Serial Entrepreneur Seneca Harrison Keeps It Real
by Leo Adam Biga
Lessons learned to inform the entrepreneurial path Seneca Harrison has taken as the owner of four distinctly different businesses.
Growing up in North Omaha, he observed the radical hospitality his mother, aunts, and grandmother practiced hosting parties rich in food, drink, and diversity. He came up in a tight-knit community where family included friends and neighbors looking out for each other. He emulates that same hospitality at his bar Dena’s Place, named for his late mother. It is in the all-African American food hub, The Dining Room, at the Highlander Accelerator on the site of the former Hilltop projects he lived in. It’s also home to Best Burger and to Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering – founded by his late grandmother, Patricia Barron.
Barron impressed upon her grandson dreaming big.
“She always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. Her own entrepreneurial side came out when she decided to open her own restaurant at age 70. That once again instilled in you, can do whatever you want to do when you want to do it. Then to see it get passed off to my aunt, Gladys Harrison, who hit the ground running, has only continued that legacy.”
Seneca overcame tough circumstances. “Growing up with a mother who had me at 16 and a father who spent 12 years of my childhood in prison,” he said, “statistically it was not a good outlook. I bounced around schools”. By the time he graduated high school, his father had changed his own life and given him sage advice.
“He told me to go be a plumber. All my friends were talking about going to college, which I knew wasn’t for me. I didn’t see myself as a plumber, but at age 19, I joined the local plumbers’ union. That experience gave me a trade and taught me a work ethic.”
The dutiful son completed an apprenticeship and became a journeyman licensed plumber, laying the foundation for starting his own company, Harrison Plumbing, and being a foreman running his own crews.
“That mentality of being whomever I think I can be and doing whatever I think I can do started right there in North Omaha. I’ve seen a lot of friends and family detour going to gangs or drugs or jail. With my grandmother, my mother, and my father’s help I was able to steer through that. And now I hire friends as employees or as subcontractors.”
Work ethic means everything to Harrison, who learned a valuable lesson early in his plumbing career. A job required being out in the elements on a cold, snowy day. Harrison wanted to stay home.
“The foreman told me, ‘When Friday comes your paycheck is going to be short because you decided to be home. I’m asking you to show up and do your job so I can bill out your time.’ That just kind of resonated with me and instilled in my work ethic. I use that with my own employees – no matter what, get here, and I’m going to take care of you. That started building the character of who I am today.”
Harrison Plumbing does new construction and remodels projects, residential and commercial. “With that,” he said, “comes a lot of service work because you have to warranty (guarantee) the work you do, so there’s always callbacks. We also work with MUD pretty closely on water service lines and sewer replacement lines.”
Several years ago, he put the business on hold to help his wife Tricia grow a company she founded, Quality Clinical Research (QRC). Its success led him to relaunch his plumbing firm last August. “In the first four months we flirted with $1 million in revenue,” he said. “This year our goal is $3 million.” He also owns an advertising agency, Throne Ads, with friend and partner Seth Kuhl.
His biggest business interest is QCR. The pharmaceutical research company did about $7 million last year in revenue, he said. It conducts Phase I through IV trials for meds, medical devices, and nutritional products.
Its current studies include Migraine, COPD, Children’s, COVID study, Adult COVID booster, CMV, Baby formula, Flu vaccine trial, Shingles vaccination, and Hemorrhoids.
Tracie worked as a clinical research assistant at a children’s hospital in Kansas City, Mo. before transitioning to adult research in Omaha. After being laid off, she formed QCR in 2003. Seneca was busy with his plumbing business but by 2008, after QCR doubled in size, she asked him to help manage the growing research company.
They work well together by staying in their own lanes.
“She’s on the medical side. I’m on the business side and we never cross each other.,” he said. “That’s the key. She’s still the boss. But she realized I was more of a natural leader and have the gift of gab – I can talk to anyone and persuade them to do what we need to be done. She recognized that and let me run with that.
“She instilled in me all the tools I needed to sound intelligent, and she backed me up.”
The couple is the parents of two adult children.
Research has personal meaning for Harrison, who lost his sister Carleen and his mother to complications from sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disease prevalent among African Americans. Harrison carries the trait as well. He said clinical trials have helped medical professionals learn more about the disease and treatments for it. “That was kind of the reason why my wife and I transitioned to doing the research company together.”
The couple grew the business so rapidly that it was selected as a Gallup 150 and Growing participant.
Going from plumber to clinical research executive meant another challenge for the high school graduate.
“It goes back to doing whatever you want as long as you believe in yourself and do what you need to do, which in my case meant learning the medical, and clinical research fields. I attended a lot of learning sessions, and conferences. I looked at it as learning another trade. That was the best way for me to wrap my head around medicine. Now I can have a conversation about what a high blood pressure medication does to your body at a molecular level. I can be in a room with a hundred MDs and PhDs asking me how certain drugs work.”
Harrison subscribes to a “grinder” mentality that sees him outwork partners, employees, and competitors. Growing up a competitive athlete who never fulfilled his potential motivated him to never sell himself or an opportunity short.
“That’s fueled me. Ever since I’ve filled myself with the knowledge to make sure my businesses are successful. I love competitive sports. Business is competitive, too. There’s competitiveness in me to try to be the best.”
After a strong 15-year run, QCR struggled in 2018.
“We were looking at selling. We were in debt.” He walked away from a deal to sell. Then the pandemic hit. He saw that QCR could fill a critical need as a clinical research site for the COVID vaccines being developed.
“We completely turned our company on a dime to focus directly on COVID. In the Pfizer trial, we enrolled over 1,500 adults in studies. With Moderna, we had a thousand young people aged 19 and under in trials. We continued to work with both companies on their boosters. When we came to COVID we were very much right there on the cutting edge. We were part of Operation Warped Speed, in which the federal government funded companies like ours to open temporary clinics to focus on different compounds used to treat patients in the early stage of COVID. We worked with Methodist Hospital – setting up on their COVID floor to help facilitate experimental drugs.”
Seizing the day is a matter of nature and nurture.
“I really believe that ability to pivot comes from how I grew up, learning to adapt and understand what’s going on around me. As I saw COVID come on the scene, I followed it and adapted. I saw that drug companies needed research sites and I signed us up. We did that even though we weren’t staffed for it. My wife said, ‘If this comes through, where are we going to find the nurses?’’ Don’t know,’ I told her, ‘But we will.’ It’s believing blindly in yourself to make something come to pass. Sure enough, the doctors we needed came on board and they recruited the nurses. I bought medical supplies when they were in short supply and got them shipped to us.
“We just did it. We did it over and over and over. We turned 180 from being in the red to very profitable. We took that money to buy and open other locations.”
QCR has two Omaha offices, plus single sites in Los Angeles and Houston, with a fifth location to open in Austin, Texas.
“I have colleagues who closed up shop because they did not adapt. They went under.”
The pandemic, he said, “shined a light on clinical trials as everyone was waiting for the Pfizer and Moderna drugs to get approved,” adding, “It made mainstream for people how drugs get approved and go to market.” In turn, he said, more people wish to participate in research.” Often, adults choose to participate in a trial for a drug treating a disease that’s affected a loved one. “They want to do their part in helping find a cure or more treatment. The work we do today does ultimately provide a benefit in the future.”
Educating the public is a big part of what QCR does. “We go into the community and hold health fairs and lunch and learn to let people know that research is a safe and important aspect of healthcare.”
He said QCR has become a clinical research provider of choice due to its participants’ low dropout and high completion rates, the quality of data generated and the
diverse population of its participants.
He’s working with the Omaha Tribe on the Macy Indian reservation to enlist that underrepresented population as research participants.
As the only Black heads of a clinical research company in Nebraska, the Harrisons are influencers. Seneca told a local news outlet reporter. “I want kids that grew up in North Omaha like myself to be able to say, hey, I can do whatever I want and come out of Omaha and stay here and thrive.”
Black excellence is attainable for anyone with the right mindset, he believes.
“I just feel if you do not take no for the final answer and you have the work ethic of going and trying each day, you’ll succeed in life. Just wake up and do it. But what I’ve learned is that not everyone sees it the same way, not everyone’s willing to put in the work.”
He doesn’t let success go to his head. “I don’t try to find the limelight, I just work.”
Though his grandmother, aka Big Mama, championed his entrepreneurial journey, he said, “She used to ask, ‘When is enough going to be enough?’ I told her, ‘I don’t think it ever is.’ My wife asks that all the time, too. Success is what fuels me. I get motivated by the littlest things and achievements. People say, oh, you want to be better than the next man. That’s not what it is. It’s motivation. When I see someone do something or get to a certain level, I’m like, let me try to get there. That’s motivation.”
At age 43, legacy is ever more on his mind.
“I would love for our kids to take over our businesses. But more than anything I want to inspire people to open businesses in this community. If I can do that, then I am passing it on and someone else is running with it. It doesn’t have to be family. That’s still creating generational wealth, which is something we don’t have in the Omaha African American community.”
Harrison has an overriding message for people looking to start businesses.
“Never give up on your dream. There’s going to be people who tell you no, but you still have to find a way. How passionate are you about your business? Are you passionate enough to do anything for it? I will do anything for my business. That’s where I’m at with it.”
He said he cannot imagine “ever going to work for someone else again,” But to continue being his own boss, he said, “it means having to grind every day.”
He aspires graduating to the next level so that his businesses run without him.” He’s already done it at QCR, where, he said, “I don’t have a day-to-day job at the company anymore. I’m working on that for my wife. On the plumbing side, he said, “I’m in the ditch, in the bobcat, in the backhoe.” He and Tracie run Dena’s Place together.
No entrepreneur makes it alone and Harrison is no exception. “I did not get to this point without someone teaching me, telling me, showing me.”
He believes in paying forward success. “It’s a two-way street. You constantly have to learn, but you have to give up the knowledge you have and teach someone else. It’s impossible to know everything yourself. There’s always something new. If you’re a closed-minded person, you’re not a successful person. For every step you take you should reach down to help lift somebody. I’m mentoring a couple young entrepreneurs through EO Nebraska. They ask a million questions. I give them my opinions.”
He enjoys the company of other entrepreneurs.
“Your average entrepreneur is humble and will give you advice because they got it from someone else. You can’t be hard-headed, though that’s what most entrepreneurs are, too. The successful ones are willing to learn.”