Gene Kansas, ’95 Entrepreneurship
Owner, Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate
By Eric Van Meter
Gene Kansas’s career was and is about telling stories. That’s not how you’d typically characterize the work of a real estate developer whose name is synonymous with the innovative upcycling of some of Atlanta’s most historic properties. But then Kansas, who created and hosts the city-centric “Sidewalk Radio” and recently earned his master’s in digital media, isn’t your typical real estate developer.
One way to understand his journey is through the lens of entrepreneurship and the chain of businesses he’s launched, starting with Bad Hair Day Publishing, which he conceived through Eller’s New Venture Development Program. Beginning in 1996, it sold some 10,000 copies of Kansas’ Police Beat, a book based on the long-running police reports feature in the Arizona Daily Wildcat.
That venture helped open the door to work as a content developer for TNT and freelancer for local publications and ad agencies, which in turn inspired Kansas to launch his own ad agency. In that venture, Kansas found the spark for his next: real estate development. A marketing project in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood motivated both a physical move and a career move. Inman Park became his new home and real estate his new focus, culminating in the launch of Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate, where his energies remain today.
For Kansas, that serial-venture story isn’t so hopscotch as one might think—it’s just a consistent application of his education via the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program. “In addition to honing an inherent ability, it taught me a framework and a process,” he explained. “I’m exaggerating just a little, but there’s not a huge difference between publishing a book and developing a building. It’s taking an idea and seeing it through from concept to completion.”
It’s hard to imagine a better endorsement of entrepreneurship, but to look at his journey through only that lens would miss a vital lesson: Kansas followed his heart, and in doing so, found his passion. Because for Kansas, real estate isn’t about buildings or land. It’s about the people that inhabit them, their connections to other people and other places and the stories those things create together.
To that end, Kansas has become as much a cultural developer as property developer, a social entrepreneur in the guise of a savvy businessman. His company’s award-winning work to revitalize properties in the blighted birthplace of the civil rights movement, Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, helped stay the destruction of the historic Atlanta Daily World building and attract big names such as Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) and President Obama, both of whom placed re-election offices in the area. This year, Kansas took his full year’s marketing budget and created A Giving Campaign, helping fund and build awareness for local nonprofits. Then there’s his latest venture, Constellations: a mingling of spaces for civically and socially oriented business, offering private offices, co-working, education and community events.
“My role as developer and founder of Constellations is to create a platform that supports other people’s goals and missions and dreams, not tell them what their goals, missions and dreams should be,” Kansas said. To that end, he struck a deal with the city to offer a portion of the building’s space for educators and nonprofits at no cost. “I wanted to make sure that we have a diverse group of stars,” he explained. “That if people want to be here, they have that opportunity, even if they might not otherwise be able to afford it.”
In that same spirit, Kansas, who serves on the advisory board for the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship, recently joined forces with the UA Foundation and Eller College to spearhead a $100,000 endowment campaign for the Fred Cox Memorial Scholarship. The award honors his friend and former UA roommate, a McGuire Center alumnus who was killed in the attacks of 9/11, and since 2002 has annually recognized an outstanding undergraduate in entrepreneurship. “These students have a ton of talent,” Kansas said. “If by giving we can help maximize that talent, it’s to all our benefit: theirs, the university’s, the world’s.”
And therein lies the key to Kansas’ own story: an expansive vision for good in the world. “What I’m trying to do with our community-building projects is storytelling through the built environment,” he offered with a nod to his professional roots. “We’ve all heard someone say, ‘If these walls could talk.’ Abstracting that cliché, my belief is that if a place has a good story, it connects with people. Deeper connections create deeper values, and values motivate people to take action. Our cities and our surroundings inform individual and civic identity, so it’s vital to celebrate and support these places. You have to know where you are to chart your direction forward.”
Through real estate entrepreneurship, Kansas found his passion and purpose, seizing one opportunity after another to learn that opportunity isn’t always about profit: “The world isn’t just about business, just like real estate isn’t just about buildings.” In fact, for Kansas, it’s much more about stars past, present and future and the stories their constellations tell. Empowering them, he charts his own path forward, finding his way by their light.
Header photo of the Constellations building in Atlanta courtesy Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate.