Because this is a global issue, former unlikely partners are now working together for a common goal, which is good for humanity and world relations.
This tough time is not going to last forever. I believe this period in time will serve as a reset button for our country. All the existing paradigms in society are shifting and it is exciting to think about positive change.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lili Hall, founder, CEO and President of KNOCK, inc., a Minneapolis-based independent creative agency leading strategic brand development and design thinking on a national and international scale. She founded KNOCK in 2001 with a commitment to impeccable client service and a nimble response to new entrepreneurial opportunities. Lili’s teams design powerful experiences that matter — connecting customers to brands in all categories and disciplines. Additionally, she owns two sister companies: TREAT AND COMPANY, a strategic design studio; and NEIGHBOR, a video and animation company.
Born in Chicago to a Brazilian mother and an Irish-American father, Lili lived as a young girl in Recife, Brazil, before moving to Minneapolis to attend high school. Fluent in English and Portuguese, she graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations, and from McGill University with a Master of Management. Lili worked in sales and marketing on both corporate and agency sides before starting her own venture. Along the way, she married an Italian special education teacher and is a proud mother to two daughters. An entrepreneur at heart, she lives passionately for connecting people and opportunities, is mentor to countless young adults, and sits on numerous nonprofit boards that serve the arts, youth, and other social justice initiatives.
Named one of EY’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women, and Most Admired CEO by Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, Lili measures success not only in the culture, growth and profitability of her company, but in the impact it makes on communities — both at home and around the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better.
Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I am the Founder, CEO and President of KNOCK, inc., a Minneapolis-based independent creative agency leading strategic brand development and design thinking on a national and international scale for such clients as Target, Abbott, E&J Gallo and Radisson Hotel Group. I founded KNOCK in 2001 with a commitment to impeccable client service and a nimble response to entrepreneurial opportunities. My teams design powerful experiences that matter — connecting customers to brands in all categories and disciplines. Additionally, I own two sister companies: TREAT AND COMPANY, a strategic design studio; and NEIGHBOR, a video and animation company. Born in Chicago to a Brazilian mother and an Irish-American father, I lived as a young girl in Recife, Brazil, before moving to Minneapolis to attend high school. Fluent in English and Portuguese, I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations, and from McGill University with a Master of Management. I worked in sales and marketing on both corporate and agency sides before starting her own venture. Along the way, I married an Italian special education teacher and became a proud mother to two daughters.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Thinking back, I started KNOCK two months after 9/11 in the middle of a recession. It seems absurd in hindsight. But at the time it was energizing to me, because I had made the commitment to myself. With the kitchen table as my first home office and a Citibank Visa Card as my “angel investor” (a card I still have today!), I began KNOCK with the entrepreneurial mind of my father and the heart of my mother — a woman who raised us to believe that no one was above us or beneath us. That we should treat everyone with respect.
I would say my mother’s advice probably had the most impact on me as a leader. I’ve spent my career — my entire life — seeking equity in relationships and holding up people — particularly women and minorities — so that everyone can see and believe in their full potential.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently working with the WBDC (Women Business Development Center) on a multi-channel campaign honoring the tenacity of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. It has been 100 years! Now, more than ever, we need to celebrate and acknowledge the women who came before us — fighting, sacrificing and campaigning to get women the right to vote. It’s also noteworthy that this 100-year mark is largely for white women — as black women did not receive voting rights until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. There is still so much work to be done in terms of equality and social justice, yet an incredibly important milestone to recognize, nonetheless. Our campaign is a true rally cry for women to get politically active, and to bring it to life, we’re working with a lot of exciting corporate sponsors and powerful women speakers who will be part of podcasts and virtual events leading up to the election on November 3rd. Political activism is something near to me and we need this work to continue so everyone in the United States can safely and easily vote.
Additionally, KNOCK has been fortunate to partner with the renowned Walker Art Center in shaping the messaging strategy for a reopening campaign during COVID-19 times. While the campaign launched in mid-summer, we created a tiered approach that allows for flexibility of messages, should there be a need to revise safety protocols.
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 about that?
There are so many people who have helped me achieve what I have so far. Of course, my mother was a huge proponent of mine and made sure that I knew I could do anything. Having that cheerleader to inspire such confidence at a young age is really instrumental in success. Plus, I think being from a multicultural family (I am Brazilian and my husband is Italian) has been a driver as well. Having the strong familial support, an emphasis in living passionately and an unrelenting drive keeps me going.
Professionally, Howard Gamer, our accountant for over 30 years, has seen all the ups and downs of my work-life journey. He has so much invaluable experience and served as a great mentor and support through all of my growth. He also happens to know me well enough to put me in my place when I needed to hear it!
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family-related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
As is the situation for many people, home, work and family have all collided in a messy way that none of us expected. My husband, high school-aged daughter and I all work from home now. At the KNOCK office, I had my own turf; but with the “home” office new lines needed to be drawn — not just for me but my whole family. Literally overnight, we had to adjust to not only new ways to work, but new “co-workers” and routines on top of all the stress of the pandemic. And as a mother and parent, it is largely seen as my job to figure it out and keep it together. It isn’t easy for anyone to define priorities and tasks when tossed into this new environment. All of our old routines have been thrown out the window, and we have created new ones in order to accommodate one another. Plus, my husband just retired from his teaching job, and that is another life adjustment that we have had to navigate.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Open communication with my family ensures that we don’t step on each other and are addressing our needs. Designating spaces for each person to work and have family time has been helpful. Also, honoring mental health is extremely important to keeping your family unit strong in these tough times. I have made sure to keep myself sane in order to be there for my family. While many have resorted to virtual conferencing, such as Zoom, to keep business moving, I decided early on that an all-day steady stream of calls was soul crushing. So, for myself, and to keep myself out of my family’s way, I decided to become dedicated to “walking meetings.” With the help of my Apple watch, I put in my 10K steps a day, which keeps my meetings productive, those pandemic pounds off and my sanity intact.
Because you can so easily go down a rabbit hole of misery in COVID times, my family decided to do fun things to keep it at bay. We’ve made it our mission to support our fabulous independent restaurants here in Minneapolis. At least three times a week, we will order out to show our support and we enjoy the family bonding of picking out where to eat and what to try next. Keeping your family engaged in something fun brightens the week.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
I nervously laid awake for the first two weeks of “shelter in place” worrying about how I was going to keep KNOCK’s 90-plus people employed. As the main bread winner in my family, I was acutely aware of what was at stake for everyone who works for us. Thankfully, we have not been forced to make any pay cuts or furloughs. We are extremely determined to keep our entire team together. Like everyone else, we applied for and received a PPP loan which has allowed us to keep operating.
There is also the concern of making people work remotely (in a work culture that cherishes collaboration), and how to keep the office actually functioning. We recognized early on that some people really needed/wanted to return to the office for a variety of reasons. So making decisions around the health and safety of our employees was something we had to think about on a whole new level.
What have you done to address those challenges?
Our first challenge was keeping money coming in and employees paid. It goes without saying that navigating that entire loan process was extremely stressful. I am lucky to belong to women-led professional groups — Women’s Presidents Organization (WPO), the C200 and We Bank — who supplied me with weekly updates on aspects of the loan. Thankfully, their tangible tactics served me well while the federal government was creating the program on the fly. Having a trusted group of experts and well-connected people going through similar challenges provided an outlet and support system. I even got in the habit of recapping everything I learned and sharing it with other business colleagues not a part of my groups. In times like this, mutual support is incredibly important.
As for the physical work environment of our office and making decisions about whether or not to allow folks to work from there, as I mentioned we discovered that some people really wanted to ability to work from the office. So, we created a committee within the company to address that issue. The safety and health of our “work family” came first. We made the decision to allow about 25% of the employees to work in the office at any one time. We developed a sign-up system as well to make it fair. We also hired a daily cleaning service that specializes in sanitization to ensure that we were on track for a clean and safe space. We also required and provided masks and temperature checks. Additionally, several years ago we decided to cover the cost of preparing health care directives and wills for our employees. While it is sad to be thinking about those things, it removes another source of potential stress for our employees and their families especially in troubling times like this. Our goal was to make sure our employees were covered in as many ways as possible.
What’s your advice on how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
It is a fair question, but in reality, balance is something that rarely exists in our world. It more closely resembles juggling. You are required to reinvent a new work environment that also serves as a family home. I am lucky as my kids are pretty independent and motivated, which is a blessing. At the beginning of this new normal, we were attempting to monitor screen time, but soon realized that was not a functional solution. We all need coping mechanisms and screens are a large part of that. With the education system completely disrupted, it didn’t make sense to cause more stress at home by instituting new rules. My kids have been good at following safety procedures and staying focused on school. But as restrictions loosen, they’ve started to widen their friend circles which is something we have been closely monitoring to ensure everyone is safe and healthy. We also make sure to have good family time. We now play board games, eat more meals together, and generally have more conversations than we did before.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
My pre-pandemic life was jam-packed with weekly travel, so to switch that off was initially a shock. But as we all learn to slow our pace down a bit, there is now space for other things that may have been neglected or even unknown. My most successful strategy in managing the restlessness has been my walking routine. Walking has allowed me to meet neighbors, from afar, and to feel more connected to my community while working from home. That has been an unexpected joy. I also try to keep a good grasp on time and dates — which as we all are discovering, it can be very easy to have everything morph together. To combat that, I decided no matter what, I would attempt to get dressed up a bit on Saturday nights, in spite of having nowhere to go, to serve as a marker for the weekend!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Coronavirus Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Anxiety and fear have been top of mind for us. In addition to the pandemic, we all witnessed the horrific murder of George Floyd here in Minneapolis — which rocked many of us to the core. Managing COVID-19 was challenging enough, but to then be confronted with this brazen act of violence on an unarmed Black man was shattering. We pride ourselves in being one of the most diverse companies in the Twin Cities and seeing the anxiety and hopelessness of the Minneapolis community was brutal. With our offices located in the midst of the chaos, we had to board up our doors and stay aware of where the riots were happening and moving. From the beginning, we have been open about communicating about issues of race and discrimination. We organized a staff call with our entire team so we could voice our collective pain, confusion and fear. Diversity, equity and inclusion are already a part of our DNA at KNOCK, yet we are always open to learning and evolving. We brought in Seena Hodges, the WOKE Coach (thewokecoach.com), to help with that. I also purchased dozens of relevant books on this subject and have made them available to staff. When it comes to things like social justice issues, the fear can be real, but allowing yourself and others to be empowered and take action is key.
Whereas, when it relates to COVID specifically, despite the devastation happening in our world thus far, there are always reasons to be hopeful:
- The collaboration happening in the science community around information sharing and vaccine development has been remarkable to witness. With scientists all around the world working on the issue of COVID-19, solutions will reveal themselves.
- Because this is a global issue, former unlikely partners are now working together for a common goal, which is good for humanity and world relations.
- This tough time is not going to last forever. I believe this period in time will serve as a reset button for our country. All the existing paradigms in society are shifting and it is exciting to think about positive change.
- Community has become much stronger and American ingenuity is alive and well. This new world has seen so many entrepreneurs doing remarkable things, like pivoting a distillery into a source for hand sanitizer or a manufacturer retooling his floor to make masks or ventilators and people committed to helping each other.
- We are now being forced to examine our priorities and way of life with new perspectives. I have had so many conversations with people who are realizing their need to reprioritize what is important in life. We are now acutely aware of those people and things we love and have a renewed sense of appreciation for what we have.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to families of loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I think you need to assume that everyone you know is feeling anxious on some level. It is imperative that we take the time to notice when people are struggling by checking in with our circle of friends, family and employees. When communicating with each other, it’s important not to take things too personal as everyone’s emotions are heightened. We also strive to take as many precautions as possible to limit the added stress to those around us. Making sure you are staying as healthy and safe as possible — so you are not negatively impacting those around you — allows all of us the ability to reclaim some sort of control over this situation, which in turn lowers the stress factor.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Pay it forward”
The concept of creating a ripple effect of good is something that has resonated with me throughout my entire life. Our work with multiple nonprofits supporting social justice causes in education, disease prevention, the arts and BIPOC inclusion (and so much more) has given me a greater appreciation for people and the struggles they might have. It’s taught me generosity. It’s made me a better person. This vibration of goodness is cumulative by nature and its exponential value projects positive change we can all feel and appreciate.
How can our readers follow you online?