In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Lisa Wise, Chief Rooster, Chief Nester and Owner of Nest DC. Lisa Wise shares the origin story behind founding the company and how they bake purpose into everything they do. Lisa Wise also talks about her commitment to the community and how she was able to keep focused on purpose through the pandemic. Finally, Lisa Wise talks about her commitment to serving employees and other stakeholders.
- How challenges growing up shaped Lisa Wise and and her make up as an entrepreneur
- The founding of Nest with a purpose of giving back to the community
- Lisa Wise's strong belief that doing good business leads to more business
- The importance of aligning the organization's actions
- Launching Bird Seed with aim of community engagement
- Lisa Wise's leadership during the pandemic and the importance of consistent communication with team members
- The learnings of stepping in as a chair board at Whitman-Walker Health
- Lisa Wise’s advice on leadership
Naseema Shafi, CEO of Whitman Walker Health
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Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming, Lisa Wise. Lisa is the Chief Rooster, Chief Nester and Owner of Nest DC. In addition to Lisa's fun sense of humor and great understanding of powerful branding, Lisa is a truly purpose driven leader that has enabled all of her organizations and team members to stay focused on a greater purpose and having an impact on the community.
That's why I really enjoyed the conversation with Lisa both with respect to how she came about with the different ideas, revolving around Nest DC and how she has continued leading the organization to stay focused on purpose through the pandemic and beyond, and the commitment she continues to show to the community and to give back. I'm sure you will really enjoy hearing Lisa's story too, as well as learning from her what being purpose-driven is all about.
I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. firstname.lastname@example.org. There's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Really enjoy getting those voice messages. Don't forget to follow the podcast. Tuesday conversations with magnificent changemakers from the greater Washington DC DMV region like Lisa Wise and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders.
Now here's my conversation with the Chief Rooster, Chief Nester of Nest DC, Lisa Wise.
Lisa Wise, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
Thanks so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Really excited, Lisa having gotten the chance to get to know you and also know some of your purpose-driven impact on the community both with respect to the organization that you run and so much community involvement you have.
But before we get to that, I would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person and leader you've become, Lisa.
I like that question. The origin story, right? I think all of us were lucky to look back at that moment in time when we were younger, those foundational experiences and see a little bit more about why our current state of being is what it is.
Most of my growing up was spent in Idaho, throughout Southern Idaho. But I also lived in California, Connecticut, Colorado. We moved around a lot. So many of my formative years were spent in Hailey, Idaho, Boise, Idaho, Pocatello Idaho. And then later we moved to the east coast. I lived in the Washington DC area for a few years before I went to college.
So my childhood can be really defined as full of moves. Certainly a lot of housing insecurity. I lived in 23 different homes before I went to college. I was good at packing boxes. Maybe not a life skill we need, but it's when I certainly acquired at the time..
When you reflect on it Lisa, those moves have an impact on us, on different people, in different ways.
How did that shape your belief about the world around you and who you've become?
Growing up with any degree of insecurity was life-defining for me. Cause I think the housing insecurity in particular had a profound impact on me. Not only did we have a lot of moves under our belts and were really finding ourselves in different states and cities across the United States, but there were in many ways, a lack of general resources.
So there were two things at play for me growing up. One, was the housing insecurity and feeling like I wanted a sense of a secure home. And the other was just feeling financially vulnerable as a kid. Feeling like there wasn't always food necessarily. We were very much living paycheck as a family. Over time, that changed for me.
But from an early age, I was really born to make money and be an entrepreneur. It was just baked into my personality. And so as a kid, for me building security, my counterpoint to serve my chaotic childhood was to make money. And I would come up with every kind of little small, odd job you could think of. And I would stack them. There's no reason to stick to one job when you can have five different irons in the fire. And so I was able to really save a lot growing up and build this nesting for myself, no pun intended or maybe there's pun intended. Because that financial cushion that I was aware of really young needing to have in order to have a sense of stability and security and safety, that paired with the housing component really informed where I would find myself career-wise long term. And now of course, I work in the home management space and with a lot of detours along the way. But it's very clear that where I am professionally today is exactly where I'm supposed to be.
I wonder Lisa, how did that impact your relationship with your immediate family? How did they impact your ability to connect with people externally to your family?
Lisa Wise: Yeah, I like that question a lot. It's a thoughtful one.
My family is fairly fractured. A lot of what led to the moving was divorced and just family chaos. There wasn't a strong source of comfort from family. And so moving around and having your family unit go from place to place, didn't bring that sense of comfort for me, though it's very logical that it would.
And so it was also complicated to build relationships during that time, because we were more or less transient. And so, a lot of people will say, oh, this friend from X, Y, Z grade. And I have no frame of reference for what it's like to have relationships that have survived that length of time because I just wasn't in any one place long enough to form them. And I feel that that's been a deficit to some extent.
But in 1990, when I went to college, I came out as a gay woman. For any of those folks listening will relate to the fact that particularly at the time, when I came out, it was not looked upon very favorably. And so when you're living your authentic self and that self doesn't necessarily click in with how society wants to see you or embrace you. You learn very quickly how to build a chosen family, surround yourself with people who are supportive and empathic and caring, and give you that sense of family that you may have lost and, or not had as a result of your identity. And for me, I became really burst at that time in my life and saying, I have to start over and build relationships that I nurture and invest in deeply over time.
I think those skills have certainly come in handy during a pandemic. Funny enough. I had a roommate my freshman year. We had four classes together in the giant university. I think it was probably statistically impossible that we would have four classes together. There were 40,000 plus students. She became a fast friend and to this day, 30 years, we're in daily conversation. I consider wherever Francis is to be home. That to me is just as valid and empowering and impactful as my sense of homebase and identity as a traditional biological family might be.
That's wonderful that you were able to have that connection. At a time it's important to reflect on this, Lisa. There has been tremendous progress with respect to marriage equality over the past couple of decades.
But for people to reflect on the fact that when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, after that, don't ask, don't tell was a huge controversy. So just don't ask, don't tell. So when people think about coming out, it is very different now than it was at a time you were going through college.
Yeah, honestly, even that's a privilege. The accelerated timeline within which I have gone from feeling like I'm not supposed to tell anybody who I am to announcing it happily. And without any sense of internal conflict on a podcast. That says a lot, right? And I'm thrilled about that.
I'm also at the same time, I have a hard time understanding the contrast between that and race and class and ethnicity and stability and all the other areas in which our country has not done a good job of advancing equality at the same pace. And there will always need to be movement around gender identity and equality, but there's still so much work to do, but we're in any community that is not considered equal to as they should be.
Wouldn't it be beautiful if 20, 30 years from now, Lisa, we are having a conversation and we reflect back to the anti-racism conversations of this day and have to tell our children, grandchildren, or whoever else. Oh, you wouldn't believe there was a time when we had to have those conversations, having made so much progress, because I know this is something that is really important to you, core to your identity and core to what you do as an entrepreneur.
Absolutely. I hope to have that conversation.
I also understand that right after college, Lisa, you lost your mom and that was a significant moment in your life.
It was. Losing a parent is really life defining. I think, at any age. And I've known people, of course, who've lost parents, all sorts of moments in life. There isn't a moment that it's better or worse.Right?
But I was 24 when my mom passed away. It was very jarring. Again, life defining. When my mom died, the sense of family unit really completely vanished at that point. And so my personal vulnerability became even more pronounced. My mum was a very strong driven, very professional accomplished woman, and I felt that she had given me a tool kit around being a feminist, around being driven, around being very independent. And that to honor her, I really needed it to be as ambitious, as driven and as successful as I could be. And that was to honor her, but it was also to make sure that I was protected because there wasn't going to be anybody that I could really lean on in case something happened. So that lifeline was no longer available.
And it was a really scary time for me, but as with most scary times, I just rally and find a path through it to see if I can get by stronger instead of weaker. And I think that that's certainly what I did when my mom passed away.
You continue to get stronger. And then back in 1997, you bought an 1893 duplex. What got you to do that, Lisa?
Ironically, when my mom died, suddenly and surprisingly, I had been caring for a cousin of mine who lived in Tucson, Arizona. A cousin that I hadn't known existed. Then my aunt Susan called me out of the blue and said, “You know, you have a cousin Richard that lives in Tucson and he's your dad's age. And my age. You should get together with him. I think you'd like him.” I thought this was interesting. I've never heard about Richard before this. So great. He'll probably be good for a meal. He probably lives in the foothills. You know, I live in student housing downtown or whatever. So I called him up and he said, “Oh, it'd be great to meet.” And he said, “We moved the street corner in the Barrio”, which is the Mexican neighborhood and downtown so I said “Okay, great.”
So I get eyeballs on this guy and I'm like, oh, there's no wife. And now I know why nobody talked about Richard because he was as gay as he get. He was an interpretative, contemporary dancer, an architect and artist. And we were immediately spent with each other. There was just an instant connection between the two of us. And we became very, very close, very quickly and spent a lot of time together.
And Richard developed full blown aids. And he developed aids about two years before my mom passed away and I was more or less his primary caretaker. And he was the one that called to tell me that my mom had died. I was so floored because I had been praying for him to die. And so it was such a strange reality check that what you think you're prepared for is maybe not what's up ahead. Richard did pass away nine months later. His parting wish was that I fly his ashes over the Catalina mountains. That I take over his lease for his apartment in his own Adobe house, which I love. And that I take his car and settle it, visit the state.
And I said, okay, I can do the ashes. I can take the car. I can settle up in your state. That's no problem. But I'm not taking over your lease because I don't want to rent one at home on my own.
So I took the car and I sold it. It was a black Honda Civic and Inc magazine just did an article about this very story last week, which was nice. And I sold a car for $8,300 and I called my landlord who lived in Australia of all places. And I said, listen, I don't think it makes a lot of sense for you to own a property from Australia. And I live in one and a half already, and it's a duplex. And would you be interested in selling? And he said, "You know what? Yeah, I don't think I have any business using that property anymore. I don't think we're coming back." And I offered 83,000. I have my 10% down payments. I scrambled together some other cash that I had saved, probably from one of my side hustles as a kid. And I went to the used bookstore and I got a kit on how to buy a house.
Again, I have all the forms that you fill in and we fax them back and forth. And I picked the title of the company and boom, I got myself a really competitive eight and a half percent interest rate. I was a homeowner. Everything about my life changed from that moment forward, because I automatically became a landlady.
I had another one bedroom unit on the other side that I was managing and his portion of the rent covered 75% of my mortgage. And then I had a roommate and then I was net positive every month. And so I would use the money I saved in paying for rent to fix up the house.
Everything I know about home repair while improving on that Rubio, downtown duplex. And they still have that house. It's still really important for me to keep it. Everything from patching the roof to fixing the Adobe, to tiling, to electrical, to moving walls. I just learned how to do all of it because if I didn't do it, I couldn't afford to have anybody do it.
So I just learned to bring my crews together and have a lot of beer and pizza. And that began my journey into being a property manager. And helping people have great living space. I remember having an incredible sense of community with my tenants or residents and just how enriching that was an experience. I felt like I really was able to improve his life as a result of offering a really great rental space for him. A great home.
You didn't immediately, from then, go into real estate management. You say you had experience for about 15 years working in nonprofits, including serving as an executive director for an environmental nonprofit. What drew you into the nonprofit sector to spend a significant portion of your career?
Yeah. You know, when I talk about security and justice as a kid, I wasn't just motivated to create the security for myself. I was always observant and looking around the space and reading the room and saying, I don't want anybody to be insecure. And so whenever I do in service to myself, I should also be in service to others. That's always been the formula.
And non-profit trajectory professionally made perfect sense, given my value system and given that I really was motivated to give back. And especially since I always felt like I could have my side businesses, it was a nice pairing to have that entrepreneurial spirit itch was scratched.
And then I was able to continue to build some financial security for myself while at the same time pursuing work that I felt was very anchored in my values, my sense of social justice. And, I worked in the healthcare environment. I worked for planned parenthood for a number of years. I was the executive director for an environmental organization. And all of that work, and much of it was satisfying, but I started to hit a point at which I'm like, I'm not sure if I'm actually raising money to justify jobs, which is not a bad thing to do. I'm not certain what I'm doing is making a difference. And I want to touch people's day-to-day lives every day. Not just managing or fundraising for educational programs or policy work just seems too far away from people's lives.
And so for me, I think that was the moment which I realized, and this is right in the heart of recession, that there was probably a different path for me. And it was time to pursue that and experiment with what it would be like to be a full-blown full-time business woman. And I had the good fortune of being very driven and can do two jobs at the same time. Not simultaneously. So I worked a full-time job while I started the company, which at the time was known exclusively as Nest.
You started Nest. But Nest is in property management. And property management, Lisa is not typically seen as being purpose-driven. How were you able to start with a mindset of doing property management in a way that also includes purpose baked into the core of the organization?
We think of purpose as a three-dimensional effort. So it's not just a resonant experience. It's not just the employee experience. It's in the way that we operate our company. It's how we can give back to the community. It's really baked into everything that we do.
But fundamentally speaking, the purpose component of property management is to say, we provide quality dignified houses to people and create safe home spaces for them. That's a really meaningful act. It became even more meaningful during the pandemic.
We care about our resident experience. We're not interested in profit first, but people in place first. And then we think the profit will come. We believe that doing good business leads to more business. That when people are happy in their homes, they make better neighbors and lead to better happier neighborhoods in the communities. And there are more robust local economies. When you're tending to and caring for the people that are caring for the homes that you're renting. It's a win-win.
This idea that the tenant that even the pejorative nature of that term implies that they're a threat when actually they're an asset. They're paying your mortgage. They're caring for that home and space. And are there bad apples on both sides of the equation? Absolutely, but I wasn't going to design a company based on a few bad apples. When I go design a company that assumes the best of people. And that's exactly how we wanted to design Nest from the start. And that's been the way that we've done the work since then.
How do you make sure that it is part of the practices of the organization? A lot of leaders over the years, most especially, over the past few years, talk about purpose, talk about the value of their stakeholders. So on and so forth. However, the actions of the organization don't fully align with the purpose statements or what the leader says.
How do you make sure that the purpose that you just so beautifully articulated is embraced through the actions of all the people that represent the organization, whether interacting with the residents or the rest of the community?
A lot of it comes down to money. We profit share 60 to 80% of our profits each year back to the staff. I wouldn't put that at the top of good business practices. Except for us it's us reinvesting in all the people that made this company successful and saying, we believe in you, thank you. This was your win, not just mine. And then that extends to how we're investing in our staff financially.
We're not just creating robust and rich benefits programs. We're saying we're investing in you financially throughout the year. And at the end of the year. And then we're gonna invest in our community.
So there are a million things that we can do socially and community wise that don't cost cash. That is about making our space available or promoting organizations. We do all those things. But at the end of the day, sometimes people just need resources. And Bird Feed and all of our community giving and the fundraising that we do for organizations is about saying we know you need resources, to make your services available, and we want to provide those cash resources. And we want to do it in such a way that we're not creating any more burden for you, but we're clearing the path for you to do your best work. It's making those cash investments in the community that we're serving. It's also collecting feedback and listening.
So residents, are you having a good experience? Is there something that we can do better? It's sending surveys constantly. It's things as simple as raising a team and I call it raising in part because I'm the oldest one of the company. And I feel like I've raised everybody in the company that understands that we have a purpose in making our resident lives better and that we're uniquely positioned to have that impact.
And we're not just talking about people that are paying top dollar for Logan circle house. We're talking about a lot of the voucher applicants. We don't just embrace, but we really concierge their program to make sure that they're getting good housing.
I had my now CEO of Nest, pretty much missed Thanksgiving because of a voucher applicant who was aging out of the foster care system. And wasn't going to have any place to live, was waiting for final inspection from the city to apply for that voucher she'd been waiting for months. She was on a, basically a number of days left of housing before she was gonna have no place to go. And the inspector was going to fail us because the toilet was dirty. And Steph rerouted herself to that property, met the inspector and said, “I will do anything to pass because this girl needs a home.” She took her shirt off, cleaned the toilet with her shirt and said, “Does this work?” Because a service technician or something had used it and that young woman was able to move in, it was totally worth it, right?
Whatever we need to do to give people access to dignified housing is what we do and we will do back flips for it. And I think each of us gets to leave at the end of the day, feeling like, wow, we made a substantial contribution to people's lives today. And I think that keeps them coming back because they're also rewarded for it.
That captures so much of the beauty of being truly a purpose-driven leader, Lisa. You articulated the purpose of the organization, which is really important. The behaviors of the team members are aligned with that. You were also able to, through storytelling, communicate that purpose in action, which is really important both as you communicate to the podcast community and broadcast it outward and to other people in the organization. Finally, you have also aligned the incentive structures with that purpose.
I make fun of many organizations, including Wells Fargo, at a point when they were saying the financial wellbeing of our clients is of utmost importance to us. That was a part of their purpose. While the incentive structures were totally running counter to that.
So it's important to keep in mind that the purpose statement by itself is not enough. It's important. The storytelling is another important piece of it. Having people aligned with that purpose is important, but also incentivizing people and aligning their incentives with that purpose, ensures that people stay aligned in bringing that purpose to life for the community.
Absolutely. We can go on about Wells Fargo, but I'll let that one go.
But it's just because the reason I asked you about it, Lisa, is that I know you're truly purpose-driven, but I want to consistently separate that purpose drive with the countless purpose statements we see from organizations. So it doesn't become this buzzword that every organization talks about purpose.
What you outline there by itself can be a mini course on how to effectively align your team members with purpose.
So you have now become flock continuing on the theme, which is a family of real estate management companies with Nest, Roost and Starling. What part is Nest? What part is Roost? What part is Starling?
Nest is our legacy brand. That's the management company that I started one property at a time in 2009. And today we manage about 1300 individual rental units throughout the city.
In 2013, I realized that the company was sustainable and I could quit that other full-time job I had. I found it to be just mind blowing that I finally was going to be secure. I wasn't gonna be homeless any minute. That I didn't have to continue to build this giant fortress around myself. And then I immediately felt bummed out because I was the only one that was going to get to experience that security because I own the company. That doesn't seem fair.
And I remember the moment vividly and we went out into this main workspace. So we had like that. We did it. We're sustainable. We hit 200 units, the magic number for property management. And then I thought, well, gosh, I want everyone to be an owner.
I didn't want to mess with Nest. I realized I wanted to keep that where it was, but the creative and new entrepreneurial avenue for me to explore what it would be like to actually start another business that was employee owned. So Roost DC was started as an employee owned company. It still exists as an employee owned company. Pretty much everybody was given profit sharing opportunities that amounted to whatever the buy-in amount would be so that they could buy in Roost and really enjoy the fruits of ownership of a company.
And Roost manages condo associations, which is a natural fit for us. We'd already been doing that work. So we just moved it over into a new entity. So we're as today managed about 120 buildings in the Washington DC Proper area.
And then later we're like, well, we need to formalize our turnover maintenance division. And so when we decided to really reconfigure the way we operationalize our maintenance and on the ground field based work.
And so when we decided to give that a name as well. So we called that, it was Operation Starling for a while, as we tried to see whether it was going to work or take flight, as we would say around here. And it did. And so Starling now really services the different branches of the company that services both Nest and Roost as well. And so those are the three key bird lakes that we have right now.
We started a company called Birdwatch. Our business unit is called Birdwatch. Birdwatch offers a home management service for the homeowner. In other words, if you feel like you want to be a homeowner, but wish you had a landlord to call, that's us.
So we basically take the hassle out of home ownership. And while there's no tenant involved, we put in a ticket for your broken toilet and put in a ticket because you want your living room painted. You put in a ticket because you want your gutters clean. We'll go in and inspect your house and put you on a maintenance program.
It's a very, very strong idea and a very fractured industry around home maintenance. And so that bird flew. That bird is now part of a joint venture we've incorporated as a public benefits corporation in Delaware. We were reborn on January 21st.
I have a business partner out of affiliate and we'll be expanding that bird into the national market. Had things affiliated in April with eyes on every state in the union. So we're definitely on a different path than when we hadn't been. Flagpoles still have a velvet rope around it and do what it does and continue to grow and thrive. And that's our intention for hyper-local.
The Birdwatch gave us a flight path to take a lot of what we did really, really well without the complexity and regulatory issues that emerge when you have a tenant relationship. We took all that out, simplified the process and said, we can manage people's homes to perfection, and we can do it with a really high touch, high value customer service, justice, space, intention, and really make a difference. And so that's what we're up to now. It's a really different kind of model, very tech oriented, very high touch service. And so we're excited to see where that takes us.
It is exciting because as I mentioned, you have also baked in purpose into all of these entities, as part of this flock family. You also, Lisa launched Bird Seed foundation, which has funded a lot of cool projects in the community.
What has been the intention behind the Bird Seed foundation? And what do you hope to be able to do with that?
We were formalizing our philanthropy a number of years ago and had set up internal committees around how we wanted to be as intentional as possible. And make that process of philanthropy inclusive of the whole team. Not have one person decide what we give to. We want people and our team members, are really participating in what it means for us to be engaged in the community and supporting the community financially and otherwise. So I don't know, it just popped out of my head that it needed to be called Bird Seed. And that would be the name of it.
We made a very simple plan. We wanted community engagement, which means that we're interested and excited about giving small businesses visibility, doing tracks, volunteering for different things, driving food for the Latin American youth center, which a lot of our team members do. We were always engaged in doing things that give back. That's a timepiece, right? It's the community timepiece.
Each year, we host a casino night fundraiser for La Clínica del Pueblo which is a Federally Qualified Health Center. I used to be the board chair there. We know that money is a game changer for them. We try and actually manage all the work that goes into producing that events. A hundred percent of the proceeds go to them.
So there's that aspect as well, that comes under the Bird Seed philosophy of why we give back to the community that serves us. And then we started a microgrant program. We feel like people who are doers, makers and disruptors need cash as much as anybody else does. And the barrier to that cash is, well, if the cash even exists, who knows. And secondarily there's a lot of funders who like to create a lot of steps to being qualified or having things documented or proving impact. And having come from a non-profit background I thought that's just dumb. Let's just go ahead and make money accessible, easy to get, impactful, if you can. And if someone doesn't do a good thing with it, let's just move on. So I like to think everything is simple. I like to make everything as simple as possible, even though I have this very complex set of businesses.
So the micro grant program was our first launch and we basically said, if you're a doer, a maker or a disruptor in the city, give us a proposal. It can not be longer than one page or you're disqualified because we can't read more than a page. You don't have to be a 5 0 1 C3. You have to be able to complete your project in three months. And then we'll just give you $2,500.
That program was simple, easy to administer, and very popular. We got so many cool applications over the years. We still run that program. We've done everything from food justice work. We helped a guy who had a hot sauce recipe that he got from his family and he was growing the tomatoes on roof decks around the city. And so I didn't want him to have to pay the taxes on it. The procurement that he was going to use the cash for. So we bought all the bottles for him. And like at one point there were just bottles everywhere. And we're like, why are all these bottles here? I'm like, it's the hot sauce guy? And they're like, oh yeah.
We funded a bicycle repair station in the Southeast. We supported a woman who throws birthday parties for homeless children. We gave a grant to a community of black girls code, and then we were able to actually make our spaces available for their training. So we've done a lot. We helped a veteran farmer by helping him buy a tractor.
So these were all things where like, yep, this is very tangible and impactful. This got done. This mural is now here. It wasn't there before. So it felt really good to make those dollars available to folks that just typically don't qualify for them. That felt great.
And then the pandemic comes along and then George Floyd is murdered and we're like, there is so much more work we need to be doing around housing justice and racial equity.
What the real estate world's role has been in designing that kind of injustice. I was in the process of going through a lot of estate planning because that's the responsible thing to do. And the pandemic is inspiring in that regard. And so I go on these late night walks where I do my best thinking and we were kind of thinking through like, okay, well, what happened?
All of these life insurance policies will get triggered because I was a responsible business owner. I'm like, you know, I want to give the company back to the employees in the event that I die and I want to set some aside for high impact investment in the community. And I kept thinking like, oh, I'm very engaged in all these organizations, but yet nothing felt right.
So the one part of the walk, one half of the walk I get to the end and I say, I need to just help people buy houses. That's what I want to do. I want to help people buy houses who typically wouldn't be given like an $8,300 windfall, like a Honda Civic. I turned around and I'm like, thinking, thinking, thinking, gosh, it's too bad. I have to be dead for that to happen. Maybe I can start working on something like that now.
And so by the end of the walk, I was texting the president of my company, Grace Langham. And I said, listen, it's time for us to free up some cash that we don't really have and dedicate money to helping people buy homes. And I want money set aside for the BiPAP community to help them with down payments. And she said, “That sounds amazing.” We've been talking about how we get more engaged in housing justice. “Are you thinking, 2022?” And this was 2020. And I said, I'm kind of thinking, next week. And she said, “Well, love it. I'm a little, we have a lot going on.” And I said, that's all right. I understand that this is a really tricky time, but it's also the best time. So I'll get everything rolling and then we'll see what we need resource wise to get it delivered.
And that was when the housing justice component of the Bird Seed foundation really came to be when we started to consider and talk about ourselves as a foundation, which we technically are now.
We've set up some partnerships, we committed $215,000. We've been able to raise another $85,000 for that work. And we've had five families move into homes that were far more looking and we'll make another round of four grants next week. And that's just the first year. So we only launched the foundation a year ago. Technically for the housing injustice work.
That is incredible having launched at a time where you could have had all the reasons or the excuses in the world not to do it Lisa, which makes it even more meaningful. And that you took that moment of clarity of why not make the difference while I am around and channel into making that difference now, rather than when things settle down, which might never happen, that hypothetical future.
But that said you also had to manage the organization through the pandemic. It has continued to be rough for many people in many organizations. How did the pandemic impact flock and how were you able to lead the organization through?
I tried to lead by example, I made two very big decisions quickly. One was to take a 75% pay cut before we went into lockdown. And the other was to freeze all spending so that we didn't have to do layoffs. And then I committed to being in touch with my staff, every single day. Whatever I could update them on.
And just be present and communicative and authentic and sincere, and as vulnerable as the rest of my team was, but also assuring people that if a company can get through it, it's us, housing will always be needed. This will be a rough time. I will do everything I can to protect you, to protect our residents and to protect our community.
And that commitment and constant check-ins with my team, I think gave them just the assurance that work didn't need to be a source of exceptional anxiety. That we were going to do everything we could to make this an okay space in place, but we're going to try everything we could to take care of everybody. That people could exhale a little bit. But I wasn't offering promises or assurances. I was just communicating.
And it's funny. I had someone on my team who is now vice president. And he said, “Everyday, when I get your updates, I just feel like, okay, I got the update from Lisa. She says, it's going to be okay. It's going to be okay.” And I thought, I had never said it's going to be okay. I was very clear about not saying like, oh, well I was wrapped in a couple of weeks. I mean, I was honest because that's the best way to be a leader and transparent. I had as much humility as possible. I'm scared too. I will do everything I can for you, but I don't have any superpowers except to be caring and empathic.
But the fact that those updates clearly didn't provide a significant measure of comfort for him made me feel good that, that constant conversation. And it's so funny. I mean, I heard people say like, “My spouse hasn't heard from their boss in two months.” That's a really scary place.
So I think it was that communication and saying like, I will go without, so that you don't have to, I think made a pretty strong statement and I was happy to continue to do that for as long as possible.
It is a strong statement, Lisa, and it's also really important. I did a solo episode on this a while back where leaders don't need to communicate certainty with respect to the future. There is very little certainty. However, the clarity and humility that we are working it out together helps people feel reassured.
So you communicated with your team on a consistent basis. That is really important. Some leaders have crammed up and clam up when things go wrong, assuming that their people want them to tell them that things are going to be okay. It's a little bit like as if the team members are kids around the table who need to be told kids, don't worry. Everything's going to be okay. People aren't looking for that word. And aren't looking for that from their leaders. They want that authenticity of communicating, consistency, and also the leaders being willing to step first themselves before they ask others to make sacrifices.
Absolutely. You're spot on.
Lisa at the same time, as you had to do this. Your second year as a board member of Whitman Walker health, you stepped in as chair of the organization. So you are chair at a time where we are hit with a pandemic in your second year on the board. How are you able to handle that?
Yeah, that was poor timing to put it mildly. I mean, to share a healthcare organization that serves 20 plus thousand patients, they can't see in person and is facing the same financial ruin that any of us are really in the complexity of having to completely reorient the way that we're delivering care and service. And then all the regulatory complexity, even around remote and telehealth.
And I mean, wow. I have never been in a situation where I had as much to learn. The first meeting that I had as board chair was February of 2020. So I had to learn how to lead this organization via zoom. It was rough.
First of all, for the first six months, everybody just is in shock. And so finally I'm just like, I gotta warm this room up. And I was like, who has a puppy? And so half the room picked up their puppy. There has to be some way to make this easier.
The CEO of Whitman Walker health Naseema Shafi is incredible. I think the two of us together, we're a good pair. I think we were very present for each other, both emotionally and professionally, which was helpful. I had her back. I think Whitman-Walker Health serves and has a specialty in an LGBTQ health community, but I think the political unrest was also really scary and frightening for all of us during that time. And I was happy and have been happy to serve. I will continue it with yet another new year as board chair. And I did that for the Naseema and to the organization as they go through some leadership transitions, I felt like staying seated was good. I have been honored and really privileged to learn as much as I have.
And so, yes, it's been an extreme amount of work, but it was a calling for me, I think in particular because St. Elizabeth is the next project for Whitman-Walker health. We're moving east to the river. We're going to be able to serve more particularly BiPAP community members, the LGBTQ for personal reasons is very close to my heart.
Particularly some stuff, that time my cousin passed away from aids. Like all of these things come together in terms of housing and in terms of community engagement. And because Whitman-Walker developed a huge housing community on 14th street. So it all kind of connected and clicked and the timing was good, except the timing was terrible.
So that seems to be the story behind the hashtag for pandemic to me, but I made the best of it and I felt again, an honor to serve.
Beautiful part of your story, Lisa, is that you have baked on purpose into Flock. Well, you don't just outsource the purpose to the community activities. You have Bird Seed foundation, which contributes back.
Additionally, you've continued serving the community in this instance as board chair of Whitman-Walker health. So lots of giving back to this community through your personal and authentic leadership. Now, one of the things I believe Lisa said that has made you so empathetic, so able to understand people's needs and community's needs is the fact that as you mentioned through your upbringing, you went to 23 different homes before college.
The challenges in your life helped you see challenges people face. And now, as a leader, you are looking to give back through all that you do with the roles that you serve. You have a son who is 10 years old, he is fortunate to not have to go through what you went through. That said, how do you make sure that he grows up with a sense of responsibility to the community and he can give back the way you are giving back now?
There's a lot of thought that goes into me not raising a child. It goes entitled to privilege. He is lucky. He won the lottery. Right? All of us are just a product of chance and timing and his timing was perfect. He has two moms that love him. He has all the safety and security that I never had growing up.
And so we talked about this earlier. You don't want bad things to happen to your kids, but how do you give them some grit? How do you remind them that you're not entitled to what you have? You were lucky. And so we would just talk about it every single day, all day. To the point where you have to stop from the weekend trash. Picking up trash and get this, it’s very hard to find volunteer activities where they allow children, little children. So I've been picking trash up with this kid for 10 years. Because that's very, the skill level is zero. He just pointed and I would pick things up.
You know, every year we deliver food around the holidays and then we do it periodically throughout the year. And we had a lot of turkeys that he couldn't carry, that we were trying to get to people. And we've got him very tuned in and connected to what it means to be a social justice warrior to remind himself that my privilege is not something I'm entitled to. Actually it's my responsibility to help other people enjoy some of the things that I've had access to in life.
We just keep it a constant topic of conversation. He's naturally giving, which is nice to see. He had his cousins over recently and, you know, they liked his things and he's like, “Well, you should have them.” Can we talk about how he shares, not only just his time or has the money or the resources, the things that he has, but that he shares his kindness with other people and that he appreciates what he has and he does what he can to make sure other people have those things as well. So from weekends sandwich making from our kitchen, we're always, always doing something as a family.
That's wonderful, because again, it's through that example that you show him as his parents, as moms, what it is like to serve, give back, be grateful for the many privileges that we have, as you said, in many instances based on luck and based on chance. So Lisa when you're asked for leadership resources and practices, are there any you typically find yourself recommending to others?.
Leadership and practices. I learned everything I know about business reading magazines, because I have a film degree. I don't know. I really did learn everything I know about business by reading magazines. I just read all the time. I read as much as possible. I read a lot about business. I read a lot about race. I read a lot about the economy. I read a lot, I'm just, I'm constantly consuming. I'm always interested in hearing other people's stories and journeys around how they got where they are.
I don't think we can have empathy, unless we have curiosity. And so I don't think it matters which book turns you on or gives you a better sense of what your path is. Just being open to consuming and learning more and expanding your brain, I think is the trick there.
It is really helpful in understanding the journey of other people. And your journey, Lisa Wise has been one that has focused on giving back, being of service, not just through words, through actions, whether it is with the flock family of real estate management companies. Nest, Roost, Starling, Bird Seed foundation, your involvement at Whitman-Walker. So many other community activities you get engaged.
And I truly appreciate you sharing your leadership journey with the Partnering Leadership Podcast. Thank you so much, Lisa Wise.
Thank you, what a great conversation.