Follow me for a bi-weekly series of conversations with Social Entrepreneurs who are transforming our world through innovation and positive disruption.
I recently sat down with Ryan Wilson, the founder and owner of The Gathering Spot in Atlanta, Georgia. Ryan is not only a businessman but a social entrepreneur and urban place-maker who is disrupting the good ‘ol boy country club model for greater community impact.
Shawn: Ryan, where did the idea for the Gathering Spot come from?
Ryan: I went to Georgetown law school and had the full intention of practicing law. But, they say, don’t look at your job, look at the job down the hall. And I did that. I paid attention to the partner that had hired me and I saw that I just didn’t ever really want to do his job. And so I started to pivot off of that.
The first paper that I wrote, it was called “Bridge Builders” as the original name for the business. It was this concept of, “what does it look like to bring a bunch of different types of people under shared space?” Over time with one of my college roommates, the original concept morphed into The Gathering Spot. Today, we exist as a private club in Atlanta.
Shawn: Describe the gathering spot for us.
Ryan: From a space perspective, The Gathering Spot is divided into three parts: event space – where we host private functions and curate events, restaurant and bar, and then co-working space. My passion for the business though exists way beyond the space and is really about the people that are there day to day. We have curated a really interesting group that comes together between business professionals that are there in the city, the creative community, whether it’s music, film, or radio where people are creating all different forms of content, and then a lot of entrepreneurs that are building some of the most exciting companies that are in the city. So, we activate them through programs specific to members at the club, but also through does day-to-day interactions and using the space. If you come visit, you’ll experience a buzz of connectivity that exists between the people that are there all with the shared goal of creating a community.
Shawn: What’s the mission for The Gathering Spot? What issue are you trying to solve? What problems are you trying to address in our communities?
Ryan: It’s a really big problem but in our community, there haven’t been enough spaces. If you look outside of the church, which is historically been the main place people in our community had been brought together, there aren’t a ton of other spaces where we’ve been able to build with on another. It’s a very simple goal but it is purely about connectivity and providing community. You’ll see that experience at most college campuses – people from all over that are studying different things and have different ambitions. But after you graduate from that environment, there aren’t really a ton of places as an adult for you to have that same sort of connectivity. So we’re trying to provide framework to solve that problem. We want to house the conversation and provide different ways for people to connect. Past that, this business is an example of what happens when you shine a spotlight on the good work that people are doing because it attracts others that are doing it as well.
Shawn: I love the concept of curating those collisions. When I walk through The Gathering Spot I see these collisions happening between startups, funders, artists, corporate folks, whatever it is. You just see these natural collisions happening.
Ryan: That to me is one of the most exciting parts about the business. I have this really fundamental idea that you have to be in shared space and community with people. It’s an old school idea in many ways because we’ve placed so much emphasis on digital connections. But there’s research that supports this. 87% of all jobs today are still received through face-to-face contact. You eventually have to meet people. And so, you will see people colliding. That’s how the space is designed: for you to walk in for one reason and come out with an entirely different connection that you made.
Shawn: As a social entrepreneur you understand the double bottom line. You realize you can “do good and do well” simultaneously. Why did you decide to go with this bridge building, diverse mesh-up versus a bigger better country club to make as much money as [you] can?
Ryan: I don’t believe in many of the rules that have been established [on] what a traditional club is supposed to provide. Not following that framework has allowed us to do a lot of different things. We host a ton of political and social justice oriented conversations. Whether it’s trying to get people information that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to access to or creating opportunities for people to participate in whatever new is happening in the city. On the other side of that coin, the day before this past Thanksgiving, we closed the entire club and we brought in 200+ families that were veterans and seniors and people that were going to spend the holiday alone. That’s not a country club thing.
Also, 20% of all food that’s brought into a restaurant is thrown away and we host a lot of functions day to day with all the biggest brands. So, we really started to study that problem and realized there’s no reason we should be throwing away this food. Is there a way to repurpose it? So, every day we partner with a local school and feed the students (the entire student population at that school) dinner every single day. So, I absolutely believe that it’s possible to gather for social and professional business reasons, but you can also find opportunities to help people. If you’re not doing that, then what’s really the point?
Shawn: Part of being a social entrepreneur, we think with our head and our heart. So we’ve been talking about the heart, but thinking from the head, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, describe your business model.
Ryan: It was really important for us to establish a business model that we thought was sustainable. So, membership dues and fees are significant for us. We host a lot of events. The private events that we host make up a significant percentage of our revenue. And we have a restaurant. From the beginning, we wanted to establish that this business needed to be profitable. So, we were profitable in our first year. We’re in an interesting environment right now where there are a lot of businesses. Every business has its own process and cycle that you got to go through. But at the end of the day, a business has to care for its expenses. At some point you have to solve that problem, right? Now, there are a lot of businesses that are being funded, but there are a ton that we interact with on a daily basis, that have not solved that problem and don’t see overly interested in solving the issue.
Shawn: Did you ever consider being a nonprofit versus a for-profit?
Ryan: Early on we thought about it but I believe it’s possible to be a business that is trying to drive a return for your investors and also doing good work as long as you’re transparent with your investors. I actually think in many ways it’s helpful to the business because you’re able to talk transparently about your values.
I’ll be honest with you; it can be difficult working with nonprofits because there is a mentality that being a nonprofit somehow equates to less problems. And for me, that’s super frustrating. There are massive nonprofits that run the organization like a business and if you spend more time trying to chase your next dollar, a lot of times you’re not able to do the work. At the end of the day, being a nonprofit is just a tax designation. It doesn’t speak to how you operate the business day-to-day. We have to uncouple that idea and really introduce people that care about different issues.