You’ve got this. Self-doubt can be crippling and I think a lot of women, especially, suffer from that particular demon. When was the last time you saw a middle-aged man in a boardroom feeling like he doesn’t belong? My point is that we also have a place at the table and a right to that place.
Alison Harmelin is co-founder of Zeel, a high growth technology start up and the nation’s largest provider of on-demand wellness services. An “accidental entrepreneur,” Harmelin spent fifteen years in broadcast news before shifting her attention to building a business. In December 2012, Harmelin, along with her husband, tech entrepreneur Samer Hamadeh, and co-founder Edward Shen, launched Zeel Massage On Demand® — the first app-based at-home massage service providing licensed, vetted therapists across the country. The company has since expanded to include [email protected] and Zeel Spa®, software solutions for delivering wellness to offices, hotels and spas nationwide. Zeel has been ranked among the Inc. 5000 and Crain’s Fast 50 for two consecutive years.
Prior to Zeel, Harmelin served as an anchor and reporter for CBS News based out of the network’s headquarters in New York City. She most recently served as a fill-in anchor for CBS News Up-to-the-minute, the CBS Morning News and CBSN, the network’s 24 hour streaming channel. Harmelin spent almost a decade as a freelance correspondent for CBS Newspath, the network’s 24-hour affiliate feed service. During that time Harmelin regularly anchored CBS MoneyWatch and was a frequent contributor to CBS Radio News and CBSNews.com.
Harmelin’s work as a field reporter spanned more than a decade and included live reporting in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the London Bombings, Hurricane Katrina, the Collapse of Bear Stearns, and Superstorm Sandy. Harmelin began her career at NBC News in London, has covered the White House and the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., and worked as a local anchor and reporter at television stations in central Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Prior to her work in television, Harmelin worked for the then District Attorney of Philadelphia, Lynne Abraham. In 2003, Harmelin was nominated for an Emmy for her investigative series on child sex trafficking on the Internet.
A former model, Harmelin sits on The Friends Committee of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Thank you so much for joining us Alison! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
Ispent 15 years as a TV news anchor and reporter before co-founding a wellness company. The shift from on-air talent to entrepreneur wasn’t always smooth and I initially faced a good deal of push-back, first and foremost from other women in tech. In the early days of Zeel I remember having coffee with a woman on the sales team who had worked at a prior tech start-up. She told me that she’d never seen anyone successfully move from television into tech. I left the coffee feeling pretty deflated. I walked around the streets of the Flatiron wondering what made me think that more than a decade as a journalist prepared me in any way to become an entrepreneur. These were my thoughts. Columbine. 9–11. The London Bombings. Hurricane Katrina. Superstorm Sandy. What occurred to me was that anyone would could stand and report in a hurricane or keep her composure on live television and calmly describe a terror attack could probably handle whatever a start-up might be able to throw at me. I collected myself and my thoughts and went back to my office where the same grit and composure that served me in the newsroom also serves me in the boardroom. The lesson is that women, especially, need to support one another through career challenges and changes. I’ve since hired a few women right out of their jobs in TV news, and guess what? They’re killing it.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our earliest vision for Zeel was as a marketplace for booking alternative wellness practitioners online. We put together networks of yoga instructors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, personal trainers and even dermatologists. The idea was broad and unwieldy. Within a short period of time we discovered that the vast majority of appointment requests were for massage, and not just massage but massage within a short period of time. The tech wasn’t there yet but my husband (and co-founder) envisioned an app where customers could book massage-on-demand. We took the idea of this significant pivot to our investors and team and received mixed responses. We flinched and delayed the pivot by about six months which cost us precious time. The lesson here: nobody knows your business like you do, and while polling may work in politics, it’s ill-advised in business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Growing up, my father was friends with an incredibly bright woman who lived in LA and worked as a producer at the Today Show. The idea of a female producer enthralled me — her life seemed like an endless stream of glamorous trips and interviews. When I later moved to LA to attend college, I reached out to her immediately and she kindly invited me to her home for the Jewish holidays. We became very close and eventually she was offered a job as a network producer in London. Shortly after that, a guidance counselor at USC asked me about my career ambitions and without hesitation, I said, “I think I want to go to London and work at NBC News.” Calling overseas cost a fortune back then, and I spent more money calling the head of HR at the London Bureau of NBC than I ever made working at the London Bureau of NBC. But I got the internship! I owe my television career to Susan Friedman, that senior producer, and also to Karen Curry, London’s first female bureau chief. I would also argue that they impacted my move out of television and into entrepreneurship. These women were absolutely fearless and as anyone who has ever started a business would know: fear has no place in a start-up.
Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
That’s easy. We just hit our millionth massage. Think about all those calm, relaxed, happy people thanks to Zeel and the power of massage therapy. Stress and insomnia are global epidemics and their medical solutions — surgery and/or drugs — are problematic in so many ways. Massage, meditation, yoga and other wellness practices have to be the first line of defense in pain management and sleeplessness. We absolutely must stop throwing pills at patients and help them make the lifestyle changes necessary to become wholly well. Bringing wellness to people, wherever they are, whenever they need it, is very much at the core of our business.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
We did that with Zeel. The idea that wellness services can come to your home
or office when you have time or can make time is revolutionary. Many stay-at-home moms tell me their Zeel massages are a life-saver after putting their kids down to sleep. My grandmother had an at-home massage once a week until she was 99 years old! If you can’t get to wellness, we’ll bring wellness to you. That’s revolutionary.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
Trust your gut. Nobody knows your business like you do.
You’ve got this. (Self-doubt can be crippling and I think a lot of women, especially, suffer from that particular demon.) When was the last time you saw a middle-aged man in a boardroom feeling like he doesn’t belong? My point is that we also have a place at the table and a right to that place.
Listen like your life depends on it (it does!) I’m a talker, 15 years in TV news and I became a better talker than a listener. But one key to entrepreneurship is knowing how your team feels and what they have to say. So I’ve had to learn to shut up. It’s been a tough pill to swallow.
Have fun (we’re only here once) Wellness goals should not make you feel unwell.
Forgive me for saying this, but Instagram is causing such vast body issues in little girls. I think we all know what started out as a great way to share photos has, like facebook, become a platform for showing off a better life. I try to tell my kids that pictures don’t say thousand words. It’s like, please could we actually say a thousand words to one another in a real conversation? Wellness for me is truly about moderation. So drink your wine, eat your pasta. This isn’t a dress rehearsal.
Stay present (the crisis of focus in our society is real!) I sit through meetings and everyone has their heads down, in a phone or laptop. One way to really rile me up is to pull out a phone during family dinner. My kids know better but my fully grown husband is still struggling with that one.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
As the mother of three school-age children I couldn’t feel more strongly about the importance of mental health. These kids lives become very stressful way too early. Schools are so rigorous these days, and social media leaves everyone feeling less-than. I read a statistic recently that said one in three college freshman report feeling depressed. It frightens me that our society is just teeing up the next generation for a whole litany of mental health issues without giving them the tools to manage their own stress or feelings of inadequacy. I started doing yoga with my daughter, now seven, when she was two. I was so proud when she was one of just a few girls at her school to sign up for the “mindfulness” class. Whether it’s therapy, massage, mindfulness, human contact or a nice long walk in the outdoors, we all need to know ourselves well enough to reset when we’re feeling unwell and ask for help when we need it.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
@getzeel. I think I am the only human being left in the world who doesn’t post on social media. Honestly, I’d rather spend all that extra time hugging my kids.