Irene Haley ’85, the new president and CEO of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, has spent nearly her entire career as an executive at two of the world’s biggest and most recognizable companies: Exxon Mobil and Starbucks.
Not bad for someone who struggled as a business major at UMass Lowell, only to regroup and earn a degree in English literature.
“I wasn’t one who always knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up,” the Salem, New Hampshire, native admits. “I had general interests in business, but academically my first couple of years ... I think I was really enjoying the campus and having a lot of fun.”
So Haley did what would become a hallmark of her successful career: She took a step back and reassessed her situation.
“I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I really love people, and the idea of having an impact on students felt very exciting. So I switched my major to English,” she says.
But Haley hadn’t quite shaken the business bug, and after college she took a job at an accounting firm. While that experience made her realize she didn’t want to be an accountant — “A lot of the work was the same” — it spurred her to get an MBA from Boston University.
Upon completing graduate school in 1996, Haley read an article about Mobil Oil starting a new “friendly serve” program, where employees would greet customers at the pump. Acting on career advice she’d read in the book “What Color is Your Parachute?” Haley wrote a letter to the company and said the program aligned with her interest in connecting with customers. She was hired in a brand development role and ended up working as a business analyst and operations manager at Exxon Mobil for 14 years.
When Exxon Mobil sold off Haley’s business area in 2010, she pivoted to a different kind of energy company: Starbucks. She spent eight years with the coffee giant, serving as regional director of almost 100 stores in the Boston market before becoming interim regional vice president, responsible for nearly 700 stores across a dozen states in the Northeast.
“I really am pretty fortunate. I had a lot of fun and worked with some fantastic people,” says Haley, who discovered some common managerial threads in working with owners of gas stations and coffee shops. “They were looking for guidance and mentoring on how to move ahead. They wanted to hear that they’re doing a good job.”
In 2019, Haley again took a step back and reassessed her situation. She decided it was time for a career change and announced that she would be leaving Starbucks.
“I left without another job in hand, which felt pretty scary. I had been working since I was 14 years old,” she says.
Last year, Haley started volunteering with a group called Small Business Strong, a private-public effort to help minority-owned and women-owned small businesses navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Through that volunteer work, she learned of the opportunity at the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce.
“I really enjoy helping these small businesses, so I thought this would be another opportunity to support them,” says Haley, whose new job also reconnects her with her alma mater: The chamber’s office is in the Harbor Place building, which is also home to UML’s Haverhill satellite campus and Haverhill Innovation Hub.
“Being part of that — absorbing some of that creative energy — is good for everyone,” she says.
In some ways, Haley says she’s realizing her dreams of becoming a teacher by sharing her experience and know-how with small business owners.
“The part of my job that I really liked at Starbucks was teaching, mentoring and coaching people,” she says. “To some degree, I think they’re connected.”