Lori Gold Patterson did not set out to be an entrepreneur, but life seemed to keep pushing her in that direction. In her words, “I think entrepreneurs are those who see an irritant or an opportunity and can’t help themselves but to solve it.” This manifested itself early on in Patterson’s life. She wanted some spending money, so she
took some rocks from a next door neighbor's driveway, painted them, put them in a box which I hung around my neck with one of my dad’s ties, and rode my bike to the quad and sold rocks for 25 cents, and then I could go to the penny candy store and get myself candy. One of my earliest businesses (at age 12 or 13) was when my mom would get frustrated driving at night, because she could not see the addresses on people’s houses. I said “I’ve got to solve this. I don’t want my mom to be irritated anymore."
So I figured out to paint addresses on curbs. I worked with my dad to make a stencil, and I had my first real business: I’ve Got Your Number: Addresses Painted on Curbs.
Despite this early entrepreneurial streak, Patterson’s career began in the corporate world. After stints working for Anderson Consulting and Caterpillar, she ended up back here in C-U working for Solo Cup as a Special Projects Manager. She thought this was a track she’d be on for the rest of her career. It was an encounter with her then two year old son that started her on a different trajectory. “I was working for Solo Cup here in town, and their headquarters were up in Highland Park. I was reporting to multiple executives, so I had to spend five days a week up there, and I had two small children here at the time. I’ve told this story many times, but several months in, on a Monday morning, I put my high heeled shoes on to leave then realized I’d forgotten something. So I took off my high heeled shoes and ran to get it, and when I came back my shoes were gone. My son had taken them and hidden them under the bed.”
Talk about a gut punch. That was the impetus for Patterson stepping back to re-evaluate. She says “I never had it in my mind that I wanted to run a business, or that I want to be an entrepreneur, it was more that given whatever our life situation was, myself and my husband [UIUC Professor and fellow entrepreneur Dr. Will Patterson], we felt very competent to create the environment that would prioritize our values.” She co-founded On the Job Consulting with her brother in 1998, on the idea they could tap into the wealth of well-educated yet underemployed people in the community, by offering free courses in computer programming, while building a project-based business around those that they were teaching. That original concept has morphed over the years, as the the market and the needs of their staff have changed. “When we first started, our mission was to provide high-paid challenging work for artists and activists so that they could otherwise do great work in the world,” says Patterson. “We were looking for people who really didn’t want to be in corporate America. Because of that, the people who worked for us were people who prioritized flexibility, they prioritized community, and they prioritized impact way way more than they prioritized financial stability.”
Eventually they moved from a project-to-project based structure to a more traditional salaried structure, but the focus has remained the same. “We’re not structured in a way that makes me or the executives happy. We’ve changed ourselves numerous times because the culture of who we are has changed and we’ve been a responsive company. Our biggest value is that we’re about humans first.” A collaborative spirit, shared accountability, and what Patterson refers to as a “throneless mindset” has set Pixo up to continue on in Patterson’s absence. She’s recently announced her transition out as C.E.O.; as she hands the reins over to company directors Jason Berg and and Melinda Miller.
Why now? Patterson says she’s been thinking this over for a few years, and after reading and talking with mentors, she feels she has “gotten over the hurdles” that were keeping her from stepping down, realizing that this is something that can continue on in her absence. She also came to realize that her colleagues, Miller and Berg, were capable of growing into the leadership of the company. After battling a life-threatening illness in the midst of this pondering, her curiosity of what else life might have to offer helped solidify the decision.
She doesn’t know what next, but that prospect doesn’t scare her. “I love this company; the space, the conversations, the relationships, our clients; it’s going to be very hard….but I just don’t have fear.” One thing is certain, Urbana is home. Patterson and her husband are Urbana natives, she’s a Parkland and U of I grad, and has now spent the better part of her career building a company here. “Growing up here, I knew that I did not want to be here,” says Patterson. In fact, when her husband was looking to get his doctorate, she implored him to go anywhere but the University of Illinois. But that’s the only place he applied. Patterson says it took just a few weeks of living here as a new parent with a new perspective on the community, to find the value of living here. She became “enamored” and has continually invested herself here as a community member as well as a business owner, having chaired both the Urbana Business Association and the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, as well as serving as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of Illinois Research Park. That extracurricular work has had a purpose. “I’ve always wanted Champaign-Urbana to be a community that my grown children would want to eventually come back to for their careers and raising of their families. I don’t know if that’s what I’m going to get, but for 25 years it’s what I’ve been focused on.” She expects to do some traveling with her husband as her time allows, but as she says, “this will always be our home base.”
Patterson hopes to continue to offer up her expertise and influence to others, particularly on how to prioritize the demands of life and career. “I’ve been very aware of how this company could take over my life, and I could not be there for my children as much as I wanted to. When the book Lean In came out, I had a visceral reaction to it. It was because her approach was strategies for women to engage in the environment that already exists. How to be more like how corporate America is. When what I believe, is that corporate America needs to change.”
She relays a story from several years ago, when she was stuck at home for a day with walking pneumonia. The kids were at school, husband at work, and she didn’t feel that bad, so she did some work from home, cleaned up a bit, started dinner, and when her middle school aged daughter came home from school, she declared, “Mom, I love the way the house feels when you’ve been home.” Cue the feels from the high heeled shoes. Again, Patterson used that cue to re-prioritize, and has since kept one day a week as a work at home day, or at the very least, a day without set obligations in the office. In fact that daughter, who now works for Facebook, has done the same with the full support of her company. Patterson wants to continue to raise awareness of the importance of this “leaning out” as much as possible. Not just for women, but for men as well.
No matter what the next step may be, Lori Gold Patterson will surely continue to be a force in the community.
Photos by Addison McClure