How to Start a Non-Profit and Change the World with Lisa Stenzel

It isn't every day a person gets to interview a personal role model, so you can imagine my excitement that I get to do so today here on Side Hustle Mom!

To give you a little background, I have known Lisa since I was 4 or 5 years old and she has always been someone who I admire. Lisa is an amazing mom to Emma, Madi, and Ty, an award-winning writer, entrepreneur, non-profit creator and director, and overall strong woman who is as beautiful on the inside as she is out.

By the end of this interview, I know you will love and admire Lisa, too, so I will let her take it from here:

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I like to begin every article with introductions, so can you please tell us a little about yourself and your background? 

My name is Lisa Stenzel. I am a mother, a business owner, and a Colorado native, born and raised in Fort Collins, CO. I still live here and tell people I don’t think I could live anywhere else. I grew up in 4-H and learned valuable leadership and teaching skills that I still use to this day. I received my Assoicate’s Degree in Criminal Justice and worked for a law firm as a legal assistant before leaving the workforce to raise my daughters. When life circumstances changed and I found myself needing to return, my daughters were still young and I knew I wanted to have a job that was flexible around their schedules. I began working part time for some insurance agents, but I also started my own cleaning company. I owned that company for 11 years and sold it a year ago. After my son was born with some speech delays and we needed to learn sign language and my daughter was diagnosed with Dyslexia, I started Emmadity, an organization that teaches basic ASL classes and is publishing a children’s book series.

Have you always been an entrepreneur or did that happen over time? 

I think I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit but it has grown over time. I worked all through high school and college, often two jobs at a time while going to school full time. I knew the meaning and value of hard work. But I always had grand ideas for being on my own.

How did your entrepreneurial journey begin and how would you say it has transformed over the years? 

When I stayed home to raise my girls, I worked some direct sales companies. It was then that I truly began to understand the entrepreneurial side of business. However, even with direct sales, you still technically work for someone else. The company still keeps most of the profit. I wanted to own the business and keep ALL the profit. This background experience, however, is what gave me the courage to begin my own cleaning company, and now, organize and operate my own non-profit.

Can you tell us a little about your 3 kids (Emma, Madi, and Ty) and how they inspired you to begin Emmadity?

I am a mother to 3 beautiful children. Two daughters here on Earth and one son in Heaven. These children have molded me into who I am today. Emma is my oldest and is a truly inspiring soul. She is selfless and hard working. She is finding her way into adulthood, attending college, working and buying a car. Madison is in high school and finding out who she is, what she likes and where she wants to go in life. She inspires me with all she has been through and how far she has come. My son, Ty, was born 6 weeks premature with Down syndrome and had a membrane blockage in his nose and couldn’t breathe. He had his first surgery when he was 2 days old. His Down syndrome was the least of our concerns. The membrane blockage prevented him from swallowing correctly and eating and growing became our biggest goal in order to go home. After 2 months and 5 surgeries, Ty finally came home and we could finally focus on what life would look like without tubes, hoses, beeping monitors and nurses at all hours. We knew that Ty would be speech delayed and we started learning American Sign Language very early on. Ty was a fast learner! The more we signed, the more others wanted to know what we were saying and I learned that there was a definite need for basic ASL instruction in my community. I wrote stories for Ty when he was a baby. Stories about him, growing up and playing in the backyard, just like his sisters. Then, 6 months after Ty was born, Madi was diagnosed with Dyslexia. Dyslexia is a phonetic disorder that makes it difficult for children to process and learn to read. One of the first signs for Madi’s Dyslexia was learning her site words in 1st grade. At the time I thought she was just being stubborn, but she really couldn’t read them. She was trying to memorize them. We had Madi tested and she began an 18 month tutoring program. These events set into motion what Emmadity is today. Emmadity is a non-profit organization whose mission is to assist all individuals, with or without a communication barrier, to learn to communicate to the best of their abilities. We teach basic ASL classes, working with schools and community organizations, and those stories for Ty? They became a 26-book, alphabet based children’s book series that highlights site words and teaches basic ASL signs throughout. The books are an educational tool that aids young or struggling readers to learn to read and offers parent tips, multi-sensory techniques and resources for parents.

Three and half years after Ty was born, he got very sick and passed away suddenly and very unexpectedly. He had survived 13 surgeries in his short life and left a huge footprint on this world. I continue to do what I do to pass on his legacy.

How did you go about starting this business and what tips can you give other moms who feel passionate about something but have no idea where to begin? 

I originally formed Emmadity as an LLC and only taught the ASL classes. About a year and a half later, I changed it to a non-profit corporation because of the service I wanted to provide to people who didn’t have access to ASL or Dyslexia information. If you are passionate about something I would say don’t ever lose it and find a way to make it work! I started very small. I simply said I was offering classes. I came up with the name for my business, formed the LLC and designed a logo. Free website programs are everywhere, so set up a website, get some business cards and by all means, make a Facebook page! Then share it, CONSTANTLY! Invite everyone you know to like it and share relevant content. Connect with people or organizations you can partner with and let them know what you are doing. Whether you are a for or non-profit company, your biggest allies are those who you can refer to or can refer to you. Form those relationships. Join a networking or meetup group. You are your own best marketer and advocate. Consistency and persistence are key. So stick with it and don’t give up!

When you're a mom (and an entrepreneur), no two days look the same, but if you had to describe what your somewhat normal routine looks like, what would you say?

I can tell you that my days as a mom of teenagers looks a lot different than my days as a mom of toddlers. And also different as an owner of a cleaning company vs Director of a non-profit. My typical morning involves mostly computer work, emails, writing grants and setting up appointments with potential clients. I might have a lunch with a business partner and then teach a class at a school in the afternoon. Occasionally I will have a board meeting in the evening or an evening class with a community organization. As you said, though, no two days look the same and that is the beauty of being an entrepreneur. You are in control of your schedule! If I need a day off for my kid’s tournament or I am out of town for a training and need to work from a hotel room, I can!

What long-term goals do you have for Emmadity?

Regarding the sign language side of Emmadity, of course, growing the Enrichment Program and our Community Outreach are continuous goals for Emmadity long into the future.

Aside from having a completed set of books for the In the Backyard series (although all 26 stories are written, only the A book, Apples and Alligators...In the Backyard is published), I have one other huge vision for Emmadity and the book series. I am in the process of looking at how to make the book a functional app. Where kids can use their tablet or Ipad and color the pages, read the site words and use the book in every way they can now with the physical book, but also have the sign language illustrations animated. Where you can hover over the sign and it shows a video animation of it. A lot of instruction is lost when you make the illustrations 2 dimensional. Again, sign language is a visual language. To see it in motion is the best way to learn and retain it.

I am working towards speaking to schools and organizations about my story and inspiring people to accept what is different about themselves and others. Madi gave Ty a birthday card for his 2nd birthday and in it she wrote, “It’s okay to be different. You don’t have to be perfect. Just be you.” This has become Emmadity’s motto: Just Be You.

Can you please share one of your favorite Emmadity memories with us?

I would love to share with you the story of Alex. Alex is 8 years old and going into 3rd grade. He has always struggled with reading and at the beginning of his 2nd grade year, after reading a post Emmadity had shared about the signs of Dyslexia, Alex's mom took him to get tested. He was diagnosed with Dyslexia and began his tutoring program. Since starting this program, Alex is truly excelling. About 3 years ago, Alex also took one of our ASL classes. Recently, Alex received Apples and Alligators...In the Backyard and couldn't put it down! He loves reading it, to himself or his sister, and he also loves learning the signs that are taught in the book! Sign language is a much easier language to learn for someone with Dyslexia because it is a visual language, and Alex is truly a success story for what Emmadity is all about!

Isn’t Lisa the best? If you want to learn more about Lisa or Emmadity, please visit her website, Facebook, or Instagram.