(Bloomberg) -- Three years after leaving WeWork Inc., the company’s other founder, Miguel McKelvey, is using some of his earnings to fund an eclectic mix of business interests ranging from sneakers to a social center for seniors. He’s also seeking to parlay a controlling stake in the clothing maker American Giant into an ambitious, if not quixotic, plan to revitalize US manufacturing.
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McKelvey paid $10 million last year for a controlling stake in American Giant, a made-in-the-USA apparel brand that became famous in 2012 for creating a sweatshirt called “the greatest hoodie ever made.” His ownership of the fashion brand, which hasn’t been previously reported, is part of a larger vision he has for his post-WeWork life. He said he wants to revitalize American factories and restore them as economic drivers.
In his first interview discussing the American Giant acquisition, McKelvey also described previously unreported plans for a new startup: a social club for members over 55 years old. His vision is to build a network of gathering places for older people, where they can hang out, host and attend events and access services like telemedicine and tech support.
The ventures are clearly pretty different from office space, but each one intersects with McKelvey’s interests. An architect by trade, McKelvey had been designing retail spaces for American Apparel — a clothing brand that was, until recently, entirely American-made — when he met Adam Neumann. The two started WeWork together in 2010 and quickly fell into complementary roles. McKelvey was the quiet, calmer presence standing behind Neumann, who absorbed much of the spotlight as the company’s bombastic chief executive officer.
In 2019, after Neumann led WeWork to a failed attempt at an initial public offering and then was ousted as CEO, McKelvey stuck around. A new pair of interim co-CEOs laid off thousands of employees before being replaced by the current chief, Sandeep Mathrani. “The best I could do was be there at HQ with people, hang out in the common areas, try to show that there’s some steadiness,” McKelvey said. “But emotionally, it was super tough.” The whole time, he said, he was wondering: What’s my role? Who am I supposed to be? “It was like a new family moved into my house,” he said.
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By June 2020, he had moved to London and decided to leave WeWork. As he contemplated what to do next, he turned down most reporters’ requests for interviews. He never really felt that he had anything worth adding, he said, and enjoyed the quiet.
During this period, McKelvey thought about an experience he’d had at WeWork, when he toured the factory of a supplier and got a peek inside the employee break room: “no windows, depressing and dark,” he said. He started thinking about how to improve the work environment for blue-collar people.
His initial goal was to assemble a team that would build a factory. He looked for products that had a high-enough profit margin to justify making them in the US and landed on shoes. Building a factory, he found, was complicated, so he ended up partnering with shoe designers in 2020 to create Proto, a collective led by women and people of color. The first model is mostly manufactured in the US, though some parts are sourced from overseas. It went on sale in April.
In 2021, McKelvey met Bayard Winthrop, the founder of American Giant, who was looking to raise capital. The two men believed in the importance of buying American-made, and Winthrop asked McKelvey if he’d be interested in going bigger — not just investing but taking over. McKelvey was intrigued. He’d never been in the commanding seat before. He made his investment last summer and now controls the board; Winthrop called him a “kindred spirit.”
Winthrop makes the day-to-day decisions at American Giant, but McKelvey helps with strategy and branding. The WeWork co-founder envisions a future in which manufacturing jobs become more desirable careers. “As a person who’s not inclined to sit in front of a computer for eight or 10 hours a day, I would rather make stuff with my hands,” he said. “I would rather do that than type code, but obviously the world doesn’t reward that in the same way.”
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Though he was excited about American Giant, he still didn’t feel like he had found his “next thing” — until the past few months, when he started working in earnest on his new startup. He describes it as a “social club for aging people,” and he’s the CEO. The project is called Nayah, “an ancient word” with spiritual connotations, the company said. A handful of employees, many of them ex-WeWork staff, are helping build it, and he hasn’t brought in any outside investors.
For Nayah, he’s imagining a network of commercial real estate locations where members aged roughly 55 to 75 can gather. McKelvey, 48, is designing a product for a demographic he doesn’t belong to — though the Gen Xer did something similar for millennials with WeWork.
McKelvey has been brainstorming ways to design restaurants and other spaces with lighting, sound levels and mobility options catered to seniors. “I like to build spaces that are good for people,” he said. McKelvey and his team hope to open their first space this year and have begun scouting locations. They have even looked at some former WeWork buildings that are vacant.
“It was like a new family moved into my house”
Echoes of WeWork remain on his mind. The co-working company was roundly criticized for over-spending and growing too quickly when he and Neumann were in charge. McKelvey insists that WeWork’s product — office space — was firmly good. “People like being in them. They’re productive and happy,” he said. He believes his new spaces can have the same effect. He plans to open a handful of locations in the next couple of years, though he dreams of opening more spaces faster, “because people would be happy, and happiness is good.”
He acknowledged that WeWork sometimes pushed “hustle culture” too hard and accepts some responsibility for it. “I loved that vibe of stay-up-all-night-to-do-a-project,” he said. While at WeWork, he lacked a full understanding of people who didn’t share his zeal. He said his perspective has since changed as he reflects more on parenthood — he has a 13-year-old son — and wants more balance. “For us to build a company that will last for a long time, we’re going to be different than we were at WeWork,” he said.
In an interview Monday on Bloomberg TV, McKelvey said, when asked if he would ever work with Neumann again, it “doesn’t make sense for us right now.” Neumann “is the top dog and a leader,” McKelvey said. “For me, I want to learn how to be in that position.”
Speaking of WeWork, McKelvey said he watched a couple episodes of the television drama WeCrashed. He recounted a conversation with Jared Leto, the actor who played Neumann. Leto had kind things to say about WeWork, and McKelvey expressed gratitude. Leto said he had simply made a show; McKelvey had lived the events worth making a show about. “That was the gift of the show,” he said. “The fact that they made a show about us, however you want to look at it, we did something meaningful.”
(Updates with Bloomberg TV interview in the penultimate paragraph.)
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