midnight hustling with jo jo of dancing classrooms

Good morning! I hope you are doing well. I will admit I’ve been a bit MIA here on MML. But please know that I’m doing the best I can to keep driving Jess LC and devote as much time to MML as possible. This holiday season has already launched into totally new level of business for us – before Black Friday no less – and we are working as hard as possible without driving ourselves crazy. A tricky balance as you can imagine.

Speaking of balance, I have a great new Midnight Hustler interview with Jo Jo of the non-profit Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio. I’m excited to present a non-profit founder’s approach to balancing her day job and passion. I love Jo Jo’s perspective on taking action with drive and determination.


When you first got really serious about launching your non-profit full-time and were still working your day job, what fears did you have about making the shift? How did you overcome those fears?

You name the fear and I had it! How do I do it?  I don’t have a non-profit background?  What about the struggling economy?  Will people support the effort?  Will I be able to do it?  How will I make money?

What I have found to be true in other areas of my life, proved to be true here too.  Though I didn’t have all the answers I just began taking ACTION and WORKING!  I didn’t have a background in the non-profit world and know all the steps to take so I asked someone who did know for guidance.  For months, I spent hours each day reading books and researching the internet to gain knowledge in the industry (I still do this today).  The economy was, and still is, facing challenges but I believed without a shadow of doubt that the purpose and intention behind this effort far outweighed the financial concern and the schools and children in the community couldn’t afford not to have the educational opportunity.  I didn’t know if people would support the effort but I knew this project would always be a community effort and take the work of many so I just began sharing my vision and asking people to join me in helping to make it a reality.  Some people told me they didn’t have the time or the last thing our community needed right now was yet another non-profit to support.  But at the same time others cheered at the concept and immediately joined in my efforts of making this a reality and before I knew it I was sitting around a board room table (which, by the way, I had to rent for the day) presenting the Dancing Classrooms program to the individuals who would move on to become the Founding Board of Directors of Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio (DCNEO) a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.

I didn’t have all the answers that day and I still don’t today but I’ve never stopped working.  I made the decision to begin this journey in January 2008 (who says no one keeps their New Year’s resolutions?) and launched the program in four elementary schools that September!  In nine short months a non profit organization was established, a handful of people from the community championed the cause, a local Teaching Artist was hired and trained to implement the program, and four schools believed in the program’s impact enough to make the investment and say YES!  Oh, did I also mention I was living in New York City at the time, five hundred miles from Northeast Ohio?

During the 2008-2009 school year, our organization served children in twenty-four classrooms throughout ten schools.  I asked for help when I needed it, educated myself and sought the answers in all that was unfamiliar, and worked…hard!

How did you structure your day balancing both your job and your growing non-profit? Did it require any sacrifices?

One of the many things in which I was so fortunate is that the Dancing Classrooms program that I was working to hard to establish in my hometown of Ohio was the same program I was working for in my day job in New York City.  The documentary Mad Hot Ballroom and feature film Take the Lead (with Antonio Banderas) had been released a couple years prior and attracted some interest at a national level for communities to bring the program to their area as a licensee.

As a Teaching Artist and Education Liaison for the program I spent my days seeing the impact this program was making in the lives of the children, their schools, families, and communities and it only further ignited the fire to make that a reality for the children in the communities of Northeast Ohio.

Organization and efficiency were key components to my success.  I haven’t spent a day without a “To Do” list since I’ve started.  I prioritized my tasks each day by which ones needed to be taken care of during “normal” business hours of a school day since those were my customers.  I dealt with those on my breaks between classes or as I walking to a school and would find myself on a “quiet” NYC street that wouldn’t be too disruptive.  My blackberry worked overtime as I tried as hard as possible to implement the “only touch something once” rule and respond to incoming emails immediately which allowed the process to move forward quickly.  I’d compose or respond to messages while on the subway and then send all the messages once I was above ground.  I maximized each and every moment of the day and then really went to work at night!

At night I worked on things like learning how to write grant proposals to foundations for support.  Who those foundations in our community were and how should I approach them?  What corporations philanthropic efforts aligned with our program and we would approach them for support?  How to write press releases and get our name out in the community?  Not only was I having to learn how to do all those things, I also had to actually put the pen to the paper (or my fingers to the keys) and do them!  I did have the support and help of by Board of Directors and an intern at times but at the end of the day I was the one leading the way.

I turned down many nights of going out with friends, rarely watched television, and did not get the recommended healthy amount of sleep…I worked!  At the time I didn’t even look at them as sacrifices because I was so invested, on every level, with making this a reality.

How did you select your quit date and how did your company respond to the decision? Were they surprised? Where they supportive?

As I mentioned earlier, I was incredibly fortunate that my day job for the exact same program I was working so hard to bring to my hometown.  Granted it was in a different state and for a completely separate non profit organization but that meant that the organization I worked for in my day job (Dancing Classrooms New York City) were 100% in the know and cheering me on every step of the way; when I had made the decision in January 2008 to pursue this opportunity I was becoming a licensee of the NYC program and a part of their National Network.  They knew my time with their organization was limited and my current positions with their organization allowed me the flexibility to travel back to Ohio each month and spend a week working on my new organization locally to ensure things were on track, program quality was in place as it should be, and spend my days in meetings so that I could continue establishing and cultivating relationships in that community.

Ironically when I set out on the journey I made the statement (in writing) that I wanted to be back living in Northeast Ohio in about two years.  Two years has a way of coming and going very quickly and in July of 2009 my intention was that I would spend one more year in NYC and continue the back and forth.  I hadn’t taken a single penny for a paycheck from Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio and I just didn’t think we were at a level that could support the move.  Frankly, I was scared but wouldn’t have admitted that at the time.

Thankfully, the right people are put in your life and I will forever be grateful that someone was there to give me the push I didn’t want but needed.  A tremendous amount of momentum had been created in the community (all that work had paid off), the “job” was shifting and needed a presence in the community full time.  Two weeks after that conversation, and many lists of pros & cons, I took that leap of faith and shared my decision to leave the organization, move 500 miles back to Northeast Ohio, signed a lease on an apartment, bought a car, and outlined my plan of attack to make sure we were at a level of growth to provide me with a small paycheck.  I received my first paycheck from the organization in October 2009 and though I’ve had bigger checks, never has one meant so much!

I looked fear straight in the face, acknowledged that it was there and I was indeed afraid, and then took a leap of faith.  The greatest decision I’ve ever made (on so many levels) and all the hard work paid off!  The organization grew to serve thirty-six classes throughout fifteen schools during the 2009-2010 school year!  Dancing Classrooms Northeast Ohio will turn three on March 25, 2011 and we will celebrate with our first Benefit Gala that is being planned by a committee of volunteers.  We are on track to experience additional growth again this year and our outreach has already expanded into a new county within Northeast Ohio.

As for all those fears I had as I sat crossed legged on my bed in New York City wondering if I could make this work, some are still there and others have been replaced with new ones but I just keep taking action!

What is the best piece of advice you wish you had before you started your midnight hustling to have a smoother transition to self-employment?

There will always be something to do and at some point you have to learn to be at peace with that.  The trick, of course, is knowing which tasks and responsibilities can wait until Monday.  Self-employment takes hard work and is all about discipline but even our blackberries need to be re-charged and doing that for yourself is a vital component to success too!  This sense of balance continues to be a challenge for me and I’m learning many leaders share the same struggle when I ask them how they find balance but I think it’s important to allow yourself the time to separate from your projects and enjoy the life you’ve found yourself in so that when Monday morning arrives your ready for action!

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