Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Leadership Grants Organization: Oh, the sweet smell of a scam

In the last several weeks, I've been contacted directly by no less than six or seven people who have submitted--or are considering submitting--applications to the Leadership Grants Organization. It makes me realize that I really should have shared my conclusions about this organization much sooner. So below is the breakdown of the research that convinced me AGAINST moving forward with the grant application process. (Those of you whom I've e-mailed directly will recognize this!)

As you know if you've read previous blog posts, I was initially thrilled when I came upon the Leadership Grants Organization website. It's extremely difficult to find grants for which one is eligible as an individual, and I thought this could be the solution I'd been looking for. However, my excitement was tempered with just a hint of suspicion, rooted in the fact that the only mention of actual grant recipients was a list with first names and last initials. No press releases, no links to winners' websites or projects--nothing. I've worked in publicity, and it seemed extremely strange to me that the organization would choose not to promote its work or that of its grantees.

So, first I found the site's IP address, then tried to match that with a physical address. The physical address given by the organization is on Madison Avenue in New Jersey--but the IP address is in Canada. To double-check, I did a search for the company in the directory of the Madison Avenue building it's supposed to be located in and couldn't find anything. Then I found the owner of the IP address: Darren Morgenstern. This charmer is the founder of ashleymadison.com, which caters to married people who want to cheat on their partners with other married people (more discreet that way, I suppose). Weird connection, so I looked further, and it looks like he was investigated in 2001 (in Canada) for a domain name scam. There are also accusations of a scam with a home staging teaching company he owns, but he hasn't been indicted for either (and he made some big bucks when he sold ashleymadison.com). Then I looked on BBB to see that Leadership Grants Organization has been assigned a rank of F because it was only established in April. Odd, since the website shows that some people won grants BEFORE then. Also on the BBB site, I saw that a Sarah Morgenstern is listed as a chief operating officer of the organization. So I thought--wife of Darren Morgenstern? Either way, this wasn't looking good, but I couldn't figure out where the "scam" would be. I did some MORE looking, and found that there are people complaining online that they paid between $2700 and $4000 to an "outside business plan consulting company" that Leadership Grants Organization had recommended--but these people had never (a) received help on their plans or (b) heard back from Leadership Grants Organization. So I e-mailed the woman I'd been in touch with to ask directly if the site/organization is linked to either Morgenstern. In response, she copy/pasted the contact page listed on the website, basically just ignoring my question.

As Paul and others have mentioned, my conclusion is that if people just submit their business plans, as I would have done, there would be no loss of money--just a waste of time. But I worry that it would be more harmful for those who hire this consulting company to help them create or edit their business plans. (I also did the same IP address/physical address search on this consulting company, Capital Business Service but, to be honest, can't remember the results as in detail as the ones I gave above. But they were just as fishy.)

To be clear (don't want any lawsuits here!), my "findings" are more suggestive than definitive, but they convinced me against proceeding with the organization, and I'm advising anyone who asks to be cautious in moving forward. It also seems that, at the very least, this company should be investigated by those with more resources than me to determine its legitimacy.

Have you submitted a grant application with Leadership Grants Organization? Worked with Capital Business Service? Has anyone reading this WON a grant from them? Please share your experiences in the comments, and feel free to contact me directly if you'd like to discuss this further.

And for the record, I think it's DISGUSTING and so, so disheartening that would-be entrepreneurs could be derailed by a scam like this. I hope none of you have been.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Weekend in Laredo (part 2)

On Saturday, my second day in Laredo last weekend, I finally had the chance to meet Mary Benavides. I'm usually nervous before meeting new people, so much so that I start fabricating conversations in my head--conversations that inevitably become random and strange, not at all realistic--to prepare for the dialogue to come. But this time, I was more excited than nervous. Each time we'd spoken on the phone about our goals and plans for opening bookstores in Laredo, Mary was warm and open, never giving me the chance to feel anxious. The only odd thing about our meeting was that Courtney, who has been filming a documentary about the closing of Laredo's only bookstore and the community's reaction to it, wanted to get it on camera.

We'd originally arranged to meet at a coffeeshop but, at the last minute, discovered it was closed for another hour after our scheduled arrival. So instead we went to Danny's, a local Mexican restaurant and Laredo institution. We were ushered into the empty back room, all windows and pink walls. It was as Courtney started setting up her equipment that I felt the first flickers of nerves. I hadn't prepared anything to say!

"This is like a blind date," Courtney joked.

"Yeah, one of those Match.com commercials," I added. "Where they're even more awkward because they're being filmed."

We laughed.

Then Mary showed up, and for the next two hours we caught each other up on our progress and plans, only breaking to order and devour a plate of panchos. My nerves faded as quickly as they'd come, as she's one of those rare people with the ability to immediately put others at ease. Perhaps even better, she was a veritable fountain of insight about the book industry, which is so clearly her passion, and I realized freshly how much learning I have to do!

It's such an interesting situation: Two people striving to open the same type of business in the same not-huge city would, I think, normally be cautious of each other, well aware that they will soon be "competitors." But this is so different. Call me naive, but I think she and I genuinely support each other and want to see each other's businesses succeed. We're working toward the same goal, after all, and I think this kind of mutual respect and encouragement speaks to the unique type of goal it is: one with a heart.

Yes, yes. Cue the awwwws.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Weekend in Laredo (part 1)

The heat was stunning in Laredo this weekend--that kind of fierce warmth that immediately makes clothes stick and hair go limp. It's been almost eight years (eight years?!) since I left the city for college, four hours north and at least ten degrees cooler, and what surprised me most of all was how I had forgotten what summers mean down there: Be. Near. Water. The weather was a fresh reminder that I must reacquaint myself with my city, in many ways.

It was a great few days, though. I arrived Friday night just in time to shower and change for the Cream City magazine launch party. Back in April, Analee Paz, one of the magazine's creators, contacted me to ask whether I'd like to be featured in a section called "The Profiles." She said they'd love to hear more about what this process of working toward opening a bookstore has been like. Of course, I was thrilled to agree.

The party was held downtown at Gallery 201, an art gallery I'd never heard of or been to before. Only rarely do I foray downtown, so each time I do I marvel at how it seems like an entirely different city, a foreign country: the one-way streets, the cobblestone roads and beautiful old buildings.

The gallery itself was gorgeous, and the magazine put on a great party. A projector screen displayed the cover of the magazine on one wall above a small stage, a photographer was ready at the entrance to snap red carpet-esque photos of guests, and the wine and cucumber martinis were flowing at the bar.

Of course, I couldn't wait to see a copy of the magazine, and it didn't disappoint. The photography and design layout were beautiful, and it was so interesting to read the stories of the other two individuals in "The Profiles."

I know the article is impossible to read in this photo, so I'll post a transcription later. But I'm so happy to have had the opportunity to talk more about the bookstore, to let people know that, yes, it's a work in progress, but at least it's in progress. Thanks again to Analee Paz and Fernando de Haro, publisher and photographer, for the honor of being featured in Cream's premiere issue!

So the party was Friday. And on Saturday, after months of telephone correspondence, I finally met Mary Benavides. Mary, who managed B. Dalton for about 30 years, is also working toward opening a bookstore in Laredo, and we've been trying to coordinate a meeting for months. I'm going to end this post on that teaser, because I fear it's already gotten too long, but I'll write about our meeting very soon. I hope you're all having a good Monday so far!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Dear Leadership Grants of America, Would You Like to Give Me Some Money?

As some of you know, I've been preparing a grant application for Pepsi Refresh for some time now. The idea behind this grant is that individuals and organizations can apply for grants of $5,000, $25,000, $50,000 or $250,000; those grant applications are posted online, and viewers can vote on them daily. Each bracket has a different amount of grantees that will be awarded each month--but here's the catch: Pepsi only accepts the first 1,000 submissions it receives starting midnight EST on the first of each month.

Unfortunately, the system has been a little flawed.

Or perhaps that's unfair. What is undeniably true, though, is that a LOT of people are applying for these grants, and the high activity level tends to make the Pepsi submission site a bit uncooperative. When I logged on to submit my grant application (at EXACTLY midnight EST), the site froze up immediately and didn't let me continue. Ten minutes later, 1,000 submissions had been received. Frustrating, to say the least, and so far Pepsi has said there's nothing to be done but try again next month. Okay, I will.

But in the meantime I've been looking into other grant opportunities. Have you ever tried looking for or applying for grants? There are a LOT of them out there, but they all have specific eligibility guidelines, so it can take a while to weed through and find the grants that are applicable to you. Fortunately, I found one: Leadership Grants of America. Wonderfully, the Leadership Grants Organization awards funds to entrepreneurs looking to start or expand their small businesses.

So, I got in contact with the organization, and just today my initial application was confirmed. The next step is to submit a business plan and cover letter no later than July 16. If the proposal meets the organization's criteria, I'll be told what due diligence items are required, and the amount of funds awarded. So exciting! And I love that I have an official deadline for when to complete my business plan. Hey, I'm a writer--I like deadlines.

I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

As The Walls Go Up...

These days, we usually hear the phrase "walls going up" as a metaphor for someone who is becoming guarded, concealing and protecting those parts of the self that are too vulnerable or private to reveal to the world. But today that phrase means something else to me, something literal and proud.

In Laredo, as I type, the walls are going up on the new main branch of Falcon International Bank. Falcon has been a part of my family for nearly my whole life. My dad started working there almost twenty years ago, when the bank had only one location and 18 employees. Over time, the bank grew. It moved to a new building, and I remember having one of my birthday parties in the empty one, which the bank still owned. Spying a strange button under the teller counter, I curiously pushed my fingers against it, disappointed when nothing happened. Then there were sirens (yep, silent alarm!). And later, in the new building, which the bank was leasing, we three kids went with my parents to the annual Christmas parties and ran around the lake in back and hid out in my dad's office, smuggling hors d'oeuvres. And then the bank grew some more. It now has 18 branches, I believe, and a staff of over 250. My dad had so much to do with that growth.

At the end of this year, Falcon will leave the building it has been leasing as its main branch and move to the new one, the one whose walls are being raised right now. I wish I could have been there to hear my dad's speech, but my sister sent me a few pictures so I'd feel included. I'm also watching the progress on the bank's website.

To me, seeing that one wall lifted off the ground, away from the others also waiting to be raised, is so powerful. It signifies the achievement of a dream, of years of dedication and hard work--not just by my dad (and my mom!) but by everybody who's helped the bank grow. And it's very, very inspiring.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Brief Summary of the Last 7 Weeks

It's with no little amount of embarrassment that I begin writing this latest post. Despite all my good intentions (blog at least three times a week, etc.), it's been almost two months since I've updated this blog, and longer than that since I've given you a real sense of where I am in this bookstore project. So, here goes:


1. As some of you know, my husband and I moved. In the period of a month, we sold one house, bought a new one, and, thanks in large part to the sweat labor of family and friends, relocated. We're farther south now, which improves the commute to Laredo by almost an hour--which will come in handy in the coming months.

2. I wrapped up my second year in my MFA program, leaving only one to go. With the classless summer months ahead, I'm looking forward to spending more time researching, visiting independent bookstores, asking advice of seasoned and new booksellers alike, and generally diving into learning as much as possible about the industry.


I'm not going to lie: In the last few months, as I've balanced moving, school, my business, and my general life, I've had some pretty intense flashes of What the hell do I think I'm doing? I think I fully realized how difficult this whole process will be, and that it will likely take much longer to achieve my goal than my naive original estimates. I also wondered if this whole thing was even feasible, or possible, and I panicked at the thought of being the girl who gave some big talk that, ultimately, she couldn't back up. I think that was part of the reason I stopped blogging for as long as I did. With everything that was going on in my life, I wasn't sure where my head was at with this whole thing. That is to say, the desire to move forward never changed, and neither did the conviction--at all--but the confidence had somehow taken a blow. I was scared, pure and simple.

What got my head back in the game was recognizing that moving forward with opening this bookstore (with any business) is a rational (not emotional) decision I needed to make and stand behind. Or not. And if not, I needed to be honest about it, to make it clear that, despite my desire and conviction remaining intact, it wasn't the right time to actualize this particular dream. But in the end, after all the silence and inner struggle and debate, I've decided to give this a real shot. To support my words, and my desire, and my conviction, with action.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been so quick to shout from the cyber-rooftops that I'd be opening a bookstore in Laredo. After all, I knew the risks. I knew I'd be the girl who cried wolf (or, um, book) if things didn't work out, if I backed down. But I'm glad I did that shouting. I've met so many wonderful people who have been willing to share with me their experiences in opening bookstores, or who have given of themselves and their communities by donating books to the cause, or who have validated my entire reason for this venture by telling me, simply, "We need this." I look forward to meeting many more people who have so much to teach, and who will help make this bookstore thrive.


1. I'll be submitting the Pepsi Refresh grant application tonight, in approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes. If approved, the idea will be open for DAILY VOTING on July 1. I'll be talking more about this in the coming days.

2. I've made a big decision to lease a space instead of buying land and doing new construction. This will dial down start-up costs by 66%, which will drastically help speed up the process of opening. And, yes, I have a solid location in mind. It's at a major Laredo intersection, and the store will be approximately 6,000 square feet.

3. The bookstore will also feature free Wi-Fi access, comfortable seating, and a cafe selling coffee, pastries, and a few carefully selected wines and beers. I want the store to be a community gathering place, one that encourages lingering and learning. I'll also tailor the store to Laredo's unique demographic by highlighting books by Latino/a authors, selling classic and contemporary literature in English and Spanish, and providing a good selection of audiobooks for the many truck drivers who pass through Laredo on their routes. And let's not forget the workshops and events. The literacy rate, as we all know (and as the national media is so quick to point out) is a major problem in Webb County. I'm planning on hosting weekly literacy workshops for kids and adults, as well as creative writing workshops. And I hope to attract many authors, especially those who are Latino/a or who are from South Texas, to give readings and book signings. These are just a few of the MANY plans I have for the store. What else would you like see?



I want to keep you all informed. I want this process to be a dialogue between all of us who love books, read books, write books, and sell books; all of us who live in Texas, who have called Laredo home, who have resided in cities without easy local access to books; and everyone in between.

Thank you (again) all for your support!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

LC4A Plans "Tequila Mockingbird" Street Party Fundraiser

Okay--Tequila Mockingbird: How clever is that name? I mean really.

Let me rewind. I was chatting yesterday with Gabriel Castillo, who was just officially hired as the Executive Director of the Laredo Center for the Arts, and who has been running the LC4A used bookstore. I wanted to let Gabriel know about the generous donation coming his way from Family Guy producer Kara Vallow and her friends and coworkers; turns out, he already knew. He and Kara, he said, have been e-mailing back and forth for a week, and the FIVE boxes she sent out are due at LC4A any day now. While I had Gabriel, I thought I'd ask a few questions on how LC4A has been doing. And I want you all to get the update from him:

"I am happy to report that the community has responded beautifully to our fundraising efforts and to our bookstore," Gabriel said. "It’s especially gratifying for me to see so many young people come by to read or purchase books. The books are very affordable: $1 for paperback to $6 for hardcover."

Gabriel added--and this moved me to no end--"I must admit we have some kids who can’t afford even that, so we simply give them the books and explain that if they ever want to return them we will gladly accept them back."

How amazing is that? For so many reasons: first, the heartbreaking fact that $1 a book is out of reach for many children, teens, and young adults in Laredo. Second, that despite that, these kids and adults WANT to read--which I've always known, and that's why quotes like the infamous Wall Street Journal one get me so riled up. (To refresh your memory: "Laredo is a poor city filled with immigrants who don't speak English, let alone read it.") And third, that the community has come together to place books in these kids' hands with no conditions--no price, no due dates. It gives me goosebumps.

LC4A is having its first book signing this Thursday, April 8. Don Hendon, author of 365 Ways to Influence, is a former Laredoan. He asked for the book signing reception and, says Gabriel, "We gladly agreed."

Now for Tequila Mockingbird:

"[The Center] has a very enthusiastic board of directors," Gabriel said. "The board is planning a fundraiser with proceeds going to the bookstore. Several years ago, the Center had an annual tequila tasting party, closing the streets surrounding the Center for a rousing fiesta complete with live music, Mexican antojitos, and a silent auction. The group is reviving the event, calling it the Tequila Mockingbird Street Party."

The Tequila Mockingbird Street Party is scheduled for Friday, April 30, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Ross and Friends will provide the music, and Laredo's historic La Posada Hotel is donating some of the food. L&F Distributors, along with several other local corporate and foundation donors, are co-sponsoring the event. Tickets are $20 pre-sale and $25 at the door with a cash bar. Funds raised by the Tequila Mockingbird Street Party (can you tell I just love saying it?) will go toward maintenance, payroll, and additional marketing for the bookstore.

Laredoans and supporters in surrounding areas: Will you be there?? And I'd love to hear from anyone who has either donated books or been to LC4A in person!