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Interview with Diaper Bank Founder Hildy Gottlieb

written by: Heidi Wiesenfelder•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 9/10/2011

Hildy Gottlieb founded the world's first Diaper Bank, and is now building her third organization, the Community Driven Institute. Find out how she succeeded as an entrepreneur and what tips she has for new and struggling entrepreneurs.

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    Hildy Gottlieb's Take on Entrepreneurship

    Hildy Gottlieb and business partner Dimitri Petropolis founded the first diaper bank in Tucson, Arizona, and then went on to build their business, Help 4 Nonprofits & Tribes, working with Native American tribes and nonprofit organizations to make the world a better place.

    They have now launched their new business, the Community Driven Institute, to give community organizations the principles and tools they need to have greater impact. Hildy received a Points of Light Citation from President Bill Clinton, and her writing appears in publications including the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Her workbooks are industry standards and she has just published the groundbreaking book The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing "Nonprofit Organizations" to Create the Future of Our World.

    How did you become an entrepreneur?

    I don't think you become one, I think you just are one. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that you don’t choose to be a writer, if you are so compulsive that you can’t not write, then you’re a writer. That’s how I feel about entrepreneurship. I don’t ever remember not pursuing interesting things that I was passionate about that somehow became my life. You’re born with something. There's a difference between being self-employed and being an entrepreneur.

    I have the personality: fiercely independent, fiercely self-motivated, incredibly self-disciplined, and passionate about so many things. I haven't had a "real job" in years. I was a City Council aid to Tom Volgy after college. Being a legislative aide is very entrepreneurial, your hours are yours, you make it up as you go along. Then my (now ex-)husband was running a landscaping company, and I started working with him. I ran the retail nursery and managed some other areas. I enjoy running my own show, maybe it just means I’m unemployable at anything resembling real work.

    What kind(s) of business do you own?

    Our business name is Resolve Inc. We didn’t want to pigeonhole it into what it was going to be. It's been 4-6 things since we started at the end of 1993. When we bought it, we were doing commercial real estate and business turnaround. The latter is essentially being an entrepreneur for hire. When we bought the business, I was a single mom, and my partner Dimitri and his wife and I realized that we could make the business into anything we wanted it to be. So we made a list of five criteria, and made the agreement that whatever came in the door that looked like that, we would try and it would lead to what we should be doing. We began working with Native American tribes doing business development and sustainable non-gaming economic development in reservations around the southwest. We helped one tribe develop their tourism business.

    I'm a serial entrepreneur. We're now on the third community organization we've founded. First was the Diaper Bank (here in Tucson), which was incredibly entrepreneurial because it was the first in the world. The second was the Phoenix area diaper bank. And, we've recently launched the Community Driven Institute to promulgate the ideas behind the Pollyanna Princples, which are the topic of the book I just published. (Resolve is now a small publishing firm, too.) I'm a heavy social entrepreneur rather than a financial entrepreneur, and it was my work with community organizations that led to the entrepreneurial epiphany that community organizations are not having the impact they could have, so we are setting the course for reinventing how organizations do their work to create more impact.

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    What are the major factors that have contributed to your success?

    Definitely creativity and passion. My partner says I have a passion for the process, and it's true. I love the process, watching it develop, from realizing what's possible to actually putting it into action. Also, I have a lot of self-discipline for prioritizing and re-prioritizing, really doing triage. We have a big sign that says "No New Projects for 2009" because we know that we keep having new ideas, but sometimes just have to put stuff in the parking lot for later.

    I have the most supportive business partner on the planet. We've been working together for 20 years. There is very little overlap in our skills and approaches, we are 180-degrees opposed on just about anything in that area. But, we share our values and vision for what is possible and the difference we want to make.

    I have a solid zen practice, and was grounded even before that; I knew that it isn't about me. I don't want my legacy to be starting a bunch of things that nobody else could do. We're building the Community Driven Institute using the starfish model, meaning it's fairly decentralized and is 100% built by everybody involved in it, not just top down. Our curriculum for consultants is in three phases, and the participants from phases 1 and 2 are helping to create phase 3.

    What major obstacles and pitfalls have you had to overcome?

    Our main obstacle was that we started out severely under-capitalized. We had to counter that by working our tails off.

    For others, it can all easily rest on you; you have to be conscious of the need to share responsibility and engage others in your passion of what's possible, so you can go on to the next thing, and know your prior baby is safe. If you can't separate your ego from your creation, it's a huge obstacle.

    What advice do you have for new entrepreneurs or those considering becoming entrepreneurs?

    Have patience. I think it was Yogi Berra who said that it always takes longer than it takes. And, make sure to create systems; don't just rely on individuals, especially in a startup with very few people.You need sustainable systems to succeed.

    What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are struggling to achieve success?

    That really depends on your definition of success. You need to be clear about you how define success, and not depend on others' definitions. Get advice from folks who can help, there are plenty out there. There are more consultants and personal coaches than you can shake a stick at. Find assistance from someone who specializes in helping passionate entrepreneurs.

    For more inspiring stories, check out the other profiles in Bright Hub's Collection of Interviews and Biographies of Successful Entrepreneurs.