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Nov. 9, 2021

105 Leading with Humanity and Compassion with Gina Schaefer | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

105 Leading with Humanity and Compassion with Gina Schaefer | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Gina Schaefer, the Co-Founder and CEO of A Few Cool Hardware Stores, a chain of ACE hardware stores located in the Greater Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia DMV region. Gina talks about her journey founding the hardware store, her commitment to shopping local, and providing opportunities to many who don't often get the first chance in our communities.   

Some highlights:

-Why Gina Schaefer chose to shift from software to hardware!

-The valuable lesson in hiring a returning citizen and employees from a drug rehabilitation program.

-How online retail affected Gina's business and what they did to stay competitive.

-What drives Gina Schaefer in advocating to raise the federal minimum wage.

-Advocating for women and starting a women in retail group. 

-Gina Schaefer talks about writing her book "Recovery Hardware."



Zingerman's Delicatessen

Michael Gerber – Author, E-Myth 

Bo Burlingham – Author, Small Giants

Connect with Gina Schaefer:

Gina Schaefer on LinkedIn

Gina Schaefer on Twitter

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: 
Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming. Gina Schaefer. Gina is the founder and CEO of a chain of ACE hardware stores located in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia DMV region. She is passionate businessperson and has grown her company from one to 13 stores with now more than 300 employees.

She is also focused on return to main street movement in Washington, DC, the shop local campaign, the revitalization in urban areas. So Gina is a business owner. Who is committed to having an impact and making a difference in the community. That's why I truly enjoyed the conversation with Gina, finding out about some of her background and what has made her so committed and so passionate to making a difference in our community.

I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me. Don't forget to follow the podcast with Tuesdays conversations, magnificent Changemakers like Gina, and then Thursday conversations with global thought leaders, primarily leadership book authors.

Finally, those of you that enjoy these on apple, leave a rating and review. When you get a chance that will help more people find and benefit from the conversations. Now here's my conversation with Gina Schaefer.

 Gina Schaefer. Welcome to partnering leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Gina, you've been a committed leader, both to your organization and growing your chain of ACE hardware stores, and also committed to the broader community. As I have seen the issues you have engaged in. Worked on impacting and I can't wait to get to that, but before we do would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you became.

Gina Schaefer:
I love answering this question, by the way. I grew up in a small town in Northeastern, Ohio about 7,000 people, so it wasn't small compared to some of the surrounding towns, but it was small very middle-class Catholic. And my mother had a beauty shop in the basement. That's what they were called at the time.

And she would do the hair of mostly little old ladies, to be honest. I always say that it really affected my upbringing and impacted what I do now because she changed my hairstyle all the time. So I might have curls one day or braids one day. And I really think that taught me as an adult, how to roll with it. Life is about change, businesses about upheaval and change all the time.

And I swear, I learned how to deal with it under a hairdryer in my mother's beauty shop, in the basement, in my little house in Ohio.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
I can still picture those. I love Lucy hairdryers and little old ladies are the ones that sit under those, getting their nails done. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Yes, I loved, we had two of those hairdryers and I would spend an hour every morning sitting under one reading before I went to school and it was my happy place. It was quiet. I had to put a towel down because the seat was a really thick plastic. And if I had wet legs or my little tiny legs in shorts, I would stick to it. The visual is great, but it was a good time for me.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
I imagine it must have made you more confident too and not caring as much what other kids think. So what was going on when you went to school every day or every other week with a totally different hairstyle. 

Gina Schaefer: 
I was a very confident kid. I had a lot of friends and I think, it helps when you're in a small town and you start the same children from elementary school through high school. And my friend's parents all knew my parents and it wasn't strange to have the girl with the funny bangs or curly hair.

I pulled it off, I guess is my point. And it worked. I probably had some funny looks. There were definitely days where I wanted to wear a hat and my school wouldn't let us wear hats. And so I remember there were a couple of times where I cried and wanted to wear a hat, but mostly it was just look at me.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And Gina, where did You get your driving ambition from getting involved in the debate team, wanting to run for governor of Ohio, even back when in high school. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Two of my best friends were very smart guys. One went on to Stanford, one, I think, went to NC state with a full ride. And I always felt like I had to compete. They were really so much smarter than me and Booksmart. And I think we, we try to one up each other all the time they joined the debate team.

So I wanted to join the debate team. They joined the science club. I wanted to join the science club. They were not necessarily athletes and I was a cheerleader, which I consider an athlete. And so I think I, I might've told them that I won in that arena, but they just kept us going. I think it was a constant goading.

My dad worked two full-time jobs, which I think is crazy to think about. He worked in a factory the midnight shift and he drove a school bus the day shift for 25 years. And so I think that my commitment to showing up on time and really strong work ethic very much came from my dad.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And Gina, where you grew up in Ohio has also gone through a lot of transitions. Both when you grew up and since then, how did the transition as it was going through and you were seeing in your environment as you were growing up, how did that change you? 

Gina Schaefer: 
One thing specifically that jumps to mind where I grew up was very homogenous and Northeastern Ohio is tends to be, at least in that one quadrant tends to be very homogenous. My family hosted nine exchange students when I was a kid. And so we also always had the forerunner in our house as they would say in my high school.

And that really shaped my interest or desire to see a bigger part of the world. The first exchange student was from Brazil and I was 13 and I had never been out of Ohio yet. And to have someone come to my house, you spoke a different language who looked exotic. Spoke so differently and have so many different experiences really made me want to see a bigger part of the world.

I wouldn't say that the town where I grew up has changed much at all, but my beliefs and my interest was shaped by being in that town because of that experience with my family.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It's wonderful, because you have an ability to connect to different people based on that upbringing. And based on the diversity that your family brought to you while you were growing up.

Now you ended up going to Wittenberg University and you were the one assigned to give presentations to the football team on getting them involved in community service. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Yeah, it was such a fun time in my life. The year that I showed up at Wittenberg, it had joined a coalition of five other universities in the country. They were the first five to mandate community service for graduation. So all sophomores had to complete a 36 hours of some type of volunteerism and then four hours of reflection, which essentially is therapy for kids that had to do community service.

I walked into the office as a freshmen. I needed a job on campus to help pay for my student loans and the director hired me. She forgot to ask what year I was didn't plan on hiring any freshmen. I got the job. And for the next four years, I was responsible for helping steward students through their community service.

One group that I was assigned was the football team. So once a month, the football coach would invite me into the science auditorium and I would look up, it was the biggest classroom on campus. And I would lecture all of the football players about why it was important for them to do community service.

And I made a lot of friends. I really did make a lot of friends. We had a lot of fun taking the football players to elementary schools and soup kitchens and they learned a lot. And I certainly learned a lot about how to convince people to do things they didn't want to do.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
You must have had a lot of fun memories and fun parties with a football team. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Yes, I do. We'll leave those for another conversation.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
So then what brought you down to the DC area Gina? 

Gina Schaefer: 
Marian Wright Edelman who's the founder of the children's defense fund was a huge idol of mine when I was in college, still is, and she was also my graduation speaker. So Wittenberg had announced that Arthur Ash was going to speak at our graduation. And unfortunately passed away. I think the week after he was announced as the speaker and Mrs. Edelman agreed to take some of his speaking engagements, she showed up on campus. I was young and impressionable and sat Gaga, watching her give the speech. And I said, I am going to move to Washington and work for this lady. And I did at the time, maybe it's the same. Marian would give anyone a job as long as they didn't want to get paid for it.

So I packed up my stuff and I moved to DC for an unpaid internship at the children's defense fund. So I had always wanted to come to a bigger city. That part wasn't strange. I had planned on moving somewhere larger than my small town in Ohio and thought Washington seemed like a good place and CDF was here so it all aligned.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And eventually your career took you through a series of tech jobs. What were those like for you, Gina? 

Gina Schaefer: 
So I left CDF and I went to Brazil actually for 11, 10 or 11 months, and I traveled and taught English. And then I came back and I spoke Spanish and Portuguese. That was, I guess the mid nineties. And I don't know if it was the first tech boom, but there was certainly a tech boom going on at that time.

And I found friends at a company that had a contract with IBM, Latin America. So they needed my language skills between you and me and everyone listening, I had no idea how to turn on a computer, but I could speak the languages they knew. So I was hired and I ended up working on a couple of consulting projects, and then I took an internal job at that company.

I like to call myself Julie, the cruise director. It was marketing to the employees because that was the beginning of tech employees calling their own shots. They could go to one company today and make X amount and then tomorrow another company would want to hire them for more money.

And so we wanted to try and retain the employees we had. So that was my role. And then I left that company and went to two others that failed almost immediately. So I became a bit of a tech reject by the early two thousands.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And then you decided to open up a hardware store, Why a hardware store? 

Gina Schaefer: 
So it's very practical. I like to say I went from software to hardware because the whole software world was so untangible.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Gina. This is a different type of hardware that you know, that back then. 

Gina Schaefer: 
I didn't know anything back then. I was so clueless. Gosh, it's so fun to think about. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I got laid off from my third job. I was commuting from Rockville. I think I hated my commute. I just, I didn't like to drive. I didn't like the time that it took.

And I had moved to Logan circle in the mid nineties. Logan circle had been destroyed by the riots when Martin Luther king was assassinated. The right started about three blocks north of where my office is today. They swept south and left a path of destruction that took decades for Logan circle to recover from.

In the, probably late eighties, early nineties, people started moving east in Washington to find cheaper places to live. And I was poor. I kept getting laid off. I was this young tech employee not making any money. And I bought a condo in Logan circle and then my husband moved here. We were dating at the time.

Then we bought a house and there were boarded up houses all around us in all of our neighbors kept saying, gosh, I wish we had a hardware. One day. I said, why can't I open one? So I did. It's that easy, really?

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And opening up that first hardware store. You also ended up hiring your first employee who was a returning citizen and your second one from a drug recovery program. 

Gina Schaefer: 
First of all, the teammates that helped us really grow that first year were incredible and changed my life for sure. We didn't use the phrase returning citizen at the time. I didn't know anything about Tommy's past. We had decided early on that we weren't going to have the felony we banded the box before it was a thing.

So we didn't know about Tommy's history. He had a referral from someone who lived in the neighborhood and he seemed like a nice guy. He was amazing. He ended up working with us for 11 years. Changed I think a lot of perceptions in probably that I had to be completely honest. My husband's my business partner, perceptions that Mark had.

And the second, almost second employee might've been third or fourth came from the Whitman-Walker drug addiction services program. That was right down the street. Same thing walked in and said, I need a job. I'm in recovery. I said, I don't care if you're in recovery. When you start a business, I think you're a little scatterbrained because you have to do and know so much, so quickly.

And so I was trying to figure out what all the products in my stores do and how to sell them and how to take care of them. I wasn't really concerned about people's pasts or what that might mean to an employer. Since then I've had hundreds and hundreds of conversations with people who would say, oh my gosh, how would you have trusted those folks?

Why would you hire somebody with those backgrounds? Which I find a little frustrating, frankly, because those are the folks that helped me really build the business.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Yeah. And you have continued to speak out and advocate for those opportunities Gina, what is it that most people, most employers don't get. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Two things. I think people like to say that we are a second chance employer. I think a lot of people never had a first chance. So I think that it sounds very shortsighted to say I don't want to give people a second chance or how great you give people a second chance. I don't think we do that.

I think in a lot of cases, it's the first chance for some of our teammates. The second thing that I think people forget is that everybody can do harm. So I'll give you two quick examples. The first two theft issues that we really dealt with at the store, the first one was a 22 year old college graduate from the Midwest.

His parents owned a business. On paper, he looked perfect. He had never been to prison. He hadn't used drugs. He wasn't an addict. He had parents that owned a business and he stole $3,000 from us. If he can steal from us, people should believe that anybody can steal from us. The second incident that was big for us.

And we laugh about it now where 2 75 year old men that were criminal thieves. They were so old. They might as well have had walkers. I'm not lying. They looked really old. I know 75 can be young. I'm not trying to install the 75 year old. These guys were old. And they stole the keys to our cash register.

They had a very elaborate scheme. They stole the keys to the cash register at our Glover park store. They came back the following week. They figured out where the cameras were, how to position a cooler. So the cameras couldn't see their hands and they got in the cash register and stole our money. If old people and young Midwestern college graduates can steal from us and cause harm, anybody can.

And that set us on a trajectory of believing that everybody can be great. Everyone can be wonderful. You can't judge everybody by the worst thing they've ever done. And that's how we built our business. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
What powerful examples, Gina, because we often end up judging people based on their background, based on a lot of flawed thinking rather than starting with a clean sheet. And that gets us in trouble. Whether it's employers or in relationships in the community. So you have done this and you've grown this business to 13 stores over the 18 years, 300 employees, but the business landscape has also changed drastically since you started.

Online retail has become really a thing, which back in 2003 wasn't as much the case. So how has online retail impacted your stores? 

Gina Schaefer: 
At good and bad ways. I wake up every morning concerned about the competition. People wanting things delivered the same day next day. Online, you can almost always find things cheaper online than you can find walking into a brick and mortar store. And so we've really had to sharpen our pencils to stay competitive price-wise and then also in terms of service. 

But the positive sides for us have been it's made us grow outside of what a normal pseudo old fashioned business has been. So even just in the 18 years, ACE itself as a cooperative has grown tremendously and the help that it provides to its members to be more competitive on a technology front it's really an old mom and pop business.

When I opened, we had a cash register and that was about it. We've had to add our own online portals and in store pickup and texting applications. The reoccurring ordering process and technology that we use. And so the online retailers are scary. They are competition every day, but they've also made us become better if we want to stay around.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
One of the things I was surprised about Gina is that the, what I imagine of a hardware store is primarily hammers and screwdrivers and nails. However, your sales go much beyond that. 

Gina Schaefer: 
They do. So our two biggest departments are paint and lawn and garden, which people would think of traditionally with hardware stores, I think. Although we have a very robust pottery business, it's very hard to buy a flowerpot, believe it or not in Washington, DC, that's stylish. And so we've built that as one of our niches, but we actually sell in a lot of cases, more greeting cards and candles than we do power tools. We sell more canning jars, I think, than we do hand tools and so in order to compete with the online retailers, and the tools, in some cases, the big box retailers we've really had to diversify. We do that to cater to our neighborhood what the neighborhood is lacking and then also to make us more interesting to the consumer. So if they are coming in for a screwdriver, that's not the only thing that they are buying.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And at the same time that you're building this business, Gina, you have continued advocating for different groups and you also advocate for raising the federal minimum wage. Why is that? In most instances, people look at a small business owner as you would be the case as not wanting the minimum wage to go up. 

Gina Schaefer: 
I think there's probably a lot of reasons. I've always had a strong sense of justice, I think, but retail's never paid well, it's probably never going to pay super well. Now a lot of retailers are eliminating employees altogether and doing things like the chef self checkout, and I want people to have jobs.

I think there should be entry-level positions. I think retail is a great place to get an entry-level position to grow a career in a lot of different ways. It's not just selling things it's customer interaction and service, and there is a technology component now, so you can hone a lot of skills.

What we were seeing though, is that nationally in any business, the federal minimum wage hadn't changed in a decade. Hadn't been raised. It was changing jurisdictionally, but not at the national level. And I got involved with some organizations that really wanted that to change. I think now there are still 20 states that have adopted the federal minimum wage of 7 25 on their books, which I don't know about you, but I don't want to live on $14,000 a year. I don't know how anybody would expect anyone to live on $14,000 a year. So if my team is going to stay here in a job with me, I want to be able to pay them the max we can so that they can have a comfortable life.

I think we have a ways to go, but if we could use our voice on a national level, why we were doing things locally, we want it to be able to do that.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And you've continued doing that. Additionally, you're working on a book, "Recovery Hardware". What is the book about? 

Gina Schaefer: 
The book is really just the stories of my teammates who have helped us build the business. Most of whom, we've had plenty of teammates, not in recovery, but when I look back in history, some of the best moments for me, the moments of empathy, the places where I've really grown as a leader, I can pinpoint something that I've learned from someone who was in a recovery program, drugs, alcohol, whatever.

And so the book I had a very dear employee who said, you have to talk about us if you don't, who will. And it really struck me as I never wanted to tell the stories. They're not my stories to tell. And I would say to that first employee, for example who now owns a fantastic restaurant, I would say I don't want to talk about your story.

Would that insult you, would you be embarrassed? And he just he's proud of what he's done and what he's recovered from and how he's overcome it and he’s like “No! Shout it to the world”. So recovery hardware will be the story of building the hardware business through the lens of the employees that helped us build it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And in my view, it gives both a life to those stories and to the people that helped you build your hardware store. But it also opens up minds of lots of people that might have biased perceptions of what people that have gone through recovery or who are looking for what you beautifully say, that first chance what they experience and giving them more opportunities too. 

Gina Schaefer: 
I hope so. I really do. I had two really interesting speeches that I gave last year that are important just for this very reason. The first one was to a group of stay-at-home moms who wanted to go back into the workforce. And the organization that asked me to give the presentation, wanted me to talk about. What you learn as a stay at home mom that employers need things like time management dealing with cranky people. 

You could think about some of the things and if I told you that I had this presentation with the group of stay-at-home moms, you wouldn't think twice about it, right?

You'd be, oh yeah. That's so logical. One of my favorite teammates had been a drug dealer. And it wasn't long after that, that I gave a presentation about why a drug dealer made a really good employee. He was good with money. He could count it, keep it and buy inventory with it. He was good at working odd hours.

I'm being stereotypical, but if you want drugs, you want them 24 hours a day. It's not between the hours of nine to five. And he was really good with difficult people and people, I say that and they say I would have never thought about that. And so I want that kind of story to come out in this book and I want to make someone pause and think, yeah, I get that. That makes sense.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
You are, setting a new path and impacting both people and then giving opportunities to a lot of people in the community. You are also an advocate for women and you started a women in retail group. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Yeah, so ACEs like any there's a couple of national hardware cooperatives, and historically it's been a very male dominated. I was elected. I was fortunate to be elected to the ACE hardware corporate board in 2007. I was way too young. I was way too inexperienced. I make no qualms about that, but it was a nine-year tenure and I had a lot to learn. And one of the things that I also learned was that the men were still very much the dominant figure in the hardware world, but there were all these women who co owned the businesses with their husbands or were the marketing managers, the HR managers, the store managers.

And I wanted them to have a voice and visibility. And we created with ASI data women in retail group that, in 2011, which lives to this day, there's two meetings. There's a meeting twice a year and it is amazing to be in a room full of people who can talk about power tools and nuts and bolts and money and employees and retail real estate. It's great. But it didn't exist before that.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It is wonderful. So you've started the business. You've started different groups. You have had an impact on the community now when you want to give advice to younger leaders that want to be as impactful as you've been Gina, both in your professional career and starting the hardware stores and continually giving back and trying to impact community, what advice would you give? 

Gina Schaefer: 
I love this question except I could answer it 85 different ways. One of the first things that I know that I've said for years is you have to make money first before you can give it away. So many people and I find this particularly true for women, want to start a business so that they can immediately help someone.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think that's amazing. We do a ton of charitable things at the hardware stores, but you have to take care of your own house before you can help somebody else's. And so I think that's one piece of advice that I've learned over the years that's been useful.

The other thing is I try to tell people because it worked for me doesn't mean it's going to work for everyone, to get outside of your lane. Like I know how to run a hardware store. I have so many fantastic hardware mentors that grew up in the business. I need to know what's happening in the technology industry, the fashion industry, at car dealerships, at consulting companies, I think getting outside of our four walls gets us outside of the mindset that really tracks us. This is how this kind of business is supposed to work. 

I tell my marketing manager, for example, Mick, don't go to the hardware show to learn about marketing and hardware stores, go to the pet show or go to the big tech companies and see what's going on in those industries to make us more interesting.

And I do think that DC is a very competitive environment. It's expensive to operate a business here. I think some of what has made us successful is just getting out of our four walls. Getting out of our lane. I hope. That's what I tell my team. I might be lying.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It is really important. It's a lesson Gina I've learned repeatedly, including I just had a conversation with the person that was the CMO for Chick-fil-A. For many years from early eighties onto the mid two thousands, 2015, and served on their board until 2018. One of the things they did early on to become an un-fast food business and to get away from the discounting, which all fast food restaurants do. Is they started visiting BMW, Nike. So they went to Totally different organizations to try to understand what sets them apart. And for them, one of the lessons they learned was the importance of the customer experience and focusing on that. So the point is a lot of times the best lessons don't come from. The industry or competition within industry. It's what you can learn from people that are in drastically different environments and industries. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Totally agree. Absolutely agree

Mahan Tavakoli: 
So Gina, are there any leadership resources or practices you find yourself typically recommending? 

Gina Schaefer: 
There are so many great business books, right? I probably read more early on in my career and some of them are so simple with their message that have they've left impacts and the E-Myth Michael Gerber wrote the E-Myth years ago. But working the concept of working on your business, not in your business was very valuable for me.

I ran the cash register, managed a store, learned the ins and outs probably for the first 17 months. And then I had to figure out how to work on it if we were going to grow. So that probably made the biggest impact. And I think that's still very relevant in today's business world and then "Eat that frog" it's the most simple book, but I have all of my leaders read it.

I think Tom Sawyer said, if you had to eat a frog, the first thing every day, think about how easy the rest of your day is going to be. Retail has a lot of negativity, just like any other business. It might be an upset customer or a broken freight or a miss shipment.

And if we deal with that stuff, the first thing in the morning, the rest of the day seems easier. I don't always follow my own advice, but I do like to read that book and remind myself, this sounds so simple. You probably have heard from folks who read huge volumes of more important books.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
One of the beautiful things about this, Gina is sometimes it's the simple things that are really hard to do. A lot of times we're looking for complex models and frameworks, whether it's on leadership or our own personal lives while the reality is it's the application of the simple things that is hard. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Yes, you're absolutely right. I read a book years ago called "Small Giants." And it also made a big impact because I realized that we could do really big things and not become a really big business. And so Zingerman's delicatessen is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I don't know if you've ever been there, but the guys that started Zingerman's are just incredible in what they've done.

 So I've gone to some of their training programs just to watch how they've worked and expanded. And those folks who have remained small in a lot of ways, I can teach any business of any size I think a lot about how to be a good business.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Gina, I truly appreciate you taking the time to share some of your leadership journey most specifically, because you have combined it all throughout first, focusing on yourself, which is brilliant advice as they say on the airlines, you need to first put on your own mask before trying to help others. 

And as you have built a business, you have continually focused on how you can add greater value, both through the business and through your involvement in the community. Really appreciate you and your leadership, Gina Schaefer. 

Gina Schaefer: 
Thank you so much happy to tell our story.