*This is a work of fiction, inspired by real events
He was a beautiful man, with profound eyes filled with pools of copper and a jawline so sharp it stung to look at. I met him through mutual friends – we were at one of those free music festivals Atlanta loves to throw during the spring. “Bijan,” he answered, unsmiling, when I asked for his name.
I had to ask again to hear him over the off-tune indie band playing nearby and the surrounding cliques’ overlapping conversations. I grinned. “Does that mean you’re my hero?” I teased, playing on the Farsi meaning of the name, trying to help him relax. I know what anxiety is like. He merely grimaced and replied, “Yeah.”
My girlfriend smiled sheepishly at our exchange. “Bijan comes from Persian parents as well. I thought I’d introduce you, because Middle Easterners can only date each other, right?” That was a joke, I learned later that evening – Bijan was gay.
We went out for dinner after the festival ended. I ordered spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, while he opted for mozzarella cheese sticks and a dirty martini. “Yeah,” he said, between licking the salt off an olive, “I used to have a boyfriend. Handsome, tall fellow. A godsend in the gay community – to find a guy who wanted to be exclusive AND was ‘manly’ enough for me to take home without having to come out? Bless. Things didn’t work out, though. It is what it is.”
Bijan wasn’t actually from Atlanta. His parents lived in Nashville; he was here doing his Master’s in Public Health at Emory. He wanted to help impoverished men and women of color in urban communities with commonplace STI’s receive necessary treatment and prevention. Bijan was an intelligent student, but didn’t receive enough funding for his studies. Fortunately, his parents were wealthy enough to fund his degree, housing, and other needs while he built the foundation for his life.
I was fond of Bijan. We didn’t hang out much after that night, but we made time to get cappuccinos or go to shows a handful of times over the next few months. Those few times, we talked (argued) about religion, local occurrences, and epidemiology. I admired him for his pure intentions – he truly believed he could “make the world a better place” through his research, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles world health organizations often faced, like lack of funding or permission to send aid into certain areas. He had faith that goodness would prevail. But that faith appeared to be nonexistent when it pertained to his own life.
“Yeah, my parents have a list of women for me to meet in the occasion I don’t bring one home before I turn 27,” he’d lament. “Muslim, or Coptic Christian. They really expect me to carry the family name, because I am the ‘man of the family.’ Pardis, my only sister, is older than me, but she eloped with a guitar player a few years ago. Extraordinarily cliché, but aren’t we all? I don’t know where she is now. Anyway, they’ve cut her off and now it’s just me and Parsa, who is still in the 7th grade.”
Bijan spoke quickly, like he wanted to get a confession with a sheikh or priest over with, like I was about to assign him a punishment for simply existing. “They can’t get over the fact that they came here from Iran to have a better life, that they managed to literally go from rags to riches with their business, and they still managed to have a ‘fuck-up’ for a daughter. It puts so much pressure on me and Parsa to be great, to be venerable characters in the narrative they’ve imagined and ingrained in their heads. It’s why, despite the legalization, I will never be able to marry the man I love.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You know, I haven’t made many friends I like here. It’s hard for me to trust people. I feel like everyone lets me down. But I guess telling you all this doesn’t really make a difference.” Bijan confused me sometimes, as well, but when I prompted him for an explanation, he rarely conceded. I chose to enjoy his company, nonetheless, and take what he would give me.
I never got the sense that Bijan was a particularly happy individual, despite his aspirations and fertile inner life. Then again, very few are. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the letter I received early this year from – of all people- Bijan’s mother, stating that he had killed himself and left me a note. She didn’t write anything else, except that she hoped that Bijan hadn’t portrayed her and her husband as ‘bad people’ to me, and that they had tried their hardest to do everything they could for their beloved son.
I hope this letter reaches you well, given the circumstances. If you’re reading this, I am gone. There is nothing you could have done. I want to thank you for being a wonderful friend during the short time we knew each other. In a different life, with different neurobiology, I might have loved you more than a friend. Alas, it was not meant to be.
I write this, because I want you to know. I need to validate to myself that my act is not entirely selfish.
When I was 23, I contracted HIV from a hookup. At least, I want to think it was from a hookup. Unless my ex cheated on me, then I got it from him. It doesn’t really matter though.
Yeah, yeah, I know: HIV is incredibly treatable, to the point where it doesn’t even have to shorten your life expectancy, you just have to take antivirals and enzyme replacement therapy, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because HIV is the last straw for me. It’s the last straw on top of being atheist, on top of being gay, on top of an unforgiving world. I’ve been ready for this for years – the universe just told me it was time.
My father once said that he would rather me have cancer than an STI. I took that as indication that he would, façade and obligatory consolations aside, honestly prefer me dead than shameful. Everything about me is shrouded in shame. This, my death, is my gift to my parents: they can tell their family I died of a broken heart, of mental illness, of anything else, rather than the ugly truth. And maybe it’s true: maybe I am a product of my own relentless self-destruction, a product of gin, sex, and blasphemy.
I am not blaming anyone. Some people weren’t just meant for this world, not human enough, too human. I truly believe I will find peace after this. I’m going to sleep – for eternity.
With utmost love,
I did cry. Sobbed, in fact. And I was furious, absolutely enraged, at his casual tone in the letter. Did he not understand the depth of his actions? Did he not understand the implications for his family? His poor brother, now all alone in a cruel world?
His mother didn’t leave any contact information in her note, which is just as well. I had no desire to speak about Bijan ever again. I could only imagine how he completed the act- was it here in Atlanta? Did he blow his brains out, leaving his roommate a grotesque final image of him? I shuddered, and prayed to forget Bijan’s beautiful face.
Bijan was an astounding man that touched my life, and broke my heart with his demise. I wish his tale was a unique one, but I know it’s not, because suicide is the leading cause of death among young adults in the developed world, and I know that a high percentage of suicidal individuals never seek help, and I know that many people of color believe suicide, death, is the honorable way to go when they’ve disrespected the culture they come from.
And I wish for the next generation of humans on this planet to be more merciful to the gays, to the different, to each other, and I wish for the next generation of humans on this planet to cater to those who don’t know how to be alive in their communities, or anywhere else. I wish for a more forgiving world, one Bijan could have lived in, flaws and all.
Jane first showed symptoms with sloppy handwriting, but soon she could barely stand on her own feet as her calves felt like solid lead weights. Ms. Jane Smith* would soon be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
In the office, her vibrant personality served her colleagues with laughter and smiles. Yet, her work in the scholarship office was only the tip of the iceberg to the monumental impact she had on the Atlanta landscape—through her selfless endeavors over five decades, Ms. Smith had become one of the hardest working humanitarians for our city serving every indigent population possible. Inspired to aspire to such selfless standards, I helped put together an awareness day called Moving Day 5K Walk through the National Parkinson’s Foundation (NPF) in Atlanta alongside the Neuroscience Club (GTNeuro).
The Moving Day project was a valuable learning experience that affirmed my passion for people. This passion and fascination that I developed from working in the community with National Parkinson’s Disease and Ms. Smith turned into a desire to create change and commit to working for people. Taking ideas to the next level, thinking outside the box, and making simple ideas into tangible experiences, I found it motivating to ignite an idea to build something that can help others, putting others in front of myself.
The journey and adventure of this event was especially important to me because I realized that my passion, just like Ms. Smith, was serving people. The idea began as nothing more than a pow-wow between the GTNeuro executive team and public relations managers from NPF. We set lofty goals to raise $100,000 and to have at least 500 people come attend the event. No one in the room believed these goals would be possible–what we wanted to do was lay a small framework for a much larger event in the upcoming years.
Parkinson’s Disease wasn’t something that happened to just one person; it affected an entire community. The purpose of Moving Day would be to showcase that there is hope for the patients and the family members, and that people like Ms. Smith have our support and people rooting for them.
Teams from both GTNeuro as well as National Parkinson’s Foundation were set to execute small tasks. However, getting Moving Day off the ground from ideas on a whiteboard was a monumental hurdle–we still had to reach out to those afflicted with Parkinson’s, local businesses, and put together promotional material to gather a good crowd.
We had to recruit volunteers from Georgia Tech, contact event suppliers, and coordinate everything we did with the Georgia Tech Police Department. Even with less than four weeks before the event, we were nowhere near our goal of 500 people attending the event, 100 volunteers, or raising $100,000. Incentivizing students and adults to come out on a cold and early Saturday morning was a simple fix. Jane Smith became the rallying cause of our entire event. Her impact on Georgia Tech and Atlanta over the decades drew hundreds to our event!
My experience partnering with National Parkinson’s Foundation and helping organize this event strengthened not just my ability to communicate, think critically, and solve problems as a leader, but more importantly appreciate leadership as an art. A piece of art has been planned with great detail and complexity; each picture telling a different story, each one unique and beautiful.
So what is the different between creating a breathtaking art piece and practicing leadership? I’ve learned that no two pictures can be the same; no two leadership experiences will be similar, no two conversations with people you work with will be alike. My leadership skills gained from this fundraising event was not defined by the numerous hours of planning or meticulous meetings we had, but it was defined through the different human experiences – each unique and beautiful just like a piece of art. I have learned that in order to be an impactful leader, I cannot just strive for success, I must strive for significance – just like each picture or photo has significance.
When November 9th had come, and though some of us were worried, everyone and everything was in place: volunteers showed up an hour before the event started to set up the booths. The walkers had started lining up at the start line and the 5K walk had started. On the side, we had booths where people were doing Zumba, tango and Pilates showcasing that there are different ways to help people with Parkinson’s Disease. All tents had motor skills tables demonstrating how Parkinson’s Disease affected people.
Our event went well with over 700 people attend, 200 volunteers, and raising over $140,000 before the end. We had made a significant impact in unifying a community as well as giving people hope. We did not just lay the framework for events that could be successful in the future, we paved the way for a revolution in the Parkinson’s community.
And in Ms. Jane Smith’s words, “we strove for significance and not success because success was finite, and significance had a ripple effect that never ended.”
*The real name has been removed to protect the identity of the person due to HIPAA.
“It’s cancer.” We hear these words every day—whether it’s in reference to the lump they found in your mother’s breast, the reason you just lost a loved one, or a friend’s recent diagnosis.
This is the reason I immediately joined UGA Relay For Life when I entered college, because I was tired of living in a world where everyone seemed to have cancer. Although no one in my immediate family had cancer at the time, I was constantly exposed to the sadness and devastation cancer wreaked on the people I saw every day.
Rather than throwing in the towel, I turned my sadness and frustration into passion and determination and gave my all to Relay in hopes that my efforts would help to someday create a world with no more cancer. Part of these efforts entail visiting the Atlanta Hope Lodge, a hotel-like accommodation near Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute where cancer patients traveling long distances to receive their treatments can stay free of charge, courtesy of the American Cancer Society and the money we raise through Relay For Life.
It’s a simple visit: we cook them a hot meal, make sure their needs are met, and sit down with them for some conversation. These people confide in us, sharing their stories fully and explaining how cancer affects their lives.
When strangers—and often, friends—hear me talk about Hope Lodge, they say, “why would you do that?” Why would I subject myself to so much sadness, why I would “waste my time” trying to cheer up a bunch of sick people in my spare time?
I’ve never felt more hope than what I feel when I sit with those people. Hope Lodge residents radiate a certain hopefulness that can’t be matched. Despite their circumstances, these people maintain positive attitudes and have an appreciation for life that no one else can really understand until they’ve been in Hope Lodge residents’ shoes.
UGA Relay For Life has taught me a lot, but perhaps the most valuable lesson is to never lose my faith in the organization’s mission and most importantly, to never give up hope. When I feel defeated, whether it be from school, a job, or what have you, I think of the endless hope that those cancer patients have and I realize how thankful I am to have had this opportunity to meet such inspiring people and to fight for such a worthy cause.
I am truly blessed to be in the position that I am in now and I owe it all to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Around this time two years ago, I was in my last semester of college and similar to mostly everyone else I was trying to figure out what my next chapter in life would be in regards to my professional career. Growing up in Norcross, GA all of my life I had a pretty straightforward life. I was very fortunate enough to be in a situation where both of my parents were active throughout my life and worked tirelessly to put my brother and I in a comfortable living situation.
Like any kid growing up, I played all types of sports (basketball, football, soccer, baseball, karate, etc.) to remain active and ultimately fall in love with one. That became basketball for me. I found the game of basketball at the tender age of five playing at a local Rec Center with my brother and many of our childhood friends. I could write a whole separate post on the ups and downs I went through playing basketball throughout middle school, high school, AAU, and two years in college; but let’s just say this sport (like any) taught me valuable life lessons and gave me lifetime relationships with former teammates & coaches that I will forever cherish.
As I mentioned, I did play two years of collegiate basketball at a Division II school called Georgia College & State University before obtaining my degree at The University of Georgia. People always ask me all the time on why the switch after two years.
I was not in a situation where I could truly thrive on & off the basketball court to make the type of impact God had for me. So, I prayed long and hard about the decision to no longer pursue my “hoop dreams” of playing professionally (NBA or overseas) and focus my attention 100% on getting my degree in business.
Throughout my educational years, it was always instilled in me to get good grades. Bringing home poor grades was unacceptable in my family since day one. My grandfather, father, and uncle would always come down on me if I ever slacked because without grades there was no basketball, period. Probably due to my bloodline, I had it made up in my mind since high school once I was accepted into a college; I would pursue some type of Business Management degree. I made this decision not only because of my leadership abilities, but also because of my curiosity of the business world in general. After connecting with some of the right people, I was blessed to be accepted into UGA where I pursued a degree in Business Management, concentration in Marketing at the great Terry College School of Business.
Terry and UGA for that matter provided me with outstanding resources and tools to put me in a successful position coming out of college. After a few internships, many networking events, and a lot of self-reflecting in those two years I knew for a fact that I wanted to work in sports on the business side. I could not pinpoint in which realm but I was eager and hungry to do whatever it took to start my career in sports. Could I have easily obtained a well-paying job within another industry? Sure. Nevertheless, I know in my heart I wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy what I do on a day-to-day basis like I would working in sports.
I ended up walking in May 2014 with my degree in Business Management and accepted a summer marketing internship with EvoShield. Then, decided to go back one last semester in the fall (had to get another football season in) to take a few more marketing classes & work an internship with the Collegiate Licensing Company (IMG). My official last semester of college that fall was the most focused I had ever been in my life. I had 5 months to figure out what I was going to be doing after college.
NETWORK. NETWORK. NETWORK. Pretty cliché but that I would say was probably the main reason I was lucky enough to get an offer to join the Atlanta Hawks organization. I knew I had to step out of my comfort zone and just meet & talk with any and everybody that I could that works in the field I was driven to get into. Whether it was meeting with different people for lunch/coffee, connecting with people on LinkedIn in the industry to ask for informational interviews, or signing up for networking events in Atlanta every month, I was on it. Religiously. I am an over thinker, to a fault I guess sometimes, so I thought like man who would not want to work in sports.
There are so many kids across the world that would do anything to break into this industry so I wondered how I could set myself apart from the pack. If it was easy everybody would do it, so that’s why I decided I was going to put my head down this last semester and give everything I had to try and get a job offer with a sports company.
After those 5 months, I was offered an Inside Sales position with the Atlanta Hawks to start in January 2015. Why sales? Well simply put that was the best way to get your start in the industry. I never had what I consider a sales background so I decided to give it a shot. I remember when I was interviewing something really resonated with me; one of the senior level sales reps for the Hawks described sales as a being a life skill that we all should pursue and develop. The position I was in actually put everyone in a year contract (yet another challenging, pressure situation that I fully embraced) so we had that amount of time to prove your “worth” to the organization. After what I consider a slow start, I soon developed a passion for the grind that it took to succeed in sales.
The fast pace, competitive environment kept me motivated every day when I woke up to go out and win each day (not to mention the Hawks were having their best season in franchise history). The race to accomplish weekly/monthly sales & hustle goals to be at the top of the board compared to your peers was what kept me going every day.
There is no secret code or mystery on why certain people thrive and others do not. And here I thought at first I wouldn’t really like sales or it wasn’t going to be for me, but I simply made up a mind that I was going to give this my all and I could live with the results after. With the great help of my managers and the outstanding training program the Hawks had in place, my colleagues and I were able to succeed daily.
In closing…after about 10 months in my Inside Sales role I was promoted to a full time position in the Service & Retention Department as a Membership Services Consultant. Three of my biggest keys that I always share to anybody and that can be applied to any aspect of your life are: having faith, being consistent in whatever you do, and possessing a resilient work ethic. In that time span, I can honestly say I never had any doubts about the position God put me in. Did I go through trials and tribulations to get to where I am now? Without question.
However, no matter how tough and tiring things got (and trust me there were plenty of long nights and early mornings) I just kept telling myself to stay the course and believing that it was going to all be worth it in the end and boy it was! To say I had my life all planned out from the beginning would be a joke because I honestly believe God has His own plan for all of our lives. I just do my best through prayer and faith to follow in that path.
I got on the plane wondering why I hadn’t just blown off the idea when it came to me in February. But, that’s not how I am. Of course I went. I flew from Atlanta to Reagan National on Aug. 19 to start a semester in Washington, D.C., with the UGA Washington Semester Program.
I applied on a whim, shortly after returning from a four-day trip to the city with PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) to visit public relations agencies. I got a spot – and a scholarship for it. But after a summer spent between my home in Wyoming and studying in Oxford, England, I was ready to spend my senior year in Athens (and I thought anyone who wasn’t crazy would want the same). When I walked up out of the Metro and into the streets of Washington that February night, I found an empty city, completely snow-covered and glowing in the late night streetlights. (I look back now and realize I flew in right in the midst of “Snowpocalypse,” or whatever we dubbed that latest storm that shut down the federal government for over 24 hours.)
It was peaceful and exhilarating and made me want more. After four months in Washington this fall, I still find the city exhilarating, but for new and more intimate reasons than that wintry night in February that – though I didn’t know at the time – would alter my senior year more than I could have ever dreamed.
When Don DeMaria, the program director, interviewed me and asked why I wanted to spend four months in Washington – half of my senior year for goodness’ sake – I told him I wanted to push my limits, that I needed to push myself further than I had done yet and knew an experience like the D.C. program offered just might do that. Washington is a city like no other, as anyone who has spent time there will tell.
I think everyone feels a little bit of ownership over the city after living there, and those who really love it seem to connect with it immediately. I saw that in some of my housemates, and occasionally I felt it myself. But regardless of how strongly the city tugs at your heart, my four months in Washington opened my eyes, and I’m so grateful. The program itself took up most of my time. I worked full-time as an intern at a boutique public relations and strategic communications agency on K Street (which, as I learned, is essentially the heart of lobbying and communications in Washington), and I took three classes a week after work.
As an athlete, I’m used to having most of my day taken up by class, practice, workouts, and mandatory appointments, but it was still a massive adjustment. For some absurd reason, sitting at a computer in a window-less office from 9am to 6pm every single day is completely exhausting. I’d come home drained, and the only thing that got me through class was the fact that I was doing it with the housemates who quickly became my best friends.
We lived in Delta Hall, a three-story colonial home just a stone’s throw from the Capitol building (okay, not really, but it was no more than a quarter mile). That’s still surreal to me. There were 23 students in the program, and a good number of those people became some of the closest friends I’ve made in my entire life. We jokingly called our group “The Real World: D.C.,” (not as funny now but we thought it was kinda good) but I don’t think we had any idea during that first week or so just how much we would come to know about each other, laugh with each other, roll hysterically on the floor with each other (I’m talking to you, Cydney), and love each other.
But it’s true. I’m so grateful for the time I spent with my housemates, because I’m pretty sure it was their influence and friendship that changed me the most of anything I experienced that semester. We found more adventures than I can summarize in a short blog.
We saw the Nats play, we went camping in Shenandoah National Park, we (a select and crazy few – that’s you, Rob) called the National Mall our “regular” run route and saluted Lincoln on the days we felt good enough to run six, we went to New York, and we felt like we belonged in the city after a just few weeks of exploring. In fact, it kind of felt like the adventure never ended – even in the house. I’m a social person, but at the end of the day, I like to be alone. Whether that’s as boring and lonely as it sounds or whether it’s the romanticized introvert’s paradise of nighttime reading and quiet meditation, it’s what I like. But living in close quarters with my housemates changed the way I spent my time. For four months, it didn’t matter if I went to bed at a decent hour or had two Monsters after 10 p.m. (gross, I know) and woke up totally ragged.
When I was angry or just tired of being around people after a long day at work, walking into the house to find those friends became the best part of my day. I have no doubt that luck played a role in it, but the group of people in the house that semester was the most unique, talented, dynamic, misfit collection of people in the world and we found a rhythm and bond that I really don’t think comes that often.
I’ve never met people so incredibly challenging and motivating yet effortlessly loving and fun and inviting. Without that group I know my semester would have been much less positive, and I probably wouldn’t look back at Washington with the warmth and love that I do now. They helped form the support from which I used my experiences there, both positive and negative, to evaluate who I am (to the extent that any 20-something can do that) and what I think I want.
I applied for the Peace Corps. I applied to graduate school. I almost applied for a job teaching English at a sustainable alternative high school in the Bahamas (and I would have, had its start date not conflicted with graduation). I called about working as a housekeeper on National Geographic’s Lindblad Expedition cruises.
I thought about a lot of different things, mostly because I quickly – very quickly – realized that I’m not going to be happy spending my life at a desk (unless it’s a writing desk that’s covered in coffee stains and books, in front of a window looking out on pines and mountains, but that’s another post).
So while I went to Washington to, essentially, “figure it out,” I left feeling completely lost, having abandoned any hopes I had had of following a traditional career path. But, at the same time, something changed for me personally, and I’m okay with that. I love not knowing what agency I’ll be at or how I want to use my degree, or if I’ll even “work” at all (ha! Isn’t that an idea?). Washington isn’t just full of productive politicians who want to change the world; it’s full of productive people.
That may sound like a trivial difference, but Washington is so much more than the people in suits and the big, white buildings that identify the city. What I saw when I lived there was thousands – millions – of people who were energized, determined, and living to do something important. But, most importantly, each of them had a different and very unique idea of what her purpose was and what was driving her as an individual.
I saw this in my housemates most strongly. Each person was so incredibly different from the next, and comparing one’s passions and successes to another’s was out of the question. Yet, we were all on paths toward what I believe will be overwhelming fulfillment in ways as unique and personal as we are. They showed me that what one person lives for may excite absolutely nothing in another, and that’s okay. It’s really great.
I realized, too, that what lights that fire in my life doesn’t have to be working at Edelman in New York City or starting the world’s greatest nonprofit in a developing country. My path can be (will be) totally unique, and there’s no timetable for creating it. In fact, there is no “creating” it nor is there even “finishing” it; there is only living it. I’m on my path now, and I’ll be on the same path in twenty years.
It may twist and turn and take me places I couldn’t even dream of at this moment, but one thing will remain: it will always be my own. Morgan Beavers is a senior at the University of Georgia studying public relations and English. She rides on the NCAA Women’s Equestrian team and calls Wyoming home. Morgan has a passion for horses, the mountains, words, and all things wild.
When I was a boy, my family didn’t earn a lot of money. I had two older brothers, and my Dad, or “Deddy” as we call him, got a late start on his career as a rural mail carrier. My Mom rarely worked a job but rather spent every waking hour raising her 3 rambunctious sons. It’s funny how material things don’t matter to a passionate young boy. I was always into something, always creating, always playing, and my childhood was filled with mostly positive thoughts, something that came natural to me.
Perhaps the greatest memories from those years was not of little league baseball, or riding the school bus through the winding back roads of Franklin County, or fall festivals at New Franklin Christian Church; it was the time that I spent working in my Grandpa’s 3 acre peach orchard every summer.
He’s had that for as long as I can remember and even to this day as Alzheimer’s has crept in, it’s still there. My brothers and I would wake up early and ride up to the orchard with my mom in one of our old beat-around cars and we’d spend most of our time there playing or watching a small black and white television that was tucked away amongst cobwebs and dry-rotted peach baskets in the back of our roadside stand.
Our earliest chore was picking up rotten peaches that had fallen to the ground and hauling them to a spot on the property as far away from the trees as possible. When we turned 12 or so, we were allowed into the picking crew, an outfit that consisted of Grandpa and a revolving door of great uncles and members of our local church. V.F. was the leader and picking peaches was his cup of tea so to speak. He had an extra pep in his step during harvest season because the entire year culminated during that time.
And while his mind was focused on peaches, he never shied from sharing life stories and nuggets of his infinite wisdom with us. He’d grown up during the Great Depression, wasn’t allowed to play football because football was during cotton picking season, moved to Atlanta at age 18, worked at the Varsity and Rich’s, married my Grandma at the courthouse in Jackson, GA, and raised my dad and uncle for a decade in Smyrna before returning home to Franklin County.
He worked a day shift at a factory in Athens and spent the evenings working in his beloved peach orchard. And up until a year or so ago, you’d be hard pressed to drive down New Franklin Church Road near Canon, GA, and not see him out there, doing what he loved.
Anyone around him could feel it and it was contagious. It made waking up early every hot summer day worthwhile, and it brought us all closer together.
So when I started Peach State Pride in January of 2009, it meant a whole lot more to me than a logo or a clothing brand. It was, and still is, a deep passion for who I am, where I’m from, and what it takes to be a great steward of what I’ve been given. When people think about Peach State Pride, I hope something substantial resonates with them, something deeper than a logo or a favorite hat.
I’m not sure why I was lucky enough to stumble upon my passion a couple years after graduating from college. I’d almost all but fallen into the idea that my life was going to be a grind; a career that I couldn’t wait to retire from. I was working a couple of travelling labor jobs that took me all over the country and put me side by side with some rough folks that gave me a good old fashioned baptism into the real world. I got a steady dose of life lessons in those first few years.
I spent a year or two building playgrounds in what seemed like every small town in South Carolina. Each town we’d travel to, whether it was in the Low Country, Upstate, or Pee Dee region, you’d see the Palm Tree and Crescent Moon.
Naturally my first thought was that I wished Georgia had something like that, so during some downtime I sketched out a peach logo of my own and began the dreaming process. I literally never looked back. My dreams were big from day 1 and I’ve never lost sight of its potential.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the growth of Peach State Pride from a logo on a scratch sheet of paper to a multi million dollar operation, is how my business knowledge was even more modest than that scratch sheet of paper. I was the son of mailman, not a businessman; I was a history major, and at that particular time I was a construction worker trying to figure out my life. I wasn’t prepared to run a business.
The first few years were difficult; filled with long days, failed sales trips, foolish moments, naive thoughts, bad hires (and good hires), bad purchases (a screen printer), lack of funds, lack of direction, and just about every learning experience you can face when starting a business. But through it all, the business grew and I was always able to survive the day. And to top it all off, I married well.
My beautiful wife, Kari Beth, is a Georgia Tech grad with a Management Degree and a focus in Marketing. She also worked in the corporate world for a couple years. I’m not real sure what she saw in a construction worker with unidentified life goals, but I’m glad that she did. Not only are we best friends, but she’s also the reason we are where we are today.
Kari Beth has single handedly implemented systems and structure into our business that have allowed me to continue to dream big, network, be creative, and grow Peach State Pride. It has allowed us to open 3 successful retail stores in Northeast Georgia. The most recent, Empire South Athens, is a 4,000 square foot space Downtown on Clayton Street. She brought corporate structure to a small business, allowing us to grow more seamlessly.
Through it all, I’ve been able to work side by side with our employees, and hopefully they feel invited into the dream, just as I felt with Grandpa. I go to work with passion, speak in meetings with passion, and make every decision possible with passion.
Being an entrepreneur is not unlike being a passionate young kid. You just follow your heart and it takes you places. And when you’re zealous for what you do, the embarrassing moments or difficult obstacles can’t stop you from achieving your goal. My goal has always been to stay connected to that old man in the peach orchard no matter where Peach State Pride or Empire South takes us, that my heart will never forget where I’m from and who I represent.
Thank you to My Athens for making this possible as we highlight incredible people and wind down 2015.