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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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Business

Study: One in ten LGBT workers experienced discrimination at work

LGBTQ employees of color were more likely to report being denied jobs and verbal harassment at work as opposed their white counterparts

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bullying in the workforce, gay news, Washington Blade

LOS ANGELES – A new study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law finds an estimated 46% of LGBT workers have experienced unfair treatment at work at some point in their lives, including being fired, not hired, or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

An estimated 9% of LGBT employees reported experiences of discrimination in the past year, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which extended employment non-discrimination protections to LGBT people nationwide. Approximately 11% of LGBT employees of color reported being fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the last year.

Using survey data collected in May 2021 from 935 LGBT adults in the workforce, researchers examined lifetime, five-year, and past-year discrimination among LGBT employees.

Results show that over half (57%) of LGBT employees who experienced discrimination or harassment at work reported that the unfair treatment was motivated by religious beliefs, including 64% of LGBT employees of color and 49% of white LGBT employees.

“Employment discrimination and harassment against LGBT people remain persistent and pervasive in 2021,” said lead author Brad Sears, Founding Executive Director at the Williams Institute. “Passing the Equality Act would ensure that LGBT people—particularly transgender people and LGBT people of color—are allowed to participate fully in the workplace as well as other public settings.”

ADDITIONAL FINDINGS:

Discrimination

  • 30% of LGBT employees reported experiencing at least one form of employment discrimination (being fired or not hired) because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives.
  • 29% of LGBT employees of color reported not being hired compared to 18% of white LGBT employees.

Harassment

  • 38% of LGBT employees reported experiencing at least one form of harassment (including verbal, physical, or sexual harassment) at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives.
  • LGBT employees of color were significantly more likely to experience verbal harassment than white employees.
    • 36% of LGBT employees of color reported experiencing verbal harassment compared to 26% of white LGBT employees.

Religious Motivation

  • Of employees who experienced discrimination or harassment at some point in their lives, 64% of LGBT employees of color said that religion was a motivating factor compared to 49% of white LGBT employees.

Avoiding Discrimination

  • Half (50%) of LGBT employees said that they are not open about being LGBT to their current supervisor and one-quarter (26%) are not out to any of their co-workers. 
  • Many LGBT employees reported engaging in “covering” behaviors to avoid harassment or discrimination at work, such as changing their physical appearance and avoiding talking about their families or social lives at work.
    • For example, 36% of transgender employees said that they changed their physical appearance and 28% said they changed their bathroom use at work to avoid discrimination and harassment.

Read the report

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Business

Time to dust off your pre-pandemic budget

We can no longer rely on closures to restrict us from spending money

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With pandemic restrictions lifting, we’ll all be spending more on going out in 2021 than we did last year.

D.C.’s first ‘mostly open’ weekend shows there is a year’s worth of socializing built up. It was amazing to feel the energy of the District roar back to life. From long lines outside bars to literal dancing in the streets – this is the city we all came to love. Now that the physical hangover may have subsided, you should prepare for the financial hangover. If you were lucky to keep your full pay and position through the pandemic, data tells us most of you were paying down debt.

The first thing everyone needs to do is dust off that old pre-pandemic budget. Sadly (or really luckily), we can no longer rely on health restrictions to naturally restrict us from spending. If you need a refresher, start with your post-tax income. From there, subtract ‘fixed’ or required expenses, like rent, and the balance is what you get to play with. Some may ask why I don’t use gross income (aka the before tax income) like many financial institutions do for credit applications. Frankly, it’s because net income (aka the money you actually receive) is the most practical number to budget daily life with. It’s what you can tangibly use to live.

Now as you develop your budget, return to using an app like Mint to take some of the work out of it. If you prefer to retain some level of privacy, many banks offer their own version of ‘spending trends’ that you can use to put together a more simple budget. This time the challenge is a bit different – we are all ‘restarting’ our social lives. So instead of having to ‘cut’ things, we can better prioritize what we actually want to do. Still – it is not easy or fun to have to choose, but every dollar you don’t spend today, will be there for the next rainy day.

Finally, so many of our friends and family lost their jobs or had their wages cut during the pandemic. Expanded unemployment benefits helped, but anyone trying to budget for life in D.C. knows that choices had to be made and often rent/utilities took a back seat to eating. Luckily, a state-run, but federal program will help people pay back rent and utilities, so they can focus on getting back to work. In D.C., this is called StayDC, but each jurisdiction offers a similar program.

Be prepared to do a little homework, you will need proof of income (or lack thereof) and documentation of the late payments. Finally, your landlord will need to complete separate forms, but it is in their best interest to receive those funds, so don’t let them drag their feet. The program will cover back rent to April 2021, three months of future rent, and past utilities. Do not delay, nor feel any shame by participating – this is the key to your long term success and, frankly, is a drop in the bucket compared to other spending priorities.

I hope this helps and I wish everyone a much more fun and prosperous 2021.

Information contained herein is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice or recommendations. Advice may only be provided after entering into an advisory agreement with an advisor.

Alex Graham is a Principal at Graham Capital Wealth Management, a registered Investment Advisor located on K Street.

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Business

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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