Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Harboring Hearts
Posted on: April 16, 2012 | Go to profile
During the time she spent by her father’s side as he battled heart disease at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Michelle witnessed firsthand the lack of refuge and community support for heart patients and their families. In devotion to her father’s memory, Michelle approached her friend Yuki Kotani, whose father was also a heart patient at New York Presbyterian, with the idea to create a charity helping these families. Together they co-founded Harboring Hearts in April 2009. Michelle is active in several other charities, including her roles as a Board member of New York Presbyterian Hospital New Leaders, American Heart Association heart advocate and volunteer, and Founding Member of Friends of Best Buddies, Manhattan chapter. Among her awards is the 2009 Maurice Gurin Memorial Scholarship from the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: A great leader is someone who is thankful for everyone they work with. Thank them often! I know without a doubt Harboring Hearts would not be where it is today without all the amazing people who have helped us over the years. A great leader has passion for what they are doing. And finally, a great leader is a big thinker, always thinking ahead to how they can take things to the next level. It is important to keep your organization dynamic and in constant motion.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: When I was a senior at Georgetown, my father suffered a major heart attack, which led him to be hospitalized for almost two years at New York Presbyterian Hospital. During the time my brother, mother and I would spend with him at the hospital, we met so many families who had traveled from all over the world to New York so their loved ones could receive heart treatment. These families would have no place to stay, ending up sleeping on hospital sofas, not eating proper meals, and showering at people’s apartments nearby. I noticed, too, they were not receiving as much emotional support as they should have been during the difficult time. I approached my friend Yuki Kotani (whose father received a heart transplant at New York Presbyterian after suffering 15 heart attacks over 10 years) with the idea to create a home-like atmosphere for these families while their loved ones were in the hospital. Together Yuki & I co-founded Harboring Hearts to help find & fund housing for people as well as create an emotional support network. We received our 501©3 in 2009, on the one year anniversary of my father’s passing. Today I remain the CEO of Harboring Hearts & we watch this charity grow every day.
Q: What’s your best advice for an entrepreneur in an early/bootstrapping phase?
A: Have a solid plan of your own, but be flexible and willing to adapt as roadblocks come along – because they probably will! When those roadblocks come, never quit. Don’t forget your original goal and original passion. Be passionate about what you are doing! Believe in it, because if you don’t, it will be hard to keep up the momentum.
Q: It’s hard to focus on the “big picture” sometimes because we can get caught in the weeds of work and life. When does visioning come clearest or easiest for you? Or what inspires your vision?
A: Probably the thing that inspires my vision the most is being able to see the results. I love when I am able to meet the families we reach out to and help through Harboring Hearts. I am touched by the emails or phone calls we receive from families and social workers, thanking us for their help. When I hear or see things like this, it just inspires my vision even more.
Q: What are your top 3 tips for networking?
A: It didn’t take me long after co-founding Harboring Hearts to realize how important networking is! The best tip I could give would be to be fearless. Open your mouth and speak to whoever you can! Often that is the hardest part – taking the first step to start a conversation with somebody. The second tip is to realize why you’re networking. You’re not necessarily doing it to promote yourself, but to promote your organization & raise awareness for your cause. Once you realize the true reason why you’re networking, it becomes easier. And the third tip? Smile, be genuine, and be yourself.
Q: What do you feel separates your brand from your competitors?
A: Harboring Hearts is unique because we are the only charity organization that provides housing for families. We are created for heart patients, by heart patients. But I don’t really like to see this as our way of being better than our competitors. It’s not really a competition. We love partnering with whoever we can, because we’re all in this together, helping the same people.
Q: Life is full of setbacks. Can you share an experience of one, and how you were able to bounce back?
A: One of my best friends, Jessica, passed away in December of 2010. It was a huge blow to me. We had an event for Harboring Hearts coming up in February, just a few weeks after her death. I wanted to just call off the event because I wasn’t sure if I felt ready to take on such an enterprise so soon. Instead, I realized how important it still was to help the families in need. Jessica always gave back as much as she could and believed so much in our organization. She was such an inspiration in that way. I knew she would have wanted me to continue to move forward with the event. In the end, I decided to dedicate the event to her memory.
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure”. What do you know for sure?
A: I know for sure that you have to take big risks to get to big places. My father would say that all the time. As cheesy as it might sound, I took a big risk in starting Harboring Hearts and I am happy to see it paying off.
Q: What are the top 3 things that you do to stay healthy?
A: The most important thing I do to stay healthy is take the time every day to find clarity and peace of mind. Life can get so hectic that you really need to take the time to mentally get away from it all for a little bit. Meditation also plays a big role in how I do that. I like escaping NYC every once in a while to get some fresh air – I’m a big believer in the benefits of new surroundings. I spend time with friends and family to help me relax.
Q: What place in the world has the most sentimental value to you and why?
A: That would have to be Nantucket. It’s just such a magical island! It is definitely a haven I go to to escape the busy city once in a while. There are so many fun things to do there, being out in nature swimming, hiking, biking, or being on the beach. Growing up my family & I would spend many vacations there. I have great memories being there together with my mom, dad, and brother. I mean, my father was the inspiration for starting Harboring Hearts. I really feel like he’s living his dreams through me, and when I am in Nantucket, I feel close to him.
Q: What do you believe is the secret to finding the right person and maintaining a long term, good relationship?
A: Constant communication is probably the number one key to maintaining a long, healthy relationship, no matter if it is with a significant other, a business partner, someone in your family, or a good friend. You have to love and support that person, but that’s only half of it – you have to let that person know you love and support them. Do not be afraid to tell them often. Don’t just assume that they know.