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Denise Jillson, Executive Director of Harvard Square Business Association –

Denise Jillson’s BIO

Denise is the Executive Director of the Harvard Square Business Association which was established in 1910 to promote commerce in Harvard Square.

Prior to her arrival at the HSBA, she worked as the Director of Development for the Cambridge Family YMCA, was the New England Regional Manager for Putnam Furniture Leasing and the Operations Manager for Wheeler Manufacturing — all located in Cambridge.

Denise is Past President of the Rotary Club of Cambridge and currently serves as a board member. She is former chair of the Board of the Community Charter School of Cambridge, is an Executive Board Member of the Boston Minuteman Council / Boy Scouts of America, and serves on the board of Actors’ Shakespeare Project.

Denise holds a B.A. in Human Development from Lesley University. She and her husband George Pereira live in Cambridge.

In the Spotlight Interview

1. BSO : Please share with us the inception of

DJ: The path to my position as the Executive Director of the Harvard Square Business Association seems so clear, but in reality, it was circuitous and unplanned.

Interestingly enough, almost without exception, my professional career has been in the City of Cambridge. I started with Land O Lakes Butter Company which was located on Albany Street. There was an office on the first floor, a refrigerated warehouse in the basement level and train tracks out back. Carloads of butter and cheese were shipped from the Midwest to Cambridge by railcar. I worked as the executive secretary to the Branch Manager. I loved my job but wanted to advance to sales. Salesmen had cars and expense accounts and got to travel. However, it was the mid-seventies and the glass ceiling was very much in place. I wanted to move up the corporate ladder to become a salesperson. I was told that only young, college-educated males could apply for sales positions. That didn’t set well with me.

So I left and took a job as an Accounts Receivable Bookkeeper at Wheeler Manufacturing on Brookline Street. Wheeler manufactured sleeve-type electric motor bearings for industry. It was hard core American industry. They had a unionized shop (United Steel Workers) and were male dominated. However, unlike Land O Lakes, they promoted me based on my performance.

I went from accounting to personnel, from sales to non-contractual labor relations, from manufacturing engineering to quality control. By the time I left, after 19 years, I was the Operations Manager. I moved on because they were closing the Cambridge plant and moving to South Carolina. I will be forever grateful to them for the opportunities they made available to me.

Upon leaving Wheeler, I went to work for Putnam Furniture in Central Square to head up their Office Furniture Division. I honestly didn’t know the difference between a two-drawer lateral file and a credenza, but I had managed people and had a successful track record at Wheeler.

I took the job by storm and helped turn the division around by learning from some of the best salespeople in the furniture industry. After several years, Putnam was sold and I got a job offer to work as the institutional development officer at the Cambridge Family YMCA, also located in Central Square. I stayed with them for several years and unexpectedly found myself laid off. It was the most crushing time of my life.

I fully identify myself as a wife, mother, and worker. When I was suddenly no longer a worker, my world felt off-balance. Fortunately, within a few weeks, I was hired as the Executive Director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

It is important to note that during my time at Wheeler, I was a volunteer in a statewide grassroots political campaign that took nearly seven years to complete. And during my time at Putnam, I took a 10 month leave of absence to run a statewide gubernatorial campaign.

One of the most wonderful outcomes of my current position is that I use my entire skillset : from bookkeeping to salesmanship, from managing a division to institutional development, as well as proficiencies I picked up along the way through political activism, community volunteering, board service and club activities.


2. BSO : Take us through a typical day, start to finish.

DJ: There are so many great things about being at the Harvard Square Business Associatiom (HSBA)….and perhaps the best is that there is no such thing as a typical day.

We set our calendar of events a year in advance to give ourselves and our members plenty of time to prepare, as many of our events attract thousands of people. We arrive each day with a solid work plan regarding event logistics. On any given day, that plan could include organizing, permitting, licensing, marketing, social media, sponsorship negotiation, community partnering, press releases, public relations, advertising and budgeting. We also have to keep up with hundreds of e-mails and spend several hours each day on website maintenance and social media activities. Our website receives about 50,000 visitors each month. We have over 28,000 Facebook friends and over 10,000 twitter followers.

Depending on what is happening in the Square relative to business openings, expansions, closings or changing, we could find ourselves at any number of board or commission hearings (Licensing, Historical, BZA, Planning) to advocate on behalf of our members. We also attend numerous political, community and university meetings relating to Square activities.

At any moment, a number of our members may have a request, from advice on marketing to graffiti removal, from sidewalk obstruction permit requests to outside patio seating assistance, or from changes to their webpage on our website to changes in their key personnel for our records; we are at their service.

Additionally, as things happen, be it nationally, internationally or locally, when people want to come together, to celebrate, mourn, demonstrate or make their voices heard, they typically come to Harvard Square. We are always at the ready to ensure, to the extent possible, that our businesses are not adversely impacted, and/or to have a statement prepared for press.

We consider ourselves the Concierge for the Square by providing information, creating and distributing thousands of way-finding maps, maintaining the outside free public WiFi access program, purchasing and maintaining the flowers, banners and holiday decorations and accommodating as many people as possible from homeless individuals to global leaders. Everyone is welcomed in Harvard Square; a truly authentic, organic urban place.


3. BSO : What was the best advice you received as you began expanding your business?

DJ: Carpe Diem.


4. BSO : What are your strategies for building awareness of Harvard Square Business Association for the short term and the long term?

DJ: The HSBA was founded in 1910. The association has a solid reputation for getting things done, for being a credible and reliable force in the community and for working strategically with both the city of Cambridge and Harvard University in true and effective collaborations.

My strategy both short term and long term is to ensure that the relevancy and vibrancy of the association are safeguarded and that we continue to grow. A board member once said, “Momentum is hard to gain and easy to lose.” I take that to heart and try hard not to take anything for granted.


5. BSO : What is your proudest achievement?

DJ: Personal and professional achievements are separate but not apart. I delight in the combination of the two forces coming together keeping me actively loving life.

My proudest personal achievement is my dear and beautiful family. My proudest professional achievement is my standing in the community.


6. BSO : What are Your Top 3 book recommendations? 

• Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
• The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
• Common Sense, Thomas Paine


7. BSO : What charitable causes are most meaningful to you and why?

DJ: I support many charitable causes and am particularly drawn to those that serve children, advocate for the homeless, promote education and foster the arts. I am actively involved in Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army, the Rotary Club of Cambridge, the Community Charter School of Cambridge, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, and work closely with a number of other organizations, including The Possible Project, Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre, Youth on Fire, and On the Rise.


8. BSO : Who has been most influential toward your career successes with Harvard Square Business Associaton?

DJ: My husband, George Pereira; he is my advisor, supporter, and best friend.


9. BSO : What is your advice for entrepreneurs who are 1-3 months away from launching their business?

DJ: Have a good business plan…and then take stock of yourself. Make sure you love what you are doing; success will follow.

Don’t measure success in dollars. Remember that the true worth of a person is found only when you take away their money and possessions.

Stay in the moment, it is all you have.

Enjoy the journey…embrace the good, the bad, the ugly, the chaotic and the calm; learn from it all and develop a skillset that is transferrable. It will serve you well.

And finally, surround yourself with good people. Place honesty, integrity and your reputation above all else. This, too, will serve you well.

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