Make It Work is a column by Justine Haemmerli that takes a peek into the lives of folks with unconventional careers — the entrepreneurs wearing many hats, the doers of many things, the folks with full-time jobs and big side hustles — to shine a light on those doing good in unique and creative ways.
A year ago, Melissa Rowe was hustling to form a board for her new nonprofit, Capture Greatness!, a scholarship writing program that helps students from under-resourced schools make their dreams of college a reality.
Those who knew her had to wonder: How did someone so young — now 32 — start her own organization? How did she have the time? The money? The vision? The team?
Well, she didn’t. At least not yet.
Melissa Rowe first started Capture Greatness! four years ago — a version of it. Back then, it was a volunteer project she did for the love of it while also fostering a side business that provided writing coaching to clients who needed help telling their stories via marketing copy, cover letters and blog posts.
She dreamed that one day she could find a way to bring together her pet project and her side hustle and turn them into a full-time gig. She took business classes online, traded coaching sessions in exchange for writing website copy and did everything she could to cut her costs.
And then she realized — this isn’t it.
It was a realization she’d had before, when she was a doctoral candidate in the Urban Education program at Temple University. She was doing what she was “supposed to” do. She had “made it.” And yet, her heart told her that something was off. She wasn’t where she was meant to be. She was supposed to be writing. And so, she left.
To spend more time writing and also pay the bills, Melissa took a job as the director of Temple’s Writing Academy, a summer program bringing Philly high school students to campus to teach them creative and critical writing skills. The Philadelphia native discovered that she adored helping teenagers use writing as a tool for self expression and emancipation. This, in fact, was it.
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“I always knew, ever since I was a teenager, that my work would focus on young people in the city. I thought I would be developing programming for out of school time programs, or working in the arts — writing for writing’s sake. I didn’t know it was going to be this economic piece to this,” she shared, taking a sip of chamomile tea as we took a work break together at One Shot Café in Northern Liberties; that “economic” piece refers to the scholarships her students earn, thanks to her tutelage.
I asked, What changed for you?
The corners of her mouth and eyes dropped in a mix of fatigue and sadness.
“I grew up here, and most folks here don’t even know they’re in poverty,” she said. “We don’t know we should or could want something different. That your neighborhood doesn’t have to have trash everywhere. That you don’t have to be harassed. Every street doesn’t have a resident drug dealer. I remember growing up here and not knowing those things.”
Money — needing it, gaining access to it, using it for good — is at the heart of Melissa’s work. Money is the target Melissa and her students train their eyes on, side by side, and she has four Gates Millennium Scholars who have come through her program to show for it. Three will be doctors and one a professor, with full rides through college and all their graduate and medical educations.
Listening to Melissa talk about Capture Greatness! feels like the warmth of a thick duvet on a cold morning, when you wake up thinking it’s Tuesday only to realize it’s Saturday and you can go back to sleep. You’re startled, then comforted. Upset, then reassured. Her kids are in a tough place, but things will be more than fine — they’ll be great. It’s easy to understand how she is able to get teenagers to spill their guts, write revisions on personal statements during summer break and generally do things one would imagine to be anathema to a 17-year-old — and do so joyfully.
But for all of Melissa’s loving softness, there is no fluff with her. There is no bullshit. There is no tolerance for commonness.
“I feel like in Philly, we’ve created a culture of mediocrity, and I strive for excellence — and that will nag the hell out of me, knowing I could have done better,” she said. “To someone else it may be just ‘meeting with children,’ but I still pray and center myself and do everything I can to meet their needs during this moment with them. They go so many places and they get the message they don’t matter. And it’s hard to be the person who is saying, ‘No, your story does matter.’”
She took a sip of her tea and continued, looking right into my eyes.
“I want to create a shift — so students know they matter, and there are funds out there to support you — but I’m also very clear that I’m not a proponent of pity stories. Or entitlement. And that’s part of the Capture Greatness! writing workshops. What are you going to do that is going to make a change? If you don’t know that then you need to figure it out before you ask anyone else for anything.”
She also realized she couldn’t depend on this work to pay her bills.
“I never did, and still don’t want to put pressure on the nonprofit to fully support me,” she said. “It’s about taking pressure off of what you love. Because I’ve made a commitment for how to take care of me and my finances, the work can always be done. My other projects support me so I can just keep this fresh and love on it and keep that pressure out of it.”
And so, when she first started Capture Greatness!, Melissa took on that pressure, rustling up more side clients to help with their writing, and cleverly taking on full-time jobs that would pay the bills and also help to build up her business: working in local schools as a college counselor, where she hoped to pilot her Capture Greatness! college scholarship writing curriculum.
But with gaining access to kids who needed her work came other issues — wearing approximately 47 hats, teaching classes that she wasn’t hired or trained to teach when staff was let go midyear as budgets were hacked and the schools imploded — and generally working the hours of three full-time jobs for part-time pay.
The next four years would be a financial Jenga for Melissa: building, toppling, building again and slowly balancing the pieces. Every time she found a way to make it work financially, the job that was supposed to meet her financial needs so she could work on her passion would end up taking over all her time. And when she would clear more space in order to focus on Capture Greatness!, finances would become tight, scary, pressing. Making money would take precedence — and take her away from the work.
After a while, she realized this recipe didn’t work. She also realized something else: Her side hustle wasn’t her dream business, and her volunteer project was actually a nonprofit.
With a new model in mind, Melissa changed her approach last year. She squirreled away every penny she made from Capture Greatness! workshops and used them to put together a fundraiser; at the fundraiser, she earned enough money to put toward an application for nonprofit status and apply for fiscal sponsorship; and once she had the fiscal sponsorship, she could apply for grants, which she finally received, and which finally paved the way for her to become the first paid Capture Greatness! employee.
“While there was always a fee-for-service model [for Capture Greatness!], that money sat in an account,” Melissa said. “I needed to save around $6,000 to become a nonprofit and finally get paid as a facilitator. And I think for-profits are the same: Just because the business is making money doesn’t mean you are.”
By moving to a nonprofit model instead of remaining a for-profit, Capture Greatness! became eligible for grant funding, donations and a volunteer board — all of which flips the financial game completely. Since changing course, Melissa’s partnered with Arcadia University to host the Capture Greatness! Summer Institute again in June 2017 after working together last summer; the Philadelphia Foundation awarded Capture Greatness! $5,000 in scholarship awards through the Robert C. Digges Scholarship to give to local students; and Melissa is the most recent recipient of the Women for Social Innovation grant for $15,000.
For Melissa Rowe, making it work means riding these waves. Flowing with the ups and the downs. There is frustration, and there is vindication. There are dead ends, and there are open doors. There are lean times, and there are times the money comes. There is progress, and then there is waiting.
And sometimes, there is a big break. On the very day Melissa sat down with me to talk about how she makes it work, she shared that she had, after slogging away for four years, finally been able to turn in her resignation. Tomorrow would be her last day working for someone else, and her first day working full-time on Capture Greatness!-30-
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