By Hannah J. Phillips
Photograph by Minta Maria Smail
CEO Blue Sky Partners, Co-founder GoodPolitics, Public Servant
Nathan Ryan gets right to it: “Ultimately, people just want to avoid loneliness, feel safe and build community,” he says, sitting in the courtyard of an East Austin cocktail bar. Meeting to discuss his goal to create deeper dialogues in all areas of Austin, we are interrupted at least twice by contacts from one of his many social circles.
“This is Sarah Little from The Supper Club,” he says, introducing us when she stops by our table. Ryan isn’t just being polite: In fact, his whole philosophy revolves around the belief that making genuine connections is the best solution for most problems—professional, political and otherwise. “If you pull one thread in my calendar,” he says, “you find that it’s all different frameworks for getting more people to work together.”
As CEO of Blue Sky Partners, co-founder of GoodPolitics, city council commissioner, board member for the LBJ Future Forum—the list goes on—Ryan keeps a busy schedule. We conduct the interview between a community engagement meeting at St. Edward’s University and a planning session for the next GoodPolitics event. Like his calendar, nothing about his curriculum vitae looks linear at first glance.
Leaving a decade long marketing career in 2017, he co-founded Blue Sky Partners, a consulting practice helping startups restructure for sustainable growth, with Tim Seaton and Matt Glazer. The trio’s approach centers around candid discussions in all areas of entrepreneurship, based on their firsthand experience with the enormous pressures of running a company.
“You can create spreadsheets all day,” says Ryan, “but your client has to believe that you are willing to go through the ups and downs. I’m thankful that Austin is more open to those conversations than most cities, but it’s becoming increasingly important to go even deeper.”
Ryan’s mission to make space for more dialogue is also the motivation behind GoodPolitics, an event series focused on bringing people together in the political process. The series took shape in 2017, when Ryan and co-founder, Liz Coufal, bonded over a shared frustration at the high admission cost of political fundraising events. Hosting informal happy hours, they started inviting friends to meet candidates for casual discussions over beer. When one post-event poll revealed that nearly 80% of the 200 attendees had never voted, Coufal and Ryan decided to put a brand behind the series and GoodPolitics was born.
“The name makes people laugh, since the two words seem so diametrically opposed,” he says with a smile, “but we want people to know that they have as much voice as someone who can pay $1,000 for a seat at the table.”
In 2020, they plan to expand across Texas by connecting with local leaders in other cities, specifically those with experience building consensus across various groups. Ryan hopes these events will not only affect national dialogues in next year’s election, but those happening at the local level as well. As part of the City of Austin’s Economic Prosperity Commission and as a board member of the LBJ Future Forum, Ryan is already involved in those conversations.
Focused on issues like workforce development and infrastructure, the Economic Prosperity Commission makes recommendations to the City of Austin for how to improve transportation and affordable housing. To a large degree, Ryan argues that these issues are the structural drivers of people experiencing homelessness. As a commissioner, he is pushing for more collaboration among local businesses, nonprofit organizations and the city government.
“We need to work together to identify gaps and pool resources wisely to address them,” he says. “I have zero interest in pointing fingers and more in forming coalitions that will focus energy on filling gaps.”
For Ryan, assisting Austin’s homeless community means mobilizing the private and public sectors to go deeper on issues like land use, transportation and health care. If the city’s job is to remove as many barriers as possible, the best way to start is by convening conversations across multiple industries.
On an individual level, however, he believes that real change happens when we simply address people experiencing homelessness as humans—rather than a problem to be solved. As he has seen at Blue Sky and GoodPolitics, the most productive conversations happen when we engage person to person, setting aside personal agendas and preconceived notions.
Just making eye contact and listening to someone’s story goes a long way, he says, bringing it back to that innate desire for community: “People just want to trust and be trusted. At the end of the day, I hope everything I’m involved in is helping build a culture where people trust each other more.”