Michele Hodges: President of the Belle Isle Conservancy

Michele2_DetroitFreePress.jpg

Here in Detroit, one of the city’s most popular spots is Belle Isle, an island and public park in the Detroit River between Detroit and Ontario, Canada. The 982-acre island is a hub of recreation: bikers, dogs on walks, and joggers all year round. Visitors can rent boats and bikes, swim at the beach, tour the Belle Isle Aquarium, walk through greenhouses and botanical gardens, fish off the piers, and more. This week we interviewed the woman in charge of it all, Michele Hodges. She’s had a very successful career in public service and is currently serving as President of the Belle Isle Conservancy, the non-profit that oversees Belle Isle. If you’ve ever thought about working in public service, or are curious about what it takes to keep public spaces up and running, you’ll love this one. Check it out!

Can you tell me the story of your career so far? 
It’s always kind of fun thinking about a question like that because you don’t want your answer to be boring. I started at Michigan State, got an Urban Planning degree...it’s all so dull, right? It’s sort of like, if you have a broken arm or something, everybody’s like “How’d you do that?” And you want to be able to say you jumped out of a plane, right? You don’t want to say “Oh, I fell off my bike”.

Haha, true! Maybe it’s better to start with, “Why urban planning at Michigan State?”
It was an accidental thing. Because when you’re a kid--which you are when you enter college--you don’t know what those words mean. You sort of know what you like to do, though. I knew I really enjoyed communities and engagement. My family had a history of community service: my dad was an elected official, my parents were very involved in the parent-teacher activities in the schools and the church festivals and started a little league. I think the seeds of it were [planted] probably well before school started. And then it just transformed into something I really enjoy. What I like most about it is that you weave together your personal and professional worlds and your community service worlds as well. So, when my husband asks me, “Why’d you work so many hours this week?” I say, “That wasn’t work!” It was work and service.

After graduating, I entered the public sector first. All these steps that you’ll hear ultimately fit together really well because it’s important to have that background. I was working with Downtown Development Authorities, and learning about economic development and tax-based community financing. I was part of the founding committee of the Eight Mile Boulevard Association, which is a really remarkable experience for a young suburban girl who grew up two houses from Eight Mile all wide eyed. Really getting to know my community was a fantastic and certainly pivotal experience. 

I worked in two communities, the city of Eastpointe and the city of Southfield, which was great because they were very different from one another, and I really started building a whole region-wide network at that point. I started representing those communities on Chamber of Commerce boards, and that led to my migration to Chamber of Commerce staff. I joined the Detroit Regional Chamber, but on their Economic Development team, not necessarily what I call their ribbon cutting team, where you’re going out doing traditional Chamber of Commerce work. 

That enabled me to learn a lot about our region [of Southeast Michigan] and the 10 counties: how you make things happen and how you bring investment to the region. Then I joined the Troy Chamber of Commerce when we started building our family so that I could be a little more anchored and not travel as much. But I still wanted to have a meaningful professional opportunity. The Troy Chamber really provided that because they’re more corporate in their orientation, they’re more focused on business economic development and building the community, so I really enjoyed my time there. 

I really missed the Detroit fishbowl, the magic that has always been Detroit and continues to be Detroit. That’s when I had the honor of joining the Belle Isle Conservancy, about six years ago. 

BelleIsle.jpg

That’s amazing! And aren’t you the very first president of the Belle Isle Conservancy?
Yes! I have the honor of being the founding president of the Belle Isle Conservancy. Now with that said, there are many very important people that preceded me in will, grit, vision, and passion. Most significant is Sarah Earley, our founder, who loved Belle Isle before it was cool to love Belle Isle, and really committed herself to creating the Conservancy. She’s at the very top of that list, and certainly the leadership within our founding organizations – the Friends of Belle Isle, the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium, the Belle Isle Botanical Society, and the Belle Isle Women’s Committee. Those folks really created the environment within which the Conservancy could take flight. 

Are those all different organizations still today? Or are they under the umbrella of the Belle Isle Conservancy? 
My hat is really off to all of those folks because they were true visionaries. They realized that by working together we’d be more effective at accomplishing the mission that has been set before us. They exist in our hearts and in our minds but officially the Conservancy is now the single organization leading on Belle Isle from a non-profit standpoint. Additionally, we have our state partners and our city partners. 

As president, what are your main responsibilities?
To protect, preserve, restore, and enhance everything that makes Belle Isle incredible. The Department of Natural Resources has day-to-day management responsibilities –  they’re making sure the park user experience is exceptional, the trash is taken care of, the lawns are mowed, the bathrooms are operational, the buildings are functioning, the infrastructure is in solid shape. They really have a very significant physical task that they have to accomplish and then find the resources necessary to make that happen. 

The City of Detroit continues to maintain ownership of the park but at arm’s-length, now. Our roles primarily center around the management of the aquarium. That costs about $500,000 a year just to keep it free and open to the public. We’ve helped lead many of the planning processes, we manage all of the volunteers that come to the island--which is a significant undertaking--and we do a lot of the event planning, primarily from a fundraising and engagement standpoint. And from a philanthropic standpoint. That’s the core of what we do: it does all fit well together and it manages to keep us quite busy!

Aquarium_ParagonApts.jpg

I’m sure it does! I read that Belle Isle needs about $300M to cover maintenance costs of the park, before you can start working on any new projects. Is that still the case?
Yes, we have about $300M+ worth of deferred capital improvements and the like. We’re about $58M toward that goal, with the Department of Natural Resources now having been with us 4 years, I believe it is. They have great acumen at finding outside sources that we wouldn’t qualify for if we didn’t have state park designation. 

The Department of Natural Resources has been very good about bringing those resources to the table, along with Law Enforcement resources, and the Michigan Department of Transportation which manages the roads. But that’s what we’re dealing with, just to get it to code, to that basic level of service that it should be at. We’re grateful to the community for helping us make such headway.

Is fundraising the largest aspect of your role?
Yes, that’s our primary responsibility. It’s an important one. Fortunately, the community is standing tall and we have wonderful relationships with the local foundation community, the corporate community, the individual community. We really honor them for supporting this very important mission. Because it’s our park, right? And it’s special, you can’t find Belle Isle anywhere else in the world. 

Somebody used an example the other day that really resonated with me. It would be as if somebody came in with an incredible art collection – one nobody in the world could compete with – and decided that they were going to open a museum to compete with the Detroit Institute of Arts. Well, you really can’t do that because Diego Rivera did not walk the halls of that new art collection, [the new collection doesn’t have] that history.

And then, it’s the people who know that heartbeat, as well. For example – our volunteers made a seahorse-led sleigh and put it on the grounds of the aquarium. It was cut out of wood, all of the details you could imagine, including a red nose on the lead seahorse. And now we’re talking about making sure we represent other religions. Maybe we’ll do an octopi to become a menorah, and others too. That’s the quality of our volunteers. 

Courtesy of Oudolf Garden Detroit.png

How large is the full-time team at the Conservancy?
Depending on how you count--because we have contractors and interns--we’re in the neighborhood of 13 to 15 bodies really making it happen. We now have professional staff at the aquarium which is really important, because we take our responsibility of caring for those animals in an appropriate way seriously. That was important to us. Since then, we’ve built out our volunteer engagement, events management, fund development and operations team. I was the first full-time staff, and that was in 2012-2013. 

Were you in charge of setting all the departments up?
Oh, yeah. It’s a responsibility, because you’re building an organization, putting processes in place that will hopefully last beyond your lifetime, and you have to know something about everything. HR, finance, legal, marketing and communications, and now aquariums! It’s very rewarding having that knowledge base and building it out, and not having to just be siloed in one of those areas but getting to be involved in all of them. It’s good life skills too, you know? When you’re at home and the fish tank explodes, or you have a legal issue, or you need to read a spreadsheet, or hold a family vote.

Did you pick up all of those skills in the jobs before this? Or was it on the job learning? 
To start, you definitely have to be a critical thinker, you have to love chaos, crazy, and complexity. But I think it’s a combination of both. The very nature of the organizations I’ve worked for required that. Chambers of Commerce are smaller so you get exposed to a lot, and nonprofits are too. You have to learn skills in your formal education, through mentors, and when you’re at lower levels of an organization on the job. You really never know what you’re going to encounter in a day, truly. It could be a flood. There’s all sorts of things. Lots of political complexity. Lots of community complexity. It’s all there.

Michele1_DetroitFreePress.jpg

What has been your most meaningful accomplishment in this role so far?
Oh boy. I don’t know why the word “solutionary” came to mind. One of my teammates brought that to the table. Maybe that sounds soft and subjective but the fact that we have built a team of solutionaries means that we can build anything and scale anything. I include a lot of people in that category – not just our staff team, although they give blood, sweat, tears everyday. Our board, and the donors. The people that love Belle Isle. We wouldn’t be needed without them. We’re all solutionaries and we all play some role in making sure Belle Isle remains viable. That’s the most important accomplishment, because without that team marching forward, nothing else can happen. 

If you’re looking for something more hardcore, maybe [opening] the Aquarium. People love the Aquarium. It’s a very, very, very special place, not just in Detroit, but in the country and maybe even in the world. Where can you go to be under the sea and not get wet? 

How long do you plan on staying on this position?
It’s my life’s work, no question about it. Folks sit down and map out this very clear career path, I’m going to do this by this time and that by that time. I’ve never bought into that mindset. I think you have to be flexible, nimble, and alert enough to recognize an opportunity when you see it. It’s difficult to really predict your future. But Belle Isle feels like a part of me. There’s no real line between my personal and professional life, and the future’s so bright. I don’t know how you walk away from that. Maybe it’s like when your child goes off to college. You’ve been such a part of their life, building them and suddenly they’re gone. I don’t know that I want Belle Isle to go off to college. I want her to stay right here and be part of her life. 

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

MicheleCard.JPG

Thank you so much, Michele! Readers -- I hope you’ll come check out Belle Isle and see all the wonderful work Michele, her team, and their partners do. Come back next week for a little more time with Michele, where she’ll walk us through the steps behind successful fundraising. (Photos by Detroit Free Press, Oudolf Garden Detroit, and Paragon Apartments)


Priya Krishna: Food Writer & Cookbook Author

PriyaHeadshotByHeidisBridge(ErickSteinberg&EmilyHirsch).jpg

Priya Krishna grew up in Dallas, watching her mother Ritu cook delicious meals that combined her family’s favorite Indian and American ingredients. In college, she studied French and International Relations, but found herself more interested in the weekly food column she wrote for The Dartmouth newspaper, all about transforming dining hall food. Now, she’s a regular contributor to publications including The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and The New Yorker, and the author of two cookbooks, Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks and her newest debut: Indian-Ish. If you’ve ever thought about pursuing food as a career, you’ll love this one! Read on! 

What brought you to a career in food?
I’ve always kind of been obsessed with food. I grew up watching my mom cook but I never really figured it could be a full time job. When I went to college, I started a food column and I figured out how to make amazing food using ingredients you found at your dining hall, and had a lot of fun doing it, and realized this could maybe be a career. So from there, that was my jumping off point.

You’ve worked in both the business and editorial side of food. How did you end up pursuing the editorial path?
I did the business side and I just didn’t like it as much, I got kind of bored. I liked the independence of being a journalist, I liked telling people’s stories. 

PriyaAndMom.jpg

When it came to your second cookbook, what was it like putting all the recipes together for an audience that may not be as familiar with Indian food?
My Mom’s recipes translate really well, they’re from a woman who only learned to cook once she got to the US. So, it was food that naturally fit into the setting. I didn’t want to dumb anything down for the American palette. 

What was the experience of cooking with your Mom and getting that down on paper?
I think she was really excited! My Mom is an engineer, in a role that’s not super creative. I think she was excited to do something creative, and cooking is her passion. 

When it came to filming videos with Bon Appetit, what started as sharing recipes from your cookbook has basically become a full blown channel! How did you get started working with them?
I knew an editor there from my Lucky Peach days, and then did freelancing. Then they asked me to come on board on a more permanent-ish capacity, and then they asked me if I wanted to do videos. Honestly, I’d never even thought about it, and then as soon as I got on camera, I was like, this is actually really fun! People are really making Indian food from these videos! 

Yes they are! In those videos, I love when your parents make cameos. Is that an intentional part of the show?
No! I FaceTime my parents a lot, so it just felt very natural. And the first few times, honestly pretty much all of the times, I give my parents zero notice. So now I feel like my whole family, all my family members are on edge –– is she going to FaceTime us? Are we going to be on the channel without knowing? 

PriyaBA.jpg

Now that the videos have gotten more and more popular, have you changed your approach in any way?
I honestly love the fact that I’m almost introducing terminology around Indian food. I feel like I intermix words and language around Indian food into my conversation, and I hope people who watch the videos know for example what a chhonk is or what saag feta is. It’s fun to sort of help be able to mobilize words and techniques. 

For anyone who is a big fan of your work and is interested in working in the field themselves, are there any early steps you’d suggest for working in the food industry?
You just have to be persistent. Send lots of emails, be very specific and don’t forget to follow up, people are really busy. And be really gracious. If someone gives you an opportunity, send them a hand-written thank you note. I feel like there’s a sense that like young people breaking into the food industry are entitled, but that’s obviously not always the case. Just be persistent and be gracious.

FoodWriting.jpg

Is there a misconception you feel people have of the food industry in general?
That it’s a very glamorous life. And very glamorous right at the beginning. It’s fun being able to eat out at restaurants but it’s also all of the busywork that you would imagine in any job. 

Are there any mistakes you made early on you could share for others to learn from?
I always worry if I was too outgoing or too aggressive about trying to make friends in the industry. It’s definitely a tough industry to break into it. Ease into it, don’t charge into it, is maybe a good tip.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

PriyaCard.jpg

Thank you so much, Priya! Viewers, after you’ve ordered Indian-Ish, I highly recommend starting with her Red Pepper, Potato and Peanut Sabzi recipe. It was shockingly easy and incredibly delicious! You can also check out all of her Bon Appetit videos here, and don’t forget to come back next week for one more serving of Priya’s advice. (Photo credit: Erick Steinberg & Emily Hirsch)

Paco de Leon: Financial Advisor & Co-Host of Refinery 29’s Money Diaries Podcast

PacodeLeonHeadshot.jpg

This week’s interview is with Paco de Leon, who in short is a financial wizard. After a career in a variety of areas within finance, she founded her own personal finance firm called The Hell Yeah Group. Based in LA, they focus exclusively on giving creatives tools and support to be engaged with their finances. Paco is also the co-host of Refinery 29’s Money Diaries podcast and a financial educator to the public through her helpful blog posts on Cup of Jo, and her own website. Read on to learn more!

I’ve read so much about all the different things that you do. You sound like a Finance Wizard! Do you think that’s an accurate description of what you do?
Haha, yeah! I would say that’s pretty accurate. I dabbled in a bunch of different areas of finance and I realized that once you figure out how to make the sausage, you kind of just end up remaking the sausage over and over again and it got kind of boring. I have a background in small business consulting and management. It was  basically glorified bookkeeping, then making sense of the data and using it to tease out what you should do with your business based.

After that, I had a stint as a financial planner for a couple years. That’s where I learned all about personal finance. Then I did another stint in marijuana business consulting, which was interesting, [before starting the Hell Yeah Group].

Why finance? Have you always been interested in it?
Kind of, but I didn’t really understand how to think for myself until I became an adult. A big reason I choose to study finance  was because I thought wouldn’t piss my parents off as much (it’s practical). It was in 2006 and there were a lot of stupid people making piles of money. 

I was curious about that. I was thinking, ‘wow, what’s going on that all these not-smart people are getting really really rich?’ 

I only realized this in retrospect, but I’m just really good at consistently showing up for things. I just showed up to my classes and showed up to my jobs. Getting good at your finances, getting good at anything, really - guitar, dancing, coding - is a lot of just showing up, even when you don’t want to. It’s been ten years, and I guess I’m the finance person now. 

Yes, you are! Can you tell me about the financial training you’ve had?
I have an undergraduate degree in Business with a concentration in Finance and a minor in Economics. Part of the reason I got an Econ minor was because I only had to take four more classes to get an Econ minor because of my Finance major, so I was like f*ck it and got an Econ minor. I’m actually quite interested in Economics. Post-graduate, I went to UCLA extension for their personal finance planning program, which was actually the perfect time to do it. My boss was generously paying for it and the schooling was so much easier because I was dealing with more complex, real world financial planning problems at work. 

Your first job was at a bank. What was that like?
The first job in financial services, I worked at a Bank of America in collections. I was what they call a “Baby Collector,” somebody who is working there part time and only collects on accounts that are 0 to 30 days past due. [Collecting is the process of retrieving owed money back to the bank from individuals]I was only collecting on auto loans, I wasn’t collecting on credit cards or home equity lines or mortgages. It was really intense. 

I got the job after several interviews. Then you go through 4 weeks of classroom training. For an entire month you don’t hop on the phone at all, you just learn about the crazy, archaic banking systems: literally a black screen with green writing. It’s horrible. You learn how to navigate all those different systems and how to talk on the phone. We did a lot of role playing, which was really cheesy, but I’m really glad I got that job because I learned that I can talk to anyone about money. After calling random strangers, scattered across the country, saying, ‘Hey, can you pay us?’, you become really well equipped to talk to anyone about money.

I was there for a year and a half, maybe two years. I quit in July of 2008 and that was right as Bank of America acquired all the Countrywide mortgages. I remember there were a couple of nights when we were asked to collect on these really hard-core accounts that we didn’t have the training for. So, when you hear reports that ‘the bank lacked the infrastructure to deal with the number of defaults’ [In regard to the 2008 financial crisis], it didn’t. There weren’t enough people trained to deal with the magnitude of defaults. 

Wow. 
It was crazy! That only happened a couple of times. We were always told not to collect on accounts [that were] possibly in foreclosure [because] if you take money from them, it’s possible they won’t get that money back. When you’re trying to learn how to help people and you don’t have the tools to help them, what are you supposed to do, you know?

PacoHeadshot2.jpg

What did you do next?
I worked for Wells Fargo financial right after I graduated. It was a horrible sales job and the products they wanted us to sell were just trash, they should not have existed. They were bad products that took advantage of and preyed on old people who are ignorant. They literally handed out a script for people to read. And the products we loan products that would refinance a paid off car, which is a depreciating asset.

That’s terrible.  
Yeah, it’s [messed] up. 

I only stayed at that job for three weeks. I went through the training and then thought, ‘This is the craziest job in the world’. Luckily, the timing was right, and I became an executive assistant [at a boutique consulting management firm in LA]. They were working with a lot of creative businesses, mainly interior designers, some clothing brands, nonprofits, some writers. But it was all creative people in LA. And that’s where I got my first taste of ‘Oh! These are my people. And they’re trying to navigate this silly system of business and finance - that’s totally man-made and totally nonsensical.’ I realized I just understood the system and I knew that I could help people navigate it.

After a couple years doing that and getting bored, I shifted into financial planning. I ended up working as an executive assistant to this wonderful financial planner, and he took me under his wing. He was the first person in my career who really saw me, valued my opinions, and what I thought about how to make things better. That’s when everything changed for me. It’s when I started to realize I was valuable, which I know sounds crazy, but I feel like little girls don’t always get seen in the world. They don’t get asked what they think as much as little boys. 

I worked for a bit as a financial planner, but I eventually grew very disenchanted with the type of clientele we were helping. But with each job, I learned as much as I could, I was a sponge. At the consulting gig, I learned how to do Quickbooks, how to do bookkeeping, how to build financials. Then with financial planning, I learned everything about personal finance: Investment strategies, leading economic indicators, lacking economic indicators, how to ask accountants and attorneys the right questions to really get at the heart of issues. 

The last time I worked for someone,  I got a job working for a guy who was helping people set up their marijuana businesses all around the U.S. From him I learned you can sell anything you want as long as someone will pay you for it. You don’t need permission – you can make the life you want. He didn’t have a college degree, but he was making his way in the world.  

 He figured out that people were willing to pay someone to help them figure out how to set up a cannabis business. As states legalized cannabis, they would release drafts of their new laws. We would read them and translate them into layman’s terms so we could talk to potential clients when they inevitably called asking about setting up a grow operation in Tallahassee, or a testing center in some other place in Florida. We needed to be able to say, ‘Yes, you can do it,” “No, you can’t do it,” or “Here are the caveats.” He would do kind of shady things where he would sell things, take someone’s money, and then go to the city to ask, ‘Is this possible?’ If it was possible, we would move forward. If it wasn’t possible, we would refund their money.

Woah! 
Yeah! That’s what that guy taught me. If you have an internet connection, you can create a brand, and do anything! He showed me that people were just making things up as they went. 

He ended up letting me go, but as he fired me he said: ‘Hey kid, you’re really smart. You probably shouldn’t go get another office job. You’ll be really surprised what happens if you allow yourself to rise to the occasion’. And so, I didn’t apply for another job. I woke up every day and sat quietly for an hour and thought ‘there’s got to be a way I can figure this out.’ Eventually, I realized that all my experiences left me with a very sharp tool: I really understood finances and business and I was good at educating people about it. So I went back to the idea of ‘What about those creative people? What can I do with what I know and what they need?’ And, you’re seeing the results. 

So that’s when you started The Hell Yeah Group
Yes

PacoSpeaking.jpg

You also write articles for Refinery29 and co-host their podcast, too. Did that come as you started working with more and more clients? Did R29 find you, did you find them?
I first went off on my own at the end of 2014, and by 2015 I was exhausted of trying to [get clients] “word of mouth”. I started to do research, and that’s when I was like, “Wait a minute, I know how the internet works.” I started to really, really nerd out on marketing, content marketing, how to matter online, how to sell by communicating on the internet and connecting with your audience.

A lot of the research led me to three things: put out really quality content, show up, and be consistent. And then, wait for stuff to happen. I started to do a lot of speaking gigs and I continued to write articles. If you go back into my archive they were pretty terrible back in the day. But it worked, the internet worked. I got better at writing, I listened to my audience. 

The Refinery gig found me – they found me off of Cup of Jo which is a lifestyle website. Caroline’s the features editor there. We met at a creative conference in Big Bear, California. There was a costume party and she was dressed up as a cookie, so naturally I went up to her and started talking to her. We got along and we stayed in touch. When it was time for her to find a finance columnist, she reached out to me. 

And then, one of the producers of Refinery found me there and asked me to co-host, which was very, very validating for me. I’ve been a fan of Money Diaries for a while. They really pioneered this whole money diary, narrative thing and so many brands are copying them now.o many publications are doing their version of the same thing. So of course, I said yes, and I can’t believe that they trusted me. 

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about managing their money?That it’s too complicated and they’re not “smart enough” to do it. I get a lot of people who are down on themselves, really smart people who say, “I’m just not the type of person who can do that.” I don’t believe that. You just have to create time to have tolerance for boredom and tedium. And you’ll be fine, I promise you. It’s not hard, it’s just lame.

On that note, do you have any favorite books or resources for people who are true personal finance beginners/deeply lost?
It’s going to sound really self-serving, but I really think that my content is for that exact person. 

Are you interested in continuing this work for the long haul?
I think that I’ll probably do this for a large part of my working life, but I’m definitely interested in other ways to impact the world. I’m really interested in mental health, therapy, and psychedelic drugs to help people heal. I’m not a scientist, so I’m not sure how I could participate in that field, but it’s something that really excites me.

Sometimes you don’t know [of] a way to help people until you show up a bunch of times and realize you have a really sharp or useful tool that could really help someone. It’s possible that I could’ve done it [help people] through something else. It’s interesting, because I always tell people that finance just happened to be the platform that I’m doing my work through. I want to help people sleep better at night and not feel scared. I want to get people excited about something they probably thought they could never feel excited about. I want to give people ways to make a real difference in their lives. I feel really lucky that I found finance, and finance found me. 

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

PacodeLeonCard.jpg

A beautiful sentiment, Paco! We’re glad you and finance found each other too. Readers, after you’ve checked out Paco’s writing and listened to her Money Diaries podcast episodes, come back next week for a helpful personal finance how-to.

(Photos provided by Paco de Leon, taken by Olivia Katz).