Ann Brandau is a public health professional with extensive experience in overseeing and implementing community health initiatives. Her undergraduate degree is in Human Services and she holds a Master’s in Business Administration. She currently sits on the Kansas Board of Regents. For 13 years she has served as the 3rd District Commissioner for the Unified Government Board of Commissioners for Kansas City. In 2006 she founded the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association (ANDA) of Kansas City and served as its Executive Director until 2018.
Ann is currently a full-time student working on her prerequisites to either go to the MHSA program at the University of Kansas in the Master of Health Systems Administration or to enter into a Physician Assistant program at University of Missouri Kansas City. Ann had originally planned to take the MCAT this summer and to begin working on becoming a Physician Assistant because of her interest in public health, but the MCAT test has been cancelled due to COVID-19. She has continued to study and take classes in hopes the MCAT would become available, but at this time it will likely not be available until 2021. Since that path to becoming a Physician Assistant has been put on hold, she is now planning to begin the MHSA program this fall. Her experience working in the areas of government, nonprofits, and public health really dovetails nicely with this degree program.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
When I got married, I moved to the Argentine Neighborhood in Kansas City which is one of the lowest income neighborhoods in the state of Kansas. The neighborhood had significant challenges, including a number of blighted and dilapidated properties, as well as very few business and employment opportunities. It had a weak busing system, so it was difficult for people to get to jobs.
We also had issues with graffiti. When you’re trying to develop a healthy neighborhood in order to get partners interested in being engaged in that process, you have to clean up your neighborhood so that businesses are not afraid to come there.
There was no access to a grocery store. Because of the locations of the neighborhood and the lack of busing, it was very difficult to get to a grocery store without taking a bus which took well over an hour. Walking to the nearest grocery store was not an option, and a large number of people did not have cars. Most people were eating out gas stations, convenience stores, and relying on food delivery programs offered through the county.
We had a number of parks in the neighborhood but many of them did not have decent, safe equipment, nor did they have any sort of set up that allowed for sports or recreational activities. There was also no walking track or trail. The curbs and sidewalks were absolutely horrible as well. Much of the sidewalk was made from bricks manufactured in 1901. The poor condition of the sidewalks made it very difficult for families to go for walks with a stroller or for the elderly that need to rely on a walker or a level surface to safely go for a walk. When you don’t have people out and about in your community, you end up with a lot of vandalism and graffiti.
I take a very pragmatic approach to solving problems. I take one problem at a time, try to fix it, and move on, and just keep whittling away at the problems. I talked to people in the community, in the police department, and in the government. I walked out in the community a lot, interacting with people.
We started with graffiti and vandalism. Initially there was a lot of apathy and few consequences even when people were caught. Most of the people participating in making graffiti were from the middle school and high school. We brought some of the students together and discussed the problem with them and asked how we could work together. Many of these students were from such poor families that it was the expression of a lot of hostility and aggression from the lack of things to do and the lack of money available to do anything fun. So ANDA raised money to pay students to work and to help clean up graffiti and mow vacant lots.
In order to bring a grocery store to the area, I made phone calls to corporations and would ask to speak to the person in charge of new grocery development. I was able to get a couple of grocery stores interested, at least to come take a look. It helped that they saw a lot of passion in me to improve the neighborhood. After a lot of negotiation and a lot of data collection, I was able to secure two groceries stores for the community. There was a 17-acre environmentally contaminated Superfund site located at the gateway of our community that could not be developed unless it was slab on grade development. I worked with the EPA and the owners of the property and was able to raise enough grant money to purchase the property and go through a series of procedures with the EPA and get clearance to build the new grocery stores on that site. By doing that, we created over 250 entry level jobs which were perfect for the majority of the population in the community and provided healthy food options that did not have transportation.
Then I began to focus on improving the sidewalks and curbs of all major thoroughfares to and from the grocery store. The local government said it would take five years before that would even be considered in future budgets. I went out and raised private money and found a program where the government would match money for individual homeowners to replace curb and sidewalks in front of their property. I rallied those neighbors together and raised private money to cover their portion of the cost. The $300,000 we were able to raise was still not sufficient, so I reached out to a number of larger infrastructure construction companies that provided curb and sidewalk for cities and gather the company owners to help us. These companies agreed to install a million dollars’ worth of curb and sidewalk for the $300,000 that we had.
People enjoyed being outside. Crime dropped dramatically. It literally turned very quickly into an active thriving neighborhood. Once people felt like they were being heard and things were happening, it became easier to assemble them. There are now several neighborhood groups within the community that work to improve the neighborhood bit by bit.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day right now is very affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is very different than what it has been in the past. Typically, I take a long walk each morning. It helps me to clear my mind and get out in public, even though right now I can’t have that close personal tie to people that I’ve had in the past. I will handle phone calls while I am on my walk. I do work from a home office and I answer emails in relation to homework and Board of Regents issues. Even though I am no longer the Commissioner, I still receive a number of emails from constituents on how to solve neighborhood problems. I will spend time studying. Because all of my family is home I am usually spending some time with my them outside in a recreational way where we can see and be around people, but with social distancing of course.
How do you bring ideas to life?
For ideas to become reality and to become sustainable, it is important to engage the people that are most affected by whatever it is that you’re working on. For example, when I became a Commissioner I really wanted to work on what was important to the community so I raised money to put out a survey all over my district to ask people what their wants and needs were.
What’s one trend that excites you?
That I moved into a neighborhood that was on a very fast decline but was able to make improvement really excites me. There was lots of vandalism, graffiti, and crime was very high. There was no grocery store. There were no decent curbs and sidewalks. I get excited about data. When you look at the data from 13 years ago prior to my involvement and you look at the data today, the results speak for themselves. The improvements are amazing. I am excited by engaging a community in solving community-based problems and tracking our results and having actual measurable outcomes that I can share with people.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I am very physically active. It is critical for me to stay strong physically. Politics is very emotionally demanding and sometimes can be a very negative line of work. If anyone that wants to be in leadership and make a difference, they must prioritize their health and taking care of themselves. They also should engage with the community and involve them with decision making.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I care very deeply for people and what happens to them. I care deeply about fairness, justice, and human decency. When I see a lack of fairness and equity, I react to that. I am a risk taker when that happens. But I felt so passionate about these things that at times I sacrificed a bit too much of myself in order to address things that seemed unfair to me. You are not able to keep up the fight for such ideals if you hurt yourself too much in the process of trying to improve things for others. You can leave yourself open that will reflect negatively on you, even though you actually had the best of intentions. I would tell my younger self that it may take longer to get things done, but you have to also take care of yourself and in the long run it will serve you better.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
People think that things come very easy for me, but that is not the case. I make things seem very easy, but I have had to work incredibly hard to accomplish what I have.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Just don’t ever give up. Keep working and don’t give up.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
We all start at different points with whatever it is we are working on, but whatever it is, if you are not moving forward, you are moving backwards. There is no standing still in life. I always keep working until I produce results. I always do what I say I am going to do.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I raised millions of dollars from the federal government to build a couple of fast food places in the neighborhood to create entry level jobs for the people that live in the community, but our mayor did not support my efforts and would not put it on the agenda. I continued to look for other potential partners in that, but I did leave my position at ANDA before that project could be completed. I still think it would have been good for the community. Especially now with so many people out of work.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
If you are really passionate about something, you know what has to happen. You have to start where you are at and do one thing at a time to overcome the challenges. A lot of people end up giving up on their dream because they were encouraged to have long, drawn out business plans, a lot of planning and investigating, but I would not have had any of the successes I had if I had taken that approach or if I had know how much work it would be. You just start where you are at and figure out some improvements you can make. A highly formal process can actually hold you back from getting some results. Just get started.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I am Catholic. I recently spent money on reading material and listening material related to my religion to encourage faith and hope and belief. Things still go wrong even when you make good choices, and I have really learned recently to lean into my faith to get through those difficult times.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I get a lot of information off of Facebook. I learn about what is going on in the community through social media.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Whether you are a Christian or not, I think the Bible is a great book with good examples and stories that can really help people who are trying to do good things.
What is your favorite quote?
“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
• Community involvement.
• Start simple.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.