CEO Stories: Re-imagining Baltimore’s 19th Century Buildings for the 21st
PARTNERS IN VISION
Thibault and Lola Manekin are using their shared passion for entrepreneurialism and social change to create spaces that bring together disparate parts of the community. For immigrant Lola, it’s taken form in her Movement Lab, which she is using to help redefine the conversation around physical activity and fitness. For Baltimore native Thibault, it’s about developing properties that do everything from providing housing for teachers to creating a space to launch the city’s up-and-coming chefs.
TEARING DOWN WALLS, NOT BUILDINGS
With his father, Thibault co-founded Seawall Development in 2006, with the conviction that real estate development could be a means of uniting people rather than dividing them. Their first project was to help Teach for America participants acclimate to Baltimore with affordable housing. Their novel approach to rent—letting teachers decide how much they could afford, rather than charging market rates—proved to be a critical lesson in giving stakeholders more ownership in a project. Among Seawall’s other missions: To preserve and restore historical buildings rather than replace them, and to provide affordable or free space for nonprofits. Next on their agenda: Their most Lexington Market, a multi-use space in a challenging part of downtown Baltimore.
Seawall has always prided itself on doing things in a nontraditional way, whether it’s financing, renting, or rescuing buildings other people have abandoned, either literally or figuratively. They use that approach to employment as well. Rather than look for people with experience in development, they seek out people who aren’t bogged down be legacy thinking and can bring fresh perspectives and new ideas.
This Is Capitalism: Thibault and Lola Manekin
RH: This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman. Is there such a thing as entrepreneurial love? After visiting Thibault and Lola Manekin, I’m inclined to think there is. Because in talking to Thibault, cofounder of a remarkable property development firm called Seawall, and his wife, Lola, who created a wildly popular space known as Movement Lab, I learned about an entrepreneur’s love for the city of Baltimore, an entrepreneur’s love for teachers and abandoned buildings from the 19th century, and for clients and residents of all shapes and colors and sizes.
I first met Thibault and Lola at R-House, which used to be a car dealership in a North Baltimore neighborhood called Remington. Upstairs is Lola’s creation, Movement Lab; downstairs, on the ground floor, is a kind of food court, Thibault’s creation. But really it’s a concept kitchen for 11 up-and-coming local chefs. It’s all quite an entrepreneurial love story.
Thibault, when you look at Lola the entrepreneur, what do you see?
TM: I see a beautiful warrior, someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of “no” or “can’t,” someone who has not had the easiest path to get to where she’s gotten and I see my inspiration in life.
RH: Tell me about that “not the easiest path.”
LM: I think it’s mostly by being an immigrant, moving to the United States and do what most immigrants do, just work in restaurants and cleaning houses and babysitting. So it was a slow process and it took a lot of commitment and a lot of just dreaming and continuing the vision, a lot of patience too.
RH: Take me back to when you were growing up in Florianopolis—one of the great beach destinations in all of Brazil—did you have entrepreneurial ideas growing up?
LM: The first memory that I have is that I used to do these little bracelets with my cousins and we would spend the whole afternoon knocking in the entire neighborhood houses trying to sell them for like a penny or something and we did that almost everyday. [Laughs.]
RH: So she had the DNA.
TM: Oh she’s got it, alright. She’s also a middle child and I don’t know that either of her two siblings are as entrepreneurial and she was just going to prove that no matter what she was going to pave her own way.
RH: But the middle child is supposed to be the peacemaker.
LM: That’s one way of looking at it. [Laughter.]
RH: When you came to this country you were doing the typical immigrant jobs. Why did you come to the U.S. and why did you come to Baltimore?
LM: So first I actually ended up in Florida. There is this program that they bring immigrant students from all over the world to come and work for four months and just have regular jobs—key stations, beach clubs. And then I came and I did the four months and it was time to go back home but I had finished college so I decided to stay and I. … My college in Brazil was in natural therapies so I started massage school in Florida and got my license there; started doing massages.
So it was just…there was nothing really in Brazil that was waiting for me to come back. But in one of the trips back just to visit my family, this guy was there on a surf trip. And we met in this Mexican bar two days before I was supposed to come back, one day before he was supposed to come back, and then we exchanged e-mails and phone numbers and we dated—Baltimore, Florida—for about nine months. The whole nine months he kept like, “please move, please move.” So eventually I did.
RH: That explains Baltimore.
LM: Exactly. It’s the only reason why! [Laughter.]
RH: We’ve moved inside because it was getting chilly outdoors. Now let’s flip the question. Lola, of all of Thibault’s projects, you’re familiar with all of them, you’ve been here since the beginning of Seawall when you arrived in Baltimore in fact…
RH: Is there one that impresses you the most or warms your heart the most?
LM: Yes. I love Miller’s Court. I think that I love that the most because it was the very first project that they have started and in some ways Thibault had a similar story where they fell in love with this building and every single person who has been in the development, in business, have tried to convince him and his dad to not do it. Apparently, it was one of the most dangerous corners in Baltimore. But they were so in love with it and they were so committed.
At the same time, my father-in-law working in the education system and seeing the need of more affordable houses for teachers. … So they always figure out a way, they figure out with that building to make it happen selflessly, with a bigger intention behind it when they proved to themselves and to other people that they could do it. And then they had this moment of realizing that all the projects could look that way with a bigger vision and a bigger heart behind every single thing. And that’s what I love about their vision and Seawall too.
RH: Let’s go back to Miller’s Place, when you first saw the property.
TM: We had understood that teachers were having a hard time finding affordable places to live, that they wanted to live together because they were having such a time acclimating into Baltimore if they were new to the city and to the school system. And we were looking for little four-unit apartment buildings or little 5,000-square-foot office buildings for a couple nonprofit organizations.
And a friend of ours called us—Sam Policof—I’ll never forget, and he was like “you’ve got to come and meet me on the corner of Howard and 26th Street in the neighborhood of Remington.” I had never heard of this neighborhood before and I grew up four miles from here. He explained that there was a forgotten old building, it was over a hundred years old, it had been vacant for over 30 years, and that some fancy developers from DC had bought it, they weren’t able to get past the neighborhood because they had tried to shove their idea down the neighborhood’s throat without really collaborating and the neighborhood had pretty much stalled them every step of the way.
He said that the bank was taking back the note and was beginning to foreclose on the developer. I didn’t know what a note was at the time, I didn’t know what foreclosure meant. I remember going and looking him up after the phone call with Sam and met him and the banker there on the corner of Howard and 26th street 12 years ago, 11 years ago, and we walked through this building with like rats the size of small dogs scurrying in and out of holes, three-quarters of the roof had collapsed in, you couldn’t walk through the majority of this four story building for fear of falling down to the ground floor. There were mattresses all over the place and heroin needles and empty booze bottles and elaborate graffiti.
And the whole time this banker in this suit and tie is just like, “You guys are crazy, like, what are you even doing here?” But we fell in love with the building, you know? Like we had completely tuned him out during our tour and it had this gorgeous wood timber… these massive window openings that had been completely boarded up, these high ceilings and this endless possibility if you could look past the rubble and the mess and all the rhetoric that people said wasn’t possible.
We walked through it in total all that day. And after the banker and my buddy Sam had left, we knew that that was going to be the place for the first project.
RH: How old was that building at the time?
TM: Oh 150 years old, at least. Yeah. It was the former home of the HF Miller & Son tin can manufacturing facility and at one point the fourth-largest tin can manufacturer in the country. And I think in like 1950 they realized that making tin cans out of a four-story, obsolete old building in the middle of some neighborhood in Baltimore city probably wasn’t the most effective use of time. There were a couple of odd tenants that had filled it for maybe 20 or so years after that, after they vacated the building, but for the most part it had sat vacant for about 30 years before we actually purchased it and began the process of bring it back to life.
RH: And how long did it take?
TM: It took about two years from the time we bought it, and we were moving pretty quickly, until the time we financed it, designed it. and built it.
RH: You co-founded Seawall Development with your dad in 2006. I saw something in a bio of you that I found really interesting. The quote is, “In 2006, Thibault moved back to Baltimore to consider what it means to be a real estate developer.” Now in your father’s case and in your case, what does it mean?
TM: I have this vision of uniting the world and bringing people together. That’s just been deeply rooted within my psyche since I was a little kid. I don’t exactly know where it comes from, at some point I’m going to figure that out. But our idea with real estate was that real estate is the most powerful connected industry on the planet. It touches every single one of us, every single moment.
Ray, you and Lola and I are sitting in a building that was brought together through real estate. The roads that we drive on are like carefully planned-out through folks that have something to do with real estate. You’re going to go back to your house or your apartment later tonight, that has something to do with real estate. The grocery stores you’re going to go to, every single moment of every single one of our days is touched by real estate in some form or fashion.
But instead of being this amazing force to unite people it’s been this amazing force to divide us. Right? Real estate through red-lining and apartheid and all of these other uses of the built environment around the world have torn societies apart. So when I came back to Baltimore and my dad and I had this idea of starting a real estate company, like he was very clear and I was very clear that we wanted to re-imagine the industry. For us it was about using the built environment to empower communities, to unite cities and to help launch really powerful ideas. And everything that we’ve ever done, everything that we’ve ever touched has started with that question and that philosophy behind it.
RH: Now this stems although not directly, from the family business, the Manekin Corporation, the development firm around Baltimore, that was started by your grandfather.
TM: Yes. My grandfather and his brother started a real estate company at the end of the Second World War when they both came back to Baltimore. It started very organically, they did some leasing and it grew because of their approach to life in the business. For them it was never about the transaction. It was a hundred percent about the relationship. And they treated every person they ever touched, they ever came into contact with, with this tremendous love.
And as a result of that, people started to really trust them and ask them to do things that were way outside of their comfort zone. They grew up very poor, the two of them. My grandfather lived in a two-bedroom apartment and shared a room with his five or six brothers and sisters. Their dad ran a grocery store on the first floor and they hustled incredibly hard and they just had this deep belief that if they treated people really fairly and they didn’t look at a deal as a transaction that the end of the day it might work out.
So my dad, when he graduated from college, he had all intentions of going into public education. That has always been his passion. And he took an internship over a summer before he graduated and spent a bunch of time watching his dad in action and realized that it wasn’t this business around trying to make as much money as quickly as possible at all costs. It really was about creating deep relationships and listening and helping companies grow and taking the mystery out of where they could work to enable them to become even more successful at the things that they were taking on.
RH: And your dad retired in the year 2000, right? And between 2000 and 2002, remade Baltimore city schools, right?
TM: Well, retired is an interesting way to describe what happened to my dad. He was on our family vacation that summer and he got a call from a friend of his, a board member on the City School Commission, Bill Strover. And Bill cut right to the chase and asked my dad if he wanted to become the chief operating officer of the Baltimore City School System. The school system in Baltimore was upside down, it was almost a billion-dollar a year industry. My dad didn’t have the foggiest idea on what he would do or how he would help. And then Bill just flat out posed the question.
My dad I think hung up the phone, I think he came out, we were sitting down at dinner, and I think he kind of shared the content of the phone call and the next morning realized that it was his life dream. And even though he had no idea what he was doing, that he had put his time into real estate and that he was ready for this next chapter of his life, which was always his first chapter. I mean he’s this deep believer in “there is no better investment than an investment in our future and that’s our kids.”
I wouldn’t say that he retired at all. If anything, he asked my mom for permission to not see his family for two years. And look, we were all kind of grown by that point and it was the perfect time in his personal and professional life to be able to commit to that. He went all in, twenty-four hours a day almost, felt like seven days a week to wrap his arms around how he could help kids and education in Baltimore City.
RH: And he succeeded in a two-year time.
TM: He succeeded. He would never tell you that he succeeded, he would tell you that the team of people, these guardian angels came out of the woodwork and they succeeded. He is the master at bringing his friends on together to understand the problem, the opportunity, the solution, and what things ought to be like. And he brought on this amazing group of people that had different experiences in all these different sectors that could touch the school system in one form or fashion.
And the group of them rolled up their sleeves, wouldn’t take no for an answer, and charged forward with this belief that kids deserve better educations than what they were currently getting. Yeah, they turned it around. I think they were deep in the red when he started and he ended up getting them back in the black, hiring a replacement for himself. His was always a two-year interim position…was his commitment, and he was able to right the ship.
RH: And it’s because of that experience that when you started Seawall Development you were looking for affordable properties for teachers. Explain that connection to me.
TM: Yeah, so my dad had spent those two years working closely with teachers. In addition to his role at the school system, he was also the chair of the local Teach For America board and in that capacity he was touching dozens if not hundreds of teachers, if not thousands of teachers, every single year. And he kept hearing over and over again that they were showing up to Baltimore for the first time without the foggiest understanding of what the neighborhoods look like, where they wanted to live, and they were making poor living decisions. They only had about five days to figure out a million things, including where they would live.
They kept saying to him, and to others, how great would it be if there was a centrally located, really affordable, kind of funky, cool, apartment building that would be set aside for teachers so that when they come home after the hardest days of their lives or the best days of their lives, they’d have a shoulder to cry on, a hug waiting for them, someone to laugh with, so that they could focus a hundred percent of their energy and attention on the kids in the classroom without having to worry about where to live.
And he just kept hearing that over and over again. And if there’s one thing my dad does really well, it’s listen. And the more he heard it, the more he understood that there was an opportunity to help bring that idea to life that these teachers had. It got coupled with this idea that there was all these nonprofits focused on kids and education as well, groups like Baltimore Urban Debate League and Play Works, that were housed in dozens of buildings all over town. At the end of the day they were all focused on the well being of kids and education but they didn’t have the ability to collaborate organically. [Garbled.]because they were all kind of housed under one roof.
And that concept started to emerge too. I know I talked a little bit about how he was looking for a five-thousand square-foot building to put a couple nonprofits together in and it turned into a hundred-thousand square-foot building that in all honesty we had no business even jumping into and ended up providing great space for both teachers and nonprofit folks on kids and education.
RH: And you give them a break?
TM: We were able to back into the economics of the whole deal. So in addition to the teachers designing their own apartments and choosing their own amenities that they thought that they needed in order to succeed in the classroom, we let them choose their own rent. A lot of people thought that was a bad idea but it’s amazing how honest people are when you present them with a really tough question. And they gave us a rent that I think—at like $800-$850 a month, that’s what they thought they could afford—is probably half the price of what market rate would be.
And we went and reverse engineered the whole project. We figured out from that point, based on the rent that the teachers had set, how much debt the project could support, which was 6 million dollars, which was 14 million dollars less than we needed in order to pull off the 20 million dollar project that was sitting in front of us, and we went and figured out how to do it from there, you know? We had this mandate from teachers to provide them affordable houses and from the nonprofits to provide them collaborative office space. And we knew where the top of the mountain was, we didn’t know how to get there, but we were going to support…surround ourselves with people who did.
RH: Well, it’s not a matter of cutting costs as much as squaring the circle. How do you square the circle and find a creative way to get around the problem of lower costs?
TM: Anything is possible. And we are firm believers in creating movements where people feel like they’re a part of something larger than themselves. And we do that by building everything from the inside out. Where we worked with the teachers and the non-profits, who are the end users who designed their own spaces and chose their own rents, to the community associations that we are in that have to have an active seat at the table, to the team of these guardian angels who protect us every step of the way from attorneys and accountants and banks and lenders.
You’ve got to be able to give those three groups this sense of pride and authorship in what’s being created. And if you do that then it becomes unstoppable. So we started with the teachers and the community and we got to this problem with the 14 million dollar gap. And because of this team that we had in place, they told us about all these creative financing solutions that we had no idea about. Historical tax credits. There’s federal and state incentives to salvage these beautiful old buildings. So the combination of the historic tax credits brought in six million dollars of free equity into the deal.
And then there’s a program called the New Market Tax Credit, which encourages investment in commercial properties, in highly distressed neighborhoods, neighborhoods like Remington. That layered in another 6 million dollars of free subsidy into the deal. So that 14 million dollar gap got cut down to 2 million dollars before we knew it.
And then the city and state heard about the project and absolutely wanted to be a part of it. And they started to pledge some kind of low-interest loans to plug the last of the gap. And people were helping this project because it wasn’t a real estate deal, right? We led with our purpose. Right? It wasn’t our idea, it was the idea of these teachers and these nonprofits. And every city in the country, every city in the world, should have a building that rolls out the red carpet for the people doing the most important work in our cities.
And that was such an easy story to tell. And when these thoughtful banks, like SunTrust and U.S. Bank, and lenders like Enterprise started to find out about what this was, they were not going to pass up on the opportunity. And not only did they help us bring the first project to life and we cut that 14 million dollar gap down to zero really quickly, for them that wasn’t enough. They wanted to be a part of so many more of these. They asked us to replicate the model across the country and have been amazing partners every step of the way.
RH: Let me go back to your experience during the time that your dad was COO of the Baltimore City Schools and you helped found something called Peace Players International, which is also important in this story.
TM: Yeah. So I graduated from college at 21 years old, I heard about a buddy of mine, Sean Towey, that was over in Northern Ireland working with a program to bring Protestant and Catholic kids in that really divided country together through basketball. He had kind of fallen in love with it and through a friend of his in South Africa had been invited to see if the program would work post-Apartheid in bringing whites and blacks together in the amazing country of South Africa.
So he flew back to DC, where he was from, and him and his brother helped to start the nonprofit. At the time it was called Playing For Peace and we then eventually changed it to Peace Players International. And Sean showed up to South Africa without the foggiest idea of what he was doing but driven by this idea that sports could really bring people together.
And I heard that Sean was in South Africa and, you know, kind of fresh out of college and had played sports my entire life as well, I reached out to him through email. I didn’t even know if he had email where he was. This is as email was just kind of coming around. And he got right back to me and said he was on his way back to DC and let’s hook up for lunch. And we had this amazing three-hour lunch where he told me all these crazy stories about his adventures in South Africa and the divide that existed here and all these coaches that were starting to come out of the woodwork to participate in the program.
And over that lunch I was like, “Hey man, I know you guys are at the very early stages of this but I’m in. What do you need from me? When can I start?” The three of us raised about 20 thousand dollars, mostly from friends and family at that time. And I got on the plane with Sean to South Africa armed with this understanding that it wasn’t our idea, that the idea of sports to unite always existed and that our role was to be quietly behind the scenes, helping the idea come to life.
We weren’t going to show up to South Africa or Northern Ireland and claim to have the answer to how to reverse centuries and generations of racism. Ours was to empower, to listen, to be a part of helping the idea come to life. And the results were spectacular. The program really blew up in South Africa. Nelson Mandela and his foundation ended up becoming one of our largest supporters and with Mandela and his name behind us, the flood gates were opened.
We replicated the model in the Middle East with Israeli and Palestinian kids, in Cyprus with Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. And look, in our early twenties lived out of a suitcase, helping to bring the Peace Players idea to life.
RH: And you learned a lot of leadership and business lessons as a result.
TM: Yeah. I mean for me, like, I had no confidence in myself as a leader. I didn’t even see myself as a leader. If anything, thought I was a terrible leader. And at 21 years old, that was really daunting to be thrust into that role with that responsibility. And those six years taught me so much about myself, about life, about inspiring people, and about leading that’s translated into professional life and marriage and kids and so much more.
RH: So you came back to Baltimore in 2006, just about the time the housing market was tipping over, or starting to in ’06. You and your father, Donald Manekin, start Seawall Developments. And I always like to focus on the amount of risk that entrepreneurs take. How much risk was involved in ’06, ’07, ’08?
TM: Yeah, look, starting a business is risky, a real estate business is incredibly risky. And I think we closed financing on our first project, that Miller’s Court teacher housing project, three months before Lehman Brothers collapsed. I am positive that had we been three months delayed and the world had begun to spin out of control and the financial markets, the project financing wouldn’t have closed and that first project would not have gotten off the ground the way that it did. But the stars had aligned and the world waited three extra months to fall apart in front of us.
Look, it’s risky, right? You have to personally guarantee big loans. You have to personally guarantee all these tax credits that are standing behind you. From our standpoint, we didn’t believe in leasing space to credit tenants, you know, national brands. Ours was all about supporting the mom-and-pop local companies, specifically nonprofits that were underpinning the success of the school system that lived almost paycheck to paycheck.
But look, remember when you’re 16, right, and you fell in love for the first time and all logic and thoughtfulness went flying out the window no matter how bad of an idea or of a girlfriend you had? [Laughter]. No matter how many friends or your parents told you that it just wasn’t the right one? You just were incapable of listening. That’s what love will do to you, for better or for worse.
TM: And that happened to us with that first project. So no matter how big the risk was going to be, we were committed to help bringing this idea to life, that a single building could help kids get better educations throughout our entire city. And yes, so there is big risk in it and I think entrepreneurs, while it keeps us up at night, find the ability to look past that risk.
RH: How quickly do you know that this is the one? And I’m thinking specifically about Union Mill, a cotton mill that dates back to 1866, which you have transformed.
TM: Yeah. Union Mill was an easy one, right? So again, our stage had been set for us. We take great pride in not coming up with a single original idea. Everything we do is driven by the end users or the community asking for something. And when we finished Miller’s Court, the first teacher housing project, we had a waiting list of over three hundred teachers, waiting to get into the building that we had completely run out of space for, and over a dozen nonprofits that wanted to be a part of what was being created that we didn’t have space for.
So for that one, we went out looking for another mill building that we could bring on the same team of historic tax-credit investors and new-market tax-credit investors and creative lenders and roll up our sleeves with the experience that we had gained at the first project and the enormous amount of mistakes we had done the first round through armed with a kind of a better understanding of what it would take to get across the finish line. So we walked to the Union Mill building and knew instantaneously that it was right, that we could do it and that this was going to be the next project.
RH: And I saw a quote of yours, Thibault, “We believe re-imagined real estate can unite cities.”
TM: Thoughtful real estate done very inclusively should be able to bring people together. We have seen that. We did a project here called R-House, an amazing place that you can come and choose from 11 different eclectic restaurants, which is a launch pad for Baltimore’s most creative chefs. A lot of people would call that a food hall, we really look at it as a launch pad and its kind of leading with that purpose first.
RH: And in terms of uniting a city, perhaps there would be no more symbolic involvement than your involvement now in the Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore. It’s a place that I have been in and out of since the 1970s.
TM: Yeah. We were awarded that project by Baltimore City almost two years ago now and that will be the most significant project we ever do in our lifetimes. It is not that big of a building comparatively speaking. I think we’re talking about maybe a total of a hundred thousand square feet or so. We’ve built two- and three-hundred thousand square- foot-buildings by this point, but it’s not about the building there.
Like, designing and building that building will be the easiest thing we do. Our challenge and our opportunity is proving that that building, that a single building, can really unite an incredibly divided city. It’s about massive job creation, it’s about making Baltimore fall in love—the entire city of Baltimore—fall in love with a historic, iconic place that has fallen off everybody’s radars. It’s about creating this really powerful movement where everybody in the city feels like they’ve got ownership and authorship in bringing Lexington back to life.
And that has been amazing process over the last two years as we’ve dug in deep, as we’ve listened, as we’ve asked really pointed questions, as we’ve gotten to know the drug dealers that surround the building, as we’ve really listened to the communities that surround it. It needs to become a place that everybody in Baltimore feels welcomed into in a beautifully diverse way.
RH: Tell me what the project is that you envision?
LM: We’re going to build a new market shed building that’s a replica of the original early 1900s building that burned down in a fire. And that is going to become the main public market for the city of Baltimore. We will work with start-up companies and new vendors with a real push for diversity that represents the beautiful people that live in Baltimore City and that initial market building that will be new construction will be the tipping point for that. We will also in the process salvage the building that still stands on that site today that wasn’t burned down in the fire.
RH: Because you don’t tear down buildings.
TM: We do not tear down buildings. And with that we’ll reprogram that building as well in a second phase that will have a complementary use to the new market building that’s getting created.
RH: And I saw a quote of yours, you said you’d be doing “some deep listening with people in the neighborhood and tenants.” How do you go about that listening process?
TM: So it depends on the project but for Lexington in particular that listening needs to be not just neighborhood-specific but city-wide. So we are creating a series of town hall meetings where we will address a number of different, really important topics that surround Lexington Market, everything from crime and safety and the environment that surround the building today to recruiting vendors, to the diversity of vendors, to supporting the vendors that are applying so that we can take them from the idea stage all the way through the implementation and application and the creation of their new businesses, to the criteria by which new vendors will be selected into the market, to the actual selection process and the committees behind them so that the entire city of Baltimore feels like they have—and understands that they have—a seat at the table in shaping what Lexington is.
So our role, our vision is that nobody even mentions our name in this entire project, that it comes together in this amazing, organic way, led by the people of Baltimore for the market of Baltimore in Baltimore’s most iconic, longest-running institution. We don’t even have a website yet. We’re 12 years into this. So we’ve done a terrible job of telling our own story in large part because we don’t think it’s ours to tell.
RH: Do you think you’ll ever take on a more important project or more significant project, maybe a better word?
TM: Not in the city of Baltimore. This is probably one of the greatest honors to have been brought to the team to help bring this to life. I think around the world we will do something more significant than this in the future.
RH: And so there are opportunities out there that may already be stirring.
TM: I think that our path isn’t necessarily chosen by us. You know? We focus intensely on the projects at hand and every one of them has led to other projects that surpass our wildest imagination of what anybody would’ve ever trusted us with. And I think that if we continue to stay true to our purpose that there is an opportunity to help others in the development profession understand that when you do lead with your purpose and when you are a part of creating movements and when you build everything from the inside out, so much more is possible.
RH: When you walk inside Lola’s latest business, Movement Lab, what impresses you the most or warms your heart the most?
TM: It is such a unique space. The use of massive window openings to bring in natural light, I don’t even think you ever need to have the lights on. Even at night time there is a cool glow that comes in. But more than anything, it’s the people.
You walk into that space and it is the most eclectic group of women and men that you’d ever hope to find anywhere, this amazing tribe that has come together with this idea of being a part of redefining a movement and bringing that into their lives and they walk out with these huge smiles, dripping in sweat. I’ve been in those classes. I know how they feel, like totally inspired way past what any physical exercise they might have been used to doing would’ve ever brought them. That’s probably the most impressive thing when I walk out of that space.
RH: Have you seen ever a space that resembles Movement Lab?
TM: I have never seen a space that looks any thing like what Lola and her team created in Movement Lab.
RH: Lola, I saw the TED Talk that you did and you had everybody take off their shoes and start moving and so forth. What’s behind that whole idea?
LM: We basically wanted to redefine the conversation around fitness. And right now it’s really…the conversation is always about beach body or bikini body or loose a hundred pounds and it has never, never been the focus behind Movement Lab. We talk about fitness being the consequence of why people are moving. So they come, they play, they connect with each other, they do things that are completely outside of the box, hanging upside down, jumping on trampolines, dancing. That’s been our vision from the beginning is the conversation around fitness has to change.
RH: I recognize that in Brazil there was more of a freedom of movement. But when you came to the U.S. and you started thinking about this, how did the idea develop?
LM: You’re right, in Brazil movement is just a part of our lives everyday. I am from an island so we’re running, we’re dancing, we’re wake boarding. It’s just we’re in nature all the time. And when I moved to Baltimore and I got a gym membership and I go and start doing treadmills and elliptical and I just…my soul was just sucked out of me.
I heard about this movement, this dance that had dance and martial arts, so I read the description of Nia, and like everything I do in life, I just didn’t even try it, I just signed up for training right away. And I remember just the first exercise and the very first day of Nia training, I start moving my body and I just felt completely at home. And when I say at home, I mean like in my body, just like I remember who I was in the moment, my soul came back [laughs] to my body.
So I came back to Baltimore and nobody knew Nia here; there’s no Nia teachers. And I start knocking…every gym, every yoga studio, every basement of church, and just offering free demo classes. And slowly people start taking me in. And it was that conversation of “Nia combines dance, martial arts, yoga…” And again, we move to this music from all over the world. And the class builds and we get an amazing sweat that was all the movement.
That was all the movement that I did for five or six years. And again, the fitness was just the consequence. I remember just dancing and having the most amazing time in my life and also in connection with other women, looking at their different bodies move and the shapes and their ages and seeing that this is something that everybody can do.
And that’s my belief behind Movement Lab. Because all of the classes that we offer, I had taken them before making them a part of Movement Lab. And the anti-gravity—the first time I hung upside down on the hammock, I just remember having a panic attack. So everything that we offer, I had this theory of like if I did it, you can do it.
All ages, so we get everybody, all sizes. Those hammocks were made to hold up to a thousand pounds. So we get people in whatever size they show up with and there is this sense of accomplishment when they realize for themselves that they can hang upside down and they can flip out of the hammock and do it all, all of us.
RH: And Thibault, when did you realize that there was a real business in Nia and Movement Lab?
TM: Yeah, I’m embarrassed to tell this story but Lola is a beautiful free spirit that comes up with 10 different ideas every single day. And so very early on in our marriage she started, especially when she started to really get into this Nia routine, she started asking for her own gym.
And one of my favorite stories to tell about Lola is that when she first started teaching yoga in these basements of churches and these rented dance studios, she would put the word out that she was going to teach a class and sometimes one person showed up, sometimes three people showed up, and often times nobody showed up. Well, I mean, it shows Lola’s tenacity because she would teach that class with nobody in it, or two people in it, as if there were a hundred people in that room. She couldn’t even tell that nobody was in there, she would kind of close her eyes and get into this amazing space, this kind of trance, knowing that one day there would be a hundred people in the class.
So she was very early on asking for her own space and her own studio. And you always talk through everything and my whole thing was like, “Look, babe, let’s build up the village, let’s build up the tribe a little bit more, and we’ll know when the time is right.” And year after year, it kind of kept growing somewhat organically.
And I went to surprise her, to probably one of the four Nia classes that I’ve been to in my life, and when I walked in and there was about a hundred women in this class, real women, not imaginary women, then I was in the back, just like tears coming down, just how proud I was of what Lola created based on not giving up. And we knew right then, “Let’s do this. We’re totally ready.”
So we started to find the right space for the studio and it started to come into light and Lola was so focused on wanting to reinvent what movement meant and to have alternative forms of movement from all over the world there. And I started to get nervous. And I challenged her. I said, “Babe, Baltimore is not very creative in their experiences. Why don’t we do ninety percent yoga, which everybody knows, and we’ll throw in some of the funky stuff that you do and it’ll be a little side thing and if it stick we’ll switch the ratios a little bit.”
And she didn’t even flinch. She looked me in the eye and she’s like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Why don’t you start building Walmarts and strip centers and tell me how that feels for you.” She’s like, “We’re going to be different than anybody else that exists on this planet and we’re going to bring something, as hard as it’s going to be and as unique as it has to be that no one has ever seen before.” And she was right. She and her team never skipped a beat.
RH: There is one other thing that people need to know about Seawall Development and it’s the kind of people that you employ in a property development firm.
TM: Yeah. So we actually just call ourselves Seawall, we don’t even call ourselves Seawall Development or Seawall Property Management. We don’t look at ourselves as a development company, we see ourselves as a group of social entrepreneurs that happen to be using the build environment to empower communities, unite cities, and help to launch really important ideas.
With that as a backdrop, we don’t hire anybody that has any development skills. If you are applying for a position that we have open and you have been in the development industry for 15 years, pretty good chance you’re not going to get hired. We’ve hired school teachers, we’ve hired event planners, and our whole philosophy is that if you’re going to re-imagine the industry we don’t want anybody coming in with the baggage that real estate brings along with it. We want to bring people in with fresh perspectives that maybe we don’t have with a different way of understanding people and communities and cities.
In the summers, we’re in board shorts and flip-flops and t-shirts. Once a month we get together and do something really fun as a company. I think tomorrow we’re going on a Ninja Warrior course. A couple months ago we were lighting each other up, shooting paint balls at each other.
RH: And I’ve been here twice and now I’ve met I believe five dogs.
TM: Yeah, the dogs are a big part of the culture here. If you look around our office it’s wide open. I think there’s two private offices, and people do their work on couches or at this big communal table that we have in the middle of our space.
RH: You told me the last time I was here, the employees all seemed to have a sense of ownership.
TM: Yeah, I mean that’s our whole philosophy whether it’s employees or members of the community, neighborhood, tenants, that everybody not only has a sense of ownership but a sense of authorship as well and what’s getting created.
RH: Thibault Manekin of Seawall, Lola Manekin of Movement Lab—and the world. This is social capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman.
About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.
About Ray Hoffman: Ray Hoffman, a veteran business journalist, is highly-regarded for his news and analysis features and insightful CEO interviews. Representing BusinessWeek on air for twenty-one years, Mr. Hoffman was the morning business news voice on the ABC Radio Networks from 1995 to 2006. Mr. Hoffman also represented The Wall Street Journal, on air, for eleven years. His daily WCBS CEO Radio feature was recognized by the New York Press Club as best radio business news report in both 2012 and 2015. In this podcast, Mr. Hoffman invites some of America’s most dynamic CEOs to share their stories as business builders and perspectives on free enterprise.