Lisa Owen and her partner, Vivian, own a successful signage company, Adobe DeSigns, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As far as they know, they are the only woman and minority-owned signage company in the state.
“My partner has been in the construction field for twenty plus years, and has been fighting to get fair…” she trailed off for a moment, thinking. “Well, fair everything.”
Leading by example, the two are attempting to change the way the construction industry operates in the state. It’s a daunting task, but one Lisa says she is well equipped to take on.
Several years ago, Lisa would never have guessed she’d be a small business owner. But following a major life change, she decided to enroll in Minneapolis Technical and Community College (MCTC) which set the wheels in motion.
“My motivation was survival really, because I’d just gotten divorced,” she said. She decided that perusing higher education—something she had started and stopped many years ago—would be beneficial for her. “But also I had been a stay at home mom, raised four kids. We’d recently moved, and they started new schools. It felt like something I needed to do for myself.”
Her father, Sydney Beane, happened to be a professor at the school, and introduced her to the Community Development Program (CDP), a degree program affiliated with Community Learning Partnership.
“I had been a stay at home mom, raised four kids. We’d recently moved, and they started new schools. It felt like something I needed to do for myself.”
“My father explained the CDP program to me,” Lisa said. “It seemed like a really interesting place to start because of the variety of classes I could take.” Also, MCTC had developed a pathway to Metropolitan State University, where she could complete a 4-year degree, which was her ultimate goal.
Even though her father was intimately involved with the CDP program at MCTC, Lisa didn’t know much about it prior to enrolling. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she laughed. “But I took a leap of faith.”
The first thing to strike Lisa about the CDP program was just how familiar the coursework’s emphasis on community building and organizing felt to her.
“We’re organizing all the time, even without a degree,” Lisa said. “You’re organizing when you attend a Parent-Teacher Association, or a Neighborhood Association. That was really eye-opening about CDP. I’ve been doing these things all my life.”
Much of her prior experience to community building, Lisa says, is owed to her background and upbringing.
“You’re organizing when you attend a Parent-Teacher Association, or a Neighborhood Association. That was really eye-opening about CDP. I’ve been doing these things all my life.”
“The classes really spoke to me as a Dakota person,” Lisa explained. “As tribal people, community is very important to us. The building of community is involved in all we do.” Lisa and her ex-husband, moreover, were very active in their tribe. “He was kind of the head spiritual leader there, and so for 17 or so years, I was involved in planning traditional cultural ceremonies. I helped guide people and organize them.”
Newer to Lisa, however, was the cross-cultural elements underscored in her coursework. For an assignment in a multicultural communications class, for instance, Lisa and her classmates were asked to interview someone of a different culture.
“There was a Somali student who was also in program, and we interviewed each other,” Lisa said. “We got to ask each other questions we may not have felt comfortable asking in a different setting,” such as the purpose of certain cultural traditions important to each. “We found a lot of differences, but I was more impressed by the parallels. Somali and Native Americans have more in common than you might think.”While she was still pursuing her 4-year degree at Metro State, Lisa and her partner hatched the idea to create a signage company. “I created an individualized study program that I built around being a small business owner,” Lisa explained.
Lisa may not have pursued a traditional organizing career as did some of her CDP classmates, but she nonetheless found herself applying much of what she learned to her life’s work. In particular, she often finds herself applying an organizing staple—the “one-on-one”—which is a relational meeting used by organizers to learn about someone’s motivations, concerns, and resources.
“They’re so valuable, in any situation,” Lisa said. “I’ve always been a good listener, but a ‘one-on-one’ takes it to a different level—it’s not just about having a conversation.” Lisa and her partner began attending construction networking events and “meet and greets” to help drum up new clients. She quickly noticed that many people use these types of opportunities to talk about themselves. Lisa, instead, decided to apply her one-on-one skills and listen. “I want to find out as much about a company and their culture as I can,” she said. “CDP taught me how to ask the right questions to get helpful information from someone.”
“I’ve always been a good listener, but a ‘one-on-one’ takes it to a different level—it’s not just about having a conversation.”
She has also found organizing skills useful as an employer. “We’re in a target for neighborhood development, where the majority is lower-income and minority. We try to hire within our own communities.”
Lisa and her partner enjoy going above and beyond what might be expected of a traditional boss. “We try to teach people skills,” Lisa said. “Everyday stuff that maybe people don’t realize is important, like getting to work on time. We try to give people chances where many others might not.”
The two are also careful to look out for their employees. “We speak out when things aren’t right,” she said. “We support our employees. If people give you trouble, or if there is racism on the job site, we want to know about it so we can take care of it.”
The two also seek to share their knowledge about their industry, and best practices they have identified to help make their business successful. “We give interviews and go to events to help others who want to start a business open their business,” Lisa said. “We don’t charge for knowledge. We help people when we can.”
“We support our employees. If people give you trouble, or if there is racism on the job site, we want to know about it so we can take care of it.”
Her impulse to do so, she says, stemmed in part from what she learned in the CDP. “We were taught to look at our community and ask—how can I make this better? By utilizing the resources of somebody else, how can I help?”
As for the future, Lisa hopes to keep growing her business. But additionally, she’s begun looking for ways to engage further with her community. “I just got elected to Indian Chamber of Commerce board,” Lisa said. “And I’m on the Minneapolis Indian Child Parent Committee for my daughter.” She hopes to look for additional ways to become involved and apply her CDP training, particularly now that she’s done with school.
For those currently in the program, Lisa also has some words of advice:
“Don’t be completely dependent on your degree to get where you want to be,” she says. “You have to use what you’re learning to build relationships along the way.” For this reason, she appreciated that MCTC provided her with many opportunities to do so. “They brought in people that were doing work in the community and guest speakers.
“Still,” she added, “make sure you use those skills you’re learning. You have to be the one to initiate.”