I shouldn’t be where I am today. If you look at the odds you would agree with me. I was a 24-year-old “hippie” Latina who was out spoken and audacious, wondering if anyone would take me seriously. But I had a vision. Penny Lane started as a home for 24 girls and today is now one of the largest providers of Social Services in Southern California. Here is how I did it:
I grew up in my native Puerto Rico. After graduating from high school, my family moved to Southern California. Though still a young woman, I had already developed a strong sense of social responsibility. In college, I became a feminist even before I understood what the word meant, I just knew I had to fight for injustices in anyway I could. My résumé started in the streets of Los Angeles marching for those who didn’t have a voice.
After graduating from college, I began my career as a probation officer for Los Angeles County. At the time, it was shocking to have an unreserved Latina working in a very conservative environment. I was met with resistance; surprised not everyone wanted to hear my opinion, but it didn’t stop me from offering it. I was responsible for finding treatment facilities for young girls who were wayward, non-conforming and incorrigible. I quickly became frustrated and disillusioned with the near void of adequate treatment facilities available to these vulnerable girls. Society did not want to do anything for them except tell them to “straighten out” and “act right.”
Once one looked beyond the surface, it was apparent these children had been used, abused, thrown away and forgotten. Their opposition and defiance to society’s rules was their way of screaming for help. My unflinching resolve and three generations of strong women standing behind me reminding me that education, passion and perseverance would change the world, would not allow me to stand idly by. Thus began my dream. With a lot help from my family and close friends, on December 15th, 1969, Penny Lane became a functioning reality.
During the first few years of operation, Penny Lane experienced serious challenges which I met with dedication, determination and a never changing sense of mission. The program had developed a reputation for strength and quality but was poorly funded. My first lesson: no matter how good your organization is, you better be able to fund it.
Today, Penny Lane Centers is a $36 million full service community behavioral health organization employing 520 staff and serving 3000 youth and families. Now it’s my turn to stand behind and empower young entrepreneurial women. Here is my advice:
See obstacles as opportunities. It’s true what your mother said: when one door closes, another one opens. This is especially true at Penny Lane where giving up is not option for us or our families. In most cases, our families know what they need; they just don’t know how to get there. Fifteen years ago when our community was overrun with violence and drugs we had a choice: give up and move to a “nicer” neighborhood or stay and change the community. By staying, we transformed abandoned, dilapidated apartment buildings into transitional housing for former foster youth. This “obstacle” led to housing for hundreds of homeless families and a neighborhood that emerged as a safe and proud community.
Be willing to re-tool your services or re-invent your business. To stay relevant over the last four decades, Penny Lane has had to shift the way we provide services to reflect the needs of our clients. As long as you stay true to the mission, you have to be able to adjust how you relate to the population you serve. If you listen to what people say about the services you provide, they will tell you what works for them. It’s our job to create services that meet our clients’ needs; it’s not the clients’ job to fit into a service model.
Trust yourself. Several times in my career, I have met very smart and charismatic people who have told me they have all the answers. A few times in my career I have believed them; all of which were disastrous. Trusting my gut and looking inward for the answers have always served me best.
Courage is a virtue. Be bold and courageous. People will tell you, “You can’t!” or, “It’s never been done!” Do it anyway. Taking calculated risks has increased our funding, expanded our array of services and has set Penny Lane apart from other nonprofits.
Have a sense of humor. If you can have fun and enjoy what you do, there will be longevity in your business. Hire people that not only share your passion but also your sense of fun. It will get you through the dark days and make impossibilities manageable.
At the end of the day, it’s not about you. Build a business that is about the staff and clients. Your business should be a reflection of the people you employ and the clients you serve. It’s about surrounding yourself with a talented, caring and strong group of people coming together to achieve the goals of the organization. Building a business around those principals will ensure your business will continue long after you are gone, and so will your legacy.