Donna Griffin has been going in circles. Her life marks a series of starts and returns. At the center of every circle sits writing. Griffin’s connections to words has taken her across many careers including journalist, newspaper owner, teacher, non-profit creator, book author, and media company founder. But don’t confuse Griffin as living her life on repeat. With each revolution, she evolves – stronger, wiser, and more passionate.
After recently celebrating her 60th birthday, Griffin took time to reflect on 30 years of entrepreneurial endeavors, life’s ups and downs, and what truly connects us all.
What is your career timeline?
I started my career as a journalist with weekly newspapers. I worked as a reporter at Topics Newspapers, then The New Palestine Press. Eventually I achieved a lifelong dream to become a newspaper owner when I purchased the Pendleton Times with my husband. We owned the newspaper for seven years and sold it in 1996 when my husband’s job moved to Juarez, Mexico. After relocating to El Paso, Texas, my life changed the day I saw a local newspaper ad, “Want to be a teacher in a year?” Six months later I was teaching journalism at Irvin High School in the El Paso Independent School District.
Our daughter Dani’s death sparked our move back to Indiana in 2007. I returned to the Pendleton Times-Post as the general manager. I then transitioned to teaching journalism, student publications, and English at my high school alma mater Arsenal Technical High School. During my nearly 10 years there, I also launched a 501(c)(3) called Dani’s Dreams Innovation in Education Corporation in honor of my late daughter.
Another lifelong dream happened with the publication of my children’s book, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Indiana in 2014. I published my second book Old Whiskers Escapes!: A Grandpa President Adventure in 2018.
Currently I am working to launch another business called Griffin Media and Publishing, which corresponds to the release of my third book Birth of the First Amendment in summer 2019. Griffin Media and Publishing uses the power of journalistic storytelling to connect families to their communities through children’s books and digital media.
Throughout my career, I’ve had rewarding, inspiring and diverse experiences. I’ve been privileged to see far-reaching changes in both journalism and education. Now, thousands of students and hundreds of publications later, I truly believe I’ve come full circle.
At what ages did you become an entrepreneur and how have your life experiences made those the right times to launch your businesses?
Owning my own newspaper at age 30 was my first experience as an entrepreneur. I wanted to be a reporter and writer, cover stories, and set my own hours. My husband was the publisher and handled much of the back-office work. That experience of creating something without asking permission, doing what you love without answering to someone else, and building a business that positively impacted the community made it hard to leave.
I spent much of my 40s in El Paso. I also consider my years teaching there similar to operating a small business. I had a lot of teenage workers, all of them volunteers. A big chunk of my time was spent organizing fundraisers to earn money for our publications and competition trips.
But I didn’t realize how deep my entrepreneurial spirit ran until I returned home to the Pendleton Times-Post as general manager. Amid the 2008-09 recession, I started new initiatives that made the Times-Post one of a few papers that continued to grow for the company.
During that time, I also started Dani’s Dreams. I could see the vision for the organization, but the non-profit world was somewhat counterintuitive to my life experiences. With the publication of Old Whiskers Escapes!, the path to entrepreneurship became clear while supporting the non-profit initiatives close to my heart.
The Birth of the First Amendment through Griffin Media and Publishing is the perfect vehicle for my current entrepreneurial journey because it allows me to control and celebrate my chosen career.
What did it take to go from story idea to selling your published books across the globe?
You’ve heard the saying, “I was in the right place at the right time.” That’s me when it comes to publication of Twelve Days of Christmas in Indiana. Only I like to say I put myself in the “write” place.
I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and learned that Sterling Publishing in New York was looking for an Indiana writer and illustrator to work on the Christmas book. It was nearing the deadline of midnight on December 31, 2011, and you only had to write one paragraph. I hit send on the email and heard nothing for almost nine months. Then came a simple email asking if I had time to write the manuscript for Twelve Days of Christmas in Indiana. I started in fall 2012 and it turned out to be the perfect project for a first-time author. One of the best parts was working remotely with editor Meredith Mundy and illustrator Troy Cummings before publication, at book signings, and on school visits. The process took a year and seeing the finished book and going to author signings remains a life highlight.
Twelve Days of Christmas in Indiana got my foot in the door to the children’s book/publishing scene and led to Old Whiskers Escapes! next. Kathleen Angelone, former owner of Bookmama’s bookstore, introduced me to Andrea Neal who was looking for a children’s author to work on a book for the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. I collaborated with Indiana-based illustrator Gary Varvel to create the book. This experience formed the idea for designing and publishing children’s books for non-profits, businesses, and community organizations. More “Grandpa President Adventure” books are in the works.
You have a saying that “turning the page is personal.” What does that mean and how does it apply to your business?
Becoming an author is simply the coolest thing I’ve done in my career. I’m proud of the articles, columns, and digital blogs I’ve penned in my career, but they are all ephemeral. My children’s books will stick around. Twelve Days of Christmas in Indiana has sold nearly 4,000 copies and Old Whiskers Escapes! is in hundreds of classrooms and homes across Indiana. That’s the beauty of books – the connection.
"Becoming an author is simply the coolest thing I've done in my career."
Turning the page is personal. Books block out the world around you. They connect your thoughts and imagination. People touch books with an unconscious reverence. People look at me with a unique mix of wonder, awe and curiosity when they find out “I wrote that book.” It’s pretty heady stuff; almost as extraordinary as cuddling in a rocking chair with a toddler nested close to your heart repeating, “One fish, two fish,” or “Good night, Moon,” or “I’m looking for my missing piece.” It’s all in the connection to the people in our lives.
To further that feeling of connection, Griffin Media and Publishing is launching an “In the Moment” book series to tell moments of history using digital storytelling techniques in a journalistic format. I am once again teaming up with illustrator Gary Varvel to create our first book in the series, The Birth of the First Amendment. This graphic novel puts readers into the minds and hearts of the people in these moments to provide a bridge from the past to present day. What makes the books cutting edge is the interactive back matter and curriculum integration using author talks, social media, and special media creation events. The series is designed to engage youth with information and tools to think critically, communicate responsibly, and participate as active citizens in our democracy.
What’s key for other entrepreneurs to connect with their audience?
Before you can tell your story as an entrepreneur, you first need a clear vision for your product or services and know why someone else should care about it. I always go back to the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of journalism. This is what makes Griffin Media unique. When it comes to telling a story and connecting ideas to the larger community, journalistic skills make it possible for all other businesses and organizations to get their point across.
What is the best advice you’ve received as an entrepreneur?
Probably the best advice I’ve been given over the years is to follow your passion and then look at the big picture and how you fit in it. Most recently the best advice came from Kristen Cooper, CEO & Founder of The Startup Ladies. She told me that many women take their ideas and talents to the non-profit arena because they want to do good. Women can make money and do good at the same time.
How have you transformed your daughter’s legacy into a thriving non-profit?
Anyone who has lost a child knows you never stop loving them. In the years immediately following my daughter’s death, I channeled the love, memories, and hope for her life into Dani’s Dreams Outdoor Education Center to keep the grief at bay. Dani’s Dreams fosters children’s interest in science and discovery for the natural world. The organization serves as a bridge between schools and college/career-ready opportunities by:
Empowering young people to use their technology, leadership, marketing, and media skills to support classroom teachers, community organizations and local businesses;
Supporting teachers with lesson plans, online resources, local experts, sponsors, and community support through innovative programs; and
Connecting diverse individuals, school districts, community businesses, and organizations with young innovative communicators and artists.
Dani’s Dreams Innovation in Education Corporation is entering its second decade as an entirely volunteer organization. We’ve created two outdoor education facilities in Hancock County and forged partnerships to expand our programs to Marion County. Dani’s Dreams programs now serve more than 1,000 Indiana young people annually.
After nearly 30 years of being an entrepreneur, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned along the way?
That I have so much more to learn, yet my story matters. Have you ever seen the movie Fools Rush In? In the movie, the main character talks about signs and faith and how you must be open to them; constantly learning, growing and moving forward. She’s right. In my life there have been answers to questions unasked in both pivotal and everyday moments. My faith has been tested and I’m always questioning, but I’ve witnessed the power and gift of love. I think real storytelling boils down to words that speak soul to soul across time, generations, cultures, and geographies.
How have you managed to maintain balance?
Do you ever really have balance? I think it evens out over the course of your life. What’s truly important is being clear about your priorities. For me it has always been family first. I was blessed to find my perfect partner to build our family at an early age (my high school sweetheart). We’ve grown up together, raised our family together, endured the most searing of losses together, and that is the wellspring of my strength, joy, love, and balance. My husband, children, and grandchildren are the greatest blessings because I can look back on all my choices in good and tough times and know I don’t have any regrets.
What advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs, authors or non-profit founders who worry they don’t have enough time or don’t know enough to be successful?
My first piece of advice is to be in the present. Enjoy the process and people who surround you.
The caveat to the second part of this question is to define your own success. I remember sitting in numerous children’s book writing conferences and listening to advice and lofty goals. So much depended on bending your story to fit someone else’s needs or vision. The best thing I ever did was join a critique group more than six years ago. We meet monthly and I trust their judgement way more than any New York editor. They are reminders that in writing, at least in my experience, the most fun is when it is a collaborative effort. When it comes down to it, I hate to write, but I love to have written. (One of my students put this on a sign in my classroom years ago.)
When it comes down to it, I hate to write, but I love to have written.
The first book I wrote, Dani and The Beans, was self-published. I paid a company way too much money for that service, but it was a story I needed to tell – for my daughter and family, but mostly for myself. The story has been rejected by publishers and agents across the country. I’ve learned to not take that personally, even though the story is as personal as it gets. I just remember who I am writing for – not faceless agents or editors, but eager, energetic children who appreciate a good story. The fact that Dani and The Beans is in homes of both people I know and those I don’t, and that all my family has a copy they can read and enjoy, is enough success for me.
How has The Startup Ladies helped you as a business owner?
The Startup Ladies has been an inspiration, a community, and a village. I'm starting to realize I'm not alone and this is not just a pipe dream. The Startup Ladies gives me a forum and a focus; a way to connect to fellow founders, mentors and funders. Having this community of like-minded individuals who support each other is both priceless and powerful. I'm still part of the female generation of firsts; of trailblazing women who made great strides. I'm also from the generation that raised the current women leaders who are bringing enormous skills, talents and perspectives to the table.