By Elizabeth McGuire
Many entrepreneurs make a strong commitment to give back to their communities. Laurie Loew took the commitment a giant step further and made it the foundation for her entire business.
After an early sales career in medical supplies and then semi-conductors, Loew created her own Austin-based real estate firm around the idea of donating 25 percent of every commission to a nonprofit of the client’s choice.
What started as a savvy business model to differentiate herself from competitors turned into her life’s passion.
To date, Give Realty has donated more than $354,000 to 80 nonprofits since it opened in 2008. Loew is one of Austin’s top 5 percent real estate agents and is a popular consultant and speaker on the topic of social entrepreneurship. She is a 2012 Essential graduate and a current board member of Leadership Austin.
She credits her business model, or “giving model” as she calls it, with dramatically changing her life. And though she has concrete numbers to quantify the impact that Give Realty has made on the community, Loew insists that her business has given her more in return than she could ever repay.
Tell us about developing the Give Realty idea…
It was 2007 and I was recently divorced from my husband and trying to decide if I wanted to stay in the real estate business. I thought, “I really want to stay in real estate, but how can I differentiate myself?” That was my left brain. And my right brain was feeling sorry for myself because my ex and I were fighting over money. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to fight over. And then a huge dose of Catholic guilt kicked and I thought, “You know how many women would love to be in this situation?” We had no debt, no children. I heard my mom’s voice in my head: “Count your blessings.” And that’s when I had this light bulb moment about creating a philanthropic real estate brokerage and giving back my 25 percent commission to charity. I thought, I won’t miss it. (laughs).
My biggest initial fear: that other agents would copy the business model. But then ultimately a whole lot of money would go back to the community. And I realized that if that’s failure, I’ll be happy to fail all the time.
I launched Give Realty in July of 2008. Six weeks later the financial markets collapsed.
The first donation I made was in August and it was so impactful that I literally wept all the way home. Good tears! It felt so good. It was $1,000 to Mobile Loaves and Fishes. I was hooked.
What motivated you to keep going during the financial crisis?
Well, it was very difficult because nobody was buying or selling houses at the time. But the more I donated, the more I could see not just the positive impact it was having on the community but what was happening to me personally, and the impact it was having on my clients as well. It was truly life changing. You attract good things when you do good things. I was so naive when I started it–it really was a marketing idea and it turned into my life’s work.
I was also educating people about the benefits of giving. Even though I was giving thousands of dollars away, I realized you don’t necessarily have to give a lot of money to do a lot of good.
To keep the business going I went through my entire 401K. In fact, for the first three years, there was a direct correlation between what I gave to charity to what I took out of my 401K to live on. But it was a choice. I was determined to succeed at it. My whole idea of success and value and worth had changed. I tell people all the time that I live small and give big. And that’s a personal choice. I’ve truly never been happier in my life.
In January 2011, I had $15,000 left in my 401K. I figured I could last until June. Then on April 1, 2011 (April Fool’s Day!) I closed on a $3 million sale, and that was the transaction that saved Give Realty.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The whole idea is to be a stepping stone on the path to philanthropy. Whether my clients have never given anything, or never been able to give, every client who donates ends up being a major donor. Because chances are pretty good that a $200,000 house is a $1,500 donation, and that’s sizable donation.
Everybody who is a part of the transaction benefits from the business model. For me, the stories are branded into my brain. When you find out your client gave back to SafePlace because they were once recipients of their services, it’s just mind-blowing that you were able to facilitate that.
I just feel so fortunate. I’m the lucky one, because I can’t believe that this crazy idea I had for a business model is impacting people the way it is.
What drew you to Leadership Austin?
In 2008 I started the business and the next year I went through the Experience Austin program. And that’s when I figured out: This is my tribe. These are the kinds of folks I want to hang out. This is the kind of organization I want to be involved in.
I was in the Essential Class of 2012 and started the scholarship fund that year with a $1,500 donation. I made the commitment then that I would support not only the scholarship fund but also donate $100 for every business transaction to Leadership Austin. If have 50 transaction a year (including leases, sales, everything) I give $5,000. And that’s on top of what we give on our clients’ behalf.
What lessons from Leadership Austin have stuck with you?
When you start a business–any business, but especially one based on a philanthropic model–you get all these nonprofits that want you to support them. I tried to make everyone happy…buy a table here, and do this here, but at some point you have to draw a line. The Essential Class taught me how to say no. And it helped me define what was important for the brokerage to support. So I decided to support organizations that make our community stronger. Our client donations can support anything that’s a 501c3, but Give Realty supports organizations that make the community stronger. And so the only two organizations that Give Realty supports are Leadership Austin, which creates community leaders, and Greenlights, which makes nonprofits stronger.
I can’t even describe what Leadership Austin did for me personally. It shifts the ground beneath your feet. There’s so much personal growth. You realize that the way you see yourself, and think others see you, is not how people see you. They see so much more that you don’t allow yourself to see because you’re focusing on your failures.
Tell us about taking the step from alumnus to board member?
I drank the Leadership Austin Kool-Aid. After doing Experience and Essential, I felt it was time to do board service. I never had the time before to be a responsible and impactful board member. I’ve structured the company now so that I have great agents who can handle anything. I don’t have to do everything now. I’m not the sole face or representative of Give Realty. It frees my time up more, so I’m able to give back.
What makes a good leader?
The word I always come up with is empathy. I’ve learned this through the Leadership Austin Essential Class: you really have to be open to hearing both sides of the story. It’s easy to talk to people who think just like you. It’s good for the soul and good for a lot of reasons to hear that other side and to be respectful of it.
People have asked me what happens when you make a donation to an organization that you don’t believe in. That hasn’t happened, but I always say, “This is my client’s voice, not mine.” You can call me out on what Give Realty donates or what I personally support, but you can’t call me out on what my clients donate because that’s their voice not mine.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I honestly don’t look at myself as a leader. People tell me that they look up to me, and I inspire them. I feel like I’m just a normal person, just like everyone else. The best way to describe my leadership style is by the example I lead. I’m not perfect–I make mistakes. But I think it’s about being genuine and authentic. Figuring out what your motivators are. Early on it was about awards, and now it’s about taking myself out of it and just doing the right thing. It’s about “the golden rule” not “who has the gold, rules.”
Any advice for Austin leaders?
Be willing to take huge risks for what you believe in, and to literally put your money where your mouth is. Stand up for what you want to see and don’t worry about how others might perceive you.
I come from a really big family–I’m the 9th of 10 kids. I grew up around the mantra of “the greater the risk, the greater the reward.” If you’re really passionate about something, any of us can make it happen.
Get outside of your comfort zone and do something for somebody else. If enough people create ripples, we can create a tsunami of good in our own backyard.
Describe your perfect Austin community…
We really do live in such a great city. I don’t think I could have started this business anywhere but Austin because of the willingness and support of our entrepreneurial community, and also the ability to be vulnerable and not be thought less of.
The perfect Austin would have every single business be a member of Austin Gives, a program in which members agree to give at least 1 percent of their pre-tax profits back to the community.
Every individual would be active in the community and understand the community needs. Often we live in silos and get wrapped up with what the outside world tells us is important. I think we’ve lost some humanity in the process. Nice things are nice, but have a little perspective about what life is like out there for everybody. It goes back to empathy. There is a story behind that homeless person on the street, and it needs to be heard. Whether it’s mental illness or bad luck or addiction, everybody has a story that deserves to be heard. By listening to that story, there’s a really good chance it will change your own story in the process.