In one of our favorite podcast episodes yet, Dylan Welch sits down with Elissa Fisher Harris, Chief Impact Officer at 5th Element Group, and host of A World On Purpose Podcast. Elissa is a consummate champion for the underdog and for the greater good of humanity. Her personal life story is one of insurmountable adversity, out of which came her incredible resilience by channeling those challenges into vehicles for good and a deep desire to live in the world intentionally with purpose, or what she calls living in the world ON purpose. Elissa’s passion for all things well-being, healthy living, and social impact was a direct result of growing up homeless for the majority of her first 13 years of life, as well as self-resolving health issues she had acquired in her 20’s, then by the age of 34 losing 2 husbands to the same rare cancer that only affects 10,000 per year in the United States. Overcoming these challenges, this now female entrepreneur practices being the best version of herself and living a life of purpose. Through this experience, we are excited to learn more about Elissa and the power of positive social impact and how it can effect people’s lives.
Tell us about your background:
I grew up homeless, on and off for the first 13 years of my life. I could count on my hands the times we actually had an apartment or home with any furniture, let alone nice furniture. We often lived in the car, motels, a shelter a couple of times or even with a kind person who let my family sleep at their house. At an early age I knew school was important to my future and I wanted to go because it was the only place I received positive reinforcement and could escape my mom, but it was hard challenging because I didn’t have nice clothes and I often didn’t have a home for friends to visit. Additionally, because of the unpredictability of my life, I had to change schools a lot. I went to 9 different schools over a 3-year period
My parents were very young when I was born. My mother, who was considered “eccentric,” then, would have been diagnosed today with paranoid schizophrenia. From what I have learned about mental illness and especially Schizophrenia, I believe her illness was exacerbated by my birth and further worsened after the birth of my brother when I was 5. It was traumatic; the woman who was supposed to nurture my brother and me was not capable of it, and in fact became physically and emotionally abusive.
My mother’s illness led to real instability for my dad—it was difficult for him to keep a consistent job which resulted in an inability to keep a consistent home. It was hard for him to take care of everybody, and my mom became increasingly harder on me the older I became. There were two times I can clearly remember staying with school friends for a short reprieve. I don’t recall what led to that, but I do remember feeling so lucky to be out of my mom’s grip. The rest of the time, time I was trying to help keep my family together as I watched my dad struggle night and day just trying to barely keep us fed and sheltered. At the same time, my dad had struggles with alcohol and marijuana, probably as his coping mechanism for living with my mother-she was also abusive to him. Some might judge my dad for not getting us out of that situation, and there was a period of my early adult life where I was angry at him for not protecting me. However, mental illness is complicated and often times families don’t know how to navigate it. I did a lot of research about mental illness and realized later in life that my father truly did the best he could with the tools that he had from his own dysfunctional childhood. So, my anger was soon replaced with the realization that he was my hero, because other fathers have left their families for less. My dad never abandoned his family. I knew then, as deeply as I know now–my dad had no idea what he was signing up for when he fell in love with my mom, but he did love her he loved his kids, in spite of her illness.
By the time I was in junior high school at the age of 13 the challenges became too much for me to bear. My mother was in a terrible way and her abuse toward me escalated it seemed almost daily. I was afraid for my safety. We were in a motel 6 in Santa Rosa, CA and I had just been pulled out of school again. My mom had locked me out of the hotel room that night so I went and sit in car and started sobbing for what felt like the millionth time, just asking the universe how was I going to survive this much longer. My dad came down to talk with me and we had the first real conversation I can remember with him, “I can’t live like this anymore. I need a chance at life, and I know you’re having a hard time taking care of the whole family.”
Our extended family didn’t have a lot of empathy for our situation so I had little exposure to relatives. It was as though we just disappeared from the radar of most of the relatives except for one– my mother’s sister, had any interest in keeping tabs on our whereabouts or well-being. Also, my aunt was the only relative my mother seemed to trust in her constant delusional state. I told my dad that I had to leave and I was either going to run away, or maybe I could go stay with my Aunt. I knew my Aunt was somewhere in CA and I thought she had a farm so I said I was happy to milk cows or whatever to pay for myself. I had no idea that my Aunt was an hour and half drive from where we were in that moment. Two days after that conversation with my father, my aunt showed up to get me. With one small metal file box of the only things I owned, I left my family to start a new path towards my future . For a long time, I thought my father had called her to help me. Years later I found out it was my mother who called her sister and said, “You need to come pick up Elissa, she’s not safe here.” Apparently, she told my aunt I had some older boyfriend and she as worried about my, which wasn’t the case as that was the brother of my Jr. High friend whose kind family had taken me in for a few weeks shortly before I was pulled out of school. When I heard she made the call to my aunt, I felt in my heart That was her way of justifying it, but I truly believe that on some intuitive level, trapped inside her dementia, she knew I wasn’t safe with her.
As my aunt drove away with me it was both exhilarating– I took a breath for the first time in 13 years– and heartbreaking at the same time because I couldn’t bring my brother with me and no matter how much pain our life has caused me up to that point, they were still my family and I loved them. While I didn’t want to leave my family, I knew I had no choice if I wanted a chance at a life. I remember looking out the back window of my aunt’s car, my dad waving goodbye, my brother’s head in his hands crying and my mom standing there, looking spaced out as if she wasn’t in her body at all. At my aunt and uncle’s I would finally had my own room so my aunt stopped a department store on our way to her 40 acre farm; which turns out was called “The Book Farm” because they were book publishers and designers; and she bought me a new bed set and some new clothes!
Due to my disjointed school life, I was held back a grade. My astute Aunt knew even from afar my whole life, that I was a smart kid and should be with my peers my own age. So, she went to the high school and asked what could be done to let me go into the appropriate grade. The principal recommended a program called Upward Bound to help underprivileged kids to get on a college track. Through the program, I ended up having to go to summer school for three summers, basically until I went to college. While my friends felt sorry for me for having to go to summer school, I loved it and thrived on taking great classes like Shakespeare and Fencing and being in the company of other kids like me from troubled families and were just trying to get through life, but had great potential if it were nurtured and cultivated. That program took place at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Ca and is the school that became my college alma matter.
My aunt and uncle gave me a lovely stable environment. I went from a little kid living in a car to being a cheerleader, drama class, yearbook, singing in the choir and was eventually voted “most likely to succeed.” I was also ASB president, all of which seemed like the things that all “normal” kids would do. I left for college in 1988 and felt on top of the world!
What trends are you seeing in your industry?
These were the trends the last year and a half that have become the focus of social impact work globally:
- 1. The threat of climate change has new urgency
- 2. Investors have begun to reframe risk (Climate risk = Investment risk)
- 3. Consumers expect purpose to outweigh profit
- 4. The corporate world looks to lead on climate policy
- 5. Targets in sustainability are firmly rooted in science
- 6. More support than ever around achieving the Sustainable Development Goals
- 7. Topics that have shifted to the top of the agenda
- a. Social Justice
- b. Wellbeing which took on new meaning
- c. Workplace
- 8. Sustainability and social impact experts (like 5th Element group) never have been in more demand
What is one Action Item for our listeners and viewers to take away from this conversation?
Understanding that each one of us on this planet has a purpose that is bigger than us our outside our own existence is a key component to living a more fulfilling life. Whether it be to a mission to help one person or millions, inside each human we all have a desire to bring greater meaning to our lives and make a difference in the world, and that comes from choosing take action to live a more purpose or impact driven life. SO today, make a conscious choice to do something for someone else, even one small random act of kindness, and see what happens.
What is a fun fact about you?
I do great impressions, but I can’t do them when people are expecting it. I have to whip them out when no one is ready for them. I also am very musically inclined and have been signing since I was young and thus also have a great ear for languages and accents.
Where do you see your industry ten years from now?
I think think one thing Covid did was become the great equalizer to humanity. It originally sparked a realization that as humans, we are all subject to being vulnerable, however it also shines a massive flood light on the fact that many of us who work in the impact space already know, especially those of us who have actually lived on the margins, that there is a HUGE part of our global community that are even more vulnerable and it is OUR responsibility as a shared human that cares about humans to do something to truly affect change and bring everyone to a level playing field.
I think the trends we will see is more and more the private sector, big business, stepping up to help solve world problems in a more meaningful and measureable way, not just “good washing” as I call it.” I think there were will also be lessons that the public sector/government can gain from private/public partnerships as well and we will see hopefully trend of the two big entities coming together to lift and support humanity. I think we will also see more than ever a bit push to authentically support marginalized communities, minority owned business and so forth. I hope we get to the place where we don’t even use those terms because everyone is truly equal. I hope also that individuals stat to realize their own power and force of nature to live their purpose and make positive change in they world too.
Elissa, thank you for taking the time to share your experience and having a positive social impact on many people’s lives.
Elissa’s podcast episode with Dylan Welch will be going live a week after this article goes live. Be sure to subscribe and listen to The Green Podcast so that you can check out Elissa’s episode when it goes live.
Listen to Elissa’s podcast, A World On Purpose, here.