The hum of sewing machines, leather cutters, and stamping equipment buzzes as Sharon Durham, president of Jon Hart Design, walks the production floor surrounded by colorful leather pieces that will eventually be shaped into the totes, purses, bags, backpacks, and luggage made here in San Antonio and adored by so many.
Durham details the process each Jon Hart Design piece goes through, as well as all of the people who are part of the process. Each bag includes a tag that features who made the bag. “We have a lot of pride in what we do.”
Before she started at Jon Hart, she hadn’t carried a purse in years, preferring to toss her laptop in a backpack and be on the go. And she keeps her phone and essentials in a wristlet, but “now I have access to beautiful bags that I can put my laptop in,” she smiles.
The lifelong San Antonian started her career at AT&T “before the turn of the century,” she jokes, back when AT&T called San Antonio home. She credits the company’s leadership development program for helping her gain confidence. “Every year, they put you in a situation where you had no competence, didn’t know anyone, had no idea what the first step to take was, but you had to take a step. That made me really comfortable with uncomfortable situations.”
She’s definitely not uncomfortable at Jon Hart, where she’s led the company through a turnaround over the past year. Durham came to Jon Hart Design with 20 years of corporate experience and thought that she was stepping into a simple marketing position. But three weeks in, the company’s president had health issues. She assumed the role on an interim basis, then was named president.
Durham doesn’t hide the fact that the company was having problems when she took over and is proud of the turnaround. “It’s been such a transformational year for us. Because when your operations improve, everything improves. It wasn’t just about making it better for one company; it was about making it better for another 400 businesses we work with, the retailers That’s their lifeline. So if we mess something up here, they lose a customer over it.
“The fact that that we’ve been able to get our ducks in a row so that they can provide more for their customers and improve their business – it’s huge. We all want to be able to make an impact somewhere. It’s great to know that you do something here, and it matters to other people out there.”
“You have to figure out like what your personal mantra is or your life purpose—how you want to live your life. For me, it’s paving the path for joy for other people. It’s not about me crossing the finish line. It is about clearing the path for other people to be able to do that. That excites me, says Durham.”
Using other people to help motivate her is second nature. “In college, I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids. I’d be studying for a test, but I didn’t want to study for it. And I would think to myself; you’re doing this for your children. That was what was inspiring me. So there’s always been that carrot.”
Even though leading the company could mean making things better for others, Durham wasn’t sure she was ready for the president’s job. “There were a lot of days where I thought this might be beyond me. Maybe I need to tap on the shoulders of people that I know could do a great job and bring them in. Then I thought, how many times have you worked for someone or had a leader where you thought I could do better? Time to put your money where your mouth is. I had to hold myself accountable for not selling myself short.”
She shares that other women need to do the same. “it’s okay to think and to doubt yourself. It’s okay to think you might not be enough to shy away from opportunity, especially when it comes knocking, and it presents itself out of nowhere. But you have to know who the people that you can trust are and go to them. Get their advice and guidance and lean on them. Use your network to help you through it and at least give it a shot.”
“Sheryl Sandberg talks about how women won’t apply for jobs unless they meet 100% of the criteria or mentally need to meet half. But I think that happens all the time. Men can see, ‘yeah, I can do most of that. So I’m going to put my hat in the ring so that I can, you know, be considered for this opportunity’ where a lot of women think, ‘There are parts of that I’ve never done before, so I’m probably not the best candidate.'”
“I think we sell ourselves short because of that. That’s a big factor in why we sometimes shy away from opportunity. Just trust yourself.”
Working in the tech world as a female was a challenge Durham doesn’t shy from discussing. “It is an old boys network and what have you. It’s like a fraternity, and most of the bias is unconscious. No one’s trying to hold back women. But I’m convinced at this point that if you are not actively mentoring and coaching and advocating for the growth and promotion of women, that you’re falling in some kind of trap where you’re working against them, whether you realize it or not.”
“And that goes for both men and women. If you’re not actively promoting and encouraging and guiding other women, then you probably are in some unconscious way, working against them.”
“There are so many things about women in general. The way we think, the way that we can juggle multiple things and multitask and empathize with people. Those are all strengths. Don’t put yourself in a box. Skills are so transferrable.”
The advice Durham follows is simple: You rarely regret making a decision too early, but almost always regret making it too late. “That’s how I coach myself. If I am struggling with making a decision or torn in some way, that’s what I hear in my head. If you make a decision early, you have an opportunity to reverse it. If you make a decision too late, you’re probably out of time.”
“I try to think about what decision I am most likely to regret? And then I pick the one that I’m probably not going to regret. It’s always clear.”
The mother of three will be sending her oldest off to college to play baseball far from home at Hawaii Pacific next year. “I want him to be bold and brave. If that first big step as an adult can happen this quickly, then he won’t be afraid to take chances or take risks. I want him to go see the world and experience it.”
That will leave two more boys, ages 16 and 9, at home with Durham and her husband, along with the family’s small urban farm menagerie. It all started with chickens, but as often happens, they had trouble fighting off foxes and raccoons. That meant a guardian animal was needed. Rather than add a dog, Durham opted for a llama. “Who doesn’t want a llama?!?” she laughs.
“It’s a joke that chickens are a gateway animal. We started off thinking, well, fresh eggs would be fun. Now we have a llama, alpaca and a couple of goats. Our chickens are now the last priority,” she chuckles. The farm is visible from the road, and on weekends, cars often line up to come and see the animals.
In the little free time she has, Durham spends her time with San Antonio Cotillion, fostering new friendships for eighth-graders across San Antonio. The constant improver had one condition for getting involved: she wanted to bring the snail-mail, hard paper copy registration system into the digital world. The registration process would take months to complete, something that didn’t sit well with someone who is always looking for a better way to tackle something.
“I joke all the time that it means I can build more spreadsheets. That’s fun for me,” she smiles. “There are all kinds of people that do something in a way that is the traditional way of doing things. But we could be so much more efficient or effective.”
“I tell people if you can conceive of it, that it’s a possibility that in some way this could be done better, please say something. I’ll figure it out. That’s my favorite thing to do.”
Asking what inspires Durham stumps her. “What doesn’t inspire me? This cheerleader inside of me gets activated whenever you see things in the world that are moving. Anytime someone puts their all into something, doing something with their whole heart, I get motivation. It just makes you want to be better and do better.”
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by Jason Roberts