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Greenville Business Magazine

InnovateHR offers clients technology and efficient service along with theatrical flair

Nov 19, 2019 12:00PM ● By Leigh Savage

Paula Fulghum has always had a flair for drama. After majoring in theater at the University of South Carolina, she headed to New York City to try her luck on Broadway. Through twists and turns befitting a hit play, she ended up founding Greenville-based innovateHR in 2009, and though it seems the human resources business would be worlds apart from the theater world, there is a surprising amount of overlap.

"Theater and HR are all about the drama," she says. "I think people in HR should have theater degrees instead of other degrees, because HR is heavy on psychology, working with people, recognizing what motivates them. That 's what acting is about—you're always connecting those pieces."

InnovateHR started with Fulghum at her kitchen table. Today, the company employs 10 people and manages clients with employees in 38 states and six countries. The firm also recently moved to a refurbished blue building on Pendleton Street to accommodate its growing staff. innovateHR manages everything related to HR, payroll and benefits for clients and specializes in customizing service for companies from 10 employees to hundreds, taking into account each business' culture and infrastructure. 

"They don't have to fit into us," Fulghum says. "We fit into them."

High-tech tools, ingrained into every service, allow the company to work remotely and with a lean staff—without sacrificing customer care. "Smaller companies that take two or three days to do payroll don't believe it when I say we can process their payroll in five minutes," Fulghum says. "I've made a lot of bets, and I haven't lost one yet."

A two-hour guarantee overcomes any client's doubts that an off-site company can offer the responsiveness of in-house HR staff. But clients often find that they get a faster response from their innovateHR team than they got from an on-site HR manager, who might be interviewing potential employees or are otherwise too busy to reach. 

"If someone gets harrassed, they can't wait 24 or 48 hours," she says. "You are upset and you need to talk to someone." While she doesn't promise her team will have all the answers within two hours, she can promise that the person will be heard—and by a team with the experience and knowledge to handle any scenario. 

The Big Apple

Human resources was not on Fulghum's radar. While auditioning in New York, she landed a day job at Time Inc., a gig she says she got because the head of HR at the 40,000-employee company was married to an actress and wanted to give Fulghum a shot. 

At first, she kept auditioning while also working for the magazine publisher, but she quickly fell in love with the work, stopped auditioning and ended up landing a job in human resources at Forbes magazine. She was standing at the top of the Forbes building, just 20 blocks from the World Trade Center, on Sept. 11, 2001. 

"I ran out into the street and it was chaos," she says. "People were running everywhere, the white dust was billowing, the phones didn't work."

Three months later, suffering a "27-year-old crisis," she was on a plane for her home in Easley. She ended up in sales at the payroll company ADP. "Here I was straight from working in New York City, and I'm in cattle barns, at cattle auctions. I would bring fresh I-9 forms and they would sign the document right on the back of a cow. They'd be like, "Don't wear those heels next time,'" she says, laughing. 

After a stint at an HR outsourcing company where she learned "everything I didn't want to do in business," she founded innovateHR—just as the 2009 recession was in full swing. "Ignorance is bliss," she says. "My daughter was 3, and I was so engrossed in my own life that I didn't notice that the economy was crashing."

She went to companies with no HR staff and convinced them to give her a shot, and despite the economy, it worked. She started with one client in Easley with 35 employees, became profitable that first year and has grown every year since. 

In addition to its HR services, the company offers courses in leadership development, team-building, generational training, and harrassment and discrimination training, among others. Her theatrical nature leads her to use a lot of role playing in the meetings, which can be awkward but gets the message across, usually with laughter. 

Her performing and HR sides collided again when a producer pitched a workplace reality show, featuring Fulghum, to networks, and several were interested. "There are a lot of stories, and people can't believe it," she says. "I do what's fair and equal, but I do enjoy the entertainment of it. Some HR people you have to be really PC around, but I'm not one of them."

In the end, privacy and confidentiality for clients was too problematic, and the idea was shelved. 

Her entire staff is now made up of women, which she didn't intend but it has worked out well. "I'm passionate about women and leadership," she says, though she'd love to hire a male employee if a highly qualified candidate comes along.

The biggest issue currently facing human resources, and her company, is hiring. "People can't find warm bodies, much less a qualified, talented person to work," she says. Everyone thinks it's their field, but she says the trend holds across all industries. 

While finding qualified people is a challenge, she is already training her team on how they could be affected in the event of a recession. "From an HR perspective, it's all about how we find qualified people," she says, "but I'm already concerned about what's coming next."