Mindsets on Steroids: A Conversation With Malaika Rivers

In my Mindsets on Steroids blog series, influential leaders share their secrets to help you win by finding your inner desire to change, ignite your passion, and instill life patterns. If what you were doing right now would get you there, you would already be there.

Malaika Rivers is the Executive Director at Cumberland Community Improvement District in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. The Cumberland CID is the mechanism by which the area’s commercial property owners – the private sector – invest in public infrastructure to protect and increase their property values as well as better the entire community. Rivers works with commercial investors, developers, government partners and other stakeholders by improving the transportation infrastructure and services. She has been with Cumberland CID since 1996 and during that time has helped the business community leverage $140 million into an estimated $2.5 billion in capital improvements through this public-private partnership. Rivers has been named a “Notable Georgian” by Georgia Trend magazine, a “25 Power Women to Watch” by Atlanta Woman magazine, a “40 Under 40” by both Georgia Trend and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, and a “Woman of Achievement” by the YWCA.

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Tell us a little about your background.

“I moved around quite a bit growing up, but when I was in middle school we ended up in the Washington DC area. My parents moved to Europe after I graduated high school but I stayed in the states and got a degree in business marketing. This was the early ‘90s and I ended up accepting a job with an organization that put me in the transportation sector.

“It’s interesting how one decision leads to lots of other corresponding decisions in your life… I worked in transportation demand management for a couple of years, both for a transportation provider as well as for a boutique consulting firm. I got a phone call one day from a colleague that I had worked with in the DC area and he had since moved down to Atlanta to start up a regional effort out of the MPO (the Metropolitan Planning Organization). My parents were in Europe at the time. I didn’t have any family close by, I was very comfortable moving around, and I liked adventure. I had a good impression of Atlanta, and I said ‘sure I’ll take the job.’ Two weeks later I moved to Atlanta to work for the planning agency.

“One of the capacities I had was to reach out to business groups in the region to get them to adopt and sponsor these transportation management programs and to initiate their own efforts. One of the groups I worked with was the Cumberland Community Improvement District (the CID) and it was about 8 years old at the time. It was the only CID in the state of Georgia and it had effectively innovated the model for commercial property owners to improve transportation infrastructure.

“I had reached out to them to see if they could broaden their perspective to not just to look at infrastructure, the supply side, but also look at the demand side. After a few months of going through a series of meetings and getting to know the leadership at the CID, they decided that they wanted to hire me in order to implement these services.

“At that point I was 25 years old and I was put in charge of organizational development and management. We developed a first of its kind effort in the state of Georgia that would reach out to our tenant companies and get them educated and engaged on the demand side. Over time my responsibilities grew to taking over the entire portfolio for the CID. I was their first full-time dedicated staff member and from there we grew all of our efforts, including capital improvement projects and services, and everything that we’ve been dealing with over the past 25 to 30 years now.

“Things have changed over that time and it has really been quite an exciting ride. It’s like a puzzle honestly. I like the architecture of that. I like putting the pieces of the puzzles together in strategic partnerships – leveraging money and relationships in order to construct infrastructure that improves commercial real estate portfolios and builds communities. That’s very exciting for me.”

Lasting change starts with inner desire. What internal triggers have set change in motion in your life?

“I would never be with an organization as long as I have if I didn’t find it challenging and rewarding. It’s a puzzle; the environment, the landscape, the climate – it’s always changing. One aspect that is important to keep consistent, however, is trust.

“If you think about the last 10 years of the economy, the market crashed in 2008 and the years that followed were difficult times. Real estate values plummeted and we lost some of our ability to affect change. We had to rely on long standing relationships with our government partners, including the governor, state legislators, county officials, and everyone in between in order to keep projects on track. Trust is important because your partners know that you’ve got the wherewithal to make good on your promises and to do what you say you’re going to do. Some of our endeavors span many years. It’s not like you think ‘I need a road,’ and then you build it the next year. It could be 10 years easily for a big project. So these are long standing relationships that I’ve enjoyed. Over the years my appreciation grows stronger because the track record of these relationships is that much longer.”

Passion fuels explosive growth. What ignites your passion?

“I have the opportunity to be engaged and plugged into a variety of different local and regional efforts, from infrastructure delivery to public policy. I’m fortunate to help create opportunity for my commercial investors. This submarket started out being very office heavy in the mid ‘90s when I came here. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some terrific, trusted, amazing leaders who have all worked so diligently to transform this community over the decades from being a suburban office market, to one that’s now becoming a really robust live, work, and play community.

“To illustrate that, the Atlanta Braves moved from downtown Atlanta to my district. That was huge news all over the country, even the world. This district has evolved from this 9 to 5 Monday through Friday market to one that has added multi-family, has attracted millennials, has an amazing park system and trails… there are people living, working, and playing here. It’s so amazing to see all of that. To think that I’ve played even a small role in this has been very satisfying.”

Consistent life patterns are often the missing component to greatness. How do you find discipline in your life?

“I am a disciplined, organized, and thoughtful person. That’s just how I’m wired and approach things. In the early days of joining the CID, there was not much organizational structure because there wasn’t a need for it. Being able to contribute to the growth of the organization and develop our structure while relentlessly pursuing best practices in an environment that is never constant has been terrific for me and satisfies that inner architect in me.

“Over the years as our organization has grown, resources have grown, and our projects, portfolio, and partnerships have grown, you go from being an independent operator to one that is now threading and aligning all of these partnerships and looking at how to allocate resources appropriately.

“One thing I’ve adopted over the years and become more conscientious of, is making sure I take my moments to just breath, center, and appreciate. I find myself doing that more and more because I’m just at that stage in my life and those small gestures help me manage it all. Reassessing, taking that breath, being thoughtful and grateful of all the things going on is something I pay more attention to.”

What is one result of change, passion, and discipline in your life?

“Being a part of transforming a community and creating value for investors has been very rewarding but I’m also a mother of two children. One is starting high school and the other one is in fifth grade. You spend a lot of time when your kids are younger using words and actions that you hope they will absorb. When they get a little older, you finally see your efforts reflected back at you. They’re still kids and they still have their moments for sure, but I’m just so pleased with the people they’re becoming. That’s very satisfying.”


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