Seeing Your Possibilities as Endless, Liz Powers, Podcast #115

Liz Powers is the co-founder and ‘Chief Happiness Spreader’ of ArtLifting a social enterprise that empowers artists living with homelessness, disabilities or veterans through the celebration and sale of their artwork. Liz’s passion to change social work through her journey from the non-profit to the for-profit sector is inspiring. She uses her entrepreneurship drive for social good.

You can listen to this on iTunes here.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Bryce T.

    Episode #115Liz Powers, “Seeing Your Possibilities as Endless,” ArtLifting“My high level goal is to re-define what a job can be. When I was doing social work, I kept on hearing clients say, ‘Liz, I want an opportunity, not a hand out.’”0:47 Where did you grow up? Boston (Wellesley), almost whole life, year in Scotland for masters at Edinburgh1:05 What did your parents do? Dad is a professor, teaches business ethics and business law at Boston College. Mom is an interior designer.1:28 You have the most amazing aura of wanting to help people. Where did that come from? Freshman at Harvard, Harvard Square is a huge center for homelessness. Started volunteering when 18 at local shelter, then switched over to do volunteer social work for the other four years of college.1:56 Was is it something that was talked around the table growing up about giving back or was it something you saw, and thought I have to do something about this? “Part of it, I’m sure, it’s just part of the fabric of my family. Part of it was also circumstance and reacting to the crazy community around me with so many individuals with so much and so many that didn’t even have a roof over their heads.”2:52 So where did you do work when you started out? Volunteered at Center for Human Services in Cambridge through a non-profit called LIFT. Amazing experience where they train students to do social work.3:30 When you were at Harvard did you work through that program for four years, and did it make you think differently about what you wanted to major in? Was in sociology the whole time, actually found this program through a sociology class. “It felt like I learned even more in that setting than in school, it felt so worth it.”4:09 What was your interaction with these homeless people? Worked with all adults. All one on one meetings. For an hour at a time. Huge range. Sometimes help on resume. Some out of prison, and how to get a job.4:51 And how was that being in school and taking that home with you every night? Learning experience to separate your life. “It took years of practice and I’m still working on it. Especially when working with victims of domestic violence.”5:45 What did you do after graduating from Harvard? “One thing that I learned during those four years, is so many of my clients told me, ‘Liz, I’m really lonely.’ But I also thought, this isn’t rocket science, how can I figure out a way to bring lonely individuals together to support one another.” “So then, the natural second choice, was I’m an artist, and I’ve been artist my whole life. Why don’t I throw art supplies on the table in the shelter?”7:11 What kind of art have you always done? “Almost everything. I’ve done it all.”7:33 You got all these people together in this, sort of, art environment, and what happened? “I was really blessed. Harvard has two fellowships a year that pay your salary to do a self-design public service project. A month in, I released how naive I am. I had never done art therapy. So I thought I need to learn from the experts. Find out there were six existing art programs in homeless shelters in Boston.”10:04 “But then the wheels turned a little a more. And I thought. Well, I’ve worked with these specific shelters, and I didn’t even know about these art groups. So a normal person outside the field has no idea. And a lot of the art was saleable. So what a no brainer to create a marketplace, curate the top art from existing groups, and then sell it to individuals and corporations.”10:32 How long did it take you to go from the point of I have a grant at Harvard, to thinking about art lifting? 11:11 Why don’t I just start an art show that brings together my art groups and all the other ones? Had 80 artists the first year. Grew to 100. Still exists, but has handed off. 100% of the proceeds went to the artists. All volunteer run.11:51 Learned a lot through that. 1. It’s not scalable. 2. Was just in Boston, and not across the country. Even though there are 1000 existing art groups in shelters and disability centers. 3. I’m just helping people making money once from the sale of the original art. How can I scale this so I can sell prints, or license the works12:39 “Four years in to City Heart, the annual show, I thought I’m going to solve those three problems and make a scalable marketplace that’s a for profit for purpose business so it can grow over time and our incentives are aligned with artists. And the more we sell, the more the artists make, and then the more the company makes.”13:13 JW: What I think is interesting is that you chose to be a for profit model. Because it does put your mind in a different way when you’re thinking about making this thing work. “I had worked in non-profits for 8 years, there were so many frustrations. First, I was just tired of handing my hand out all the time. The grants, the amount of money was so low, but also the timeline. So one grant I applied to, 14 pages long for, $5,000, from the time I applied to receiving the check in the mail was 13 months. So moments like that, over the course of 8 years, I realized okay, I need something that’s scalable and fast.”14:53 Raising money. 15:23 Made the decision to be chairperson, and bring someone else to grow the company. Why did you do that? Started with brother originally with $4000. Bootstrapped to six figure revenue. Big reason why they were able to get investment quickly. Company had grown and had a couple of huge press hits. Today Show, cover on NYT business section. “And I felt like okay, I’ve literally never worked at a company before. My background was social work, art therapy, and coaching sailing. So I felt that I need a professional who has experience scaling and can get us to the next level, so decided to hire a CEO.”16:55 How did that work for you? Hired someone who came in for a year. Learned a lot from him. But, ultimately, the last couple of years I’ve been CEO. And we’ve been able to continue to grow the company. “And I think I’ve gained confidence over time. And realized, just because I didn’t go to business school doesn’t mean I don’t know how to run a business.”17:27 How many artist you have helped get off the street and into a home, because they were able to use their art as their capital? “We’ve had 5 artists gain housing. The vast majority of our artists have housing when we start working with them. But the goal is to not only help build confidence but also earn much needed money.”18:22 JW: What if, one of these people drew a Picasso and they end up blowing threw all this cash that they make through this, what did we do socially right or socially wrong, and what is our real responsibility of dictating how they spend their cash? “We’re purposely working with artists who either have an art therapists or social worker around them. Of course you can never 100% mitigate the risks that the money is used to worsen someone’s life.”19:39 How many artists have you worked with now that have put their work on the platform? Artists have earned over $1 million. Have 150 artists in 23 states now.20:00 Are you getting inbound now from social organizations around the country? “Probably over half of their artists have been inbound. Actually a perfect compliment to the art programs, because it’s actually against an art therapist’s moral duty to help sell it.”20:48 Do you physically curate it, how does it go about that you choose which work to go on the platform? “It’s all curated. We offer full art consultancy. The vast majority of our sales are to corporations.”21:24 Have you done any major, like back of an Apple phone, or towels, or something like that? “One thing we think about is, we don’t just want to help people make money from selling wall art, but how can they make endless money from licensing. One big one, was a cold email to Starbucks. We ended up with 13 of our artists with a licensing deal on Starbucks gift cards.” Another was a mattress deal. A ski deal. Notebooks. FedEx bought 15k notebooks for FedEx office stores. Barnes & Noble has a line of our gift wrap and gift bags. The possibilities are really endless.22:31 Does the art tell about the mission and who the art is supporting? “Definitely, it has the general mission, but we always have the specific artist’s story and the photo of the artist.”22:50 What’s your vision for ArtLifting over the next 2 to 5 years? “My vision is to keep scaling. It’s been crazy growth of doubling revenue YoY. One thing my mom always says work harder not smarter. Right now we have 175 corporate clients. Many of which are huge fortune 500 companies. So we’re thinking through our current clients and how we can scale to their 400 offices worldwide.”23:42 Have you ever found that any of those companies want to come in and participate and see what people are doing?24:58 “My high level goal is to re-define what a job can be. When I was doing social work, I kept on hearing clients say, ‘Liz, I want an opportunity, not a hand out.’”25:44 Inspiring other social entrepreneurs.26:55 Have you tried to do this in other countries? “We’re in the U.S. for now. I’d love that the ideas are already spreading, we now have customers in five countries, but I’d love to scale our artist base to international as well.”

    1. Gotham Gal

      thank you!!