As a leader and voice of progressive change right here in Atlanta, Chris Appleton is no stranger to the challenges and rewards of forging your own way. One of the three founders behind the influential non-profit art organization, WonderRoot, Chris has helped drive strategic growth and develop partnerships that are helping inspire positive social change in the Atlanta community. Here is his story:
Where did WonderRoot find it’s start?
WonderRoot was first started as an idea in 2002 by myself and two friends, Alex West & Whit Wisebram. We grew up in the same community here in Atlanta – I actually went to elementary school with Alex.
At around the age of 18 we found ourselves interested in ways that artists could play a role in building a more thriving, equitable, and just Atlanta. Personally, we held artists in high regard in their ability to tell stories, persuade people, and help us think about complex issues. We grew more and more interested in how art and artists played an important role in progressing social change.
We all three connected on a values-based approach to creating a better city for all people. That is what we rallied around. The mission and vision of the organization. I would guess we spent most of our early 20s (2002-2006) scheming, and not really acting on, but believing in and building the vision.
Artists playing an important role in social change – that’s a powerful concept. What did it look like to take such meaningful work from dream to reality?
About 8 years ago we launched WonderRoot to the public with the mission to unite artists and community to inspire positive social change. What that looks like for us here in Atlanta is supporting artists who have working professional careers. We connect with civic agencies (whether that is school, police, the Belt Line, etc…) and develop arts-based solutions to address the work those civic partners are seeking to do.
As an entrepreneur, what are the biggest changes you’ve experienced since WonderRooot opened it’s doors?
Alex and I were talking about this a few nights ago… one of the things that happens as the business grows is that it is no longer just friends going to work together every day. We’ve built a team around us who are invested in the mission and the organization. But at times, you miss the days when it wasn’t work. It was 3 friends going to change the world.
What does an average weekday morning look like for Chris Appleton?
Every morning I meditate for about 15 minutes. I have a cup of coffee and then head out to the office. Most of my time spent during the day is in meetings inside and outside the organization.
This (all of the meetings) happens to be one of my biggest challenge because there is a lot of work to be done, in addition to talking about the work we aspire to do.
So, no pets?
No pets. All I can do is take care of myself.
Understood! So what is the most rewarding part of your day?
Every day I go to work, even a decade after it all began, I am still inspired by this work. I am surrounded by people who are inspired by learning how to build better communities. The folks I get to spend my time with, even when we are talking about hard things, are people who want to see a better Atlanta. That is very motivating – and sustaining.
Sometimes being an entrepreneur can be an isolating endeavor, but not for me.
It sounds like you are doing it right, then. Along the same lines, how do you go about keeping a healthy work/life balance?
I am really interested in the notion of work life integration. So many entrepreneurs start businesses or organizations with really sincere aspirations to do something that is meaningful.
My experience, a decade in, is that the kind of change we are trying to make at WonderRoot isn’t done in a 40 hour work week. I do believe it is important to take care of my physical, spiritual, and mental health. However, I think that this can happen successfully outside of the work/life binary nature.
If we can find ways of integrating our personal, professional, civic, family values – whatever is important to us personally – we are more likely to find success. It is when we try to compartmentalize all these that things tend to not find their way. I think balance suggests a compartmentalization, and I don’t necessarily agree with that.
Wow – that was an unexpected and profound answer. I think that entrepreneurs everywhere will glean a lot of wisdom from your outlook on living an integrated life.
Now switching gears entirely – do you use any apps, tools that help you accomplish your day-to-day tasks?
Coffee haha. To be honest, not really.
I am somebody who has not relied on many tech advances… My first cell phone ever was the iPhone. I got it when I was 25. I am 32 turning 33 now. So you can do the math.
I keep a tidy calendar and stay up to date on emails, and that works for me.
I will say, one of the great challenges of being an entrepreneur is that you can’t do it all yourself. You need help in the day-to-day. Finding partners like Acuity who can help build your team as you’re getting off the ground and then scale with you as your needs grow – it’s invaluable. I wish I had found Acuity several years earlier.
What is the biggest risk you have taken as an entrepreneur?
When we signed the lease on the Arts Center 9 years ago (the building that we currently operate from), I think we had like 2 months rent in the bank. We certainly didn’t have any money for payroll. But, we came to that moment and said “We’ve been talking about this for years… and at some point we have to make the leap.”
I am sure that every business advisor was telling us not to sign a lease on the building, but we were young and we had the privilege to take risks… so we opened the door. And crazy enough, people started walking through.
The immediate response and demand for what we were doing bolstered us during those first couple of years when experiencing the cash flow challenges that so many startups do. But, you know, it was the most fun I have ever had. Running this arts center with my best friends. Believing there was nothing else in the world that could stop us. That’s the good stuff.
You’ve been at this for a long time now. Any words of advice for the entrepreneurs reading your interview today?
When hard decisions arise, revisit your core values.
One of the things that I love about our staff is that they are deeply invested in our core values and principles. Even when we are making day to day decisions, we look at each one through the lens of our values. It helps us to remain consistent which is really critical to success.
Want to stay inspired? Check out more stories like this from our friend and clients who we are proud to count as valuable members of the Acuity community.