DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Architecture firm Gensler refers to its space at 500 S. Figueroa St. as the “Jewel Box,” and it’s easy to see why. Tucked between the twin 52-story skyscrapers of City National Plaza, the glass structure seems to glitter in the light.  

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It’s not just Gensler employees who get to enjoy the space. Several mornings a month, people from Downtown and beyond show up to hear some thought-provoking business minds speak. This week is particularly busy, with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone appearing on Thursday, April 10, and Moneyball and The Blind Side author Michael Lewis arriving the next morning. Pixar co-founder and President Ed Catmull speaks on April 16.

The events are part of the Live Talks Business Forums, created by Ted Habte-Gabr. More than anything, Habte-Gabr, who previously produced events for entities including the Library Foundation and the Drucker School of Management, was inspired by a lack of serious morning events where people could hear from experts, engage in business issues and network with like-minded peers. 

“I didn’t want the focus to be on a roast chicken lunch,” he joked. “I wanted smart people onstage, smart people in the audience, an opportunity to connect with each other and be back in the office by 9:30.” 

Habte-Gabr launched the arts- and culture-focused Live Talks series, which holds events around Los Angeles, in 2010, and created the business-oriented offshoot a year later. The forums start at 7:45 a.m. and cost $20 (including a continental breakfast). Speakers have included Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, Nobel Laureate in Economics Daniel Kahneman and author Malcolm Gladwell.

While the speakers vary wildly, each brings a take on progressive themes such as social entrepreneurship, innovation and business ethics, Habte-Gabr said. Speakers are also usually promoting a book or another product, as with Stone’s Things a Little Bird Told Me and Catmull’s upcoming Creativity, Inc., which explores why and how Pixar became a cutting-edge leader in animation and entertainment. 

Despite some thematic similarities, however, each guest requires a slightly different approach when crafting an event. Sometimes, the personality has enough name recognition to warrant attention, as with Twitter’s Stone. Other times, the event seeks to address pressing questions and concerns through an expert who might not be a household name. 

“In June, we’ll have Aneesh Chopra, whom most people wouldn’t know,” Habte-Gabr said. “But he’s the first chief technology officer to work in the White House, and he’s talking about innovation in government, which is so significant.” 

No Boundaries

Almost as important as the speaker is the venue. Practically speaking, Gensler’s first-floor atrium provides flexibility, as it can accommodate anywhere from a couple dozen people to more than 150. The sleek, creative-office feel also sets the tone for the forums better than, say, a dull hotel ballroom, Habte-Gabr noted. The lack of boundaries (such as a big stage) between speakers and audience members helps the events seem more intimate. 

“One of the beauties of doing this at Gensler is that speakers or interviewers can look into the eyes of the people in the front row and can engage based on audience reactions,” he said.

The choice of venue benefits Gensler, too. The events have introduced the company and its space to people unfamiliar with the firm, Managing Principal Rob Jernigan said, not to mention that employees enjoy listening to distinguished speakers. Another upside is that the Business Forums activate the space before office hours, giving the building life when it would otherwise remain unused.

“Can a private office be a public space? That’s the premise,” Jernigan said. “We recognize that it’s important to figure out utilization of a space outside of office hours. It’s a sort of gift we can bring to the community.”

A lack of public interactivity was one of the downsides of Gensler’s 20-year stay in Santa Monica, and outreach became a priority when the firm began brainstorming for the “next version of the company” before its move to Downtown, said Lesley Grant, regional marketing director at Gensler. The firm arrived in the Central City in 2011.

“It was important to everyone that we connected and got involved in the community,” she said. “Santa Monica was a lovely place to be, but we weren’t connected beyond our own world and office.” 

That concern has been remedied in Downtown, and Habte-Gabr is eyeing ways to expand. He’s considering evening events or branching out to another part of town. A more immediate goal is to live-stream the Downtown Forums on the Internet. 

It’s a lot of work considering that Habte-Gabr pretty much runs the show alone, with neither an office nor a full-time Live Talks staff. Still, people are showing up, and as long as that happens, Habte-Gabr plans to keep doing what he does best: give Downtowners the business. 

Tickets and information for the Live Talks Business Forums are at livetalksbusiness.com

eddie@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @eddiekimx

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014