Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Alum helps book lovers share their passion

BookCrossing.com, a web portal that tracks the readership, reactions, and journey of a book from reader to reader, is redefining the practice of passing on a good book.

The well-received and growing online community emerged from a software development group that includes Lehigh alum Heather Mehra-Pedersen ’87.

“The site is a cross between a message in a bottle and a treasure hunt,” Mehra-Pedersen says. “Readers visit the Web site, complete a free registration process, then use the online resources to register their own books before leaving them in a public place to be found and enjoyed by another.

And for those books readers find that bear the BookCrossing.com registration information, the Web site provides a lookup that journals the book’s previous readers and geographical journey.

The number of books registered on the site has soared over 682,000, and it has attracted more than 186,000 members (membership is free).

“The idea has become wildly popular, with over 25 million page views per month in over 130 countries,” Mehra-Pedersen says.

Blending pragmatism and creativity

It all started when business partner Ron Hornbaker pitched the idea to the team at Humankind Systems, a California-based software development firm. Once Hornbaker, Mehra-Pedersen, and her husband, Bruce Pedersen, agreed on the concept, Heather was tasked with keeping the project within the bounds of fiscal reality while managing the smallest of details.

Her partners describe her as a “pragmatic realist with a facilitative creative edge.”

Mehra-Pedersen says her goal was to “govern it from spinning out of control and into the abyss of yet another dot-com gravestone.”

And that she did very well. What emerged from the effort is a testament to timing, ingenuity, and the need for humans to remain connected. The Bookcrossing.com community continues to grow by leaps and bounds and the end is nowhere in sight.

Cofounder and CFO of BookCrossing.com, Mehra-Pedersen lives in Sandpoint, Idaho with her husband and three children, Kipling, 9; Rio, 8; and Selkirk, 6. She is so proud and encouraged that Kipling may be taking his G.E.D. in May, but it should be no surprise that her children are a step ahead of the rest.

She herself has proven over the years to be willing to take on new challenges and seek professionally higher ground.

Building a nest egg

Life after Lehigh for Mehra-Pedersen was an adventure and a search for her professional inner self. She describes the early few years as a time “littered with six years of job hopping as a dissatisfied, impatient, curious, and restless employee.”

From licensed stockbroker to insurance agent to personal financial assistant to mega-wealth clients, her journey served to diversify her skills portfolio that would in later years turn out to be invaluable in managing the yet-to-come BookCrossing.com. But the book sharing community project was not the first hugely successful venture for Mehra-Pedersen.

She and husband launched a veterinary practice in 1998. The business-savvy duo used $10,000 in investment capital and a vision to create what was to become a nationally recognized veterinary hospital. The clinic quickly earned the industry-coveted 1999 Veterinary Economics Practice of Excellence Award.

The couple took the high-riding recognition opportunity to put the practice on the market and walked away with a seven-figure nest egg. At 34, they were poised to enjoy an early retirement.

But sitting on the sidelines was no place for Mehra-Pedersen. She and Bruce joined forces with veterinary school partner and software engineer, Ron Hornbaker, to create Humankind Systems, Inc., the parent company of BookCrossing.com.

`A well-grounded and robust education

Mehra-Pedersen traces her success with the veterinary practice, software design firm, and reader community Web site back to her years as a student at Lehigh.

“Lehigh equipped me with an extremely well-grounded and robust education,” she says. “I learned about structure and systems and community … the rigorous semester workloads refined my discipline and focus.”

Two marketing professors, Jim and Teresa Maskulka, are singled out by Mehra-Pedersen as having made a significant contribution in preparing her for success in business. She remembers them as being patient, encouraging, and spurring her interest in the marketing field.

And Mehra-Pedersen credits finance professor Steve Buell with providing the most challenging course of her college experience, one she narrowly passed only as a result of his one-on-one tutoring and support.

“I spent more energy and time crawling through time values of money and financial analysis, desperately trying to make sense of it all,” she recalls. “Ironic that I now do it for a living!”

What drives Mehra-Pedersen to succeed?

“The bottom line is hard work,” she says. “There are no shortcuts. It’s head-work. It’s not being able to drop a problem until you find a solution. It’s sleepless nights. It’s physical. It’s mental. Success is directly correlated to effort. And not just brain effort. Blood, sweat, and tears.

“Whatever you think you want to do, do it. Just do it. Do it now and make it better later. Take the risk. Roll the dice. Find a mentor and use them. Don’t plan too much. Jump in and get wet. Spend 30 minutes to an hour a day doing something that fills your cup—then turn it into a business.”

--Lance Orndorff

Posted on Thursday, November 20, 2003

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