Orlena Cowan-Bailey combined her experience with business, human resources (HR), and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) and founded HR Zoom in 2020 and HR Swag Shop in 2021. She also participated in the 2022 reSET Impact Accelerator. Orlena spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about her entrepreneurial journey and what she gained from the accelerator experience.
NAN PRICE: Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
ORLENA COWAN-BAILEY: Yes, I’ve always embraced an entrepreneurial, innovative spirit and enjoyed using my skills and expertise to serve others.
When I was younger, my Jamaican-born father ran a laundromat and owned several multifamily houses. I didn’t necessarily realize the impact of him opening that laundromat and growing up spending time there, wiping things down, balancing the cash drawer, servicing customers, and making sure things were in stock. That exposure had an everlasting of impact on me. Now that I’m older, I appreciate it more and see how that influenced my future endeavors.
NAN: How did you develop the business concept for HR Zoom?
ORLENA: I became interested in human relations and DE&I at a young age. I was the president of the human relations club at Weaver High School and involved in diverse student leadership and programming in college at Fairfield University. As a woman of color, appreciating diversity and being a champion for social equity has always been a priority and necessity for me.
I have more than 15 years of progressive HR experience. Throughout my career, I’ve done a variety of impactful work in many great workplaces, some with diverse and inclusive work environments. I’ve also had my share of experiences working in environments that weren’t so great. Sometimes, the overall company was good, but the departmental culture wasn’t the most engaging or equitable yielding workplace trauma. Sometimes the managers weren’t effective people leaders. My resilience amidst these adverse experiences fueled my passion to help organizations architect better cultures.
Over time, I established a strong brand for myself with the local Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) community. Through those connections, around 2018/2019, I started to get a lot of requests to do speaking engagements and training and provide referrals, advice, and consultation.
Toward the end of 2020, I decided to formalize my services. At that time, there was an entrepreneurial boom. Many entrepreneurs were reflecting on what meant the most to them during this unprecedented time. Many were trying balance family and work, workplace flexibility, and feeling valued as a human in their workplace.
Also, after the murder of George Floyd, there was an awakening from a cultural DE&I perspective that created more of a demand in this space. Some companies responded in a manner like checking a box or being reactive. Other organizations were authentically looking to make a change. This paired with the critical effects of the “Great Resignation” made it a good time to launch a business focused on elevating workplace cultures and diverse talent.
NAN: How has your business background helped you launch this startup?
ORLENA: In my opinion, HR means business. Most businesses need humans to operate—although we obviously love technology—but you can’t run a business without HR.
I’ve had progressive leadership roles in a myriad of industries from nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies where I’ve successfully led teams and partnered with senior leaders day-to-day on building and achieving strategic priorities.
I’m currently the executive director for the CT Society of Human Resource Management (CT SHRM), a nonprofit advancing the HR profession across Connecticut through professional development, programing, service, and strategic leadership. I teach an HR certification course at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU).
These experiences and more have equipped me for all of the “you can’t make this stuff up” moments in HR while also helping clients achieve organizational excellence. Like one of my HR Swag Shop shirts say, I’m living my best HR life and helping to create better workplaces and employee experiences with HR Zoom.
NAN: Let’s talk about reSET. How and why did you become involved?
ORLENA: My cousin is one of the founders of SkywireME. He went through the Impact Accelerator in 2019 and had a good experience. So, when I was formalizing my business legalities in 2020 and I saw the application open, I applied, interviewed, and got accepted.
NAN: What are the biggest takeaways you learned from participating in the accelerator?
ORLENA: It gave me the push I needed to accelerate my business. It made me think intentionally and strategically and it put me in a position where I could leverage various resources.
They say your network is your net worth. It was invigorating being in a cohort with other passionate entrepreneurs. There was so much value in everyone’s personal experiences—hearing everyone’s story about their why, their purpose, and their passion. People shared about where they may have experienced adversity or failure but they failed fast and picked themselves back up.
It was also helpful to run my ideas by people who had never met me and get their perspectives. The feedback from others helped me identify differentiating success factors that were unique to my business. It boosted my confidence during this journey and helped me strengthen my value proposition for my clients.
Another big takeaway was leveraging mentors. Everyone has value they can contribute, whether it’s an opinion or a connection or something technical. I’ll continue to network with the mentors I’ve met through my career and this accelerator—and be more intentional about leveraging those resources.
Admittedly, I’m guilty of not always asking for help. And often people want to help, but they don’t know what you need help with or how to help. You have to build those bridges. That’s one thing I’ll definitely take away from this experience.