Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in the Fort Worth Report’s series on emerging leaders. To view other installments in our “Profiles in Leadership” series, please click here.
At 3 years old, the Miller twins started a restaurant in their house for their parents.
They were always creating, always innovating. At 8, they got involved in the family real estate business, driving around their hometown with their parents to look at possible houses to invest in. The same kitchen table that served as their restaurant is where their parents started presenting them with decisions about business.
The sisters always knew they would want to work together, so they began in the real estate industry they learned from their parents.
Jessica Miller Essl and Susan Miller Gruppi grew up in Longview — a town of over 81,000 people about 160 miles east of Fort Worth — where their father Richard and mother Susan invested in real estate all over the city. Now, the 35-year-old sisters are redesigning Fort Worth one building at a time.
Their company M2G Ventures is a commercial real estate development group with two main fields, Essl said. The first adapts mixed-use districts and the other builds ground-up urban industrial. The company buys vacant buildings, redesigns them and leases the space.
One of the first properties the company bought and developed is the Foundry District. The area is full of converted warehouses and includes 14 buildings over about seven acres with an Inspiration Alley full of murals as the center.
“Real estate is all we’ve ever known,” Gruppi said. “It wasn’t even really a question — we didn’t know other things existed since our parents were entrepreneurs. It was modeled since we were born, literally, to be an entrepreneur or have your own company.”
Their father Richard, 75, said he and his wife started involving their twin daughters in the family business because he wanted them to learn self-motivation early. He and his wife are big on “girl power,” he added.
“Self-motivation leads to eventually, for some people, entrepreneurship,” Miller said. “We wanted them strong and self-motivated so they will be able to be comfortable making their own living and leading a life of value.”
His daughters have taken his focus and expanded it. Miller said his focus was on providing for his family, but the twins are extending their work to help people beyond their own families.
M2G Ventures portfolio
Proto Park at 3200 Irving Blvd. ,Dallas
The Foundry District at 200 Carroll St. Fort Worth
North Quarter 35 at 10705 North Freeway Fort Worth
Bogart at 4621 Ross Ave. Dallas
Proof at 901 W. Vickery Blvd. Fort Worth
Ambassador at 8908 Ambassador Row Dallas
Avenue E at 3500 Avenue E, Arlington
Pinewood at 3101 Pinewood Drive, Arlington
Tuesday Morning Industrial Assemblage in Dallas
710 South Main in Fort Worth
OB Mac at 108 South Freeway in Fort Worth
Teaching their daughters early helped foster discussion about decision-making skills and consequences of choices, Miller said. He wanted his children to think deeper, and their discussions and questions fostered that.
“We tried to give them the development of their education — education beyond economics, education about business and society and helping to develop talents that we think are important in business like artistic development,” he said. “In other words, you understand that something was pretty, you look at things that are pretty. Why? Why are you looking at something that’s pretty? What is the value of that?”
Both sisters went to Texas Christian University and studied business administration. After graduating, they both spent time at Trademark Property Company in Fort Worth. Essl also worked at Open Realty Advisors; those years were the only time the twins did not work together from their first jobs hosting at Dudley’s Cajun Café in Longview at 15.
The sister’s decisions in school, working at other companies and other choices were all part of one goal: having their own company and doing it together — whether they failed or succeeded, Gruppi said.
They launched M2G Ventures in 2014 with their own money, determined to fulfill their dreams of not only working together, but continuing the family business. Their first deal, an industrial development north of White Settlement Road, came from 19 investors who were a mix of colleagues, mentors and friends, Essl said.
Simply put, Gruppi said, they knew they would succeed because it was their destiny.
Essl said being an identical twin meant having a constant playmate and someone to imagine and dream with. The two are always putting their heads together and pushing each other.
The two finish each other’s sentences, and sometimes do not even need an entire sentence to communicate. In a recent meeting with a new hire, she and Gruppi were going back and forth and their new hire asked, “Are y’all speaking pig Latin? Y’all use one word to represent an entire sentence,” Essl said.
“We finish each other’s thoughts,” Essl said. “It’s quick for us, but awkward for other people, and they can’t figure out what we’re talking about.”
Once the work started, Gruppi said, she and Essl realized how much they needed a good team of employees. They especially realized this when they both started having children.
They also started to learn it would be harder to be the biggest fish in the pond in Fort Worth than it was for their parents in Longview, Essl said. Still, they remained persistent in succeeding. Their portfolio is extensive, and they have a hand in many neighborhoods around Cowtown.
The sisters started to notice a real difference when they did a deal on Magnolia Street, completing a mural on the side of Great Harvest, Essl said. Another was in The Foundry at M&O Grill and Leonard’s.
“Both of those were projects we saw in our minds that were not present in the city,” she said. “That is when we started to realize the creative ideas we have are worth something.”
And the business grew from there as they collected more clients and purchased more real estate in the city.
“We take it personally,” she said. “Few people are given the opportunity and gifts that we’ve been given. And I believe that everybody needs to take a role in crafting what they want their city to be.”
Fort Worth is special because someone can get to the right people, into the right rooms or meet goals solely by caring enough, Essl said. Yes, there are people in every city who have made decisions for a long time, but, Essl said surrounding yourself with the right people can still allow anyone to create change.
“Really effecting change and doing what you want to do has nothing to do with anyone else,” she said. “That doesn’t really have anything to do with your responsibility to do what you want to do, in my opinion.”
The sisters go into business deals like twin tornadoes, demanding a seat at the table and getting exactly what they want done, Gruppi said.
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“I know we’re lucky in that, and I don’t know if it’s because our voice is so loud because there’s two of us or what,” she said. “Fort Worth is known as kind of good ol’ boy. It’s known as having key families that make all the decisions. And what I love about that is with people like us and other progressives in town that has definitely started to change.”
Having two of them helps in other ways, too, Essl said. The two are unique business partners; they can be fighting one another one minute and grabbing lunch together 20 minutes later.
But an even better side of that is that the company feels like a family, she said.
“We always have each other’s back, our highest highs are shared together and our lowest lows are shared together,” Essl said. “That leaves you with a feeling that there’s never a situation that you’re alone in, which is extremely important in a business.”
Even twins need to have differences, though. Essl said the most important advice she ever received is from their former boss, Terry Montesi at Trademark, who told her to never take a partner who has the same skills as you.
The twins are both more naturally left-brained and creative, Essl said. But Gruppi shines in finance and development. Her sister can take complicated business models and give a simplified summary of them, she said. Essl shines more in the sales and strategy areas of business, taking complicated ideas and making them holistic pitches to clients, she said.
Their work in the community extends past real estate and into mental health, a personal and important topic to the twins.
In 2015, Essl was married to her first husband, Clint Worman, and was pregnant with their daughter. In the same month, they moved, and he lost his job. It led to Worman’s first mental break, and they discovered he had bipolar disorder.
Their entire family rallied to help him, determined to find the best treatment. He spent time in a hospital in Houston, tried various medications, ketamine therapy and electroshock therapy. Nothing helped, creating a dangerous environment for her and her baby, which led to their divorce.
About six months later, during a manic episode, Worman was hit by a car and died, she said. Essl realized then that even the best treatment was not enough and much more needs to be done to treat the brain.
Taking over the story for her sister, Gruppi said the sisters’ entrepreneurial spirit kicked in after Worman’s death, and they knew they had to find a way to create change in the way mental illness is treated.
With that, they launched M2G Ventures in Mental Health, Gruppi said. The two spent the first six months trying to find the top researchers or nonprofits doing cutting edge work in mental health.
Essl said they were not interested in anyone doing the same work as was done on her ex-husband; they wanted to find innovative new treatments with better results.
“I want to hear somebody who’s saying, ‘I’m looking at where we’re at, I’m seeing trends, I’m making these theories. And I’m going to figure out a new and better way to do it,’” she said.
After several interviews, Gruppi said they found Dr. Madhukar Trivedi at the UT Southwestern Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care. The center currently has several research projects in the works.
They truly believe in the work Dr. Trivedi is doing and will result in earlier identification and treatment of mental illness and the treatment will be much more targeted, Essl said.
Gruppi described the current treatment for mental illness as the equivalent of treating stage 4 cancer with an Advil — it’s too late. However, earlier detection can lead to more effective treatment.
The two committed to fundraising $1 million for the center. They have raised almost half that — $460,000, Gruppi said. Once they reach $1 million, they’ll just set another goal.
“This is a lifetime commitment from Jessica and I to make a difference,” Gruppi said. “We’re not like a nonprofit or anything. We literally just spend our time and talent, fundraising and sending that money directly to UT Southwestern — and, of course, we obviously donate as well.”
They hope their efforts will raise awareness and transparency so people are OK talking about topics like their mental health, Essl said.
“It was really hard to watch somebody not want to talk to people about it when he was sick,” she said. “So, he didn’t know. He didn’t want to admit he was sick. It’s just not, it’s not fair to watch people literally die alive.”
Their work in mental health is truly the most important work they do, Gruppi said.
And through both their real estate business and mental health work, the sisters hope to inspire evolution through impact and innovation, Essl said.
“I think we’ll continue to do great things for Fort Worth,” she said. “We’re businesspeople, so obviously it’s coming from a sense of capitalism, but at the same time, it’s really cool to walk into someplace, and you’re like, ‘Man, I created this.’”
Jessica Miller Essl bio:
Birthplace: Longview, Texas
Moved to Fort Worth: In 2004 to attend TCU
Family: Susan MIller Gruppi, identical twin and business partner; three other brothers, Chris Miller, 47, Aaron Miller, 40, Jeff Miller, 38; husband Garrett Essl; daughter Vivian, 6
Education: Graduated from TCU with a bachelor’s in business administration, majored in finance with real estate with an emphasis on leadership.
Work experience: Four years at Trademark Property Company as a senior leasing representative, four years at Open Realty Advisors as an account head and real estate consultant.
Volunteer experience: Girls Inc., UT Southwestern, UT Southwestern Advisory Council, Greater Fort Worth Real Estate Council Board, Board member for TCU Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, board member for Visit Fort Worth.
First job: Hostess at Dudley’s Cajun Cafe in Longview at 15
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Start at the bottom; it’s very hard to lead if you have never had to follow. Give your team all the credit.
Best advice ever received: Don’t take a partner that is good at the same thing as you.
Susan Miller Gruppi bio:
Birthplace: Longview, Texas
Moved to Fort Worth: In 2004 to go to TCU
Family: Jessica Miller Essl, identical twin and business partner; three other brothers; husband Brad Gruppi; daughter Elliot, 4; son Ben, 8 months
Education: Graduated from TCU with a bachelor’s in business administration, majored in finance with real estate and minored in Spanish.
Work experience: Seven years at Trademark Property Company in finance and development
Volunteer experience: Girls Inc., UTSW CDRC, board member at Cultural District Alliance, executive board member for Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce
First job: Hostess at Dudley’s Cajun Cafe in Longview at 15
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Be ready for your own individual accomplishments to mean squat. It’s all about the team. and you can’t solve anything on your own. Success is in your team’s hands, not yours. Choose wisely.
Best advice ever received: From my dad: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press On!” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” ― Calvin Coolidge
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.