Blogcast #26: Cindy Eggleton, Building Brilliant Cities and Changing Lives

Cindy Eggleton: The Brilliant CEO & Founder of Brilliant Cities

Rebecca: Welcome to the Entrepreneurial Journey podcast. Today I have Cindy with me, Cindy Eggleton. How do I pronounce your surname, Cindy? I was like, is it Eagleton? Eggleton and your co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Cities, which until really recently was actually Brilliant Detroit. So first of all, how are you today?

Cindy: Oh, I’m great and I’m really grateful to be on this show with you and really talk about the story and the journey.

Rebecca: Good. Amazing. Well, first things first is let’s talk about why it’s transitioning from Brilliant Detroit to Brilliant Cities. What’s happening now? Let’s get the current story.

Cindy: Yeah, exactly. So we founded this organisation about eight years ago and what we created was sort of a radically different approach to do what we call create Kids success neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods where kids and families have everything they need in the middle of the neighbourhood. I’ll talk about that a little bit later. Long story short, we had a big goal, which is to change some of the statistics in Detroit, and we’re doing that by actually getting a house in the middle of the neighbourhood that becomes a community hub, and we work on programming and activities and fellowship belly to eight with the kids and the families to change issues such as 50% of the kids in the city live in poverty under age five, less than 14% of kids read at grade level by third grade. Those statistics though, they’re sobering. They’re not all that dissimilar to other urban areas.

So in this journey, because it’s very relational, we’ve been able to raise reading levels, three levels and show significant improvement in education, health and family support. It really starts with a sense of love and connection. People come, they come again and change happens both for the adults and the child. And I want to say it almost from the get go, we started to get calls saying, how can we do this here and what do we do? We just were not ready. We thought this was a great idea, but we didn’t know that it would be as necessarily transformative as it has been. That was our goal and it has been. So we have 31 cities across the country that have reached out to us and five other international countries that have said, how can we do this? Oh wow. Yeah. So we’re starting that expansion now. We wanted to finish a city first and we will finish a city this year in Detroit. We’ll have 24 locations. And what that means is the best way I can say this past summer we worked with more kids than the public school system.

Rebecca: Wow.

Cindy: We saw 92% without any summer slide. So it’s about changing population level statistics and others want in is the bottom line. So we’ve started brilliant cities, we have started the expansion already and we hope to just get to that beautiful place in the future.

Rebecca: Cindy, I’ve got goosebumps because everything you’re doing is just at the heart of how we build happy, healthy people and happy healthy communities. And I love that phrase from belly to eight because it starts from the pregnant mom. Absolutely. It really does. And what you’ve created there is so special. It really, really is. And so important kind of, I know you can’t give away confidentiality, but have you got some examples of the differences you’ve seen for kids in those areas?

Cindy: Yeah, I think that really brings it alive much better. So let me kind of explain that and I have so many stories, but I’m going to give you one and the person’s name is Jazz and Jazz came to us about five years ago, and at that time I’m going to say I knew almost everybody today. I do not. And basically what she said to me is, look, I’m 26, I have four kids. I have struggled all my life. I’ve been homeless, I’ve had mental health challenges. I don’t read Well, my kids are struggling and nobody would love those kids more than me. And she said, I’m telling you all of this because I’ve been to a lot of organisations and I may need to go to a lot of organisations. And she said, Cindy, I never felt cared about until now and this is the secret sauce here.

And she said, I for the first time feel I belong and I’m cared about at. Brilliant. That meant she started to come five days a week. We actually extended to six days a week. She took everything and so did her kids. What has happened for them is her children all have a 3.0 or better grade point right now. Her daughter won the reading award last year at her school. Jazz had a first grade reading level, she’s now at sixth grade and she can get her GED, there’s more. She wanted to coach others that had other mental health issues. We launched a programme with her, we brought in help for it, which is called Brilliant Minds, which is now across the whole city of which 98% of people that have gone to feel more supported. And here’s the thing, she just bought her first house and she now works with us.

So now that’s transformation. So I ask people, how often did one programme totally change your life? We are entirely about changing lives. And what she really was saying to me is, organisations provide programmes and services, but a community is there for each other. And we’re both. So that is why we actually hire from neighbourhoods. We hire former participants, we have an advisory at every location. This is about seeing people’s power and agency and our data is better than almost anybody’s. And it is because we are showing that when you ask people what they need and you provide it and you make that happen, great things happen.

Rebecca: Oh, lovely. I could cry. And like you say, that’s just one of many, many examples that I’m sure you’ve got. Where did it all begin, Cindy? What was the first spark for you?

Cindy: Yeah, I think there’s a few sparks. So I’ll say this. First off, I was blessed to run an effort where I had 60 million to spend and that sounds great. And I also felt we were a little bit on a hamster wheel. We were doing things that maybe were helpful, but we were not changing lives. And I felt strongly that there was a better way to do that and that people should be at the centre of the work, not something we do things to. One of our values is with foreign by, I have this idea, I studied it a little bit and I saw some outcomes at a couple of organisations that their secret sauce was community. And I wanted to do something like that, not exactly the same. And I met my co-founders, Carolyn and Jim Bellson, and they were looking for a legacy, and I was looking to design something that literally changed lives permanently, were changing poverty, and that’s how it started.

The other thing that I should say though is this is really personal work for me. My family came out of poverty. I am a first generation high school graduate. And really in all this, I knew we needed to do better and we could do better. Now when we started, who knew for sure? I took a lot of things that I felt could and should work from lessons learned along the way. You can see I’m not exactly young and embracing, right? We came up with this beautiful model and I would say one of the main things here is I learned how to listen. People know what they need. I used to think you had to know everything. You don’t if you listen and you know how to do. And so today I would say we’ll have 24 locations. We have worked with 19,000 individuals like js. That’s a pretty big amount. And we’ve seen these amazing outcomes. The other thing about this is we do this. It’s a business model. We have over 150 partners. We have no competition. And so we’re able to deliver all this for about $600 a year per individual.

Rebecca: No.

Cindy: And that is because we’re leveraging and coordinating everything. Let me tell you an example of what that means. Early on, I did a listening session and I asked a group from a neighbourhood, what do you need? And a person stood up and she said, I need this, I need this and I need this. And she said, and you people think access is driving one mile this way, six miles this way, five miles this way. I work full time and I don’t have a car. And she was right. You can walk to these neighbourhood hubs. What we hear more than ever is this is the first time I felt like I belonged and I was connected to something. And as a result, all of these good things happen. We’re with people.

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s amazing. You’re creating, creating that village feel, aren’t you? That modern society sort of lost.

Cindy: Totally. And I think modern society has lost it. There’s not that place. There’s not even that that grandmother’s house people used to go to, et cetera. And it made a difference because people don’t feel connected, they don’t feel part of something. And we found that by making that happen, other things happen. Ultimately, our goal is going to be to change the trajectory for people and neighbourhoods that the zip codes are not going to predict whether a child is successful in life or not. And we’re seeing that which is just imagine how lucky I feel to be part of something like this.

Rebecca: You must get up smiling every day.

Cindy: I do. I absolutely do. And there’s lots of challenges, but I have such hope and belief. And I’ll say it another way. As one of our participants said, this was at the very beginning, and somebody knitted 77 hats for this because we also have community gatherings. First off, I can’t knit a role, so I’m like, how did you physically do that and why? And of course people always say it better than you can. And she said, Cindy, I’ve lived in this neighbourhood and I can’t remember the exact number of years, but over 30 years, I raised my kids here. This was my neighbourhood. And then it wasn’t. And now it is.

Rebecca: Yeah,

Cindy: That says it, right? Yeah,

Rebecca: It really does.

Cindy: And we’re returning community to community.

Rebecca: And then people have pride in their environment, pride with their own surroundings, their own front yard garden, their own road, their own paths. They take pride in all of those things and all of a sudden everybody’s lifted up. They

Cindy: Absolutely, and I think that’s the piece is that people feel their own pride and their own agency. They believe in themselves. And so we see it again and again and again. And it matters. It matters. And they’re connected to other people as well. And so we also see that that’s our advisories where people come together and this is theirs. I can even give you another example of that that’s really impacted me. We had one of our locations, and this was a big redo. We get houses that are just decimate it and we redo them. So it’s really building and showing hope in the neighbourhood. Just from the house of home, we had an open house coming up and we weren’t ready and I didn’t think we were going to be ready. So on a Sunday, I literally grabbed my adult son and said, let’s go over to the house. And he goes, what are we going to do? And I go, I dunno, but I’ve got to have a game plan. I promised the neighbourhood when I pulled up, our staff was on the front porch who lives on the same street street. And I said, oh darn, you couldn’t sleep either. And she goes, go inside. Well, I’m telling you, Rebecca, that every room in the house, there were people from the neighbourhood scraping and painting the walls.

And I started to cry and I said, darn, we can pay. This is just one of the most beautiful things I have seen. And Joe, who I knew from the neighbourhood said, miss Cindy, you don’t have to pay. This is our house. And then he said, maybe a little. So I think that kind talks about people coming together and the power in that. And so it’s truly remarkable.

Rebecca: It is remarkable. And for our listeners, because a little bit aware of your model, your model is that you have a listening exercise, don’t you, first of all,

Cindy: And

Rebecca: What

Cindy: Happens? So here’s how it is, is we say we create kids success neighbourhoods or we make brilliant things happen. And first we do listening sessions in a neighbourhood. We do not go anywhere unless we’re invited in and we have a waiting list. Second, once we commit, we form a group of volunteers from the neighbourhood. We pick out a location, which is a house that we’re going to repurpose, and that group becomes the advisory for that particular location. We hire from the neighbourhood, at least one of our staff at every location is from the neighbourhood. 33% of our staff are either from the neighbourhood or former participants. And there is a lot of love and care that comes from that. And then we provide the programming. We have certain must haves. We know they’re going to move the needle. I want to just say this is data driven.

We definitely are. Make sure that there’s evidence people deserve the best. And then we work with each person on their own individual goals. We call it, if you could wish upon a star, what do you want for yourself and your family? Because it’s different for everybody. And so that’s how that looks. And there’s programming and education, health, family support, like I said, belly to eight, but both for the adult and the child. And we also do a lot of community gathering. And that also extends to, we take side lots and build them into resident parks where the residents actually co-design those that become just, we keep building and growing upon what happens. And it’s all informed by the neighbourhood.

Rebecca: Yeah. Perfect. They’re the people that know what they need.

Cindy: Yeah, that’s right. And I think there’s not somebody else, and I think sometimes we say, well, what’s your demographic? Et cetera. Every neighbourhood also has their own personality. And we’re all longing for community, aren’t we?

Rebecca: Yeah, completely. And it is the answer to so many things. I think it’s the answer to many environmental issues, all kinds of things. When you have a sense of community and belonging, you look after each other and your environment together. And like we say, you take pride in it. So I love the fact that this has grown in eight years. That’s phenomenal growth. If you are corporate, you’d be over the moon. You’d be selling on the stock market for millions by now. Huge growth. What other countries are you going into now?

Cindy: Yeah, so our plan is sort of three tiers right now. So one is we’re going to do what we’re calling wholly supported. And we’ve chosen three cities and there are five countries that have reached out to us, and I can give you their name. England is one. And yes,

Rebecca: Hooray. We so badly needed.

Cindy: We were just on a project for school in France. I don’t even know where this comes from sometimes. And we’re going to find out what might we need to adjust in there. We’re then doing something which is really to create an affiliate network because we never wanted to be an institution, but a different way. And so within that, we’re going to invite any in anybody in, and we will train and work with so that others can do this model. Okay, we’ll show how we can do that. And then the last is, which we’re not ready for, but once we’ve done those, we’ll actually publish this in a way that we can give it away. And we’ve been asked to do this in other, could you do it for veterans? Could you do it? It could be done. That’s not our mission. So we want to just give this to people and say, here’s the guidebook, and you take and do with it what you want.

Rebecca: Oh, I love it. I love it. And now, are you completely funded by philanthropists or is there any government support? How does that model work?

Cindy: It’s a great question and thank you, because getting to some of the essences here. So we have a funding model. This last year we did take some money from government. That’s an experiment. But our model is 50% unrestricted and 50% restricted funding. And what that means is I have to get in front of people who asked me, you’re telling me I have a say, but you’re funded by others and they’re telling you what to do. And so we wanted to have a healthy amount of unrestricted funding, which for not-For-profit is unusual. And we’ve been able to maintain that. And that I think is one of the secrets to our success is that we were able to really listen to neighbourhoods and build this based on what was heard. And we got to change a lot faster that way.

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. I’m a trustee of the Women’s Fund for Scotland, and we get asked about unrestricted. So we’re a grant giving body to grassroots organisations, tiny organisations, half a million in revenues, total. Tiny, tiny. And a lot of them do want unrestricted funding, and we need often unrestricted funding so that we can fund all of the projects that are necessary.

Cindy: Yeah, exactly. I can see that. And I would say within that, when we started, we started with a $250,000 donation from my co-founders, and we said we wouldn’t accept any money from anybody until we had real results. Today. We are a 10 million organisation within eight years. I think how you set that up and then you as a funder, how you set up others to look at that and imagine, but to be bold, I mean, you have to be bold in this work. And I think it’s head, heart, and shoulders work. There’s responsibilities that we carry that we need to be true to. And I think unrestricted money helps that. I think for me, I’m at a point in life too where I don’t want to be involved in things that aren’t going to lead to any actual change or make things better. I don’t want to get stuck in that stuff. And so I think that’s part of, and my co-founders are exactly like that. I think that’s why we’ve been able to be bold.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah. That’s fantastic. And again, for our listeners, I think you and I are in, well, you are immersed in this world. I have a foot in that camp and I’ve raised three kids. So there’s an understanding that time from pregnancy until eight are the foundational years. And if you get that right, even though they may go a little bit wobbly as teenagers, they tend to come back on track,

Cindy: They’ll go wobbly. Let’s make one of those. It’s true. And I think there’s a couple of clear data points on that. First up, 90% of the brain is developed by age three. So we’re often doing things after age three, which should be doing it before then. And then secondly, it’s just a very clear fact that grade level reading, it creates all kinds of better outcomes. And you’re reading, you’re learning to read up to third grade, but curriculum changes so you you’re reading to learn after that. If you don’t have those foundational skills, you simply cannot catch up. And it’s clear the facts are there, and yet we’re often investing at different times when it’s much easier and the outcomes and the return on investment is so much better in early childhood. I want to say our model though includes the adult who is the caregiver. We do believe that, that they’re an important part of this journey, and that’s not always the case. So I think that’s where we get to something that is both change and transformation, but it’s sustainable.

Rebecca: It has to include the caregiver because you can’t take a child and create one environment and then put them back into a completely different environment that undoes everything you’ve done. And people say, well, they’re at school and they should learn these things. No, but kids can’t concentrate if they’re hungry, if they’re scared, if they’re being neglected, if they don’t get enough sleep, schools is hopeless for them until the other stuff is sorted out

Cindy: Or along with the other stuff sorted out is what I would say. And I 1000000% agree, and it does get to a point that we’ve learned some things along the way as well. We end at age eight, but we are actually intentionally working on pathways beyond that for kids and families that don’t have the resources that some of us do, right. There are many needs still that will continue on, and so we take that very seriously. We want any kid and family in the work we do. They’re part of our family, and they feel like that too. They feel like this is family, and so we want to make sure people are taken care of long-term.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I don’t suppose you’re aware of whether you’re coming into Scotland. I know you’re going to be in England.

Rebecca: I’m going to share this podcast with some people in politics that I know of. And that leads me onto another question is that that government funding was an experiment. I’m often in very, I’m very divided about government funding. I think it can make you a little bit dependent and not create a structure that is sustainable as an experiment. Has it worked? Will you go back to it? What do you think?

Cindy: Yeah, it’s just new. I think it’s going to depend on for us how we do it. And I’m more than on the fence with you. I think it can also sometimes lead to activities that aren’t actually moving the needle because there’s so many boxes to check and compliance and you’re not really focused. And that is why we had intentionally not done government funding initially. I do think how we have navigated this grant that we have right now, it’s going to lead to phenomenal outcomes and it’s aligned with who we are. I would caution any organisation to be really careful on what they do accept. And so that’s the government funding side. I’m going to add, we have turned down a million dollars grant before, from twice from individuals that we did not feel we were aligned with. And I think that’s bold. Not everybody has the privilege to do that. I think we’re getting attention because of the results and the way we’re doing things. It’s very based in equity, but I think it’s really important for a business or a not-for-profit. Know who you are. Do not step out as side of that because it’s both. You get dependent, but you’re beholden to something sometimes. That isn’t what you intended.

Rebecca: Indeed. Oh, indeed, yes. I’m forever telling our coaches to walk away from clients that don’t align with their values because it just never works out, ever.

Cindy: It totally, I couldn’t agree more. And I would say to you that what’s really interesting is there’s 150 partnerships and 150 probably on a waiting list. People say, how the heck do you do that? Do you do this long? MOUs, yes, we have agreements, right? But it is about being really clear upfront on our values and principles together and when that’s the deciding faster, you know? That’s how we do it, and that’s how we’ve gotten this done.

Rebecca: Yeah. Brilliant. Now I have a couple of strange questions for you, Cindy. Okay, great. You ready? Recently, I learned about the Hindu concept of dharma, this whole sort of life purpose, this destiny, this is the path you are on, and it doesn’t matter what you do, this is the path you end up on and you can’t resist it and blah, blah, blah. What’s inside you that drives you for this? What do you think your purpose is that has led you to this work? It’s a big question.

Cindy: No, I love that, and I’m going to reuse that. Okay, so I’m going to take it from you with your permission, everything has led me here. I think there’s an important point I want to talk about in terms of listening also to yourself, which I’ll get to, and I’ll share one other concept. First off, my background, it’s in my blood. Secondly, all of the different things that I’ve done through life have led to being able to be so focused on strategy and implementation and really looking at things from a different lens. And this is my purpose.

I really could cry every time I say that because how lucky am I to be in that? And what I do find in terms of this irresistible, you’re drawn to it. It’s just humans. We often resist that, right? It’s right in front of us. And 2008, I still remember, I was in a group of people and the concept of Bihar came up. I didn’t have any idea what the word meant. And it means, it’s meant to be. It’s a similar concept, but in order to have something be, it’s meant to be, you have to be clear who you’re, because it’s often right in front of your face, and it’s grabbing that and saying yes, as opposed to, no, that’s not what I set out to do because it may be in front of you. Now look at this as a new concept. I remember when we started, people were like, it’s a what? It’s in a house, whatcha talking about? And now I have all these people reaching out saying, how can we do this? But this was in front of me, and it actually took my co-founders pushing me a little bit on this to say, Cindy, let’s do this and you to do this, to do it. And I think I’ve used that multiple times with other people and they’ve come back and said, thank you, because it’s usually in front of you. And that poll is there if you recognise it.

Rebecca: Totally. Totally agree. Cindy, the phrase I use is, the answer is always right under your nose. You right. We spend so much of our lives going, oh look, it’s out there somewhere. And it’s not.

Cindy: It’s right there.

Rebecca: It’s here.

Cindy: Exactly. And I love to encourage people to think about that and to quit resisting.

Rebecca: Yeah, absolutely. Resistance is futile. Okay, one last question, Cindy, you’ve been amazing so far. It’s brilliant. If your organisation had a personality or a character either, who would it be or how would you describe it?

Cindy: A personality or a character? Okay, I’m going to have a hard time on the calendar. Here’s what I would say. Personality. We are. All of that’s what it is. And we hire for love and we recognise it, and it’s part of our tag. It’s love, it’s unconditional radical love. And when you have that, people show up, they feel it, they know it, and great things happen. That’s all you have to do.

Rebecca: What a great place to end. I wish you all the luck in the world, Cindy, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much.

Cindy: Thank you. And this was simply a delight. I’ve so enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much.