As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Connie Evans.
Connie is a visionary leader, astute strategist, activist and social entrepreneur who has founded three organizations. In 1986 she was the founding president of the award-winning Women’s Self-Employment Project, the first and largest urban microbusiness development organization in the U.S., and the first adaptation of the Grameen Bank model to a U.S. urban setting. She also pioneered one of the first matched-savings program — Individual Development Accounts — in the country. In 2000 she founded WSEP Ventures, a social enterprise-hybrid organization developed to serve as a catalyst for social change, economic development and community empowerment. In 2007 she founded CSolutions Consulting, an advisory boutique specializing in solutions that address social change.
An international development consultant with more than 25 years of experience, she has been recognized and utilized by such groups as the World Bank, the Clinton Administration, and a host of local government, private and independent-sector organizations. With international experience spanning 43 countries, she draws on her expertise in developing and implementing strategies to further economic development, health and social change in communities.
Connie started her career in community mental health as a master-level psychologist. Her commitment to improving the health and life options for disadvantaged women and their families moved her to “harness the marketplace” for solutions. As the Assistant Director of a Hull House Association affiliate in Chicago, she became the Project Director for the first resident-managed public housing site in the city. She helped low-income women organize, develop leadership skills and learn business acumen in order to take control over a multi-million dollar enterprise.
Connie has given lectures at universities throughout the U.S., and is a frequent panelist and keynote speaker at conferences around the globe. She has many distinguished awards, including: being named the Inaugural Twink Frey Social Activist in 2006; the 1996 Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago Magazine; the first Teknion Humanitarian Award in 1999; Gloria Steinem Woman of Vision Award; 1998 Community Leader of the Year presented by the African American MBA Association at the University of Chicago; and the Chicago Community Service Fellowship Award by the Chicago Community Trust.
Connie’s broad experience across the worlds of business and finance compliments her skills in development finance. She served two elected terms on the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago — the first African American woman to hold such a position — and was appointed by President Clinton to the CDFI Advisory Board, a fund in the Department of the Treasury. She was appointed by President Obama to be a member of the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. She was also appointed by President Clinton as a member of the U. S. Delegation to Preparatory Meetings for the Summit of the Americas, the U. S. Delegation to Preparatory Meetings for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and again for Beijing Plus Five.
A strong advocate of good governance in nonprofits, she has nearly 20 years of service on philanthropic foundation boards, and serves on a number of national and international boards.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am the product of a self-employed mother from Franklin, TN. My father died two weeks before I was born from a brain tumor and my mother took great care and provided for me and my three older siblings by running her own catering business. She hired people from the neighborhood, owned our own home, sent me to private school and put us all through college. My mother was extremely well known in our town, written up in the Nashville newspaper because she catered for the Governor. She was able to obtain credit to purchase inventory (food, etc.) by just signing her name. My mother had a high school diploma. She received credit based on her character, not a FICO score, not a college degree, and obviously not a white man — — all the things that typically you had to be to get credit or to start a business. It is because of her experience that I got my understanding that low and moderate-income women, when given the right tools and access, can start and run businesses to take care of their families.
I actually started my career as a mastered-level psychologist but always worked in low-income communities providing family and individual counseling to people who were often referred to me by some system: court, juvenile justice –and they were primarily women. What I learned very quickly was what these women needed was money. If they had money they would have been able to handle the issue that got them in front of the ‘system” in the first place. So going back to my own upbringing, I decided to move from clinical services to community economic development and was able to do so working in the same organization in Chicago and began to help women learn how to own and operate successful businesses. That led me to lead one of the first micro credit programs for urban women in the United States called the Women’s Self-Employment Project.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I am an African American woman who has been a CEO since my mid-twenties. Trust me that was a long time ago. I was not afforded the opportunity to have a funny mistake. I really thought hard about this question and it just doesn’t resonate. Being young and African American, the concept of making mistakes was not an option ever considered by me. I remember I used to joke that the only time I was wrong was that one time when I thought I had made a mistake. Get it? I have always said it in jest.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There are two books by the same author that have helped me in my career. Built to Last and much later, Good to Great. These books by Jim Collins provided frameworks focused on building great companies. I have been a CEO since my mid-twenties and came from a background in psychology rather than business. I applied these frameworks in my work with great results.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I started a nonprofit organization, along with several other women, called the Women’s Self-Employment Project (WSEP) in Chicago to help low-income women start and run businesses to take care of their families. We wanted to show that with small amounts of capital and access to information, women could turn their talent into businesses that would provide better economic opportunity than low pay dead-end jobs that were available. Over the 14 years that I was with the organization, we helped 8,000 women start and expand businesses, mostly African American-owned businesses.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
If you are doing what you are designed for, only good can come from that and tomorrow is another day.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I feel that our family is very blessed and particularly during this pandemic. Everyone has remained healthy. We are spread throughout the country. We are about to welcome the first baby boy in the family in over 30 years which is quite exciting. But bringing a baby into the world during a pandemic is scary and the fact that none of us can physically be present for the glorious occasion feels challenging. It is the first child for my wonderful nephew and his wife.
To address this, we’ve had many more virtual family events during this imposed shelter-in period than we normally have in person. They have included an Easter celebration, birthday parties, a baby shower. It has been really nice. I am single so these family events have really been a welcomed lifeline during this period stuck in my apartment away from cherished friends and family. We have also had some great laughs with various family members getting used to using Zoom for the first time.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I will briefly address three big challenges. The first challenge was making sure our employees were well informed and prepared for remote work. I have a great team who worked to put everything in place — guidelines, official information from the CDC, and our own playbook on operating in the COVID-19 environment. We established daily morning calls where people were invited to describe their new home work environments and how they were feeling; encouraged exercise, laughter and hydration. I am proud of how my team met the challenge. Productivity has been through the roof.
The second challenge was how to handle our annual national conference that was scheduled for about 800 people to convene in Houston, Texas in early May. There were so many unknowns when this pandemic was initially declared and many still remain. But we had to make a decision quickly and ran the risk of facing hotel cancellation penalties, loss of sponsorship dollars, and more. I weighed our options and decided to transition to a totally virtual event over the course of four weeks rather than to cancel our 2020 conference all together. The decisions that followed have all been on the spot. Instead of 800 conference participants, our conference is drawing nearly 50,000 individual viewers each week, and we are over performing on our revenue and profitability projections.
Our third challenge is how do we meet our mission of helping to support small business owners in this crisis? So as quickly as the crisis started, because of our deep understanding of the needs of underserved small business owners, so did the AEO effort to spring to action. We immediately mobilized a coalition of partners to bring a suite of subsidized technology solutions that could address the full spectrum of needs. Through a comprehensive package, small businesses are able to gain critical tools and resources to keep them existing and selling during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. This suite of solutions includes: cash infusion into the businesses, access to e-commerce solutions, online accounting and mentoring to help business owners understand their financial realities, get them loan-ready and prepared to connect with business mentors and coaches, and other resources that can bring them peace of mind in these challenging times. We launched MainStreet RISE and continue to add partners and resources all free to small businesses with less than ten employees.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I have found it important just to be in touch with one another with a listening ear. We have a family text that is always in use. I’ve noticed our phone calls are longer than usual. My friends and I have scheduled a periodic virtual happy hour. Be authentic in sharing your own feelings and of course (drum toll please) sharing things that make you laugh!
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Well I am from Chicago, and to quote our former Mayor, “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” I think there will be many opportunities including:
- Leveling the playing field for business owners of color to access capital with new loan underwriting models that don’t depend on FICO scores. Since the crisis is affecting most people’s credit, other variables will be needed for evaluation.
- New product innovations in various sectors to meet what will become our “new normal.”
- A new awareness and solutions to address the inequities and disparity in this country for people and business owners of color that will promote policy and attitude changes resulting in opportunities for all.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think it may be too early to tell how this pandemic might permanently change the way we live in the future. One reason is because so much is still unknown about the coronavirus. Once we have a vaccine everyday life for Americans may return as normal. However, I would like to see our systems change significantly in how this country is better prepared to handle such shocks. The pandemic revealed inadequate health and government systems and infrastructure that should have been in place. Additionally, it revealed systemic inequities that made the effects of the pandemic disproportionately harm and kill people in Black and Brown communities, in particular. The conditions that allowed this to occur need to permanently change, but I am not sure they will. I try to hold on to hope.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Business owners are facing incredible challenges for some time to come, particularly businesses owned by people of color. These businesses are facing extinction. AEO will continue to innovate solutions that they can use to stabilize and eventually grow and hire. We will create opportunities to aggregate capital that can be invested in these businesses and to advocate federal policies that are needed to secure economic opportunities for all.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I encourage all to step up and recognize the value of all human beings. Be a smart and conscious consumer by spreading your spending to businesses that are struggling and may not look like you. Consider how you might be more inclusive in your own company environments and take action to make changes to be more inclusive. And be active citizens. If you don’t like what you see is happening, vote to change it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, I’ll always get up after I fall. And whether I run, walk, or have to crawl, I’ll set my goals and achieve them all.” What can I say, “@#$%&! happens!
How can our readers further follow your work?