Almost two years ago, Karen-Lee Ryan walked away from daily journalism and stepped into life as an entrepreneur. She is the founder and owner of Walk Eat Nashville, an innovative walking food tour company that offers a taste of the people, places and dishes making Nashville the new culinary capital of the South.
We sat down with Karen-Lee recently to learn more about her and what inspired her to take a leap from digital executive to creating a business that celebrates one of life's most intimate social connectors - food.
TELL US YOUR NASHVILLE STORY.
I'm originally from Boston but moved around a lot when I was young. I've lived in Nashville for the past ten years. My husband and I ended up here after a cross-country trip to find a place to live.
We had been living in Washington, D.C. After September 11th, anthrax and a sniper, we decided, "We're done here" and started planning our exit. Once we'd narrowed our search to a few cities, we spent a lot of time planning and set out in January 2005 to visit prospective home towns.
Nashville was a last-minute addition, but we immediately fell in love when we got here. I just had this sense that this was where I was supposed to be. We didn't know a single person in Nashville but when we got here things just fell into place.
I'm still in a mad love affair with Nashville. We left in 2012 when I was recruited to take over the digital operation for the San Antonio, TX, newspaper. After 18 months, I missed Nashville so much that we moved back.
When I came back, I wanted to create a business that focused on people and shared my passion for Nashville. It was the spark that would become Walk Eat Nashville.
WHAT ARE A FEW OF YOUR FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT NASHVILLE?
I love the people of this city. There is so much creativity and collaboration here. People tend to be more open and honest with less of a sense of competition.
There's a pioneering spirit about Nashville. It makes sense if you think about it. This was the western edge of our country at one time, and that pioneer spirit continues to thrive here.
It's also the music. It permeates the culture and fosters that creativity and collaboration that makes this city so unique. I think it gets taken for granted sometimes because that's not the case in most other cities.
And, of course, I have to mention the food!
WHAT IS THE BEST PIECE OF PROFESSIONAL OR PERSONAL ADVICE YOU'VE BEEN GIVEN BY SOMEONE ELSE?
Take action! You can't plan a business sitting at home. You have to take some kind of action involving potential customers to really find out if it's going to work. That was the most important lesson I learned from Matt Dudley during an entrepreneurial class at The Skillery.
I had been formulating ideas for different businesses, but it wasn't until I took that course last summer that things started to come together and I got Walk Eat Nashville off the ground. Matt pushed us to step out of our comfort zones. When I started talking to people - potential customers, restaurant owners, and others - things started to come together.
WHAT TIPS CAN YOU OFFER ABOUT SUCCESSFULLY ADVANCING YOUR CAREER?
It’s all about relationships. Building relationships builds the business.
Along those lines, I am very conscious to value human experience over digital experiences. That's a challenge given how much communication takes place through computers. I worry that we're going to lose our human-ness. So much valuable human communication takes place through non-verbal cues and the sound of our voices—and that can't be conveyed in a text or an email.
I think that’s one of the reasons I started a business that involves interacting with people every day. That human connection is fundamental to my business.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A STRONG LEADER?
Understanding limitations and playing to strengths. I’ve been fortunate to have worked under and with a lot of strong leaders. They taught me that the best leaders are those who help people flourish by giving them more of what they do best.
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO GET OUT OF BED IN THE MORNING?
By creating Walk Eat Nashville I get to meet new people every week and share what I love most about Nashville. During a three hour tour, they get to experience this great city and have a shared experience with each other. They not only get to taste the food made by some of Nashville's best chefs, but they also get to meet the chefs and see their passion for what they do. It's infectious and it's what inspires me every single week.
Walk Eat Nashville offers public tours in East Nashville, Midtown/Vanderbilt and Downtown/SoBro. Each three-hour tour includes interaction with chefs and owners at 5-6 tasting stops spread over 1.5 miles of walking. Regular tours can accommodate up to 12 people and private tour can be arranged. Reservations can be made at walkeatnashville.com and gift certificates are available in any denomination. We think they'd make great holiday gifts!