We had the good fortune of connecting with Marsha Ham and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Marsha, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I have always wanted to start my own business, but I never really thought I had an idea that could be developed successfully into a thriving business.
In the seventies, I developed a process for using microwave technology to blanch garden vegetables, which resulted in farm fresh results when the frozen veggies were cooked. The problem was that I could not think of a way to scale the idea beyond a single microwave. If I had been an engineer, I probably could have developed a viable process that would have interested a venture capitalist. But I didn’t.
For the next forty years, I plied my ideas and risk taking on behalf of my employers as I took home a regular paycheck. The last 10 years of my career, I was a higher education administrator who developed very successful online programs in the early days of remote technology facilitated learning.
As I looked toward retirement, I could not see myself “retiring” after having been so entrepreneurial on behalf of my employers for so many years. I began thinking and looking for an idea that might be a good match for my interest and skill set that I could develop as my own business.
In 2017 I was gifted with a visit to Kit Tea Café in San Francisco. My friend Liz and I had a wonderful time drinking Japanese tea and playing with the cats. I came away thinking, “I could do that!” and shared that thought with Liz. Her response was, “Yes, you could, and you should!”
By the time I actually retired in 2019, my answer to everyone’s question, “What are you going to do now?” was without any hesitancy, “I am going to open a cat café!”
In the interim between my visit to Kitty Tea Café and my retirement, I had spent time researching cat cafes. They originated in Taiwan in 1998. In most major cities around the world, you can find a cat café. No two cat cafes are alike. They are unique to their particular locale. Some serve food and drinks and others do not.
They were a relatively new phenomenon in the United States beginning to make their appearance in 2017. Today there are about 200 cat cafes across the U.S. Like their worldwide counterparts, they are all also unique in their own rite.
I knew I was on the front end of a growing business curve. I have had a long-term loving relationship with cats, particularly rescue cats. (I like dogs, too, but they take a lot more attention, and you have to walk them. Cats do a good job of taking care of themselves and like alone time.)
I adopted my first rescue cat, Hannibal, when I moved to Phoenix in 1990. Over the years, I have provided a home to 11 rescue cats; all but one who have died and crossed the “Rainbow Bridge” as elder cats. I now have a kitty family of eight cats including a special needs cat, Harley.
Step one in starting a successful business is to have a good idea. I had that. Second is to have a connection to the concept. I have that: I KNOW cats, and my background is in marketing, business and taking an idea from concept to successful implementation and success.
After taking a couple of months after I retired in July 2019 to get over the shock of not reporting to work daily, I started on the first iteration of my business plan. (I could write a book on developing a business plan in the time of COVID, but I will leave that to another time.)
Following two plus years of planning and preparation during COVID, Kitty Pause Kitty Café opens on August 15, 2021, assuming the renovation completion and inspection timeline holds. I truly believe that things happen for a reason. If I had been able to move ahead without delays and opened during the height of COVID, Kitty Pause probably would not have survived, much less thrived.
Check out the Kitty Pause Kitty Café website at kittypausecafe.com to see the results of my business planning!
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I was hired by the University of Arizona’s Extended University to take over a program in a new field of “distance learning”. In those days that translated to shipping video taped lectures or transmitting classes using the University’s microwave system to locations across the state. I basically grew up professionally with distance learning as it moved inevitably toward online as the Internet had yet to be introduced to the world.
Two years into my tenure with Extended University, I was asked to serve as interim dean for the four-month period between the naming and the arrival of the new dean. This was unusual as I only had a master’s degree. A deanship typically required a Ph.D. or professional doctorate. It was a great, if challenging, experience as the unit was moving into a new building on campus and all the decisions about the move had to be made during my brief tenure as dean.
Not long after the new dean arrived, he started talking with me about going back to get myself a Ph.D. so that I could move into administration and out of the ranks of program directors. I told him I agreed, but I was too busy with my programs to do it then. Surprisingly, his alma mater called him 15 months into his tenure as dean at UA to take the deanship there. Here I was still unable to apply for the dean’s position even though I had served as the interim dean before he arrived.
I immediately applied and was accepted into the University’s Center for Higher Education’s Ph.D. program in Organization and Administration. Five and a half years later after going mostly parttime while I worked, I earned my Ph.D.
I was hired by Ohio University as their Executive Director for Lifelong & Distance Learning to build out their distance programs. I used my hallmark of bringing people around the table to build and find solutions to build out highly successful distance programs in the early days of online learning.
I developed a new technique of partnering with outside educational development companies to work with faculty to build courses and programs to handle larger enrollments per class than had been usual at that point in time. By the time I was recruited four years later by the University of New Haven (UNH) for the position of Associate Vice President and Dean of their new College of Lifelong Learning, I had 4,000 nurses enrolled in an RN-to-BSN program and was managing a 14-million-dollar budget.
What I found at UNH to my surprise was a faculty not yet ready to embrace online learning. I was able to build a highly successful criminal justice master’s program again using my leadership approach of bringing together the appropriate people around the table to develop a successful program. Unfortunately, we could not interest sufficient numbers of faculty to step out on the limb to build other totally online programs. After four years of trying, the president decided to cut expenses and dissolved the college but kept me on staff for nine months to give me sufficient time to locate my new next position.
Having decided that I wanted to move back to Arizona and ultimately to retire here, I targeted my search to Arizona, which brought me to A.T. Still University (ATSU) in Mesa as the inaugural University Director of the new Teaching & Learning Center. I once again found myself in a building mode as the major focus of my responsibilities. I had moved beyond just developing online programs to building a program to support and train faculty how to do more than just lecture as a part of both their on ground and online classes and programs.
Not long after I arrived, I was given a project that no one else wanted. The president wanted a “Shark Tank” type competition to focus on innovation. He was thinking more about technology than about innovation in learning. So, the project got passed from one administrator to another until my soon-to-be new boss decided to give that to me as my first project (challenge) after arriving.
In a little over three months after I arrived, I had pulled together an across-University team to include marketing, technology, and faculty to map out a strategy for a competition focused on innovation in learning. I planned to offer development grants in the amount of $5,000 from my special funds budget to fund the winners’ projects.
We named the competition “SparkTank” as a play on Shark Tank. We had administrators serve as the judging “Sharks”. It was a huge success on both of ATSU’s campuses. It was also a huge project that took away planning time for other more faculty focused activities of the Center. What it did accomplish was to put the new Teaching & Learning Center on everyone’s radar as an up-and-coming resource for faculty. By the time I retired four years later, the Teaching & Learning Center was a highly respected resource on campus well-positioned to take on the challenges of moving all program curriculum totally online in the wake of COVID’s arrival seven months later.
What I learned about myself as a professional over the life of my higher education career is that I am a builder and I love to make positive things happen by bringing the best people to the table in a joint effort to create something new, successful, and lasting. Did I have setbacks and disappointments along the way? Absolutely, but I never let them derail me.
My supervising administrator at Ohio University phrased it this way at my farewell get together: “Marsha, you will long be remembered for the positive difference you made at Ohio University.” I think that is what I have tired to do throughout is to make a positive and, hopefully, lasting difference regardless of the assignment or task at hand.
My entire professional life up to my retirement prepared me to be sufficiently confident in my skill set to take on the risk of becoming an entrepreneur and starting my own business. My most recent supervisor, Dr. Ann Boyle, said it this way at my retirement party: “Marsha, you are not retiring. You are starting a whole new career”.
I realize that is exactly what I have done.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Planning an itinerary for a visiting friend is a challenging task given how many options of things to see and do in Arizona. It also depends on the time of the year when the visit takes place. Let’s assume it is in the late spring before it gets too hot in the Valley and south and late enough to be pleasant during the day in northern Arizona.
I am going to pattern this itinerary off one that I mapped out when my college roommate from Alabama made a trip out to visit me before the pandemic arrived. We start by heading north to the Grand Canyon and stopping in Williams to take a ride on the Grand Canyon Train up to the south rim to the Canyon. We dine at El Torvar Dining Room restaurant with a great view of the rim.
While it is easy to spend days at the Canyon, we would drive after returning on the train to Williams down to spend the night in Sedona at the Bell Rock Inn. We would enjoy dining at one of the many restaurants in Sedona before enjoying the pool at the Inn under the night skies. It is a gift to see the stars while in Sedona since we have so much light in the Phoenix area that star gazing is difficult.
The next day we would make a tour of the well-known red rock formations, including going to the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Another must stop is Red Rock Canyon State Park where we will hike along Oak Creek until we are far from the crowds and can listen to the bubbling water flowing over our bare feet as we gaze up at the incredible Cathedral of the Rocks formation.
Before leaving Sedona, we would drive up Oak Creek canyon on highway 89A stopping at Garland’s restaurant and Native American Jewelry and Art store at Indian Gardens. The restaurant is small but has outdoor seating behind the store. Great sandwiches and bakery items. They also make a great cappuccino. The jewelry and art are authentic, incredible and can be very pricy.
We continue up the road to the top of the canyon. There is a car park there with a wonderful view down into the canyon. There are also great Native American artisans who sell their art and jewelry on weekends. You get to meet the artist and sometimes bargain on price.
Once we get into Flagstaff, we pick up Interstate 17 and drive south. There is so much more we could see and do, including stopping in Jerome, AZ, which was once a ghost town after Phelps Dodge mine closed but is now an active artist community.
Since we only have a week, we keep driving south until we get to Rock Springs. We have to stop at the Rock Springs Café at least for a great piece of homemade pie. If it is time to eat, then we would get a barbeque sandwich and a piece of pie. Can’t beat it!
We would arrive back at my house in Chandler to rest up for a day or two before heading south. While taking out our timeout, I would make sure we made a shopping trip to old Scottsdale. It has such a great western feeling that remains and some great shops and stores carrying a wide range of western inspired art, jewelry, and gift items. We would pick a restaurant with an outdoor patio to enjoy the weather and get a drink and a light fare of snacks or appetizers.
On day two of our rest stop at my house, we would visit Eggstacy Restaurant in Chandler for breakfast to get a goat cheese and fig omelet or other tasty omelet with homemade bread toast. Yum!
For our afternoon outing we would drive out to Canyon Lake for a boat ride down the length of the lake. It is the smallest of the four reservoirs on the Salt River. With a little luck, we will see wild horses drinking at the water’s edge. It is a beautiful and relaxing time on the open-air pontoon boat with other travelers who are also visiting the lake.
After we get back into town, we would go to the Original Blue Adobe Grill in Mesa for dinner. I think the building is so funny. It looks like an old What-a-Burger building with the A frame roof line. Once inside, however, you step into a tasty dining experience of New Mexico style Mexican food, which is very distinct to other styles of Mexican food. I love the crab cakes with the spicy aioli atop. Lots of Hatch chiles in their recipes. Their salsa is made with Hatch chiles and is distinct from typical salsas at other local Mexican restaurants.
On day five we drive south and east to Tucson. We go straight to the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. The museum is such a wonderful venue to get a real sense of the desert wildlife. It has a zoo of desert animals, an aquarium, and a botanical garden. I love the hummingbird aviary. You can step inside the enclosure and have the hummingbirds buzz past your ears. My little bit of hummingbird trivia that I learned there is that they are very aggressive little birds and have a difficult time mating for that reason. Interesting tidbit of info for you.
We would tour the University of Arizona campus; at least do a drive through. It has grown by leaps and bounds since I worked there in the late nineties and earned my Ph.D. in the early 2000’s. We would stay the night at the Arizona Inn. I really like the Arizona Inn. It has been well preserved and updated. It is an oasis in the old residential neighborhood just off the campus with lots of nice outdoor seating in garden like settings.
On day six we would get up early and drive down I-10 to Benson to tour Kartchner Caverns State Park. The story of how two UA students found the original cavern in 1974 and kept the secret of its existence for 20 years until they could convince the State of Arizona to buy the land from the Kartchner’s and create a state park is fascinating. The caverns are breathtaking! They are living caves. The State has done an outstanding job of an creating ecofriendly entry and environment to preserve the caverns.
When we head up back up I-10, we get off on Houghton Road and drive north until we reach a small hill. At the top of the hill is Tucson McGraw’s Cantina. They have an outdoor covered patio that looks out over the valley to the south. The food is good, and the prices are reasonable. McGraw’s is an institution of long standing in east Tucson. I have always gotten a good steak there and great homemade pie. As I remember, they have good margaritas, too.
Upon our return to my house in Chandler, we would hang out with some of my friends on my patio and under the gazebo before going to Firebirds Wood Fired Grill at Chandler Mall for a late dinner of grilled steak and shrimp. If we have an appetite for dessert, we will stop at the Sicilian Baker Cannoli Bar at Frye and south Price Road. Incredible design-your-own cannoli flavors along with other tasty Italian pastries are available there.
On day seven, after a quick stop at Moreno’s Mexican Grill Express Cantina at Chandler Heights and South Arizona Road for great egg and cheese quesadillas, I would take my friend to Sky Harbor to fly home after a great Arizona adventure week.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
There are so many people who have encouraged and supported me in my journey to create Kitty Pause Kitty Café. Here are just a few of the folks to whom I want to dedicate my shoutout, in no particular order, with a brief notation to their very important roles as I moved from my role as someone else’s employee to becoming a full-fledged entrepreneur and business owner.
Dr. Liz Davis – Dean, St. Mary’s College. Long-time friend and supporter since we met as deans at University of New Haven, who introduced me to the concept of a cat café.
Dr. Ann Boyle – Associate Vice President, A.T. Still University. Most recent and former boss, mentor, friend, and accomplished artist who donated five original paintings of contributors’ pets for the Kitty Pause fundraiser on Indiegogo.
Roz Davis – College roommate, supporter and forever friend since we met at the Coke machine at college orientation too many years ago to count.
Bruce & Kris Carpenter – Long-time friends and supporters. Bruce is my go-to tech person who helps me with all sorts of technology challenges. Kris is his wonderful wife and able assistant.
Whit Kennedy – Brother, CPA, and financial advisor who always has my back.
David Short – Long-time friend and supporter.
Gwen Butler – Kitty Pause architect and now wonderful friend and supporter.
Marcus Browne – Consultant & Mentor, Small Business Development Center, Phoenix.
Michelle Warren – Consultant & Mentor, Small Business Development Center, Phoenix.
Carrie Neidorf – Director, Saving One Life Rescue, who is providing the cats for Kitty Pause and who is my friend and chief Kitty Pause strategist.
Gerardo Novoa – Loan advisor, DreamSpring, who got me through the SBA loan application and funding process, without which there would be no Kitty Pause Kitty Café.