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Good Spirits: Money, A Tool for Service - Connie Capiotis, Founder, Digital Bridges



Good Spirits are quarterly interviews with business leaders. During Good Spirits, we bring you a distilled look at business owners who are working to make a better future by giving back to their community through their work or philanthropy. These leaders inspire and empower us to make a positive difference in our own backyards.


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Transcript


Carolyn Keller:

This is Carolyn. And this is our inaugural episode of Good Spirits, quarterly interviews with business leaders in the region. And I'm here with our first guest, Connie Capiotis, Executive Director of Digital Bridges, as well as CEO of Full Flavor Leadership. Connie, tell us a bit more about what you do and how your businesses interact with each other.


Connie Capiotis:

Carolyn, thank you so much for having me. It means so much to me that you asked me to be a part of this, let alone to be your first interviewee. I can't tell you how much that means to me. I'm Connie, I am the CEO of full flavor leadership, where I am a business consultant and coach, where I help my clients run better businesses and live better lives. I've over 20 years of business development and marketing experience, I've been literally doing this kind of work since right out of high school, all the way through college and a master's degree. So I've been at it for quite a while now. I am also the Executive Director and Founder of Digital Bridges Pittsburgh, which is the education and nonprofit arm of my work. What the work really comes from is a deep desire to serve and to help people build better lives. It just struck me that business skills are really life skills. And if you have access to a computer connected to the internet, there's nothing that you can't learn to do or accomplish. If we can just get you on a computer and teach you some really basic skills on how to use it smartly. There's nothing that I can't help support you in doing. And that is really the foundation of all of my work with both of those organizations.


Carolyn Keller:

Absolutely! In terms of the clients that you serve, it spans a wide range, doesn't it? You are working with children, and you have people who are entrepreneurs just start now and I'm sure you have business owners that are more seasoned as well.


Connie Capiotis:

I do! I work with all of the above. What I always say is I work from under eight to over 80. And that really is true because I do youth programs in entrepreneurship called So You Want to Be a YouTube Star and Entrepreneurs and Influencers, which is just a really fun way to get kids engaged and then teach them really practical entrepreneurship skills. It's almost a little bit of a bait and switch. But if there's two things that kids want to know, it's how to be a social media influencer and how to make money. So basically, I speak teenager, and I give that to them. And then when it comes to my adults, it's again about giving them the skills to live better lives. So because I'm serving such a wide depth and breadth of people and situations, what I'm doing is making sure that I'm sticking to my areas of expertise. So it's always about entrepreneurship, technology and smart technology use, and then leadership skills and emotional intelligence skills that are going to help support you in those more concrete goals.


Carolyn Keller:

That's fantastic. As I'm listening to you talk about all of these different elements, there's this common ground of helping people excel and helping people lead the best lives that they can. What purpose propels the work that you do.


Connie Capiotis:

That is the purpose that propels everything that I do! It really just comes from wanting to help people live better lives. I'm a big fan of giving people a hand up. I'm a very, very empathetic person. The thing that lights me up about my business is helping people to feel seen and understood and then supported. My running joke is I want to make every one of my clients cry, and I have a pretty good track record. I'm known for sending these wonderful feedback videos. My whole goal is to make people be seen, understand where they are in their life, and in their experience, and then help them figure out what they need to take those next steps. And it doesn't matter whether you're Andrea in Hazelwood who is 65 and a former educator that has recently suffered a stroke, but has not let that stop her. She and I are working on advanced zooms skills, and I've been taking her deep into those menus. Next week. We're getting together and working on Podbean because she's going on podcasts. So I'm teaching her those skills. I teach those same skills to eight year olds and 15 year olds and listen to their ideas for businesses. It never ceases to impress me how everybody that I come in contact with has a vision for themselves, for their lives, for something bigger. There's always a way to help them get there via technology and technology skills, entrepreneurship skills, and especially leadership and emotional intelligence skills that are just so important to making people really be supported so they can grow.


Carolyn Keller:

When you talk about meeting people where they are, one of the things I think about is the unique way that you work through your business structure. You have both philanthropic and business-related arms of each aspect of what you do. How does that help you meet people where they are and address the needs that you see?


In my mind, whether it's my business, my nonprofit, money is a tool for service. So if you keep your eyes on “How am I going to serve,” it makes it easier to find the route to the money. So my business structurally: I do have an LLC for my business that allows me to retain ownership of my curriculum, protect my intellectual property, and pursue for-profit activities while still serving people in areas where they can't pay me in that way. I also have a fiscal sponsorship set up through an organization called New Sun Rising.

Connie Capiotis:

In my mind, whether it's my business, my nonprofit, money is a tool for service. So if you keep your eyes on “How am I going to serve,” it makes it easier to find the route to the money. So my business structurally: I do have an LLC for my business that allows me to retain ownership of my curriculum, protect my intellectual property, and pursue for-profit activities while still serving people in areas where they can't pay me in that way. I also have a fiscal sponsorship set up through an organization called New Sun Rising. And that allows me to access grants so that I can run these programs to very specific demographics and in very specific locations. Again, it's service-focused, and how the money comes about really is just determined by where and how the service is taking place. It just always puts everything back on that service focus. So even in my for-profit world, it's very much focused on who is the customer that I'm serving? Where are they at in their journey? What can they afford? Because like you said, I work with entrepreneurs at all phases of their journeys, there's a difference between when an entrepreneur needs when they're in the first year to five years of their journey, and what they're going to be able to do with the resources available to them, as opposed to somebody that's been doing it for 10 years, has a staff, etc. It's the same steps, but they're slightly different in the way we implement them. So it all revolves around that service, the different levels of service, and then the money just becomes a tool of how to make the service happen.


Carolyn Keller:

And it sounds like you have some flexibility too. There are certain limitations that you probably have as an LLC that are different from the limitations that you have as a fiscally sponsored program. So there are ways in which you can really creatively think about that and how it applies to your business.


Connie Capiotis:

Yeah, absolutely. And like I said, that allowed mostly for - I wasn't willing to give up ownership of the program. In the nonprofit setting, this [Digital Bridges] was always my baby. So I wanted to make sure I was able to protect and retain some ownership of my baby, while still delivering it in a totally community-centric way. And that's really where the division lies. So if I'm pursuing grant funding with my fiscally sponsored organization, the funding is essentially a contract for service. I'm accepting funds to deliver programs and services to specific people in specific neighborhoods or have specific demographics and needs. So I look at that really no differently than if I was doing a contract with a corporation where my goals would be to go in and coach their team. It's very similar. And again, that just goes back to the service model and figuring out where the service needs to be and what funding is appropriate for that situation. it's about being both protective and proactive about your own work and your own business, as well as making sure that you do have the appropriate focuses because there are slight differences between how a for-profit business is run versus a nonprofit. So the appropriate program, the appropriate category, for each was the most flexible way to do this sort of business.


Carolyn Keller:

And how did you first learn about fiscal sponsorship and think about applying it in this way?


Connie Capiotis:

Kind of dumb luck in networking, quite honestly. I decided in 2017 that I was going to start a nonprofit because with a computer connected to the internet, there's nothing I can't help you be. That was the founding principle: I'm going to teach people about how to use these things to their advantage. Again, I come from a business background, and I jumped into the nonprofit world with that entrepreneurial spirit and no contacts. So it was very much a networking game. I networked like a crazy person for the first several years of my work to get a feel for this new market. It’s a slightly different market, it's a slightly different approach. I had to get to know the ground of what I was doing. So I was networking like a crazy person. And I came across New Sun Rising. And I'm like, Well, this is really interesting. And I read about fiscal sponsorship and did more research about what fiscal sponsorship is. And then I sat down with Dan at New Sun Rising. And my running joke is that it's all Dan’s fault! I was originally working with another organization and wasn't getting a whole lot of support from their board. And it was pointed out to me that your board should be supporting you. Well, the board didn't want to support me, so I decided that I was going to do my own thing, I had a larger vision for what is now Digital Bridges Pittsburgh, I had a conversation with Dan about the benefits of fiscal sponsorship and the benefits of working with their organization, which both makes sense in a very practical way. The services that I received from New Sun Rising were at such a discount that it would cost me a lot more money to have that 501(c)3 filed, to have to deal with all of the accounting and controlling what has to be done in the background, the auditing and whatnot. It would cost me a lot more money. As a new organization that was just gaining traction with programs (really just inventing programs there in the beginning) it just made sense to have that back office support and guidance. And New Sun Rising has provided me with quite a few program opportunities as well. I've participated in two of their residency-based programs. The first was called Sto-Rox Collaborative, I did that within the first year of doing digital bridges. Then I also completed their Grow residency program about a year or two after that. Even with over 20 years of business experience, I really believe that as you're building a new organization, it is absolutely imperative that you have a team somehow helping you to grow. Not just because I can't do it myself, but because two heads are better than one. There are people that have better levels of expertise than I do in certain areas. So it was important to me to find ways to continue to grow my business. Even though I have the experience to do it it's still important to have that input and that support as you're growing a new organization. So the benefits of that fiscal sponsorship have just been phenomenal.


Carolyn Keller

What was the main reason that you decided to not launch directly into a nonprofit? You said that starting a nonprofit was your original thought. I know Pittsburgh in general, has one of the largest concentrations of nonprofits. And so learning your ability to make that jump from “I have this idea for starting a nonprofit” and then realizing maybe fiscal sponsorship is a different or better way to approach it. What was that process like for you?


Connie Capiotis:

Again, for me it was a really practical decision, I wasn't going to be able to pay for accounting services as inexpensively as I could by working with New Sun Rising.


The back-office support has been phenomenal. The development support has been phenomenal. So those were all very practical decisions that went into this for me. I still have the option that I could form it as a 501(c)3 eventually, but especially in an overcrowded market with over 3,000 nonprofits in Pittsburgh alone. Being a brand new program. I've even been told by funders that they prefer to see a fiscally sponsored organization, because they have to be approved. So they know that there's already oversight involved. They know that there's already been somebody that has reviewed the project, reviewed budgets, and has given some preliminary approval and support. It was really just another form of entrepreneurial support.


Carolyn Keller

Yeah, absolutely. And to get back to the communities that you work in - You see first-hand some of the challenges they encounter. What are some of those big challenges that you want to tackle in your community?


Connie Capiotis:

There are so many, there's so many challenges right now. It's like, where do we even start? From mental health to food insecurity and food deserts in our communities, there are a lot of really big programs and a lot of really big problems that our nonprofits are trying to solve. For me, it really comes back down to staying on that mission, staying on that service and focusing on a certain subject matter expert in entrepreneurship. So that's economic development. On technology.


That's Community and Economic Development. When people are able to access and understand technology, it leads to better paying jobs, we could go off on statistics all day, around entrepreneurship and access to entrepreneurship for minorities. Trust me, we've got all the research we need. We know that neighborhoods that are struggling need more access to entrepreneurship opportunities, and more access to high paying opportunities, higher paying wage opportunities, such as technology careers, or even just careers that utilize technology. Those are very critical to helping a community grow to helping a community that is depressed begin to recover. So it's a stay-in-your-lane kind of thing for me. You know what I mean? I don't have the myth in my head that I can solve all of the world's problems or all of our community's problems. So I attend as many meetings as I can, and I apply my specific expertise, where it is needed and wanted. Then I provide support to other organizations, because I've got the business background, and I've got the technology background. A lot of times I find I can help organizations on the backside and the managerial side. And that benefits them as well. As long as I'm serving in those three key areas that I focus on, I can help just about anybody in a different capacity.


Carolyn Keller:

And I know you do a lot of very co-creation within the communities you work and you just mentioned going to meetings. I'm sure that involvement brings a lot of value and helps to guide the work that you do.


Connie Capiotis:

Yeah, I am, I'm very much a listener, it's really important to me to always be listening to feedback on my programs, I tweak my programs every single time I do them, because somebody always makes a comment or suggestion that I'm like, “Oh, that's really good!” So I tweak it just that tiny bit. Because that feedback is so essential. I'm not trying to go into communities and force feed them something that I think they need. I'm going into communities and saying, “Hey, I have expertise in this, this and this. Is that something that you find helpful? Or is that something that you think you could use in this community?” Most often they're like, “Yeah, teach us how to run businesses. Teach us how to use computers. Come on, in! Let's talk.”


But it's taking that approach of, here's what I'm good at, here's what I have to offer, would you like to sit at the table with me? Or really, it's “May I join you at your table?”

But it's taking that approach of, here's what I'm good at, here's what I have to offer, would you like to sit at the table with me? Or really, it's “May I join you at your table?” Because like I said, as a subject matter expert, it's better for me to go into the community, and serve side by side with organizations that are already entrenched in those communities. I can't be everywhere. I can't be everything to everyone. But I can, along with an army of teacher mentors, along with me, come into different communities and offer these skill sets along with the people that are already there and already entrenched in those communities, which is what makes logical and logistical sense for my organization to best serve. So again, everything goes back to what is the best method of service? What is the best method for helping and then delivering that way. I owe that to my business background. You're taught as a business person to find the need and solve the need. It's always just about finding the need and solving the need.


Carolyn Keller

Right. And I probably should have asked this question right at the beginning. In my business, I talk a lot about impact. When you do this work, whether it's through Full Flavor Leadership or Digital Bridges, what does impact mean to you?


Connie Capiotis:

I mean, impact is, it's the math, it's the numbers. I've served over 500 people. I've taught over 500 people in just five years and that is virtually single handedly as a new organization. So, numbers, but numbers for me is just the beginning.


To me, impact is my now 17 year old student that has been with me for about two years now, who has sat in several of my classes, now does nails in the neighborhood and that is one way that she makes money. It is watching kids that don't want to speak, don't want to introduce themselves, don't know how to use their voice when they first come into my class. And by halfway through the program, they're introducing themselves and telling me about the good things that they did that week and being able to speak better for themselves.


That's impact to me, the numbers are great. Numbers are what funders always want to see. But to me, it's the stories, it's watching the changes...

Impact to me is when a client messages me and this is a this is a, this is a literal example from last week, when, when a client messages me, this is my friend that I mentioned Andrea, after we sat down and did zoom, she messaged me the next day, and she was feeling so good about it, that she told me she was ready to tackle Excel. And the day before the conversation about Excel was a hard “No, it was too complicated.” She didn't want to deal with it, she didn't even want to look at it. And after I sat down with her and explained some things to her in very accessible, easy to understand terms, and built her up, built her understanding up and her confidence up a little bit, she immediately was ready to tackle the next thing. So, we've got Excel on the calendar, we're going to be practicing zoom one on one. And next week, we're tackling Podbean. So, to me, that's impact. That is somebody who is very active in the community, she just did a Black History Month event, where she organized a showing of The Color Purple along with a conversation about it in her high rise that she lives in. That's impact to me, the numbers are great. Numbers are what funders always want to see. But to me, it's the stories, it's watching the changes, it's those observational things, and then articulating those.


Carolyn Keller:

That’s so wonderful. As you go through that process, and you're seeing all of these things come in, I'm sure your perspective of where you start and where you're going ends up evolving over time. As you think about your work, what do you want it to mean to others as you continue to work in the community?




Connie Capiotis:

I want anybody that comes into my classroom, or anybody that comes into a coaching session with me to feel seen, understood and supported. It's all about that support, I'm going to support you through giving you skills and resources. And I'm going to support you as a person. Because those two pieces - I always say I treat the right brain, left brain and heart. That is really what I always try to focus on, we focus on skills, we focus on your right brain, your creativity, which is how you apply those skills, and the heart of who you are and what you need as a person to be able to grow. And combining all three of those is that's really where the magic happens. People learn best when they feel seen and understood and supported. So by combining that and baking that into the culture of every single thing that I do, that's where you see impact.


Carolyn Keller:

And as you said before you help other organizations to do this work. So whether you're a person who's thinking about starting a nonprofit, or starting a business, or possibly somewhere in between, like your businesses, what piece of advice would you have for other entrepreneurs who want to do good?


Connie Capiotis:

Action, take action, action is everything. Mess up, mess up frequently, you're going to especially in the beginning, you're going to you're probably going to cry, you're probably going to cry a lot. Trust me, I still cry a lot. It happens. It's part of the entrepreneurial journey. So, my advice is whatever the big thing is that's been placed on your heart, take action on it, you're going to suck at it at first. Let's normalize that because that's how we learn. But action is everything. It's King, it's queen, it's both of them combined. Taking action and moving forward is absolutely everything even if that action is small. Today, it may be writing down on a post-it note what your idea is. Then the next step, maybe tomorrow you research you know, other organizations that do that. That's another step. Take small steps, those tiny little steps add up to greatness. That's my number one piece of advice.


Carolyn Keller:

Fantastic. So as we wrap up here today, how if people want to get in touch with you, what's the best way to reach out? emailed you? I'm assuming you have a website. You teach people how to use the internet.


Connie Capiotis:

I do! I have a few of them actually. Digital Bridges Pittsburgh (digitalbridgespgh.org) is my website for Digital Bridges. Full Flavor Leadership with Connie Capiotis is my website for Full Flavor Leadership. I'm everywhere on social media. I've got LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, all of them. Connie Cappiotis if you just bring that up on social, can't miss me. I'm very easy to find.


Carolyn Keller:

It's been such a pleasure to have you on. You said that you're excited to be my first guest. Well, I'm so excited you agreed to come on to be my first guest. And I can't thank you enough for giving me your time today and just doing what you do in the Pittsburgh region. I think it's really incredible!


Connie Capiotis:

I appreciate that so much. And you know, I absolutely adore you and I'm so happy to support you in any way that I can. I'm always happy to chat!

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