left Boston, you also had a theater company, so what did you get creatively out of that, that you weren't getting out of graphic design?
Nancy: The other part of my high school years was I was really active in theater and the choir and my whole entire family was really into musical theater. And when we weren't listening to rock and roll, we were listening to some cast recording of some musical. My father went to Broadway five or six times a year and brought home every cast recording. And so we grew up on theater and it was always in my blood and I always loved being involved with theater, but I didn't ever have the talent like my older brother and sister to actually be on stage though I tried a little bit.
So when my husband started writing theater and nobody wanted to produce his shows, we thought we have a barn let's put on a show. So we actually once again took the entrepreneurial route and started our own theater so that we could produce his shows. And it was one of the most exciting times of my life. It was really fun. It was hard cause I was still running my graphic design company. So I would get up at 5:00 AM I would put in an eight or nine hour day as a graphic designer. Then we would drive an hour into Boston to our theater, which was right in the heart of Boston's Theater district. And we would put on a show, we would rehearse the show, put on a show, be there until two o'clock in the morning, drive the hour back, get a couple hours sleep, and do it all over again.
And we did that for a couple of years. So it was really hard, but it was so fulfilling. And I think the best thing for me is that I learned how to use all my skills as a business owner to produce. And the main thing I learned from all of that time is that I loved being a producer. I loved everything about it. So while I didn't know what I wanted to do when I moved to LA, I thought that those skills would play into what I eventually wound up doing.
Passionistas: So what did you do when you moved to L.A.?
Nancy: All of my fantasies aside, when I got here, my main skill was I was a graphic designer and we needed to make money. So I took a job at an advertising agency. It was a great opportunity. It was really close to home, it was great money.
And I did ads for Miramax and Paramount Classics for their Academy Award campaigns. So it was in the days that Miramax was winning every award and it was really thrilling and really exciting. But it was incredibly hard work and incredibly deadline driven. It was the dawning of the computer age for advertising where it used to be t squares and rubber cement and ad would have to get to a newspaper a couple of days in advance in order to get it on the press and be printed. And now all of a sudden we're sending files by computer so we can literally be making changes up until the last second before an ad goes to print. And that's what we did. So we would work till two or three in the morning, several nights a week because they could change the ad up until the last minute. So it was really exhausting and I burned out really fast.
But I also made several really great friends that to this day are very important in my life, so I wouldn't have changed it for a second, but I burned out fast and was ready to move on pretty quickly. I only did that for a few years and it was the only time in my life I've had a full time, nine to five job with a boss and that was really hard for me. I'm just not that kind of girl.
Passionistas: So is that why you left?
Nancy: I wanted to leave because of that and I left because my darling sister, Amy and I were both burned out at the same time and she was at Warner Bros. and I was working at this advertising agency and we were presented with an opportunity to help a friend of ours try to launch a cable network. And so we both held hands and drove off the cliff, Thelma and Louise Style.
Neither one of us really knew what we were going to do. We weren't making money, we were just trying to get this cable network going. I was lucky enough to be able to hold onto my Paramount Classics clients so I could make a little cash while we were doing that. But it was a scary time, but it was really, really exciting. And then again, during that cable network period, we learned so many things that we were able to bring forward into stuff we did in the future, that it was an invaluable experience. And the best part of it was we learned that we loved working together. So we knew that whatever we did from that moment on, it was going to be side by side.
Passionistas: We founded the Pop Culture Passionistas in 2010 and in addition to doing interviews and creating content for our own website, we've worked with a number of different clients like the Television Academy and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What do you think has been the most significant work that we did for those clients that led us to The Passionistas Project?
Nancy: Well, there's a few things. I mean for me, video production was really new. I had obviously done live theater, but I had never done anything that was recorded. So that was a big learning curve for me. I learned a lot from Amy because she had been in that world forever. So I think that I personally got a lot of invaluable experience just in the process of production and learning to tell a story. One of the jobs that Amy and I had early on was at a company called GetBack.com, which was a website that was just starting out that featured content from 1962 to 1992 and it was film and TV and general pop culture and music and we wrote a majority of the content for the website.
We also for that company created a show called Retro Minute. It was a 60 second daily program that encapsulated the historical news from that day in pop culture, music, TV history. So that was a huge experience for us because we would write every episode. We helped to record the voiceover for every episode. We figured out what the graphics were, we worked with the animator. So that was a huge learning experience. And those played on all sorts of in store videos from like a Costco and grocery stores to gas station pumps. And so they were everywhere. They had millions and millions of views every day. So that was really exciting for us. And that led us into realizing that our love of pop culture is something that we could expand on and take advantage of. And that our knowledge was really deep. I think we both knew we grew up in front of the TV set but we didn't really realize how much of it sunk in and that that was a skill that somebody was looking for.
So we actually figured out a way to turn our childhood watching television into a career. And so we started Pop Culture Passionistas is in 2010 when Get Back folded and we realized why are we doing this for other people we should be doing this for ourselves. So Pop Culture Passionistas became a website that we created where we interviewed people in pop culture and television and film. We ended up focusing predominantly on TV because that's just sort of where the opportunities arose.
But while we were doing that, we were also servicing clients and one of the clients was the Television Academy. And that proved to be an incredible experience for us because in the beginning we were sort of shooting some of these red carpet events and things for them and we were editing their archival interviews. Karen Herman trusted us enough to ask us to do some of the archival interviews.
And these are three to four hour interviews where we sit with people from television, they're actors, writers, producers, camera people, makeup artists. And we start with what was your name at birth? And we go all the way through to how do you want to be remembered? And we talked to them for three, four hours about their whole career and Karen taught us how to do that. And I don't think either one of us would have a career if it weren't for that experience. And we're eternally grateful to her and it's an experience that we'll never forget.
Passionistas: We started The Passionistas Project in the advent of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. What was your personal motivation for starting the podcast?
Nancy: We had been talking about doing a podcast for a while and we didn't know what we wanted to do. The natural progression would have been for us to do something pop culture related and in all honesty it just seemed trivial and I think for a long time we both, and I certainly will just speak for myself, but I was feeling like TV is fun and I know there's a value to escapism and being entertained, but I felt like the world was crashing down around me and I wanted to do something more important.
I wanted to get back, I wanted to contribute, I wanted to be involved. So as the #MeToo and Time's Up movements were really taking hold. We both realized that this was a way for us to use the skills that we've developed and the thing that we really love the most of everything we'd been doing for the last 10 years, which was interviewing people to go out and tell the stories, not of the tragedies that are happening with women in the world but have the positive uplifting things that women are doing and really shining a light on those amazing stories and those amazing women.
Passionistas: And how do you think doing interviews has changed you personally?
Nancy: I am, I won't say was, I will say I am a very shy person. I'm extremely introverted. I was the middle child growing up. I was often left to my own devices and kind of ignored. So I was always very solitary except for my best friend, my little sister. But I'm very shy. So I think part of the reason why up until this point in my life I've always worked for myself was because I didn't have to talk to people. I didn't have to interact, I didn't have to figure out what I was going to have a conversation about. Cause I was in my studio at my computer making art and I didn't have to think about it. So for me personally, The Passionistas Project and interviewing skills in general has brought me out of my shell and made me become a person who's not afraid to have a conversation. I literally used to be afraid to have a conversation and it partly was because I had the questions written down in front of me so I didn't have to worry about what I was going to ask or what I was going to say.
But I think through The Passionistas Project, we've met all sorts of women that are supportive and likeminded and I've discovered the art of conversation, which is slightly different to me than the art of interviewing. And I think it's brought me out of my shell and I think that that's been the biggest effect on me personally from doing The Passionistas Project. It's very selfish, but I think it's helped me a great deal. Just become a more confident person.
Passionistas: I'm Amy Harrington and you're listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and my interview with my business partner, sister and best friend Nancy Harrington. Join our growing community of women supporting other women who are in pursuit of their passions just like them on The Passionistas Project Facebook Group and go to ThePassionistasProject.com to sign up for our mailing list so you don't miss news about our giveaway for our upcoming subscription box. Now here's more of my interview with Nancy.
Passionistas: Do you ever feel unmotivated? And if you do, what's your secret to overcoming that feeling?
Nancy: I honestly feel unmotivated a lot. I think as I'm getting older, I'm just more tired. I used to jump out of bed and just work. I'd get up when the s… with the sun and I'd get out of bed and I'd work and I wouldn't think about it and now I'm just a little more tired. It just takes a little bit more to get me going. That said, I love what I do and once I am up and working, I'm very rarely unmotivated, but if I have a day where I just don't know how to get started, first of all, I've learned to give myself permission to just not do it, to take an hour or take a day if I need it.
To me, it's a sign that I'm burned out. I need to rejuvenate and refresh and go back to it. It'll all be waiting there for me tomorrow, but I also have always had the habit of starting with the most difficult thing that I have to do. I think that the nuns may be taught us that because I think everyone in my family does it, but the thing that I'm dreading the most, I try to do that first and get it out of the way, and then I give myself a little reward. Might be a cup of tea, might be a piece of chocolate, but I, I'm kind of like a dog. I need a reward. If I do something hard and I think once I'm working and remembering why I'm doing what I'm doing, then I'm motivated and I can just keep going.
Passionistas: Is there one lesson that you've learned during your journey that sticks with you?
Nancy: Part of my shyness was that I was very worried about what people were thinking about me and I think that I've learned that most people aren't thinking about you. They're thinking about themselves. And that has helped me to not be so anxious when I'm with people. But I also realize that what I love about doing The Passionistas Project is, it's not about me. It's about shining a light on these amazing women. And so I don't get anxious about it. So it's not about me. That's the lesson. It's not about me. And that makes me able to do what I do even though it seems incredibly odd when people hear that mean one of the shyest people they know, interviews people for a living. That's how I am able to do what I do.
Passionistas: When you were a girl, what lessons did our mother teach you about women's roles in society?
Nancy: Our mother was herself an artist and I think that she squelched that side of her. I think we learned a lot from what she didn't do than what she did do. She was a fabulous mother and she loved us to her own detriment and she gave up everything for her husband and her children. And I think although we all admired her for that and wouldn't have had it any other way, I think that if she had been raised in a different time she would have been a very different woman and I think she would have done tremendous things. Now I say that like that's a bad thing and I don't think it is cause she lived the life that she wanted to live. There was nothing more important to her than her family. I don't think she left this world with regret, but I think it made all five of us take a step back and think about being a little more selfish with our lives.
And I think that's probably part of the reason why all four girls in our family do not have children. And we all are focused more on our career. And again, maybe that's not a good thing. I don't know. But I mean we all have loving families too, but I think we learned more from mom by what she didn't do that said she was nothing but encouraging to us to follow our dreams. Lee wanted to be in a band. Lisa wanted to be a dancer. Beth wanted to make films. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but whatever it was that I wanted to do, she fully supported it. Amy wanted to move all the way to Los Angeles and leave us all behind and work in Hollywood and it broke my mother's heart. But she was so supportive cause she wanted us all to follow her dreams and she left this world knowing that we were all happy and in a good place and that's all she ever wanted.
Passionistas: Did you have other personal influential female role models in your childhood?
Nancy: I think I had a lot, actually. We had a lot of really strong women in our family. A really odd thing to me when I think about it is we were educated by nuns and I actually think the nuns were very influential in our childhood and taught us a lot of important lessons that I still think about to this day. I learned a lot from the nuns, but that aside, my sisters are absolutely the most important role models in my entire life. Every single one of them is kind and beautiful and strong and smart and creative, and I am blown away by them every day. And we all have a very entrepreneurial spirit. And I think that watching Beth and Amy especially go off and work in the world of film was really inspiring to me.
And I also think that I had an aunt and a grandmother that were very, very important to me. My aunt Marilyn in the ‘70s was a political activist. I didn't even know what a political activist was at the time. I didn't know what she was doing was important, but when I look back at it, my aunt was involved in the busing issues in the ‘70s and she worked for the mayor of Boston. On his campaign and she was an activist and I didn't at the time know how cool that was until I got much older and realized exactly what it was she was doing. And my grandmother was just a really strong stalwart woman. She was the matriarch of our family, but she was also kind and you know, again, I was a shy little kid and she always made sure that I was okay. So my aunt taught me a lot about sewing and embroidery and all sorts of things like that that I loved as a kid.
And so we always had really strong women around us and I never once questioned that I couldn't do anything that I wanted. It was just ingrained in us from an very early age that I could do anything I wanted to do. So I'm really grateful to all those women that were in my life.
Passionistas: Have you had any professional mentors in your career?
Nancy: I've had a couple in college. I had a professor named Walter Lubars who saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. And he actually appointed me as the vice president of ad lab, which was a student run ad agency. So I was not only in charge of an actual ad agency, we had actual clients, they were nonprofits that came to be you looking for help for advertising and the students would do the work. So the first year I was in it, I was at art director and I made a billboard for a company, a brochure or something like that.
My senior year, Walter Lubars has appointed me as the Vice President. So I had 200 students under me. They would each do an ad campaign for their client and they would come to me and I would have to critique it and give them feedback and help them through the process. And then once I approved it, then it went to Walter and he would approve it. So I had 200 students under me and I also had to teach a class every Friday afternoon with those 200 students in front of me, which as a shy person was horrifying. So I always, to this day, I'm grateful for Walter that he saw something in me that I didn't think I was capable of because that experience helped me immensely.
I think my next mentor was my boss at my very first job, her name was Billie Best and she, again, I was still in college, I hadn't graduated yet, but she hired me to create ads for a magazine and I was beyond excited cause it was a rock and roll magazine. So it was the two things that I loved. And within a few months she promoted me to be the art director of the magazine. So I was now designing the whole magazine on a monthly basis. So it was a dream job and she was an amazing boss and she had the confidence in me to let me do that and she just let me fly. And again, I don't know that I would have had the confidence to start my own business and do what I did without that experience. And I'm always grateful to her.
And then the third person and most important per person, I think as Karen Herman, she was the vice president of the Television Academy Foundation for the Archive of American Television at the time. Now it's the interviews and she entrusted us in doing interviews for the archive and she taught us the skills we needed to do that. We had done some interviewing before that, but they were minor and not very threatening. And these were big interviews. You know, my first interview was with Michael Patrick King, who created "Sex in the City" and I'll forget how scared I was that first day. And shortly after that I did Chuck Lorre who created "Big Bang Theory" and million other shows. And it was horrifying but exhilarating. And Karen graciously showed us the ropes and gave us incredible feedback. I still hear her voice in my head every time I do an interview and we wouldn't be where we are today without her. And she's also a dear friend and I'm so eternally grateful that she came into our lives.
Passionistas: What about cultural heroines?
Nancy: I was a punk rocker in high school, and so a lot of my cultural heroines were rock and roll chicks like Debbie Harry, Patti Smith. They were rebellious. They were feminine but with an edge. So I always admired them. For a very brief period of time I wanted to be like that, but I realized that I did not have the talent, but they were really influential on me.
And then I grew up with my face five feet away from a television 24 hours a day. So I have a lot of cultural heroines from Mary Tyler Moore to Carol Burnett to Laverne and Shirley and anyone in between. Like I just, I loved television and I especially admire the women who were independent and stood on their own two feet. And probably the very first example of that in my childhood was Marla Thomas from that girl. I just thought she was the coolest and she had her own apartment and she had a job and women didn't do that. Then. And Marla Thomas has always held a very special place in my heart because of that.
Passionistas: Describe what it's like working alongside your sister.
Nancy: Amy and I have been best friends since the day she was born. The folklore in the family, though, I tend to not really believe it, but the folklore is that when I was four years old, I ordered a baby sister from my mother because I didn't want her to be lonely when I went to kindergarten. So whether that's true or not, the day Amy was born, she became my baby. She was my best friend. We were always together. So the idea that we now can walk side by side on this journey means the world to me and there's no one that I trust more. There's no one with the same work ethic. There's no one with the same energy. We're just always in sync and it makes it really easy and I just can't think of anybody who would have my back more.
I never have to worry that I'm going to be let down. And I think we both actually feel like we're letting the other one down because she's so kick ass that I can't even imagine that I'm halfway as good as she is. She's talented, she's creative, she's brilliant, she's funny and I never wanted to do anything that doesn't involve her again.
Passionistas: What does it mean to you to be a female entrepreneur in 2019?
Nancy: I'm really proud to be a female entrepreneur right now. It's hard question for me to answer a little bit because I've always been an entrepreneur. I started my own business in 1985 so it's always been natural to me and it never seemed anything out of the ordinary. But now obviously as time goes by, and I understand how few women do that, I realize how unusual that was.
But I think in this day and age — I mean that was 30 years ago — I think in this day and age I would have expected women to have come so much further. And when I hear about the inequity still in pay and in financing for women owned businesses and just the amount of women owned businesses in the world, and even in other areas like artists who you know, there's only a handful of female artists in museums around the world. It's just shocking to me that women still haven't risen to the level that they should. So I'm really proud to not only be a female entrepreneur, but to be supporting women entrepreneurs and business owners and hopefully be shining a light on them so that they finally get the credit that they deserve.
Passionistas: What's your definition of success?
Nancy: My definition of success is waking up every day happy. It's not about money. It's not about fame. It's not about what other people think of you. It's feeling fulfilled in what you do. It's having family and friends around you. It's enjoying what you do, following your passions and carving out a life that makes you happy.
Passionistas: What's your secret to rewarding life?
Nancy: Family and friends. Being surrounded by people that you love. And I'm happy to say that my circle of friends is expanding because of The Passionistas Project. I feel like I've met women in the last year that will be in our lives for a long time. To me, nothing matters if you can't share it with people. So yeah, I think I love the work we're doing. It's extremely rewarding to me. But at the end of the day, you have to come home to your family and your friends. And that's what fills my soul. And I think that part of the reason this work is so rewarding is because it's fulfilling that part of me. So I don't think it's necessarily that the job itself is rewarding. It's that the outcome of it is what fills my soul.
Passionistas: What's the most rewarding part of your career?
Nancy: The most rewarding part of my career is meeting these incredible women. I mean, there's no doubt about it. I am a little more tired and sometimes it's hard to get going. And sometimes some of these are really early in the morning and I get in the car with Amy and I'm like, I am not in the mood. And then we got to lug all the gear and set everything up and it's a lot of work and it's tiring. But then we sit down with these women and without a doubt it fills my soul. It's just fills my soul to talk to these women that are doing such inspiring things and that are so passionate about everything they do.
There's just nothing better. And I never in a million years thought that sitting across from someone and talking to them could make me so happy. But every single time we leave an interview, I'm energized and rejuvenated and excited to do the next one and excited to share these women's stories with the world. And I just want to do it more and share more stories and meet more women and keep going.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and my interview with my business partners, sister and best friend Nancy Harrington.
Join our growing community of women supporting other women who are in pursuit of their passions, just like them on The Passionistas Project Facebook Group.
Go to ThePassionistasProject.com to sign up for our mailing list so you don't miss news about our giveaway for our upcoming subscription box.
And be sure to subscribe to The Passionsistas Project Podcast so you don't miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests.