When Deborah Hardison decided to go back to school and get a college degree, she was simply hoping to pick up some business skills to open her own hair salon. She never would have guessed how far the Associate in Business Administration degree she earned from Northeastern Technical College in Cheraw, S.C., would take her in life.
“I basically went back to school on a dare,” said Hardison, director of the Small Business Center at Richmond Community College in Hamlet.
“My cousin had just graduated from high school and didn’t want to attend college, so I said, ‘If you’ll go to school, then I’ll go back, too.’ We both registered the next semester to attend Northeastern Technical College, which was Chesterfield-Marlboro Technical College back then,” she said.
The Bennettsville native graduated high school in 1980 and then completed two years at the University of Maryland. However, she dropped out and moved around the country working as a cosmetologist. She was back home in Bennettsville and renting a booth in a downtown hair salon when she decided again to pursue a college degree.
“I wanted to learn more about business and management so I could open my own hair salon,” Hardison said. “Because of the convenient location of the college and flexible scheduling, I could go to classes in the morning and then do hair the rest of the day.”
As an adult returning to the classroom, Hardison was more focused on getting an education and studying hard, but it was not always easy.
“I took an accounting class and dropped out after the first week. I said, ‘I cannot do this.’ But I did not let myself give up. I took accounting the next semester and engulfed myself in everything business. I watched business shows and read business articles to learn the language being used in the business world.”
“I also have to give credit to the great instructor I had at Northeastern Technical College. Ken Erby was a wonderful accounting teacher and really helped me get through it,” Hardison said.
Hardison earned a full scholarship after her first semester at NETC and maintained a 4.0 grade-point average until she graduated. With an associate degree now under her belt, Hardison decided to stay on the academic trail. She applied to Clark Atlanta University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in business administration with concentration in finance. She got in, and her academic success again earned her a full scholarship. During her junior year, she was number one in her class, and she was given the honor of being a marshal at the university’s commencement ceremony. She graduated with a 3.99 grade-point average, earning her summa cum laude honors.
In 1996, Hardison was hired by Lucent Technologies, a leader in research and development of communication networks. She was recruited to be a part of its Financial Leadership Development Program (FLDP), which was designed to train the next generation of corporate leaders. She rotated around to various positions within Lucent’s CFO division and was accepted into a master’s program at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., created specifically for FLDP participants. She graduated with a Master of Science in Strategic Cost Accounting and Financial Entrepreneurship.
Hardison worked in the corporate world for several more years after earning her master’s degree, but she did not want to build a career on serving only herself.
“The corporate world is so self driven. I wanted to do something for others,” Hardison said. “I came back to South Carolina and got a job with Pee Dee Healthy Start, a nonprofit organization aimed at decreasing infant mortality.”
She developed strategies and programs designed to improve the health care for pregnant, women, parents and children in six counties of the Pee Dee region.
For the next 10 years, Hardison built an impressive résumé in the social services sector. During that time, she also worked for a consulting firm that played a role in the establishment of the First Steps operations in Dillon, Horry, Marlboro and Calhoun counties and serving as a county agent for the S.C. State University Extension Office. She provided counseling and seminars for small start-up businesses and promoted economic and leadership development.
She and her husband, Dennis, also started a music ensemble called New Creation, which she manages. While there are core musicians to the group, they customize an ensemble for each customer’s musical tastes and needs.
Two years ago, Hardison entered her current position as the director of the Small Business Center at Richmond Community College, under the leadership of Dale McInnis. The center supports the development of new businesses and the growth of existing businesses by being a community-based resource for counseling, training and planning.
Project GATE, a Department of Labor initiative aimed at aiding displaced workers interested in starting their own business, is also administered through the Small Business Center.
“I feel like I have come full circle in this role as a business educator,” Hardison said. “It is a culmination of everything I’ve learned so far in my career, plus it has the social component of helping people.”
“For me, the most important things in my professional life are community and education,” she added. ” I’m in the business of empowerment. I don’t just give people the fish. I teach them how to fish.”
As for Hardison, she credits a strong work ethic and Northeastern Technical College for teaching her “how to fish.” She has traveled all over the country, attended prestigious universities and worked for a global company, and her education started at NETC.
“You can get a good foundation for a quality education at a technical college,” Hardison said. “NETC provided me with the foundation for going to many new places and doing many new things. It was my pathway to new horizons.”