Meet Dana O’Brien

Photo by Vanessa Plakias

After dutifully clocking in every day for twenty-three-and-a-half years at the County Assessor’s Office, DANA O’BRIEN was on the homestretch, mere months away from receiving her pension, when a most unexpected thing happened: she quit. Her side hustle—building spaces for women, also called “she-sheds”—was taking off and she could think of nothing else. Today, her business, A Place to Grow, is leading the transformation of a sleepy industrial corner at the end of Prado Road in San Luis Obispo known as the Tallow Works. Here is her story…

Okay, Dana, let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from? I was born in the Antelope Valley, Lancaster, California; the high desert. I have an identical twin sister and two older sisters, five and four years older than us. My dad worked for Pepsi-Cola, a good Teamster; he worked hard to support the family. We lived a simple life, nothing extravagant by any means. Grew up there, but I always knew that I wanted to leave; it was hot there. I ended up going to Santa Barbara City College. I was working groceries, at Vons, so I transferred there. I spent two or three years there getting my Associate’s Degree, and they had an agreement with Cal Poly at that time where you could transfer. So, I came here and got a degree in business and accounting. My twin sister came along with me; we always have to be together. I met my husband, Sean, at Cal Poly and I had my son while we were still in school.

So, how did the two of you meet? In June of ‘86 we both moved to San Luis Obispo County. Sean came here from the East Coast with his family. His mom actually grew up here and she wanted to come back to be near her parents, who were in Paso Robles. I came here to go to school. One year later, June of ‘87, we met at The Graduate, of all places, through a mutual friend. Sean had a bunch of dental work done that day and his cheek was swollen like a chipmunk. Anyway, we talked for a bit and he asked me to dance. He said, “I just had my wisdom tooth pulled, so I can only slow dance.” Yeah, right—pretty smooth! [laughter] I thought, “Okay, whatever.” We hit it off, had fun. Talked a lot. I never gave my phone number out at bars, but at some point I had mentioned that I worked at the Williams Brothers grocery store, so a couple of days later he shows up in my line to buy a pack of gum. I invited him out with a bunch of my friends that night, and we had so much fun. We laughed and had a great time dancing. Nine months later we were married. Then we had our son six months later—you can do the math. [laughter]

Something’s not adding up here… He actually proposed three weeks before we had any inkling that we were pregnant. We were still at Cal Poly. So, there were times that I’d have my baby, our son, with me on my hip at the library. I was 23, I believe, at the time, a senior in my last year. I was definitely the only one in the Business Department toting a baby around campus. He worked construction and I worked at the grocery store; somehow we figured it out. That was back when tuition was a lot less and package all of the shed components along with the instructions and ship them pretty much anywhere. We’ve tested it with forklifts putting it onto a truck. We’re 80% of the way there, we just need to get the engineering signed off and stamped. I’d say we’re about 60% of the way there with the completion of the instructions that will go along with the package. That’s been our whole idea from the beginning, to build these as kits. Maybe have some pre-fab walls here, we’re not quite there yet because we don’t have the space to store them, but we’re moving in that direction. We can also custom design, too, and palletize it and ship it out. I mean, when you think about it, that will allow us to ship these sheds all over the world. As long as it can be put on that pallet and lifted onto a truck with a forklift, it can go anywhere.

Let’s get back to when you got started. Tell us about that first year in business. Once we moved over here, I have a friend whose husband is a contractor and he helped me get my systems and processes in place. At first it was just me, but now I’ve got three full-time guys, and another two or three part-time employees, a marketing assistant; I had to hire her to keep up with the design work. A lot of this comes from the whole she-shed phenomenon. When I started my business in 2012, The Wall Street Journal put out an article with a headline that read: “Backyard Greenhouses: The New Woman Cave.” When I saw that, I said, “Yes!” I just felt like it was finally our time, women’s time, to have a space. Women were saying, “Hey, it’s our turn!” But, along the way, I realized that we are doing more than just building sheds. We’re building these sacred spaces that help people grow or heal, whether they are a creative space as an art studio—we do a lot of art studios—or meditative retreat, or to grow plants, which is also, I think, another form of meditation and stress relief. And, so, it just started building, the momentum; I just started really listening to my clients and they were the ones that told me what they wanted these spaces for. Each one is unique because of the reclaimed products we use and I often bring the clients in on the design process. It’s really fun.

What was the next big milestone for you? So, two years later, the tenant next door, Don Seawater, who owned the lumber mill, came to me and said, “Okay, I’m ready to retire. You should buy my business.” I didn’t really give it any serious thought, but I casually mentioned it to Sean. He didn’t say much about it, then a few days later he said to me, “I can’t get it out of my mind.” He has said for years that he’s wanted to do a business together. He said, “We could do our businesses together; it would be amazing.” So, I’m like, “Uhhhh…” It was one thing for me to take my leap of faith because we still had his paycheck, but now to do it again for a second time with zero safety net, I just thought, “How are we going to do this?” But, we just kept thinking about it and talking about it. Somehow it was just meant to be. Don came back to us again and said, “I just really want you guys to have this.” And, so we did. Sean quit his job—he had been a software engineer for the past 24 years—and we were all-in.

So, they are two totally separate businesses that happen to be next to one another? That’s correct, but they’re very complementary businesses, both sustainably minded. Urban forested lumber is incredibly sustainably minded because it is a form of carbon sequestering. You are taking these trees that have fallen down around the county—we had a lot of storm-downed trees this last winter because of all the rain we had—instead of them getting chipped up or burned, which releases their carbon into the atmosphere, when you mill them into a tangible product the carbon is trapped, contained in there. Sean likes to joke that I’m his best customer, but also the most demanding. We get really creative with reclaimed materials. I mean, the stuff is amazing, and half the time they get thrown out. It’s a fun challenge to figure out how to repurpose this stuff, like turning old doors sideways and laying them flat to create a bar top or work bench. We use wine barrels in all sorts of different ways.

Did you guys ever dream that this would become your reality? It’s interesting, because what Sean and I did in what I call our prior lives, the first half if we live to one hundred, brought us to a point where we can really grow these businesses. He’s got that engineering background and the construction experience and I’ve got the finance and accounting, so we bring these unique skills together to what I call a boutique construction company, which is what I have, and he has a boutique lumber mill, small scale. But, the main thing is that we wanted to do something more meaningful, and connect with people in a more meaningful way. And, we do—each and every day. It’s amazing. I mean, before I met with you today, I had a meeting with some clients who were heading out of town on vacation and I don’t even have a complete design and quote for them and they said, “Here, let me write you a check.” They believe in what we do, they want what we do. It’s meaningful. It’s meaningful to them, that connection. It’s about the relationships. It’s not about the business side of it. That’s the hardest part of it, we work so closely with our clients and once we complete the project and install their shed, I feel like, “Ah, I’m going to miss them.”

Tell us more about the she-sheds. I don’t know, I just feel that there is a good energy to them because they are being good stewards of the earth, because the materials that go into them are being kept out of landfills and given a new life. It’s just like if any of us were given a new life. I really don’t know what it is, but people walk into them and you can see their eyes get big. It’s different, it’s unusual, it’s artistic. I believe it’s the energy that is brought to it, that goes into it. They’re sacred spaces, they really are. I had a client, her husband had passed away, and for years they had been saving materials. He was going to build her a teahouse. I went out to her house and looked at what she had, there was some lumber, an old door, some pieces of copper; I gathered it together and we built the structure. She sent me a text that night, the first night after we installed it, and said that she was out there and she felt—I have goose bumps thinking about it—she felt her husband’s energy, his spirit, and she just started crying, and she was able to really just kind of release and just feel his presence.

Wow. There’s something about them, I don’t know what it is. They’re healing spaces for sure. I can’t quite explain it, but we hear these sorts of stories from clients all the time. With me, I remember one day in particular, I had a bad day at work and Sean and I just started bickering, so I stomped outside to my shed, still had on my suit and heels, and I started breathing in the potting soil, nipping the deadheads off flowers and stuff. I was out there about ten minutes then I came back in. He said, “Were you in your greenhouse?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What were you doing?” I said, “Well, it was either go in there or rip your head off!” We both laughed so hard and the argument was over. I don’t know what it is. They’re places to de-stress and relax. When I’m out there, I’m not thinking, “Oh, change the laundry load.” Or, do this or do that. I’m just kind of in a peaceful place.

So, what does the future hold? You know, Sean and I have a vision—we want to build small home communities. Not necessarily tiny homes on trailers, but small footprints, 400, or 800, or 1,200 square feet. We want to build these communities so they each have their own garden plot. They may be smaller homes, but they have this garden area where they can go. We want them to be as sustainable as possible, and include solar, maybe a greywater system. We want to build them as low-to-no-VOC [volatile organic compound] as possible. Keep them natural, keep the chemical load down. We’re so over exposed to chemicals in this world; it’s terrible. That’s another thing we’re passionate about: organic farming and gardening. So, I’d like to incorporate that element, as well. They will have a community room and a common space area. I could see where they could be done as a do-it-yourself kit where the homeowner could potentially build their own house themselves. I have a client locally who has some acreage who is very interested in the concept, and Sean has a client who is interested, too, so we’ll see. There’s the whole affordable housing issue here, where we don’t have affordable housing. This might be a way to do that. It’s just: How much would it cost to build? And the way we build is not as cost-effective as the large lumber mills who have economies of scale and our lumber is not rated Doug Fir, but we’d probably still frame the basic structure with that and then use our urban forested lumber, basically fallen trees from around town, for siding and stuff like that. So, we’d still have a sustainable part to it. We’ll see. I just go with the flow—whatever the universe says.

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