Heather Emerson, founder of Prep to Your Door, received a 2021 Emerging Leader Award from the Harvard Extension Alumni Association. Here’s what she had to say about her time at Harvard Extension and her plans for the future.

What brought you to Harvard Extension?

I always wanted to attend Harvard University. I knew I had the drive and commitment to be successful at an Ivy League school, but every time I checked the traditional requirements for entry, I was overwhelmed by entrance requirements. The idea of rejection or failure to obtain the highest possible score on the GMAT or SAT kept me from applying for many years.

Harvard Summer School allowed me to test out the classes as well as my own ability to keep up with the curriculum. I was blown away by the innovation of the professors and the content. I knew I was going to apply for the ALM. 
I want to add that when I discovered Harvard Extension School’s origins as a pathway for people to attend Harvard for free who otherwise wouldn’t be able to, I was struck that the top university in the world found a way to continue the mission. It made me want to attend Harvard even more because I do think higher education is a privilege.

Who were some of the most influential instructors, advisors, or staffers you worked with? 

My very first class was with Angelia Herrin, who is an editor of Harvard Business Review for over two decades. Angelia provided real world knowledge and encouragement to the class with an approach that I had never seen before in my undergraduate studies, where all my professors were researchers or made careers solely in academia. 

I found that this was true for almost every class I took at Harvard Extension: professors with decades of experience for a fresh and modern approach to learning. Some other notable professors are:

Tristan Ahtone: Editor and chief at the Texas Observer
Frank White: Director of Communications, Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard
Allan Ryan: Attorney at Harvard since 1985
Ana Campoy Thompson: Neiman Fellow and career journalist

Tell me about the work you’ve done since graduating from Harvard Extension. 

While completing my master’s at Harvard, I bootstrapped a company, Prep To Your Door, into a premier zero-waste meal delivery service valued at $5 million. My partner and I met at Harvard Summer School in my very first class. Obviously, this deepens my appreciation for Harvard because I met my life and business partner. We are getting married in November 2021.

While my story is unique, I know many people who build lasting connections at Harvard Extension, and I think this speaks to the innovative culture that’s built on project-based learning. 

Did your experience at Harvard Extension change your career trajectory? How? 

One of the most special and memorable times of my Harvard journey was taking on-campus classes. Walking on the stone streets in Cambridge where millions of others have walked for hundreds of years in order to elevate themselves gave me goosebumps some days. The campus is just like the movies: the color of the buildings, grass, and streets. It’s beautiful and felt a little magical to this small-town Texas girl. 

Harvard Extension gave me the opportunity to challenge myself and apply real-world problem solving techniques while continuing my career path as an entrepreneur. The ALM in Journalism is particularly customizable, and I was able to take classes that applied to helping my business grow, like social media video storytelling and podcasting. Marketing used to be a luxury for businesses, but in this day and age, storytelling skills are needed for businesses to survive.

What’s next for you?

My next steps are to tackle the justice system. Seventeen years ago, I was incarcerated for one year. I am the product of addiction and abuse, and it led me to self-medicate because I wasn’t aware of how to regulate my nervous system. I didn’t know that I had trauma because mental health services were still very taboo when I was growing up … it was interpreted as if you were “damaged,” or “needed to be fixed.”

My story is profoundly heartbreaking, and yet I am one of millions of people who end up behind bars due to generational trauma. I am living, breathing proof that if we can heal trauma, people change. I changed. 

I am fortunate enough to give back through a nonprofit organization called Truth Be Told, providing transformational trauma-healing programming for women behind and beyond bars through storytelling.

I believe every human is one decision away from being incarcerated and I hope to change the stigma associated with incarceration. I am honored to serve women and help them amplify their stories and voices.