We stood in Italy’s bustling Roma Termini Station weighed down by suitcases other backpackers laughed at. Low on funds and quickly reaching the limit of our traveler’s Italian, my cousin Tina and I were stranded with no available train route to our destination—and proving, for better or worse, that we could work together in a crisis.
Tina, as our Haitian family would say, is my “moun.” My partner-in-crime. So in 2012, she was the first person I called when I decided to launch my non-profit social enterprise, Moxie Leadership Academy, a selective summer program improving the emotional intelligence skills of at-risk girls. I know what you’re thinking. “Rule number one, Vanessa. Don’t hire family, especially not your cousin and close friend.”
But if you’ve ever traveled with one person for four weeks straight—sleeping in the same room, eating all your meals together, and going through tense moments like this one—you know it takes a special pair to avoid clawing each other to death.
Tina and I didn’t end up sleeping on the station floor. By working with a tireless Eurail rep, we found a complicated route to Barcelona, slid through as the train doors closed, and drooped into the only two open seats.
I needed several things when I launched Moxie, among them, someone with the psychology and education background to build a strong curriculum that would produce real growth for our girls. With a master’s in psychology from Columbia University and rave reviews from Teach For America coaches and principals, Tina brought the industry credibility we needed.
As Tina’s cousin, friend, and travel companion, I knew, most importantly, that she was a hustler. An immigrant raised in New York, Tina is the type of person who can make something out of nothing.
On New Year’s Eve 2008, Tina and I were in Miami, a city where a good party can cost hundreds of dollars, and unless you want to wait in a line for hours, you have to know someone to get in anywhere. In typical Tina fashion, she not only led us past a line of would-be partygoers but also had us escorted in for free.
A year later, when we lived together in New Orleans, I watched every night as she was the last teacher to leave her school building. She had her lessons planned at least a week ahead, while most first-year teachers planned the night before. Tina is as confident and resourceful as she is unafraid of hard work. I was certain she’d be exactly what I would need in Moxie’s early stages.
Even so, when I took professor Waverly Deutsch’s entrepreneurship class at Chicago Booth, she laid out time and again the pitfalls of building a family-run business. As Professor Deutsch explained, “investors tend to shy away from businesses with family cofounders, knowing that entrepreneurs will, rightly, prioritize family relationships over the business.” While we sought to be a sustainable nonprofit, not a profit-maximizing firm beholden to investors, the underlying question was clear: would my loyalty to Tina cripple Moxie?
But start-ups, particularly social enterprises, are deeply personal, so I was loyal to Moxie as well. When I approached Tina, I was clear about these concerns and gave her space to walk away. When she decided to join the team, we agreed that if things got tense, we’d part ways, and I’d stay on with Moxie.
Our story as business partners has not been perfect. Seven days into our pilot this summer, our third teammate, Lea, told me she found it difficult to work with two people who were so close. She felt left out of the decision-making process and did not always have complete information about what we were doing. After work that day, over a beer, Tina and I created a plan, both to validate Lea’s concerns and create distance between my cousin and me. We improved team-wide communication through weekly updates and daily kickoff meetings, and I intentionally began to seek out Lea’s opinion when making a decision and follow through on her ideas. At the same time, I noticed Tina made an effort to collaborate with Lea by discussing effective methods for dealing with certain students’ behavior and sharing ideas for classroom plans.
On the other hand, our tight communication helps us avoid some typical start-up messiness. Like when we led the entire program of girls to a location we had reserved, only to find it occupied. Before the group noticed, Tina caught my eye and mouthed, “Deyò?” Knowing it was Creole for “outside,” I stopped the group to briefly give instructions and announced we’d be doing the teambuilding activity in the grassy shade outside.
I saw the benefits of Tina’s ingenuity in full-force throughout this summer. Two days before our pilot kicked off, we were still without a fitness teacher. While I had already succumbed to the idea of teaching fitness myself, Tina convinced a friend and former dancer to volunteer for the role. Not only did we find a teacher last minute, Ms. Megan was great and free. On breaks, the girls spent every free moment they had practicing the dance she taught them and coaching each other when their technique wasn’t quite right. Over lunch, they chatted excitedly about everything Ms. Megan had shared about her alma mater, Florida State University.
A few days later, Tina was making friends with the school chef. She started by asking him about his career aspirations. With his own catering company on the side, it turns out Chef Willy was a budding entrepreneur too. At the end of the conversation, she walked away with a boxed lunch. Student lunches were included in our school contract, but staff lunches were not originally part of the bargain. Before long, our entire staff was enjoying delicious, free lunches courtesy of Tina’s hustling. Chef Willy’s staff lunches made a huge difference as a morale booster, but he really outdid himself when he helped our girls make their own pizzas to complement the fraction lessons they had learned that day.
By connecting with Lea, Ms. Megan, and Chef Willy, understanding their motivations, and involving them in our mission, Tina was able to glean the most from each relationship. Without always realizing it, I’m internalizing this practice. As any early-stage entrepreneur will agree, fundraising is a huge, fairly constant process. While I sometimes second-guess if and how to ask a particular person for money, Tina has no qualms about it. Whenever we meet with someone, whether with guests at the girls’ final ceremony or with a fellow educator or administrator coming to observe Moxie, Tina makes a point to remind everyone that we readily accept donations. It’s a conversation I still struggle with, but learning how to create partnerships, whether for financial support, in-kind donations, or volunteer time, is absolutely crucial to my ability to grow Moxie into an organization that helps at-risk girls succeed in school and life.
In the end, my decision to work with family was never about breaking a sacred business rule. After all, the line between work and home is increasingly blurred, and in the start-up world, that line is even muddier. Just as Tina applies her signature brand of hustle to all elements of her life, my decision to bring her on board at Moxie was a conscious choice not to segregate personal and professional. Instead, our partnership is a reminder that when you are as passionate and energetic about your job as I am, it flows naturally into the rest of your life.
Some names have been changed by the author.
This article was written by My Say from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.