Picture (from left to right): Ashley Ray, Larkin Garbee, Christine Austin, Arnold Kim
As I waited at 804RVA to be able to sit down with Larkin Garbee to have a conversation about strength, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a small poster near the front door. I squinted and read “The Country Club for Nerds and Creatives;” I smirked and wondered which I was. That small moment and phrase made me feel welcomed in the space I was visiting. I felt like I belonged and didn’t need any credentials to be where I was. I was just welcome. Welcoming people is one of the top priorities for Richmond entrepreneur Larkin Garbee. For the past eight years, Larkin has worked to create a coworking space called 804RVA, which aims to be a space that is both functional and liberating for startups and creatives. She explained that she wanted to capture the essence of the balance between a digital world and human connection. She envisioned the space feeling less like work and more like friends hanging out. Larkin is all about serving others: early on in her life she identified that she was a natural community builder, and she told me that with that comes responsibility. Maybe this serves to answer my first question, but the nerd in me, after she said that, was reminded of the famous quote from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Larkin showed me that identifying our own strengths doesn’t have to be a source of pride, but rather a way to know how we can serve others and to live selflessly.
One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “Why do you do what you do?” Larkin, who is not only the founder and CIO of her co-working space but has also recently become the only full-time staff for a national organization for startups (Startup Champions Network), answered this question with an analogy. She asked me to imagine myself as a full-time artist. The only catch is I had to paint the same painting for the rest of my life. It would be miserable, she explained, and of course, I agreed. She explained that the creative industry exists in the first place because of this struggle; no creator wants to settle for repetition. She drew the connection to her current work by saying entrepreneurship is the same thing. Larkin is always evolving her roles in the communities she is a part of and always finding ways to invest in new communities. It’s her desire to help others and to always be doing something new and different that fuels everything she does. She explained to me that she’s always been attracted to change and has always wanted to be on the side of putting change into motion. Being the youngest of four girls raised by a single mother, Larkin told me there was rarely a moment she was either alone or blind to ways that she needed to speak up to help bring people together through community.
An example of this trait is shown through one of Larkin’s high school experiences. She was not allowed to park in the normal student parking lot but instead had to park across the street. She was told this was because she transferred in; however, the only two people in her grade who had to park across the street were Larkin and another woman of color. As a newcomer to the tight-knit private school community, she did not feel particularly welcomed or included and felt that she and her peer weren’t being treated as equals. Even after going to the school with her complaints and having her requests for change turned down, she still wouldn’t go down without a fight. Larkin told me that one of her biggest motivators for living for change is hearing the words, “You can’t do this.” She began to park in the lot anyway and accepted the write-ups that resulted as punishment because she wasn’t going to let them treat her as an unequal. She continued to fight for her and her peer to get the same parking rights throughout the rest of her high school experience.
A common theme in Larkin’s life is this desire and responsibility she feels to bring together people for a cause. She recognizes that wherever she goes she meets people with similar problems and struggles as her, but a lot of times, they do not have the voice or resources to see change enacted. She has built her life and career around these priorities: to never be silent for others and to use her natural drive for community to first listen to the people around her and then find ways to provide support. She told me the importance of identifying personal skills, but then always moving to a posture of listening. Listening is the most important thing to do: to listen to those around her, listen to the community, and to herself to find where she can most help out a problem.
Co-working is a very popular business in this age of startup culture and, having personally worked in a co-working space, I have seen how a lot of spaces are focused on growth for businesses and individuals by providing clients with their own private office and meeting space. While Larkin believes in helping her clients find growth and success, she wanted to build her company to focus on others rather than the self and to find ways that people and companies could help each other, and then help others with what they’ve learned. She wants to focus on helping people think first of others and then move from there to think of themselves to find where they fit in. In a weird way, this is what Larkin does to relax. When I asked her how she is able to disconnect and fill herself with rest and energy amidst all of the things she does, she began to answer by explaining more areas in her life she serves. I honestly thought she didn’t hear my question right the first time when she started listing off more things she does. As she began to explain, however, I realized that her way of resting is helping others. She is in the process of helping her neighborhood open a coffee shop, she is helping young black women find ways to make it in the business world, and even helping high school musicians learn how to be more business savvy in order to find meaning and a career in their creative endeavors. This desire for wanting to see things improve comes from her experiences in daily life, her previous job in construction, and her current role as an entrepreneur. But it’s more than just wanting to see something run more smoothly or efficiently; instead, she desperately wants to see others’ lives improve. Seeing people succeed gives her the energy and motivation to keep doing what she does; everything she does comes from this desire to help others. But don’t worry, she did finish by saying she also LOVES taking naps in her hammock.
It’s no surprise to me that when I finally asked her to define strength, she immediately started talking about others. She says that everything she has learned about strength comes from her sisters, her single mother, her grandmother, and other strong women she’s known. When she thinks of strength, she thinks of her grandmother more than anything else. Larkin says that resilience is what she learned from them: that resilience is always taking the opportunity to stand up to support and be supported by others, no matter the cost. She explained that she still has so much she wants to learn about strength and how she can best serve others. Because of what she learned about resilience and standing up with others from her family, she can guarantee that she will always be working to try to bring more communities together. She ended our time by explaining that so often people see what they have, and then use it to find out the things they don’t have; they then try to obtain what they think they lack. For Larkin, growing is realizing no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you have, growth comes from truly understanding what we already have and how we can use that to better our community. Then she laughed and said, “Oh and finding more people who will tell me I can’t do something, that’s where I can still grow.” Larkin Garbee has taught me what it means to be resilient and strong, and how helping others is so closely tied with identifying our gifts and strengths. More importantly, Larkin showed me how when I see an innovation and instead of thinking how annoying life was before the innovation, I should instead think of and thank the courageous, resilient, and strong women behind the innovation that most likely had to be first told “That won’t work” or “You can’t do it.” Thank you, Larkin, for showing me what and who strength really looks like.