Talk to everyone. My greatest projects and partnerships all came about because I spoke to enough people who spread the word. Giving talks at conferences made a major difference, but so did asking for help from people who could share my expertise across their networks. When I started the business in 2014, my first project came about because of one woman I met at an event I was running at my old organization making an introduction to a community foundation leader in her community. It made a major difference as I launched Recast City.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ilana Preuss, Founder & CEO of Recast City, a nationally recognized firm working with city officials, community and business leaders and real estate developers to revitalize cities by integrating space for small-scale producers. Implementing their premier program, Recast Leaders, they work with leadership cohorts dedicated to bringing main street back to life. Ilana Preuss has successfully led redevelopment and place-based economic development projects in small and large cities across the US. Her important book, Recast Your City: How to Save Your Downtown with Small-Scale Manufacturing, has been a valuable guide resulting in vibrant economies that are great places to live, work and visit.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Always having a passion for finding amazing places and discovering the places that could be amazing, I wanted to make a difference and have been working in community development for 25 years. Early in my career, I worked in the federal government and at nonprofits and in both environments, I recognized there was something missing from our work. While everyone agreed on the need to make cities great places to live, work and visit, no one talked about the important role small businesses play in making that happen. Yet, they are essential toward building neighborhood resilience and leaders must make sure neighborhood investments benefit the people who live there. So, in 2013, I organized a series of events called, In The City in which I worked through what kind of small business would make the biggest difference. That’s when I landed on small-scale manufacturing. They are businesses that make a product and can fill storefronts in any neighborhood or downtown main street. When I speak to audiences I refer to them as “Hot Sauce, Handbags, and Hardware” because they can be a combination of small-scale manufacturing and retail outlets in the same location! These same businesses are part of the legacy and history of so many people and they are instrumental toward building household wealth and creating more opportunities in those places.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Yes. A few years ago we worked with city leaders in Columbia, MO to help revitalize a part of town called The Business Loop to become more than a pass-thru area. Our team helped them find small-scale manufacturers from all over the area because we understood how they would be the economic engine that could make a difference. One specific area we identified from our conversations with the community and business owners, was an unmet need for low-cost commercial kitchen space. During one of our brainstorming sessions, I suggested they talk to the university about one of their older buildings that had a kitchen in it. Might as well make the ask and see what happens was the way I pitched it. Well, within 3 months they had an agreement to use the space and opened in less than a year and this was during the pandemic! We are proud to say a new commercial shared kitchen for the community was born and every stage of this was inspirational to watch!
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?
I definitely underestimated what it takes to create an on-demand training program. After my book came out in 2021, I remember talking to my mentor and saying to her that I planned to spend the next week creating the on-demand course to go with the book. She chuckled a bit saying, “Let me know how that goes!” She knew because she created a number of successful on-demand courses. Fast forward to 2023, and we are just now ready to launch the on-demand course I began two years earlier! So much for the concept matching up to the reality in the time involved! This type of project requires so much detail for the content and the backend to make sure it works well for users. Local leaders are busy and overwhelmed and we need to make sure every piece of an on-demand course is bite-sized, targeted to their needs, and super effective to get them where they need to go with their work to bring their downtown back to life. I definitely have learned a lot in the process.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Through our Recast Leaders training program, we position our member communities with the tools to launch effective small business training programs, open small business growth spaces, create new pop-up events, activate place branding, launch micro-loan opportunities, and create grant programs for small businesses in their communities while building trust. We are in a defining time to make a lasting difference and are proud that our organization is doing just that with a framework for cities to follow that will purposefully reach business owners who have been historically excluded or underserved. Our company is at the forefront of the movement to change the wealth building opportunities in communities, big and small, by helping create intentional change. It’s possible to say goodbye to empty storefronts on main streets and create better opportunities for everyone but it will require all of us coming together through strong and motivated relationships in the public and private sectors and with local community members.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are countless small scale manufacturers who have inspired me but the person who has made a profound impact on my work by helping small business owners scale, would be Terrand Smith, CEO of 37 Oaks. We launched our companies around the same time and met through LinkedIn after I started reading her posts and realized we shared the same sensibilities about the importance of small businesses being vital to bringing back downtowns. After several conversations, I discovered that Terrand and her business have a set of skills and knowledge that other people just don’t offer in the small business technical assistance world — a focus on historically excluded populations and expertise in the needed details for product business growth. Her guidance on projects has been outstanding which is why I have introduced a number of Recast Leaders cohort members to her and have been overjoyed each time a community brings Terrand in for training programs. Her work has made an exponential difference for small businesses when it comes to increasing their revenues and growth.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Here are 3 things local government and community leaders can do to help.
- Build awareness on available resources. Most communities, even ones that have been historically excluded from investment, have financial and other resources to draw upon. But too many aspiring entrepreneurs don’t know they exist or how the process works to access them. It’s vital that economic development officials find ways to build awareness across the community so everyone is aware of what is available and find ways to build community eligibility, funding potential, application deadlines, and more. The first step is to build new personal relationships with existing business owners to understand what they need to grow and scale in the community.
- Create more real estate development incentives. Emerging new businesses typically progress from home-based to commercial real estate settings, but it requires flexibility by landlords and developers, and even city officials when a code modification may be required. For example, entrepreneurs may need smaller or shared spaces or shorter lease terms and it is important for local government officials to understand these needs and engage relevant property owners so flexible and creative accommodations can be considered. This will be the only way cities can bring in small-scale manufacturers and other unique small businesses to fill empty storefronts. Community development corporations or local housing authorities can also fill this gap in needed space. Some shared spaces, like commercial kitchens, can even become destinations and help define entire communities. Flexible real estate arrangements should also be combined with training and mentoring to advance the prospects of emerging businesses. This kind of flexibility builds relationships and will serve as a meaningful brand-builder and trust-builder across the community.
- Prioritize small businesses. Local officials and community leaders need to remember who can revitalize their cities the most: entrepreneurs and small business owners. Cities with blocks of empty storefronts frustrate residents and visitors alike while bustling downtowns with vibrant economies create great places for everyone who lives there or is visiting. With this understanding, small-scale manufacturers should be prioritized, because they can sell products in storefronts and online and are, therefore, not solely dependent on foot traffic, as so many struggling shops in economically excluded neighborhoods or towns are. When production and retail are combined at an intown setting, they also provide fantastic experiential retail as people walking by can see things being made.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is knowing what needs to be done and knowing how to bring the right people together to make it happen! There is extensive research showing that business owners are more likely to succeed if they have access to other business owners. Not surprisingly, incubators typically provide that service in tech communities. This is especially important for small business hubs and their services to be made available in historically excluded neighborhoods. Local leaders should be proactive by creating initiatives to ensure that emerging business owners have access to other business owners, to the needed services, and to financing opportunities. It takes leadership to stand up and say what we’ve done in the past isn’t enough and we need to do something different now to create a different outcome.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Talk to everyone. My greatest projects and partnerships all came about because I spoke to enough people who spread the word. Giving talks at conferences made a major difference, but so did asking for help from people who could share my expertise across their networks. When I started the business in 2014, my first project came about because of one woman I met at an event I was running at my old organization making an introduction to a community foundation leader in her community. It made a major difference as I launched Recast City
- Keep it simple. I came into this work with a lot of technical knowledge about the field of community development. But the technical part is only 20 percent of the work. The rest of it is outreach and communications. And the work community leaders need to do to be successful is also less technical and more about who is at the table. So I learned to keep it simple. Over the first 3 years in business, we went from 10 different ways we support local small businesses and downtowns to 3 ways. And now we help people and places implement changes with those 3 systems in a laser focused way.
- Write about your work. I share this lesson with every new entrepreneur I meet. You need to write about your thinking so that people understand you and your work in various ways. Video works too. But you have to put your thoughts out there for people to get to know you, trust you, and then want to work with you. When I finally found a way to write in my own voice, and get those thoughts out there in a way that spoke to people, the response was great. People emailed me and said “I was nodding along with you as I read that. I didn’t know anyone else thought that too.” That is how to expand your reach and make purposeful connections.
- Tell your stories of success. Anytime we turn a city into a vibrant economy, it’s a success. It has happened in cities from the east coast to the midwest to the west coast, even in Hawaii. Everytime we learn something new, we use it to create new opportunities as we begin our next project. The one universal theme in what we do is how many local heroes there are in communities. These are the people who join us in bringing their passion, knowledge and determination to create great places and I am grateful to meet them everywhere we go.
- Talk about it in plain English. I’ve worked hard on this and I push everyone around me to do the same. I used to write technical research reports and learned over time that it doesn’t have the impact we need to get change to happen in communities. We need to talk to people about what’s important to us, why that’s important, and what it means to us to motivate them to make changes. These kinds of questions are part of the start of every cohort and project we do because I know it will make a big difference to get buy-in for their work over time.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would direct entire economic development budgets to small businesses and focus on the locally owned businesses from a diversity of neighborhoods. I would create a movement where space for these businesses is the priority in real estate, investment, and everything else we do in the community. The movement would be embracing local first in each city from contracts to projects to state and federal funding. It would be one in which business owners who have historically been excluded from big opportunities — across race, ethnic, immigrant, rural, gender and any other line we create in our communities — are given the front row seats to access resources, space, and support to grow businesses with deep roots that break cycles of poverty and grow wealth where it is needed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A friend of mine recently shared a quote with me: “Gratitude rejoices with her sister, Joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.” I think our work is about gratitude to the people creating product businesses, putting their vulnerabilities and passions out in the world, and investing in their communities, and our joy is when those communities embrace the small business owners, honor and prize them, to create great places. Too often people are so used to doing things the old way they aren’t open to new ideas or they think nothing will ever improve so they fight over the shrinking pie of opportunity. It is our job to help them wrestle free so that the pie grows and these communities can become amazing places with locally owned product businesses that people want to be part of.
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. 🙂
I would be in awe to have breakfast or lunch with Michelle Obama. I see her work to raise up women and girls, and ways to promote health and leadership as amazing and inspiring. I want to learn from her about how to keep telling the stories that need to be told and share with her about how small-scale manufacturing businesses can help us achieve the goals she laid out for us all.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
A few ways. We can be reached through our contact form on our website: www.recastcity.com, direct email: firstname.lastname@example.org by phone 240–472–2765 and on social media on LinkedIn and Twitter @IlanaPreuss
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Ilana Preuss of Recast City 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.