We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Vanessa Tinsley a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Vanessa, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. Alright, so you had your idea and then what happened? Can you walk us through the story of how you went from just an idea to executing on the idea
Bridge to Hope is actually the 4th business I’ve started. This one was born out of a deeply personal experience and conceived around my kitchen table with 3 of my dearest friends. Having an idea and getting it on paper is the easy part, but bringing the idea to life required some grit. The original idea was to provide basics such as soap, shampoo, toilet paper, and laundry soap to families on food stamps when we found out that personal hygiene products can’t be purchased with them. We spent 2 days getting the business plan down and we had this great plan to get local churches to place collection boxes for the needed items that we would then distribute to people in need. Great plan, but it was an epic fail. Very few churches were interested in helping, and in the few that did allow us to place collection boxes, the response was abysmal.
In the early years, we were full of great ideas that we tried hard to execute on but the outcomes were not as strong as we intended.
There was a lot to figure out in the early stages, and this was before you could just Google anything you needed to know. In those days we were using our Apple IIGS to create flyers to print on our dot matrix printer. But some things about starting or relaunching
a business are still very much the same. You have to take your idea and think through every detail, and you need to ask others to look for what you might be missing. It’s really important to have clarity as you present your business plan. You need a realistic funding plan. Finally, you have to get busy. The people that started this business with me, didn’t stick. They let obstacles get in the way of their vision. Owning a business isn’t easy, there will be challenges (or as some people call them “problems), but challenges can be opportunities. The key to getting to launch, is to keep asking yourself “what is the next step,” and then take that step.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?
I’ve had a hugely interesting career aside from 30 years of teaching, I’m also a serial entrepreneur. I started my first business, a music school when I was 18, in my 20’s I launched a catering company, in my 30’s I opened the first Day Spa in our area. Now I am leading the non-profit I co-founded. Our rapidly growing NPO provides food and essential services to thousands of people every month. Not only do we help feed, educate, and improve health outcomes for our neighbors seeking to achieve self-sufficiency, we offer local businesses the opportunity to engage with, and have meaningful impact in their community.
I’m really proud of what I have achieved as the Executive Director of Bridge to Hope because it was born out of a personal struggle. Having been an entrepreneur and all around totally self sufficient woman, there was never a bigger shock than to find myself in need. To be perfectly honest, I became hopeless. Fortunately, I had my children to consider, so I had to pull myself up no matter how I felt. I also understood, I wasn’t the only one facing challenge. I wanted to do more than get back on my feet, I wanted to empower others to do the same. So, I set out to solve some of the problems I was facing, not only for myself – but others. Did you know, you can’t buy soap, shampoo, toilet paper, deodorant, laundry soap, or toothpaste with Food Stamps? I didn’t. I sure didn’t know how someone as smart and talented I was would ever find a job if I was unwashed and smelled like I hadn’t bathed in a week. So, that was the first thing we tackled as an organization, getting those basics to people who couldn’t provide them for themselves so they could have a chance at a better life. Amazing, how washing your clothes, taking a bath, and putting on some deodorant can build your confidence and help you land a job!
Over the past 4 years we’ve grown over 500%. Early on, we helped about 30 households, now we are a major provider for thousands of people. We provide over $2 million in services to our community each year. We’ve expanded our services to include healthy fresh food, school supplies, furniture, workforce development, and disaster relief. We helped rebuild workforce housing in the Keys after Irma, and we partnered with 3rd Wave Volunteers to send $1 million in rebuilding supplies to the Bahamas.
As a business owner, I always wanted to help my community, but it’s hard to know where to invest your efforts. I am so proud that Bridge to Hope provides local businesses a place to invest their time and their treasure to create powerful impact that reflects their values. Small and large business enjoy coming to our events and serving their community through different service and team building opportunities. I love that I get to be a connector, facilitating change and proving that together we can meet every need and build a strong society where everyone can thrive. Miami is fortunate to have many socially responsible businesses that are willing to get involved and spend a day with us sharing good in our neighborhoods.
What else should we know about how you took your side hustle and scaled it up into what it is today?
When we started this business, I never expected this kitchen table project to turn into a thriving organization that would employ others. For the first 10 years, the leadership and co-founders were content for it to be a side hustle, but I always had a longing to see it grow. No matter how many we served, or what we accomplished, I always felt it could be more. When I finally took the reigns, I tried working it nights and weekends but I still couldn’t get to where I felt I wanted it to grow. The biggest milestone for our organization was investing the time to train with organizations and individuals that knew how to create scale. For me that was Social Entrepreneurs Boot Camp (Radical Partners), attending workshops at Indiana University Perdue University Indiana, and the South Dade Business Accelerator in Cutler Bay. Those learning experiences made me stretch and grow. The most important thing we can do as business leaders is remain outside our comfort zone. In business, “no pain” truly is “no gain.” If there is anything I can say about scaling I’d say, let your struggle make you stronger. Embrace it. The second big milestone was when I walked away from my career to embrace leading this non-profit fulltime. It was terrifying, and I am so glad I took the leap of faith. That decision taught me what I was made of.
Any advice for managing a team?
Leading a team that spends all day dealing with peoples problems presents a unique challenge to maintaining morale. I’ve learned that your team reflects you. Observing your team will show you what values and attitudes your team is picking up from you. If you smile a lot, you’ll notice that your team smiles a lot. If you focus on mistakes, your team will do the same. When it comes to managing a team, be authentic, people can tell when you are disingenuous and you will lose respect. On the other hand, when you are encouraging and authentic, your team will go the extra mile for you and with you. Remember that what you focus on amplifies, so focus on what is going well, celebrate wins, and encourage your team. When addressing “problems,” frame them as opportunities for growth. To lighten the mood at Bridge to Hope, I break into song, or just get up and dance. I love that my team now breaks into song or dance all the time, especially, when we are working extra hard and the going is tough. It’s a great place to be and we have fun. It sounds a little strange I’m sure, but morale here is very high and we all love coming to work and working together.
- Website: www.bridgetohope.net
- Instagram: bridge2hope
- Facebook: facebook.com/bridgetohope
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vanessa-tinsley-a46113100/