I had the pleasure of interviewing Isabel Strobing. She and her team are helping to rebuild the American Dream, one small business at a time. Their online platform connects members of communities to neighborhood brick and mortar businesses that require growth capital. Small businesses choose MainVest because it gives them the ability to directly connect with their neighbors and create shared success stories. By taking social impact investing into your very own neighborhood, you can generate both ROI (return on investment) and ROC (return on community). Help shape the identity of your community at www.mainvest.com.
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 daughter of two small business owners- my dad owned a pharmacy for my entire childhood, and my mom is currently opening a bakery. My family definitely instilled in me the importance of hard work, but I’ve always been insanely self-motivated. I went to BU and got a combined BA/MA thinking I would go on to be president, but towards the end of my college career got involved in a gov-tech startup, which really piqued my interest in the tech space. I loved that I was able to get hands-on experience across disciplines at a very young age, so after bouncing around Boston and Providence in a few sales and marketing roles, I was excited to find my home at Mainvest.
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?
Pretty early on at Mainvest, I was extremely passionate about our mission, but still new to the major players in the economic development space. I was at an event with a few other members of our team at which some pretty important people in local economic development and politics were speaking. I was equal parts excited and frustrated at just how relevant our mission was to the discussion. Our CEO, who I hadn’t realized already had a few discussions with one major guest, asked a question that was really aimed at gently reminding the speakers about Mainvest, semi-passively calling out that we’re actively doing the work that many in the public policy space just talk about. It was the exact tone that he needed to take, given the context of the talk and past history.
I seemed to be the only one who missed out on the memo about subtlety, as I blurted out, somewhat obnoxiously, that we were basically the answer to this public official’s problems, and that we should probably talk more.
I should have read the room- while I wanted to come off as spunky and revelatory, it was actually just pretty awkward. I’ll never apologize for speaking my mind, but I think I went a bit too far on that one. As Aaron Burr sings to Hamilton, I learned the value of talk less, smile more. Basically, I learned on the spot that while speaking openly — especially as a woman — is important, restraint and knowing when to say less are equally as valuable.
Here’s a little bonus tip, though I think it should be obvious: if you’re going to take your work with you everywhere — including into bars when on vacation — don’t be a klutz and spill whiskey on your keyboard. They don’t tend to mix well.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Khaneman. It’s based on a multitude of studies about how people make decisions. Reading it early on in my career, and often since then, has forced me to think more maturely and critically about why my superiors and peers make certain decisions, whether or not I agree with them.
I Weigh by Jameela Jamil is an important podcast, too, even if it’s less career-driven in form. Because I put so much of myself into my work, I tend to push my mental health to the limit, and Jameela covers critical topics like body image, shame, stress, and confidence — all of which are important personal issues to tackle for any driven professional. Like they say, you’ve got to put on your own mask before helping others, and Jameela’s I Weigh is one important tool that I use to put on my own mask, so to speak.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Let’s be clear — I did not start Mainvest, though I wish I did. Nick started Mainvest to empower communities, and I was unafraid to join very early on in the company because our mission resonated with me so personally. Academically and professionally, I had done a lot of work on community engagement and saw firsthand how broken our current systems are. Personally, coming from a family of small business owners, I felt like Mainvest was built for me and my parents — and in fairness, it was. My personal vision for Mainvest has to do with democratization. I do not want community members to feel powerless anymore. I want anyone with $100 to know that they can build impactful wealth. I want business owners from all backgrounds to feel confident in accessing the capital they need to grow their businesses. I believe that when these things are true, capitalism can actually start to work for everyone. The best business owners — regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. — should be able to build legitimately useful and needed businesses.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Lead with purpose. If you’re only results and profit-driven, you’ll have a great time when you’re doing great. I learned quickly from my early sales roles that this wasn’t the life for me: I need to care about my work, and perform better when I genuinely care. It’s hard to quantify this, but it’s important. It’s very hard to put in the work when you’re playing from behind and don’t care about your “why.” When you know that there’s a purpose behind your work, it’s much easier to motivate yourself and others through the darkest times. I think that this is seen most clearly in the challenges that have faced small business owners this year: if you’re only opening a restaurant for the money, shutting down due to a pandemic is not going to be easy.
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’ve been quite privileged throughout COVID-19. Though I’m an extrovert, I was able to stay safe by working remotely. I’ve always struggled with anxiety and loneliness, so it wasn’t easy, but it definitely was comparatively easier than what others have had to face, and because of my privilege, I’ve tried hard to find the silver linings and use my own position to help others.
In my personal life, navigating a break-up throughout COVID-19 was no easy feat emotionally, financially, or logistically, but I made it work by leaning on my support system and staying positive. It’s been busier than ever at Mainvest, so balancing my personal life with staying sharp professionally, and trying to move and find an apartment while social distancing was a tough balance as well. Glad I did it, though.
The only difficult aspect of COVID-19 that I can’t quite spin so positively is losing my grandmother to the virus. She was a huge inspiration to me, as she started an incredible legal career at the age of 48 at a time when women really stayed in the home, and I genuinely, naively, thought she’d live through anything. COVID-19 is an equalizer in that sense. It was very, very hard to lose someone so impactful.
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?
Our two biggest challenges go hand in hand: we’re growing faster than ever before due to demand from COVID-19, but due to COVID-19, have had to transition to remote work, which has proven extremely challenging. While many may see small businesses as doomed, the story on the ground is much more mixed, and that’s been really exciting for us as a company. We’re working with businesses who indeed have nowhere else to turn for capital, but also businesses thinking strategically about the future of brick and mortar. Other new entrepreneurs are taking advantage of cheaper rents to launch a brand new business. All of these different stories, and sheer increased demand, has required increased collaboration and resources, neither of which have been any easier during a pandemic. While remote work is coming into vogue, and for good reason, it doesn’t work well for us.
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’ve struggled with anxiety for years, and completely understand how this news cycle can introduce new stressors and symptoms of anxiety — even in people who aren’t typically anxious. The first tip I have is to not be afraid to discuss how you’re feeling. I had to make adjustments to my medication, and I think it’s completely reasonable for people to start an open dialogue with their own doctors about whether medication — either introducing it for the first time, or making adjustments — may help. There’s still such a stigma around asking for help with mental health, and the more stressful things get, the more important it is to overcome that stigma.
The other piece of advice I have- and it may sound odd- is to laugh. We’re confronting the issues of a lifetime, but we’re all human and at the end of the day we need laughter and connection. As we tackle dismantling years of systemic racism, sexism, classism, and greed, it is important to note that troubling times can yield great outcomes, meaning that the future is bright.
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?
Mainvest sees a ton of opportunity post-COVID, especially in the small business sector. Unfortunately, many small businesses have gone under, leaving gaps in community needs, in commercial real estate, and in economies. We have two choices: we can leave large corporations to fill these voids, likely coming in with businesses that don’t fully align with or represent communities, or we can uplift an entire generation of fresh, local entrepreneurs who are up for the challenge. These new entrepreneurs are going to need funding, which is the direct opportunity that we see. New businesses mean new changes for entrepreneurs to build: maybe it’s someone who’s been working in retail and is ready to open their own space. Maybe it’s someone who was laid off from their office job and looking to go out on their own. Not only does this allow a new profile of business owners to thrive, it gives communities the opportunity to uplift these business owners by investing in them and supporting them. If this happens, local economies will benefit more so than if empty storefronts are just filled up with Soul Cycles and Olive Gardens.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think, and I hope, that we’ll permanently become more vigilant. At the beginning of COVID-19, so many people lived in ignorance and privilege. 2020 was an absolute shit show, but it opened a lot of eyes. In particular, everyday people became acutely aware of the fact that local economic forces affect them much more than anything on a macro level. Not everyone is going to go out and start a local restaurant, but certainly more people understand the unique challenges that small business owners face.
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?
Post COVID, we’re hitting the ground running. Along the same lines of putting on your own mask before helping others, we’re ensuring that our team is OK before starting new projects. Over quarantine we held a quaran-team retreat so that a few of us could get together in person, but as our team has grown, we’re going to ensure that our internal culture is as positive, inclusive, and productive as possible. Many of us have been remote and not loving it; a few of us have preferred remote work despite being close to HQ, and now we’re expanding our team to include permanently remote team members, so we’re going to need to adjust to the changing environment. We’ve been growing really fast throughout COVID-19, so while it may seem counterintuitive, we are going to intentionally look inwards to make sure we’re set up for success because things are certainly not going to slow down post-COVID.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
It’s a difficult question because COVID-19 has impacted organizations in so many ways. At the end of the day, companies are made up of people, who have all had different experiences. Pay attention to your employees and their needs. Did you have to lay off team members, and might it make sense to bring them back rather than re-train new hires? Do you have a lot of working parents whose schedules have been forever altered? Is your culture better off remote, or are you all excited to get back into the office? Pay closer attention than ever before to your culture, and before taking on new projects, look inwards. Make sure everyone is on the same page if you’re going to dive into new initiatives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The answer is no until you ask. My grandmother, who I mentioned earlier, instilled in me a sense of tenacity. I think that the reason I’ve gotten this far is because I’m unafraid of making the ask. I simply can’t bring myself to sit down and stay quiet just for the sake of politeness. Whether it’s been asking for raises, leaving an engagement, taking on roles I’m traditionally ‘too young’ for, or trying new things just because my gut says they’ll work.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Sign up for Mainvest emails! We’re constantly adding new businesses, and every single business is a story. https://mainvest.com at the top of our website.
Follow Mainvest across platforms.
I’m @izzystrobing on Instagram if you want pictures of food, the north shore of Massachusetts, and my funniest outfits.
I’m also at @izzystrobing on Twitter if you want west wing jokes, Harry Styles fandom, and almost-funny political commentary.