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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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Maryland LGBT Chamber holds expo

Business event held in Columbia, Md.

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Maryland LGBT Business Expo. (Washington Blade photo by Linus Berggren)

Over 35 Maryland LGBT Chamber of Commerce member businesses and organizations participated in the 2022 LGBT Business Expo in Columbia, Md. on Thursday, Sept. 15.

Panels and presentations at the event covered a variety of business topics, including:
We will also feature panel talks and presentations on a variety of business topics throughout the afternoon including: “Master Your Budget: 3 Simple Steps to go from Surviving to Thriving” presented by Financial Coach, Amy Scott; How we got our Rehoboth Beach cottage (without saving up for it)… And how YOU can too!!!” presented by the Retire on Real Estate author, K. Kai Anderson and “Why and How to get your small business LGBTQ Certified”, presented by NGLCC.

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Fla. ‘Pride Leadership’ firm survives pandemic to face anti-LGBTQ legislation

‘Are gay leaders better? Of course we are!’

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Dr. Steven Yacovelli has spent more than 25 years delivering diversity training and developing LGBTQ leaders.

(Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a multi-part summer series of stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. All installments in the series are available on our website.)

Dr. Steven Yacovelli has spent more than 25 years delivering diversity training and developing LGBTQ leaders, but after surviving a nearly half-million-dollar loss during the pandemic, the “Pride Leadership” author and Top Dog Learning Group co-founder now fears legal repercussions from Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act.”

“I can go to a Florida-based client and potentially both the company and an employee could now sue me as the deliverer of the diversity training,” Yacovelli told the Blade. “That training is now potentially illegal because of the Act.”

Top Dog Learning Group is a diversity and inclusion consulting firm based in Orlando and has been delivering training, to include leadership development for the LGBTQ community since 2002, initially as Yacovelli’s “side hustle” while a corporate executive.

At the height of the pandemic’s economic crisis in 2020, Yacovelli said he lost nearly half of his business earnings in two weeks. They were able to survive and recover mostly due to his previous experience with Zoom and other virtual platforms.

But while they could increase their instructional capacity by going virtual, and grow through the crisis, the current impact of Florida’s anti-LGBTQ legislation now threatens his small business.

In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), whom conservative voters in a 2024 presidential election straw poll chose over former President Donald Trump for the second year in a row, signed the new law he dubbed the “Stop Wrongs Against our Kids and Employees Act.” It took effect July 1, despite First Amendment legal challenges.  

The Florida law, though targeting the alleged teaching of critical race theory in public schools, also prohibits instruction that “compels” employees or students to believe privilege or oppression “is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.”

This legislation, and the popularly known “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed earlier, have served to decrease Florida’s score on Out Leadership’s 2022 State Level Business Climate Index, published amid a cascade of anti-LGBTQ measures pursued across state legislatures.

New York’s LGBTQ business climate ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row, earning 93.67 out of 100 points, while South Carolina scored last with 33.63 points.

Florida, ranked 31, and Oklahoma, ranked 49, lost points for their “Don’t Say Gay” bills among other anti-LGBTQ legislation.

“LGBTQ-friendly environments are business-friendly environments,” Todd Sears, Out Leadership founder, told Axios in June.

Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” also vaguely states that an individual shouldn’t feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” as a result of the training experience due to their “race, color, sex, or national origin.”

This “discomfort” ban worries Yacovelli as he facilitates difficult conversations in a currently accepting community.

“I look at this as a taxpayer and as a human who lives here,” he said. “But the good news is I live in a very inclusive community because of the Pulse [shooting] and for other reasons. We’ve got each others’ back.”

Yacovelli said his local government and representatives have been very supportive, “but it’s hard.”

The problem of capital

When he was between jobs in 2008, after having been terminated from an executive position without explanation (Florida is an “at-will” state meaning an employer can fire an employee without cause), he followed his friend and co-founder, Ruth Bond, to Paris where he had an epiphany.

In a Paris cafe, he saw a simple yet elegant logo for a French telecommunications company and decided it was time to design a similar, simple logo for his side-hustle and move it into full-time reality.  

Years later, he now sees the comforting spirit of his “fur-daughter” Ella, a mini-Labradoodle who died from cancer last summer, in the friendly dog visitors encounter on the company’s website.

“2008 wasn’t a good time to start a business,” Yacovelli said. “But there’s never going to be a good time. You’ll always find an excuse not to do this, but put that aside. Whether it’s the economy, or your own limited finances – just put that all aside and just do it.”

Access to startup capital has been a historic problem for minority business owners. The Federal Reserve Banks reported in 2018 that limited access to credit was a “compounding factor that hurts the underlying health of minority-owned small businesses.”

Many, like Yacovelli, turn to personal funds to get their dream off the ground.

“I was self-funded,” Yacovelli said. “But on the advice of a friend, I took out one small business loan. And thank goodness I did, because I had an established relationship with a bank when COVID hit.”

During the height of the pandemic, the Paycheck Protection Program was administered through banks, limiting access to the survival funding, according to a Brookings Institute report in 2020.

Brookings also pointed out that closing the financial and other disparities could add millions more new small businesses to the U.S. economy and with them more jobs.

The National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce states LGBTQ-owned businesses contribute more than $1 trillion to the U.S. economy, and in 2015 more than 900 certified LGBTQ-owned businesses created more than 33,000 jobs across the country.

But pandemic challenges continue.

“In the years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ+ businesses have faced severe financial challenges and many are at risk of permanently closing,” Zack Hasychak, Director of Membership Outreach at the Human Rights Campaign, told the Blade.

To help LGBTQ businesses, HRC teamed up with Showtime to start their “Queer to Stay” initiative. For two years the partnership awarded funds to 30 LGBTQ-owned businesses across the country and has committed to supporting at least 25 businesses this round.

Applications are accepted via their website until Aug. 31.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is also shining a spotlight on LGBTQ-owned small businesses.

SBA Deputy Press Director Cecelia Taylor told the Blade about the Elevating Small Business webinar series in June that celebrated LGBTQ small businesses across the country while focusing on financial wellness and the importance of equity and opportunity.

“Equity is a top priority for me and for the Biden-Harris administration, and we believe all of America’s entrepreneurs deserve a level playing field, regardless of zip code, race, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation” said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman in a Pride month statement.

“During COVID, we’ve learned how critical equitable access is to surviving and thriving, and at the SBA we are working to build better connections to and for the 1.4 million LGBTQ+ owned businesses in communities across this country,” Guzman said.

Still, Yacovelli emphasized the need for the federal government to step up and make the process of procuring contracts easier.

“The federal government is the largest opportunity for contracts,” he said. “Yet, the process to get them is insanely hard. That’s a missed opportunity.”

Yacovelli said it took a week away from his business to complete a “dissertation-type application” only to have it “go into a black hole” without any feedback.

“It was for diversity training for 911 operators,” he said, stunned by why he didn’t hear back about his application. “Coach me so I can make the application better. It took us a week to get this packet done, and that’s a week I didn’t work on any client proposals.”

But despite challenges, Top Dog grew to exceed its pre-pandemic levels, making 2021 its best year to date.

“Are gay leaders better?” asked Yacovelli who literally wrote the book on “Pride Leadership,” which has been widely praised as influential by multiple business and political leaders. “Of course we are! We’re fabulous. I looked at my queer siblings in leadership roles and moving our community forward in areas of equality and justice. They exercise competencies all leaders could use.”

“You play with a lot of leaders in my business,” Yacovelli, a.k.a “The Gay Leadership Dude,” told the Blade. “You start to see patterns of behaviors for leaders that are crushing it and those that are crashing and burning.”

In his book “Pride Leadership,” Yacovelli combines academic insights gained though his doctorate in education and his years as a corporate leader to identify six leadership traits: being authentic, leading with courage, having empathy, effective communication, building relationships, and influencing organizational culture.

Yacovelli pointed out that the LGBTQ coming out process also involves using these leadership skills to navigate that tough line between being authentic and respecting the feelings and experiences of others.

“You have those difficult conversations. You’re having empathy for yourself and for the person receiving the news for the first time,” he said. “That one experience can be translated into leadership courage, and those traits are the foundation for a really effective leader.”

He stated that for trans siblings to live their lives authentically is powerful, and to channel that energy into a leadership role is using their “rainbow superpowers.”

“And we freakin’ need it now more than ever,” he added.

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From early struggles to Obama’s White House, Black pansexual exec talks resilience, self-love

Williams’s advice to entrepreneurs: Do the research and make it happen

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Marcus A. Williams is the principal consultant and owner of D.C.-based MW Consulting. (Photo by Kea Dupree-Alfred)

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a multi-part summer series of stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. All installments in the series are available on our website.)

The road to loving himself as a Black gay man hasn’t been easy for a 38-year-old business owner who once worked as a communications expert for both the U.S. House of Representatives and former President Barack Obama.

When Marcus A. Williams, the principal consultant and owner of D.C.-based MW Consulting, sat as a child around the dinner table with his family, his mother told them their house was going to be foreclosed on.

Williams recalled how he admired the strength it took for her to calmly tell them where they each were going to stay until his parents figured things out. Fortunately, the phone rang with an 11th hour offer to rent a home they could move into immediately.

Williams never forgot that day at the table or that lesson in resilience.

“I grew up in a rough neighborhood with drug abuse and family members who were incarcerated,” Williams said. “To be able to come from that environment and go to Penn State and then start a business — I take that as a sign to my community that it is possible.”

As the owner of a full-service communications and Information Technology consulting firm generating gross revenues of $568,000 in 2019, Williams wants to show others that they can also beat the odds.

But a major problem historically for Black-owned businesses has been unequal access to capital.

According to the 2018 Small Business Credit survey, large banks approved about 60 percent of loan applications from white small business owners, but only 29 percent from those identifying as Black, meaning most Black small business owners who apply for loans are turned down.

This problem was exacerbated during the height of the pandemic when the Payroll Protection Program, intended to shore up small businesses through the crisis, was administered primarily through large banks that favored their preexisting clients, according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institute.

When Williams applied for a PPP loan, he was turned down without a clear reason. He was fortunate he could turn to the National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), which helped him secure grants and access to other programs that helped his business survive the crisis.

Cision PR Newswire reported only 2.3 percent of employer businesses in the U.S. are Black owned, and in the IT field specifically, Black and Latinx workers remain underrepresented in tech jobs by nearly 50 percent, according to Brookings 2018 data.

Additionally, Black LGBTQ adults are more likely to experience economic insecurity than non-LGBTQ Black adults, according to a 2021 report from the Williams Institute. Research by the Movement Advancement Project from 2013 points to discrimination and unsafe schools as two factors contributing to the disparity.

Williams told the Blade how he came to deal with these challenges to business and to his identity in his own way.

Marcus A. Williams (Photo by Kea Dupree-Alfred)

‘I am Black first ’

Williams recently returned from a trip to Ghana where he visited the former ports used during the transatlantic slave trade. The experience was a moving one for him, as well as insightful.

“We have been resilient since we were first captured and brought to this country to build it,” he said, acknowledging the strength he saw in his mother and his grandparents. “Resilience is an innate survival trait for us. It is what is in our blood from our ancestors.”

The experience gave him a deeper understanding of who he was and what that meant historically. He understood that for him and how he carried himself, his color was often the most visible part of him, and people made assumptions about him based on that.

“When I graduated [from Penn State], I wasn’t getting any job offers,” Williams said, adding he was excited to see friends do amazing things with their careers but wanted more for himself.

He finally landed an interview with the CW network in New York in his field of broadcast journalism. His mother wanted to lend her hard-earned money to help him attend the interview, but he wasn’t certain this path was in his future.

After watching a friend die from cancer at age 28, he heard one of his “guardian angels” encouraging him to go for his dreams — a path that eventually led him to Obama’s White House.

He called this his “Janet Jackson ‘Control’ moment,” comparing the decision to take control of his future to the similar feelings the legendary pop star expressed in her breakthrough song and album. But he wants others to understand that path wasn’t easy.

His business struggled financially during the pandemic crisis, and though he was reluctant to take on more debt, he applied for a PPP loan only to be rejected. He grew desperate.

The NGLCC helped him access grants and programs that helped keep his business afloat, but he also had to rely on his mother to help him pay his bills – something his pride usually didn’t allow him to do, but he had to bend in order to survive.

“I am Black first and I want people in the Black community to see that and absorb it,” Williams said. “I’m not an activist out here trying to be a role model, but I understand that the more visible you are, the more you can be an inspiration to others.”

NGLCC ‘helps me feel comfortable in my skin’

Years earlier, Williams had traveled to Paris for his 30th birthday. While he was there, he had another life-changing moment about realizing how far he’d come and appreciating the journey and his many blessings.

“When I said to love myself more, it made me emotional and I cried for 15 minutes,” he said. “My soup got cold. They brought me a fresh one.”

Some Black LGBTQ people have reported challenges with their intersectionality, which can lead to feelings of disconnection from larger communities. The Williams Institute found only 49 percent of Black LGBTQ adults felt socially connected to the larger Black community.

This is in contrast to 62 percent of Black LGB adults who reported feeling connected to the larger LGBTQ community (only 29 percent of Black trans adults felt connected to their larger gender communities).

These numbers indicate the difficulties Black LGBTQ people can face when navigating intersecting identities. And for Black gay business owners, this can be an additional layer to deal with on top of running a business during a crisis.

Despite these challenges, Williams said during that moment of reflection in Paris, he moved to a new place of self-acceptance. But he also admitted that “one cry doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to be out and proud,” but it was a step in the right direction.

Williams said each time he told others about owning a certified LGBTQ business enterprise, it was a little easier, and he became a little more proud.

“The more I say ‘yes, I am LGBTQ,’ and the more I talk in focus groups about the challenges I face, the more it allows me to be more comfortable in my skin,” he said. “It’s not about if people can tell if you’re in the community, it is about your comfort in being able to say it. And that is another thing about how beautiful this process about being a business owner has been.”

Marcus A. Williams (Photo by Kea Dupree-Alfred)

Williams is extremely grateful for the mentoring he has received from the NGLCC, particularly from its Community of Color initiative and from being part of the inaugural entrepreneurial cohort.

He said having such initiatives shows NGLCC understands that LGBTQ business owners of color have special needs within the larger community and often need a little more help.

“That understanding is a level of respect and cultural competency that I encourage others to implement,” Williams said, for a moment donning his hat as a professional strategic communications consultant.

Williams’ advice to Black LGBTQ youth and others who are interested in starting a business is to do the research and make it happen, and to see failures as opportunities to develop resilience.

He also advises businesses seeking long-term economic recovery to have both minority business owners and consumers at the table as part of the conversation.

Marcus A. Williams (Photo by Kea Dupree-Alfred)

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