The Imagen CEO and Owner blazes trail for women in business.
People who lack empathy, as I once did, share the belief that they can get a ton accomplished when they don’t concern themselves with people issues.
Anyone fortunate to visit the offices of Imagen in LaVergne, Tennessee, will notice the nameplates that adorn each office door contain a quote. Joan LaGrasse, CEO/Owner of Imagen, encourages each team member to choose the quote that best describes their creative personality. Her nameplate has this Gloria Steinem quote: Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.
LaGrasse is a servant leader. In fact, her leadership style should be taught in every major business school. It begins with the nameplate on the door and ends with feeling like family. She gives her team license and space to create and therefore draws them into “the excitement of possibilities.” It is this leadership style that has made Imagen one of the leading design and exhibition houses in the country.
The history of Imagen and LaGrasse’s telling of it serve as a window into the depths of her skill as a businessperson. When her husband John, who is a brilliant C-Suite executive, decided he wanted to try his hand at entrepreneurship in 2002, she wanted to do the same. She had spent much of her career as a trailing spouse, a teacher, and an educator. The prospect of owning and running a business where she could be her creative self was a dream come true.
The couple bought a small, privately held exhibit house in Nashville. They owned Imagen 50/50, with him on the business side and her running the creative. It worked beautifully for two years until he got the call to rejoin corporate life with an offer he could not refuse. His acceptance of the offer would mean a move away from Nashville and selling the business or finding someone else to run it.
Nashville and Imagen had become LaGrasse’s heart and home. She made her husband an offer he could not refuse. She bought him a condominium so he could commute comfortably to Nashville in exchange for 2/3 ownership in Imagen. And thus, in 2004, LaGrasse became the majority owner of her dream.
It took another five years for her to certify Imagen with WBENC (Women’s Business Enterprise National Council). The reason? No one in her immediate circle thought it was a promising idea even though her clients were suggesting that it was. One of them finally urged her to certify so they could count their spend with her and explained in business terms that it would only serve to strengthen their relationship.
She took the client at their word and certified. It not only strengthened the relationship, but it saved and expanded the business she was doing with that client. Unbeknownst to her, another, much larger exhibition house had been pushing to consolidate all the client’s business under their umbrella. Once Imagen was certified, the client went with her. LaGrasse did not need any further proof that WBENC was good for her business. She has never missed a conference and has served on the WBEC South (Women’s Business Enterprise Council) board, the WBENC board, was a conference co-chair and STAR (recognizing excellence among women-owned businesses) in 2016 and was inducted into the WBE (Women’s Business Enterprise) Hall of Fame in 2020.
In 2021, Isabella Casillas Guzman, the 27th Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, visited Nashville. She requested to meet with a woman small business owner and was directed to LaGrasse and Imagen by the regional SBA. At the meeting, LaGrasse “thanked her for the loans during COVID and told her without them we would have folded. I thanked her for what she is doing to help all women small business owners.”
Imagen has won numerous awards, but the one LaGrasse is most proud of is the Radnor Lake Leadership Award for “Leadership in the community in respect to the environment, specifically, Radnor Lake.” LaGrasse was hired to refresh the park’s interpretive signage in 2010 and has been a valued friend of Radnor Lake ever since.
In 2016, LaGrasse designed a booth for the WBENC conference to honor the women on whose shoulders we all stand. She spent nine months doing research on which women to include and worked tirelessly to bring their stories to light in her booth. It was a labor of love and a passion project come to fruition. LaGrasse tears up a bit when talking about the struggle of the women that blazed a trail for us and for our struggle to continue to light the path for future generations. Her call to action is, “to challenge everyone to do something for other women … to help open a door, to build on what has been. We still need each other. I believe that the more you give, the more it will come back.”