Making a Difference
Taylor Berger’s latest venture aims to ‘Make Memphis’ a better place
By Andy Meek

It’s a strange thing, acknowledges Memphis businessman Taylor Berger, to form an organization that you don’t necessarily want to be that organized.

But that’s just what he and a fellow band of civic-minded, pro-Memphis folks did a few months ago when they decided to launch Make Memphis, an ad hoc group that began as a Facebook page and was later elevated into something more. The something more is still taking shape, but it included a kick-off meeting the group held Downtown a few weeks ago.

Taylor Berger, the Memphis businessman behind YoLo, Chiwawa, Tamp & Tap and other ventures, spearheaded the grassroots organization Make Memphis as a platform for people to decide on engaging ways to make the community better and move the city forward.

The purpose of that meeting was to begin collecting ideas for specific community projects that would be worth pursuing, everything from starting a hostel Downtown to gathering a group of professionals to go into local schools this fall and help students apply for college. Beyond those ideas, more broadly the goal is for the group to serve as one more counterbalance to what’s perceived a wave of negativity about the city, from within the city.

The question is where the group goes from here and what its place will be alongside groups with similar missions that are doing similar work. They include The New Memphis Institute, for example, and Choose 901, the latter of which publishes content designed to get young people to, as the name says, choose Memphis as their home.

From the outset, Berger and his cohorts wanted Make Memphis to be free of bureaucracy.

“We hope to be as inclusive as possible, to be bi-partisan, so to speak, and include people from all over the city,” said Rachel Hurley, part of the small group that banded with Berger to launch Make Memphis. “If someone has a great idea to improve their neighborhood, we want to hear it. We want to collaborate with people to actually make things happen.”

According to Hurley, projects begun at the launch event were fed into the new Memphis ioby website, where they will be further developed and some will be crowdfunded and managed to execution. The ioby platform launched in Memphis last month, an extension of the nonprofit organization’s use by community groups in nearly 100 cities around the U.S. thus far to help fund more than 300 projects with citizen philanthropy.

The ioby name is an acronym for “in their own backyard” and is intended to reflect the opposite of the NIMBY – or, “not in my backyard” – development philosophy.

According to Hurley, meanwhile, Make Memphis also is forming a business group. Some ideas for it have included monthly meetings of entrepreneurs, creatives and young professionals with the goal of connecting them to “cross-pollinate” ideas and to establish priorities and projects for the young Memphis business community.

For his part, Berger said he envisions the group as a way to “amplify” smaller, neighborhood projects. That could mean, for example, calling attention to initiatives the group gets excited about, connecting those projects with resources and more.

“Let’s say I’m really frustrated that we’re not doing enough to retain and attract young people to Memphis,” Berger said. “I’m going to figure out something I can do to start to change that today in the neighborhood where I live and work. That happens to be one of my particular things I’m passionate about. I work Downtown. My project is to just take the nine blocks where I work and help give them an identity, physically, to start talking about that, maybe organize some kind of festival – something to kind of connect and shine a light on the people who are here in the hope that it snowballs into more people choosing to work down here.

“Maybe you’ve got a neighborhood lot you think should be a bocce ball court. Well, stop talking about it. We want to help get individuals to step up for each of our projects. We want to help leaders take ownership of their ideas.”

Make Memphis is a grassroots group designed to be a platform for people to decide on ways to make Memphis better, and then pursue those goals.

Explaining the motivation behind his effort as springing from enthusiasm for the city, Berger in recent weeks also expanded that enthusiasm. He’d been promoting ideas for weeks from Make Memphis members via Facebook – simple disseminations of “This person wants to try this,” or “This person wants to undertake that,” and gauging the group’s reaction – before in recent days abruptly announcing a surprise.

The founder of YoLo, Memphis’ first self-service frozen yogurt shop, as well as the nonprofit Memphis Food Truck Association and restaurants like Tamp & Tap and Chiwawa had decided to get into politics.

His efforts that began to coalesce into a plan in December now took on a new dimension.

The weekend after Valentine’s Day, Berger went on a family getaway to his parents’ lake house. He and his family talked about what would come next, if Berger’s plan – running for the District 5 seat on the Shelby County Commission – was practical, worthwhile and whether now was the time to do it.

He ultimately took the plunge, filing a petition and holding an early party for supporters at Cheffie’s in High Point Terrace.

Berger said the timing, coming as it did in the aftermath of launching Make Memphis, was coincidental and that it stemmed from the same place as his reasons for spearheading Make Memphis.

Make Memphis “began as a response to the undercurrent of negativity swirling around our city,” Berger said. “There are so many good people doing great things in Memphis that I felt we needed a forum to showcase that and help people turn good ideas into projects. I lived in Seattle for about a year after law school, and I remember they seemed to have just a big pro-Seattle vibe and feeling. People really seem to get behind new projects and initiatives and really support each other.”

In hindsight, his decision to make a run for the commission doesn’t seem surprising, since politics also played a part in his thinking back in December – even if he says he didn’t realize it yet.

“Back in December, one day I was feeling really down about a lot of things,” Berger said. “The pre-K initiative had been voted down, and people were talking about how Crosstown was some conspiracy to make somebody a bunch of money, and I was getting a lot of flak for the Truck Stop project I was working on. So I posted a Facebook message kind of expressing my feelings. Why is it that the negative’s so loud here? I know I shouldn’t listen to it, but it does affect me and it can be really disheartening. Especially when I know there’s so many awesome people and awesome projects going on in Memphis.

“So I posted that on Facebook, and I’ve never got such a strong response. I think I got more of a response to that than when I posted about my daughter being born. So I just wanted to do something with that, whatever I’d tapped into. So I started that group.”

Before making the decision to run, and as his interest in launching Make Memphis was swirling, Berger met with Phil Trenary, who’s leading an initiative of the Greater Memphis Chamber called its Chairman’s Circle.

The Chairman’s Circle is getting behind a handful of so-called “moon missions” for Memphis – issues around which the group of business leaders wants to direct a flood of resources and attention to make the biggest impact. Berger said he met with Trenary because “he and I share a vision for cooperation between business, government and the nonprofit sector that I think will move Memphis into a new age of prosperity.”

Berger said the early groundswell of enthusiasm for Make Memphis also played a part in his wanting to run for the commission. Three months ago, he said, entering politics was the furthest thing from his mind.

“Memphis has all the right pieces to be one of the greatest cities on Earth,” he said. “The only thing holding us back is a defeatist attitude held by many of our fellow citizens and the lack of a unified voice.”

Though he’s now entering the political world, Berger said Make Memphis shouldn’t follow and that it should stay focused on grassroots community development.

“My belief is that the biggest projects and goals for Memphis start on the corner you live on, where you work at,” Berger said. “If you start improving that place, things build and build and that’s how you finally end up changing the whole city.

“I love that Memphis is a real city with real people and that it’s got a whole lot of opportunity. I haven’t had to be particularly creative in my business choices to do some really neat things in the city that hadn’t been done before. There’s just a lot of opportunity here to do things.”