By Joe Tash
As a child, Arlene Harris sat on the laps of the switchboard operators at her parents’ mobile telephone business, her first exposure to a nascent industry and a springboard to innovations that have helped shape the way people communicate around the globe.
Harris, 65, a Del Mar resident, has initiated major advancements in the industry, from computerized systems to activate new cell phones, to prepaid calling plans to a cell phone service designed for seniors and people with disabilities.
Along the way, she has earned numerous distinctions: in 2007, she became the first woman inducted into the Wireless Hall of Fame, and was given the nickname “First Lady of Wireless” by a journalist. Her husband and business partner, Martin Cooper, inventor of the first portable cellular phone, is a fellow Wireless Hall of Fame inductee. Harris also holds some 15 patents related to her inventions and ideas.
Earlier this year, Harris was named one of the “10 Cool Women of 2013” by the Girl Scouts of San Diego, an award bestowed annually by the nonprofit group.
Long before Harris launched companies and put her inventions into practice, she was a 12-year-old girl in Los Angeles, where her parents gave her a job as a switchboard operator at their mobile communications company, Industrial Communications Systems.
For six years, Harris worked regular shifts when she wasn’t in school, connecting calls for the company’s 350 or so customers, whose mobile telephones were mounted in their cars. She listened to the conversations so she would know when to disconnect and connect calls by plugging cables into the switchboard.
Among the conversations she monitored were those of lawyers, real estate brokers, celebrities (including Jerry Lewis, Carol Burnett and Milton Berle), drug dealers, men cheating on their wives and truckers stranded on the freeway.
“Because I was listening to the phone calls, I was learning how the world works,” she said. “I got to know at a very young age what it takes to do business and how people interacted. I think that had a profound effect on my instincts and insights about how to solve problems later in my life.”
She earned enough money to buy a 1964 Chevelle, and during high school, she raced it at a local drag strip on weekends.
“I was good at it,” she said of her racing days. “That was what I call my misspent youth.”
Due to a reading disorder, Harris didn’t feel college was right for her so, after high school, she took a job in the airline industry, where she worked in marketing and helped develop automated systems for ticketing, passenger processing and other functions. She did attend some college classes.
Later, she and her husband started a company that provided billing services for cellular customers, and she was the driving force behind new systems to automate the activation of new cellular phones, which cut down the waiting time for customers from five days to just a few hours.
She also launched the first pre-paid cellular service, which she said eventually expanded access to cell phones for people throughout the world, who could not pass the credit checks needed to establish cellular service with a major carrier.
“That’s one I’m very proud of,” she said. “I’m certain it would have happened, but we were the first.”
Another of her start-ups was GreatCall, a cellular company that offered the Jitterbug phone service, targeted at seniors and others with disabilities. The phones — and related service — featured simplicity of design and function, large buttons and clear sound for those who simply wanted to use their phones to make calls, rather than the myriad other functions found on today’s smart phones.
Harris said her 91-year-old mother, Dolores Harris, and her friends were the target customers for Jitterbug, which today employs some 300 people in San Diego.
“That level of personal experience is a real driver for innovation,” she said.
Harris and her husband continue to operate Dyna LLC, an incubator for new ideas. She described a current project as probably the biggest she’s worked on. While she declined to discuss details, she said it involves Internet services for consumers, and is at least two years away from a public launch.
“It’s a very big idea, very timely,” she said.
Cooper, who has been her life and business partner for more than 30 years, is the technical person, she said, while her strength is integrating technologies to create solutions.
“There’s a thread that runs through most of my inventions and things I’ve done,” she said. “Typically, it’s been to try to remove impediments to growth, impediments to smoother processes, to achieve an end that’s good for people,” she said.
Innovator and entrepreneur in the cellular communications field, spearheaded advances such as automated activation of cell phones, pre-paid cellular service, and service for seniors. First woman inducted into the Wireless Hall of Fame and dubbed “First Lady of Wireless.”
Husband, Martin Cooper, invented the first portable mobile telephone. The couple has been together more than 30 years.
Cooking, skiing, tennis, walking on the beach.
Clive Cussler thrillers, The Economist, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics.
James Bond movies, “Downton Abbey,” British mysteries.
Vail, Co., and her family’s ranch east of Temecula.
Persistence is one of the most important traits in business. If you stay true to your purpose of trying to make things better, and choose your ventures for the right reasons, success will follow.