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This is Capitalism: Up Close, Inspired, Explained

Jun 12, 2019

Ray Hoffman introduces the guests for this episode. “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, Co-Founder 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, colors, and sizes. I first met Thibault and Lola outside of R. House, which used to be a car dealership in the 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.”

Listen in to hear more of Thibault’s and Lola’s social entrepreneurism.


Key Takeaways:

[:22] Ray Hoffman introduces the guests for this episode of This Is Capitalism.
[1:21] Thibault describes the strong entrepreneurial spirit of his wife, Lola.

[1:50] Lola immigrated to the United States and started working in restaurants, cleaning houses, and babysitting. Following her vision of success was a slow process.

[2:25] Lola’s first memory, growing up in Florianopolis, Brazil, was making bracelets with her cousins and selling them door-to-door. Lola was the middle child in her family.

[3:14] Lola came to the U.S. through a program in Florida that brought in immigrant students from around the world for four-month jobs. After her four-month program was over, Lola had finished her college degree in natural therapies, so she decided to stay. She went to massage school in Florida and got licensed to do massages.

[3:50] Lola tells how she met Thibault in Brazil when she was visiting her family. Then, they began a long-distance relationship between Baltimore and Florida. Thibault eventually convinced Lola to move to Baltimore.

[4:36] Thibault’s first renovation project was Miller’s Court; it is Lola’s favorite. Lola describes how it came to be developed from an old building in a dangerous area into a specialized teachers’ apartment building. It set the pattern for future renovation projects.

[5:56] Thibault explains how he got involved in teachers’ housing and how Miller’s Court was created from an abandoned tin-can factory with broken roofs and large rats.

[8:55] After Seawall bought the property, they moved quickly to finance it, design it and build it, all in about two years.

[9:05] Thibault co-founded Seawall Development with his father in 2006. Thibault says he has a vision of uniting the world and bringing people together. Real estate touches everyone. Thibault wants to fight against the division of communities by real estate and reimagine the power of the built environment to unite cities and launch powerful ideas.

[10:56] Thibault’s grandfather and his brother started a real estate company in Baltimore at the end of the Second World War. For them, it was never about the transaction; it was 100% about the relationship. People started to really trust them and ask them to do things way outside their comfort zone.

[11:32] Thibault’s grandfather and his brother were two of seven children growing up in a two-bedroom apartment above the grocery store their father ran on the first floor. They believed that if they treated people fairly, at the end of the day it would work out.

[11:55] Thibault’s father graduated from college with the intention of going into public education. He first took an internship with his dad in the real estate firm and saw that the business was not about earning money at all costs, but about creating deep relationships and helping companies grow.

[12:36] Thibault tells how his father had just retired in 2000 when he was invited to be COO of the Baltimore City School System. After his time in real estate, he realized it was time to pursue his lifelong dream. He committed to working long hours, seven days a week to help kids and education.

[14:00] He brought together a competent team of people from different sectors with different experiences that touched the school system in some fashion. They went to work and turned the budget from red to being in the black. His position was a two-year interim position so he hired his own replacement.

[15:06] Inspired by his father’s work with teachers, Thibault went into business with him to create centrally-located, affordable housing set aside for teachers new to the area who didn’t know the neighborhoods. They also wanted to find a centralized space for education nonprofits.

[16:44] The goal was a 5,000 square-foot building. They renovated a 100,000 square-foot building that was more than they expected. It provided a great space for both teachers and nonprofits.

[17:03] Teachers were able to design their own apartments and amenities, and choose their own rent. Based on the rent the teachers said they could afford, Thibault and his father reverse-engineered the project to come up with a budget. The budget turned out to be $6 million, which was $14 million short of costs!

[17:48] They figured out how to get the $14 million to be able to provide affordable housing for teachers and nonprofits.

[18:19] They created a movement by building from the inside-out - from the teachers and nonprofits to community associations, to a team of guardian angels made of attorneys, accountants, banks, and lenders. They found creative financing solutions that fit the needs with historic building tax credits and city, state, and Federal assistance.

[19:55] People were helping this project because it wasn’t a “real estate deal.” Thibault and his father led with their purpose. It wasn’t their idea; it was the idea of the teachers and nonprofits. It was such an easy story to tell. Lenders wanted to get involved.

[20:26] Not only did their lenders and team want to bring the first project to life, but they also wanted to be part of so many more of these projects and replicate the model across the country.

[20:56] Thibault shares some background to his story. Thibault had graduated college and was in touch with a friend of his in Northern Ireland, Sean Tuohey, who was working in a program to bring Protestant and Catholic children together through basketball. Sean was invited to bring the program to post-apartheid South Africa.

[21:24] Sean came home to D.C., and he and his brother helped start a nonprofit, at the time called Playing for Peace, and later called PeacePlayers International. Sean went to Africa and Thibault reached out to him by email. Sean replied he was on his way back to D.C., and they had a three-hour lunch discussing the success of the program.

[22:20] Thibault helped raise $3,000 from friends and family and went with Sean to South Africa to help. Thibault worked behind the scenes with Sean to help the idea come to life. Nelson Mandela and his organization were their largest supporters and the floodgates were opened.

[23:14] PeacePlayers International replicated the model in the Middle East with Israeli and Palestinian children and in Cyprus with Greek Cypriot children and Turkish Cypriot children. Thibault and Sean were living out of their suitcases all this time.

[23:34] At 21 years old, Thibault didn’t have any confidence in himself as a leader. He worked with PeacePlayers for six years and learned a lot about himself, about life, about inspiring people, and leading. This translated into Thibault’s professional life, marriage, and family.

[24:20] Thibault and his father started their development business in 2000. They knew there would be risks. They closed financing on their first project, Miller’s Court, three months before Lehman Brothers collapsed. Thibault is confident those three months were the key to succeeding instead of failing to launch their first project.

[25:08] Seawall wasn’t interested in leasing space to national credit tenants. They wanted to support small nonprofits and teachers. Thibault compares Seawall’s passion for this first project to the passion of a teenager in love for the first time. They were committed to this idea to help the teachers, and so, the children, of the city.

[26:10] Thibault talks about the Union Mill project. Everything Seawall does is driven by the community. After Miller’s Court, they had a waiting list of over 300 teachers and 12 nonprofits. They took a larger team of professionals and helpers and started looking for another building. They were armed with all their experience from the first project.

[27:09] They knew instantaneously that the Union Mill building was right, that they could do it, and that it would be the next project.

[27:16] Thoughtful and inclusive real estate should be able to bring people together. Thibault talks about the R. House project, which is more than a food hall; it’s a launchpad for Baltimore’s most creative chefs. It was renovated with purpose first.

[27:45] The Lexington Market downtown is Seawall’s current project. Thibault says it will be the most significant project they will ever do. The challenge is proving a single building that can really unite an incredibly divided city. It’s about massive job creation. It’s about making the city fall in love with a historic, iconic place that has fallen off the radar.

[29:07] As Seawall has really dug in and listened to the communities that surround it, they believe Lexington Market needs to become a place where everybody in Baltimore feels welcomed into in a beautifully diverse way. Thibault describes the project details.

It will be the main public market in Baltimore with startups and new diverse vendors.

[30:20] Thibault explains the process of deep listening they are doing for Lexington Market. They hold a series of town hall meetings city-wide where they discuss important topics such as crime, safety, the environment, recruiting of vendors, diversity of vendors, support to be given to vendors through implementation, vendor selection, and more.

[31:20] Seawall’s vision is to be invisible in the Lexington Market project. It should come together organically, led by the people of Baltimore for the market of Baltimore, in Baltimore’s longest-running, most iconic institution.

[31:48] Thibault considers working on Lexington Market to be one of the greatest honors and the most significant project in Baltimore to be brought to the Seawall team to bring to life. Thibault predicts that somewhere else, around the world, they will work on a more significant project in the future.

[32:24] If Seawall stays true to their purpose, there is an opportunity to help other developers understand that when you lead with your purpose and when you are a part of creating movements, and when you build everything from the inside out, that so much more is possible.

[32:42] Movement Lab is Lola’s business. Thibault discusses the space, the amazing, eclectic people, and the inspiring exercises they do. It is a unique space.

[33:51] Lola did a TEDx talk, Taking Movement Beyond. She tells about redefining the conversation around fitness. Instead of thinking about a beach body or a weight loss goal, think about fitness being the consequence of moving. Lola describes the various activities available at Movement Lab.

[34:51] Lola is from an island in Brazil and movement has always been important in her life - running, dancing, wakeboarding, and being in nature all the time. When Lola moved to Baltimore, walking a treadmill in a gym was not right for her.

[35:16] Then Lola learned of the NIA movement and signed up for training right away. She felt completely at home in her body from the first exercise. In Baltimore, there were no NIA classes being taught, so she started promoting it to gyms, yoga studios, church basements, and offering free demo classes. NIA is dance, martial arts, and yoga, to music.

[36:18] Fitness is the consequence of all the movement in NIA. Everybody can do it. All the classes in Movement Lab are classes Lola has taken and enjoyed. People of all ages and sizes do it. There’s a sense of accomplishment when people realize that they can hang upside down in an Antigravity® Hammock and flip out of the hammock.

[37:17] Thibault tells when he realized there was a business to build out of NIA and movement. Lola taught classes to one, two, a few, or even nobody as if there were 100 people in the room. When she started getting 100 women in a class, Thibault knew she needed a space of her own.

[39:00] They started to find the right space for the studio. Lola was focused on reinventing what movement meant, with alternative forms of movement from around the world. Thibault encouraged her to start with yoga that was familiar and she asked why Thibault didn’t start building Walmarts and strip centers. She embraced her differences.

[40:00] Seawall doesn’t use the word development. They are social entrepreneurs that happen to use the built environment to empower communities, unite cities and help to launch really important ideas. They will hire people from any field other than development. They are reimagining the industry. They don’t want real estate baggage.

[41:41] Thibault Manekin of Seawall; Lola Manekin of Movement Lab, and the world; This is social capitalism.


Mentioned in This Episode:

Seawall Development

Movement Lab

  1. House

City of Baltimore

Florianopolis, Brazil

Miller’s Court

Baltimore City Public Schools

Baltimore Urban Debate League





PeacePlayers International

Nelson Mandela Foundation

The Union Mill

Lexington Market

Taking Movement Beyond, Lola Maniken, TEDx




Martial arts

This Is Capitalism