May 17, 2021
Co-founders, Mona Lisa Development
By Kirk Pinho | Crain’s Detroit Business
They grew up together and went to college together. Now they live together and have a development, general contracting and consulting firm together.
Not much can separate Monique Becker and Elyse Wolf, who have been best friends since they were 4 years old. Even the name of their company, Detroit-based Mona Lisa Development, is a combination of their first names, a testament to their lifelong bond.
The two University of Michigan graduates have also accumulated a small portfolio of rental housing, eight units so far. Five are done and occupied, referred to as naturally occurring affordable housing, in the Virginia Park neighborhood, and three are under construction and expected to be completed in the coming months.
In the two or so years since starting the company and leaving their full-time jobs, Becker, who was born in Detroit, and Wolf have invested over $500,000 in the neighborhood.
“We really always have been kind of attached at the hip,” Becker said. “We always wanted to start a business together, but really didn’t know how that would manifest.”
By the time the pair moved to the city, they became interested in real estate development. Becker has spent time as a teacher as well as working for Detroit-based development firms The Platform LLC and Shelborne Development. Wolf was with Eastern Market Corp. and then Meridian Health Plan.
They have since shed those jobs, instead running Mona Lisa full time after Becker went through a Peter Allen real estate class at UM and Chase Cantrell’s Building Community Value development training program.
“Her term project was on the house we live in today,” Wolf said. “That was the first house that we bought. We were just renovating it and putting our salaries into the house, renovating after hours and on weekends, and then we bought our second house and did the same thing there. And it was after that second project where we said, ‘OK, I think we are really onto something. We are going to make that jump and pursue this business full time, or it’s never gonna be something that is going to amount to a full-scale business.’”
All that laid the foundation for a growing company, which grew its revenue by more than 250 percent between 2019 and 2020 and has hired a full-time employee and two part-time workers.
The two are also active in the community in which they live, advocating for a fresh approach to neighborhood development in Virginia Park, where New York-based developer Ron Castellano’s Herman Kiefer hospital complex and neighborhood improvement project has yet to materialize as promised.
“We really kind of started to organize the summer of 2020 around this kind of reckoning that this isn’t just an isolated issue or a neighborhood grievance against the developer,” Becker said. “This is a systemic problem where we’re seeing who’s given the opportunity to purchase land, who’s being given the green light in terms of having capacity to impact change in the neighborhoods, this difference between kind of one sole savior of a community who is very well resourced versus many different folks chipping away at one house or three houses or something like that at a time. It’s really a more grassroots way of approaching neighborhood development.”