Don’t forget to invoice. Seriously. It’s one of the hardest things to do when you first start out in business. And it remains hard. Remember to value your own work as much as we want (and need) our paying clients to.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing lisa wise.
lisa wise successfully oversees real estate management and technology enterprises anchored in justice and profitable by design. In 2020, she founded and launched birdSEED, a housing justice initiative granting no-strings downpayment grants to first-time BIPOC home buyers. In 2022, birdSEED was named a world-changing idea by Fast Company. She is the author of Self-Elected: How to Put People Over Profit and Soar in Business. You will hear lisa declare often: “I want to get rich and give it away!!!” She lives in Washington, DC with her little family.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
If you’ve watched Stranger Things or Napolean Dynamite, you can picture my youth. A brother four years my senior posted up in the basement with velour shirts, a Commodore 64, and a Dungeon and Dragons set up. Threadbare green shag carpet framed his own (most memorable) dungeon. I was typically upstairs wondering when we might be moving onto the next state, town, or living situation and where Michael and I would arrive and get resituated. Packing up was our thing. We were falling through the cracks as the iconic gen Xers we were. Divorces, marriages, job losses, bankruptcies, and more marriages. None of it offered stability.
I lived in 23 different spaces over six states in 12 different towns and mid-sized cities by the time I went to college in 1990. My earliest years were spent bouncing from one public school to another across Southern Idaho. Each one kept stunningly low standards for education, and moving so often meant I was a child left behind. It’s a miracle I (eventually) learned to read, let alone write a book. Thanks to this rocky start, I developed a strong sense of justice and determined early on that nobody should suffer insecurity. I wanted everyone to have a safe home of their own. I wanted to build a life that could shelter others from adversity, even if I didn’t know them, while at the same time maximizing safety and security for myself and those closest to me. I wanted to advance social justice. So I elected myself to do just that.
Ever since choosing that path for my life, my journey has been rich, and my impact has, too. Today, I have security in abundance, both personally and professionally. My nuclear family enjoys financial stability and — a personal dream — calls a safe and lovely house our home. With an eye toward helping others achieve the same, I started Flock, a family of real estate management companies that tends to well over two billion dollars in property in Washington, DC. We care for dignified and safe homes along with the residents who live in them. We embrace and contribute to our community as an act of justice. We put people and place over profit, and we soar.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I came late to reading. We moved all the time, weaving our way between towns, states, and school districts. Eventually, the Nancy Drew series made its way to my small mountain town bedroom. I was that kid up at night with the flashlight under the covers, but I was mindful the batteries I burned through were not in the (way too tight) family budget. It wasn’t Nancy’s mystery-solving skills that inspired me as much as the earning potential her skills offered. So it was settled. I needed to hang a shingle to “solve” my family’s cashflow problems. The Sherlock Holmes Detective Agency took shape in the backyard shed, my mother offered to do with as I pleased, and what I pleased was to set up my own enterprise.
I had a very clear picture of myself sitting behind my desk (situated on a box in my shed) taking meetings with distraught clients to review the scope of their mysteries. To land my first client I needed a marketing campaign. 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 seemed delighted with the plan. Roberta put a free ad in the paper for me. She helped me keep my startup costs low, and I was very appreciative because, logically, I was saving for business cards, which I was sure would be needed down the line. The paper came out every two weeks. I eagerly awaited a rush of business, but as it turned out, there were no mysteries that needed solving. The real issue with my Sherlock Holmes Detective Agency? I definitely wasn’t solving a market problem. Even if there were mysteries in need of a solution, a third-party detective service wasn’t in demand in Hailey, Idaho. I had misjudged the market. (Nancy had made it look like mystery solving was an essential business.) No matter. I was on to new ideas in an instant.
It’s no mystery what was most important to that time in my life was the shed. The makeshift desk. The space and the creativity to try. No matter if I failed, because this space gave me room and time to try again. And again. And I did just that. As I do today. Iterating businesses and ideas that, themselves keep me AND those around me safe and secure.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Like any politically inclined college student, I spent a few formative months in DC working for a PR/government relations intern schlepping boxes, clipping newspaper articles, fetching coffee, and putting constituents on buses headed to the Hill for lobby days. This was squarely in the, “does anyone have a map?” era. Cell phones were the size of small shoe boxes. Simply put, there was a lot of room for error if you were an intern.
On one sweaty August afternoon, I was charged with getting a group of midwesterners, all enthusiastically clutching their talking point stuffed binders, on a bus to take meetings with their elected officials. I can’t recall the topic but farming policy comes to mind. What did NOT come to mind at the time was pairing my charges with the right transportation. A bus, like any other in my mind, pulled up to the Hilton hotel curbside and, without hesitation and an eye toward efficiency and a “yes ma’am” attitude, I helped each and every one of those midwesterners board, settle in, and head out for the ultimate day for a visiting constituent in the District.
I’m not sure how long it took before I realized, the bus that pulled away, turned the corner, and headed on its way, was not going MY way. Somehow, I sent that busload of trusting citizens to the national mall for a museum tour. Far from their tight appointment schedules.
I come to work with passion, ready for the win. This energy punctuates my interactions, but details rarely do. For the real win, I’m surrounded by an exceptional team that fills this gap and amplifies my impact. In the meantime, if anyone reading this was on a lost bus in 1992 during a lobby day, I hope you found your way home.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
I’m not a religious person. Not even close. But writing this book, operating a justice-based company, and accelerating the growth of my enterprises is, simply put, my morale calling. But I call it Self-Electing. It’s political and practical.
Politically, the government is two generations behind. If we want to actually make policy changes that favor people’s sense of democracy or civil rights, we can’t wait for the government to do the right thing. We now have to look to business. For those business owners who care about justice, we are called to take care of our people, our place and our community. We do that with empathy, a new definitions of profitability and genuine caring for our human and environmental resources. We have to take care of the people and our planet because, the government is NOT.
Practically, Self-electing means standing up for what’s right and investing with my values as a businesswoman. A business that advances justice isn’t just supporting causes, policies, and practices that are better for the community, the environment, and society. Justice needs to be reflected in the company design, operations, and leadership. When justice is at play internally and externally, the work is more meaningful, and financial profit is inevitable. Social justice values differentiate companies, attract buyers and clients, and build fans for life. Those values start at the “home office.” We can’t make the world a more just place unless we make life better and more abundant for our team, which means leading with justice.
That’s why we share 40% of profits with our staff. Every single year. We don’t consider our benefits plan to be a cost as much as an essential investment in the people who carry out the work. Our corporate embrace includes three months of fully paid family leave. We underwrite continuing education, 401k matches, and 529 contributions and offer student loan payment support. Company ownership opportunities are extended to every team member, and long- and short-term disability and health care are 100% covered.
I’m hopeful the book will inspire readers to demand that businesses play a more intentional role in advancing a more equitable and just future. If the reader IS that business owner, reach out. I want to talk about the exciting opportunities available to those of us Self-Electing and all the opportunities we’ll create. As I look toward my own future as a business owner, birdwatch, our newest bird, is being built as our first national brand with potential to create thousands of jobs across the country. You can imagine what these jobs will look like and with that vision, imagine how much impact we can have on families and communities with access to not just work, but middle-class careers.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
I talk quite a bit about older women who framed my sense of justice growing up. From Justice Ginsberg to my Grandma Sue and my childhood neighbor, Myrtle Friedman, these women stitch together the arc of my own story as a girl who would become a woman unphased by the lack of resources, skill or community needed to soar. I found my way, and these women became the wind at my back. I saved the best for last in my book and shared a story about Miss Hoke, an elderly woman i would care for over many years.
If ever there was an industry worth transforming, it would be elder care. And it’s precisely where this book began. I offered elder care, whether I knew it or not, to my bestie Myrtle. I self-elected, even as a young girl, to care for those whose lifelines weren’t accessible and whose family was too far away or not there at all. This became a tradition for me over time, and like most of my passions, it found its way into my work.
In college, together with Frances, I spent many afternoons and weekends with Evelyn Sabra Hoke working a modestly paid job as her lady reader. In pre-internet days, Frances and I would scour the campus job board for any opportunity to earn cash. Folks from around the community would handwrite notes and pin them on the corkboard, waiting for a match. Frances plucked Miss Hoke’s index card, penned beautifully, requesting afternoon and weekend lady readers for company and household tasks. It was the perfect match for the three of us.
Miss Hoke was 93, blind, and homebound. She started every call with this information, following it up with, “…and I appreciate shopping by telephone!” I dialed the phone for her quite often. With her lady readers, she maintained a window to the world. There were a handful of us passing through, all of us busy college girls trying to make the ends of college needs meet. Miss Hoke was a fairly straightforward charge. We made simple meals or ran out for her favorite fast food. We pulled old, yellowed newspapers from “wall street,” the hallway packed floor to ceiling with a decade of the Arizona Daily Star. She slept stretched out on a davenport using a stack of newspaper, frosted with a pillow as an ottoman.
Miss Hoke lived in a tin can of a trailer home, what I called her aluminum attic. As I shimmied around her space, I was aware it was exploding with everything from vintage cameras to 15 years of phone books. Hoarding wasn’t as much in the lexicon then, but it describes her lifestyle well. My first day as a lady reader was more lady sleuth: I was charged with finding her teeth, which had made their way into her old lady garbage.
Every task I performed for Miss Hoke was a treasured moment. We sorted the photos she took during her two-tour Peace Corps stint in her 70s after leaving the faculty of Ball State University. She described settling in Swaziland, camera in hand, charged with “documenting history through photography.” When her storytelling paused, she asked us to chant with her while she did her maraca exercises. She rattled her instruments, side to side, slowly but with passion. “War on war!” she huffed. “War on war!!!” she puffed. We were with her all the way.
Soon we started spending time with Miss Hoke as a threesome because we enjoyed being together that much. Frances and I exchanged glances as she told us stories of her friend, Ethel Heimlich, who slept on the sofa to save expenses while they both worked at BSU. Later Miss Hoke would offer, “I’ve never been with a man!” adding, “Or a woman… not really.”
No matter what we did, I was at home with Miss Hoke. Home is where we’re taken care of, safe, and secure. She would send us off after our shifts with a wave and a scratchy, drawn-out demand: “Take care of one another. Just take care of one another.” Once again, challenge accepted. As long as homes need a caregiver and the world needs fighters for justice, our Flock will be flying high, and so will I.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I was a late bloomer, to say the least. The youngest, lost a bit in the shuffle but I was clear we lacked security as a family. Though I wasn’t being heard (yet) I had a lot to say from my earliest days as an empathic and alarmed entrepreneur. It’s no wonder. My early days in Hailey, Idaho were marked by a contrast that seemed nearly impossible to reconcile, and I had a front row seat to two different narratives unfolding among my classmates. One girl I remember lived a handful of blocks from school, and she and her family appeared to be living in the kind of poverty where you always seem to get along, but it’s scary, and there are a lot of creative solutions in play. Her family got most of their vegetables from what the local grocery store had tossed out as bad. She convinced me, as her family hosted me for meals now and then, that the produce was perfectly good. They weren’t wrong, but the circumstances certainly were. Other evenings, when one super rich child or another had to invite every classmate to a party, I would find myself at a fancy restaurant, closed for the guest of honor. Something in the middle had to be more just. Something between well-timed dumpster dives and middle schoolers being served mocktails with a live band playing and chocolate fountains in every corner. My appetite was for justice. These were my aha moments, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not deeply inspired to speak loudly about by the obvious injustices that go unnoticed, or unchallenged.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I launched the birdSEED foundation in 2020. We offer no-strings down payment grants to first-time BIPOC homeowners in DC and (now) Philadelphia. This was a self-funded, spur-of-the-moment idea I thought would be “no problem at all” to stand up and operate. Anyone who knows me well, understands this is almost never the case. I crossed paths with someone who didn’t know better and, together, we’ve been able to make some dreams together. This out of nowhere shero and I crossed paths when I did a round table conversation about building an anti-racist workplace. I talked about my birdSEED work and, a few weeks later on a Saturday in early fall, we talked for hours about creating change by advancing home ownership. Together, we wondered what it would take to simply give funds to advance ownership without the burden of reporting, qualifying and applying. She said goodbye paired with an offer to help if I should needed. I couldn’t imagine, at the time, what i might need support with until, a few months later, i realized i needed help with absolutely all of it. Today,she is the Executive Director of the birdSEED foundation and the best team member I never hired.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Business can and should do three things to advance justice. Pay living wages, protect and preserve natural resources, operate with an abundance mindset, vs. a scarcity mindset. Jeff Hoffman, the global entrepreneur who is also a bestselling author and award-winning producer, among other skills, has said, “You may be successful, but will you matter? Success is doing for yourself. Mattering is doing something for someone else. Your success is someone else’s miracle.” Hoffman’s proclamation is about action today — not the armchair activity of someone resting their case on yesterday’s success. Legacy implies past tense, but I am interested in changing lives now — and quickly. Our success is someone else’s miracle, and the idea and application of birdSEED creates a critical path toward reparative justice.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Drive, direction and structure, in that order, are, empirically a function of leadership. But I believe, from there, leadership is largely up to the leader. For me, a servant leadership model works best. Because it put’s leaders where we metaphorically belong: last. Servant leadership paired with a purpose-driven business is a natural philosophical marriage, which explains its popularity among organizations and companies that are mission based.
Both a practice and an approach, it is particularly relevant and effective in a service based organization that relies on human talent to deliver a best-in-class experience. Traditional hierarchical models privilege a top-down management approach that places power in the C-suite. Servant leadership eschews power grabbing in favor of power sharing. The most effective servant leaders operate “in service” to their teams. This approach cultivates stronger, more robust, and more collaborative teams. And it’s a model that has penciled out nicely for our family of companies.
One approach to servant leadership is to feature your staff. Let them lead and represent the company in different ways. Servant leaders don’t need to be out front. There’s room for plenty of folks to have signature authority and represent the company. That’s where you cultivate a strong leadership bench because, with the right people and a shared vision, you can operationalize every area of your business more effectively. You will have more highly functional teams with the ability to design and implement complex systems and solve complicated problems.
To deliver on this model, service leadership tells us not to just give talent and teams a voice, but to actually listen to them. Service leadership also recognizes that we don’t just manage talent, we manage humans. Developing a staff with staying power requires supporting their work, as well as their lives. That’s the only way to create just, life-changing jobs.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Don’t forget to invoice. Seriously. It’s one of the hardest things to do when you first start out in business. And it remains hard. Remember to value your own work as much as we want (and need) our paying clients to.
When we first started managing people’s rental properties, we would do repairs, order supplies and pay vendors. With a team of three, I think we all thought the other was making sure we invoiced. I wondered aloud one day why nobody ever pushed back on our invoicing. Then it occurred to me we basically treating our clients to free appliances, repairs and materials. The upside? Some great five star reviews in those early days.
Fire clients before you fire staff. On one Friday night (and it’s almost always a Friday night), we received a call from three young women sharing a 100-year-old house in northeast DC. They had locked themselves in the bathroom. This was because a raccoon had found its way into the house and, in doing so, cut itself badly. Then, in its desperate efforts to exit the house, the creature proceeded to bleed over pretty much every square inch of the unit. Given the behavior of the raccoon, we had to assume it was rabid. Like all client problems, we set about solving this one with a smile and had a technician on site in 90 minutes. He chased the raccoon out of the home, liberated the tenants from the bathroom, and had the young women relocate to friends’ houses for the evening. He then called an environmental cleaning company to safely address the bio hazard. After committing to about $8,000 for the cleanup/remediation (and discovering how profusely raccoons bleed), we were able to get the residents back into their home. All the while, we kept the owner up to date in real time about the status of the emergency, our resolution, and his responsibility for the raccoon breach. While we updated the owner by calling and writing as all this unfolded, we received no response from him during the thick of things. But our sense of right and wrong — and the contract — gave us the latitude to act ethically and quickly, so we did just that.
Naturally, we felt so heroic, we reached for our capes. Our valiant efforts brought no comfort to our client, however. He not only disagreed with our approach, but he also blamed us for the raccoon’s break-in since we hadn’t sealed off access to the unit. (This is despite the fact that he specifically asked us not to perform maintenance on the property since he would personally handle issues to economize before renting it out.) He also somehow held us responsible for endangering the lives of the tenants. So there we were, knowing we did the right thing morally and legally to protect the residents (and the owner) and nonetheless finding ourselves staring at an $8,000 bill, an angry vendor, and an owner threatening a Yelp attack. We were getting crushed by unforeseen events that I knew we’d handled well.
I’ve always told my team I would do anything to save a client relationship, but I knew there would always be exceptions. I would not preserve a client relationship at the expense of our flock. I fired that client and we (literally) cheered the decision over drinks at the corner bar the same night.
It was a hard lesson, but a valuable one. It was important for me to recognize that I couldn’t rely on our clients and residents to appreciate our hard work and commitment to delivering the best outcomes. Instead, I needed to budget for bullies and irrational behavior. When dealing with people’s homes — typically their largest asset — and their wallets, the role of a property manager becomes suspect and invites endless second guessing. It’s no wonder most property managers choose to deliver the most baseline service and take a pass on a customer-forward approach to the work. When clients don’t begin by assuming the best, it’s unlikely we will convince them otherwise, and the time and energy invested in doing so stops penciling out after a while. I could either lower the caliber of our service to protect us from delivering time-consuming experiences that were underappreciated, or I could double down on our commitment to service and divorce clients who couldn’t appreciate our model. I chose the latter. I have no interest in delivering mediocrity just because it’s the path of least resistance.
Smile and nod when people tell you time management and self care is what you REALLY need. You already know you have fewer hours than you need and definitely need to practice self care. Do the best you can. Learn what you need and when you need it most and work backward from there. As I write this, I’m wrestling with the avalanche of work that comes with co-founding bird watch, tending to birdSEED, overseeing Flock and promoting my book Self-Elected: How to Put Justice Over Profit and Soar in Business. It is a window of time, as I look to the priorities and the unique contribution I bring to the work and the future, I can choose which parts of my work need me most, and which can be resigned. I need to make those assignments thoughtfully, without haste, to be sure the work is right at home. This means long nights, longer weeks and an impossible set of decisions. But blocking my calendar isn’t one of them. Ask for patience as you make your way through the “all-in” times. And don’t forget to thank your friends and family. As often as possible.
You will deliver lousy service. We’re not perfect and as we grow, perfection fades even farther into the background. Fail fast, learn fast and move on. Then do that again. As your business grows, you will grow out of systems that once worked. We don’t know what to move on from unless we’re stretching the limits of our success. We’re also not in control of our environment and external threats. I had a friend and client recently report the service she was getting form one of my firms wasn’t going smoothly. She wasn’t wrong. Her issue is complex. The supply chains were stressing our ability to move quickly and, as with all businesses, we were suffering the aftershock of staff departures. None among us in the business world were able to dodge the bullet that was the great resignation and left behind and increasingly tight labor market. What did I tell my friend, client? I thanked her for telling me. I thanked her for her patience. I shared with her the challenges we are/were/will be facing during this time. She was able to lean into her own empathy with this explanation and it reminded me that we can and should invite our staff to be honest about our challenges and hope we can earn grace and trust from our client base and community. Good intention can eclipse a blip.
Move on quickly. Whatever client/operation/disaster you are freaking out about right now will likely be replaced, any minute, with something else. Long ago, clients prepared a power point presentation on how to care for their dwarf maple tree. They were relocating to Denver. We were to present the power point to the tenants and use it for our own reference. Despite the owner’s effort and unquestionable allegiance to the maple, the specimen in question somehow met it’s demise. This was discovered when the clients were in town and arranged to walk buy their urban row home to check in on said tree.
Three thousand emails, tears, and sleepless nights later, a $15 dollar replacement maple was tucked into the ground, still with hurt feelings all around. And it wasn’t until i was thinking of something fun to pair with this tip, did the great maple debacle of 2014 cross my mind as the perfect illustration. You get the point.
Have snacks on hand. And charge your devices. And … I’ve had thirteen years in business to learn these simple lessons on my own and still, I fail at getting to some of life’s simplest tasks. Being a successful entrepreneur requires being put together, highly productive and driven. But if you’ve met any of us, you know it’s not uncommon for parts of our life to be unraveling. Just this week, as I drove my 10 year old to school, I stared at the dash of my car with a carousel of alerts peppering the console told me the tire pressure was low on four tires. The diesel exhaust fuel was low and I had zero miles left in fuel. Clearly, no matter my success, I still need to get my %$^%$ together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously wrote: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” It took me a long time to be at home with my own words. To use them carefully is a rare pleasure. The book was a journey to savor and a transformational one that drew on my interest in understanding the power and magnitude of language.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Selena Montgomery and Stacey Abrams. One and the same. Admired for unapologetically being ones self, while being relatable and relentless. I would like to personally thank her and the voters who saw her wisdom, for bringing Joe Biden home to Pennsylvania Avenue. Stacey Abrams works to protect democracy, and I hope, inspires a generation of voters who represent an America and an American that has been intentionally left behind. With my own work, I hope the team I have and will bring together, sees the power of their own voice in democracy. Our work and vision should be a megaphone for justice.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author lisa wise Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.