No one is as passionate as you, so don’t expect them to be. This is your project and it’s your job to inspire people through it.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Autumn Pippenburg.
Autumn is the founder and CEO of Chicago-based Art of Giving Foundation, funding local art programs and artists in need of seed funding to launch or maintain social initiative programs that benefit their communities. Autumn is an artist with a passion for merging art with philanthropy. Her personal work focuses on mixed media although her roots are in modern dance and classical piano. Her dedication to the arts has infiltrated her love for helping others, thus the Art of Giving Foundation was born.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
All of my life experiences have brought me to this moment — a career in art and philanthropy. The moment I linked my passion for art with my passion for helping others is where my story really begins.
I had traveled to San Marcos, Nicaragua to help bring supplies to an orphanage. I was sitting in a 115- degree room waiting on a truck full of kids (orphans) to arrive — it was going to be my first art class with them. I had been there before, several times, but only to bring supplies and develop relationships with local government officials and partnering organizations that could eventually be of help.
Kids piled in, extremely excited to see me. Hugs all around and lots of smiles. Except for one kid — Carlitos was his name. He was new to the orphanage. His father in prison and his mother on the streets addicted to drugs. He was missing a finger from a drunken sperm donor chopping it off out of the mere fact the little boy lost a bet. Carlitos was mad at the world, hated being there, and wanted to leave — the other kids picked on him because he was new and sensitive. I began the class with meditation — yoga and basic stretching exercises. Everyone, except Carlitos, was eager to participate and learn a new skill. Afterward, we gathered around a table to learn the basic principles of line and shapes. Our first project was to create a face out of triangles — called Face Shape. Carlitos reluctantly participated but instead of following the directions, he scribbled a bunch of lines onto a piece of paper and turned it in. Surprisingly the scribbles actually did resemble a face… a confused, scared, misled by society, face. I quickly stopped the class and told the kids to draw a portrait of themselves, but not what they looked like on the outside, but on the inside. The results were remarkable. Please remember that I’m working with a translator at this point. I can’t speak their language, nor can they speak mine. But the language of the world is all the same, and I truly believe it is spoken through art. That day, my life completely changed — I was destined to connect with communities through art and the art of giving.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Remember the orphanage from earlier? Well, their entire water supply system was leaking and broken. It needed a full repair and a connected attorney to convince the local water supply company to forgive the $10,000 water bill (due to the leak). I quickly flew down once again, setting up meetings with attorneys, contractors, and engineers, getting quotes, and doing site visits. This had to be done fast, because within one month’s time the water supply would be dry and the kids would be forced to drink from water carried by foot in from town, four miles away. I soon realized the project would cost upwards of $30,000 and I didn’t have enough. I gathered a group of friends, now my board of directors applied for my 501c3 and threw a gala in a matter of 3 months. We raised enough to go through with our plans. A naive Autumn got on a plane with 10 bags of supplies, once again, and flew down to Nicaragua. However, I didn’t have the same welcoming as I always had. The Director of the orphanage demanded I give her the cash and she would have the water system fixed on her own — she didn’t want me to be a part of the process. I didn’t trust this, for obvious reasons, and found myself ostracized by her and her staff. The kids were confused and waiting for us to start digging, but nothing happened. But this part of the story has a happy ending and a life lesson. First of all, this misunderstanding was partly due to not understanding cultural barriers and customs. After all, was said and done, we didn’t take no for an answer and opened our own center for the children to have access to clean water, food, and art activities only minutes from the children’s school.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Honestly, when you’re truly passionate about what you’re doing, hard times are considered challenges — and I love a good challenge! But my strength comes from many years of having no choice but to be strong, and from my son. I’m a mother above all and leading by example is very important to me. We don’t give up.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
The journey is a success. If you’re moving, you’re succeeding. When you’re running a non-profit or any business for that matter, there’s always a grind. The moment you slow down you fall behind. Today, the Art of Giving Foundation is strong, with a great support system stemming across many communities and organizations. I truly believe we can do anything with the right people on board — and every day we are expanding that foundation.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As long as you learn something from your failures, they’re successes. A great example of this was at our 2019 Art of Giving Foundation Black Tie Gala. My friend and TV host, Whitney Reynolds and I were on stage speaking to the crowd of attendees. The acoustics in the building weren’t the best at the time and people were having a hard time hearing us. Instead of being quiet and listening, people do what people do and were talking over us. All of a sudden from out of the crowd came a very determined individual. Storming the stage, she grabbed the microphone and shouted, “Everyone shut the fuck up!” The crowd was silent and needless to say I was stunned. Although I know she was only trying to help, it was a funny embarrassment, to say the least. In the future, there will be security near the stage.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our partnering agencies and organizations are some of the most supportive and responsive teams I’ve been privy to work with. We really do take care of each other and build together. In a sense, they are the building blocks that make our foundation as strong as it is. A good example of this relationship is when we host our gala every year. Every organization pitches in to ensure it’s a success and that we are in good financial standing to continue our outreach.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- Establish a board that is responsive, responsible, professional, and fun.
- Don’t be afraid to ask someone to step down that isn’t performing at the level you need them to.
- Take a moment every day to be thankful and grateful for everything you’ve already accomplished.
- There’s no giving up, people need you. Figure it out and keep going — that’s your success story.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Choosing one person is “almost” impossible. I have such a great support group of friends that are always willing to help and be a part of something bigger than themselves. If you’re struggling to move forward in whatever it is you’re doing, first look at yourself and then look at your surroundings. Our environment affects us on a level that’s hard to calculate because it is that vast. But to really narrow it down, there is one person that has always been in my corner, whispering sweet words of encouragement. He’s always looking at the positives and reminding me that I’m Superwoman. And that’s my son, Aurelius. I am so grateful for his unconditional love and patience with me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My journey has led me to many philanthropic opportunities, all of which were chapters in my life book. Many chapters to go, of course. Art of Giving Foundation is the goodness chapter — where passion now drives everything I do. Being a good person doesn’t require you to have a non-profit or to travel to Nicaragua to help orphans — it’s having integrity and doing what you know is the right thing to do within your means. I believe that just by “walking the talk” I am bringing goodness to the world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- No one is as passionate as you, so don’t expect them to be. This is your project and it’s your job to inspire people through it.
- Find everyone’s innate talent and put them in a position to practice it. Our first gala was in 2019, to raise money for the charity. I gave everyone a role and expected them to execute. Unfortunately, not everyone was confident in their role, which led to procrastination and unfinished tasks with a very stressed CEO. Over the next two years, there was a lot of internal movement to figure out where everyone was confident and what they were passionate about. With a better understanding of everyone’s talents, this year’s gala was planned at a rapid rate and has blossomed into an even bigger event than I imagined. Come out and see for yourself, July 9th at Artifact Events in Chicago.
- You need to be fearless at asking for money.
- You’re not trying to change culture, you’re trying to understand it.
- Hire a PR/Marketing firm. It’s expensive but your business needs marketing just like any other for-profit entity.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Remember, the ride or the journey is your success. If you’re truly passionate about your work, you’re bound to be emotional. Let it out, cry hysterically if you need to — tears are your fuel. Celebrate with your team, they’ll appreciate you more. Create a community that expresses itself and doesn’t hold back the truths that often hurt. But above all, BE YOURSELF. Always be and do what you set out to and people will see your integrity and support you.
One bit of advice, don’t be afraid to evolve, change, or mature. Just because your business isn’t what it was at its inception doesn’t mean you’re a jumping bean without direction. Sometimes the businesses that pivot and change course based on need are the most successful. At one time, the Art of Giving Foundation only provided art programs and supplies for underprivileged children in need. Now, we provide the funding to other organizations that already have these systems in place. We evolved into a financial support system that allowed us to help others help themselves. This all came from my travels and understanding culture on a much deeper level.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The Artist Revolution. It’s a project I am extremely passionate about. An ongoing art installation citywide, keeping our artists employed and busy creating throughout the year. This is a wonderful opportunity for art students breaking into the Chicago art scene and for seasoned artists to develop and expand their portfolios. This is a partnership with local developers, real estate investors, interior designers, and artists — supplying them with a creative means to redesign our city and educate our residents on the community that art provides.
This will directly impact our city’s artistic presence and cultural diversity — putting us on the map — attracting more creatives and artists from around the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
2021 Art of Giving Black Tie & Sneaker Gala — https://www.eventbrite.com/e/art-of-giving-black-tie-sneaker-gala-tickets-131551236289
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!