Ten years ago, when Lisa Robison decided to return to the workforce post-kids, she knew her next endeavor needed to be an earthshaker. What she came up with was Dwell with Dignity, a Dallas-based nonprofit dedicated to making over the homes of moms transitioning from homelessness to self-sufficiency. As the organizations tagline says, “Transforming Lives Through Design.” Needless to say, what she’s built isn’t just a shaker, it’s downright moving. Not long after forming DwD (as it’s known in design circles), Lisa reached out to Kim Turner, a previous design school classmate, and together the duo took DwD from an organization stationed in a garage to one with a boardroom. With 131 makeovers to date, Lisa and Kim know what it takes to power a business. At a recent party to celebrate DwD’s 10th anniversary, we took time to chat with Lisa and Kim about founding a startup, their best advice for fellow female entrepreneurs, and what’s next for DwD.
What was the lightbulb moment for Dwell with Dignity?
Lisa: I had taken time off from doing interior design to raise my kids, but I’d continued to work on personal design projects throughout that time. I really felt passionate about how your environment has the ability to inform and reflect who you are. So, I actually went to a Habitat for Humanity lecture at SFMU, and I thought, oh my gosh, that’s what I can do! I can do design for Habitat. As I looked more into it, I realized that they were really focused on building the home, and I really wanted to focus on interiors. So I thought, why don’t I just do this? I can do this. I don’t need to plug into another organization. Because no one was doing what I wanted to do, which was to create a home environment from scratch for families.
How did you take DwD from seed to reality?
Lisa: So, it was my birthday, and my husband kept asking me, what do you want for your birthday? And I finally said, I want the nest egg so I can start a nonprofit. So, that nest egg was the start of the process. I was able to do all the paperwork for the 501-C3 and to start the assets and logo, branding, and marketing.
How did you take DwD from a solo operation to a partnership?
Lisa: Near the end of my first project, I sent an email out to all of my friends that said, bring canned goods, I want to tell you about a project I’m working on. And that’s when Kim got involved.
Kim: I emailed Lisa and I said, I need to help you with this. Because the ten years she had been at home raising her kids, I had been practicing design. So, I knew the showroom owners, I knew the manufacturers, I knew the design community. And I said, you know, there is so much waste in this industry, we have got to get them involved.
Lisa: And you know, I have to give Kim credit for the early growth of DwD. She jumped in and we started making appointments with these showroom owners and manufacturers and sharing our vision, and they wanted to get involved. So, that was really the way the fire caught on.
What did the first few years of DwD look like?
Lisa: Kim and I were really hands on. We went and found everything ourselves, and then we created the designs and implemented them. We worked out of a garage.
Kim: Our first employee wasn’t hired until January of 2012, so up until then it was Lisa and myself and a bunch of volunteers.
What do you think was crucial to your success early on?
Kim: After the first year, we said let’s take the first two months of the year off and think about what we’re doing. But we didn’t just go home and put our feet up.
Lisa: We focused on putting processes and procedures in place so we could duplicate what we’d done. We were very cognitive of the ability to scale what we did. We saw that in the future we would need to have a warehouse to have the ability to help more families.
Was there a moment when you realized that DwD was going to be the major player it is today?
Lisa: I think it was when we were on the Nate Berkus Show. That was when we thought wow, this could really be something. We received so much feedback from the nation that this was something that was needed and connected with people’s hearts.
Kim: One thing that came to my mind was the first time we had a Thrift Studio. Lisa and I were trying to come up with an idea of how to be self-sufficient. So, we came up with Thrift Studio, which is now our biggest fundraiser. It probably raises about 40% of our income. And the first time we did it, we didn’t know there’d be a line at the door at six o’clock. And I think that showed us we had a way to be totally self-sufficient and that we had struck a chord with the design community.
Can you tell us more about Thrift Studio?
Lisa: Throughout the year we’re accepting incredible donations that are pretty high-end. For instance, a showroom will donate a $12,000 sofa. We want to collect these items, but they’re not necessarily appropriate for a family home. So, in the case of a $12,000 sofa, if I can sell it for $5,000, then I can buy several sofas with that. So we store all of these items in our warehouse and for Thrift Studio, we ask nine or so interior designers to thrift from our warehouse and create these incredible vignettes. We set those up in 12,000 square feet of donated showroom space in the Dallas design district for a big 30-day pop-up. Then we have a big party and we sell everything in those vignettes.
Kim: It’s really a way for designers and showrooms to donate things they didn’t need anymore. And a place for designers and the public to come buy stuff.
As you enter year ten, have there been any moments you’re especially proud of in the past year?
Lisa: I kind of look at it more holistically over the whole year instead of one specific thing, but I think in the past year we’ve experienced the most growth that we’ve ever had. We have done a home project or installation every other week. Which is just unprecedented since we do it like a design project where we go in take measurements, do a floor plan, and get to know the family’s needs and preferences. So, turning around that many projects to me is outstanding.
Kim: I think that’s what I was going to say, just that we did six in Atlanta, which made it 30 projects this year!
Why do you think that decor can transform a life so deeply?
Lisa: I think that it’s indisputable that your environment can transform your life. And I think that everybody kind of understands it intrinsically, but they’re not maybe conscious of it. When you walk into a space and you say, you know, I can breathe in here, it gives you comfort. It allows you to do the things in life that you want to do. When you have families who don’t have a dining table, well, you don’t have family dinners. Basic decor items and basic furniture items create the ability for you to function as a family.
What advice would you give to your ten-years-ago self?
Lisa: The advice I might give to myself is breathe, it’s all going to fall into place. Right? But that’s easy to say in hindsight. It was very organic growth. And people will say, how did you know what to do next? And we just did. We just did the next thing. We knew that we were just going to keep moving forward. The advice I would give to anyone is, if you have an idea just start it. Take that first step and keep moving with it. The momentum of our idea will just take off.
What have been the biggest takeaways from your ten years with DwD?
Kim: It’s been life-changing for me and it has been for Lisa as well. We keep up with the families we work with. So, we’re invited to housewarming parties when our families move out of their apartments and buy a house. We’re invited to birthday parties. I’ve even been invited to the wedding in the backyard of one of our families.
Lisa: I think every single time we do a project it’s an incredibly proud moment of everyone who was involved in doing it. And that means our staff, the volunteers, the donors, the sponsors and the people who have given us financial contributions. You know, you just look around and say, wow, if we could all just do a little part it’s amazing what we can do.
What’s next for DwD?
Lisa: I think that DwD just needs to continue to help more families and that’s our goal. So, however we can do that best. Best serve our families with dignity and pride, I think that’s the goal.