“I have been passionate about everything in my life. I have to be passionate or I just don’t do well.”
If you had told Barbara Russell when she was graduating from Lesley College that she would one day retire after selling her company for millions of dollars she would have laughed. Barbara was representative of the generation that helped to break the glass ceiling, where, as she said, women were teachers, nurses, secretaries, or mothers.
Growing up in Massachusetts, Barbara knew that she loved learning and wanted to share her passion for education with others. She majored in education at Lesley University and became a teacher.
Several years later, Barbara was approached, after giving a presentation, by the Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts, about joining a small educational publisher just starting up. Beginning as the only full-time employee ascending to the role of Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Barbara twice helped build and rebuild the company (after the sale of half of their product line to another publisher) to $20 million. After nineteen years, she realized that there was no opportunity to become more than a vice president; the current President and owner vowed he would die at his desk.
Taking the lessons she had learned, Barbara pursued a new direction, using grit and determination. She wanted to build a company equally as successful in the education publishing world, using what she had learned from her 19 years at another publisher. With her husband’s support and $500,000 in initial capital which she raised from peers who knew her in the educational publishing world, Barbara formed Options Publishing in January of 1993.
When she started the company she knew it was time “to either put up or shut up.” Forming a new company from the ground up can be extremely difficult and there are many tales of failed ventures. But Barbara’s enthusiasm for Options’ product, sales and marketing, and her ability to surround herself with dedicated people with strengths in areas that supported her own, resulted in a team and company that claimed great success.
Three years ago, Options Publishing was acquired by Haights Cross Communications for $50 million. Barbara, although officially retired, stays deeply connected to her passion for education. She sits on the Board of Trustees at Lesley University and the Crittendon Women’s Union in Boston. She and her husband formed the Russell Foundation whose mission is to preserve land in their local watershed. Barbara consults for other entrepreneurial owners as they build their own companies.
While Barbara remains true to her passion for education, her career took several twists and turns along the path to success. She offered this piece of advice to those who are traveling their own paths. “There will be doors that open – opportunities. Don’t be so afraid that you might make the wrong decision, that you don’t take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Every experience is a good one if you learn from it.”
In the end, it all comes to back to learning.