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Empathy is saving my business

As a FLOCK, we give time, money, space, and our passion for real change.

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Lisa Wise, CEO of Flock DC (Photo Courtesy of Flock DC).

I own a family of mid-sized property management companies in the District proper. My passion for the  hands-on work of “landladying” took shape 15 years ago when I purchased a little historic adobe duplex in  Tucson, Arizona. Property management had always been my side hustle, but in 2008, landladying for a living  started to sound good. So I gave up my nonprofit work and went all in. Today, at Flock, our companies keep 52  folks employed and aggregate 6.5 million in business annually. All told, we manage over a billion dollars in real  estate. And we built the companies one door at a time.  

I never thought of myself as a risk taker, but starting a business at the very height of the great recession  was certainly a leap of faith. In the early days, though, with just a few team members and zero payroll, I was  really only risking my time and sanity. That I could launch what would become a thriving business in the  height of a recession felt like a feather in my cap. I love to solve problems; I’m at my best facing challenges,  finding ways to thrive despite the circumstances.  

But when this pandemic hit, suddenly, my time and talent weren’t all that was at stake. I worried hard.  And early. How would I protect my employees? How would I serve and soothe my clients and, importantly,  our residents?  


I started my business for the same reason most people do: I wanted to make money. But I also wanted  to change lives. For the better. Like a lot of successful business people, I grew up in financial insecurity. Yet I  was the kind of kid who saw the potential for earning money everywhere she looked. I washed cars, I shoveled  walks, I vacuumed houses, I cared for pets, I sold Girl Scout cookies to pay for summer camp. But my deepest  dream was to work in an office. My mother didn’t understand my burning need to be an entrepreneur, but  when I was 11 years old she took pity and offered me one half of our ramshackle garden tool shed to do with  what I pleased. 


What I pleased was to set up my enterprise, The Sherlock Holmes Detective Agency, a name of which I  was very proud and found not the least bit unoriginal. Although I’d read all the Nancy Drew mysteries I could  find, I had an uneasy grasp on what the work of a nonfiction detective entailed. Nonetheless, I had a very clear  picture of myself sitting behind my desk, taking meetings with distraught clients to review the scope of their  mysteries.


Given that our house was in a perpetual state of repair, construction scraps were at my disposal. I  mounted leftover squares of drywall inside the shed and made a patchwork rug from carpet remnants. I painted  the walls yellow and created a makeshift chair from a wooden box that wobbled only a little.  


To land my first client I would need to advertise my services, so I rode my bike to the offices of the local  newspaper to take out an advertisement. I remember Roberta, the editor and sole employee of the ​Idaho  Mountain Express​ as a kind woman who treated my request with grave professionalism. Now that I’m a parent I  can imagine this moment through her eyes. I feel such gratitude for her simple display of empathy. 

Like every other nimble business, my company has gone virtual, and quickly. Today my life is about  live chats, board meetings via Zoom, virtual home inspections, camera-based maintenance diagnostics, and  leveraging technology with vendors. We’ve streamlined communications and found new efficiencies in our  workflows that impact everything from banking to processing applications and managing relationships. We’re  engaging new vendors and contractors; the kind of people who can pivot as quickly as we do. We’re also  spending more time on our company culture, on thought leadership, and–of course–on financial modeling to  stay afloat. Most importantly, we’re checking in and contributing to the wellness of our community, our  residents and our clients.  


Since this crisis began, we have operated under the philosophy that it’s better to risk making tough  decisions too early than bad decisions too late. In early March, long before any states began to issue stay-at-home  directives, we furloughed our maintenance team, while projecting a $225,000 monthly drop in revenues. This  has resulted in not so much a financial gap to bridge as a yawning, terrifying chasm. But there was no question:  we needed to prioritize public health over profit and even solvency. I knew that working quickly to solve for the  worst possible scenario would help us save our Flock in the long run. 


As every good leader knows, the buck stops at the top. What every good leader also knows is that when  the bucks run out, the top should be paid last. Tragically this ethic is practiced so infrequently in the U.S. that it  becomes an exception to celebrate and the rarest demonstration of servant leadership. Owners paying  themselves last should be the rule, not the exception. I am the person who hired our teammates; they and their  families rely on me for their livelihood. How could I possibly accept a full paycheck during this time?   


I took a 75 percent pay cut for the duration of the crisis. I now make just enough to cover the mortgage,  utilities, food, and the babysitter, who can of course no longer babysit. Like so many of my employees, I’ve  asked her–and she’s happily agreed–to perform a different job for a while. She’s become an essential worker,  shopping for groceries for me and the management team as well as the two families sheltering in my guest house  and basement apartment. 

I asked our management team to accept a 5 percent cut; in response they offered 10. They also offered  to halt their retirement savings payments so that the company could save on our 401k match program. We are  running on fumes, operating in short-term crisis mode; hoarding cash that doesn’t need to go out the door. We  are focusing on payroll and small business vendors and covering bills that would threaten our credit worthiness  or expose us to liability if they went unpaid. Everything else–property taxes, utilities, scores of other invoices–have been put on ice.  


As for the rest of the staff, we are resetting the financial clock every 14 days in order to guarantee their  salaries for the following six weeks. We’re still offering 100 percent employer paid benefits and health care. My  financial models are continually evolving. There is no long-term financial plan because that would be an exercise  in futility and frustration, given things are changing so quickly.  


But we know nonetheless that nothing will be the same once we emerge from this crisis, and so a  long-term vision for our company is emerging, driven by a staff that is incredibly, doggedly motivated to make  it work. 
I am disheartened by the behavior of some of my competitors and colleagues during this crisis.  Landlords are emailing impersonal newsletters screeching CORONAVIRUS in the subject line, or worse,  nastygrams reminding tenants their rent is due on the first no matter what. They inform them in insensitive  language about the availability of public assistance and food banks.  


At Flock we’ve refurbished our website to be a pandemic information hub. We send residents  newsletters driven by caring and empathy and positivity. Most importantly we reduced rent by 15 percent in the  buildings we own. A colleague asked me why I did this, what did I see as the long game here, what was the  strategy? I didn’t have an answer. I did it because I could. And for me, that means I must. I did it because  empathy is my engine.  

Let me assure you I am no saint nor martyr. I am in survival mode like everyone else. It turns out that  for me, servant leadership helps me survive. Frankly the adrenaline rush I get when I’m trying to solve a big  problem is like an opiate for me. Yet also a way of healing: because my young life was marked by a deficit of  concern for my state of mind and physical well-being, I developed a hunger for empathy. Since I wasn’t getting  the empathy I needed, I discovered as I grew up that showing empathy to others filled that void. This empathic  urge, combined with an unabashed need to be in charge, led me to stumble organically into a leadership style  that I’ve refined over the years and which I’ve come to see as essential to the success of my business.  


Empathy is not a common keyword, shall we say, in the property management industry. Or in business  in general. My industry in particular has earned its reputation.. Common wisdom suggests that in order to  succeed, a landlord must resist all her empathic urges or simply fail. But expressing empathy–in word and  action–is what feeds me. I wish more people would try it. I wish our culture allowed for it. Some people have no  idea how good it feels. 


The same grit I used as a young side hustler is serving me well now. All those childhood freelance gigs  helped me prepare financially for worst case scenarios. Shoveling walks and playing detective didn’t exactly  prepare me for the enormity of a global pandemic, but it did get me ready for something at least medium big.  


Ever since the backyard garden shed office, I’ve known that any company I started would be anchored  in generosity. To that end, I’ve always measured profit not in dollars but in the number of good jobs we create;  good jobs that mean people can not just pay their bills but enjoy their lives. I want to create career paths and  provide healthcare and ensure people have time with their families both now and in the future. So even when  faced with this imminent and shocking loss of revenue, the math was simple: since profitability means good  jobs, then we’ll remain profitable as long as we can. 


The hardest moment I’ve ever experienced in any job anywhere came just two weeks ago, when I had to tell my employees that we needed to be worried for our livelihoods. I told them the leadership team was working on continuity and I shared our short-term planning in great detail. I told them I was thinking of them twenty-four seven.  


I was alone in my home office, saying these impossible, unthinkable words, and knowing in my heart of  hearts that despite these dark circumstances this was also one of the greatest moments of my professional life. I  was occupying the intersection of concern, ingenuity and innovation, panic, anxiety and adrenaline, uncertainty  and grief, exhaustion and sophisticated planning. In that moment, I was my very best self. 

Lisa Wise is the Owner and CEO of Flock DC. For more information visit flock-dc.com.

 

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Gay D.C. business owner to run 100-mile ultramarathon

Brandt Ricca to raise money for Capital Pride, LGBTQ businesses

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Brandt Ricca (Photo by Jonathan Thorpe/jthorpephoto)

Brandt Ricca will begin a non-stop 100-mile ultramarathon at 6 a.m. on Oct. 7 while most D.C. residents will still be sipping their morning coffee.

In a year of isolation and economic downturn, Ricca decided to run 100 miles in two days to benefit local, LGBTQ-owned businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Ricca, who’s lived in D.C. for 10 years, is donating the money he raises to the Capital Pride Alliance and Equality Chamber of Commerce, where he has been a member since 2018.

The gay entrepreneur and owner of the D.C.-based business Nora Lee by Brandt Ricca understands first-hand how the ongoing pandemic affects small businesses, particularly LGBTQ-owned companies.

“I definitely want to give back to the community and local colleagues, especially because Capitol Pride has been now canceled two years in a row,” Ricca said.

Out of the funds raised, 90 percent will go towards funding 20 small business grants through the Equality Chamber of Commerce and the remaining 10 percent will go towards supporting Capital Pride Alliance.  

Brandt, already an avid runner and self-described “fitness explorer,” decided after crowdsourcing ideas to pursue the 100-mile project. Ricca has been a frequent visitor at the Equinox Anthem Row in D.C. to prepare for the run.

“I was looking to do my next fitness endeavor, at the same time wanting to do something to get back to the fellow business owners in D.C.,” he said.

Applications for the 20 grants of various sizes for LGBTQ businesses are projected to open this summer through the Equality Chamber of Commerce, Ricca said. His goal is to raise $100,000 from individuals and companies. The grants will be distributed in October following the completion of the run.

Equality Chamber of Commerce Vice President Riah Gonzales-King is in the process of developing grants and additional summer educational programming to help young LGBTQ entrepreneurs and students start their businesses.

“So much of the culture centers around these businesses, many of which have been around for decades,” Gonzales-King said. “They’re pillars of the community — their owners are pillars in the community. And I think it’s time that we gave back.”

Helping LGBTQ entrepreneurs specifically at this time is essential, Ricca said, especially entrepreneurs in the creative and hospitality industry.

Ricca began training in February with the help of several exercise experts like Brian Mazza, a New York City fitness entrepreneur who ran 50 miles last December to raise awareness for male infertility stigma. The former Men’s Health headliner is guiding Ricca’s physical training, which has been a near-daily routine. Ricca was inspired by Mazza’s run in the first place.

Ricca reached out to Mazza over Instagram to get his assistance and training.

Mazza said Ricca reaching out over Instagram “meant the world.”

“I believe what he’s doing for his cause is remarkable,” Mazza said. “It’s important. I’m happy that he’s standing up for what he believes in and helping these businesses and helping individuals in general.”

Jacob Zemer, a coach and nutritionist, has designed a daily nutrition program for Ricca to prepare him for the run. Zemer and Mazza have been working together throughout the process to track Ricca’s health and progress.

The two fitness experts work with Ricca multiple times a day to monitor his diet, mileage, heart rate and pace monitoring. Both Mazza and Zemer said Ricca’a training has been successful.

“Brandt’s an excellent individual,” Zemer said. “He’s very easy to work with. He’s highly coachable, he’s a pleasure to talk to every day.”

Pacers Running will be sponsoring and designing Ricca’s 100-mile route throughout the D.C. region. The company is also working with Ricca to design specific shoes for the ultramarathon.

Pacers Running CEO Kathy Dalby won “Best Straight Ally” in the Washington Blade’s 2019 Best of Gay D.C.

“I really wanted someone local who could really guide me on a route,” Ricca said.

Elyse Braner, a community lead at Pacers Running and longtime friend to Ricca, said the local business was excited to collaborate with Brandt because of an alignment of values.

“As a community, inclusivity and diversity is extremely important to Pacers Running,” Braner said. “As a small business, we really appreciated that Brandt wanted to do an event that supported small businesses — specifically LGBTQ businesses.”

Originally an event-planning business, Nora Lee debuted in 2018 on the second annual Allison Gala, a fundraising event benefiting the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, which Brandt created in memory of a family friend. He’s worked with a range of clients, including the Dupont Circle Hotel and Sotheby’s Real Estate.

Looking back at events on his website, he said he found himself bored with the photography. This led him to focus on creative marketing and decided to pivot his business model at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, Ricca provides photography and video shoots for clients.

“When COVID hit I decided to, like every business owner, I revisited my plan,” he said. “I really enjoyed the creative branding more in the photo shoot. So I decided to pivot strictly to just a full-on creative branding agency.”

The training for the 100-mile run has provided a stable routine for Ricca, which has helped him get through the pandemic, he said. Ricca is planning to create a campaign this summer inviting LGBTQ entrepreneurs to do their version of 100 miles, with the hope it will provide positive stability in their lives as it does in his.

“Obviously, people think I’m crazy for doing this,” Ricca said. “All the uncertainty out there right now – with business, with clients, with whatever; I needed an anchor. Something that was going to be a routine for me that I can control.”

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Pepco Working to Keep Customers Connected During the Pandemic

Pepco recognizes the ongoing financial hardships some customers are experiencing.

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Pepco recognizes the ongoing financial hardships some customers are experiencing as a result of the pandemic and is committed to working with them individually to help.

“We understand many of our customers are facing challenges paying their energy bills, particularly due to COVID-19 and the economic impact. We’re here to help,” says Donna Cooper, Pepco region president. “We want you to know you have options.”

Pepco’s Customer Care team will work with every customer to help keep them connected through these difficult times. Options for customers include:

  • Flexible payment arrangements, for as long as 12-24 months, that offer tailored payment options
  • Elimination of down payment and/or security deposit requirements
  • Extending payment periods for balances, giving you more time to pay
  • Connecting you with energy assistance and/or emergency funds that can supplement your bill payment and can help pay down or even eliminate balances

The first, and most important, step is to contact Pepco. There are customers who have never needed assistance before, and now find themselves needing help. Millions of dollars in energy assistance remains available for customers, including those who may not think they qualify or have never applied for assistance before.

For customers who are past due on their energy bill or who need additional assistance, call 202-833-7500 today or visit pepco.com/Help as soon as possible. Payment arrangements can be made quickly online.

“We understand that the pandemic is putting extra stress on our customers, and for many, in new ways that they have never experienced,” said Cooper. “There is assistance for everyone at a time like this. Contact us today so we can work out a unique plan for your needs.”

Pepco works closely with its community partners to connect customers with grants and programs such as LIHEAP, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP provides grants in varying amounts based on a household’s income size, type of fuel, and type of dwelling, with no repayment required. Customers in Maryland could qualify for more than $1,000 in assistance, and customers in the District of Columbia could secure $1,800 in assistance just through LIHEAP alone. Maryland customers can apply for LIHEAP energy assistance through the Department of Human Services website, or by calling the Maryland Department of Human Services Office of Home Energy Programs at 1-800-332-6347. District of Columbia residents can apply for assistance online through the Department of Energy and the Environment website or by calling 3-1-1.

Here are other programs that can help customers in the District:

  • The Utility Discount Program (UDP) helps low-income District residents reduce theirutility costs. Eligible customers may receive a discount of up to $475 per year on their electric bill ($300 per year if non-electric heat). District residents can visit the Department of Energy and the Environment website at doee.dc.gov to apply online, by mail or by calling 3-1-1.
  • The Greater Washington Urban League provides up to $500 in assistance to eligible customers facing disconnection. Call 202-265-8200 or visit www.gwul.org.Other programs that can help customers in Maryland:
  • The Electric Universal Service Program (EUSP) helps eligible customers pay for aportion of their current electric bill.
  • The Arrearage Retirement Assistance (ARA) program helps customers with large, pastdue electric and gas bills. If eligible, you could be forgiven up to $2,000 toward pastdue bills.
  • The Utility Service Protection Program (USPP) is designed to help low-income familiesduring the heating season.

Information regarding these programs can be found on the Maryland Department of Human Services Office of Home Energy Programs website or by calling 1-800-332-6347. Additionally, Prince George’s County residents may qualify for energy assistance from Mary’s Center by calling 202-545-2024 or by going directly to maryscenter.org. Income- eligible Montgomery County residents can receive energy assistance from Interfaith Works by calling 301-762-8682.

Pepco also offers Budget Billing, which averages payments over 12 months to make it easier for your energy bill to fit your budget and prevent seasonal peaks. And Pepco’s Gift of Energy program allows anyone to make a payment toward a friend or family member’s energy bill. The gift appears on a future bill as a credit to the recipient’s account.

To learn more about Pepco, visit The Source, Pepco’s online newsroom, at https://thesourcepepcoholdings.com/pepco. Find additional information by visiting pepco.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/pepcoconnect and on Twitter at twitter.com/pepcoconnect. Pepco’s mobile app is available at pepco.com/mobileapp.

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Pepco empowers employees through amplified DEI efforts

A more culturally sensitive, inclusive workplace environment

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DEI, gay news, Washington Blade
Robbie Atkins, Pepco’s Manager of Energy Supplier Services, has been with the company for more than 30 years. (Photo courtesy Pepco; photographer Rick Giammaria; “LOVE” mural © 2017 by Lisa Marie Thalhammer, commissioned and funded by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, DC Creates Public Art Building Communities Program)

Diversity, equity, and inclusion, or “DEI,” is quickly becoming one of the most widely talked about topics in business, media, the nonprofit community and many other sectors. From startups, to boutique agencies to Fortune 100 companies, DEI is critical and expected, especially from an employee’s point of view. It’s an employer’s job to foster an environment that empowers employees in every way, being aware of and removing barriers, encouraging opinions to be voiced, and creating avenues for all to succeed professionally. Feeling seen, heard and represented is key.

After the tumultuous 2020, we caught up with Robbie Atkins, Pepco’s Manager of Energy Supplier Services, who was featured in the Blade in 2019, to ask about changes to DEI efforts within the company, and whether or not representation has taken on a greater meaning.

Atkins has been with Pepco for more than 30 years. Out of all of the memories he has at his job, one of his most cherished moments was coming into work one day in October 2014, after just tying the knot with his husband, Joe, to a surprise wedding cake and gift from his entire department. “I walked into the conference room and they had an actual wedding cake,” he says. “I was totally blown away by that. I never expected them to acknowledge my wedding!” 

That moment was a turning point for Atkins as he began to witness what looked like a more culturally sensitive and inclusive environment in the workplace. 

When Pepco President and CEO Dave Velazquez filmed a video on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 2019, Atkins felt it was an “amazing moment” as that “would have never been seen five or even 10 years prior.” 

More recently, Atkins beamed as he described how fulfilled he was participating in the Capital Pride parade in 2018. “This still gets me emotional, especially thinking about how we couldn’t walk in the parade this past year due to the Coronavirus pandemic,” says Atkins. “When I replay the spectators chanting ‘Yay Pepco’ from the sidelines, and I think about the unity we displayed that day, I am filled with such honor. I honestly never thought I would see the day when that would happen.”

This is far different from Atkins’ prior experiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He remembers his failed attempt at raising money for the 1988 AIDS Walk, stating that his colleagues simply said “I can’t give to that.” Yet they had no problem asking for donations for their kids’ popcorn and candy fundraisers, he recalls. There were also times where his own colleagues made insensitive gestures that he remembers “clear as day.” 

Today, Atkins is an active member of a company-sponsored employee resource group, focused on the needs of LGBTQ employees and the issues and interests of the community at large. He is also a member of the company’s LGBTQ Group Mentoring Circle, which is readying for its first session, “LGBTQ Visibility in the Workplace,” designed to offer insight into how LGBTQ employees experience the workplace and to share reflections, both positive and negative, with the goal of creating a more inclusive workplace.

As the world attempts to recover from a devastating and life-changing year that was 2020, with a pandemic and stark incidents of social and racial injustice, efforts to foster understanding have become even more critical. “As an African American, witnessing all of this while in the middle of the pandemic, it certainly presented some challenges, both mentally and emotionally for a lot of us. Pepco provided outlets for employees to discuss how we were being affected, from small groups to executive moderated sessions on topics ranging from ‘Defunding the Police’ to ‘Artifacts – History or Offensive.’ All employees were encouraged to be open with our feelings, frustrations, anger, and our thoughts for the future of our community and country,” said Atkins. “I am happy to see that this was not a ‘one and done’ effort, but a part of Pepco’s ongoing commitment.” 

He referenced a company initiative launched at the beginning of 2021 to include DEI in the performance goals and evaluations of all employees in office-based positions. “This will get more people talking about issues that affect many of us, as part of regular, daily business conversations,” said Atkins. “It will also allow us to celebrate our differences.”

This month, the company is celebrating Black History Month with a series of actions including hosting powerful guest speakers at employee events and a social media campaign highlighting African American inventors in the energy and technology fields. 

“When you see yourself represented, you are able to aspire for more and work toward a higher goal. And by doing that, you then inspire the next generation and the next generation and so on. But in order for that chain reaction to begin, we must be represented and heard,” said Atkins.

For more information visit: thesource.pepcoholdings.com/pepco

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