Founding a Non-Profit – The Legacy We Leave

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“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

As I review this year of posts, travelling back and forth across the events that have led me to my current career, I am reminded that every day I have the opportunity to make a positive impact to the lives of others. Whether it is a quick email to someone for doing a good job of managing a project meeting with a cc to their manager or just a simple thank you for being on call for the evening as we do a push to production, it is this capture of those moments and expression of gratitude that can make the difference between just doing a job and knowing that your contributions are noticed and appreciated. I would like to think that these simple things make a lasting impression on others and that they “pass it on.”

While on the topic of making a positive impact, I wanted to take this last post for 2013 and share a life changing experience. This experience gave me not only a greater appreciation for what it takes to build a business from the ground up but also for the dedication of individuals like my brother-in-law Greg and his wife Patti (to understand them a bit better read “It’s Not What You Said, It’s What They Understood That Matters” posted in June, 2013). The story starts in 1991 when Greg and my husband Ken started thinking about how they could combine their interests, skills, and talents to build a business. They also shared a common goal of having a positive impact on the world around them. Living close to the border, they were well aware of the immense needs of the children in Mexico who live in Orphanages or Casa Hogars. It was with all of this in mind that they began to do the research for what it would take to build a strong non-profit organization that would give these children the life experiences they miss by not being a part of a family.

These years included a lot of travel from the Tijuana border down to the tip of Baja Sur. That was a lot of time spent and miles driven in what we fondly called our “Baja mobile.” This was a little Chevy Blazer with the bumpers that had to be wired up because all of the bolts worked their way loose from travelling over the bumpy pot holed roads. Those first years, Ken spent more time in Mexico than he did at home in California. Today we joke that while we have been married over 35 years we really have only been together for 25 of them. The earliest years, Greg worked as an expert witness for litigations around construction and shared his earnings with Ken. Patti and I were working in order to fund the vision of Genesis. While it took many years and a lot of hard work, today Genesis has grown into Genesis International Orphanage Foundation (GIOF), a non-profit in Mexico and a 501(c)( 3) non-profit in the United States (http://www.genesisdiez.org/about-genesis-diez/co-founders.html) . Greg and Patti now live in Mexico and both work full-time for GIOF.

I am sharing this because it was a life and career shaping experience for me. Some of the lessons I learned were professional and some were personal. On a professional level I learned that it takes a lot of special “influence” to start a business in Mexico, especially a non-profit business. You first must establish trust and then be able to communicate your vision. Another lesson was that not only is accounting for a non-profit different, but accounting in Mexico has its share of differences. I learned that because of these and many other differences it is much better to have a local accountant and office manager to handle all of the details. On a personal level, I learned that no matter how much time Ken spends in Mexico he will never be able to speak Spanish. I also learned one hot summer day when the lights went out that the circuit breakers were located outside the garage. Then one Sunday night when the water heater decided to start a river running through the garage I learned where the shut off valve was located out in the street. As you can tell, some lessons I would rather not have had to learn.

I look back on these years fondly and am proud to have been a part of this vision. When I think of Genesis I always think of this quote from Neil Postman, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

As you read the opening quote from Ray Bradbury, I would ask you to think about this question. Are you just a “lawn-cutter” or are you a “real gardener?”

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Having a Career – Where That Education Led Me

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“To love what you do and feel that it matters–how could anything be more fun?”
– Katharine Graham

The place was Ohio Northern University (ONU), Ada, Ohio, the year was 1984, and there I was in my cap and gown with my new diploma in hand ready to conquer the “professional” world. I was both excited and nervous at the same time. Having work experience and having supervised people gave me an advantage, but at the same time I also had the disadvantage of venturing into the uncharted waters of the office environment.  So it was with some trepidation that I began interviewing for positions with local CPA firms. As I commenced the interview rounds, I saw a small posting in our local paper for a position with a local Accounting Software company.  I diligently sent a cover letter along with my resume. Within a week I had two interviews lined up.  The first interview was at a large local CPA firm that supported the majority of the businesses in our community preparing their taxes, giving financial advice, doing their payroll, etc. The second interview was with the Accounting Software Company for a Customer Support Representative. I don’t know which was more exciting, just getting the interviews or the fact that they were both in areas that were very interesting to me.

The interview at the CPA firm came first. I thought it went well. During the interview I found that the offices were plush (by 1980’s standards) and the dress codes as well as the work environment were very professional. I would need my high heels and hose for this job. The only downside was that the owner was an older gentleman who chewed on his cigar during the interview and called me “girlie.”  I can live with that, I thought.

Then came the interview with the Accounting Software Company.  I drove past the office a few times before I realized it really was that pole building in the middle of the corn field just outside of town. The building also served as the offices of an Engineering firm.  I later found out that one of the initial investors and founders of the software company was also the owner of the Engineering firm, so it made sense for him to “donate” office space to this fledgling software company.  The offices were not plush by any standards, but were typical for a small privately held company just starting out in the business. The dress code, while still professional, became a bit more relaxed after you entered the section that housed the programmers.  But I was interviewing for a Customer Support position, so my dress code would be a bit more like that expected at the CPA firm.  The atmosphere was where everything differed. The founders, the managers, and the entire staff were young and excited to be a part of this little company. While everyone did work long hours, they all seemed to be happy to be there and having fun.  Several of the systems programmers even were alumni of ONU.  I felt at home.

After a few days of chewing my nails and waiting for the phone to ring with an offer, it finally did ring and twice. I was offered both positions. So I did what I normally do when making a big decision. I started a list of pro’s and con’s. On the side of the CPA firm the two big ones were Pro- it was extremely professional and was focused on my first love Accounting, but on the Con side I’d be greeted every day with “hey girlie.” The list for the software company was a bit different. The Pro – an exciting and energetic place to work was balanced by the Con side it was sitting, answering phones and listening to customer complaints all day.  Even today my husband is still amazed that I chose the software company. He knew that I hate sitting all day, I especially hate the telephone as a means of communication, and don’t even get me started expressing how much I hate to hear customers complain (remember those darn frozen turkeys). But I did choose the software company and I am extremely happy that I did. My only concern was that when I started work I found out my “office” was a small room shared with my manager and three other support staff and to top it off they ran out of real desks so mine was a makeshift desk made up of two sawhorses and a door thanks to the engineering firm owner. However, the shiny new computer on my desk more than made up for my office and desk.

So that’s the short story of my entry into the professional world and the door to it was opened by my degree. That paper was worth all of the hours spent gaining it. While I left that first software company behind many years ago, at the time I left it was receiving a lot of positive press and awards for the features and quality of the products I had helped produce.

What I learned from all of this is that sometimes what you think is not the perfect job may lead to that perfect job in the future. In my case, I am happy to say that is what happened. I am grateful for those early years and all of the things that I learned both personally and professionally from the founders, the management, and staff at that small software company.

The Agony Of Defeat – Running A Small Business

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This story is a difficult one to share.  It begins at a time when we lived in the small town where my husband was born and raised. We had purchased our first home and had settled into a happy domestic life. My husband was between teaching positions when the local hardware store came up for sale. The owner who was the father of my husband’s childhood friends was going to retire. Neither of his sons wanted to take over ownership, so it seemed natural for my husband and I to look at taking the leap to run our own business. What better way to support the small community that he loved and knew so well? So it was with the enthusiasm and naiveté of youth that we went to the bank to see what financing was available to us.  As you might expect, we had few assets and very little savings. What we found was that we needed to enlist the support of family to raise the required funding to use as a down payment. Knowing what hard workers we were, family quickly rallied armed with their checkbooks to support our first business. With this borrowed down payment in hand, we worked with the owner to establish what we deemed a fair market price for the business and the inventory and forged ahead.

I’ll not drag you through all of the details of setting up the business, but will just say that both of us had a bit of a “knowing doing” gap. At least we were smart enough to enlist the help of a local accountant to do the payroll and keep the books. We also enlisted the help  of one of my husband’s sisters to set up a unique  section of the store to sell specialty furniture and crafts. This last helped us differentiate ourselves and fill in the gaps between appliance sales and service.  The first year in business was not easy.  We discovered we had over valued the inventory and now needed to sell a lot of obsolete items at a very steep discount. This did not set us up for success. It was also around this same time that stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot were starting to make an appearance in the larger adjacent towns. Loyalty to the small town businesses was being severely tested. Why would you shop for your large appliances at a small hardware store when you could just drive 30 miles and have a larger variety to choose from often at a lower price? We had the best service and friendliest staff, but at this time in the economy the price was winning over the service.

Looking back, it is much easier to see with clarity that getting out from under the obsolete inventory was a difficult challenge but the changing times and buying patterns was our real undoing.   We made a valiant effort, but in the end had to close the store. After a “fire” sale, we were barely able to pay back the bank. It was our supportive family that we were not able to reimburse. After a few years of financial struggle we were eventually able to return their investment to them.

This was a hard learned lesson for us both. We came out of it having an even greater respect for the small business owner who must make tough decisions each and every day. We learned that you need to keep your business hat on even when dealing with long time family friends. It also reinforced for us that having a loving and supportive family makes going through tough times easier. In the end, I believe that everything happens for a reason. During the time that we owned the store, I was working and going to school.  While running the business, my husband was able to keep a closer eye on our three teen-aged girls.  So while having to close the store was an agonizing defeat, during the time we had it there were many happy times and benefits as well.  I don’t look back with regret, but with a lot of pride in what we were able to accomplish during this time and how much we learned about running a business.