Keisha Gray has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in library and information science. Here’s how the Chicago native is using her library background—and her experience in leadership positions—to establish Indianapolis City Market as an incubator for new businesses.
You moved to Indianapolis from Chicago. Do you have any favorite places yet?
I love Patachou! It’s really delicious.
Well, speaking of Patachou, I should tell you that Public Greens is under their umbrella. I would be amiss if I didn’t tell you to go to the one in the Cummins building and order the falafel.
(laughs) Okay. I like falafel.
Perfect. Public Greens, Cummins, Whole Foods—the things on that block help anchor that area.
Yes, I want to explore Market East more because it’s next to City Market and is a fairly new neighborhood. I want to see what our neighbors are thinking and feeling because, with new neighborhoods, you get to figure out what you want to be and how you can help shape the area.
Speaking of Market East, what drew you to the position at City Market?
I have a library background, but at the heart of it, it’s still the same type of position—you want to connect people with the spaces and services they want and need.
Makes perfect sense. You’re just coming in with a different perspective, a different way of identifying and addressing issues.
It is different. I’m used to dealing with books, but you know what? We dealt with a lot of food in libraries, too. We would do a lot of programming centered around food, like food politics. I’m not a stranger to these kinds of topics but being immersed in them is very new.
I have to ask: Do you organize your books by color?
I have done that! Color is a good way to organize them, though nobody else in the library world would agree with me. (laughs) Sometimes you remember what a book looks like, so if it’s organized by color, you know you can find it.
To jump back to City Market … When you first stepped into the position, a lot of people asked, “What are your plans? What are you going to do?” Now that you’ve had time to settle in, do you feel like you’ve gotten to know the business owners?
Yes. Merchants have been telling me, “Oh, wow. You’re actually listening to what we’re saying and trying to meet our needs.” In this position, you have to empathize. But you also have to know what’s happened in the food and hospitality industry over the past year so you can work with merchants to push City Market forward.
You’re taking the time to get a feel for what the actual issues are.
Yes. You need to take a moment to sit, listen, and absorb everything around you. Coming in and saying, “We’re going to change this,” never works. You have to make decisions based on information you discover and input you receive.
City Market lost foot traffic in 2020, thanks to COVID-19. What other concerns do merchants have?
Traffic is definitely a big part of it, and we have to figure out how to work together to bring the people back. One thing we are trying to promote is small groups, like your immediate family, coming for a meal. We’re working with merchants and trying to figure out how we can do that together, safely. Other concerns are about funding. We were able to provide rent assistance through the end of last year, and we’re investigating other ways we can do that this year. But there’s always the question of, “How do I pay my bills? How do I generate enough revenue to even pay myself?” We’re definitely trying to work with the merchants to figure that out.
I’m sure it doesn’t help that there’s construction as well right now—another thing you have zero control over.
Right. But the true testimony is that we are still open. I think that gets overlooked when people talk about merchants that have closed or have left for other opportunities. They forget there are merchants that are still open and serving people. I can’t stress enough that we do have merchants who have been resilient, and I think they deserve more credit than what they’ve been given.
I recently spoke with The Flower Boys, who are moving to Fletcher Place. What are your feelings on merchants leaving City Market?
If we’re going to be an incubator, that means people do have to leave. And that’s not a bad thing! If there is an opportunity for merchants to grow, to leave for a bigger and better place, we’re not upset.
Tell me more about the idea of City Market becoming an incubator.
As I was applying for this job and doing research, the notion of being an incubator crept up a lot. I think it’s wonderful, and I do think it’s something we need to develop. Certain spaces within City Market need to be set aside for incubation and business growth. It would be awesome to have a more formalized program where businesses could come to City Market, improve their concept, work out all the kinks, and then open another location elsewhere.
It’s like you’re a venture capitalist for those in the food industry. City Market is a place where someone can start a business, learn how to be successful, then graduate from their space there.
Right! I like that!
How can people support City Market and its merchants?
Primarily, we have food, but we do have a barbershop and a clothing store people can support. We are a venue people can rent for their celebrations, like a wedding or corporate reception or birthday party. And then there are the catacombs, which are very popular. We want to capitalize on them by having more catacombs events. We already partner with Indiana Landmarks to do catacombs tours, but we’ll be providing special tours during the NCAA tournament. That way, people from out of town will have an opportunity to take advantage of a place that is unique to Indianapolis, and to City Market itself.
Speaking of events, do you have any upcoming plans?
We’re going to do something special on Valentine’s Day! We have The Flower Boys doing bouquets, PROX Salad, Just Cookies. Anyone can come in, grab something, and support the merchants. On the Friday prior, we’re working on getting the mayor to come and do the vow renewal ceremony. Myself and my operations manager have also become ordained ministers, so we plan to do ceremonies throughout the year. I think that’s something very unique to us as well—you can get married by a market minister! CCA Sports will be restarting their cornhole and bocce ball tournaments in the spring, and we’ll be partnering with a motorcycle club called 317 Ryders to hold a special Saturday event. We’re very excited about that one, but for the most part, we’re just trying to figure out our niche for event rentals.
That’s really cool! Do you think those types of events or offerings help City Market stand out from developments like Bottleworks and 16 Tech?
Oh, absolutely. I know we can all coexist. I think some articles want to pit one place against the other, but I don’t really think that’s fair. Bottleworks has its own unique history and they can spin in a direction that’s best for them. And we have a few merchants who have shops there now, too! Indianapolis has enough people with enough interest to support these projects. We’re not new and shiny, but do we have appeal.
Do you feel like there’s any pressure for you to revamp City Market?
Everyone I’ve talked to has been super supportive and has offered up their help in any way they can contribute. The amount of support has been astounding. Everyone from the board to, you know, people I meet “out there,” have fond memories of City Market. I think that’s a remarkable testimony to the history of City Market. Perhaps I’m just helping put a new spin on it. This year hit everyone in hospitality and food extremely hard, so I don’t think we are alone in what’s happening to us.
“But the true testimony is that we are still open. I think that gets overlooked when people talk about merchants that have closed or have left for other opportunities. They forget there are merchants that are still open and serving people. I can’t stress enough that we do have merchants who have been resilient, and I think they deserve more credit than what they’ve been given.”
Are there any women you admire?
I admire my late mother. People just gravitated toward her. She had been a special ed teacher, so we’d be out and about, and a former student would come up and say, “Oh my God, it’s my favorite teacher!” That was always special to see.
What advice would you give a woman who wants to be in a leadership or management position someday?
As a Black woman, I can say, “Don’t give up.” Don’t let other people’s projections take over; stay true to yourself. That’s the only thing we all can do—stay true to ourselves. Don’t let other people derail you from what you want to do. Set goals, aim as high as you want, and then work your way there. It takes a village to raise a kid, and it takes a village to raise a leader. That’s one thing to keep in mind. I’m not here, in my current position, because of anything I did only by myself. I had my own personal goals, but there are many, many people who helped me along the way. I would be negligent if I didn’t acknowledge them.
I think that’s a characteristic of a good leader—acknowledging the people who helped you.
I don’t know anyone who could do what they do on their own. There’s a quote that says, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I just help people to shine and give people their due. Right now, my operations and facilities manager, Mandy, is instrumental. If she weren’t there doing what she’s tasked with doing, I don’t know how calm I could be in this interview. (laughs)
Was delegation something you had to learn over time or was it natural for you to say, “I trust you with this. I can give this to you and know it will be done well.”
That was something that I had to grow into because, initially, I did think I needed to do everything. By the time I got into the world of work, I could see it was more beneficial to work with others as a team. I don’t believe in reigning from on high, like “Oh, I’m coming into City Market and I’m going to tell you what to do because, in the interview, I learned everything there was to learn about it.” (laughs) Things don’t work like that. So, when people were asking me about my plans, I had to say, “Well, let me get in the door and figure things out.” I would not be a good leader if I came in with plans and just started unfolding them without having garnered any input.
Do you feel like your position at City Market could blaze a trail for people who come after you?
Oh, I hope so! Whenever I get to know the person who is replacing me, I tell them to look at what I’ve done. If they don’t like what I’ve done, now is their opportunity to redo it. I no longer work there, so they’re not going to offend me. (laughs) They can and should make it their own. I just try to lay groundwork so that anyone after me doesn’t have to do that.
Indianapolis City Market is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Support them by donating online.
Dawn Olsen is a regular Indy Maven contributor.