EAL/LA’s Tara Aesquivel interviews Jennifer Espinoza, APAL alumna and Founder of Tired Eyes Arts, LLC, about what it takes to start a new organization.
[RettSyndromeFamilyPicnic: Jennifer Espinoza facepainting at the SoCal Rett Syndrome Foundation's Family Picnic in Long Beach]
TA: What was your main inspiration for creating your organization?
JE: My main inspiration for creating my organization was spending six-plus years working in this field (working with individuals with developmental disabilities, most of those years working specifically with kids on the Autism Spectrum), and seeing ways I could do it better. That might sound obnoxious, but I’m a punk at heart– born and raised in the DIY tradition- so, my attitude problem fuels my ego to not let go of the idea that I can take what I’ve learned from others and do it better. That’s at the heart of punk ideology, but it’s really nothing new – there is a saying in a Tibetan scripture that says, “Knowledge must be burned, hammered, and beaten like pure gold. Then one can wear it as an ornament.” I’m still hammering!
TA: How long have you been planning? What was that process like?
JE: I have been talking about “doing this better” for many years, but I put pen to paper during my Master’s program in 2009. From first SWOT analysis to registering my LLC, it was over two years. The process was not as intense as I thought it would be. This may have been because I gave myself a broad timeline with very generous deadlines. I was very realistic on just how long things would take me to get done.
[Art Attack! program participants making a Tennis Ball Mural]
TA: Did you ever give up? What kept you going?
JE: I hit a huge brick wall of bureaucracy about halfway through my process. That was the true pivot-point in my decision to do this as a private business instead of a non-profit. Most programs for individuals with developmental disabilities are paid for with state funds, which means you have to abide by state rules and regulations. To run my programs the way I want, and to be true to my mission statement, I could not be restricted by state regulations. They simply have not caught up with modern best-practices, in my opinion. The scariest times were when things actually gained momentum; it was like, “Wait a minute! This is really happening!”, and that would throw me into a huge reality check. The fact that I feel so strongly about getting these services to kids on the Autism Spectrum has kept me going.
TA: Tell us more about your decision to go LLC instead of 501c3.
JE: The main reason I decided to go with the LLC is that there are simply too many restrictions on organizations that work with the special needs population when you are accepting government money. If I was going to break the mold on programs for kids on the Autism Spectrum, I had to have the freedom to do it my way. Also, I have worked for two non-profit organizations in the past. There was a time in my career where I felt as though working for a private company was against everything I believed it. But, the term “non-profit” is really a misnomer. You can run a private company and wind up with little or no (or negative, as in my case this first year) profit. Conversely, there are many executives in the non-profit world that are raking in the big bucks. My eyes were opened when I found out that all tax returns (called 990s) of 501c3s are open to the public— you can find them online. I was shocked to find out how much the CEO of the last non-profit I worked for had gotten as a raise after he stood in front of all of his employees and told us how, due to state budget cuts, we would not be getting a raise for the second year in a row. That broke my heart.
TA: What has surprised you most about starting your own company?
JE: It completely flabbergasted me to learn how unfriendly California is to businesses. I had heard some stories of it in the past, but shrugged it off as political propaganda. Wow, let me tell you – it’s true. What really freaked me out was how high the annual state tax for an LLC is. Just as a comparison – in New Jersey (where I’m originally from), the annual LLC tax is $50. In California, the tax is… $800. It’s not surprising – it’s revolting. Reading the fine print on how many ways they can fine you if you miss a due date made my head hurt. The payment is tax deductible, which is the only positive thing I can say about it.
TA: What aspects of your formal education have been most helpful in this process?
JE: I went through the coolest Master’s program on the planet, and I owe the fact that I am now running my own business to that. I have a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Woodbury University in Burbank. It had aspects of an MBA, but mostly it was a year-long journey of self-discovery that cannot be paralleled. It opened my eyes to the concept of Leading with Authenticity, which has become a mantra for me. The program really pushed me to discover what kind of a leader I am and what kind of a leader I want to be. That sounds so simple, but viewing yourself from an outside perspective is something you have to learn; It’s not inherent. I gained the skills to clearly outline a timeline for my business, and more importantly, I gained the confidence I needed to get it done.
TA: Have you had to learn anything on the fly?
JE: I’ve had to learn almost everything on the fly. That’s what happens when you don’t have the funds to pay an attorney or an accountant. I do not recommend doing it this way!
TA: What’s your advice to Emerging Leaders that have an idea for a new organization?
JE: Read this book right now: Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant, by Kim & Mauborgne. All the advice I would give is given in this book. Also: if you don’t believe 100% in what you are doing, don’t do it; always go with your gut; grow some b***s to get it done because the process will test you; and, most importantly: get a mentor!
TA: I remember that you launched Tired Eyes Arts while you were in the APAL program. How did your mentorship influence or support your efforts?
JE: I had foresight to choose a mentor that had experience opening and running both non-profit orgs and private businesses. The advice he gave me was immeasurable. He has also been an integral part of the L.A. art scene for over 20 years, which comes with contacts to share, but, he was also a huge help to me because of his emotional support. A mentor can support you in a way that a spouse, family member, or friend cannot. People that know you well know what to say to make you happy and what to say to make you upset. Because of that, they edit themselves, which is the last thing you need to achieve clarity. Their support is needed, but in a completely different way. This goes back to what I said about the importance of being able to see yourself from another perspective.
[Jennifer’s mentor was Bert Green of Bert Green Fine Art Gallery]
TA: Thank you, Jennifer! Your story is inspiring and we appreciate that you’ve taken the time to share with EAL/LA.
[Art Attack! program participants cleaning up]