The author Jeannette Winterson once wrote, “What is it I have to tell myself again and again? That there is always a new beginning, a different end. I can change the story. I am the story. Begin.”
When Elena Howard found herself suddenly a single mother raising two young sons at age 31, she faced the difficult task of redrafting her future. She felt, at times, as though her wings had been clipped. As the years passed, she grew tired of the successful, high-powered sales career that kept her constantly on the road, and in 2007, she hit an inflection point. She wanted a new beginning, a different end. She was ready to begin.
Elena knew she had to assess her career options and make a decision. She considered a position in wealth management with a major Wall Street firm, but the role would require her to spend several months away from home, perpetuating the very problem she was trying to prevent. Undeterred, she sought the advice of a recruiter, who suggested that a career in talent acquisition might be an ideal complement to her sales and sales management experience. “It seemed like a great option for me, in that it would allow me to spend more time with my family but also have unlimited earnings potential, while doing what I enjoy doing,” she explains. “I would still be consulting with people, just in a different way, helping with their career choices while leveraging what I had learned technically.”
Now the founder, President, and CEO of Numa Talent Acquisition Professionals, a talent acquisition firm that excels in filling specialized IT and software hiring needs, Elena is writing a new chapter, though the central themes of her life remain consistent. “My work is about developing that trusted advisor relationship with people, and about maintaining that relationship regardless of the career position I have,” she says. “Everything I’ve done in my life has ultimately been about sales and sales leadership, and Numa Talent is a way to take that to the next level through technical recruiting.”
Elena launched Numa Talent on November 1, 2014. The name, suggested by her history-buff husband, reflects the ideals of Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, who was responsible for the longest period of peace in early Roman history. Numa’s philosophy for governance centered around the belief that peace and prosperity were the products of an industrious and hardworking people, so he encouraged those qualities by awarding citizens plots of land on which to grow crops. As they achieved success, he rewarded them by giving them bigger crops, which represented the most cutting-edge technology at the time. “That really appealed to me—the idea of reward for hard work, and matching people with opportunities to watch them thrive and grow,” Elena says. “I wanted this chapter of my life, where I’m so passionate about what I’m creating, to have meaning, and that started with finding this name that fit so well and hadn’t been used before.”
Since 2010, Elena had focused on an entrepreneurial niche, helping leaders with emerging businesses that didn’t have internal recruiting resources and were looking for someone to go beyond the run-of-the-mill resume processing to really work to understand their business, culture, and needs. “Many of the clients I work with are in their beginning stages of business, or they’ve reached a point of inflection where they’re now growing very rapidly and need people with very specific backgrounds and skill sets,” Elena explains. “I launched Numa Talent because I knew it would give me the independence to put together a great team and make decisions for how best to grow my own business, and the companies and people it touches.”
Though Elena specializes in professional services and software firms, her expertise covers IT and software staffing across all industries. Some of Numa Talent’s clients have teams of twelve, while others are as big as 400. As businesses grow, they tend to get their own internal hiring resources, but the need for specialized talent acquisition services remains. “Whereas human resources is much bigger in scope, talent acquisition is very consultative and externally-focused,” Elena points out. “I also work very hard to delineate our work from ‘headhunting,’ which to me conjures the image of a cold and merciless profession. Numa Talent focuses on deep connections and honoring the culture and intuition of our clients and candidates. We’re really looking for a long-term career position for a candidate, and for ways to help our clients take their businesses to the next level. We’re very cognizant of the fact that a mistake in hiring can have major ramifications for a business’s brand, and that especially for our early-stage clients, people are a big differentiator. So it’s really important for us to be patient and work on making the right hire, instead of the most convenient hire.”
Elena’s ability to discern good fits and promising prospects has been honed over years of experience, fine-tuned to value consistency in a personal history while not immediately discounting items that might appear as red flags to others. Her challenge is to facilitate the alignment of timing, skills, career aspirations, and potential between a client and a candidate, and to then hammer out the nuts-and-bolts of a salary and benefits package. With twenty years of sales experience interacting with all manner of people from the financial, healthcare, legal, and federal government sectors across the country, she has a broad base from which to draw, and a keen ability to extract information through conversation to see what adds up. “I really look for authenticity in my work,” she says. “Because I no longer have the pressure of raising two boys as a single mom, I have more leeway to really make sure that whatever time I spend working with people is quality time. It’s important to me that my clients get a feel for who I am and what I’m about, and that I can understand their drivers and where they’re coming from. Can I meet their needs? Can I help them get where they want to be?”
Elena, herself, has gotten where she wants to be, thanks in large part to the close relationship she has always shared with her parents. Her mother grew up during the Great Depression, lost her father when she was two, and watched her own mother raise five children on only $5 a week. She grew up in Appalachia, where she taught school after finishing college, but she ultimately decided she wanted to make a new life for herself. She moved to Columbus, Ohio, where she took a job with Ohio Bell. She did well enough to buy her mother a house, and though at 30 she never thought she would get married, a blind date with Elena’s father changed that belief. “I learned an incredible work ethic from my mother, which is now the best and worst part of me,” Elena says.
Elena’s father was a lifelong learner devoted to providing for his children’s educations and well being. When he took them to the doctor, he researched the physician’s education and background before he entrusted anyone with their care. Mentally strong and intelligent, he was among the smartest people Elena has ever known. So his wife could direct operations at home and focus on raising the children, he provided for his family as a career employee of the Social Security Administration (SSA).
The middle of five, Elena was born with an expansive personality. She seized opportunities to entertain her parents and make her father laugh, often doing a silly dance like the Charleston in front of the TV. When her four siblings took French, she opted for Spanish. She spent days climbing trees or building rafts to float down the creek behind the family’s home in Ellicott City, Maryland. One day, she dug clay out of the creek banks, stored it in a Maxwell can, and then used her father’s record player as a potter’s wheel. “I never got in trouble for the things I did, but they tended to highlight differences between my sisters and me. We were very competitive with one another,” she recalls. “I played sports and painted, while they expressed themselves through music and writing. I just couldn’t sit still, and was always off on my bike having adventures.”
The Howard children were all good students, and all entrepreneurially-minded. “When my older sister started babysitting, I pestered the families to hire me, insisting that I had work skills, too,” she recounts. “I wound up folding clothes, weeding yards, and mowing lawns. If there was a way to make money, I was knocking on the door from as early as I can remember. For me, it was about having the independence to afford things I wanted to buy or do, and it was fun.”
Amidst the carefree days of early childhood, Elena was taught a lesson in strength of spirit when Peggy Shipley, the mother of her best friend, was struck with leukemia. The disease had a dismal survival rate in the 1970s, and though Elena was too young to understand what exactly was transpiring, she knew her friend’s mother was very sick. Still, Peggy smiled all the time and invested heart and care into everything she did. She would make sandwiches and cut the crusts off for the girls. If it was Valentine’s Day, the sandwiches would be shaped like hearts. If it was Easter, she’d shape them like Easter eggs. If there was a fundraiser for the school, Peggy would make colorful crepe paper flowers to sell, and Elena can still remember how her living and dining rooms would fill with these bright flowers like a magical garden. “She had such energy and positivity, even through her darkest times, and was truly one of the beautiful people on this planet,” Elena remembers. “For my seventh birthday, she made me a dress, which I still have today, more than four decades later. It reminds me that you can bring positivity, kindness, and respect to any situation, and that nothing I face can ever be too tough to tackle.”
Other early experiences laid the foundation for her passion for sales later on. In third grade, Elena came across an opportunity in her brother’s Boys Life Magazine to sell Christmas cards, earning a dollar for every box sold. She filled out the postcard and sent it off, and a catalogue showed up with sample cards that could be embossed with gold or silver foil. They could be preprinted with the name of the family distributing them, and Elena made her sales pitch to several secretaries at her elementary school’s main office. Later, when she was delivering boxes in the office to the women who had purchased from her, she realized she hadn’t gone far enough. “The women I hadn’t solicited were upset that I hadn’t approached them and given them an opportunity to purchase from me,” she recalls. “That resonated with me, showing me that people can actually be offended if you don’t ask them to buy a product and give them the opportunity to purchase what you’re selling. That was one defining moment for me.”
Another lesson learned came when she was selling Girl Scout cookies, aiming to raise as much money for the troop as possible. She and two friends decided to take the divide-and-conquer approach to their neighborhood, with Elena taking one side of the street and her friends taking the other side. The other girls kept getting turned down, and after several rejections, they went home crying. Elena, on the other hand, made several sales, with one house purchasing five boxes. “I remember being excited that I could finish my own side, and then finish their side of the street,” she laughs today. “I also realized that a lot of people don’t have the desire or willingness to take the no’s and press on. At that age, I connected with the bigger picture and was able to see that there would be people in life who wouldn’t persist, and if I just kept going, I could outlast all of them. If I could just stick with it, fostering perseverance and tenacity, there would be plenty out there for me to enjoy. I’ve always kept that in mind.”
Elena’s father was transferred from the SSA headquarters in Baltimore, down to an office in Arlington, Virginia, but it was nine years before the family decided his commute was too burdensome. With that, they moved when Elena was twelve years old, and she struggled at first with the transition from rural Maryland to suburban Fairfax County. Still, she found her footing and got involved in student government, the school newspaper, and the literary magazine. She mowed lawns with her older brother and soon grew old enough to get her own jobs babysitting. When she turned sixteen, one of the families she worked for invited her to start working at their successful shoe store chain, marking her foray into formal retail sales.
Despite her natural affinity for the art of sales, Elena believed her passion for differential equations, calculus, theoretical math, and business meant she was destined for a career in accounting. For college, she was admitted into the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, where she quickly realized how unhappy working with balance sheets and income statements made her. When she was home for Christmas break working at the shoe store, her employer pointed out that her innate leaning seemed not to be toward accounting, but rather toward marketing and sales. Relief swept over her, and when she shifted her academic focus, she began to thrive.
After her third year at UVa, Elena took a summer job with Neiman Marcus, where she was put on commission sales. With clientele that included politicians, international royalty, corporate leaders and entertainers, her first commission check brought her a thrill of achievement that turned her on to the concept of unlimited earnings potential.
While the experience was overwhelmingly positive, Elena became pigeonholed in retail and retail management. To regain control of her professional course, she bought a four-door car with a big trunk, betting that she would soon leave retail behind her and enter the realm of outside sales. She pictured herself driving customers around and having the space to transport her samples. “Every day I got in that car, I was reminded of that goal,” she says.
Elena landed her first job out of college at Woodward & Lothrop, where she was enrolled in their management training program. There, she worked as a loaned executive to the United Way, which immersed her in the world of large retail companies throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. Calling on companies like Hechinger’s and the Control Data Corporation, she excelled in meeting with clients, planning presentations, raising money, and preparing for life as an outside sales executive. “If they had me running three shifts in a given day, I was on-site at 5:00 A.M., doing presentations to promote donations to the United Way,” she remembers. “When Hechinger’s was still in existence, I was opening their stores on Saturday to meet with people, give speeches, and show films. That experience reaffirmed for me that that’s the kind of connection I want to make with people.”
In 1986, after nine months in that program, Elena was moved to finance to do inventory control in the downtown headquarters office, when she reconnected with a man with whom she had attended college. He was working for Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) in Colorado at the time. Elena moved out there to join him and make a name for herself in the country of Big Oil. “I had always played it safe, so I decided to do something crazy,” she remembers. “It seemed like a place where the sky was the limit, but when I got there, I discovered that corporate real estate was clearing out due to the oil crash. It was tough to get a job, so I looked for opportunities to begin writing my story over again.”
After rejecting a number of opportunities, Elena discovered United Autographic Register Company (UARCO), a forms management company, and fell in love. Based out of Barrington, Illinois, the company’s culture was reminiscent of the TV show Cheers, where every name was known, information was shared freely, and the President’s Club trips were sensational. “It was a culture of working hard, succeeding, and celebrating,” Elena says.
There, she consulted with clients to make their forms more efficient, sitting down with people to get requirements from them to use in the redesign of the documents and systems. Not only was she responsible for presenting her ideas to clients, but also for getting the forms manufactured and shipped, and doing just-in-time inventory. “Ultimately, I was able to affect all different aspects of their business, and see the actual results in terms of how much happier they were using what I produced for them,” she explains. “I was able to consult, create, manufacture, and manage.”
Her big break came less than a month into the job. UARCO’s territory was divided up by zip code, and Elena was given the worst lot possible—a neglected area in Denver that hadn’t been covered in three years because it held such few prospects. Still, she was excited for the opportunity. Three weeks into the experience and fresh out of training, she received a call from a prospective customer in her territory, and a colleague walked her through the process of pulling samples and preparing for the meeting. She met with the client, MetPath Clinical Laboratories, and over the course of several weeks, she returned with different, improved designs to meet their needs. One day, she decided to try the Sales 101 Close. “If I can do this for you today, can I have the order?” she asked.
The MetPath representative was receiving quotes from two other companies at the time, but neither of them had asked directly for the business. “He was so impressed that I had a line, meaning, I was putting boundaries around my time, that he gave me the sale,” Elena recounts. She grew the account to $1 million dollars and fostered a strong, genuine relationship that led MetPath to seek her consultation for its offices in Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. “When I left after eight years in that position, they let me know that we were never the cheapest, and people had come in all the time trying to get their account and undercut our prices,” she says. “But they never wanted to do business with anyone else. For me, that’s always underscored the importance of asking for the order.”
Through her ten-year tenure at UARCO, Elena was promoted to a regional recruiter for the Southwest, and was then tapped to be a sales coach for the region. She skillfully balanced her own career trajectory with that of her husband, and when the time was right, she accepted a transfer to Philadelphia to lead the vocational district for healthcare. “It was an awesome experience, and when my marriage didn’t work out, the company asked if I’d be willing to handle the region extending from Baltimore to Charlotte,” she recounts. “They relocated my children and me to Arlington, which was a huge blessing.”
Ultimately, the company was absorbed by a Standard Register, and Elena decided it was time to test the waters. Through the help of a recruiter, she accepted a position at Iron Mountain as a regional sales manager, at a time they were acquiring dozens of companies per year. The business was also looking to get into federal sector, which gave Elena a taste of lobbying and Capitol Hill. Though she decided the position wasn’t right for her, she realized a strong interest in federal technology sales, and though she didn’t have a strong technology background at the time, her sales prowess landed her a position in Sprint’s Federal Division. There, she immersed herself in the technology and ended up making the President’s Club her first year on the job. Then, in 2006, she was given the highest honor in the company’s federal group, the Eagle Award, for leading the sales effort to land a $600 million, 10-year contract to secure the mission critical network for the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system.
This breadth of experience prepared her for that moment in 2007 when she decided it was time to drive her own destiny by getting into talent acquisition. “I couldn’t have joined at a worse time,” she laughs. “I went 100-percent commission as the market was crashing, and as I was preparing to send one child to college. After riding very high at Sprint, it was a rude awakening, but I’m one of those eternally optimistic people. I love the thrill of a challenge, and I knew that if I could get through it, I’d be well-positioned when the economy improved. I couldn’t be like the Girl Scouts who gave up on their side of the street and went home all those years ago. I knew I could persevere.”
Elena kept the lights on, made the college tuition payments, and succeeded in raising two intelligent, respectful, athletic, self-sufficient young men, who are now successful in their own right. She also met Mark, her husband, who completes her with a synergy that allows her to be the best version of herself, both at home and in the workplace. “I’m pretty strong and good at taking care of others,” Elena concedes. “In Mark, I found someone who is strong enough to take care of me too. I feel so blessed and lucky to have him in my life.”
Through the past several years, as she’s continued to build success through her family, Elena cultivated valuable new skills in the talent acquisition arena and built the foundation of connections and confidence that allowed her to venture forth and start her own business. And now, Numa Talent draws on her long-term relationships to hit the ground running, already succeeding in making its first placements. The business showcases her leadership style of bringing out the best in people, and promises to evolve into an environment built for those who are hungry for knowledge and learning. “I want all people touched by Numa Talent to look back on their careers with gratitude and fulfillment,” she affirms. “I believe in win-win situations, and I strive to build my business around this concept. I don’t think one person has to lose for somebody else to win. When people share this attitude of mutual support and a shared vision of prosperity, anything is possible.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Elena underscores the value of a realistic view of the world. “You may have the potential to become good at something, but it takes hard work,” she says. “Most importantly, you have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your clients or your employer. Their decisions will be made based on what they perceive as reality, so strive to understand those needs and how you can best align with them.”
Beyond that, she urges anyone, at any point in their career, to think critically about the opportunities before them as they take their next step. Is it going to get you somewhere? Is it something you want to put yourself through to get to the next level? Is it a position, environment, and culture that will allow you to thrive? Careful consideration of each question allowed her to steer her own story toward new beginnings, where she stands today. “Right now, it’s all about the future,” she says. “The limitations of the past are behind me, and I know the best is yet to come. The story isn’t about what I’ve achieved so far. Rather, it’s about what I’m going to achieve next.”