It just occurred to me what incredible business people my parents were! I have succeeded in being like every other self-centered child who resents their parents until they are about 30 and then takes another several years before appreciation sets in. I realize this makes me gloriously mediocre, but I digress . . .
I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. My mom and dad started a pierogie business (yes, those delicious eastern european potato dumplings) out of our garage. The business served two purposes: 1) it allowed my dad, a consummate homebody, to never have to leave our street. It wasn't some weird condition of agoraphobia - he simply had done a healthy serving of military service traveling all over the world and liked to chill at the house while he battled an unfair dose of cancer. 2) It gave my mom a dream and a definition that her life extended beyond the house, which was filled with ten kids, more laundry and dishes than one would ever hope to imagine, and constantly feuding estrogen and testosterone levels from five boys and five girls in a four bedroom house with one bathroom!
My parents were not business savvy in that Sloan, Stern, or Wharton way. They were 'simple Pennsylvania farm folks' - sickeningly sweet, genuine, and operating based on "doing the right thing." They operated like a pioneer colony - bartering, bleeding, sweating, negotiating, hunting, gathering, etc. Their business goals were really primal - to take care of their family. The home business allowed them to raise the family and provide for them at the same time.
When I reflect on my upbringing, and my experiences today operating as an arts entrepreneur with the privilege of an MBA, I realize just how many things I learned from them that I could never have extracted from my classroom and "formal/practical business" experiences; and how much deeper the lessons from my MBA and formal experiences resonate due to my youth environment. These take-aways were specific to an environment that was driven by: 1) a deep seated love - the family kind that will make you fight to the death like a lioness protecting her cubs; 2) very, very limited resources (imagine small-town Pennsylvania, ten kids, and no fancy supplemental job opportunities); 3) the knowing that you have to keep going because you have no other choice due to both the practical (feeding yourself and your kids) and the psychological (the passion and the adrenaline of creation) demanding it.
Sound familiar? It sounds to me like the dance/non-profit entrepreneur's life!
There are a few specific lessons/moments in my life that I continue to reflect on. Most from my parents and a couple from a few of my other favorite parental figures. I think about them when the constraints of arts and non-profit life become overwhelming.
The 'family' business- My mom had to regularly feed twelve-plus mouths. Every time we went to the grocery store, we were the embarassing group that filled two carts. Every single time we got to the register, I saw my mom wait, in a state of compete fear and panic, for the cashier to approve her payment. There were a few times we weren't approved. I was so humiliated and devastated and I just left her alone in that moment. I thought, how could she let this happen! I felt no responsibility. I did not see how any of my actions in our family could have had anything to do with my demands on her. Just get the money in the bank mom!! It seemed so simple. Despite her best efforts to make enough she was never sure she did. She didn't even know what enough was because the demands and funding landscape kept changing. Any small change in the need/demand of our home (visitors, broken arm, braces, lost shoes, kids steal your cash stash (see next lesson) etc.) could ruin her. Our family was inextricably linked to the business.
Lesson/Reflection: I wish I hugged her in those moments. Working mom aside, she was doing her best and working her hardest with the hope that she could fulfill the dream of adequately taking care of her family. She 'failed' a lot. There are so many people working their hardest to support dance/arts. There are very often moments where we can choose to hug to desert.
How to live paycheck to paycheck/my family responsibility to the 'business' - One day my sixteen year old self was scouring the house for money to go out with friends. I dug through all of my favorite cash caches and scored when I found a 100 dollar bill in my mom's mom's early 20th century fur coat! I grabbed it and ran out of the house and straight to the mall. I came home later to my mom crying on the floor. She had hid that 100 dollars for a bill that was detrimentally late. I broke her that day as I watched her sobbing with a bag full of some ridiculous disposable item.
Lesson/Reflection: I cannot help but wonder about what I take from situations. I can't help but wonder about what the meaning of a moment is or isn't. I cannot help but consider if what I do or don't do is worth it.
Salesmanship - My mom and dad dragged me to every fair and food trade show on the East Coast from as far back as I can remember. I would spend hours smiling at people and asking them to try our pierogies, as many would scowl at and scorn me. My mom was supporting our family and my mom never, ever allowed us to do anything but smile. (Have you noticed I keep saying my mom? Me too - she was quite fierce.) She also made me bag pierogies - counting 12, 12, 12, 12, 12 for hours every night after school. And then there were deliveries - these were actually kind of nice because people often paid in cash and that cash rarely made it home . . .note my mom's cash flow issues above. And my least favorite part of the family business - that every person in the neighborhood was employed by my mom and every person in the neighborhood was always at my house! I woke up to people making coffee in our kitchen. I took showers with the shower wall adjoining the the office to the "factory."
Lesson/Reflection: We are all capable of job creation. You build your own family and then must support them. Building a family is severely uncomfortable. Every job is meaningful and extremely important. Every person is meaningful, never assume you know who your customers are or aren't. Discipline - know every aspect of your business and know the strain and struggle of every inch so you appreciate it. Don't underestimate the moms.
Bartering: My ballet lessons and prep school education were paid for with pierogies! Well, partially paid for . . .the business nose dove on several occasions and I was kindly ask to leave prep school and less kindly asked to remit payment for ballet camp!
Lesson/Reflection: 1) Never assume that dollars are the only form of payment 2) Juggling a full-time job and parenthood is not simple and the both take turns suffering 3) Make sure you have enough pierogies to pay the bill!
Mama Buddhist: On to a "mom figure." I was buddhist for a few months after an estranged relationship with the Roman Catholic church following my dad's death. One of my favorite stand-in moms is buddhist. She invited me to chant with her. When she felt I made a strong enough commitment to have my own gohonzon, she very directly told me that I must purchase my own. She would not buy it for me. She said it was necessary for me to take this step alone and commit to myself - it was not her responsibility or right to "give" buddhism to me. And, by me taking on that responsibility to be accountable, I will respect it more. Of course, she said it in a more graceful, buddhist way:-)
Lesson/Reflection: It made me realize that she was asking me to respect her and respect myself because I was capable of being responsible for my own part of what I want.
Don't be the Martyr/If I am, you are: I used to get so mad at myself for feeling bad for my brothers. I do remember correctly that I was the only one who ever felt responsible for keeping the house clean. My brothers would just lie around, smoke in their room, (later on) drink in the basement . . . and I would clean it all up and lie for them because I felt bad that they had to work and had to be teenagers!! Forward ahead several years, and I was giving Pilates lessons to another favorite 'mom stand-in.' It was during the summer and her kids were off school. She met me for a ridiculously early Pilates session. She marched into the space with her kids behind her and announced, "if I am working out, they are working out!"
Lesson/Reflection: It is OK to expect your family/business to work as hard as you are. It is the only way to respect the amount of work that the family members are doing.
The art of negotiating: I was once taken under the wing of another mom-figure who happened to be the Provost of a college that I worked for. I gave her Pilates and she gave me mentorship in arts/non-profit administration. One day she told me how women never negotiated their salaries when they were hired. She said she felt it was her responsibility as a successful woman to help other women negotiate (another example of me horribly diminishing a graceful quote, but you get the idea). I left her office and several days later had a job interview for a really exciting executive position. When I was presented with my salary, I said, "thank you, but I need more to perform this work." Then, one of my other favorite people in the world, this time a brilliant, and unpolitical in every way, scientist responded by pulling open his hiring manual flipping through a few pages and then stating, "I am authorized to go as high as X. Will that be OK?" Just as a side note, I accepted immediately and then humiliated myself and almost created a harassment suit by hugging him to end the interview.
Lesson/Reflection: So, lessons learned . . .1) People don't hug one another after job interviews outside of the dance world 2) Everyone has constraints. Know what you need so the negotiation isn't arbitrary and then ask but don't expect or assume anything beyond your own need - you only have your own information. You can only control what you can control and nothing is worth burning a relationship.
The Chameleon: I might have been poor growing up, but I honestly don't know? Once, when I was in high school, I overheard a classmate having a debate with another classmate over whether or not I was poor. She was using the debate as a way to understand if she should respect me. She discussed how I seemed to wear the right clothes but my family was a mess. My mom was really an enigma in her business world. She cleaned up really nicely! When she needed to, I would see her go from invisible, grey haired, flour covered, mess of a mom-lady to a really sexy, high-cheekboned, petite, and powerful seductress, who saved a failing business time after time in the final hour with a blind-folded, off the rim, one-handed Hail Mary shot! She never even had time to contemplate her two selves, she just moved between them effortlessly.
Lesson/Reflection: As the artist Banksy once wrote, "invisibility is a superpower"
Phoenix rising: A few months before my dad died, the pierogie business shrunk from its glory days in a legitimate and large factory, which serviced hundreds of stores on the East Coast, back to our garage. Mainly from the stress of medical bills and my father, the chef, being unable to work the long hours, but also from my mom not allowing help from a bigger more established entity. I believe she questioned letting go of too much. Nine months after my dad died, our home burnt down. We had no insurance, my mom was back to paycheck to paycheck and didn't pay the insurance, so my mom lost everything. In the last 15 years since the fire, my mom has made pierogies in nearly every "family" house in our small town in PA. Though no longer her primary pursuit in life, she continues to supplement her income with the pierogies. She can do this because she shared the recipe with so many people, thus she has a skilled team at her disposal around every corner. She has either helped or hired people whenever she could and now has a network of friends who catch her when she needs catching. She has taken several business beatings, but just kept going and trusting that 'she did the right thing.'
Lesson/Reflection: You have to share to grow. Everyone makes mistakes or flat out fails . . .a lot! Information transfer is key - there will be a day when you need someone else to pick up the reins. You have to trust and be ok with getting hurt once in a while. What does "failing" actually mean?
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!