Episode 10: No Studios
Lisa Caesar is the Chief Operating Officer of No Studios in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She and her brother John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, founded this community space for artists and art-lovers in 2018. In this episode we explore what it's like to curate an environment that works for creatives, finding fulfillment by giving back, and working with family.
Greg York 0:58
Hey everyone, welcome to Appreciation Nation. I'm Greg York.
Dave York 1:02
And I'm Dave York. This podcast is about growth, gratitude and getting started. We meet up with entrepreneurs and community driven folks working to make the world a better place.
In this week's episode, we visited Lisa Caesar at Nō Studios in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This artist enclave and performance center is a destination for creatives. It's a unique concept that brings artists and art lovers together in a variety of ways.
Lisa and her brother John Ridley founded Nō Studios to take on some big issues, including social justice in urban areas. The project is bold and daring. We got started by asking Lisa what it's all about.
Nō Studios is a destination for creatives, and people that love art. When John and I started, Nō Studios, we spent a lot of time thinking about that word destination and what that would mean for creatives, artists, and really built Nō Studios around that concept, both the physical space and the community that wraps around the physical space.
Wonderful, and what's your role with the organization?
Well, I wear many hats because we're so small at this point. But my primary responsibility is just to make sure everything runs. So the operations, the employees, the marketing, the public facing aspects, but I, I think I have a dual role. So it's operations and making sure that things run smoothly. But I also feel that I have an important responsibility in evangelizing Nō Studios, and making sure that folks know we're here and that we're present and engaged and involved in the community. So I guess that sort of wraps up into a sales role as well.
Can you tell us about the origin of the name and the concept?
Sure. So the concept started when my brother who is John Ridley, won the Oscar for his screenplay, 12 Years a Slave. John and I grew up in Milwaukee. We have a sister that's here, our parents are still here in Milwaukee. John went off into the entertainment industry. And I went off to work in finance in New York. I still live in New York, John lives in LA. But when he won the Oscar, we knew that he had a really unique and unusual platform. I mean, it's one of those once in a lifetime things that doesn't last long, and we wanted to make sure that we exploited the platform. So we decided to think about ways for us to combine our skills and come together to create a project. It was literally just that thought. So we had that idea without a project in mind. We spent about a year just pushing some ideas around and landed on this concept of Nō Studios.
As I read about Nō Studios, I encountered the phrase two business models, one mission. What does that mean?
I could have said that actually, I don't know who said that. But to me, it's just the multiple business models. But I think the two that come to mind, the destination for creatives, but also we've started an initiative dedicated to social justice. And I think the two things are related and complementary, but they are different. What we found when we got into Milwaukee, like I said, John, I grew up here, but we've been away from Milwaukee for decades. When we came back as adults, it was more clear to us that Milwaukee is confronted with many of the problems that just about every city in the United States is confronted with: a lot of inequities, unequal systems, segregation on a variety of different levels... and just sort of all of those urban problems. I think they just became more apparent to us as we started working in Milwaukee and spending more time here and with the lens of an adult. With the feedback that we were getting from our, the community and our members, it became apparent that we could not exist in Milwaukee without addressing the social issues. We also felt that it was part of our opportunity and John's mandate and an extension of the way he's approached his craft. If you look at his body of work, it tends to be activist in nature. So we decided to pursue in a very deliberate way social justice issues. We had a very big summit in November anchored in social justice issues, but really trying to communicate through the lens of an artist.
How does your background in finance become an asset to this business?
Why, I'd like to think that a background in finance is an asset to any business. Especially, you know, one thing I should point out because this is often a misconception. So Nō Studios is a for profit company. That is actually one of the challenges because many arts-centric organizations are nonprofit for a variety of really good reasons. We're trying to do something different here. We're actually trying to create a model - a for-profit model in this particular space. It's a really interesting idea because our audience, if you think about it, social justice folks and creatives don't have a lot of money. So that's our target audience. We're actually pursuing an audience that is not, you know, wealthy. That's sort of the opposite of what a lot of for-profit businesses are doing, so that's a whole challenge. So the finance aspect becomes critically important because what I like to think I bring to the table, John and I are related, but we're very different people, as often happens in families. We bring different skills to the table. That became apparent as we started discussing the business. So John is very bold. Anyone that you know, goes from a town like Milwaukee with no background in the entertainment industry and goes to LA - rents a car and drives to LA - and makes a business out of, you know, the entertainment business. I mean, that's bold, that's courageous. I'm much more traditional. I really do like structure. I bring that kind of discipline to everything I do, and I had a much more traditional path. So I think that contrast makes a very good combination. So what I like to think is that John is a visionary. But I try to frame that vision. I try to contain that vision in a way that will hopefully still manifest the vision in a way that will allow things to be sustainable.
No is the Sino-Japanese word that means skill or talent. It's also a word that artists confront frequently as they're getting started in their careers.
John speaks fluent Japanese. Between his love for Asian culture and their vision of giving the word 'no' a positive spin, the business name was born.
Nō Studios is all about creativity. It's clear, there are a few intertwining themes that need to come together for this business to work. And there's a strong sense that this is a really dynamic process.
We got a lot deeper into what Lisa is curious about and how she finds the creative fuel to keep the business operating and driving new ideas into reality.
What do you get curious about? And what do you do regularly to kind of ignite that sense of curiosity?
Well, I think I'm naturally curious and really love learning. I think the biggest thing that I'm curious about in the space that I'm in, is what does the creative need to succeed? You know, and that's not an easy question to answer for this audience, because those needs can be diverse and sometimes conflicting. But what can we do in our space to help support the creatives and the community that we're in? And that's a question I'm continually asking and trying to find ways that I can satisfy that particular need because that's our audience. And as a business person, my goal is to satisfy our consumer and so I'm always sort of asking that question. I live in New York but I spent more time in Milwaukee last year than New York. So I was here a lot. And folks in Milwaukee would always say, why don't you just move here, because you're spending so much time here. And then I could be more immersed in the environment. And you know, there's an argument to be made, that I could be more effective, because I would be able to have conversations like the one I'm having with you now in person instead of over the phone, less hassle in terms of traveling and so on and so forth. What keeps me creative is taking me out of the environment. I think I make a bigger contribution to this project, specifically because I don't live here. So being able to immerse in an environment and then remove myself from it and consider it from a different perspective. I think that that's the essence of my creativity, to be able to consider both the problem and the solution in a different way. And you can only do that if you remove yourself from an environment, become agnostic to what's happening around you, and come back at it from a fresh perspective. I think you can do just by meeting new people intentionally, and being deliberate about that. I think you can do that through, you know, academic learning. But I think the pursuit of different perspectives inspires creativity.
How can we take advantage of this idea that pursuing different perspectives can fuel our creativity?
Lisa alters her perspective by traveling, and by spending time in various locales with different people. A perspective is really helpful, because it can act as a powerful filter and help to narrow down choices.
If you have a perspective on an issue, you have an opinion, a belief, assumptions and expectations. You make predictions based on these things, and that helps lead to decisions. However, if you're always stuck in the same small handful of perspectives, then that can lead to a feeling of stagnation or making the same mistakes repeatedly.
If you're conscious of the perspective you have on an issue, it's like you're woke, aware of your biases and how they're affecting you. We can consciously choose a different perspective to help us balance out. Using perspectives to our advantage requires that we identify and describe our current perspective. Then we have to imagine an alternate. It's helpful to give simple but descriptive names to our perspectives if we're working to consider different points of view.
Once you have a new approach, named and described, choose to adopt it temporarily, just temporarily, you're not trying to make a permanent change here. Imagine and take on the new beliefs, assumptions, opinions and expectations. It's just role playing.
Being in another location is a great way of stepping literally into a new perspective. But you can do this with imagination as well.
What do you want people who don't know you to know about you?
I want them to think I'm brilliant? [laughs] You know, I really hope that folks that don't know me or are meeting me for the first time, feel that I'm a good listener. I think that's my goal for every conversation, and that's hard for me to do sometimes because I like to talk. Everyone has an ego. We all like to talk. I like to talk about Nō Studios, and myself and John, but I really try to train myself to listen - and not just pretend to listen - but to actually listen.
Lisa starts all her staff meetings with simple questions like, "What ideas do you have?" She opens up the space and asks her team for ideas on how to best serve their creative community.
We asked about the challenges her team experiences to better understand how those ideas get applied.
Threading that needle between supporting an audience that doesn't often have the capacity to pay our delivery costs is a huge challenge and that's an ongoing one, Blending the various missions between supporting the creative community and social justice communities, but still being relevant for as broad an audience as possible is another challenge. You know, operating with a small team out of necessity because we are very much wanting to be profitable is another challenge. The thing about a new business is that you wake up in the morning with a whole set of challenges. But the way I like to think about it is, I wake up in the morning also with a whole set of opportunities. I just don't know what they are. I know they're there. And the solutions to the challenges are there. I'm pretty convinced of that. But it's just a matter of searching and finding them and mapping to that.
How do you define success for yourself personally?
Well, that's evolved over time. I think when I was younger and just graduated from business school, it was a narrow definition of success. I mean, quite honestly, it was how much money could I make, and it was really like that for many, many years. And that's why I ended up working on Wall Street, because that was incredibly satisfying to me - to make a lot of money. And I think as I got older and had a more sophisticated or layered view of the world and I got to know myself better. I realized that I needed a more complex view of what was satisfying. Using my skills to help people and at the same time business building is just the puzzle I love solving every day. I find that incredibly satisfying. So I love talking to the business community about what we're doing and immersing myself in that culture, and at the same time, because those two things aren't mutually exclusive, I enjoy helping people. And if I can bring those two things together in this unique way, with a socially conscious business, that, to me, is the sort of ultimate satisfaction.
We are able to coordinate and support storytelling. I mean that is John's specialty. Storytelling is a very effective tool; it can be very persuasive. It can be a catalyst for change. It can be a catalyst for community and collaboration. And it can also be a tool for amplification of a message. And so I think what we found is a great niche where we can help communities and, in this instance, the Milwaukee community, amplify certain messages, tell a narrative in a particular way that can broaden the audience for a particular mission. So a couple of things that we're doing - one initiative that we just started, which I'm really proud of, because it demonstrates that we can do something in our lane and still serve the community, is we've started free live-streaming for community events in Milwaukee, to the extent that we have availability. We'll pay for the live stream. We don't deliver the service or the message, but we can just amplify the message. So that's just one example where we're in our lane with the resources that we have. We can amplify a message. But I think there are many ways that we can, as storytellers, serve the social justice community. Now that last component which you mentioned, which we haven't unlocked yet, is how do we do that and stay profitable? But I think we're finding the formula for that. I mean, one is, you know, having much of the building a pure commercial real estate project. So that anchors our cash flow, and we that wasn't an accident. That was intentional. That percentage of 25% speculative member's club to 75% commercial real estate was on purpose. So you know that right, there has been just a fantastic model for us. I think we can find other ways to tweak that model and refine it so that this project can stand on its own without having to continually fundraise.
With all the travel between New York and Milwaukee, Lisa has sacrificed a lot of time with her family since the Nō Studios project began.
Not only that, but there's a big opportunity cost here, working on a startup like this isn't as lucrative as working on Wall Street.
But even with all that, the rewards are great. The satisfaction with the work she does and the impact she has is incredibly high, remarking that she's never been so poor and so rich at the same time.
It's interesting how it all plays out in something like a virtuous cycle.
You guys talk to new business owners all the time. I think what any of them will tell you in the beginning at least, is that you can only do it if you're if you're so passionate about what you're doing.
What are you grateful for?
The opportunity to make the sacrifices. I think a lot of people, and John says this all the time. A lot of people just don't have the gifts to give. You know, we, and by 'we,' I mean John and I and my sister Beth, who is here in Milwaukee, and my parents, are just really very fortunate to have access to be able to give and whether that's time, or financial resources, or platform, or intellectual capacity, or patience or whatever that combination of things are that allow you to give a gift. I mean, I'm very grateful for that, because I'm actually able to do something to change my environment. What I will say is that the folks that I've encountered in Milwaukee that have the least to give, at least on the surface, give the most. I mean it's just... the outpouring of support that I witness is just incredible. And just when you think this person can't have anything to give, they've lost a child tragically, they have no financial resources... you see them giving, and and the capacity for people to help each other is just really inspiring. And so that inspires me to give more.
What does community mean to you?
You know, I think it just evokes a feeling of collaboration and support. I think it's important for people to feel that they're not alone in whatever part of their journey that they're on, and that they can be a part of a system that is enriching. And so it I think it means different things for different people, but everyone wants to be a part of a family. And I think the reality is, we're all part of many different families. And I think that feeling of belonging to something that's bigger than yourself, it's just something that people crave. That is one of the intuitions that I think our business has meant to tap into.
What lessons could you impart to those who are hoping to build creative artist communities like yourself?
I think you need to be patient. I think you also need to define what your goal is. I have gotten calls from a few folks across the country who read about Nō Studios and like, "Oh, we want to do this," in Boston or wherever they might be. The first thing I say is, because from the outside, it looks, you know, I hope it looks slick. We're trying to make it look slick, at least from the outside. From the inside, as you can imagine it, it's a heavy lift every single day. So I always try to challenge folks to say, it sounds sexier than it is. So I challenge folks to say, do you really want to do this? Because think about what you're undertaking and the heavy lift that it is. And then, how do you want to do it? Is there a particular segment of the community that you want to support? Do you want to be a for-profit or nonprofit? Because that can put you on different paths. What's your timeline? Because this is a very slow, methodical project that is not transactional. You need to be mission-based and in it for the long term because that's what the community requires. And so I try to just be honest about our own journey. And level set with people - not to discourage them, but also not to sugarcoat it.
Each week, we invite our guests to share ideas for a personal growth challenge that we can take on ourselves. We call this the Appreciation Nation Challenge.
Dave and I spend some time turning the idea into actionable steps. Then we follow those steps and invite you to join in. We asked Lisa for her input.
I think that an interesting challenge would be to seek out over the next couple of months, five or six people that you don't know and try to get to know them. Maybe be even more deliberate about and seek people out who don't share your point of view. You know, one of the things that we talk about at Nō Studios is that we have a particular perspective, a particular community that we're immersed in, and that community tends to have a point of view. What we would love to do is talk to folks that don't share our perspective and try to understand why. And really try to go back to listening - really try to understand why. And then see if we can find a way to be persuasive or be persuaded. That will broaden our community and make us more effective because at some point, we're going to run out of... we only represent a certain segment of Milwaukee. At some point, we're going to run out of ways to create change without broadening our tent. I need to do more of this myself. I don't do enough of it. How can I reach folks that have a different point of view, and collaborate with them in a new and fresh way that is mutually beneficial? I think that we have to meet those people first, which is a challenge, because we all travel in lanes and silos. You may not encounter those folks, either intentionally or unintentionally. How can I meet new people, that are not in my circle, that don't necessarily share my point of view, and find a way to collaborate?
Lisa invited us to seek out five or six people that we don't know and try to get to know them. Specifically people who don't share our point of view and then either persuade or be persuaded. She uses the term 'broaden your tent.'I think this is interesting, because she's really inviting us to create change and kind of be more creative in our respective businesses.
Yeah, and step outside of our comfort zone and be a little bit more open to other people's perspectives. We are talking about the perspectives this whole time, so how did you change your perspective? How do you get that ball rolling?
Yeah. And we had a little dialogue offline here about it, because I think it sounded to you a little bit much like other challenge things we've done or other things that have come up thematically in the show. So maybe there's a better way of rolling with this than just like, find five people and persuade them to see your point of view.
Right, like, let's flip the coin right? And maybe try and give someone else who doesn't share your point of view an audience to not necessarily persuade you, but the opportunity to persuade you possibly. So seek out people who don't share your point of view and possibly give them the opportunity to share their point of view with you.
Give them the floor. Instead of going into a situation like that with the objective of convincing the other person of your point of view, just sit and be open and listen and let them say whatever they need to say. Don't make it a point to try to persuade. Actually, like I'm almost challenging the Challenge a little bit and just saying this isn't about persuading or being persuaded. It's just about being willing to listen.
Mm hmm. Yeah, on a very basic level. Giving somebody the opportunity to voice their thoughts and their opinions. At the end of it, maybe you're persuaded maybe you're not, but you don't try to flip it when you have the conversation, right? You just let it end with them having their words with you.
I think it's almost saying, you don't have to have an expectation of being right or being wrong. It's not about winning. Go into what could have otherwise been a difficult situation or ...
Yeah. And just instead of going in and with the expectation that you got to resolve something - that's it. Your job there is to listen and understand. I think there's a real shortage of that in the world.
Oh, yeah. No doubt about that.
Plenty of people with opinions and not enough people who are open to hearing them.
Yeah. So it's a maybe a pathway to peace.
What's next for Nō Studios?
I think this year, we want to build on what I think was a very successful first year in 2019. Build on the successes there. But then also, you know, take the advice that I just presented and 'broaden our tent.' I'll give you an example. We will be doing the social justice summit again this year. And I had a meeting with potential partners yesterday, and we talked about how can we make the programming relevant for a broader audience? Get more folks sort of thinking about the things that we think about? So I think, you know, what I'd like to do is try to broaden the audience. Cement our current audience, but just continue to find ways to be relevant.
What's the best way for audience to learn more about Nō Studios?
I think our website is a great way to start. Nostudios.com. We try to embed a lot of useful information in that. Also folks that are in the area - in Milwaukee - just drop by at any point and just say hello to our wonderful staff. Go to the bar. Take advantage of that. Get to know our tenants, and just get to know our community. Maybe witness an event, and just see what Nō Studios is like in action, when the building is activated, and I think that's the best way to get to know us.
Terrific. Thank you so much, Lisa. This has really been inspiring and we appreciate it.
We've enjoyed this week's installment of Appreciation Nation and we hope you have too. Check out our website at appreciation-nation.com. You can read this week's blog and share in the challenge by joining the Facebook group.
Next week, Greg and I do a download on the Appreciation Nation challenges we've completed so far and discuss how they went. Enjoy this week's Challenge from Lisa, and we'll talk soon.
You're obviously going into business with your brother. We're brothers.
Oh, I didn't know that.
Yeah. And, you know,
You look different from each other.
We might have a different mother, but... [laughs] But our question for you is what is like the best part about working with family in business? And maybe the more challenging?
Well, you know, it's funny because this whole thing just sort of evolved. I mean, I'm in my mid-50s. I mean, we've been alive a long time without working together. So it's interesting that this evolved very organically and John and I started working together. But now Beth is very much a part - our sister is very much a part of the team as well. What is so great is we have a tremendous amount of professional respect for each other. But we all bring different things to the table. And so again, I'm more of a very conservative kind of financial discipline person. John is a very bold visionary, and he's an expert in the entertainment business. He has all of that network. Beth is an incredible salesperson. I mean, she's very charismatic, really well-networked in Milwaukee. She lives in Milwaukee. She brings that whole element that neither John or I have. So we're all bringing something different to the table. We have very different personalities. What's great, though, is that because we are family, we have a shared value system. You know, we really do believe, fundamentally... we have just similar life approaches. I mean, we don't have to have long meetings. We don't talk to each other that much about business because we don't have to. Beth has an idea. We will have a brief discussion - a brief back and forth and she just goes. We don't require that level of oversight, or over communicating. In terms of challenges, honestly, I have not found one. I mean, you know, what is so affirming, especially at this point in my life, is to find that, in my personal view, the most capable people, especially for this particular project, are in my own family. It's great because I don't have to look far, and it's just been fun to layer on. Obviously, we have a great person relationship, but to layer on the professional aspect just adds to the many things that we can do together. So there has been zero downside, and now that I understand why people have family businesses. I could never understand it. "You can hire anyone, and you're hiring your brother? Why would you do that?" And now I know. It's a trust factor. It's fun. It's easier because, like I said, the communication is so simple. And if the folks in your family happen to be as talented as my brother and my sister, why not?
Perfect trifecta there.
Yeah, we were just having a blast. It's really a lot of fun.