On the occasion of what she says is her last speaking engagement, Laurie Loew will reflect on what her small business, Give Realty, has done for the community and for herself.
On Tuesday, July 11, Loew will speak at a PeopleFund event to share her experience of starting Give Realty in 2008 with a philanthropic business model: She and her agents give 25 percent of their commission to the charities her clients choose. Loew says it all started after a messy divorce in 2007, with her and her ex-husband splitting up their various possessions. She created this new business model, she said, to give more meaning to her work.
“Most business owners wouldn’t give up 25 percent of their income,” she said. “It’s a huge financial risk.” At times, she said, Give Realty left her with so little, she had to call her mother to help her pay her mortgage. “That was pretty humbling,” she said.
But after struggling for the first few years, one of Loew’s clients closed on a $3 million home. “I was down to my last $7,500 when that happened,” she said. “From there, it was like a domino effect.” The agency reached $100,000 in donations in 2011 and $250,000 just two years later. In the nine years since it started, Give Realty has donated more than $650,000 to more than 155 nonprofits.
What’s more, almost every single one of her clients has become a genuine philanthropist, if they weren’t one already. With an average donation of about $2500, Give Realty’s clients often make the biggest donation to a single charity they’ve ever made. “Donations of more than $1,000 make you a major donor at most nonprofits,” said Loew, “so it’s a big deal when they present that check.”
Her favorite stories are about the clients whose lives come full circle, like the woman who at one point was a client of the women’s shelter and then turned around and was able to donate her Give Realty check back to the shelter. “As a donor, they get to take a tour of the nonprofit they’re giving to, and it was great to see her come back as a donor instead of a client of the shelter. As we’re walking through she tells us that she’s actually wearing the shoes they gave her when she arrived there needing help,” Loew said. “To see her experience that as a donor instead of a client… I felt so honored to be in the room with her.”
What surprises clients most, she says, is that they can donate the money to the charity of their choice, rather than a charity Give Realty chooses. “The whole idea is that it’s not about us,” said Loew. “A lot of people can’t wrap their heads around it.”
To say a lot of people can’t wrap their heads around it can apply to a lot of what Loew does. First she gives away a quarter of her income so other people can get the tax write-off and give to charities they care about. And she makes a successful business around that, inspiring businesses around the country and dozens of articles about her work. Then she’s diagnosed with Stage 4 lunch cancer — without being a smoker and with no family history of the disease — and through sheer will and optimism, survives the diagnosis beyond what medical professionals predict.
Her physicians tell her she is among the 8 percent of people who have lived this long after diagnosis.
Having given up chemotherapy treatment more than a year ago, Loew is now on a drug that keeps the cancer at bay, though she’s not sure how much longer that will last. Her days of showing houses are behind her, but she’s since grown Give Realty to have seven more agents.
“I consider my cancer a huge blessing in my life,” Loew said. “It forced me to let go of the business. And it’s really cool to know that I’m going to leave a legacy.”
Loew has also given from her own income, donating to organizations like Mission Capital, the Austin Young Chamber and Leadership Austin, where she created its first donor-led scholarship fund. Lindsey Tyner, owner of Alt Creative, was the scholarship’s first recipient.
Tyner’s own web design business also has a give-back model, inspired by Loew’s mentoring advice. “I look up to her,” said Tyner. “If I can make a fraction of the impact that she’s had, then I’ll be happy.”
Despite her illness, the fact that Loew’s created hundreds of new philanthropists and donated hundreds of thousands to charity makes her feel lucky, she says. “A nurse told me she didn’t think I was given cancer to die,” Loew said, ”she thinks I was given cancer to show others how to live.”
Her perspective now: Be present, find joy
“If I woke up every morning to say, ‘Whoa is me,’ cancer would win. I refuse to let it take away from the joy I have in my life. And maybe that’s why I’ve lived so long, because of that attitude.
“I could live a long time, or I could not. One of the biggest things it’s allowed me to do is self care. Women are horrible about self care. It’s allowed me to put myself first. And it’s very liberating to say no. I just don’t make that effort because if takes so much out of me. I used to thrive in crowds. Now they just exhaust me because I don’t feel mentally that I’m as sharp. That’s something that cancer does to me and the medication. It makes me feel like I’m not 100 percent there.
“I wouldn’t have this perspective on cancer if it weren’t for Give. With Give, I saw what people are battling every day. When you go to take donations to nonprofits, and you see what their clients have overcome, I realize I have everything I need that will make the rest of my life probably better than some of these people I’ve seen who need some of these services in the community.
“My $9,000-a-month medicine costs me $100, thanks to our insurance. It is really, truly a perspective of being happy for what you have instead of focusing on what you don’t. I’m doing so much better than most people two-and-a-half years in. I’m thankful that every morning I can have a cup of coffee and do a little laundry. Now I take pleasure in doing some of the most mundane things like cooking or reading a book. I’ve really been able to shut off my mind when it comes to distractions from the outside world.
One of the saddest moments in my whole cancer was when I mentioned to my husband that I wish I had seen Eric Clapton perform. And then he reminded me that we had seen him, before the cancer. But I realized had been so wrapped up in my head and in my business that I hadn’t even been present for that concert. I didn’t remember it. And that was heart breaking. I’m actually present now every day because I don’t know how many days I have left.
“I’d planned to go to Oregon where some of my family is when I got my sickest. But I have so many dear friends here. A lot of extended family here. So within the last year I decided to stay right here in Austin. This is where my family is.”
PHOTO: Laurie Loew, second from left, presents check to the Austin Young Chamber Foundation, with (l-r) Kelly Mosser, Lindsey Tyner and Ashland Viscosi, AYC board members, accepting.
Note: A version of this article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on July 9, 2017.