A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Michael Koehler, CEO and Founder of KONU

Liz Reitman: Hello, everyone. Liz here with my good friend Michael Koehler, CEO of Konu, as the next part of our series of founders in focus. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Koehler: Thanks so much, Liz. I’m so excited to be here with you.

Liz Reitman: Same. So, full disclosure, Michael and I are friends, so this is not just a purely business conversation, but we became friends through business. So that’s kind of been my world, and I’m sure maybe for you as well. It’s really fun to have you here, and I want to jump right in. You know, this is being used as part of our gay pride month, and I love how you come forth and make this part of your identity in terms of…It’s not a secret…You don’t hide behind that.

I was just wondering, as a gay business owner, have you noticed certain challenges, maybe not experienced by others? Or what has that brought forth as a business owner?

Michael Koehler: Thanks for this question. Thanks for highlighting that.

Liz Reitman: I went right in. Sorry.

Michael Koehler: I love this. So, I mean, it’s very interesting. I’ll start a little bit with my gay identity, and then I’ll talk a little bit about the challenges of gay business owners. So I was born on May 17, 1981, and the reason this is a significant date is in 81, is when the AIDS epidemic started. So I was literally born in that same year, maybe even the same month when that went down or when that started, when we began to learn about it. And as you know, this was an epidemic that the gay community struggled with for, like, a decade and a half, not really knowing treatments, and a lot of death was in the community. I grew up in that context.

Michael Koehler: Kind of even came of age, with a lot of fear and anxiety, even with the stigma about what it means to be gay. I wasn’t part of the community. There’s the elders, the people that have a decade or two ahead of me. Tthey lost many of their friends. We often talk about like these three generations. I’m kind of the middle generation that grew up in the mid nineties, the treatments were beginning to get better, it wasn’t an immediate death sentence if you got AIDS.

Liz Reitman: And did you grow up, Michael in Germany?

Michael Koehler: I grew up in Germany. Exactly. And in a way, in Germany, the conversation was even a little bit more behind. And so I’m giving a little bit as a context because if you would talk to a business owner, a founder who’s maybe ten years younger than I am, who’s in their thirties and not in their forties, their experience would be vastly different. Right. My husband Alastair is nine years younger than me. He almost came out in the same year as I came out. He came out at twelve. I came out 22 with a vastly different generations than his.

So I think the first thing I want to say is, a gay business owner is not a monolithic thing, but depending on geography and age and experience, there’s all kinds of different stories. So all that I can share here is my own experience and my own story. And that’s my version of that. So, when you asked me about the challenges, I can share a little bit about my challenges. And I think the interesting piece for me was that being gay never showed up as an identity that I would bring forward a lot in my business world. In my first job, I mean, I was out, but it was almost like, okay, that’s my private thing and I’m out and that’s it.

It never became a thing in my role identity. I only discovered that in the last ten years when I was also a business owner. And I would say, first of all, I think one of the reasons I think I am a business owner is because it gives me the freedom and the flexibility to play a little bit outside the rules. I don’t think that I would have answered that way when I started the business, but I think I was always drawn to entrepreneurship because I felt like at my first job, I run a leadership development firm. Right. So we teach very seasoned executives, leaders, change agents, how to manage change and complexity better.

My first job was as a teacher for kids, and I think one of the reasons I didn’t stay in that sector was that I had some internalized homophobia around, like, can I be out in school? Can I do my job? And can I belong in a system like the German state school system? So, I think this is part of this impetus of becoming my own boss and setting up my own thing. So that’s not a challenge. That’s, in a way, an opportunity, something that it gave to me. I feel very privileged to be working mostly in the geographies and with the clients that I’m out everywhere. And I feel very privileged in most contexts.

I will say I sometimes work in contexts where I still choose, do I come out or do I not come out? Which is mainly in countries where just the legal context around being gay is different. And the other thing I think that is interesting for me is, as a gay man in leadership development, there’s a lot of gay men in leadership development. I think its a little bit of a cliche. All of the coaches are either women or gay men, but same in design. I know, I know. But when I think about the clients I personally work with, it’s often the people, the leaders, that have some kind of otherness in their biography.

Some kind of experience of being marginalized and being successful at the same time. It’s either women or people of color or immigrants or some other kind of difference that I often feel drawn to. And I think the hardest sometimes for me is to work with kind of the, you know, the classical white straight man who kind of symbolizes, you know, many of the things that may not feel safe to me or may not have felt like belonging to me as a gay man. So, it’s a long way of answering your question, Michael, what are your challenges?

Liz Reitman: Well, I love that you slipped it into opportunities.  I was thinking it as soon as I said it, I was like, oh, that’s very slanted in my perspective. That may not necessarily be the case, but it is also interesting how you say, like, you know,

part of your challenge sometimes is running leadership workshops for your stereotypical white, hetero male and I wonder how you work with that type of population? Or do you have to modify how you're training individuals, knowing that you touching a broad range of people.

Michael Koehler: Yeah. There’s a big part of it that I love, actually, which is I’m working more and more with cis male, white, straight folks who are very interested in practicing their muscles around diversity, equity, inclusion, and who don’t always find safe enough spaces to do so. They sometimes feel a little bit late to the game. They sometimes feel shame around it, maybe guilt, definitely insecurity. And that is in a role when they’re sort of senior, and at the same time, also in an identity in which you’re supposed to know, in which not knowing can feel very threatening and in which you historically have these expectations that you know how to fix and solve problems.

It’s not always easy to do this work, and I feel like we sometimes forget it. And so I find it meaningful to work with those that are ready to get on the bus and engage in the journey and do some of the work and explore in their own time. I find that meaningful. And I think that is also where intersectionality comes in, because I’m not just a gay man. I’m also a white man. Right. I’m a man. Right. So I’m holding those privileges. As a German, I’m very much aware that I come from a kind of culture of, you know, you and I have talked about it multiple times from a national identity that has been. Has a, you know, really problematic aggressor history with the Holocaust and other parts like colonialism, that Germans don’t talk that much about.

And so I can also find the parts in me that have anxiety and fragility. On the one side, I’m a gay immigrant in this country. On the other side, I’m a white male German. And so I think it is meaningful to me to access those different identities to do this work.

Liz Reitman: Yeah, I love that. I’m going to digress, but just because I found this fascinating, as a jew speaking with a German, I would just love if you could, maybe articulate what your upbringing was like in terms of what school required of you guys to learn about the Holocaust, because I found this fascinating, and this is digressing completely, but just because you brought it up, I thought there might be some relevance.

Michael Koehler: Oh, yeah. And I think it is very relevant to the broader conversation around diversity, equity, inclusion, because I think one of the dimensions that is so underrated in America and avoided is dealing with history and leaning into history. And I think that many immigrants in the US, and I think many US Americans as well, will have an opinion on that. But often immigrants would say it’s wild that the US is not confronting its past and getting real about it and fighting over what do we teach our children. In Germany, there has been a lot of effort to really bring history teachings around the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust into schools, school curricular at different levels of age.

And I would say, in hindsight, probably 20% to 30% of my history lessons were about that part. Those twelve years of german history, including both studying the context, but also field visits. We would go to the local memorial sites, we would go to a concentration camp or termination camp, memorial sites, visit them. And that’s my generation, my parents generation, who were born right after World War II, they didn’t do that in school. Many of the teachers were still Nazis. So most of the stuff came out of the seventies. There was the german version of the civil rights movement in the US was kind of a lot of people on the streets around confronting Germany’s history.

And many of these student protesters were in the humanities. Many of them became teachers, and then mobilized towards bringing that into school curriculums. I was in school in the eighties and nineties, and so by then it had already entered school curricular. And you would also see a lot of stuff on tv, a lot of documentaries. You would have a lot of memorial sites and cities. I feel like the conversation of the US is always like, don’t make us feel bad about our history. Right. We need to be proud about our history. And I think the sense in Germany is, it’s okay to feel a little bit bad about your history.

I mean, we didn’t commit the Holocaust, but I think there is a unique responsibility that we have to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again and that we know the context and the factors that led to that. I mean, a lot of the studying is also like, what were the bigger societal challenges that led to that? So often the narrative is like, there are the evil Nazis, and then. But of course they were evil, but they were rising in a democratic system on the ground of a lot of uncertainty. And there was also a pandemic and there was economic challenges and all of that stuff. And when people say, I’m concerned at the moment around what’s happening politically, those are early warning signals that we can draw similarities to. I think it’s important to know that, to know the tendencies to scapegoat others, to display as responsibility.

Liz Reitman: And so it wasn’t even just the Nazis, right. It’s looking at the culture of the individuals. Your average neighbor, and, how they may be contributed or did not, and, understanding or gaining an understanding behind what was. Exactly, to your point, what was going on culturally. Right. Because I’m always fascinated by, like, how do people not help others more? But, you know, when you really understand what was going on and the fear and death and all these other things, I can. I can understand. Right. I can have a better understanding of that. That process for others. Yeah. Interesting. We could go on and on.

Michael Koehler: I’m so curious now about your perspective on this, Liz.

Liz Reitman: You’re asking me a question? I love it. I had no idea that this was brought forth in the education system– to lean into the uncomfortable and to acknowledge, like, I knew that Germany worked very hard and were, you know, trying to pay back in some capacity, but I didn’t realize the depth of just leaning into the youth and trying to educate and be part of the culture. I think about, exactly to your point, here in America… I’ll never forget, I went to Checkpoint Charlie, which is this museum in Germany, and it featured different societies where people have been persecuted from different countries. And I remember being shocked. America was on that wall. I was like, what? We’re there?!?

I had such a naive perspective. It was all about slavery and what occurred during that era. And I’m sure there’s many other things that we could add to, but I just remember my thinking was so naive. I thought, I’m part of the greatest country ever. Yeah, I learned about slavery, but not to the depth of what you’re talking about and to really understand  just really what that was about.

Michael Koehler: And I think the connection is the connection to organizational life and to bring it back to the workplace. Right. Is confronting harsh realities, unpleasant truth I think is a core capacity we need in business. Right. Whether it is the question of, when I think about the rise of AI, that’s an uncomfortable truth to confront and to lean into that we would rather avoid. When you think about people’s experiences at the workplace where folks feel like they don’t belong or they are marginalized, that has a direct impact on the organizations, not only the culture, but the impact or the output that this organization can create. And then when people have the courage to bring up that uncomfortable truth that people would rather avoid, then what happens? Are people leaning in or are people shutting it down?

So in a way that muscle is, I think in my understanding, a core muscle not only for societies but for teams, for organizations to make progress.

Liz Reitman: Totally. Is that what your organization is brought in to do? Is that part of your teaching and education?

Michael Koehler: Yes, I would say if people ask me how do I increase my capacity to manage change or to lead in uncertainty, that is a core part of it. And you know, we are not always brought in to do that. Sometimes we’re brought in to fix and solve and then it requires a renegotiation with the client to say, look, we can only help you if you and your people are willing to do the work and to confront this stuff that you would rather avoid.

Liz Reitman: Interesting.

So I'm curious, just this idea of acceptance, equality, visibility, how do you bring that forth within your organization?

Liz Reitman: Not necessarily what you’re doing, what you’re hired to do, but what are you doing as a business owner to have those components be a part of your core mission, your value, or not? I don’t know.

Michael Koehler: Yeah. Yeah. So we are a deliberately developmental organization, which means that kind of learning and development is always at the core of our work. Kind of one of the ways to think about this is a mentor of mine, Professor Bob Keegan from Harvard would always say people are engaged in organizations and two things simultaneously. The one thing is they are wearing the hat of doing their role, they’re trying to do their role as best as they can. If you’re in graphic design, you’re designing something, if you’re writing whatever your role is. And then the other role is. The second job is you’re trying to look good, you’re trying to look competent, and you’re kind of trying to cover up a little bit the things that may not be that pretty.

And those are two jobs that people are constantly doing and being deliberately developmental means that you may be able to let go a little bit of this need to constantly look good, be seen as, and just reduce that and trust that if you are sort of letting go of that guard a little bit, that actually you have more time to both do your job well and to develop a little bit better because you may be a little bit less defensive because the feedback may not trigger. What do you mean? I’m not good. I’m not competent. But the feedback is actually like an invitation to grow. And we know that psychological safety and culture plays a big role in that, but that’s the idea. And so in my organization, we try our best to see the whole person in the way that they’re showing up.

So when we do check-ins, we often do check-ins at the beginning of meetings. Very often. These checks inside are related to questions that concern the whole person, that allow people to show up a little bit more vulnerable, to share and be with their things, get real about the things that they experience at home. And it doesn’t really matter which identities you’re carrying with that. Whether you’re a young new parent trying to figure out how to balance the work life and the family life, whether you’re experiencing breakup, whether you’re an immigrant, that experience, you know, marginalization on the weekend. But whatever it is that brings in that may preoccupy you from doing your work, there is space to process that, to name that.

And then I think we find space to, just, as I said at the beginning of the conversation, also find the gifts in those facilitators. So a lot of our facilitation is also based on stories. So the best stories are the stories that are a little bit heartbreaking and that we learn something from. Right? So when some new facilitator starts with us, we work through. Okay, what is heartbreaking? What are the, some of the pieces in your own life story that you’re willing to share that illuminates some of these ideas and kind of sifting through that with each other is also really meaningful because we may not share every story with the outside world, but sharing our stories with each other contributes enormously to people feeling seen.

Liz Reitman: I love that, Michael. I mean, in this day and age where you’re hearing about quiet quitting and this younger generation not wanting to work –the concept of just having space in your business to see the whole person and hear their gifts. That’s such a flip, right? I know when I was in the workforce that was never the feelings. You didn’t share, you didn’t go deep. And even as a business owner, for a long time, I really kept my personal life very separate from my business and felt like I had to have two identities. And I learned when I was more authentic is when it created for a greater harmony within the organization.

Michael Koehler: Yeah. And the paradox is it’s not a distraction. I feel like sometimes people in the corporate world feel like it’s a distraction or it’s like, oh, they can’t do their work again. Now I need to listen to their stories again. But I actually think the opposite is the case. I think actually people show up with more commitment, with more dedication, with more creativity, with more sense of belonging and purpose. It drives the retention, but it also drives the outputs. I really believe that.

Liz Reitman: I love that. Michael! I wish you should be leading every company. We need to make you individually scalable. Is that possible? I guess I’ll just make this my last question then

how do you balance?

Liz Reitman: Because I know you and I have talked abou being pulled in a lot of different directions, trying to have time for family, for personal things, for space. So as a business owner, how are you managing the weight of building a business? And I know you’re rising and growing consistently and having meaningful time for yourself.

Michael Koehler: First of all, this is hard. It’s really hard. And I haven’t fully figured this out. And I think, again, some of it may also be related to identity, like setting boundaries and protecting space has not always been something that I have as a gay man particularly learned. So I want to start with that. What I am learning, I think, is despite this being my business, I’m learning to separate my work role from self and kind of really a mentor of mine once said there’s a slight difference between, are you your role or do you have your role? Are you business or do you have your business? And sort of seeing your business and your role at work a little bit more as a thing that you can step in and out of rather than it being you.

That is something that I’m practicing. The way I’m practicing that is really allowing myself to do other things. I started becoming a yoga teacher, allowing myself to be a yoga teacher, fully allowing myself to garden at my in-laws, fully allowing myself to take my European style six weeks of vacation every year. Right. And really being offline for that and allowing myself to do that. Does it always work? No, but I think, again, I think that’s what I’m driving towards, and not over identifying as much joy as this business brings, not over identifying my own with the business in good times. So I also don’t identify with it in challenging times.

Liz Reitman: That’s beautiful. I think that’s the challenge for any entrepreneur. It’s like you put so much time and energy in building this business, and it really does become your identity. So I think I always learn awareness is the first step in any change, and the fact that you’re aware that this is a work in progress and that you’re trying and that you realize it can’t be all or nothing is beautiful. So thank you for that. It reminds me as well. So, Michael, as always, a joy to have you and hear your little bits of wisdom. I always learn something from you, so I really appreciate you taking the time to be on with me.

Michael Koehler: Likewise. Thank you so much, Liz, for making the space.


At KONU, we embark on the vertical development journey with our clients. We enter that uncomfortable and sometimes scary space with you, your team, and your organization as you uncover and take on learning edges. we can take this section for that bottom half www.konu.org here is the website to link

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Vanessa Rissetto, CEO and Co-Founder of Culina Health

Liz Reitman: Okay. Hello, everybody. I am super excited for our latest Founders in Focus series to have Vanessa Rissetto, CEO of Culina Health, which is, in a snapshot is, virtual, one one nutritional care. Welcome, Vanessa.

Vanessa Rissetto: Thanks for having me.

Liz Reitman: So, I’m really excited. I met Vanessa at an entrepreneurial organization event, and we clicked immediately. And I just find you so inspiring. I love your energy. I’m really excited to have you here. Plus, I love having female founders. That is my jam. Not that I don’t have male founders.

Vanessa Rissetto: It’s harder for us, so, you know, you can relate.

Exactly. So I guess let's just start with the very beginning. What inspired you to start Culina Health and, tell us how it all began?

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah. We get asked this question a lot. We were, first of all, being a registered dietitian is the worst return on investment for education, per US World News report. My parents are obviously so proud to this day, and dietitians always have, like, a side hustle. So I was working at New York University, but I had a private practice, and I always took insurance. And notoriously, dietitians don’t take insurance. Or up until that point, they didn’t. So it’s just like, luxury thing, right? These dietitians, some of them were charging $1,000 a session. So if you’re the regular person, you didn’t think that you could access that. Then my co founder and I went for a coffee, and she was like, oh, do you want to join private practices? I was like, yeah, sure, no problem. Somebody else had to do, like, half the work. So we hired two other RDs. I would see patients in Hoboken, they would see patients in New York, and at the end of the year, we would pay our taxes and split what was left. But then COVID happened, and it was the first time that a telemedicine visit was being reimbursed the same rate as an in office visit. And so we grew to, like, eight dieticians made a million dollars in about ten months with no marketing, which was unheard of. Private practices. It was very difficult to scale. Right? Cause you can’t see that many people. And this allowed us the opportunity to do that. And then at the same time, venture capitalists started. And so we were like, hey, you know what? People should have access to good care, and it should be for free. So, like, let’s go and really see if we can get this thing out of the station. And we did.

Wow. So when you say most people didn't accept insurance, I'm curious, how did you? How did you work that angle that you were able to offer something that was unusual back then?

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah, I mean, you know, my first jobs were sales jobs, and so I knew, and I have a master’s in marketing, and so I knew a fair amount about business, and I was like, well, what is the barrier to something that is seemingly a luxury item? Well, it’s the cost. And when something changes in your financial situation, what’s the first thing that you get rid of? Something that you think is luxurious? And so let’s remove that, right? But you’ll go. People go to their therapist every single week in perpetuity, sometimes twice a week, because insurance is paying. So it’s like, let’s do this. And at the time, dietitians weren’t getting on insurance panels, so there was a lot of room and a lot of leverage. So the rates that we have that are contracted, that are evergreen are about 25% higher than anyone who is trying to get on insurance panels right now. And also for quite some time, for like two years, insurance panels were closed because COVID happened. People weren’t paying cash. So all of those dietitians that were doing cash found themselves in a bit of trouble. So it was just like, you know, smart business practice.

Liz Reitman: Wow, I love that. So you’re able to bring together, I didn’t realize, a marketing degree as well as sales experience. That’s amazing. It’s clear you guys have had just this remarkable success. And I’m wondering specifically, about raising capital.

Do you have any strategies or any thoughts on how you were able to do this? Especially we all know female startup founders. What we get is such a less percentage of those dollars out there.

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah. Female founders get 2% of vc dollars. Black female founders get even less. Less than 100 black women have ever raised over a million dollars in venture capital. I am one of them is kind of like cool and sad. It’s like really, it’s really kind of crazy. I always say this all the time. I’m like, EO (Entrepreneurial Organization), just make me come and talk to people about venture and how to do it because I will tell you the things that no one tells you because you think it’s this like glamorous thing and it’s not. Somebody has to level set you. It’s not a personal attack. If nobody, if people aren’t investing in your business, it doesn’t mean that your business isn’t good. It is very difficult for a fund to put dollars behind. People imagine they probably see 2500 to 5000 businesses a year, if it’s a bigger fund. They’re doing only like four to ten deals. So your deal, they’re always going to say no. You got to do something to make them say yes. The first time I ever heard that, I was like, okay, great. And then everyone’s pattern matching, right? Like, think about it. Adam Neumann pissed away a lot of money. Marc Andreessen just wrote him a check for $350 million for that. There’s still nothing yet to materialize. We’re all waiting with bated breath, right? And that’s super frustrating when you know you have a business that works – that’s better for humanity, et cetera. So I think the things here are like, you don’t need to worry about the people that say no. Just worry about the people that say yes. Somebody believes in you. You know your business better than anyone else. I actually got, like, pretty tough with investors yesterday because they were just, like, going in on me about our term sheet. And I was like, hey, you know what? This fundraising environment is really bad. I’ve raised capital multiple times, and I’m very. I’m really unbothered. This was actually, like, pretty soul crushing. And, like, are you on my team or are you not on my team? This business is good. This business runs. This business makes money, and we need to get this business capitalized. And so if someone is writing a term sheet and these terms are not that egregious, we’re going to have to do it. And so, like, I just think that if you are going to raise capital, you don’t need to be afraid or defer to the venture capitalists. They just have money. And that’s very useful. You need it, but it’s not the end all, be all. And so I think when you are reminded of that, then you’re really discerning about who you want to be on your cap table and who you want help from.

Liz Reitman: I love that. I mean, it’s really like, you know your business best, and you really have to believe in yourself, and that’s right. And it almost feels like being an actor. My husband was an actor and saw a ton of rejection. We’d see a commercial that he auditioned for, and he was a tall, white male, and it would be a short, chubby black man. And I’m like, of course you didn’t get it.

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah, yeah.

Liz Reitman: Just hold true and plow through and get to the right people. I love your positivity, that helps. My business partner, Casie and I, listen to you and seeing what you’re able to overcome is amazing, especially based on the statistics of females and then black females. It’s beyond jaw dropping.

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah, it’s kind of sad.

Liz Reitman: It is. So one thing I’ve noticed …tell me if I’m correct, you have an all female leadership team.

Vanessa Rissetto: We do have an all female leadership team. That is not by design. It’s just happenstance. However, I did go to an all girls high school. And so I have an affinity towards putting women first. I’m very like, tell the truth. Tell your friend that you hate your husband all the time and you need help or tell people that you’re struggling. Tell the truth. My best friend of 30 years, Robin, I always talk about her any chance I can publicly because she is always on my team, and she has never, ever in the 30 plus years that I’ve known her, let me down. And I just think that is really what’s important, right? So, tell the truth. Let people know. That’s how you’re gonna get help. That’s how you’re gonna move forward. But having this leadership team, I think it’s like, you know, I got cancer last year, and I had to work and act and pretend like everything was okay, and I need people behind me that weren’t out to get me, people behind me that understood the assignment and were like, we are going to help you. And it was like, hey, we’re going to give you full visibility. We’ve anticipated every single question someone’s going to ask. Here are the questions. Here are the answers. You need to memorize them. Let’s go. And so that’s how I got through this past year with that leadership team, so I’m very lucky to have them.

That's beautiful. So, how did you juggle? You know, the balance of being a CEO and a sought after speaker. You've got all this national recognition and media coverage, but now let me add in family and your health. How the heck do you balance all of that?

Vanessa Rissetto: So sometimes I go to therapy twice a week. I’ll be like, I’m doing really great. And then my therapist is like, I invite you to come back another day this week. I’m like, oh, not so great.

Liz Reitman: Talk about being honest, right? Yeah.

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah. It’s like, okay, I. I have a lot of people who show up for me, my partner shows up for me. We kind of got ourselves back together. And I was like, oh, hey, I have cancer. And he was like, great. I’m doubling down, and I’m gonna be there. And for the first time in my life, I asked people for help. I said that I was struggling, and it worked. Also, my nanny is the most important person in my life. She said to me one time, “I see how hard you work, so I’m gonna work just as hard so that we can get to the end of this.” She’s been with us since my son was six months old. I’m always like, T the first purchase I maKe is a house for you. She says, whatever, I love you so much. So surrounding yourself with people that you can tell the truth to is what is going to take you pretty far.

Liz Reitman: You know, it’s interesting , but it’s really hard for a lot of people to ask for help, maybe, I don’t know if it’s female or if it’s entrepreneur, but, or maybe it’s being codependent, whatever it is. But, you put your head down, you work really hard, and for some reason, that’s really looked at or has been looked at as a sign of weakness.

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah, I think, we’re around the same age. I think it’s  how were raised, right? Our parents generation is like, do not talk. Everything is fine. Do not cry. Don’t tell people what’s going on with you, because if you tell them, they’re going to use it against you. This parries through your life, and you’re like, oh, okay. And then, yeah, I’m an entrepreneur, but I’m really struggling. You stuff it down, stuff it down. But all that happens, that it comes out sideways, so it’s not worth it.

Liz Reitman: I always say. It leaks out of you. I’ve heard that term from Dr. Brad Reedyand I believe that. Well, how’s your health now?

Vanessa Rissetto: It’s great. I’m cancer free. I did my last chemo April 11. I am living a presumably uncomplicated long life where I will terrorize my children and that’ll be that.

Liz Reitman: And others.

Vanessa Rissetto: And others. Yeah.

Liz Reitman: Well, that’s great. I’m really happy to hear that.

One of the things I was curious about is I see how you're trying to close the gap to serve underrepresented groups. Do you have any specific things that you're most proud of or how you've been able to accomplish that or how you're addressing health disparities in this space?

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah, I think, like when I am asked to speak, when we’re talking on platforms, I make sure to bring that to the forefront. Right? Everybody fancies themselves knowledgeable about things. Meanwhile, they’re not really. The other day, some entrepreneur asks, why can’t AI do it? And I was like, well, all the data sets are only on white males and that’s not reflective of the general population. You are excluding race, gender. So how can AI do anything, that’s not a good data set. So, no, a bot can’t do it. AI is not the eternal answer, right? And he was just like, oh, okay. So I think it’s that when you are a thought leader, when you know the business, right, like, it’s your job and your duty to go out there and speak and tell the truth, right. Don’t say the things that you think people want to hear, tell the things that you think are really going to help and move the needle. And so I just make sure to lead with kindness, but, you know, there are a lot of disparities out there, and people deserve access. People shouldn’t be shamed because they don’t have as much as the other person or they choose to spend their money in a different way because that’s what’s most important to them. You need to meet people where they are. I think being a dietitian by trade and wanting to help people is who I am at my core, I think, is why I am focused on access and democratizing access to things like nutrition, better outcomes, et cetera.

So tell me a little bit about the success of the business, a little bit more about your organization.

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah, it’s really cool. In 21, we did $700,000 about right? If you add it up that way, in 22, we did $1.7. In 23, we did $3 million. We are at $5.5 million. We say that we’re going to do six and a half million this year, but we’ll do more than that. We had 4200 sessions last month. A quarter of those came from One Medical. We have 900 active referring physicians. We are doing it. And that I’m really proud. We’ve got 80 dietitians working for us. They’re all W2 employees. We standardize care. We’re supporting them. We’re paying for their licensing. We’re just helping elevate them as a profession. And so that feels really good, but it’s  crazy. I’m like, well, how many work here? 110!

Liz Reitman: I love it. This always excites me because it’s so hard to get to that next level. You know, I’ve run now two businesses, and I see it’s very easy to stay steady. The fact that you’re seeing this tremendous growth, you’re killing it. You guys have figured it out. I’m a member of One Medical, so, yeah, they’re the best. I always feel like any reference I get are amazing. So I have a lot of trust in that organization.

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah. We’re meeting with their Chief Network Officer, actually, next week to try to paper a deal with them, which is, really exciting. I think, honestly, Liz, the reason that it’s grown this way is because we’re just focused. We’re focused on patient care. Slow and steady, nothing flashy. Don’t spend money on things that don’t matter. And we just want to do good work. And I think if you stick to that, you’re not easily distracted. And you can get there and also, run your own race. Run your own race. It’s okay. You don’t need to make $100 million from your business. Your business can be good and profitable and something that you can be really proud of, and it doesn’t. You don’t need to, you know, $20 million in revenue. $3 million in revenue is a lot of money. You’re a sole proprietor, and you had $250,000 worth of profit last month. That’s great. These businesses that are over here, they’re like, oh, it’s a double unicorn. It’s like, okay, have they ever made that money? Have they ever made $2 billion? It’s a thing. People don’t understand the words, so they’re just like, oh, $2 billion. They’re worth $2 billion. Right. But they haven’t made that money.

Liz Reitman: Right.

Vanessa Rissetto: So it’s okay.

Liz Reitman: I work with in EO, and we have something called EO Accelerator. That’s for people that are under a million, that we try to help them get to a million. But so many times I’m ask, why the million dollar mark? What is that? It’s just silly. If you are enjoying what you’re doing, you’re bringing value, you’re pushing yourself…it’s okay that you’re not over a million. And then you look at how long Amazon took to turn a profit. I think Uber, they said, just started becoming profitable.

Vanessa Rissetto: No, no. Uber will never be profitable. It’s not profitable. It’s so ridiculous. So, yes, to your point, what’s the million dollars do you pay yourself? You have multiple employees. You give them 401k benefits. Do you give them health benefits? Do they get vacation? Yeah, a million dollars is cool because I guess you could say it, but that’s not a million dollars in your bank account because you’re paying payroll to people.

Liz Reitman: And then I hear these individuals that brag about how many employees they have, and I’m like, okay, but, what’s your profit margin? How much are you taking out? I don’t care that you say you have 40 employees. That’s not anything to me. And, in fact, that sounds very stressful at times.

Vanessa Rissetto: It is stressful. Let me tell you something. I have never been happier. Like, sorry, guys. I have never been happier than when I worked by myself or, when I was at Mount Sinai and I was just a cog in a wheel, and I had to see my patients, and I only interacted with my doctors, and I saw my patients, and I went home, and I didn’t have to worry about hurding the cats. That was great. That was awesome. You’ve got 100 employees. You got to make sure all those people are happy, because those people are the backbone of your company. And if they don’t do the work, the business doesn’t run. That is a different kind of job, and you’re the leader. So when all this stuff is breaking, it’s on your back. You’re the one that has to take the hit first. Not for the faint of heart, guys.

Liz Reitman: No, not at all. I’m always impressed with, like, the EO members that have businesses with no employees, yet they’re made, like, $5 million. I’m like, wait, how did you do that?

Vanessa Rissetto: 90% gross margin. Let me talk to them.

Exactly. So what do you think is, maybe one of your biggest learnings from building this business?

Vanessa Rissetto: I have learned that I am pretty resilient as a human being. I’ve also learned, actually, what I have interest in. I think this was just the stepping stone for the next thing. And I think the most meaningful work is, first of all, I’m an operator, and I know how to operate a very good business, so I can then get in the s**t with somebody and help them operate their business if they want that. So I would like to do that. Anybody wants to call me, I will. I’m happy to help you. Give me a call. I am also interested in raising a fund and deploying capital. A baby fund for a larger fund and give them deal flow and be like, this is a good. This is a good one. This is. This one. Maybe not, or whatever. I think that would be very fun to give money to people who are different, but, you know, no one’s taking a chance on them. Take a chance on somebody that people otherwise would not.

Liz Reitman: I love that. I mean, talk about becoming a dietitian to creating your own fund. What the heck?!

Vanessa Rissetto: Yeah, it’s a surreal circle. I don’t know, it’s like, whoa, did you need to do this in order to do that? But I think so. I think, you know, you had to operate a business, something really hard, something that no one had ever done before. So you could say, like, oh, yeah, actually, I know what I’m doing. I’m not afraid. And I can help you.

Liz Reitman: That’s really cool. I love that.

At Culina Health, we believe that everyone deserves affordable, quality nutrition care from a credentialed expert. We pair patients with registered dietitians for personalized, one-on-one virtual nutrition care that is science-based, inclusive, and culturally affirming. We offer non-judgmental, sustainable, and multilingual support in all specialities, and we honor all patient backgrounds.

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Liz Picarazzi, Founder and CEO of CITIBIN

Liz Reitman: Hello, everyone. I am here with Liz Piccarazzi as part of my founders in Focus series, which is so fun. I love, love having a female owner with us – and a Brooklyn based company. She’s the owner of CITIBIN, which designs and manufactures upscale trash enclosures. And you said lockers, Liz?

Liz Picarazzi: Package lockers. Package delivery lockers.

Liz Reitman: Awesome. And you’ve been in business for twelve years, which is incredible, amazing. As many people know, I have a lot of EO entrepreneur organization individuals that join me, and we’ve met through EO. So welcome.

Liz Picarazzi: Thank you, Liz.

One of the first things I was curious about is what the heck inspired you to create trash collector bins? I know I'm not putting it in a nice way, but it's such an interesting space and I would love to understand what the inspiration was.

Liz Picarazzi: Yeah, well, it’s a good question, because when I was a little girl, I definitely did not envision designing trash enclosures for a living. It actually only kind of occurred to me, you know, really, like only 12/13 years ago. But I used to have a handyman company in New York City called Checklist Home Services, and a lot of my clients had issues with trash, you know, putting trash cans in front of their nice homes, which rats were getting into. So checklists did custom carpentry. And so a very common request was for custom made trash enclosures. So that got me seeing I’m a marketer, too. Customer need, obvious customer need.

Liz Picarazzi: This is welcoming innovation into a space where if someone doesn’t want a rubber made shed and they want something that looks nice, there was an opportunity to create something that both functionally and aesthetic wise was really great. And so we started doing the custom enclosures, which then turned into mass manufacturing over a couple of years. The demand was such that doing the custom fabrication was not sustainable, and we moved into pre-fabricated modular design. And that then evolved into other products relating to outdoor storage, including packaged delivery lockers.

So I'm just curious, as you're designing this, obviously you have to test stuff out. Did you have clients that were giving you feedback? What was that process? I'm always curious of the iterative process because I'm in the design space, not necessarily working specifically with items like that. But, I'm just curious, how you tested it.

Liz Picarazzi: Well, I mean, it really was a blessing that I was in this sort of handyman company business because I had amazing clients that I had become close with. And so with the first few clients that asked for this, I said, you know, honestly, we haven’t done this before, but I’m willing to do this for you, like, at cost, in exchange for you providing feedback on, you know, the features, everything from how it looks to how it works. And so the first three or four trash enclosures were definitely experimenting with many different materials. That was a big thing because we wanted something that was going to be very durable for outdoor use. We used a lot of different materials. Our first few trash enclosures were actually not rat proof. We didn’t know how very important that feature was.

Liz Picarazzi: So that was something that really, we started adding, interior sheathing to make it rat proof. And being rat proof became part of our brand. It wasn’t part of the original design. And then we thought, in New York City, you really can’t have a trash enclosure that is not rat proof, because those rats, they can eat through plastic, they can often eat through metal. So that required a lot of iteration. And then sometimes we would have clients ask for things that we didn’t yet do. We didn’t used to do delivery lockers or mailboxes and now we also do those and storage boxes.

Liz Picarazzi: So the modular approach, which I often kind of compare to, like, a container store alpha system, where you get the components that you need for the needs that you have and the size of the space that you have. And now that’s really what we’ve evolved into, is sort of a plug and play prefab approach. But it all started with those original customers that were willing to take a chance on me and realize that their feedback was so valuable to me that I basically was willing to do the projects at a loss.

Liz Reitman: Liz, I love that. Like, it’s funny. One of my largest first clients was Barnes and Noble College, and they would ask me to do things that I’d never done. And I kind of feel like that’s at the core of an entrepreneur. I thought, I’ll figure it out. I don’t know how to do this, but I’m smart. I have good people in my world, and you also have to have that drive. I love how you pivoted, right? How you, took advantage. You saw a need from your other business, and then were able to make this explode. There’s so much news in New York about this rat czar who’s gonna get control. There is a lot of conversation about, you know, garbage in New York City, rightfully so.

So my first question is, do you know the rats czar. Have you met her? It's a her, right?

Liz Picarazzi: It is a her, yes. I think her name is Kathleen Carrado. I have actually not met her because I’ve been really working more with the sanitation department and then they collaborate with her. I probably should try to reach out to her, but I guess there’s a part of me that sees that some of the plans with sanitation for containerization were developed in conjunction with her, so it would make sense. We haven’t met yet.

Liz Reitman: Well, you know, it’s fun for me. When I’m walking around the city and I see your CITIBIN, I get so excited. I’m think to myself, I know the owner of that! And what’s also fun for me is that the Sanitation Department was my client a number of years ago. We worked with them on a campaign to promote composting in the city and we did a report for them.

So I guess one of my questions is— are you working with the city? And how is that looking? Because I know they’re taling about not putting garbage in bags anymore. I immediately thought this is going to be huge for you.

Liz Picarazzi: Yep, yep.

Liz Picarazzi: So the containerization effort over the last two years has been huge and very aggressive and definitely, you know, at least doubled my business, both with the city, with experimenting with residential trash containerization. So we were part of the original pilot for that. But then the area that kind of became our sweet spot was with business improvement districts. So there’s 76 business improvement districts in New York City and we’re in 25 of them now. So starting with Times Square, our bins are all over Times Square. You know, we’re near Lincoln center, we’re in Tribeca, we’re in Flatiron, and then we’re also moving into public parks and libraries. So public use enclosures that keep the trash that otherwise would be on the sidewalk in a bin. We primarily, at least in New York, are dealing with sort of almost like a corral.

Liz Picarazzi: So the business improvement districts who have sanitation people, like private sanitation people, they go all around the commercial corridor picking up all the trash bags and then they put them in the CITIBIN. And then DSNY comes and collects from there. So there definitely is really close collaboration with DSNY. We’ve gone through many applications for our business improvement districts with DSNY and with the Department of Transportation to get permits or the rights. They don’t call them permits, but it is really. You have to pass through this process that’s called clean curves to be able to put the containers in the street. And that’s the part that’s the most debatable in New York, because New Yorkers don’t want their trash or their parking spaces being taken away. So it’s sort of a trade off, like parking spot or rats.

Liz Picarazzi: Like, which one do you want? A lot of people actually will choose the rats because they want the parking spot. So it really depends on the perspective. They’re calling it now a trash revolution. The sanitation commissioner, Jessica Tisch, is. She’s a machine. I mean, I am so impressed with how she has attacked and analyzed all the trash in the city. They did a year long study just to study the trash and the various ways it could be containerized and coming up with a different approach for each type of trash. So when I first started getting into this, I didn’t really realize that commercial trash was different from residential trash, which is different from commercial restaurants.

Liz Picarazzi: And then you’ll get other categories, you know, compost, which if you worked on some of those efforts, you know about that. But they really have a plan for every type of trash. And by 2026, the goal is for every bag to be containerized. No more black bags on the sidewalks, which anyone would know- that’s going to curb the rat problem. Like, the rats are going to be packing. The rats are going to be pissed.

Liz Reitman: It’s interesting listening to you talk about the whole parking spot. I am that typical New Yorker that gets in her car and does the opposite side parking. But, you know, I think about this is almost comparative to the CITIbikes. And I remember I was pissed. There’s a whole slew of bikes right outside my apartment. We lost, like, eight parking spots. And then we just got used to it—it’s just part of our life, and it makes sense.

I'm wondering, how did you handle the growth? Because it sounds like, this has become such a hot topic, out of nowhere, at least to me. As somebody reading the New York Times or watching the news, I had a feeling it had to have impacted your business. So what do you do when you have this explosion?

Liz Picarazzi: Yeah, so our supply chain, like, our pace of ordering from our factory increased like crazy. Trying to get customers products as fast as the city wanted them was really a challenge because we’re kind of used to working on a cadence, but then to have a spike where not only was the new policy for clean curbs put forth, but the city was providing funding for it. So there was a budget for what they wanted. So it wasn’t like I needed to convince clients, you know, buy a CITIBIN. Cause at that point, I was still kind of the only game in town. We were absolutely right time, right place, but also right product.

Liz Picarazzi: So, yeah, it wasn’t entirely a surprise, because pre-pandemic, there were some articles in the New York Times about sanitation planning for a containerization effort. And I took note of that and thought, if this ever comes back, this initiative, basically, I’m going to pounce on it. And I did. Growing quickly. It was a big adjustment from having residential enclosures that are right in front of people’s homes to public enclosures that are on the street. So, you know, worrying, are they going to be tough enough if they get hit by a car? You know, we’re building with aluminum should we switch to steel? Which is tougher, even, like, the hardware on it, the opening hardware for, like, the latches and the locks, those were all built for residential use, and people are not beating on the residential enclosure.

Liz Picarazzi: So if you think about it, my first market was Park Slope, Brooklyn, primarily, you know, single family homes, where they come and they take their trash out maybe two, three times a week, whereas in the city, they’ve got these big, burly sanitation workers opening, slamming the doors, throwing the bags in, tons of garbage juice, especially in Times Square, being compacted, not by a solar compactor, we don’t have anything like that, but by the volume of the trash itself pushing down, and then all the garbage juice leaking out around. So one great growing pain I can say I had, and I’m kind of past it, but it was really scary as a business owner, was that the New York Post ran an article in the summer of 2022 about the garbage juice coming out of the trash enclosures in Times Square.

Liz Picarazzi: And they had a photo of a really disgusting looking CITIBIN. And I was quoted for the article thinking, I don’t know, maybe I can turn the thought around about it by appearing in the article. I gave them a photo, and then they did a hit piece with my picture in it, which has never happened to me before, and it was really devastating. But what it caused was some innovation around how we handled the garbage juice. I never, ever thought I would be this, an anthropologist looking at the trash juice, trying to figure it out, you know, even trying to tell Times Square, can you sweep around the trash enclosures more often so I don’t look bad, really.

Liz Picarazzi: So to answer your question on that, there needed to be a lot of very fast innovation to upgrade all of those components that needed to be really for public use, and particularly for primarily men working with them and men that are really clocked on the time they spend collecting the trash. So you know, if the city of New York is clocking, how much time do these guys spend tending to the trash? If you suddenly need to open a door where before the men were just picking the bags off the sidewalk, that adds time, which is a pressure on me as the manufacturer to make it faster. So we’ve done a lot of iteration, and it’s so much better.

Liz Picarazzi: But that, too, was something where I had the benefit of having client feedback, and they were very patient with me to make the iterations. That, at the time it was happening, was terrifying for me. You know, my reputation, my ego got really involved, and it forced me to innovate much faster than I’ve ever had to do before.

Wow. That's fascinating about the time involved and how you had to factor that in and I've never heard of trash juice. These are new terms! So we're talking about how men are a big part of this space, of this industry, right? In fact, if I think about the men that come and pick up the garbage in my neighborhood, I don't think I've ever seen a woman. I follow you on social media, you go to some trade shows and events to market your product. Do you see women in this space? Is this a challenge as a female?

Liz Picarazzi: Definitely is a challenge. there’s not a lot of women in waste. There actually is a trade association for women in waste, which is kind of cool. I don’t know, percentage wise, what we are, but based on the trade shows I go to, it’s very small. One thing I’ve noticed is that if I go to a trade show with a couple of my male employees, people that come to the booth, assume that I’m, like, a booth girl, that, you know, a lot of trade shows, they hire women who are at the booth, usually much younger women than me, who are wearing a lot less clothing than me. And so I guess I should have taken it as somewhat flattering. But if they come up to me and say, can I talk to the owner? I find that really offensive, that they wouldn’t assume that I’m the owner. Like, am I surprised? No, I’m not. But it happens a lot, and we find it kind of funny. You know, when someone comes up to my male employees at a trade show and says, can I talk to the owner? And they gesture to me, then there is sort of an incredulous, but also like, a, wow, good for her. Or there might be a little of… Well, a woman, she’s creative. She can come up with this, an assumption that maybe the functional side of it is not going to be one that I understand. But I think it helps me, and I do think there’s not been a lot of innovation in the space. And that has helped me a lot.

Liz Picarazzi: You know, it’s a challenge, and it’s one that I really like, because it’s been pretty easy at this point to distinguish our product from others, because some of the others are not modern. They don’t look good. They often don’t work well. So, yeah, I’m a woman in waste. I sometimes even use that as a hashtag.

Liz Reitman: Oh, my God, I love it. I mean, I know I’ve had that experience. My husband worked with me, and I just remember, here we are in New York City when I opened up a bank account, and the person helping us would only look at him, even though we already defined that I was the owner. And then when they referred to the assistant or the receptionist, she would look at me. And it’s kind of fascinating to me because still, in this day and age, there’s those assumptions or stereotypes. But I love the fact that you’ve got the form and function, like the beauty and the modernization, yet it’s super functional. And you’ve brought both of those in one.

Liz Picarazzi: Well, the other thing that happens with me being a woman is, I don’t know if you know this, but my husband Frank is my COO.

And so people will assume that we started the business together because oftentimes couples start together. That’s not the case. I had my business for eight years before I hired him, and he very much honors me as the founder. There’s no sort of power struggles, but he, too, sees that there is an assumption that we both have the name Picarazzi. Well, who’s in charge here? They’re going to assume it’s him and not me. And I kind of delight in that because it’s nice to surprise people.

Liz Reitman: Yeah, well, what’s that like? I mean, how is that working together? Are you guys talking about CITIBIN twenty four seven – at the dinner table – when you go out? I know, for me, my therapist said, stop talking about REITDESIGN at the dinner table. Your children don’t need to hear about your clients.

Liz Picarazzi: Yeah, no, we. We talk about it a lot. Last night I went to an EO event, and after the event, I actually went to a restaurant where I knew that they would be taking the trash out of the basement to put it, you know, on the curb in bins. And we’re doing a video about restaurant trash. And I was delighted to find, just surprised it wasn’t planned that the, whether you call it b roll, I don’t know what you call it, but I needed footage of a man taking tons of bags out of a basement and taking them to the curb and the physicality of that. So I come home and I’m immediately telling him about this great footage, the exact footage I wanted for the video that’s been in my head for about a year.

Liz Picarazzi: So for me, it’s like I have been waiting for this opportunity to get film of these men taking the trash out of the basement. And he was doing something else. He was unplugged, and he wasn’t very happy with that. So he brought it up with me this morning, like, couldn’t you take the hint? But then I was like, well, you know, baby, I have been talking about this footage that I want. It is really exciting. And then he had to say, you know, we do need to unplug more. But, you know, we work really well together. We have, as any couple, as any colleagues, issues. He’s not really an entrepreneur. He’s more of an operator. I’m the visionary. He’s the implementer, if you think in EOS terms.

Liz Picarazzi: And that plays out in different ways. He does all of the inventory planning, for example. So the ordering, which most of our money goes into inventory. We’re a product business. I’m going to say order more. We’re going to grow, order more, plan for success. And he’s going to say, well, this is basically our money. What if we’re gambling on this and something like the pandemic happens again and we’ve got all this inventory, he’s going to either try to put on the brakes or really he will be more conservative with it, which then, for me, I don’t love, because it often means that our clients wait. So we’re in a position like that right now where most clients are waiting twelve to 14 weeks to get their bins.

Liz Picarazzi: There are a lot of reasons, but a big part of it is due to his conservatism with ordering. And that is the thing that we probably, with work, we argue the most about.

Liz Reitman: But it sounds like it’s such a great balance. I know when I worked with my husband, I loved that he did everything I didn’t want to do or wasn’t good at. And I was so appreciative. He managed the back end of the office, helped with insurance. Like, all that is, la la to me, you know, being an entrepreneur and a creative. I was so appreciative and I saw so much value. So I think that’s wonderful that you guys have such different thinking. And of course, you’re not necessarily going to agree, but even if it wasn’t your husband and you had a different colleague, it’d be the same issues.

Liz Picarazzi: Well, and sometimes what will happen is that I’ll have an instinct on something that will mean I’m going to swing high on. He doesn’t swing high, and he’s not really ever going to swing high. And so if something happens where, like, we don’t order enough, there is a little bit of a feeling with me of he’s kind of learned his lesson because he also does sales. So if he’s got a client complaining about having to wait 14 weeks, he’s going to know. Well, if I had kind of listened to Liz and ordered more than this might not be happening. And then he’s kind of moved over more toward what I would say is preparing for success. In my bad moments, if we’re fighting about it, I’ll say you’re planning for failure. You’re not buying enough because you think we may fail.

As an entrepreneur, you don’t want anyone to think you’re going to fail. And I’ve swung high many times, and it’s worked, and I know it can work. I try not to be super impulsive, but that’s a difference we’re already going to have. And he compliments my skillset, like you say, crap with insurance and tariffs and anything like that. I can’t stand that stuff. And before I had someone working on it, I did a lot of it, or some of it I just neglected completely.

Yeah. Wow. Well, and it sounds like that's amazing that he's in sales. I love that. So then he really is hearing directly from the customer and, you know, obviously is going to start to maybe tweak certain things or try to find that middle road. Okay, my last question for you, I really appreciate this is just ahead, what do you have aspirations or goals for CITIBIN?

Liz Picarazzi: So I’m really excited for nationwide expansion, which we’ve already started. We’re in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Greensboro, and then a big pipeline of other cities. It’s not easy for a city to make a decision on something as big as this. So the sales cycle takes longer than a single family homeowner who just is like, hey, I want my bin next week. I’m going to pay for it, and you install it. So I’m really excited about that expansion and also some of the product development we’re doing around that. So beyond just like, the containerization, we’re also working on the corner litter basket and rethinking that. And, you know, there’s a main player in that space that really has a corner on the market. And I’ve been really excited that we’ve actually taken some business from them.

Liz Picarazzi: That was one of my goals this year, and it’s happening. And I know I sound really aggressive, but I love that. I love that our product is differentiated because we’re able to design this product based on what they’re not doing well, both with product and with service. And that’s really gratifying. And the expansion is fun because we get to go to other cities. We’ve had business in Aspen with bear resistant enclosures that we developed. And that means we traveled there a lot the last couple of years. Multiple times every season. We can go out there and ski, you know, expand the time a little bit. And working with a different market that has different needs for me, is a big part of being an entrepreneur.

You're a disruptor. I love it. I like the fact that you're able to kind of get in there and, it's not even take business from somebody else, but it's disrupting the waste space. Very inspirational, Liz! I'm so excited for you. I had no idea that you were actually in other cities. That's amazing. I really appreciate you being on.

Liz Picarazzi: Thank you. I’m really honored that you asked me. And it’s always great talking to another woman entrepreneur.

CITIBIN was created by serial entrepreneur Liz Picarazzi, who couldn’t find a durable and attractive enclosure for her own trash. She didn’t like the design or limited durability of plastic, wood, and metal trash enclosures on the market, so she created her own. CITIBIN became a neighborhood sensation, and what started as a pet project in the backyard is now a national brand that designs and manufactures outdoor storage solutions for trash, recycling, packages, strollers, bikes & more.

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and George Constantinou, CEO & CFO of Mil Gustos Hospitality Group

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Liz: Hi, everyone. I am here with my good friend, fellow entrepreneur, an amazing chef. Are you a chef?

George: No, a business owner with a really good palate.

Liz: Okay. Love that. George Constantinou.

George: Constantinou, yes.

Liz: Of the Mil Gustos Hospitality Group. And we had the honor at REIT to help him with his master brand of Mil Gustos Hospitality Group. And then, being a true successful entrepreneur, George pivoted during COVID and we helped him with some other sub brands underneath that we’ll talk about more. So welcome.

George: All right, thanks for having me, Liz.

What inspired you and your partner to kind of lean into the restaurant industry and specifically focusing on the cuisine that you guys offer?

George: Well, I guess I’ve had a long.

George: Period of time figuring out what I wanted to do. And somehow growing up as a child.

George: Restaurants always spoke to me.

George: They called me my mom. So that restaurant energy is in the greek blood, they say. Yes, that’s right. My mom would always tell the story of when she met my dad in English school. She migrated here from Costa Rica. My dad came here from Cyprus, and they met in New York at an english school.

George: And my mom said she had, like, men around the world trying to court her, and a Colombian guy, a guy from Asia, my dad, some other folks. And she’s like, she decided to go out with the greek guy because Greeks own restaurants, and then she’d be set.

Liz: I like that.

George: So sure enough, my dad came here with a skill set of being a tailor, and my dad just stayed being a tailor, which was like a cool old world craft. But he was always scared to take risks, so he never jumped into the restaurant world.

George: So my mom would always say, we’d better off if he owned a restaurant, scared to take risks or what have you.

George: So I was like, you know what? I’ll open up a restaurant one day. And it was always, like, in the back of my mind. And I actually went to school for music business and international marketing. I wanted to travel the world working for a record label.

George: I actually interned and had a gig at MTV for about four years. I moved to Japan, teaching English right out of college. I did a semester at sea where I lived on a cruise ship and traveled for about five months to ten different countries. So I really was, like a world traveler by, like, 2021.

George: And I just really enjoyed traveling. And then when I came back, I had to figure out I got the travel bug out of my system. I’m like, okay, what am I going to work on?

George: And it was either going to be a school teacher or work in the restaurant world. And actually, in the same week, I was offered a job with the New York City department of Ed, being part of their teaching fellows, where you get a job working at a school, but the New York City department of Ed. Pays for your master’s.

George: Like, at the time, it was, hey.

George: You know, what a great program.

George: And at the same time, I was offered a general manager position of pretty much my second restaurant job. The owner took a liking to me, and within a month, I went from server to bartender to shift leader, and he’s like, I want to make you my general manager. So I had both offers, and this would have been spring of, like, 2001. And I said, effort. I’m going to stay in the restaurant world because it just felt better. And then fast forward. I met my business partner, my ex husband, my business partner also in 2001. And actually, when we started dating, he’s like, I don’t want to hear about restaurants. I just want to date you for you. I don’t want to date someone that owns a restaurant because it’s such a tough business.

George: We won’t spend time together.

George: And at some point, I told him I’m going to open up a restaurant.

George: And he was like, all right, I either need to get on board or this is not going to work.

George: So him and I decided to take some business courses together, some cooking classes together, and his mom is colombian, and his dad is palestinian. He was born in Bogota, Colombia. And actually, when I was starting the idea of the restaurant taking notes, we actually took a trip to Colombia. I would say it was probably January of 2002, and it really just sparked my interest for latin food, colombian food. And since both our mothers are of latino descent, we really wanted to make our first restaurant focusing on the foods of Colombia. And so, you know, fast forward. We were in Colombia together, and I had my book, and I would try all this amazing food, and I would.

George: Just take notes and start creating a menu. And then pretty much we took this small business course called workshop in business opportunities, wibo wibo.org. And they’re still around, and it’s basically like a 16 week crash course to create a business plan.

George: And we did that deep in Bedstyle, Brooklyn was where our specific class was. Snow, rain, cold weather. I showed up every week. I was hungry. And after 16 weeks, Faree and I were the class speakers for our graduation at Cooper Union. And we even set up a booth selling food that were going to sell in the restaurant. We made a speech, and it just was like the start of the first start of our small business chapter. And Coin serendipitously, the Brooklyn Business library announced its first ever business plan competition sponsored by Citibank. And this was in the summer of 2003. So sure enough, we entered and we took home first place.

Liz: Oh, my God.

George: So in the winter end of 2003, we won $10,000 in cash and, like $10,000 of in kind services and that included organization classes that included logo help, that included just financial help. So it was pretty cool. But then we learned the hard way that even though we won the best business plan for that year, no bank wanted to give us money. So that started the road of just us really hitting the pavement and not giving up on our dream.

Liz: Wow, so actually that’s really interesting because that’s very topical right now about what’s going on with getting investors VC backing as well as banks. Right? I know that’s a conversation in our entrepreneurial space a lot.

How did you fund your first restaurant?

George: Well, I was told back then, I don’t know if it’s still the case, you get money for your business from the three F’s, family, friends, and fools. So I remember we always laughed at that. And sure enough, I’m very savvy. So back then, I had some money that I was saving up from my manager bartending days.

George: Farid was saving up money there when I realized it was going to be hard applying for these credit know and taking cash advances against them. And actually, I actually started to take some adult continuing education classes at NYU. And back then, this is still early 2000s before that 2008 crash, Sally May was able to give us both loans for masters or continuing education. So what I would do is enroll for classes, submit it to Sally May, get the funds, drop out of the classes, and then put that towards the business. It was risky, but I would say between the credit cards know, somewhat student loans for continuing education savings, we just kind of bootstrapped it to put it together. Also, we won this business plan competition. So here we are with this business plan, thinking we’re hot s-t. We’re going to actually get a loan. So easy, even Citibank wouldn’t give us a loan.

George: They’re like, we sponsor the competition. You won, but unfortunately, we can’t sponsor restaurants because nine out of ten restaurants fail, they say. So we’re like, what? We were crushed, but then the next day, we’re like, forget this.

George: So went to so many banks, and actually, back then, we actually had a blog where we posted about 15 bank loan rejections, whether it was Chase, HSBC, Citibank, even the local community banks, you name it. And someone actually, believe it or not, someone that was designing our logo at the time, part of the inkind services was like, hey, you should go visit my friend in HSBC in Tribeca. And we’re like, what? And we’re like, well. In Brooklyn Heights rejected us.

George: Why would that one, he’s like, just go see them. So anyway, we met with this banker. His name was Warren. We walk know, african american guy in like, a tight suit, sitting down, very professional, and we walk know with our street clothes, and he’s like, tell me your story.

George: What do you want to do?

George: Why is this important to you? And we give our spiel that we’ve given every time. This is a tribute to our mom. There’s not really any cool latin restaurants that have a good vibe, good music, and he’s like, okay, I have one question.

George: And we’re like, what?

George: He’s like, are you going to serve frozen margaritas at your restaurant? And we’re like, we’re looking at each other, and we didn’t plan because it was going to be a Colombian restaurant, and back then, margaritas were very Mexican and we wanted to focus on mojitos.

George: So I’m like, okay, I know where he’s going. I said, yeah.

Liz: Oh, my God.

George: Going to do this.

George: He’s like, excellent. And then he breaks character. And he’s like, because us gay motherf-ers love frozen margaritas. Like, snapping his fingers. We’re like, yeah. We’re like, are we in the twilight zone? Are we, like, in the entrepreneurial twilight zone?

George: Like, I’m waiting camera something to jump out.

George: And he’s like, well, listen, I like you guys. I see your passion. I’m going to say you’ve been in business three years. I’m going to do XYZ and give me 45 minutes. So, no joke, were walking around Tribeca looking for something to eat, and we get a phone call. He’s like, I got you $100,000 come back tomorrow.

George: We were like, floors like jaws on the floor. We went the next day, got the money, and I immediately transferred it back to my account, Chase, because they were offering like, 3%, whereas HSBC was offering 1%. So he called me.

George: He’s like, wait a second. What happened to the money? I said, actually, chase is offering 3%, and you’re only offering 1%?

George: He’s like, you’re a smart one. Hung up the phone.

Liz: I love that.

George: So it was like, by then, we’re bootstrapping and between the credit card student loans.

George: We put together maybe $450,000 in money. And sure enough, then came the hard part of finding a space. And that was just as challenging because landlords were like, you have no history. You’ve managed a restaurant before, but you have no history. And at the time, this was like, right? A few years after September 11, Brooklyn restaurant scene was building and getting hot because folks, rather than come from Brooklyn or Queens to Manhattan, they were sticking around Brooklyn, not crossing Manhattan Bridge.

George: So you started seeing a lot of Manhattan restaurant tours coming to Brooklyn. So I will never forget, we meet landlords. We headed off, and they’re like, oh, but sure enough, things happen for a reason. I really believe that I was really anxious, and I was like, oh, my gosh, why?

George: I just want to fast forward to opening my restaurant.

George: But a lot of times the beauty is in that rejection. And eventually the right space came along in Park Slope, Brooklyn, 141 5th Avenue, which actually is where Bogota Bistro is now.

George: We’re celebrating 19 years in business.

George: Literally two blocks away from where Farid grew up. In the 70s in Park Slope, that neighborhood and that area. Special meaning to him.

George: And it just was the right timing, the right the world, universe. Whoever was behind, just waiting that space was waiting for us.

George: And it was an office space, and we turned it around. We got the lease February 2005, and we opened up July of 2005. So that was record, like, brave and what was crazy. So here we are. We have this restaurant. We’re ready to open. But at the time, my Chinatown acupuncturist, I was telling her, I’m opening a business. And she whipped out her chinese numerology book, and she’s like, you have to open up your business on June 18 or June 25 or July 5. And I was like, well, I don’t think we’re going to make the 18th. We’re cutting it closed. So were shooting for the end of June, and we missed that. So she’s like, open it July 5. It has to be open by 11:00 a.m. But it’s okay.

George: You can open the doors for 1 hour, eleven to twelve, but you can close. Because I was like, we’re not going to open up for lunch. We’re going to open up for dinner. And she’s like, just open up the doors from eleven to twelve. The cash register has to face the door. It has to face this direction.

George: And it was crazy. And sure enough, went with it. My partner was on board, and we did that. And no joke, our opening night.

George:  We had like 200 people waiting to come in. And we didn’t know what. I don’t know if I can curse and stuff, but we didn’t know what the f-k were doing. We’re so busy in planning this business and opening the doors that we didn’t think of like, oh, my God, what’s going to happen when we actually open. The doors and have to deal with this stuff?

George: So I remember we had 200 people waiting, and we messed up that whole first night. Food was taking forever, drinks were taking forever.

George: We had not really had that many dry runs.

George: Something I learned from that is actually open quietly and then make announcement once you’re established, because a lot of people are finicky, and they give you one chance. So I remember this is the true amazing opportunity for any entrepreneurs.

It's your business. If something goes wrong, you can sit down at the end of the night and make a plan and say, this is how I'm going to change it, effective immediately.

George: So that was happening a lot in the first few days and sure enough, were a hit.

George: People wanted to know. We had, like, Rosie Perez came, Jimmy Smith’s came at the time, like that. Latino royalty. We were like, the New York Times dubbed us, like the hottest colombian restaurant in a white neighborhood, Parkslow, Brooklyn Heights, which is where all the colombian restaurants were. And at the time, I think were one of two colombian restaurants in Brooklyn, of all Brooklyn. And it just was like such an amazing story. Know, I was involved in the drink menu, the food menu. I was in the kitchen, expedite here.

George: And there, chopping onions, washing dishes, waiting tables. That’s basically, when they say an entrepreneur. Is basically, what is it?

George: Bottle washer, garbage collector, everything.

George: You did every job in the beginning.

George: Interesting. And it’s interesting when it’s your baby, you protect it so much. It’s like, I can’t trust anyone with this. That’s the initial thing.

George: And then after, I’d say five, six years, we started getting managers.

George: Instead of us doing everything 24/7 let’s get some managers in here so we.

George: Can actually, instead of working in your business, you can work on your business, right?

Liz: Wow, this is so fun for me. I don’t think I knew any of this. So this is incredible.

So tell us, everybody out there that's listening, how many restaurants you have, what the focus is, what the cuisine or the ethnicity and where they're located?

George: Sure. So your restaurant number one is Bogota Latin Bistro. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been open 19 years. We’re celebrating our 19 year anniversary this year.

George: That is 140 seat restaurant located at 141 5th Avenue, right up the block from Barclay center. That focuses on Colombian food, pan Latin food and drinks. Specialty cocktails are mojitos, margaritas, sangritas, and the dishes we have Arroz con Pollo, fried red snapper with coconut rice and bundeja paisa, which is like a skirt steak dish with pork chichero and etcetera. And we have empanadas, fresh empanadas and fresh made arepas there.

George: Then we waited ten years, till 2000 and to open our, and that’s meaty, modern Mexican. And that is actually across the street from Bogota Bistro. And that restaurant is actually nine years old. And that is focusing on, I guess.

George: Our Brooklyn. Authentic tacos.

George: We have great margaritas, spicy margaritas there, and that one does pretty well.

George: And then our third restaurant, so we waited ten years in.

Liz: The second one.

George: Is about 80 seats.

Liz: I didn’t realize they were so large.

George: Yeah.

Liz: But now that you’re saying

George: Yeah.

George: So Bogota has, like, five different dining areas, and meeting has, like, three different dining areas. And after meeting, I moved to the family. We had kids in 2011.

George: We decided in 2015 to move to Jersey to a house with that, I guess, suburban chase, that suburban dream. The house with backyard, a pool and a dog, and two car garage. Yada, yada.

George: And so an opportunity came up to buy a failing business in town at a really cheap price. And originally, my thinking was, Jersey is personal life, no business, and keep the businesses in Brooklyn.

George: But this was such a steal. And the food landscape in Jersey was.

George: Know, there was no good offerings.

George: It was, know, just generic pizza, italian, and chinese food I thought, you know, a meaty.

George: There would do well. So we opened up our second miti miti. And that one’s called mitimiti, latin street food. And we opened that in 2018 and that was an interesting chapter business.

George: I didn’t close the doors. I kept all the employees, and literally from one day became my business. I was selling burgers and tacos, and I was adding a new taco every day and taking a burger or chicken sandwich off the menu every day to eventually it was going to be a three month process.

George: And after three weeks, I’m like, no, let’s just go full Mexican.

George: Enough of these burgers. I’m not in the burger business.

George: Even though the burgers were good and the chicken sandwiches were good, but I’m like, I’m in the taco business.

George: And that was another one that did well right away. People were thirsty and hungry.

George: For good latin food there. So then while that was happening, I was in construction with our fourth restaurant, Medusa the Greek, and that one opened up end of December 2019. So, sure enough, went from ten years to opening our second restaurant, three years to opening our third, and one year to open our fourth. So you figure we kind of, like, perfected the science. And then, of course, COVID happened, and it was exhausting. We never closed any restaurant down. We kept it open. We had about 150 employees at the time combined, and we had to terminate 110 employees in one day. We needed to do that because that way they could apply for government unemployment and other government perks. But I remember laying all these people off.

Liz: And we told them, listen, we’re laying you off, but we should be back.

George: In two weeks, because back then, it was like, oh, yeah, two weeks.

George: We’re, you know, of course, two weeks turned, know, four months.

George: You know, were focusing on just pickup and delivery. And then at the end of June, New York City was allowed to do outdoor dining. And if you can recall, the whole rest of the country was lax. But for some reason, New York City was targeted. We had really strict indoor dining restrictions. Okay, it was one thing. Yes, we’re all going through the pandemic. We’ll adjust accordingly.

George: Everyone’s going through it. The government’s helping businesses out, which is great.

George: One thing I take pride in, restaurants have a history of being a cash business, hiding whatever. I did everything by the book.

George: I pay everyone by check.

George: I did everything by the book. So when COVID came around and I could apply for these programs, it benefited me that I did everything by the book because I had everything to show for.

George: So PPP helped. Second round of PPP helped. Opening indoor dining to New York was limited to 25%. Capacity was okay. Outdoor dining took off in the summer, and people were itching to come back. Business was great. Labor numbers were down because it was hard to find staff. But then the thing that really killed us in New York City was they shut down indoor dining December of 2020 because some numbers started to spike, even though they were spiking everywhere. But for some reason, New York City got shut down. But you could hop over to Westchester or Long island, and you still had 50% indoor dining, which made no sense.

George: So that was almost worse blow than the initial COVID blow, because here we are. Got new staff. We finally trained them, and then we had to terminate them only for two months later to open up again. No one wanted to work in a restaurant with all this back and forth. People found other jobs, or they moved out of the city.

George: So COVID was just getting used to it, pivoting again, getting used to it, and times four businesses. It was very stressful. So as things started to open up, I came up with the idea of, let’s do some ghost kitchens. Let’s use our existing restaurant kitchens and serve a second menu through the delivery app. So we worked with you to come up with logos for our three ghost kitchens, which was a lot of fun. And the ghost kitchens were also ways for us to test out new concepts.

Liz: Yeah.

George: So we did the ghost kitchens for about two years, and they’re still kind of happening. But then to open up one of the ghost kitchens was dirty birdie wings. And we’re actually opening a soul food restaurant, dirty birdie chicken.

George: The name is dirty birdie something, definitely, but we’re still finalizing that. But that’s actually, we started construction about a year ago. That’s taking. What’s the irony of it is now that I’m a successful entrepreneur, I have these businesses, the SBA. We’re taking forever to get a loan.

George: Which is delaying construction and then while that’s going on in construction, another opportunity in Jersey presented itself to buy another food business. In this case, it was a pizzeria business for a good price.

George: So I’m opening my second Medusa in New Jersey. So ideally, I want to have my little empire of four food concepts in Brooklyn, and I want to replicate that. And then ideally, this will be 2024. We’re going to open up two restaurants in one year. That’s a lot. And on top of that, I’m recently divorced about a year and a half ago.

George: Going through that, raising to 12 year olds, going through that, and just at 48, figuring out next steps in my life as a dad, as a single person dating again, or I should say not.

George: As a single person, but as a divorced person dating again, and also being an entrepreneur in this new.

Liz: This is why you and I connect, because I can say yes to all of those things as. And like, I love sharing our experiences of this chapter two, as I call it, right? Having children, but being divorced, and I mean, honestly, George, I’m so amazed. I forgot the restrictions to New York City during COVID and the amount of pivoting and what you’ve been able to do and continue to like, my experience with you is you’re pretty steady in your like, I don’t see you losing it or losing your temper. And definitely, I know restaurant business. I mean, you’ve catered events in my home, and things can get challenging. Things break in my house. You’ve got people with dietary restrictions.

What did you do for your self care, for yourself, especially during COVID and through all of these experience?

George: I think self care a big thing is I’ve always been into sports. I picked up tennis during COVID Right now, I’m playing tennis, like, three times a week. I’m working out with a trainer twice a week. Another thing is music. I’ve always been a lover of music, and I love being in my car and blasting the music to 100 and to me, I get my primal scream out.

George: I love alternative music, like goth music on Nine Inch Nails. And I felt like that’s allowed me to. And I think even being a dad having fun, I find having children very healing because I get to give my kids the things that I was missing as a child, and I get to see myself in the role of parent.

George: And be a different parent that my mom and dad and listen, no one gets a handbook.

George: A rulebook like you do in being an entrepreneur, but in being a parent.

George: And listen, your parents do the best that they can because of what they were given and it’s so easy to be like.

George: Well, I feel short changed, and I didn’t get XYZ. And for me, I’m like, you know what?

George: Let me just focus that energy on my kids. And listen, life is tough. It’s not always peachy keen.

George: It’s not always what you see on everyone’s social media page. There’s a lot of ups and know and there’s always going to be good times, too.

George: And I feel like that’s why life is beautiful.

And I'm an optimistic like that. And maybe I'm a true product of immigration. Love story. Two immigrants coming to this country, chasing the dream and trying to better their life for their kids. And my mom and dad are the only ones from their family that came here.

George: And I felt like it’s up know to make sure that their travels know what they suffered. I mean, listen, my mom’s from Costa Rica, my dad is Greek, and there.

George: Was a lot of racism against us and white island, and people thought I was African American. They would say, go back to Puerto Rico. They would say all these hateful things.

George: And early on, I was like, I didn’t get it.

George: And I know people have gotten a lot worse hate than I have, but for me, it was just one of those, like, stay the course.

Liz: Those experiences definitely shape you as well.

George: I think so, yeah. And I wouldn’t change anything. And now my challenge. I know we’re talking about business stuff, but my challenge as a parent is, am I spoiling the hell out of my kids? I got to make sure, okay, I’m not overcompensated for what I didn’t have.

Liz: Now, I’m assuming when you were cobbling together money to launch these businesses, you’re in a very different position now.

George: Yeah.

Liz: And did you ever keep in touch with that HBS? Sorry.

George: Yes. His name was Warren, and he ended up becoming our mortgage broker for our first home in Brooklyn in 2008. And then he actually attended our baby shower in 2011, and he brought a bunch of pampers, and he was like, crying because he’s like, never in my lifetime when I think of two gay guys having kids.

George: And then he actually was the mortgage broker for our home in South Orange, New Jersey. And then, Liz, I got to tell you, he died literally, like, a week after he approved our mortgage. He was our angel. He was like our entrepreneurial angel, our biggest cheerleader. And then I was so devastated when he died. We even went to his wedding, actually, with our crying babies. And I was like, I don’t want to ruin your weeding with these crying babies.

George: Like, no, you have to be there. I want them to cry.

George: Let them ruin it. He was such a positive, and I really viewed him as an entrepreneurial angel put in our path to help us.

George: And I still think of him.

George: I still think of him often.

George: All you need is that one person  to give you that break.

George: And if you give up, and this is my message to all entrepreneurs, don’t F, and give up.

George: If you give up, you wouldn’t have experienced that miracle. And I can’t tell you, there were so many naysayers. Oh, my brother tried to open up a restaurant, failed, or my family member did this, and they failed. You shouldn’t do this. And I’m thinking, like, wait.

George: So much for support. Even my parents, who benefited from my success, but they were nervous and, don’t do it. It’s such a taxing industry, and we’re never going to see you again. And I could easily, listen, there’s the stereotype of the greek restaurant owner that’s in the diner 24/7 missing out on his family, getting older, this and that. But you have to eventually change the script and work smarter. And to me, I had to let a lot of things go.

George: Do I want to micromanage and 100% be in my business all the time and run it the best I can, but miss out on life, or do I give up some control and, okay. I can’t be that bad.

George: Empower people, teach people to the standards I want and enjoy my life. And I think that’s I’m in a good place right now for that. Yeah.

George: And I think that aids my calmness. Don’t get me wrong. If someone put, listen, I’m an Aquarius, too. I’m like a dreamer believer.I believe the best in everyone, but I can lose my temper sometimes. But at the end of the day, what is it worth?

George: Everything is going to be fine. The customer that doesn’t like your steak or the flood in your kitchen from a bad rainstorm, as long as no one’s died.

Liz: I always say that, like, when I have somebody get upset with our design or there’s a typo, I’m like, we’re not doctors. We didn’t cut the wrong artery. Put things in perspective here. But I also feel like since I’ve known you have the same team members, your staff stays. And so I think that’s also a testament to you. Right. Even just listening how you let them go during COVID but you knew because they would get the benefits of the government perks. I just love that thinking, because a lot of people talk about the challenges of employees, how that can be the bane of their existence. And it seems like you really have a good balance.

George: Yeah. And I’ll tell you, my first management job, I was awful because I was tired.

George: I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t comfortable with that position. But over time, you realize, just be yourself. If I’m a nice guy, I’ll be a nice boss.

George: And I’m in the power to be a boss, so I don’t want people to remember me to be a dick.

George: And actually, in fact, one of my team members, one of my key employees that left a few months ago, I’m having dinner with him tonight. So we stayed in touch.

George: And I have had employees that have been with me. And actually, I look back, and it’s a shame because of COVID because at the time, I had employees with me 10-15 years.

Liz: Wow.

George: And had it not been for COVID. I’m sure a lot of them would.have still been with me. And I look back, and I have two employees from opening day of Bogota that have been with me 19 years.

George: One of them is my pastry chef, and one of them is a chef at one of the restaurants.

George: Listen, in this day and age, from the employer and employee side, you’re taught to have no allegiance, no loyalty.

George: The best way to make more money is go from job to job.

George: And I think we always have a saying, I guess, in HR, if someone leaves us, sometimes they come back six months or two years later, like, okay, yeah, can I get my job back?  Or do you have any?

George: Because they like the company culture that we’re about.

George: Listen, we’re not perfect, but I just want to run the business the way I feel is right.

I love that. Okay, so my last question for you is, have you used any recipes from your mom's for restaurant?

George: Yeah, of course. Well, my mom’s “Arroz con Pollo”, which my mom.

George: How do I say this? My mom’s a bit of a narcissist. Every time she had an opportunity, she would bring her Arroz con Pollo and she’d walk into the room like the queen and accolades, but I’m not going to lie, her Arroz con Pollo was bomb was amazing, and everyone to this day, and my mom came to the restaurant and taught the cooks how to make it, and she still will criticize.

George: It’s not like, mom, you made a Arroz con Pollo for 20-30 people. We’re making Arroz con Pollo for, like, 500 people.

Liz: Yeah.

Liz: But the thing is growing up with two diverse parents with different international backgrounds really shaped my palate. Like, my mom’s a great cook, and my dad’s a great cook.

George: And my Mom, I guess I didn’t realize this of her, but she was a very critical eater. I don’t know, that had no seasoning. And when I look back, but, yeah, so I do have a lot of.

George: The recipes that we grew up, and what was great is growing up in this country, especially in the 80s, my mom’s friends were like, the United nations of Latin America. We’d be going to parties, and I’d be trying this Peruvians person, their ceviche.

George: This mexican person’s guacamole. I mean, I remember in the 80s when tortilla chips and guacamole were not a thing. It was exotic. I remember eating calamari in 1984. That wasn’t a thing.

Liz: Wow.

George: So it’s just interesting, all these tastes that eventually became things that changed and I just really, between my dad’s greek friends and my mom’s latin friends from all over, it was just, I loved going to these parties and trying all these new foods. That’s cool.

Liz: That’s cool. Well, George, I could keep going with you for way more time. This is like, such a. I mean, I can personally say that I’ve eaten at your restaurants, and they are spectacular great locations. I haven’t gone to New Jersey because I’m a New Yorker, but we all venture out there at some point. But I mean, just your locations. I love how you brought this ethnic food where you saw a whole, where it wasn’t really being offered in these different locations. How you treat people, how you’ve pivoted during everything, and even just your conversations about the joy of raising children. I just think you’re a beautiful soul and you’re a dear friend, and it was so much fun helping you design different identities, logos. You always brought such interesting feedback to the table and what you were looking for, it was never traditional.

Liz: You let your team have a voice in the whole process, which also made it fun. So I just want to thank you so much for being here.

George: Sure, yeah. Thanks for having me. And it’s like sometimes I used to always love giving interviews and talking about business, and it’s like you forget sometimes you’re so caught up in your business and now even just talking, I’m like, wait a second. I’ve been around 19 years.

George: I was just asked to be a keynote speaker, and I’m like, oh, my God, do I really want to speak?

Liz: What?

George: The SBA is having some gap. They asked me to be a keynote speaker, and I’m like, I haven’t decided yet, but I used to love giving speeches, but I feel like I’m so out of practice.

Liz: You can do it. I’ll help you, I can do graphics behind you. Oh, my gosh.

Liz: Well, thank you, George.

George: Thanks.

George: Look at my tan, right? It’s going to go away soon.

Liz: So impressive.

Mil Gustos Hospitality Group is a LGBTQIA+ and minority-owned Restaurant Group operating four individually unique restaurants in the New York metropolitan area – three within a block of each other on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, and one in South Orange, New Jersey.

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Cheryl Gentry, Founder & CEO of Glow Global Events

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This month’s Founders in Focus series features Cheryl Gentry, founder and CEO of Glow Global Events. From celebrity galas to worthy nonprofits, Cheryl shares how she cultivated a multi-award-winning events company. They discuss female entrepreneurship as well as Cheryl’s unique experiences as a Black business woman. We learn her insights on Black History Month and the pride she enjoys from her own success at building a legacy.

Liz Reitman: Hi, everyone. This is Liz from REIT Design. I’m really excited as part of our founders in Focus series to introduce the impressive Cheryl Gentry, who is the founder and CEO of Glow Global Events. What makes me excited about this conversation is not only are we friends, but I think we met like 15 years.

Cheryl Gentry: I feel like it was longer than that.

Liz Reitman: We were a part of a different networking group; then, our paths crossed again. And Cheryl has since joined EO, entrepreneur organization, which I’ve talked a lot about. I’ve watched the trajectory of your business and actually got to go to your 25th anniversary party, which was beyond impressive, and it just filled my soul. So, thank you for being here.

Cheryl: Thank you for having me.

Cheryl: And you know what? It doesn’t feel like it’s even been 25 years. When you do something that you love, it really feels like I just founded the organization last year and I have a really great team to make sure that we get to the next 25 years. But event management, luckily, is fun. I’m passionate about it, but also [about] being a leader. And I’m an advocate for entrepreneurship.

Liz: Wow. That’s very inspiring. Having had REIT for 27 years, I’d say, I felt the 27 years. So, I love that perspective. And I think for me, what’s been challenging is how much I’ve had to pivot over the years in terms of—I’m such a dinosaur [in] that I came from the world of before there were computers, when email was emerging.

Tell me about what you've seen in your industry and how you pivoted, because there has to have been similar experiences.

Cheryl: Absolutely. When we started, it was Glow Media and Marketing, which you mentioned earlier before we started talking. Then, we did PR and media relations and marketing. It was perfect timing because I was talking to a friend and I was just getting frustrated with PR. She attended this conference, which was the World Diversity Leadership Summit, and she said, you have to plan this event.

Cheryl: We always had a level of events under our belt. And she was like, I went to this conference, it was awful. You need to plan it. She introduced me to the CEO. He was like, I love it. You have to come plan our event. And we planned that event. We did his events for years, won several awards doing those events. That kind of catapulted us into conference management, which I really loved. And then there were a lot of his sponsors that were doing galas, and they had recipients of some nonprofit organizations. And, so, we started doing galas for a lot of nonprofit organizations.

Cheryl: We used to do research about what actors or actresses had projects that were coming out. Now, everybody wants an influencer at their event. And so, just having the resiliency to understand the market. I’ve always been the type of person, and expect my team, to stay in the trenches and read publications about industry trends and be part of trade organizations and conversations where you could see the change and the pivot and what’s new.

Cheryl: Last year, we decided to change our project management platform because a few of our clients [were] ready to retool. And that keeps you in the forefront and it keeps you lasting. We are always ready to retool and make sure we are listening to our clients and what they need—and coming back bigger and better, even 25 years later. We’re never stuck in our ways. I’m going to listen to my team. And I think that’s what kept me resilient and successful all these years.

That's amazing because that's hard for some people. They get very stuck, “Well, this is working,” or, “This is the way.” And I'm thinking the biggest retooling or reevaluation had to have been the impact of COVID on your industry.

Cheryl: Yeah, it was so interesting. I’ve always been an advocate for entrepreneurship. I think New York went on pause, like March 20. The 21st, I woke up and got emotional about COVID because I did lose a few people, but that ended up being the best time for us. I sent an email out through a couple of Facebook groups and said, let’s just jump on a call with a bunch of event planners. I was like, how can we help each other? I was able to pull together this community. 

Cheryl: We always produced live stream events anyway, so we had the technology to do that. But I got off of that Zoom call, and people were like, I don’t do this. Do you want to talk to my client? I’m ready to retire. I don’t want to do this anymore. I probably walked away with six new pieces of business. That gave me the confidence to go to all my clients, especially the nonprofit organizations, and say, we need to continue to engage your donors, and you should have a virtual event, and here is how it looks.

Cheryl: We talked to all the tech teams and said, this is what we’re looking for. This is what we want to do. And doing those virtual events was really like producing a TV show.

Cheryl: We jumped up very quickly and were able to offer that technology to our clients. Over the COVID year and a half, we produced 200 virtual events. All our clients jumped on board. We were picking up clients because everybody wanted to engage virtually, and so every event looked different. We did so well, we were [one of] Inc.’s Fastest Growing Companies in America.

Liz: What I always find interesting is this idea of not talking to people in your industry and having this need to be competitive. There’s enough work out there that I learn the most from people who do what I do. I like to share my information. So, I love the fact that you leaned into your community and then, in the end, you got business from it. I also know, being female, people sometimes feel like women don’t support women or we get this stereotypical reputation of cattiness. Talk to me about just being a female entrepreneur and what your experience has been in that respect.

Cheryl: I haven’t felt any of that cattiness. Luckily, I have had women mentors over the years. I mentor young women by being on the board of Nifty. I’m sure somewhere along the way there was some cattiness, but I’m also very positive. I do forget the trials and tribulations very easily.

Were there other challenges you think you experienced just because you are female?

Cheryl: No, I don’t think so. Like I said, I don’t remember the wounds. It was when Judge Ketanji Brown was nominated, and she was talking about her experience. That’s what I went through as a Black woman. And I identified so much with what she said that it was kind of like an aha moment. Like, you fight through, you grind through, and you overcome, and you keep moving. But it wasn’t until she articulated, and I saw how she was treated at that hearing, that I was just like, sometimes people don’t take my advice. You hire me, and then I have to battle you with what a best practice is.

It's Black History Month in February. I'm wondering, is there any relevance [to you]? Does this holiday or this month mean something different to you?

Cheryl: It’s really identified as a celebration of the milestones that we have pushed past since this country was a different country years ago. I am really proud of that. We are still fighting through people’s mentality who don’t want to see me as a Black woman walking down the street or any Black person to be successful. And we still have opposition to that. So, when you think about a celebration, it’s not necessarily for anyone else but us to celebrate each other.

Cheryl: It’s to really understand the contributions we’ve made in this country. The street layout in Washington, DC. Like, that was a Black man and Madam C. J. Walker, who was the first Black woman millionaire. It’s sad because I do work with a lot of young kids, and they don’t know a lot of Black history. They’re not learning that. There’s so much history that is just being forgotten.

Cheryl: I do think you have to know where you come from, who you come from, and stand and be proud in that we are working with a great organization. Carnegie Hall is in support of Black History Month. We’re doing a big event at Carnegie Hall with Governor Wes Moore. And Robert Smith is on a panel. And there are some performances. And we are on the stage of Carnegie Hall [which] means so much. And so Black History Month is a celebration for me.

Do you think there are other changes you'd like to see in your industry to help promote more inclusivity and equity?

Cheryl: Sometimes when I respond to RFPs, people are like, we didn’t know a Black agency did events this big. And I’m like, well, I actually probably need to promote more, but I still hear that even today.

Cheryl: A friend invited me to a megachurch last year. I was sitting there, but the stage production and the music, I kept turning around, looking at the teleprompter and the mics that they had on. And I was like, who’s doing the production? It was a big thing. I’m going to start reaching out to the Black churches to help with our production so I can bring in some of the talent because this was run like a well-oiled machine.

Cheryl: And so really onboarding more people in that technical space to be able to produce some of these shows, I think. I was just nominated for Smart Woman of the Year, which is [through] Smart Meetings magazine. They do a whole big conference. So, you do see a lot of industry experts like myself who are stepping up and having a voice in the industry.

Cheryl: I feel like sometimes I need to do more, but event management is a lot, in managing my team and my staff. And I still love showing up at every event.

Liz: Well, you’re only one person, so you can only be in so many places.

Cheryl: I’m also an adjunct professor at NYU and I teach an event course. We work with a lot of young talent as well because it is important for me to help and train and teach people how to do a great event. [At Glow] we like to say there’s no better way to influence the way people think, act, or feel than through an event. You have this opportunity to evoke emotions. You have an opportunity for people to have memories, for people to meet.

We have a responsibility to affect people's emotions. It's important for me to make sure young people understand it's not just an event. We're not just going to get celebrities there. How are we going to make everybody else in that room feel like a VIP?

Liz: That’s what I’ve leaned into in my business, too. When I look at branding, marketing, it’s not about design in my opinion. You’re saying yours is more about this experience, these memories. I’ve always looked at it like my business is really trying to understand people and customer service.

Liz: I think a lot of young people or new people in the industry may miss the idea that it’s not necessarily what you think we’re actually doing.

Cheryl: Right, exactly.

Cheryl, you're such an inspiration to me. On the Inc. 5000 list, you were nominated on Biz Bash's top list of 1000 people in the U.S. for the event industry. You were featured in their Big Idea for New York City Women Entrepreneurs. You're one of the top influential Women in Meetings according to Smart Meetings. I'm wondering, does that influence you, being recognized?

Cheryl: I realize I can do more. I still love what I do. It’s great to be recognized by these organizations and industry peers and other business owners, but I just keep moving through. It’s like, what next? What more can I do? How else can I contribute? How else can I show up? I am honored.

Cheryl: I talk about Glow all day long; but still, 25 years later, I am filled with such passion that the awards are great but it’s like, what else can I do? How can I affect this industry and affect young people as an entrepreneur?

Liz: That’s really beautiful. I love this concept of giving back. I’m a big believer in that as well.

Cheryl: I think it comes with responsibilities. I looked at our finances and we were just a little bit short last year. I was like, I don’t want to let people go. I have a staff. I have responsibility. People in my organization have bought homes. They’ve had babies.

Cheryl: One of the women in my office had a baby. I was like, bring the stroller in. Just bring the baby. And she would go in the nursery and she would take a nap with the baby, and then she’d come back and work. You really have to be able to afford and understand people’s other life as well. Event management is time-consuming. You want to be able to afford your team the flexibility and time to live their lives.

Liz: That’s another example of pivoting, and feeding off of listening to what’s happening or what your team is asking for. I’ve done some designs for trade shows and private conferences. I definitely had the experience of how long events could be and also how stressful. I used to work with Barnes & Noble College for almost 20 years on their private sales conference—and working with union people and overseeing the build and having things on time.

What do you do to have that self-care? We're always, as entrepreneurs, thinking about business. So not only are you in it, trying to build it. Then, you also have the stress of the actual events. What do you do for yourself?

Cheryl: I meditate about three times a day. I wake up. I do not put my feet on the ground until I pray and meditate. That starts my day off very grateful. Then, about 2:00 p.m., I have a gong and I bang the gong. Everybody in my office, either you get up, go for a walk, [or] just have to step away. Because event management is stressful.

Cheryl: Understanding how to step away, get some fresh air [is important]. I walk everywhere. I walk around New York. Not that New York is [filled with] nature. But it’s being outside, feeling the cold on your face, right? In the evening, [I use what] everybody calls a gratitude journal; I call it, what were the magic moments in my life today? And it could be the simplest thing. Like, I saw a little boy laughing on the elevator. It was just so cute.

Cheryl: I go to retreats. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love EO so much. And remember, the EO is one day a month [when I] step away from everything else and work on me as an entrepreneur. That time in our forum at EO is when you could talk to other likeminded entrepreneurs, that you could share what’s going on. That’s another commitment to my self-care that I’m really happy for.

Cheryl: I’m grateful that I have this space that I could step away and reflect and listen and learn. And maybe there’s another way to do something or maybe there’s another way to tackle this problem. And so that’s self-care to me, too.

Liz: I love hearing that it’s more than once a day that you’re meditating. I actually just recently went to this therapeutic retreat where we meditated. My eyes have become open to the many different ways and different times [to meditate]. Like you say, to just walk in New York City and get away. And, I absolutely love your magical moments.

Liz: Sometimes I’m like, [gratitude] is a hard one for me today. So, the flipping and calling it “magical moments,” I feel like you have got to trademark that.

Cheryl: To your point— Yes, I’m grateful. I’m humble. But, is that something I can own every day? Because that is heavy to me, having to think through those moments. But when you think about it, it’s little magical things that happen that make you grateful.

Liz: I love that. Cheryl, thank you so much. We could go on. Maybe we’ll do a part two because I have, like, 8 million other questions for you. I feel like I got so much out of hearing from you and learning more. And, honestly, you really inspire me. I feel grateful for our friendship.

Cheryl: Thank you so much. And thank you for introducing me to EO. It’s always great catching up with you.

Glow Global Events has over two decades of experience, their full-service event management agency specializes in crafting dynamic, purpose-driven events tailored to their clients’ unique visions and objectives. Whether the event is an intimate gathering or a grand gala, they serve as trusted partners every step of the way. From conceptualization to execution, they work closely with their clients to ensure that every detail is meticulously planned and flawlessly executed. With a global reach and an extensive network of partners, they have the expertise to bring events to life anywhere in the world. Clients can rely on them to prioritize their goals while staying within their budget, providing peace of mind and confidence in the success of their event.

Some days, the life of a creative design team can be tons of fun. During those days, REIT’s passion for creative work shines brightest as we strive to deliver our latest marketing masterpiece.

The rebrand for our client, NYCProsthodontics (NYCPros), is a project where we have been fortunate enough to truly connect with our client’s staff and philosophy. The journey has been exciting and evolving. What began as a website refresh expanded into updating the overall brand, including the logo and messaging. As a result, we got to unleash creativity through a variety of REIT services.

We kicked off things in a strategy meeting with the whole team.

We focused on their differentiators, core values, and where they envision the practice in 10 years.

Logo Solutions

“We leaned into the name as a strong part of the brand design. Then, we incorporated a sophisticated color palette and clean typeface,” shared Liz Reitman, REIT founder and creative director.

Web Designs

“For the website, itself, we were able to push the boundaries of typical healthcare website designs, which can be sterile. Our goal is to tell a story, elicit a connection with the viewer,” continued Liz.

Let’s Make a Movie: Using Videos to Tell a Story

We realized the best way to share NYCPros’ message was visually—through videos, testimonials, and action shots. Over a two-day visit, REIT professional photography and videography captured “a day in the life.” This allows website visitors an intimate peek into the practice: the offices, exam rooms, and staff (including the furry one!).

Video footage also provided an opportunity for the practitioners to explain complicated ideas in practical terms. Patient testimonials, including before-and-after photos, give firsthand insight and truly represent the life-changing work NYCPros is doing.

“NYCPros has given us intimate access to their work, team, and culture. We’ve been able to capture a real sense of their business, including their ethics and successful approach to patient care,” notes Liz.

Soon, and with pride, REIT will launch NYCPros new website. We cannot wait to share it with the world! Stay tuned …

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Russell Markman, Founder & CEO of Collegiate Retail Consulting Group

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In the midst of “back to school” season, Liz sits down with Russell Markman, founder and CEO of Collegiate Retail Consulting Group, for our September Founders in Focus series. Russell is a friend and long-time colleague of Liz’s; they worked together at Barnes & Noble College and, most recently, REIT helped design and launch Russell’s newest business venture. Join Liz and Russell as they walk down memory lane, discuss what it’s like to work together today, and explore the many connections that return within one’s entrepreneurship journey. 

Liz Reitman: Hello, everyone. Welcome to our next Founders in Focus series where I have my good friend and colleague, Russell Markman, who I’ve known for geez, I want to say almost over 20 years! We met in our days at Barnes & Noble College when REIT was working with them, and I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with Russell on his new venture, Collegiate Retail Consulting Group. It felt appropriate to launch with him [for our September Founders in Focus Series], being that it’s school season and he is the higher ed expert. I’m really looking forward to connecting so thanks, Russell, welcome.

Russell Markman: Thanks, Liz. Appreciate it.

Natasha Cucullo: Thanks, Russell, for being here.

Before we dive into how the two of you know each other, we'd love to hear about your career and how you got to where you are today.

Russell: I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version and only charge $1.50 for that. [laughs] So this is my 44th year in higher education retail. It is the only thing I’ve done since I was 18 years old. As a student at Cal State Northridge working in the bookstore, I eventually became the store director – and it was a wonderful experience, 14 years there. Then I worked for Follett for about seven years as a regional manager in the Carolinas; my last year was as the store director at UC Berkeley. [Then] 20 years with Barnes & Noble, the last 12 as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, the new business side of Barnes & Noble College, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My territory covered Hawaii over to the Rocky Mountain states…and then took an early retirement in July of 2020.

And [I knew] that I was not going to retire; I can’t sit at home and eat bonbons and watch the soaps for the rest of my life! [laughs] But it did allow me to decompress and get into my next venture, which I knew was going to remain in higher ed retail but doing it myself and not being tethered to an organization. And listen, I love all my Follett people still and my Barnes & Noble people, but it is really cool when you’re myopically focused on the success of the campus client. So in August of 2021, I launched Collegiate Retail Consulting Group, affectionately known as Collegiate Retail. And you know, two weeks ago was year number two. I’ve had incredible clients and incredible projects as well. It’s been a blessing. So. I know that’s probably longer than the reader’s digest version…

Liz: You have a lot to say! That’s awesome.

Cool. Could you give a little overview of what Collegiate Retail does and how that differs from your work in a more traditional corporate setting?

Russell: Yeah. So there’s really two prongs that I’ve focused on: one is assessment and analysis and the other is project management. So I’ve had many campuses say, “We would love a third party entity to take a deep dive into all the aspects of the college store from a human resource standpoint, technology, marketing and communication, promotions, and the course material side”. We look at the assessment phase holistically; when you’re able to conduct focus groups with the existing store team and coupling that with a focus group of associated student government and then coupling that with a focus group of faculty, you’re really looking at the bookstore and their relationship to a variety of stakeholders – not just from the standpoint of, “Well, let me go look at your financials and tell you what you’re doing right or wrong”. That’s easy. Anyone can do that. So that’s part of what Collegiate Retail brings is that assessment and analysis piece.

The other side of what we’re doing is the project manager role. For campuses that are looking to either move from being self-operated to outsourced, I act as the liaison facilitator. I’m involved in the bookstore committee and the advisory committee, and I support selections, presentations, creating timelines, deliverables and seeing the process through not just from an RFP development, but also see it through operationally. Those are two very different pieces and campuses, but when you have a set of eyes [that] have been part of 44 years of looking at the totality of the business, it’s helpful and beneficial. At 30,000ft., that’s kind of the stuff that we’re doing.

Nice. Liz was on the vendor side of Barnes & Noble College at the time that you two met there. Liz, do you want to share how you met Russell and how you got into Barnes & Noble?

Liz: Yeah. So ironically Russell and I actually never worked together! REIT was hired in 2012 working for Lisa Malat, who’s been on here and who Russell knows very well, as do I. She had a staff of two when I met her, and she was looking for another marketing company – they were using somebody based in Boston; they really wanted somebody from New York. And we had worked with a company called textbooks.com, so they made the introduction and we really hit it off. We started helping her with a number of different marketing initiatives, communications…and then we started helping out with their annual sales conference, the annual meeting. And that, I believe, is where we met.

Russell has this great personality and he’d be interacting with people, and I was moving people through the space, and I don’t even remember the moment we met, but we just clicked. We became friends. And every year at the annual meeting, I would see Russell, right? And we would interact throughout the week. And we maintained that yearly friendship for almost 20 years.

Russell: Natasha, maybe you’re going to ask this question – 

Liz: Go for it. He’s taking over! [laughs]

Russell: Well, yes, and I’m prone to do that. [laughs] So here’s what was so fantastic for me. I’m getting ready to leave Barnes & Noble and I knew in my head what I wanted to do, but the one thing that was [that] I never owned my own business. It was about: What’s my voice? How am I going to position myself? How am I going to do things differently? I knew in my head, but how do I get that on paper? So what happens if I was able to work with an organization that worked in higher ed retail that I knew, but that was able to transform all this stuff in my head to voice and to messaging? So I reached out to Liz.

And that one hour conversation led to us spending so many hours with Liz’s team, [working on] everything from narrative to design. But I could not have done it and I could not have done it as quickly, if I had to spend hours and hours and hours telling REIT design, “Well, this is what the college store industry is”. So [that’s] how we started and that’s what made this incredible relationship. And I have used Liz and her team probably four other times…but it’s great bouncing off ideas. She was such a great help. And her team.

Liz: Thank you, Russell. For me it was so fun to flip it, right? It was so much fun to work with you on this in this capacity because again, you did have all the ideas and your energy is effusive –  it was so much fun for our team because it was not only that you liked [the design], but you were appreciative, you were able to articulate what you were looking for – the whole process was beautiful. And then the win was he was already getting clients and building momentum even before [the website launch]. And what I love about Russell is he’s always thinking about, Okay, what can we tweak? How can I change it? Now I have more case studies, more clients…let’s add this, let’s edit this...

Russell: And it’s been fun for me, too. I mean, I thought there would have been heavier lifting [had I not worked with Liz], so to have this person, this team on my shoulder at times saying, “Have you thought about that?” We just launched our website 2.0 and we’ll probably [update it with] a couple other [case studies] after the fall. It’s been really great and really engaging. We challenged each other a lot – and I would hope that there were things that came out of our engagement and continuing that made Liz’s organization better.

Liz: Yeah. I mean, it was so fun to have the creative freedom…when we presented his first branding options, we had one very safe, traditional [option] – very collegiate – and then we offered a couple others. I love that he picked the really fresh and unique one.

And also for me, it’s been fun just to offer insights on just being a business owner and an entrepreneur because this is a new landscape for you. And there have been many conversations [between us about entrepreneurship] –  I mean, I’ll never tell somebody what to do, but I’ll share my experience. So that added to the layers of fun for me.

Russell: I always appreciated that conversation and information.

Liz: Great.

It's amazing. I know Liz talks a lot about relationships, too, and credits that to a large part of REIT being here today, 26 years later. Now it is –

Russell: Well, I don’t want to be around for 26 years because that makes me 90 and mean. [laughs]

Natasha: Well, it sounds like in addition to both of you having very energetic and lively personalities, that your values for your businesses are also somewhat similar.

Is the relationship component something that you learned throughout your professional experience? Something that you inherently knew? A combination of both? Something else?

Russell: I’ll go first. Well, that’s why I reached out to Liz. It’s not just because, you know, Liz and her team had worked on elements of higher ed. I knew her as a person, so I knew that if Liz had the opportunity to work in this new venture of mine, that it would be successful because our personalities are so similar.

Liz: You know, it’s so funny because I don’t even really think about like the personality aspect of it – I definitely think about the relationship aspect, but I think that at the end of the day Russell and I are so similar – I think we just generally really like people – so it’s easy, it’s authentic, right? And so I’m not surprised that you’re talking about relationships in your world, too.

Russell: No, I completely agree. And the relationship piece and the presenting piece [is something] that I’ve always enjoyed. To me it was always about the show. But I think it goes back to what you just said, Liz, when you like people that you’re working with, the rest is really easy. That’s true because –

Liz: That’s what we do best, right? Then we get to tap into our expertise.

Russell: Yeah, it makes it fun. And we’re good at it. I mean, it’s important. Today is based upon all the learnings I’ve had, and I have incredible mentors that I’ve worked with – there’s no way I would have gotten to this point if I didn’t have this great house that was built with all these stones so well.

That's a beautiful metaphor and a wonderful segue to our last question. For people that are coming into the workforce now, or are still relatively early on in their careers, do you have any advice or takeaways to create and sustain connections like the two of you have with each other?

Russell: Well, first of all, it has to be important to you to do that. And it takes work to do that. So whether someone is starting out or someone is on the opposite side starting out – there’s a difference between me when I started at 18 and me when I started [Collegiate Retail] at 63 – but they’re both starts. And they both revolve around people and interactions and being in the present [that leads to] continued conversation and dialogue.

Natasha: Love that.

Liz: Yeah, I meet with a lot of young women figuring out their careers. And I’ll have coffee [with them], which is such a good idea. And I will say for myself, I purposely have made Mondays my day to meet people – I try to make it a priority on my schedule because I know how important it is. So I think for a young person, don’t be afraid to ask somebody to meet up. And then being very accommodating to that person, in terms of location or time or whatever. And to Russell’s point, just being present.

Prioritizing relationships is a great place to end.

Liz: I agree. Russell, thank you so much for being on. You know, for me, it’s like no surprise that he’s successful out of the gate – there’s just this beautiful energy and aura about you. And honestly, it’s been a joy working with you and rekindling our friendship.

Russell: It’s always fun. I’ve enjoyed it and look forward to the next 26 years. [laughs] 

Liz: Boom.

Collegiate Retail

Collegiate Retail is a strategic partner to college and university leaders seeking to reimagine retail on campus. Working closely with campus leaders, we uncover audience, brand and business needs for self-operated and contract-managed college stores.

With 44 years in the field, our team combines assessments, strategic planning, and implementation to build relevance, profitability and synergy across retail channels — from the college store to online and event sales. We are a passionate team powered by partnership, integrity and the shared purpose of reimagining the college store as the retailer for all of campus. Our data-driven approaches focus on today’s shopping experience and marketplace realities to increase market share, reduce operating expenses, and ensure relevance in ways that drive sustainable growth.


A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Sel (Sue-Ellen) Watts, Founder and Global CEO of  The HR Linc

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For our August Founders in Focus series, Liz gets up close and personal with Sel (Sue-Ellen) Watts, serial entrepreneur — simultaneously operating several businesses including The HR Linc, wattsnext Group, and zzoota — and current Entrepreneurs’ Organization of New York (EONY) President. We literally mean up close because Liz and Sel are together on the west coast for this conversation! Liz and Sel cover several topics under the sun including leadership, entrepreneurship, and lifestyle.

Liz Reitman: Hi everyone, Liz here. Today we have our latest edition of Founders in Focus with my good friend and Aussie mate, Sel (Sue-Ellen) Watts, who is this incredible serial entrepreneur that is going to talk to us about her latest venture, as well as her role as our new president of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization of New York (EONY).

Sel, thanks for being here. Let's start with your latest venture, The HR Linc. Could you tell us about your path here?

Sel Watts: So I started my first business, wattsnext, 16 years ago. In fact, the 16th birthday is next week! And that was a consulting firm that I started in Australia – and it still runs today. We work specifically with small to medium businesses and fast growth startups on management consulting, predominantly around people – so performance, engagement, and culture of people.

I always wanted to come to New York City because I think it’s the center of the universe and an entrepreneur’s playground. And so about four years ago, I came and commuted between Australia and New York to see how I could make that transition, which was an incredible and challenging experience – but we ended up, myself and my three sons, settling in at the beginning of 2020 in New York City.

And since then I have been working on my startup, which just launched called The HR Linc, a membership community specifically for HR departments of one. We provide the community, the support, education, and development for those people because that’s a very lonely role and they need support and development, especially because our workplaces have changed more than anything in the last three years. And the thing is, they’re continuing to change. We’re continually getting questions about how to manage people and how to create great workplaces with this changing environment…plus the generational changes. So it’s a really challenging space – and most companies look to their HR person for the answer, so this is a great community for those people.

Liz: You know, what’s fun is the fact that I’ve launched another business, Other Parents Like Me, which is the same idea, right? It’s just interesting how much community has become this [central] topic — and I think really it’s becoming so clear that talking to other people that understand your experience…the value is tremendous. So it’s cool to see you doing this as well in your space, in your expertise.

The thread of community for both of you seems really apparent in both your businesses and in your personal lives. I would love to know how you created community outside of that professional space especially, Sel, when you were bouncing between New York and Australia? That is one hell of a commute!

Sel: Yeah, it was. Door-to-door I think it was like 36 hours and I did it every six weeks. It was an exhausting two years. When I came to New York, I didn’t know anyone. And so where do you start? It’s incredibly challenging.

I’ve always been part of membership groups because you need to be part of your tribe. So EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) and other membership organizations I’ve been part of have been critical in my development and [in] building community. When I came to New York, I did not know one person and it was EO that made it possible for me to build a network. It’s similar to Other Parents Like Me; you’ve got to be around people that are going through the same thing.

So to be able to be part of a global organization, I immediately had people that spoke the same language. And so all of my close friends are…I think, nearly 99% of my close friends are entrepreneurs because that also is a really lonely journey and it’s filled with highs and lows and risks and opportunities. I do believe that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And so I want to be around people that are where I want to be or who I want to grow into being like them in some capacity. And so that’s how I like to surround myself — with people like you, Liz.

Liz: Oh yes [laughs], that’s me.

I believe it. Speaking of, where are you two right now? What are you up to?

Liz: So I do a house swap using a website called HomeExchange, which is a community of people that are looking to swap homes. Again community, a thread here…and it’s amazing. Last year I decided to try it out because I had heard EO people did this as well, that they would swap homes with people that they knew. I was really lucky eto connect with this woman that owns this LA home, who loves New York. And, you know, I wasn’t necessarily picking LA or seeking that location out, but her home was so lovely. And I’ve gotten to meet the EO community out here.

Sel, is there anything about LA or the states in general that remind you of Australia? Or is it very different?

Sel: Oh, my gosh. I mean what was so challenging was the everyday things that you grow up learning that are so different from home. And then the business world…it’s very different; definitely the language, but also one of the biggest things that I’ve had to adapt to is that Australian culture is a very chilled, sort of laid back culture. But we also have this terrible trait called the Tall Poppy Syndrome, when you cut down people that are doing well, so we have this tendency to never brag, never boast. We’re not very good self-promoters. And Americans are amazing at self-promotion. I noticed it and I’ve had good friends and mentors say that I need to work on that – and so that’s my commitment.

Now you're the President of Entrepreneurs’ Organization of New York (EONY). As a leader of an American-based chapter, how do you balance your Australian values with the business values of America?

Sel: It is a very large, challenging leadership role. I mean, I don’t think there’s any harder people to lead than other entrepreneurs, you know? I’ve spoken to Liz and my other key mentor and best friend, Chris Wilkerson, about the benefits of my leadership style, but how I need to adapt to be able to manage this chapter. And so I’m trying to bring my Australian culture into New York and use that together, which I think can be done. But it’s challenging; every day I’m really having to intentionally think about my leadership: how did I handle that meeting? Or how do I deal with this? And course correct.

But the thing is, I am so passionate about New York City and entrepreneurship. So to me, New York should be the best EO chapter in the world. And I think it’s the right time for me to be in this role because my goal is to get people remembering how incredible it is to be an entrepreneur in New York City and to be part of this organization and have each other — I get goosebumps when I talk about it because I really believe that. So that’s what I’m hoping to ignite in the chapter.

I mean, personally, it’s a huge challenge because a lot of people say, “You can’t sit on the board or be the president of any voluntary organization because your business needs you or your family needs you”. What about, Well, if I do this, how can it help my business grow? How can it help me be better at home or for my family? That’s my personal experiment.

Liz: Yeah. Looking at you Sel, you just are constantly one-upping your challenges. So to me, there’s no doubt. I mean, it’s pretty audacious to come into a chapter from another country and be like, “Yeah, I’m going to join this, I’m going to run this, I’m going to launch a startup, and oh, I have three boys that require a lot”. It’s impressive how much you push yourself.

Sel: Thank you.

I also really appreciate your perspective on: how can the things that I'm adding to my plate benefit me instead of taking away? I think that's a really expansive perspective.

Sel: I’ve always looked at what my role is in relation to the boys? And if I could only teach them one thing their whole life, what would it be? I spent a lot of time thinking about this and I thought I would say to them, “No matter how unlikely it is your dream, your goal that you want, no matter how unlikely it is, you should go for it no matter what”. So my view is, if you want something, you’ve got to commit 100% and go for it and back yourself and know that if it doesn’t work out, you’re going to end up on some interesting journey. And also at the end of the day, you’ll be fine. You can just pull yourself up and you do whatever comes next.

And I think too many people are too safe and they don’t back themselves. Ultimately I have no right to tell the boys, “Go and chase your dreams, do all those things that I can’t. Can you do it? Because I was too scared to do it”. No, I’m going to give them a front row seat in dream chasing and they will see the ride. So rather than trying to be the best at everything, I’ll hone in on what I’m really good at and we all just laugh a bit about how weak mum is at those other things. [laughs]

Liz: And we do laugh at her cooking. [laughs]

And they're already getting that through your move to New York.

Sel: Yeah, I mean, it’s great for them to see that it’s more hard and bad than good. [laughs] In the first five years of building wattsnext, I had many times that I would lie on the bathroom floor in the fetal position going, “I can’t do this”. And the thing that always got me up was, what if I did? And what would that look like? That’s where the grit comes in. And honestly, [the key to] successful entrepreneurs is the ability to keep getting up when it looks like this is just not going to happen. I’m a big believer that the biggest asset that I have is me. So anything can be taken, but you can’t give up.

Amazing. I would love to end on a more personal note and hear what fills each of your cups? What do you do in your downtime when you're not in a fetal position? [laughs]

Liz: This is the opposite of Sel, but I love to cook. For me, that has filled my cup so much because, first of all, I really didn’t know how to cook. My husband at the time did all the cooking for the family, so for me, it involves learning and it gives me time to think. I also know that it’s really helped my relationship with my son. Cooking in the kitchen was the change in our relationship; it was an opportunity for us to have conversation. And then we were making something [together] and it hits all the senses.

Sel: And that’s only happened in the last couple of years. That’s amazing.

Liz: And I’m not going to say I’m great, but I’m getting better! And to circle it all back, I feel like cooking encompasses community at its core.

Sel: For me, I love the exploration of people and deep conversations; I love to have those intense conversations and get people’s philosophical ideas on things. That time for me really does fill my cup. I finding the boys really fun and interesting. As frustrating and annoying they can be, there’s so much joy in watching them go through those teenage years and the challenge it gives me on how to parent them. And put me by the pool with a friend, and I’m happy.

Liz: That is a perfect segue to end on. [laughs]

Sel: Yes, to the pool!

Well Sel it's been a joy to talk to you and Liz, always a dream.

Sel: [laughs] Thank you.

A membership community designed to elevate HR professionals. In the face of the great resignation, and moving to hybrid and remote workforces, we’ve reached an inflection point where investing in HR staff has become mission-critical to ensure a high performing and engaged workforce. This is why we have created the leading development membership for HR Professionals that CEO’s want to invest in.

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Rowena Scherer, Founder, President and Chef at eat2exploreTM

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We’re back with another conversation for REIT’s Founders in Focus series, featuring Rowena Scherer, fellow Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) member and founder, president, and chef at eat2exploreTM. eat2exploreTM is the only award-winning experiential cooking kit designed to bring cultural education alive through the exploration of world cuisines. Liz and Rowena sit down to chat about entrepreneurship, mentorship, and navigating life as business owners, parents, and women.

Liz Reitman: Hello everyone. I’m Liz Reitman and I’m super excited to have Rowena Sherer here, the founder of eat2exploreTM, on REIT’s latest Founders in Focus series. I love always love having female entrepreneurs here, learning their stories, and understanding about the balance, as we all know, is a constant struggle. Rowena and I have talked a lot about our children many times, [and today, we’ll] hear some [of her] best practices and the cool things she’s doing with her business. So thanks for being here; I really appreciate it.

Rowena Scherer: Thanks, Liz, for having me. I’m super excited.

Natasha Cucullo: Rowena, thank you for being here. We’re really excited to have you.

Let's start off by asking you to share what eat2explore offers?

Rowena: So eat2exploreTM is an award-winning food and culture experience in a box. We want to inspire families and kids to learn about different cultures, different world history, music, and art while making a meal together. It’s sort of a family connection and a family activity, but it’s a lot more than just the experience of it; you’re really immersed into a country in the comfort of your own kitchen.

So it sounds like eat2explore centers food, culture and family time, all while encouraging applicable skill building for children and families. Could you talk a little bit more about how you weave your values into your business?

Rowena: Sure. So I grew up in Malaysia and one of the things my mom made us do growing up was every Sunday we cleaned our room and then we made a meal together. And I never thought about it much until I had my own children. And of course, living in New York, you’re busy, you’re working, you’re a mom. You’re trying to balance it all, to say the least.

What brought me to the States was my work on Wall Street for many, many years; and I built a career out of it. It was great. But you know, it didn’t feed my soul, right? So I’m like, “Okay, what do I want to do next? What do I love?”

So what started eat2exploreTM was a cooking class in Thailand with my kids; they were younger then – like 9 or 12 – and they were looking at me like, “Mom, what do you want me to do with this onion?” And I was so disappointed with myself because when I was their age, I was making a meal for my family and for myself! But because I had not given them the opportunity to try to make mistakes, to get lost in the kitchen…they had no idea what to do, right?

So I felt like because of eat2exploreTM, I ended up teaching [and learning with my kids]. We went through all the recipes; before we launched, I tested every [meal] Sunday with them and they [helped] build it. Now [at] Thanksgiving, we cook together. So I assign them. I say, “You’re doing the starter, you’re doing the dessert”. So everyone has a role. And then we pop champagne and we just love it. It’s so fun.

Liz: I love that. You know, one thing I can say is, I’ve really pushed myself to cook more frequently [over] the past couple of years.  I’ve found it’s such a bonding experience with my son – he’s 21. I mean, he’s an eating machine, he’s always hungry. [laughs] And what I discovered was that when I would cook with him, and we prepared a meal together, we would have the best conversations! So I completely see the value in what you’ve created…and then adding a layer of learning about another culture? It’s just brilliant. I wish you would have been around when my kids were young.

Rowena: I have two kids and I know you only have a tender ten years to bond with them; and then ten years where you’re going to lose them and then you’re going to have them back again. Right? So you want to make the most of that time with them. I know life is busy and life is tough, right? But if you push yourself and say, this is what I want to do with my family once a weekend, right? Put the music on. Everyone has a role. It is such food for your soul. Like it’s so much fun and connection. You’re really getting your hands dirty. My mission is really I want to educate the next generation about the world and be global citizens through food.

Beautiful. So what I'm hearing is that family has really influenced your business. Has it come up for you in other ways that aren't so direct?

Liz: — Like impacting how you build a business, or your time, or decision making, or when you chose to launch.

Rowena: You know, I really think I wouldn’t have been able to launch eat2exploreTM 20 years ago. There are multiple facets, right? My kids, when I started, they were about to go to high school…so when I started getting busy, they [were] really at the time where they don’t need me. Right? And frankly, as my husband said, they’re better off. Because at some point you’ve got to let them grow up and you don’t want to do that while they’re in college, right?

Liz: You know, it’s funny Rowena, I’m kind of the opposite in terms of, I started reitdesign when I was 24. Craziness, right? So for my kids, this is all they’ve ever known; they’ve always known mom as the worker. But what I found with my children is I made it a point to always be home for dinner. And I know for myself, I think that I made reitdesign more of a lifestyle business because it was really important for me to be able to be home for my family and not travel a ton. And I made [certain] decisions because I knew that I wanted to be there for them.

What aspects of your career, business life, whatever you want to share, make you feel proud?

Rowena: You know, I think my philosophy in life is you never know ‘til you ask, and you should always push yourself. I never settle. I’m always asking, “What’s next? How to do this? What to try?” And I think that keeps me on my toes, keeps me young, keeps me wanting to learn. One thing I always say, I’ve been married for 28 years, and we were married right after college, but what keeps us going is we both are hungry to learn. We’re always growing in the same direction and we’re not stagnant. I think that’s important. Life is never to stop learning.

Liz: I love that. I think for me, it’s been about relationships. I’ve been really proud that majority of my clients have been with me on average of 10 years. I think I took that for granted. When I’ve talked to people in sales, they’ll exclaim, “Do you know how crazy that is? That’s a long time to stay with the same client”. And it’s always been important to me, but it’s not just my clients. It’s also been my team. I’ve been really proud of where my designers have gone on for their next jobs. I’ve always sort of cultivated young talent and to watch them go onto huge jobs, [make] really big leaps…that’s made me really proud. So I just feel like the relationships that I’ve established have really made me proud.

I feel like that's full circle! We have relationships, we have learning, and we have food. And those, I think, are the secret sauces of life.

Liz: Agree. Love it. Thank you, Rowena.

Rowena: Thank you, Liz. Thank you, Natasha. Awesome.


eat2exploreTM is the only award-winning experiential cooking kit designed to bring cultural education alive through the exploration of world cuisines. Founder, Rowena Scherer, decided to take the things she treasures the most – family, food, travel, and education – and create an opportunity for all children to discover cuisines from around the world. Following her time at the French Culinary Institute, she began to source hard-to-find and nonperishable ingredients to highlight locally cherished foods. She also built a team of trusted educators around eat2exploreTM to transform the cooking experience into an educational journey. The result is an explorer box filled with authentic recipes, activities, and collectibles that offer a one-of-a-kind, award-winning cultural education through food exploration. eat2exploreTM is not just about putting another meal on the table; it’s about carving out time for family, learning tangible cooking skills, exploring world cuisine & cultures, and cultivating sustainable consumption habits at an early age. 

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Jeffrey Bowman, Co-Founder and CEO Reframe

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For our latest Founders in Focus series, Liz connected with Jeffrey Bowman, co-founder and CEO of Reframe. Reframe, the first tech enabled change management platform helping to build inclusive experiences at scale, is Bowman’s solution to a decades old problem that nearly every organization faces. Liz had the opportunity to talk with Jeffrey about his professional journey, his passion to modernize inclusive experience design from the inside-out and outside-in, and his path to entrepreneurship. Take a listen and check out some of Bowman’s thoughts on DEI, cross-cultural and multicultural marketing below! 

Liz Reitman: Hello, everyone. I’m Liz Reitman here with Jeffrey Bowman today, our latest co-founder in our Founders in Focus series. I’m very excited to introduce his company, Reframe, and what they’re doing to tackle an industry old problem in terms of DEI and multicultural marketing. We’re excited to have him here today.

 Jeffrey Bowman: Awesome. Thank you for having me. Really excited to dive in and answer any questions that you or your audience may have about Reframe.

Natasha: Amazing. Thank you, Jeffrey, for being here.

Before we dive deep into Reframe and what you're doing there, could you share with us some of the touch points and background of your career?

Jeffrey: I spent about 15 plus years on the client side. I started my professional career in the Southeast at Pepsi – literally on the back of a Pepsi truck. It really gave me a good context and background in terms of: what are the issues that people face on a day to day basis? How do you convince them to buy stuff that they don’t want? And then, how do you introduce new products and services? So by the time I’d spent time doing that, someone said, “Hey, you should go back to business school”.

I was first generation in terms of college – I had to go secure the bag a little bit and then come back and figure out how to change the world. And for me and my generation, you had the dawn of a new age; obviously, with the Internet, but also for people of color and women that were entering the workforce. A lot of the tactics [corporations] used to acquire us were pretty reflective of what was happening post-Civil Rights. And so you begin to kind of take a look at the old and say, “Is there a new?”

Because no one had really written the playbook of the new thing, right? But the way that companies were targeting, attracting, onboarding and engaging people of color, it’s like: “Hey, here’s our general pop customer, here’s our general pop employees, and then here’s the ‘other group’”. So that was pretty consistent. For me, I was right at the intersection; like, I’m going to follow this marketing track, but I think there’s a bigger problem. And so as I began to get more in the new, the old kept drawing me, pulling me back in terms of like, how do you solve this other issue?

So I ended up with Ogilvy Consulting. The smart people were coming in the room with the creatives and helping them develop more effective creative — not just creating creative for the sake of creative, but merging the two around this idea of planning, strategy, and then deploying those assets, measuring how effective they are, and then optimizing them so that you get a better outcome from a business standpoint, not just from a creative standpoint.

So it sounds like change management, at least the inkling of it, was there for you from the start. How did you balance that, knowing the way the world operated when you started out?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I think a couple of things. I was really at that pivot moment where [I was thinking], who’s going to hire me to be a CMO? So I was a non-traditional hire [that] came into Ogilvy, but because they had Ogilvy Consulting, that meant that I had an entry point. So when I got there, my mentors that were assigned to me were the CEOs. And as a result of that sponsorship, I was afforded the opportunity to say, “Hey, agencies, here’s what you need to improve on. Here’s the things that you need to fix”. Why did that work? I’ve been the client, and so as a result of that, they said, “Hey, we think we’ve got another problem we’d like for you to tackle Mr. Smarty Pants”. And that was the question from my book, Reframe The Marketplace: if David Ogilvy were here, what would the agency look like?

So how do you solve for the inequities associated with something that was created pre-1970? But unfortunately, and fortunately, you know, America had to mature. No one had really begun to solve for it using a change operating system. And that began my journey in terms of building a change operating system for inclusive customer experience design, which modernizes multicultural marketing and inclusive employee experience design, which modernizes the practice of DEI. And no one had ever done that up until then.

In 2040 minorities will become the majority. And so when you think about my journey now, you’re trying to now impact systems and structures for the next 100 years. But my original thesis is that you can’t use the old approach because we’re moving from segregated to integrated to now [an] inclusive [approach].

We’re the first to innovate around a problem that everyone has, right? And so where we’re headed requires a new approach to change organizations so that they become more inclusive at scale. And that’s what we’ve done: develop a change operating system for the workplace that reflects this new majority population. That’s my mission for Reframe.

We live in a world that can be very bound by structures and systems. How do you work within that? Where does your creativity bloom despite being in a world that was created without you in it?

Jeffrey: Change Management is a practice. The first thing that people have when you go in to change an organization is you have to assess them. So we developed the first cultural maturity assessment tool: The Reframe Cultural Maturity AssessmentTM

So when you think about Reframe, we’re service first software, second company; meaning Cultural Maturity AssessmentTM, and then we have a six step change approach from an enterprise perspective. But that’s inclusive experience design.

Now, once we’re able to figure out the ambition of the organization, then we have to go back and redesign the entire experience of the customer, redesign the entire experience of the employee, because every system, every structure that exists today was not designed with people of color at the center. None. You then enable it through a piece of technology that allows you to provide continuous assessment, continuous improvement through content so that you then become a vessel, meaning the technology platform for accountability, continuous measurement, and positive outcomes as it relates to building inclusive experiences at scale.

Reframe goes beyond race and identity. That simply means we’re going from three data points, race, gender, ethnicity, to 1500 data points right through a platform, through a medium. Based on a system of change that builds inclusive experiences that are scalable and sustainable.

DEI is not scalable nor sustainable time has proven. Multicultural marketing is not scalable. What’s different is this: I’m advocating to move away from a blueprint that was written in the 1960s – I’m advocating for modernizing it. Right now, we do a better job of including people that you’ve excluded by putting them at the center.

What are you really excited about for Reframe?

Jeffrey: When I first started Reframe, it was all centered around services, but also in the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to scale the business and the thing that I had to keep fighting for myself was scaling it through creative services. We’re like Noah building this big old ship. Because, with no flood, we knew 2% of Fortune 1000 companies were digital end-to-end. When we started going into these companies and designing these new experiences, they couldn’t implement them. Then when COVID happened, the whole world changed, right? Everyone had to become digital, and we were like, “The great flood is here”.

And so you ask me what I’m really excited about. First, we’re bootstrap, right? No outside investors – but we’re open, so [we’re] excited about that. We’ve been able to make [Reframe] from this idea to full-on 44 engagements later based on customers. I’m really excited [to] figure out how to sell the Cultural Maturity AssessmentTM that [helps clients] know where they are at before we can upsell you on the other services. And so now we’re comfortable asking for growth capital because I think what we’ve built as a system, both on the service and software side, truly solves this decades old problem. And so what I’m most excited about on the go forward basis is building out a team, a growth team, to go sell what we built now. And so that’s where we’re at.

Liz: I know that it’s so hard when you’re in your business to be able to look out and realize, wait a minute [there is more out there]. Obviously as an entrepreneur, you’re always pivoting and learning, but [when] you’ve been doing this for so long [you can get stuck]. So I like the fact that you haD this “aha moment” and how you pivoted.

I kind of equate it in some ways to what happened to me with Reit where people started to rebrand us – they hated that we had design in our name and said, You should just be Reit; you do so much more [than just design]. And they simplified our brand, unbeknownst to me! So I always find it so interesting when you’re in something for so long and you’re able to have these discoveries about simplification and looking at something differently.

Jeffrey: Absolutely. Listen to your customers, you know?

Liz: Yeah, exactly.

Jeffrey: Yeah, That’s a takeaway.

Thank you, Jeffrey. I'm glad that we're able to get your voice out there and let more people know what your organization is doing because it's so needed, it's impressive and it's valuable. And I'm excited to be able to share this.

Jeffrey: Thank you so much.

For HR and Marketing professionals, Reframe is the first tech enabled change management platform that helps build inclusive employee and customer experiences at scale. Reframe’s founders pioneered an award-winning Future of Work thesis and a proprietary change operating system that helps People Leaders build the most culturally inclusive employee and customer experiences at scale. Learn more: https://getreframe.com/ 

Jeffrey L. Bowman is the co-founder and CEO of Reframe. He pioneered a change management and inclusive experience design approach with software in response to C-suite executives using dated practices for building inclusive experiences that reflect the New America. Bowman is also a two-time award-winning Wiley published author. He is a former senior partner and managing director at Ogilvy & Mather in New York City, one of the world’s largest advertising and communications agencies. It was there that Bowman pioneered the industry’s first cross-cultural practice that modernized the marketing and communications industry

His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, NBC (Today Show), and he speaks frequently at industry and trade events across the United States, Europe, and South America.