A tragedy near the beginning of Kate Atwood's life gave her a purpose. But sometimes purpose isn't enough...
A year ago, Kate Atwood was hired to tell the city of Atlanta's story to the next generation. Faced with increased competition from other urbanizing cities, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce needed to sell the city in a way that would attract and maintain top talent. So they tapped Atwood to run Choose ATL, an initiative to showcase Atlanta's many unique narratives and weave them together. The fact that the Chamber of Commerce chose Atwood, who is not a marketing executive in the traditional sense, for such a huge challenge is a testament to both Atlanta and Atwood herself.
Like many big achievers, Atwood’s journey begins with a tragedy. Her mother died when she was twelve years old, bringing a darkness to her life that left her feeling totally isolated. But it also drove her to fight that isolation, and, once she was of age, she founded a nonprofit called Kate’s Club that would help children in similar circumstances feel less alone. The grassroots organization—which held its first events at a bar—grew from a handful of kids traversing Atlanta in a van, to one of the strongest charities in Atlanta. It has raised millions of dollars for kids who share the commonality of loss—some a parent, some a sibling.
Some may have stayed put as the founder of a major charity, but Atwood evolved. She moved into the foundation world, and then on to her present day challenge with Choose ATL, where she works with everyone from Coca-Cola to Killer Mike.
Running a charity is, of course, quite different from branding an entire city, and it seems like you’d need two entirely different kinds of people for each job. But when you talk to Kate, it only takes an instant to understand why she was chosen. Apparently kindness and tenacity mix better than we thought…
How does your story begin?
My story starts with losing my mom when I was 12. I remember being 12 and thinking, “Who’s mom dies?” Ironically, every fairytale princess that we grow up with, their mom dies.
True. It’s the same with male superheroes. They're all orphans…
And I also found out that Walt Disney lost his mom when he was young. So all of these protagonists have this one main character flaw. But my entire thesis with Kate’s Club questioned that. Is loss really a flaw?
Is it a flaw?
From the sense of a storyline, yeah, but it's definitely not a “flaw” in the normal sense. In any case, I was captivated by it, but in the real world it felt like I was the only person that it had happened to. In the real world Cinderella and Snow White weren't going to help me. But as I got older, as my world got bigger, I realized that, no, this actually happens a lot. I had this burning passion to let every child know that they didn't ever need to grieve alone. So I launched Kate’s Club at a bar with my friends, the original way to crowdsource before Kickstarter! It started really simple: we would get together, kids and our buddy volunteers, and would enjoy a fun and social activity. It took the heaviness out of grief support which is so important for a child to experience so they can even begin to process grief.
Was that why Kate's Club was different?
It wasn’t “counseling” so much as it was social engagement. The hard thing about grief is that there’s no visible wound. Our culture is not good at being open about it. We push it under the rug a lot. Only in America do we take The Day of the Dead, where some cultures walk the streets and celebrate their loved ones who have died, and change it to candy and costumes. That’s how scared of grief and death our culture is.
Why do you think Americans are scared of grief?
I think a few things. One is that we have smaller families. In a lot of other cultures, the family is all around you, and if one piece of the pie falls away, you still have a strong community. Whereas our nuclear family is on average only four, and we usually move away from it. Also, where we’re really only just starting to talk about vulnerability and failure, which is very new for us. We’ve had a long history of not being seen or coming off as weak. I didn’t talk about my mom for seven years.
"Only in America do we take The Day of the Dead, where some cultures walk the streets and celebrate their loved ones who have died, and change it to candy and costumes. That’s how scared of grief and death our culture is."
So from when you were 12 to 19 years old you didn’t talk about her at all?
I did with my best friends, but, like any kid, I didn’t want to be seen as abnormal. When I was 19 I volunteered at this camp, and the camp director asked me to open the camp with my story. That was the first time I had talked about her. It was a pivotal moment because afterwards people came up to me saying, “you’re Kate, right? I lost my mom and dad too…” So I went from being a victim to understanding that it wasn’t about me. It was about the kids who came after me. It shouldn’t be as hard for them as it was for me. So that’s what Kate’s Club is, a place where it’s okay to grieve.
After running it for awhile and it being so successful, was there part of you that felt like you had to move on, just so you didn’t spend your life remembering this tragedy every day?
Oh for sure. I ran it for about seven years before handing it over. I woke up at 29 years old and was like, I guess I’ve got the legacy piece checked off, but what do I do now?? And that’s a hard crossroads to be at. I see a lot of founders facing that problem today.
Because you run out of purpose?
Well, it’s actually the opposite. My identity was so wrapped up in it, I just wanted to be Kate Atwood again. I didn’t just want to be the Kate of Kate’s Club.
So what did you decide to do?
I got the opportunity to write a book, which was super cool. It was a great way to get it all out and put a bow on that chapter for me. I spent a year speaking with the book, and freelancing. The difference between leaving a successful company you founded versus leaving a successful non-profit you founded is that there’s no real cash transaction at the end! It’s not like I had money to spend finding myself in Bali. I was broke when I started it, broke when I ran it, and broke when I handed it over. So I had to still find work and figure out what was next for me. Luckily, I went to work for the Arby’s Foundation, which I ran for five years.
What was your strategy for the Arby’s Foundation?
I wanted to challenge them to focus not on what they had an abundance of, but to look inward at what was a challenge for them and to go out and use that to bring value. With Arby’s, they’re seen as the health and wellness enemy for kids, yet they are a core access point for low socioeconomic families’ meals. So as a consultant we advised them to improve their children’s menu, and then go out and crush it on a platform ending child hunger in America. At the time, child hunger was getting no noise—it was only about child obesity. The leadership loved it and asked me to come relaunch the Foundation under this new plan.
How did they fight child hunger?
It’s a franchise corp, so I was able to use the restaurants themselves to raise a lot of money.
Oh one of those things where you’re checking out and the screen says, “would you like to give $1 to end child hunger?”
$1 here, exactly.
I hate those things!
I know, I know, but here’s the thing. At the end of the day you’re making $3-4 million a year. In the four years I was there, we gave away $18M and became one of the leading restaurant groups to end child hunger. I really fell in love with the work, but I still knew I was a creative stuck in the corporate world.
So now you’re with Choose ATL. What exactly is that?
About a year ago, I got tapped by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to develop an economic development platform called Choose ATL, built around talent retention and retraction. Atlanta needed to do a better job at storytelling to reach the next generation. Young people were not migrating to Atlanta. It wasn’t building the talent base it needed for jobs, that needed to be filled for its economic viability. I took on the challenge to market the city and to build an economic model that will ultimately shape how it will measure its value. The value of its economic engine through the lens of talent.
"Young people were not migrating to Atlanta. It wasn’t building the talent base it needed for jobs, that needed to be filled for its economic viability."
Why did they choose you?
Well, within Atlanta, I had some street cred! I’m known as a community architect and I love early stage stuff. I’m getting to build something special around a city that I love. And people don’t even know what’s happened to Atlanta in the past five to seven years.
See!! It’s first major boom was in the fifties, and then the Olympics in ‘96 helped it some, but then there was nothing again until about five or so years ago. Atlanta is just starting to have its first development in the urban core.
But isn’t Atlanta a major business hub?
Yes and no. I mean, if we went toe-to-toe with capital, no, we don’t have what they have in the Valley. But in terms of customers, we have some of the biggest brands. Right around Georgia Tech you have Delta, AT&T, Coca Cola...
And unlike the Valley I bet you can live there for a reasonable price. What’s the average rent in Atlanta?
You can get 1100 square feet in the center of midtown for around $1300 a month.
That's incredible! So how are you telling the story of Atlanta?
Atlanta has always had a crazy cultural narrative. The roots of hip hop, great culture, great food. To tell that story, I really went against the banner ad approach. I need the people to actually believe it. So instead, I’ve been working to build a platform where stories can come from the people themselves. I’ll go from being in a room with Fortune 500 CEO to being with Killer Mike or the guys from the Walking Dead. I’m having the best time, but with a huge job in front of me. Doing everything from like building content on our site, especially with the rise of film in ATL right now, to building a digital ecosystem. Hopefully the first of its kind.
You’ve had an fascinating career, particularly because it’s been so diverse. How do you tie it altogether?
Nothing brings me joy like being an architect for impact. The thing I was most connected to as a child was taken from me, but I never stopped valuing connectivity. Whether it’s Kate’s Club, Arby’s, to Choose ATL, it’s all about giving, feeling proud, and helping others feel good about joining in.