We had the good fortune of connecting with Kevin Ervin Kelley and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Kevin Ervin, how does your business help the community?
As a 28-year old innovation-design firm, Shook Kelley focuses on finding innovative ways to bring people together in the public realm. We typically find that activity best happens at the intersections of where commerce and community meet. Public places, such as restaurants, bars, grocery stores, shopping districts, or even theaters and symphonies, have historically done an excellent job of convening people. Of course, many of those places are on pause now with the pandemic, but that behavior will come back soon enough as the act of gathering in groups is in our DNA.

For thousands of years, people have had an innate desire to assemble in public forums that feel safe—physically, socially, and emotionally—to inhabit. As a species, humans are social animals, and we need to see, meet, read, and communicate with other people using our senses—such as our eyes, ears, smells, and voices.
We learn how to behave in society by watching others interact, engage, and communicate in the public realm. We discover how to be a kid, parent, grandparent, spouse, or first-time dater by watching others meet in public. But when all that learning happens online in chat rooms or on Twitter, we cannot read others’ body language or see how our words impact them. We become less communal and empathetic and more divisive and separate, which should concern all of us.
While technology does an excellent job of keeping us in our homes and on the couch binge-watching Netflix, surfing the internet, and having all our food delivered to the door, there’s more to life than apps, screens, and even your place of residence.
But we are concerned that Americans spend an average of 11 hours a day on some screen and not around other humans. And our mission as a firm is to create places that offer people compelling, safe, and rewarding reasons to go out in public to meet and interact with your neighbors, friends, family, and even strangers. This social activity makes us a better species and a more pro-social society while supporting local businesses.
While online entities dominate the buying side of humans—which is transaction/commodity-focused—physical places tap into the shopping side of our minds, which is more about social engagement, recreation, adventure, discovery, escape, and community.

Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
When my partner and I started our business in 1992, the country was coming out of a brutal recession, accelerated by the Savings & Loan Crisis. During a visit to one of the local banks to see if we could get a loan for some office equipment, one of the bank’s advisors asked us if we knew how many design firms there were in our hometown of Charlotte, NC. We told him we didn’t know. He informed us there were 121 design firms in our community. And then he asked us, somewhat sarcastically, “Do you really think the city needs another design firm? We said, “Yes! They do! There’s always room for one more talented group of hardworking professionals.”

This businessman was one of many doubters we encountered along our journey. Our first office was in my hot, windowless, attic space with a cat and an allergic business partner. Our second office was in an old abandoned warehouse district in a small cinderblock space that looked like a prison cell. We made desks out of door tops and tables out of leftover construction site materials. There were extension cords stretched at hip-height all over the space. Like a scene out of a laser burglar alarm system, you had to know how to step over the chords not to unplug them, and the temperamental computer server. Having a client over for a meeting was a little embarrassing, but we had to make do with what we had.
When we met with the landlord of that abandoned complex to inquire about expanding into the unoccupied space next door, he told us no because he didn’t think we would make it. So we left shocked and went to another blighted area. We then transformed that blighted area into one of North America’s most successful urban district success stores. That area is known today as South End in Charlotte.
All said, we met a lot of doubters along the way of starting and growing our business. But we never lost faith in who we were or what we could do with our scrappy but hardworking and innovative team. We stuck to our vision of combining design, branding, and social science into one integrated process we call Convening.
We now have bi-coastal offices—one in Charlotte and the other in L.A. And a list of impressive client names such as Harley Davidson, Whole Foods, Kraft, Coca Cola, Smucker, Cadbury, Kroger, Gelson’s, Save Mart, and many other notable brand names and developers around the U.S.
The lesson for startups: Don’t let the doubters steal your dreams or shake your confidence.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
We work primarily with consumer-based companies that are scattered all over the U.S. and Asia. However, many clients only know about L.A. from what they’ve seen on T.V., which isn’t always a fair or accurate representation of our diverse city.

My team and I make it a point to give our clients a comprehensive L.A. tour they won’t forget. Many of them are interested in seeing where mainstream culture is happening. And by the time we’re finished with showing them around our city, we’re always amazed at how much they tell us they now love L.A. and intend to come back with their families for a visit.
Where do we usually take them?
For the first-timers to L.A., we like to take them down to Santa Monica for a stroll around the beach. We then head down to Abbot Kinney to see the local shops and the funky beach crowd in Venice. We typically end up having lunch somewhere in Culver City. We’ll take a quick swing through Beverly Hills and then to Melrose Place and Melrose Avenue. Of course, they need to see The Grove and the old Famer’s Market. The main street on Larchmont Blvd is always an excellent place to walk around, and a quick drive through the canopy of trees in Hancock Park. And by nighttime, we usually end up in downtown L.A., Little Tokyo, or the Arts District.
To truly get a sense of L.A. culture, we typically like our clients to experience some of the great ethnic foods in L.A., such as Korean, Mexican, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Vietnamese, Armenian, Japanese, and more.
If we have more time, we take them to the beach cities, Pasadena, Silver Lake, Eagle Rock, and many other great places to see in the greater L.A. region.

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’m so glad to have a job at the firm I co-founded in 1992 because I am not sure I could get a job there now. Why? Because my co-workers are so incredibly smart, talented, and driven to succeed that I’m not sure I’d make the cut.

But I am beyond grateful to get to work with such a passionate and caring group of professionals that leave me in awe every day I’m around them.

Website: https://www.shookkelley.com
Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kevinervinkelley/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/aia_kevin
Other: https://medium.com/@kevinervinkelley

Image Credits
Healther Gildroy

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