Some of our role models fight for equality directly, but some fight simply by moving ahead in fields where they are not welcomed and then turning around and helping others. Arlene Joy Harris stepped back into the field of computers and technology after women had been pushed out. Now she helps others make their entrepreneurial dreams come true.
When Arlene Joy Harris was born on June 6, 1948, World War II was over, and technology was innovating fast. Women who had been human computers were being replaced, not just by calculators and machine computers, but by men who replaced them as programmers and operators. But technology was also changing in the field of communications, and Harris’ family was in the communications business. The family business, Industrial Communications Systems, Inc. (ICS), was one of the first mobile phone companies in the late 1950s. Harris started working for her family as a mobile telephone switchboard operator at the age of 12.
In 1969, Harris took a job with Air Canada and Continental Airlines to help them learn to manage the new wider-bodied airplanes. Three years later she returned to run her family’s business when they introduced the first wholesale wireless service. In 1981, under Harris’s guidance, ICS introduced the first wireless consumer healthcare application that benefited the organ donation program. In 1983 she co-founded Cellular Business Systems, Inc. (CBSI), directing the creation of the first automated cellular service activation systems, which are still used by retailers around the world. In fact, Harris holds eleven patents both as an individual and through her businesses.
While many businesspeople would be focused on making profits, Harris also wanted to help consumers. In 1985, she helped found an FCC/TIA committee on cellular roaming and then joined three resulting commissions that regulated the emerging cellular phone industry. In 1986, she founded software company Subscriber Computing, Inc., which worked with paging companies around the world. In 1987, she became a Fellow in the Radio Club of America. By 1988, that company started offering services that allowed customers with lower incomes to use pager technology using a pre-paid system that is still in use today for some brands of cellular phones.
In 1994, Harris founded SOS Wireless Communications, which focused on making emergency calls available to all people regardless of their mobile plans. In 2000, Harris earned the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA) Chairman's Award. In 2001, continuing her focus on enabling more people to access the latest technology, she bought Accessible Wireless, whose customers were primarily retirees who needed only basic plans. These two companies led in 2004 to GreatCall, the first cellular company that controlled all aspects of the business, from making the phones to the software and services necessary to run them. The business won several awards for its products and services starting in 2006.
GreatCall and their Jitterbug phone brought Harris to the attention of technology experts around the world. In 2007, Harris became the first woman to be inducted into the Wireless Hall of Fame. In 2008, Harris received multiple awards for her work – a Fierce Wireless "Top U.S. Wireless Innovator of All Time"; the ATHENA Pinnacle Award; and two Stevie Awards. She helped create the Wireless History Foundation in 2008 to help preserve the history of the field. In 2017, she was named to the Consumer Technology Hall of Fame. These are only some of her awards and honors.
In 1986, Harris co-founded Dyna, a business that helps entrepreneurs bring their technological ideas to fruition. Dyna is still around today, with their consumer-focused home communication business called Wrethink launching later in 2019. Today she continues to serve on the Illinois Institute of Technology Board of Trustee Committees, which she joined in 2004.
Harris is a busy woman, and yet she continually helps support new innovators and consumers through her various business and government positions. Her focus on simple yet effective communication devices at reasonable prices may seem just like an attempt to make money off the lower classes and elderly, but this has allowed technological advances to spread around the world.