Kevin Schafer has mastered the skill so many of us struggle to figure out: how to build a community from the ground up. Equipped with a master’s degree in leadership from James Madison University, he’s developed a sharp knack for bringing people together around shared needs and interests. He’s seamlessly translated that ability into the business space. 

As a community manager for Industrious, a leading co-working space with nationwide offices, he filled the Tysons Corner, VA location to nearly 80% capacity within its first year of operation. In the face of stiff competition from WeWork and other coworking spaces, in this white-hot industry, especially in the DC area, this is a truly incredible accomplishment.

Words of Wisdom from Kevin Schafer

Finding Personal Fulfillment in Empowering others to Succeed

Since day one, I sensed that Kevin’s passion for professional growth was palpable. I’ve been blown away by how he inspires excellence in those around him ever since. In the time we’ve gotten to know each other, Kevin has left a strong impression on me with something even more important than the number of businesses he’s signed on at Industrious: his unshakeable values.  

Beyond the data-driven business wins, I think the most impressive thing about Kevin is his remarkable humility, selflessness, and altruism. Kevin is the epitome of a servant leader. His markers of success have never strayed from his number one goal: empowering others to thrive in their entrepreneurial journeys.

Learn to be a Leader by Following the Footsteps of Mentors you Want to Emulate

During his graduate program, one pivotal mentor sparked Kevin’s desire to pursue a career in helping other people launch their own. At James Madison University, Kevin worked under an outstanding boss and mentor: Associates Athletics Director Casey Carter. As a respected and longtime leader in the JMU athletic community, she was the perfect person to inspire Kevin’s own lifelong passion for leadership. She provided expert guidance that Kevin took to heart and still uses in his work today.

“Casey was someone I looked up to, and she’s someone I still do. She has enabled me to better understand the human side of work in the professional world.”

Tasked with the daunting goal of creating a professional development program to empower student athletes beyond graduation and the athletic space, they worked together every step of the way from ideation to launch. Casey taught him the fundamentals of creating a program tailored to empower the actual participants, rather than simply generating vanity metrics.  

Unlike many similar operations that push students into a random entry-level job or write them off to a recruiting agency that cares more about commissions than candidates, the program they designed is user-centric and holistic to its core. Fundamentally, it’s built around understanding student athletes at the human level first. Unpacking students’ essential goals, interests, and passions helps match them with a career where they can grow and excel. 

Working in Synergy Amplifies Success: Kevin Schafer’s Role in the BW Missions Story

Kevin brings the lessons he’s learned to life in his everyday work at Industrious. Each business decision he makes is guided by the principals his experience has taught him along the way. So many people focus exclusively on transactional elements or pure efficiency, but Kevin knows those roads will never lead to the best outcomes. Instead, he fearlessly pursues the unorthodox paths that lead to deeper relationships and facilitate success for everyone involved. 

I can personally attest to the value of Kevin’s work, because it’s part of the BW Missions story. Kevin and I couldn’t have met at a more perfect time. The stars really aligned when we connected. As BW Missions first started accelerating into rapid growth, one of the most exciting moments that finally made it all feel real was securing our own office space.

Our growing team needed a home base, and Industrious was the perfect fit. Having a brick-and-mortar space to call our own has been critical to scale up our operations and spur continued expansion for our company and our team.  [Yes, this office space is missed greatly during the COVID pandemic, while we all work from home and are social distancing]. 

Top 5 Takeaways From Kevin Schafer

  1. Human connection is so much more valuable than any set of metrics. The people in your tribe and heartfelt endorsements for work well done are the most meaningful testaments to your success. Reaching one-off sales goals might land you a nice commission, but building a solid foundation in your business relationships will generate consistent returns far into the future.
  2. Take the time to get to know the real person behind the resume. Understanding who someone really is and what they care about will always enable you to achieve the best results. Even if a generic, cookie-cutter formula saves you some time in the short term, efficiency means nothing without customer satisfaction.
  3. Leadership isn’t about being at the top of the ladder; it’s about helping others rise up along beside you. Leading a team effectively means valuing others’ opinions, taking new perspectives into account, and cultivating an open dialogue where everyone can express themselves. Help those you mentor and work with get where they want to go, and you’ll reach your own destination faster.
  4. Humility is the key to driving the outcomes you desire. In client relations, prioritize the other person’s needs above your own interests or bottom line. Everyone you meet can teach you something you don’t know yet. Even if you think you know best, tailor your approach on a case-by-case basis by understanding the unique needs, goals, and values of everyone you work with. 
  5. Empathy is the number one asset you can provide in any relationship. Maintaining a vested interest in others’ well being is a crucial characteristic to strive for in all aspects of life. Surround yourself with people who embody this trait, and extend it to everyone you encounter.

Kevin Schafer exemplifies many of the strengths and skills I consistently focus on improving in my own life. His inspiring leadership and community-building skills are something to be admired by anyone working in this space. Listen to his full story by watching his interview above, and follow along by reading the transcript below!


BRYAN WISH: Kevin Schafer is the community manager at Industrious Tysons. Industrious is a premium co-working provider. Prior to his current role, Kevin earned his master’s degree in leadership from James Madison University while working for the athletics department. Kevin developed a program for student athlete leadership and career development at James Madison University, and then pursued a couple of entrepreneurial ventures.

Kevin, you have a very interesting background. For someone so young, you’re remarkably poised. The work you’ve done at Industrious is impressive; filling occupancy to almost 80% in the first year. Someone you mentioned in your One Away moment who has helped you get there faster is Casey Carter. Do you mind telling us about Casey and why she’s been such a pivotal role model in your life?

KEVIN SCHAFER: Casey Carter was my boss at James Madison University when I worked for the athletic department while I was getting my master’s degree. She was the Associate Athletics Director there for about 30 years. During that time, she really built herself up to be a pillar of the university and the athletic department. 

She and I were charged with creating and implementing this student athlete leadership development program to help student athletes focus in their lives after their time in sports. After their college career, it aimed to help them figure out what their plans were, and how to be intentional about those plans. We were handed a blank slate, and the university basically said, “Hey, we want this program to become a priority.” We had to figure out what was important, what would actually make an impact on those student athletes, and how we could deliver using the resources we had available. Casey was someone I looked up to, and is someone I still do. She has enabled me to better understand the human side of work in the professional world.

BRYAN WISH: When she was working with these athletes and helping them find their own next step, what was it about her that helped her stand out and showed you it was just a sense of humanity behind how she carries herself and works with people? 

KEVIN SCHAFER: The interesting thing about learning from her was that the way she went about it was almost like sales, except not quite. It was getting to understand and getting to know the student athlete that was sitting right in front of her, the person behind the uniform, behind the sports field and equipment, and really understand what makes them tick, what they want to do with their lives, and how to prioritize that. 

Being in the role, it was really easy to just send folks to a staffing company or a random entry level job and say, “check the box, we’re done with them.” It takes a whole other level of dedication and really compassion for the individual to say, “What do you want? Where do you want to go and how can we get you there?” It takes extra work. It takes extra time, but it makes an impact so much larger than just sending someone in a cookie cutter direction.

BRYAN WISH: As she helped others navigate their job and post-graduation plans, were there any moments that stood out or stories of someone that she had helped that you can maybe share where they completely sent someone in another direction that they maybe weren’t intending on when they first started the process, but looking back it was completely the right direction and maybe the more scary direction?

KEVIN SCHAFER: Yeah, I think the advantage she had was that she had built relationships for a number of years with former student athletes who are now alumni and having successful careers out in the professional world. I think the one thing she did is she helped educate people. She would connect folks together, allow them to talk about the career path, the field that they’re interested in. I think more so than maybe directing them in a certain path, she was able to facilitate those connections that really helped them get a better understanding for what’s out there and then connect that back to themselves. 

I wouldn’t say any particular instance was really huge or memorable, but at the same time, we put together career fairs and mentor programs to really facilitate that journey for the individuals themselves. 

BRYAN WISH: You talk a lot about her in the sense that she has the ability to build really strong relationships; yet, she also had the sense of humility. Do you think those two are correlated in any facets or no?

KEVIN SCHAFER: Absolutely. I think everyone has an agenda they’re trying to push, whether it’s achieving goals at work or at home or moving onto another career path or whatever it may be. In many instances, those agendas show through pretty quickly in a conversation with someone. Having the humility to take yourself out of the equation, prioritize the other person, and really make sure you understand what they’re looking for allows her to build relationships genuinely and organically. That concept in general is something I really try and emulate. Casey is my role model in that sense. Whether I’m trying to close a sale or build a relationship, it’s really about what other folks are looking for. Figure out how you might be able to fit into their puzzle and help solve it, rather than vice versa. By prioritizing the other person, you can build a more genuine connection and find valuable synchronicities. 

BRYAN WISH: When you graduated from the program, you did a little work before you came into this role. From working with you, to a degree, coming into the office every day and meeting you, I think you really do have a sense of care for the people here. That’s an element. What are some of the things that, beyond humility or what you learned working with her in this more ambiguous, startup environment, that you have brought to the table here? How has that positively impacted your experience as a leader within Industrious?

KEVIN SCHAFER: I think before I started working with Casey, Miss Carter, it was all work for me, it was, “Hey, let’s get XYZ done and let’s do it in the most effective and efficient way.” Obviously, there’s a lot of sense and importance behind moving forward in that manner, but really learning from her the human side of the world of professional work made me realize the potential in taking a dedicated interest. This could be anything in your client’s lives, like maybe just knowing one of our member’s children or their parents is sick, that goes a long way to them feeling really comfortable and happy at work. It allows them to do better work for their company and their employer. 

We do everything from getting little gifts for people who are feeling under the weather or to celebrate when someone has a new baby or something of the sort, to larger community events that facilitate relationships amongst businesses and allow them to mutually benefit from each other. 

BRYAN WISH: This notion of leadership seems so simple on paper, but it’s so easy to screw up. It’s not easy even though when you read about it you think it makes sense. So few people do it so well. What are some things that you think when you look at yourself as a leader, and the things maybe she has taught you, that you’re really focused on from a leadership standpoint? 

KEVIN SCHAFER: Leadership and manipulation are the same exact thing except for the intent you have going in. With leadership, you’re looking for mutually beneficial values and working towards something together. Whereas with manipulation, you’re essentially doing the same thing without truly considering the folks around you and what they want their outcomes to be. For me, leadership in general is the ability to articulate a vision, communicate it, and then to reverse engineer the steps to get there while ensuring that people’s needs and the desires they want to get out of the situation are also being addressed.

Granted, there are some things that you can’t solve in the world for everyone. At the same time, to really be an effective leader, you have to prioritize your team and make sure everyone is bought into the vision as a whole. For me, being a good leader means truly thinking through the entire dynamic and process prior to presenting that to other folks and making sure that you feel comfortable that they are going to buy in and want to accomplish the same thing that you do. If that’s not the case, then you have to go back to the drawing board without forcing anything on anyone. 

BRYAN WISH: I love what you said about it being more than numbers. It was more than a spreadsheet and efficiency. It’s so easy to look at a spreadsheet, “Oh, we’re not making X this morning; so, we’re going to slash Y” at the expense of the people. The person that you worked under, she says, “It’s more than just checking the box and building a program. It’s about taking extra care, the hard decisions that are really going to make these people feel empowered.” You clearly, in my opinion, bought into your own work, which is why I think this place has been so successful compared to other places. People feel safe here and it’s a good place to be. What were you like 4-5 years ago compared to where you are now? How is it different around this nucleus of conversation?

KEVIN SCHAFER: Prior to working with Casey, it was a lot of, “Hey, I got this grand idea for an entrepreneurial venture and I want to start this business and this is how much money I need and these are the talent and software developers I need, etc.” It’s not just me who is transitioning. It’s really the business world and society in general to more of mission based value propositions. What is it I’m trying to accomplish beyond just the profit-loss but the impact I make on other people, the impact I make on the end consumer and inevitably, the life I’m able to create and provide for the team and people around me? Over time, I’ve come to realize it’s much larger than just the dollar sign and how much money you can raise. It’s really understanding the people around you.

I heard a good piece of advice from a serial entrepreneur. He said, “If I’m the dumbest person in the room, I’m in the right place.” That really goes to articulating a vision and surrounding yourself, taking your ego and really being humble about it, and building something bigger than just yourself. That’s something I’m trying to push forward as opposed to, “Hey, I’m making this much money and I’m closing this deal” and figuring out what’s beyond that.

BRYAN WISH: I love that answer because I look at our business and even this month hasn’t been the best, I know it will be great over the next few months, but we had something happen. It’s like I’m going to look at this balance sheet, and be like, “Are we going to slash the people who have worked their ass off for us the last five months because of a dollar?” To me, it’s not worth it. I know at the end of the day you have to run a business, but I look at as just because we have one bad month out of 16, doesn’t mean we should take that away from the people around us. You’re right. I heard a quote, “Long-term people play games with long-term people.” I think leaders or even your person, Casey, you, it’s about looking 3, 5, 10, years down the road for the people that you’re with on a personal level, professional level. It’s like, are they playing long-term games and are they doing it for the right reasons? You don’t make short-term decisions on a paycheck if you see long-term future. That’s a really good way to operate. It sounds like Casey, yourself, kind of take that type of thinking in all your actions throughout your life.

KEVIN SCHAFER: There’s something to be said too, for you, in that scenario. Really you want to double down on the people who believe in your vision as opposed to cut them off because it hasn’t started as quickly as you want it to or whatever the case may be. That just goes to there’s way more than the number line. It’s about the people around you and if they believe in the same vision you do, they’re going to help you and the team get there.

BRYAN WISH: If you were at Casey’s funeral and you had to get up and say one thing about her to 100 people, how would you share the impact she had on your life and other people around her?

KEVIN SCHAFER: Casey is such a selfless woman. She has been that way for as long as anyone has known her. If the folks in the room, at the time, couldn’t make it for whatever reason, she would fully understand. It’s “Your life is important to me.” Your priorities are important. If you have to pick your kid up from school or if you can’t miss this presentation at work, she would understand that. That really speaks volumes to the person she is deep down. It’s never about her and what she wants. It’s truly what do we want or what do you want? I think that is something that is so hard to find and something that’s really genuine within her. 

BRYAN WISH: What is one piece of advice you’d give someone else entering college, entering the professional workforce based on what you know today, that you think will set them apart; let them enter into the next chapter they’re supposed to be on and be able to hit the ground running because they have this ability?

KEVIN SCHAFER: I think it’s two-fold. One is you have to realize that you’re never going to be done learning. School and classes end but the people who really succeed are those who really take initiative on their own selves to learn more, to source education, if you will. I think that piece directly translates into just going out and meeting people. As a college student, the best thing you have going for you is you can go up to a very successful professional and say, “Hey, I want to be where you are in 20 years. Can I talk to you for 15 minutes about your career path and any advice you may have?” Most anyone will say yes. It may take three months to schedule a meeting with them, but they’ll say yes. Those things build confidence. It’s so hard to do it for the first time, but it gets easier each time. The second piece of that is it opens doors. It’s something that is all self-started. It’s all taking initiative and getting it done. The people who do are the people who can really build a career and a foundation for themselves that allows them to succeed over the long-term. 

BRYAN WISH: I one heard a quote that says, “Relationships are the modern-day form of currency,” meaning relationships do open doors. If we treat people right, similar to Casey and you do, it’s not about short-term benefit of what’s going to happen because you have the relationship now. It’s about the long-term benefit of being, “Oh yeah, that Kevin guy, he’s the one who treated me right. He gave me this opportunity and he had a conversation that helped me in this way.” For whatever reason, it seems like whether that person pays it forward, karma pays it forward in a way that you say, “Wow.” I think the way you look at life and live life in such an intentional focus is Casey and what she taught you, I think it’s a life worth living in a way to get to where you want to go faster.