Transcription of Love Maine Radio #309: Clayton Rose + Alaina Marie Harris

the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at
Dr. Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 309, airing for the first time on Sunday, August 20, 2017. Today’s guests are Dr. Clayton Rose, the 15th president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, a nationally known entrepreneur, Alaina Marie Harris, creator of Alaina Marie, a collection of bait bag-inspired clutches. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Dr. Clayton Rose is the 15th president of Bowdoin College. After a highly successful career in finance, he earned his PhD in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and later served as a faculty member at Harvard Business School, where he taught and wrote about the responsibilities of leadership, managerial values and ethics, and the role of business in society. Thanks for coming in today.
Dr. Clayton Rose: Thank you for having me, Lisa.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I think the thing I’m most interested in and what I’d like to start with is this interesting pivot shift in your career. You were doing… Actually more than one. You were doing something, you were very good at it and then you said, “Oh, I think I want to do something different now,” and that required really a significant mindset change for you and a lot of work. So tell me about that.
Dr. Clayton Rose: Well, the first thing I would say is I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to have done different things. I’ve had some amazing chapters to my career. I’ve had some very cool jobs, and as I tell anyone that’s willing to listen, I now have the coolest job I’ll ever have as president of Bowdoin. It’s really quite a remarkable thing for me. The idea of going through different chapters in life isn’t one that I planned. It wasn’t when I graduated from college, this is my plan.
You can always look back on a career like yours and kind of create a linear narrative, but it’s much more uncertain than that. I came to various decision points, profound decision points, a couple of times and decided to take different paths at each of those points. I very much enjoyed my first career in finance. It was a different kind of business than it is today. At a different time and place in the nature of business in our society, but I worked at a firm where the values were terrific, the people were terrific, the culture was great. We did business in a particular way for our clients and we focused on serving their needs.
Then the firm that I worked at decided to merge, and I was part of that decision process but quickly concluded that the new firm was just not a place that I was comfortable. The business itself was changing, and so I left. I left on good terms, but I decided simply to leave and kind of re-putt myself. I left and I remember walking out of the building on a Thursday night after 21 years, and not having any idea what I was going to do next.
I went to have dinner with my wife and kind of begin a new chapter. I took a year to think about what I was going to do and did some things there in the interim, I began to teach at Columbia and NYU as an adjunct professor. But I had always had in my mind, as a function of a great liberal arts education that I received, the idea of going back and getting a PhD.
It’s something very personal for me. There wasn’t a grand plan associated with it, but it was the idea of having spent many years in my prior chapter thinking about issues kind of a mile wide and an inch deep. I wanted to see if I had the intellectual flexibility to flip that and go a mile deep on an issue that I cared a lot about.
After a year and a lot of advice and ultimately my wife saying to me, “If you don’t do it now, you’re never going to do it because you’re going to get involved in something else and then you’re going to be too old,” and so forth, I applied to several PhD programs in sociology that were constrained by where we lived. My kids were in high school and so we needed to stay there.
I was fortunate enough to get into a couple and very fortunate that the University of Pennsylvania admitted me in, and I had a really remarkable experience there. I can never say enough great things about the faculty and my fellow students and the institution, and to take a risk on an older guy who was going through this transition was something that was quite special about how they thought about their students and what they were able to provide for me.
I studied issues of race in America. I was very interested in this. I had run the global diversity effort in the firm that I worked at in my first chapter in business. I had some personal interest in the question of why we can’t get over ourselves in 21st century America around issues of race and identity, and decided I wanted to see if I could really understand it by looking at all the literature and studying and in developing some of my own research. That was what I did.
By the time I had finished that program at Penn and I also had been teaching for a number of years at Columbia and NYU and also at Penn, I concluded I really loved being in the academy. I thought I would, but I found that I did. I sought a full-time role as a member of a faculty and was, again, deeply fortunate to be asked to join the faculty at the Harvard Business School, where I taught for eight years before coming to Bowdoin. That was another chapter.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Why was sociology so interesting to you?
Dr. Clayton Rose: Interestingly, it wasn’t sociology as a discipline that was the first decision. The first decision for me was what is the issue that I wanted to study, and the issue that I wanted to study was the issue of race, race in America and this kind of simple but profound question of why we can’t get over ourselves. What’s driving the notion that race remains a profound issue and dividing line in our society?
Sociology then becomes, I think, the natural home for that question. That’s what led me to the discipline. I’m someone who had never taken a sociology course in my life before I began my program at Penn. It was just not part of the array of courses that I had taken as an undergraduate or as an MBA student.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Why can’t we get over ourselves?
Dr. Clayton Rose: One of the things that I think my colleagues on the faculty and graduate students around the world would agree with me on is that the more you know about something, the more questions it raises and the fewer answers you really have. I don’t have an answer to that question. It remains, as we see in society today, perhaps more than we have in a number of years how profoundly important the issue of race is, the issue of difference, the issue of identity is in our culture, in our society today. But why that creates areas of division and not the notion of celebrating difference, understanding each other, getting the most from the different perspectives that we bring remains an open question for me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You mentioned your children being in high school when you made this decision, and I would imagine that would have been, let’s use the word interesting for them to have a parent who had been so long in one particular career doing one particular thing, and then deciding I’m going to do this differently now. Did you get feedback from them along the way on this?
Dr. Clayton Rose: Yeah, sure. I have two boys, two sons who are both off in life now, and it was interesting. I think the decision that I made was not a decision that was… What’s the best way to describe it? It was somehow at odds with how they saw me as a human being and as their father. I say that because while they were growing up, the business that I was in and the firm that I was at were all that they knew. I didn’t define myself as a human being, as a father, as a person by my job. First and foremost, I defined it around my family and my marriage and my kids, and that has and is and will always be my first priority.
While I love my work, my work itself doesn’t define me as a human being. I think there’s something deeper for ourselves. It’s critically important to me. I spend enormous amounts of time and energy on it, but it isn’t who I am. The pivot that I began from the first chapter into the second chapter is I talked to them about what I was interested in, and they knew my intellectual interests and my kind of naïve desire to be engaged in intellectual ideas throughout my life. This kind of fit very well with how they saw me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Has it now become interesting for you to be working with an age group that is clearly focused on developing identity? You taught at Harvard Business School, so slightly older students but now you’re with kids, well, young adults, who are 17 to 22 and identity is something that’s very much in development during that time of life. Throwing on your own experience, what is it that you have to offer to this age group?
Dr. Clayton Rose: Well, I think about that question in two parts, how do I think about my role as a teacher, which is the thing I think I love most, and my role as president of a liberal arts college. Those are two distinct kind of roles. With respect to the first, and it does very much bleed into the second, we have just amazing students. The interactions I have with our students, the ability to get to know them, to spend time with them and to teach, and I did teach this last fall is the jet fuel that just keeps me going through all the other aspects of my job, many of which are interesting, some of which are not as interesting. There are some challenging moments and so forth in any job like this.
Working with our students has just been a remarkable joy and privilege. They are amazing in how thoughtful, interesting, engaged, different, and interested in one another. One of the things that I’ve said to almost anyone who will listen is that when we think about what makes a Bowdoin student unique and special, they’re super smart, but there are other places where there are lots of super smart students. They come to Bowdoin to do their best work and to be their best selves, and that starts to differentiate them in some cases from other places a little bit.
But the thing that’s really different about our students is that they come being super smart and to do their best work and to be their best selves, but to engage with one another and to collaborate, not to compete with one another. They do not see their work together at Bowdoin as being a zero-sum game where I only do better if you do worse, but rather where there’s a collective interest in learning and in helping one another. I’ve seen this in lots of different perspectives around the life on campus and in dealing with our alums who share that kind of culture and set of values.
But I saw it play out in just stark detail when I taught this last fall. I taught a first year seminar. I had a group of 16 first year students and from the first day, they were focused on helping each other, challenging, pushing, and so forth, but ultimately helping each other to get better and better. No one saw their ability to do well or to learn as somehow being a competitive exercise with somebody else.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Given that this generation has been occasionally maligned as being the “me” generation, although I would say that many generations are so-called.
Dr. Clayton Rose: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Were you surprised to find how collaborative this group of students was?
Dr. Clayton Rose: No. I think I understood the Bowdoin culture very well when I arrived. I’m now in my third year, and having had an opportunity to teach undergraduates and graduate students for the last 15 years and then having raised two sons, who are now in their early 30s. I have some sense of the generation. I certainly agree with the notion of kind of maligned and misguided view of what this generation is all about. They are quite remarkable.
As we look around at the world and see some of the challenges that are out there and the problems that we have, and there are certainly moments where it can be easy to get down and depressed. I am enormously optimistic about where we’re going and the opportunities we have as a society and as a world because of our students and what I see in them. I hope and believe that that’s been true of kind of every generation as we look to the future, but I can tell you that whatever the caricatures are, young people today they are certainly not representative of our students at Bowdoin, I think more generally of this generation.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: My children are 23, 21, and 16, so they’re squarely in this generation and I have to agree with you. My interactions with them I don’t think are any different than my interactions with their friends. There is something that is hopeful and willing to work hard and persevere. One of the things that has come up in the last year has been the change in our political climate.
What I saw with my middle child who was on campus when this happened was the fear that I had never seen from her before. She called me up, she felt almost as if the world had kind of caved in on her. She was so surprised by the way that the election turned out. Did you get that sense from students on your campus?
Dr. Clayton Rose: Sure. I think that for a couple of observations I guess, one is that for many of our students and other students in this generation, the results of the election were in a sense the first major failure that they had experienced. These are students that are used to doing incredibly well and used to working hard and persevering and pushing through, and ultimately realizing the objectives that they had in mind. I think the vast majority of students certainly went home from dinner on election night believing that the outcome would be different.
That’s true whether you happen to be a student who voted one way or another way, I think the whole group of them. For those students who were supporters of Hillary Clinton, it wasn’t a really momentous moment for a number of them. I happened to have been teaching my class the Wednesday morning after, I had an 8:30 class, so it was the first class of the day on the morning after and my students came in. Many of them had been up all night, and they were I think deeply confused about what had just occurred.
We put the syllabus aside for a while and had a conversation about what had happened and how could this happen, why did it happen, and so forth. In some ways, and we can spend some time, Lisa, talking about this, it relates a little bit to the bubbles that we all exist in, in talking only to those folks that reinforce our own views and so you get the sense that that’s the world when the world is a much bigger place than that.
One of the interesting things that happened in this conversation in class is that I have a young man, a student who is from the Midwest, and people were going around and kind of trying to isolate a little bit about what happened and why and what they’d missed. He said, “Let me tell you that I voted for Secretary Clinton, but I’m from rural Wisconsin. My friends didn’t vote for her, and my parent’s friends didn’t vote for her, and they didn’t vote for her,” and he went through the reasons about rural versus urban and the sense of dislocation.
Many of the things that we’ve now been able I think over the last few months to kind of understand better and tease out as to what the reasons are that the election turned out the way it did. It was really a remarkable thing to watch a number of the students in class for the first time hearing from a peer about a rationale.
They may not agree with it. They may have different ways of articulating why those reasons may exist, but they heard a very cogent peer-driven rationale for why the outcome was the outcome. That led to another discussion about how we think differently about things and this bubble that we may exist in and so forth. It was really I thought profound moment that began us down another path to think about what has happened here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I would agree with you that we’ve come to now understand that perhaps each of us was existing within some sort of cultural socioeconomic bubble per se, maybe an educational bubble, and then was surprised and then surprised even as a country. Now that we know that that existed and that we were somewhat unable to connect with people outside of our bubble, how do we connect with people outside of our bubble? How do we create conversations so that we understand where people are coming from without trying to shut them down because they aren’t agreeing with our point of view?
Dr. Clayton Rose: It’s a great question, and I think in a central part of the mission of a great educational institution like Bowdoin. I’ve been actually talking about this issue since I arrived on campus two years ago. I talked about it in my inaugural address that one of our deep responsibilities and opportunities is to engage with ideas that make us uncomfortable and at times will offend us, to be able to understand how good people and frankly not good people think about the world, understand the world, and maybe driving decisions and policies in the world.
The only way I believe that we can have effect on the world in a meaningful way is to understand how others think about the world, why their arguments may carry weight and where they may not hold water, and to be able to confront those arguments and those issues and those points of view from a position of confidence, strength, data analysis, reason, rather than fear, engagement with those issues and those arguments.
One of the things that we’ve been working on at Bowdoin for the last couple of years is how we do this better, how we develop the skill and the sensibility among our students to engage in discourse and debate about the hardest, most challenging issues of our time and knowing that you come to college in part to engage with ideas and issues that are going to make you uncomfortable and they may even offend you, but are going to push you deeply outside of your comfort zone. That has at least two deep values.
The first is the one that I just discussed, which is that it creates the skills and the ability in an individual to be able to have effect in the world, to make a difference once you get out there, because you have thought about the pushback on your issue, the pushback on how you’re advocating for something. You understand the data. You know where it’s real, you know where it’s not, and you’re able to analyze it in a thoughtful way, and you’ve thought about those arguments.
The other is that it gives you respect and a thoughtful approach to both ideas that are different than your own, and God forbid for a moment from time to time, we ought to be able to change our minds if we hear an argument that’s compelling. And to have respect for individuals with whom you can disagree, but who are at their core good human beings, who care about the world in the same way that you do. There are a handful of bad human beings out there in any category of life. Those aren’t really the people that we should be caring about. We’re in a place now where we won’t have an honest thoughtful conversation with good people in areas where we disagree.
In the Baccalaureate Address that I gave in May to our graduating seniors and their families, I talked about one of my closest friends, a guy that I’ve known since the first day of college who and I’ve just returned from a week of fishing with him. I fish with him every year, he and his wife and Julianne and I. He and I are very different in a number of ways. He’s a Midwesterner, a Republican. He’s a staunch supporter of the NRA. None of those things describe me, but he is one of my dearest friends.
We go and we spend time talking about the world and issues that we disagree about and so forth, and we do it in an agreeable way and try to understand each other and figure out where the essence of our differences lies. I encouraged our students as they are leaving Bowdoin, and I talked about this, to go find their version of, my friend’s name is Mike, to go find their version of Mike in life. Whether they may already have, and in fact I had a graduating senior grab me just after the commencement ceremony the next day and said, “I just want you to know that I already found my Mike here.” It was really cool for me at least that some of the students kind of just resonated with him in a way. So long-winded answer but that’s….
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Do you think that a liberal arts education can be helpful in developing these skills that you’re talking about? I think that there’s a lot that’s been thrown about with return on investment in education and the cost of education, which continues to climb. So then some people would question, why are we educating students on broad-based topics? Why are we not just putting them through whatever set of skills they need to get a job on the other side.
Dr. Clayton Rose: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Is there value in liberal arts given what you’ve just described?
Dr. Clayton Rose: Yes, profound value. Let me describe that in kind of two broad ways. One is some categories of value, and then I want to tell a bit of a story. There are at least three profoundly important reasons why a liberal arts education adds deep value. The first is and maybe for me it’s the most important, but I think they’re all equally important, is that it allows us as human beings to live richer, fuller, deeper lives, to understand the world that we’re in.
To understand our place in it, and to be able to engage in lifelong learning about all kinds of issues, whether they’re humanistic, social science, scientific, policy, economics, so forth, and to be able to get a sense for why we are here and the ability that we have to give back to something that’s bigger than ourselves. That’s the first point. There’s something just deeply profound as human beings to this kind of education.
The second is that it develops the skills and the ability to engage thoughtfully in civic life, and in the broadest sense, political life in our country. At a time where our political system seems deeply broken, we need as many young people who are educated in a thoughtful way and have an ability to engage with one another and to engage these issues to help us get better and to pull us out of this mess. This goes back to some of the things that we were just talking about. The engagement in civic life is the second.
The third is that the skills of a liberal arts education of critical thinking, of analysis, of how to use data, of the ability to communicate well and the ability to learn quickly are all skills that help our students and help liberal arts graduates enjoy great professional success. So this notion that somehow liberal arts education is divorced from career success is just a myth. There is some power to the myth out there, and it’s something that I have a responsibility and other college presidents have a responsibility to deal with in a stronger way. But the data are crystal clear.
You get a great liberal arts education and you’re going to have a great career, and you can major on art history and go into finance. You can major in biology and go to Google. You can major in economics and become a doctor. You can spend your time during your college years pursuing your intellectual passions and the data are crystal clear, you can go off and have any kind of career you want. Deep satisfaction in life and as a human civic engagement and career success are three profound values that come from liberal arts education.
Let me just put a little human face on that. We have a thing at Bowdoin called the Bowdoin Breakfast. You probably know it well, but we’ll have somebody back, an alum back to talk to both students and folks in the community a couple of times a year. These things usually get 400, 500 people coming. Some of it is about the Bowdoin food, but mostly it’s about the speaker.
In the spring we had a couple, graduates from the early ‘90s. She was an English major, he was an anthropology major. They went off. They left Bowdoin and graduated and went off in the early ‘90s to go work for a little firm in Silicon Valley called Facebook. They were early there and worked there for a while and went off and did a few other things, as people do. She is now at Pinterest and he is now at Airbnb.
I was talking to them before they gave their talk and I said, “How do you think about the role of the humanities and the social sciences in Silicon Valley today?” They said the demand for folks that have a training in sensibility of humanists and social scientists has never been greater, because the issue of Silicon Valley and the tech community is zero about coding. It is pivoted now from being less about engineering, and much more about dealing with the human problems that technology has created. All you have to do is read the paper every day to think about what Facebook is facing and Google is facing. Those are the human problems that are created by the technology, and that’s where a profound liberal arts education comes in.
We have a huge number of graduates now that are out in Silicon Valley and in other kinds of places like that in the new economy that are having a really powerful impact on the world who have had nothing to do with the engineering side of things. We have some that are coders and engineers and engagement network and that is wonderful work, but it takes all kinds.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I recently interviewed Joan Benoit Samuelson, who is obviously a Bowdoin graduate and also winner of the first women’s Olympic marathon, and also Jean Hoffman who was the founder of Putney who just sold her business a few years ago for quite a lot of money. She was an Asian Studies major at Bowdoin. Obviously I went to Bowdoin and I have….
I think that you’re right. I think that what you’re describing this need for helping create interface, this understanding of how to communicate with other people, maybe it’s not solely the property of a liberal arts education, but there certainly is a great benefit to offering that to students. It’s been really a pleasure to have this conversation with you. I appreciate your taking time out of your very busy schedule. I’ve been speaking with Dr. Clayton Rose, who is the 15th president of Bowdoin College.
Dr. Clayton Rose: Thank you, Lisa.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Thank you.
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Dr. Lisa Belisle: Today I have with me, Alaina Marie Harris, who is the creator of Alaina Marie, a collection of bait bag inspired clutches. Alaina also recently partnered with Keds to create two nautical themed sneakers for the brand’s Ladies for Ladies Collection, a series that highlights female makers. Thanks for coming in.
Alaina Marie: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It’s exciting.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, it’s exciting for me too. You’re doing some really interesting things with your creative self.
Alaina Marie: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: How did you get involved in being a designer?
Alaina Marie: Well, from a young age I’ve always loved art. I spent my college years concentrating in drawing. I went to school for art and entrepreneurship, so I always had an art kind of background. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, but over time it kind of evolved and morphed into my love for design. Yeah, I went to school determined to make a career doing something that I love to do and I can proudly say that I am living that dream today.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You are from South Portland originally.
Alaina Marie: Yes. Born and raised in South Portland, so I’m a Mainer at heart forever.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Where did you go away to school?
Alaina Marie: I actually went locally, USM, so didn’t go very far. Yeah, I love Maine. I really think it’s a great state and has a lot to offer. It’s got so much going on. You’ve got the Four Seasons. You’ve got Portland, which is such a great city especially for an artist and designer like me that it’s such a welcoming place for me to do what I want to do.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about art and entrepreneurship. It’s an interesting combination.
Alaina Marie: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: We often think about these starving artists.
Alaina Marie: Yeah, exactly. It actually worked out, it’s on the timing. I went to school. I actually started my career as a nursing major, because like you just said, I was afraid that I would be a starving artist. I was like, I can’t live my life doing art or design, especially in Maine. I wasn’t really interested in like going high fashion, like going to New York City or Boston. Really like my heart is here. I knew that about myself.
Yeah, I went to school for nursing, figured that was a practical career. I knew I could make money doing that, but very quickly realized it was not for me, first semester even. I didn’t even last a full year and I was like I’ve got to change my major. So I switched to art as a backup thinking that I’ll just finish my first year doing art until I decide what I really want to do.
But four years later I graduated with art and entrepreneurship. My sophomore year was when USM offered this new program, which was art and entrepreneurship, so I was like, “Hmm, maybe if I did that then I could have some business background and I figure out how to market on my skill, my craft, my trade and make a living doing it.” It was kind of a risk, but I was like I don’t know what else to do, so let’s just do that. Yeah, it’s worked out really well. It’s just kind of a testament just like if you just stick to your passion, do what you love, the rest will kind of unfold itself for you. I truly believe that.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What types of business things did you learn when you were going through?
Alaina Marie: The program is set up, basically it’s like an art major with a concentration in a business minor, so just the basics really. I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, it’s something… When you’re in that classroom setting learning about business and how to run a business and how to market yourself and all these things, for me at least it was hard to conceptualize what it would actually look like because I didn’t have a business.
It’s just kind of like skills, just basic skills that I learned but didn’t really know how to input them until years later when I decided to start my business, which kind of happened accidentally, too. I feel like I’ve gone into this whole thing kind of blindfolded. Didn’t have a business plan, still don’t really have a business plan. I’m just kind of living my life on this journey and doing what feels right.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: There must have been some I guess place of happy accident.
Alaina Marie: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: If there’s another word for it, I’m not sure.
Alaina Marie: Absolutely, yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: But whereas somehow what you were doing met up with what people were looking for.
Alaina Marie: Right. Once I graduated, my kind of plan was to sell T-shirts. I wanted to have a T-shirt business and put my artwork onto t-shirts. I taught myself how to screen print so I could do them myself. I really love the process. I love the design process. I love making things with my hands. I think there’s a special element to that. That was kind of my plan just to do the T-shirt thing.
One day I saw this bait bag. I had no idea what a bait bag was. I don’t know any lobstermen. I didn’t grow up lobstering, but I discovered this cute little carrier is how it kind of translated to me, and the colors they come in are so bright and fun that it just caught my attention. I had this bait bag and I’m like, “Hmm, this is really cute. How can I use it? I can use this for stuff. I can put my stuff in. I can put my makeup in or use it for the beach or whatever, just like accessories.”
So I put on my creative hat, and like I said, I was screen printing at the time, so I went to a marine store and I got a bunch of other like marine materials that fisherman and lobstermen use for bait and fishing and stuff. I took all this stuff apart and kind of redesigned it into my first clutch. It’s, again, something that I just kind of took off doing. It was like a weekend project and I made this really cool handbag and that was it.
I figured okay, this was a one-time deal. It’s just something I wanted to do. Let’s keep doing the t-shirt thing. But I was using my handmade bag and got a lot of attention on it, a lot more than my t-shirt. I was like, “Okay, maybe I could make a couple of more, like perfect them a little bit.” I spent the next month or two working on this bag and figuring out how to produce them. Honestly, the rest is history.
I put my first collection, if you will, up on Etsy and when I made my first sale, I knew that I was like onto something. Just that feeling was indescribable. It was such a compliment and it was exciting and it really gave me so much motivation to make this work. So yeah, that was three and a half years ago.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: How did you move from bait bags to Keds sneakers?
Alaina Marie: That’s the cool part about my job. I love what I do because I never know what to expect in a day. Every day is completely different. I have a store on Fore Street and at the time, that’s where we were also producing all the bags, making them there and selling them there, so you could see the whole process.
Two summers ago, the creative director of Keds walked into my store, Holly Curtis, and she was asking for me. She introduced herself and I was like, “Wait, so you work for Keds, like the sneaker company?” She’s like, “Yeah, we’re based out of Massachusetts, and I actually live in Portsmouth and a couple of the girls and myself, we have your handbags and we would love to talk to you about pairing up and doing a collection of sneakers. We love your story. We love your concepts, and the look of your bags and yeah, we want to work with you.”
That was like amazing. Two years ago, I was only a year and a half into my business. I’m still figuring things out today, so to have such a big company come to me and ask to do a huge project like sneakers, like I’m not a sneaker designer but I got to design shoes. That’s why I don’t have a business plan because that wasn’t part of the plan but it just happened, and such an amazing opportunity. Yeah, so it’s cool.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Do you think that it helped you to not be into lobstering or fishing when you first looked at the bait bag and said, “Oh, that could be something else.”
Alaina Marie: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Because you didn’t know what it already was.
Alaina Marie: Exactly, I do. I think it’s kind of everything, because I feel like when you know a lot about something, it’s very easy to get tunnel vision and just to think of that one thing in a specific way. Me as an outsider coming in and just not even knowing what this product was, I just liked the look of it, the materials, the feel, the texture, the color.
So thus as a designer saw the potential there and yeah, I was like, “This could be a great bag.” If I were a lobsterman or grew up baiting bags every summer, I probably would be maybe even repulsed by it and just like I never want to see a bait bag again. So yeah, I was able to come into the situation as a non-biased point of view and yeah let my creativity go.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Did you work in retail ever?
Alaina Marie: Yes. I worked in restaurants for a while through college, and then after college, I worked in retail for not very long. Restaurants is primarily my background. I did that for like 10 years, like worked my way from busing tables up to waiting to bartending, and then when I was trying to start my T-shirt business, got a part-time job at J.Crew because I love that store. Yeah, that was my stint in retail, so I got a taste of it but never thought I would have my own store someday, let alone my own business.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s also interesting, because there are many people who are doing stuff online through Etsy the way that you started out.
Alaina Marie: Right.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: But a lot of people don’t translate that into a storefront, which has its own set of unique challenges.
Alaina Marie: Yeah. I love having a store because it is a physical place for me to present myself to my customers. They can come. It’s kind of like a home base. They can meet me. They can feel the product, see the product. I don’t know. I love being local too. I love the fact that we’re handmade, Maine-made, local. I think it’s important for me to have a store.
Again, it wasn’t part of the business plan. I just figured I would just make some bags maybe just sell them online, it would maybe be just a part-time thing, but things grew so quickly that yeah, I really wanted to have a store. I think working in retail and in the restaurant industry, which is a huge customer service line of work really set me up well to be able to run a store, because I’ve got those skills like I love dealing with customers and helping them out. It’s kind of natural to me. I started busing tables when I was 15, so it’s been that long. Yeah, I just love it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What are some of the things that you’ve learned from having a store? Because the store when you have a storefront, you are also managing people because you want to have that best level of customer service.
Alaina Marie: Yeah, it’s definitely a big responsibility. It’s not just like oh yeah, let’s open a store, which it is that. It’s fun, but it’s a lot of work. I feel like I almost have three jobs. I’m a designer, I run the production side of things. We have a separate facility in Scarborough. We just moved into this beginning of the year because we’ve grown so big.
We weren’t able to make the bags in the store anymore because it’s too small, so I have a store, I’ve got the production facility. Yeah, so I have to run that, manage six different people now. We’ve grown a lot since last year. I’m juggling, every day juggling. I go into work and like I said earlier, never know what to expect in a day, but I love it. It helps my ADD. I never get bored ever. I don’t even know what that feels like anymore. So yeah, it’s a huge responsibility, but it’s fun.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: How do you keep your creative self going?
Alaina Marie: It definitely comes and goes. As a creative person, it’s something you can’t force. I can’t force myself to be creative. I try to every day, if not every day at least once a week, do something for myself that lets me be creative to keep it going, whether it’s doing a sketch or browsing on Pinterest. I have this wall in my office that’s just like full of swatches and inspiration. So things like that, I also love having my production studio, because I’m very hands-on.
I love taking raw materials and creating something out of it. So oftentimes, when my staff leaves for the day, that’s my time to be creative. I’ll get these ideas in my head and I have so many sample bags that I haven’t launched yet, but it’s just fun for me. That’s my creative process. Yeah, that’s how I keep going in that department.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’re kind of making sure that you have protected time essentially.
Alaina Marie: Absolutely. I think it’s crucial because with everything going on, running a store and running a staff and keeping up with the accounting and all the business side of things, I feel like there’s a fine line. It can be almost dangerous to a creative mind because it can be overwhelming.
Naturally, the creative side of things is where I’m most comfortable. The business side of things is where I’m still learning things every day. So yeah, it’s important for me to stick to my roots and keep the creative side going because to me that’s the roots of the business. If there was no creativity or no product, no designing happening, then we wouldn’t even have a business. So yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Did you do art when you were in high school or younger?
Alaina Marie: Yes. I’ve got portfolio after portfolio of just collections of things from when I was growing up, all the way through college. Yeah, I think it’s funny to look back. I could have picked an easier major because I was always the student who had canvasses and portfolios and pads of paper and paint everywhere and easels and so much stuff in the dorm room or wherever I could fit it.
Then when I started screen printing, my roommates after college probably wanted to kill me because I would screen print in the kitchen and have all these things and inks everywhere, but that’s me. I love that. I love having … I’ve always had a craft bin. From very young, drawing was my thing. I loved to draw things and painting and that kind of, it’s like classic art to me. Yeah, I just grew up doing it. I still have that instinct.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: With all of that, and now knowing where you’ve come, how was it that at any point you said, “Oh, I should be a nurse”?
Alaina Marie: That was definitely fear. It was because I was afraid that… Not even that, it was I didn’t think that I could do something for “work” that I really like to do. I thought work had to be something that was work, and my work now doesn’t ever feel like work. I mean, it’s a lot of work, but there’s a difference. My days fly by because I love what I do versus if I were a nurse, it’s just not in my nature. Some people are so good at it and those people are amazing, but for me, just not my thing.
Yeah, I thought I had to go to school for something like that, because I knew it was a guaranteed career, like a guaranteed job. Going to school for art, there’s no real guaranteed artist job. If there is, they’re far and in between. So I thought that a nursing degree would be a good security deposit on my life kind of and yeah quickly discovered that I just can’t force it. I’m just going to do something I like and figure out the rest later. That’s kind of how I work. I work backwards. I’m not a great planner at all, ironically. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Do you have people in your family who are in practical careers like nursing?
Alaina Marie: No. Actually, my father is an entrepreneur. He has his own business, so I grew up with that mindset and living that lifestyle. My fiancé now is an entrepreneur, so it’s very helpful for me to be around those people. Both of them are very inspiring to me, and every day push me to be better. They have their own very different businesses, but I can still see how a business is run and how they do things, and they deal with their customers. It’s all the same kind of background. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s still really interesting that nobody else told you that you needed to do something practical.
Alaina Marie: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Your father is an entrepreneur, and you hang around with entrepreneurs and yet something inside of you, whatever it was, I don’t know was it people around you were all being practical or?
Alaina Marie: Back at the time, yeah. A lot of my friends going off to school were going to be teachers or nurses or going for science or those classic things, and I’m just like, “Well, I guess I should go on that boat, too.” At that time in my life, I was so much of a follower. I really was. I wasn’t very confident in myself and I just felt like I had to follow the crowd.
At that age, if you had told I would start my own business and have a store and be in charge of people, I would have never believed you. I would have laughed and been like, “I can’t do that.” But yeah, going through college when I got tired of like nursing is painful, I can’t do it. So I’m like all right, let’s just go back to basics here. What do I love to do? Like I said, I’ll just figure it out later. Yeah, here we are.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I think you’ve already said it, there are some people for whom nursing or practical careers of any sort are very well suited. They’re very good at them, it’s in their nature. It just kind of makes sense.
Alaina Marie: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: But there are actually a fair number of people that I believe go into things that are “practical” especially in this day and age, where we have student loan debt that’s incredible. So everybody is saying, “Well, get the most out of your education, and in order to do that, then take this straight path”.
Alaina Marie: Exactly, exactly.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I wonder how much unhappiness that that creates in some people, not everybody.
Alaina Marie: Right.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: But some people maybe who are more like you, who have other things that they like to do, but they’re not really sure what that looks like yet.
Alaina Marie: Right. Going to school for nursing, I would have paid the same as I paid for my art degree, but there is, I guess on paper, a better chance that I would have gotten a job and been able to pay for it than going to school for art. It’s tough. It’s a lot riskier to graduate and be able to find something. There’s no guarantee that okay, I’m going to go to school for art and open my own business someday selling my art. There’s no guarantee that that’s going to work.
Going to school, being a nurse, getting a degree in nursing, there’s definitely a need for that. There’s something to be said about that. Yeah, it was risky, but I had my… I kind of in the back of my head was like, “Well, I can always bartend.” I always had that in my back pocket, but I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life either.
Graduating from college and even going into college, there’s so much stimulation. It’s this whole new phase of your life. There are so many choices to be made and yeah, it’s just like what path do I choose? So there’s a lot of pressure and I definitely felt that pressure, but yeah worked through it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You said you’re not really a planner, but I would guess you’d have to have some planning skills in order to have kept all of this going.
Alaina Marie: Yeah. I’ve become a lot better at planning and organization. I still am not the best planner, but there are certain things like I have certain standards like, I don’t know, like I have a business to run. Yeah, there’s got to be some element of planning in there. I’m employing people and we’ve got customers, we’ve got orders to get out the door every day, so there are deadlines. So I guess I’ve become one, kind of been forced into it. I’m a procrastinator by nature, but I’ve learned to overcome that, and I’m still learning it. It’s still something I’m learning.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: It’s something that I think about a lot because we all believe that, or many people believe that they’re going to go get their education, come out, and be 100% trained to do whatever it is they’re going to do for the rest of their lives, but there’s no way that you could have known a, what you were going to be doing, and b, what you would have needed to know.
Alaina Marie: Right.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Most of us are going to continue on learning and kind of teaching ourselves.
Alaina Marie: Yeah, exactly. There’s no handbook for life. You can learn all the basics in a classroom, but kind of like what I said earlier, I didn’t think or know how to apply those business skills I was learning to something, because I didn’t have a business. Now that I have a business, I can see so much further into it and I’m learning a lot more.
Going to school is great for learning the basics. It taught me how to teach myself how to do stuff, so it definitely set me up for those skills but yeah, I’ve learned so much more now after school. Just being out in the real world, there’s nothing like real world experience and that’s why I think internships are so great.
When I was in school, I was required to do one internship, but it wasn’t really a thing. Now I feel like you have to have like three of them to graduate, which I think is awesome. Get that real world experience. We have an intern now working at Alaina Marie, so it’s great. It’s cool. She’s got to see all the sides of the business, the retail, the production, the online, shipping, design, everything. Yeah, now she can go back to school maybe thinking of that kind of model in the back of her head while she’s sitting in her business operations class, stuff like that.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Is there also a creativity to the business side?
Alaina Marie: Yeah, it’s definitely an art in itself. Not everybody can run a business. Some days I’m like, I don’t even know if I can do it. It’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s not cut out for everybody. I like to say it’s a lifestyle, because I am married to my business. I do it all day, every day. It’s always on my mind. I never clock out, but you have to love what you do. That’s a big reason why. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I encourage people to go down to your store.
Alaina Marie: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Also, to look you up online.
Alaina Marie: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Hopefully they would be inspired to get an entire Alaina Marie line to proudly wear out into the world.
Alaina Marie: Love it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I have been speaking with Alaina Marie Harris, who is the creator of Alaina Marie, a collection of bait bag inspired clutches. She also recently partnered with Keds to create two nautical themed sneakers for the brands Ladies for Ladies Collection, a series that highlights female makers. I wish you all the best, and I am really glad that you decided to go with what made you happy.
Alaina Marie: Yes, same here. Me too, I’m living my best life right now. So thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 309. Our guests have included Dr. Clayton Rose and Alaina Marie Harris. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa, and see our photos on the Love Maine Radio Instagram.
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Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee, our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at