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“To Be A CEO, Learn To Be Be A Kindergarten Teacher” 5 Leadership Lessons With Avigail Eisenstadt

“There’s a whole lot of drama that I didn’t realize I would have to deal with as an employer. But I will say that 95 percent of the time…


“There’s a whole lot of drama that I didn’t realize I would have to deal with as an employer. But I will say that 95 percent of the time, whether I’ve had to let somebody go or settle a dispute, people walk out of my office with a smile. I think it’s important to know how to reach people, how to elicit the kind of response that you need, in a positive way. I think it’s an art of knowing how to deal with people, to understand the situation, and know how to target and how to get, the response that you need.”

I had the pleasure to interview Avigail Eisenstadt, Founder and CEO of AE Design Group a full service boutique interior design firm with a staff of 18 people . In addition to Healthcare facilities which has been their primary focus initially, their portfolio includes corporate design, restaurant design, commercial and residential buildings nationwide. Their in-house purchasing team, Design Source Group, LLC sources materials from vendors to get low contracted pricing due to the large quantities of materials that they order. Their in-house rendering services enable them to provide photorealistic depictions of the designed spaces as well as virtual reality walk through tours.

It’s a pleasure to meet you. I really appreciate you joining us. Can you tell us your backstory and your company’s backstory?

First I’ll start with the fact that I changed my major five times in college. That’s because I knew that I had to do something that I was passionate about. I knew I always loved design, but as I tried different things in school, none of it was making me happy. I knew that I had to go to sleep and wake up with the passion of loving what I’m doing.

So how did I know that I wanted that I had to be a designer? We used to live in an apartment complex in Baltimore and all the apartments kind of looked the same. And every time we were invited to friends in the same complex for dinner, during the entire meal I would be redesigning their apartment because they were all the same. Each one I had a challenge, how would I do this one? How would I do that one? And it became such an obsession with space layouts and, and design, just everything. My mind wouldn’t stop. And that’s how I knew I had to go to design school, I had to apply my passion and turn it into a career. And that’s really how I knew I wanted to be a designer.

I trained at the New York School of Interior Design, which I loved. It was the most amazing design program because it’s extremely comprehensive. The whole school is geared to interior design so you can pick any aspect of that field in that industry and pick what you’re good at.

On the day after my very last class, I came across someone I knew whose family sells software to nursing homes. While talking about what I might do, she told me that one of her clients was the middle of building a ground up assisted living facility in Westchester. I said, healthcare’s, not my thing: I really want to do high end hotels or high end residential on Park Avenue. I did an internship at Victoria Hagen Interiors while I was in design school, and it was just the most amazing and exciting experience. I wanted to go along those lines. But you know, when an opportunity comes your way, it’s important to just see what it’s about. Never let things go, just explore.

So I went on an interview and I thought, you know, this is an interesting opportunity — let me try it. What’s the harm? I gave it a trial, and the employer gave me a trial. After ninety days we both liked what was happening. In fact, it was great. We went on from there. That’s really what jump started my path in healthcare design.

I worked for that company for a couple of years and then, with my employer’s encouragement, I started my own design firm. Now this first employer is still one of my biggest clients, which is so gratifying. I am so appreciative. And that’s pretty much my backstory.


Can you share the funniest or most interesting story about your career?

So I have both. I have a funny story and having an interesting story.

The interesting thing that I’ve learned about my career path is that I struggled a little bit with the concept of going into design as a career rather than as a hobby. I wanted to do something meaningful. I wanted to have an impact. I didn’t realize when I embarked on this journey how impactful it would be. For example, I was in a nursing home I had designed in Florida last week and I was inspecting the rooms; the construction quality, the floor installation, the furniture quality.

There was a resident in the room — I met this really sweet woman. And she said, hi, it’s so nice that you’re visiting. I said, yes, it’s so nice to see you. You have such a beautiful room. How are you enjoying it? And she said, I’m looking at that picture on the wall. It just makes me smile. I love my bed. And look at my bedspread! Isn’t it pretty? Do you like the color? And I said, yes, it’s beautiful. I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.

I didn’t tell her that I was the designer. I just knew I wanted to hear feedback and it just made me feel so gratified that my work helps this woman, and so many like her, feel comfortable and happy in the sunset of their lives. It really impacts their lives. We’re here in the office, we’re designing, but once it’s installed it is really affecting the people and their quality of life. And that’s central to what I love about my job.

In terms of a funny story, a couple of years ago, we designed this facility in Brooklyn and two elderly residents fell in love and decided to get married. They had this big chapel wedding at the facility and they invited me because I was working there at the time. It was one of my early projects and I was on site many times a week so I could really get to know the residents. We just thought it was the coolest thing that this couple met, fell in love and got married. They were bunking together in a room I designed. They got married in a chapel on the floor I designed. It was just wonderful — and funny!


Is there anything in particular about your company that stands out? Can you share a specific story or example of that?

Well, not to get political — and I’m not- it’s gratifying that this is a successful business that was created, owned and operated by a woman. Society has come a long way, and it’s nice, in this constructive way, to be a part of it. Thankfully, when people hear about that, there is an excitement and an enthusiasm. It’s about accomplishment and respect. It’s about the opportunity in our society for any individual to to aim high, to work hard, and to succeed. It’s the American dream, and the American promise.

We have many projects within the general scope of healthcare but we don’t do only healthcare. We do commercial hospitality. We just did a spa and a Mikveh (ritual bath). We’ve done student housing. It’s a nice variety of projects.

But even within healthcare, each of our projects looks different. So the facilities that we’re working on in Florida look different from the ones we’re working on in Tennessee, which in turn look different from what we are working on in California. And Pittsburgh and Ohio and new York all look different as well. Each one has to take the flavor of the community of residence. We take into account the local background, where the residents are from, how they grew up, even the expectations of their social class. What comforts they’re used to, what kind of aesthetics they are drawn to.

In California, everything is very beachy. in Tennessee it has that rustic feel. Every city that we design in, we take time to make sure to understand the nature of the community of the industry there and we incorporate that into our design.

It’s challenging, but it just makes us unique as a design firm, that we’re really taking into account all these things.

Another thing that sets us apart is our flexibility. We’re very flexible with our clients, whether it’s financially or value engineering projects to fit into their budget. If they know that they just need colors, for example, and don’t need all of our drawings, we’ll work to fit within whatever they need. We don’t oversell our services. I know they appreciate that. So that’s something that I think makes us stand out. ,

And of course, we offer true creativity. Of course all designers say that, but let me tell you a story that shows what this means. We had an open house for Rehab Gym with a couple of years ago and everything was designed and specified well in advance. But there were construction delays and hold ups that will often happen on a project. It was the day before the open house and everyone was onsite and tension was high. All of a sudden they realized they ran out of a wallpaper needed to complete a major room. I was present, and began brainstorming to see what we’re going to do for the next day. So many people were coming! It was a major, major event. I quickly picked a pink color to kind of tie in with where the wallpaper left off and we did it, brought some props that kind of tied in that color, put it around the gym area. And at the open house I overheard people saying, wow, look at that wall, isn’t it cool how it ties the whole room together. It was such an amazing and gratifying experience. And since that happened, I find that when things happen, whether something comes in wrong or a mistake happens, then it’s just these last minute changes or adjustments that sometimes could be the best, most beautiful design and kind of flips the whole thing on its ear. It’s just amazing.

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person that you’re grateful for who has helped you achieve your success?

My initial employer really taught me the ropes with regard to healthcare. In part, our success as a company relates to the fact that I was trained by an owner operator. When I decided to go off on my own, he introduced me to his partners and his friends to help grow my business and he helped me figure out how to work, how to do my pricing structures, how to deal with the many issues that came up. He would guide us and mentor us and really helped us become the successful — and savvy — company we are today. I am so grateful. Charles Gros was my mentor, and you know, he’s still one of my biggest clients today. He has been extraordinarily kind and generous to me and my family.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

All of our projects are exciting. We’re working on projects from coast to coast, which, is exciting in and of itself. We travel a lot, which is great. Just yesterday, my colleague and I drove halfway through Georgia to Tennessee. We passed through historic Civil War battle grounds. I find that every project as such exciting points to it, whether it’s local or long distance, know that each one has its own challenge and excitement and we just love putting our ideas together for each unique project. Another thing that we love doing that we find very exciting, not only in healthcare, but now also in commercial space, we find that the design really enhances productivity of an office space. What lighting we’re using. Even the colors. There’s a whole psychology to color that people don’t understand. We’ve worked with dementia, special instance. We’ve worked with lighting specialists. There’s so much that goes into every project, so many levels that really need to be understood , and it has such impact on the product. We were interviewed for a think tank which is a business magazine and different designers weighed in on how lighting and decor affects productivity. It’s so important and I think people are starting to really see that, through these publications, which I think is really, really great.


How do you use your success to bring goodness to the world?

First of all, the very fact that we are in the health care industry. We are involved with people in the twilight of their lives, when they are weak and vulnerable, and are in a position to make them happy and comfortable. It’s no small thing to make them smile. Most of these people spend the rest of their lives in these facilities and doing our part to help make their day better, to put that smile on their face, putting pictures up of that, to evoke memories of their childhood or of their children and grandchildren. We try to incorporate that into our artwork. To bring them happiness, to put some sunshine in their lives, brings goodness into the world. I love that my work allows my husband, who is a highly respected scholar and teacher, to pursue what he loves and does best. He’s amazing at it and I do what I can to support that. And that’s something wonderful in its own right that gives me such satisfaction every day.


Are there five things you wish somebody told you before you started your company?

Yes, there are five things that I wish I knew.

You Learn On The Way

The day I opened my company, I had no idea what “LLC” stood for. I’m not a businesswoman by nature. I am one by default, and I’ve learned a lot. I was really starting as a designer because that’s my passion and that’s my field. But along the way I had to become a business woman as well. There are a lot of things that I wish I had known before. I wouldn’t want to look like an idiot on my first day as a CEO! It’s just funny how little I knew about business and how much I’ve learned and grown.

People go to school for business, but I do think a lot of it is common sense. I’ll give you an example. I’m active on LinkedIn. I don’t have any marketing background. I don’t have sales backgrounds, but I’ve just kind of been going along with my gut and today I can’t even tell you how many contracts I’ve signed through the use of LinkedIn. Then people asked me, how do you know, how do you know what to do? How do you know how it’s a whole direction in itself to discuss LinkedIn because I have a lot to say about it, how to utilize it properly and how it’s helped me grow as a company.

I was recently in California and I met someone who said, oh my gosh, I recognize you from LinkedIn! And it was so random. He said, you know, I give marketing courses and I used your profile as an example. I was floored. So I think that for some business things and some marketing things, intuition and common sense go a long way. And I’ve been blessed to have great mentors and friends who helped me along the way.

People Do Not Pay Their Bills

Another thing that I wish I would have known is that people do not pay their bills. I’m actually glad no one told me this because I wouldn’t have started. No, I’m kidding. Honestly, it’s been my greatest challenge. It’s something that I’m still trying to figure out. You know, you give so much and people don’t realize that I’m not a big corporation. I literally comes in, I pay my employees and I go shopping at the supermarket to buy food to put on the table. I don’t think people realize that by them holding back money as a business tactic, how badly it affects people.

There’s No Such Thing As A Nine To Five

A third thing that I learned is there’s no such thing as a nine to five. Every business owner will tell you there is no such thing.

No, I’m catching up with my emails at three in the morning because I’m in the office. I’m working with a client. I’m meeting vendors, I’m looking for new products for new design products to keep finding new items, new products, push the boundaries in design. So when do I get the rest of it? Then when do I get contracts? Then when do I answer my emails? That’s the three time flap. So that’s something I don’t know if I would have done differently, but something that I didn’t know before.

Hire Right And Fire Right

Another thing is, as important as it is is to hire right, it’s important to fire right. The whole atmosphere than office depends on your employees. And if you have happy people, positive people, that’s the kind of environment you’ll have. If you have negativity, it breeds other negativity and then it becomes a toxic environment.

Be A Kindergarten Teacher

Which brings me to number five: to be a kindergarten teacher.

There’s a whole lot of drama that I didn’t realize I would have to deal with as an employer. But I will say that 95 percent of the time, whether I’ve had to let somebody go or settle a dispute, people walk out of my office with a smile. I think it’s important to know how to reach people, how to elicit the kind of response that you need, in a positive way. I think it’s an art of knowing how to deal with people, to understand the situation, and know how to target and how to get, the response that you need.

I have been very blessed that prominent CEOs and celebrities read my column. So here’s your chance to reach out to them. 🙂 Is there anyone in the world or in the US that you would love to have a breakfast, have lunch with and why?

Well, being a designer, I’m there quite a few interior designers that I follow on social media and in magazines. And there was a particular designer that I am so intrigued by and I keep wondering where does she come up? This stuff, there are so many designers out there who have beautiful taste, but this one is just knowing so unique that’s still out of the box. Her name is Kelly Wearstler she’s based in California and part of what I’m fascinated by is her work life balance, which is a challenge for everybody. Especially as I have a busy household, but at the same time I’m building a design firm. We have other projects in the works, our own manufacturing on many levels and we have a purchasing company. We have a lot going on. Kelly Wearstler, I see, also has so much going on, from what i read. And I’m just amazed at how she does it all and I am inspired to accomplish that magical balance as well. I know that having a good support system is the most important and it looks like she does. I would love to meet her. I think we do have much in common. I would love to meet her pick her brain!

Amazing. Thank you so much for joining us I wish you only success.

Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

Originally published at medium.com

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