Fostering a Global Community in downtown Des Moines: Meet Gravitate’s International Members

As the holiday season approaches, it’s important to take time to reflect and remember all the reasons we have to give thanks. At Gravitate, we’re thankful to be part of Des Moines’ strong, vibrant entrepreneurial community. We’re thankful for innovative ideas, supportive community partners, and a diverse collection of passionate members. So as Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we’d like to introduce you to some Gravitate members who originally hail from outside of the United States.

While they call everywhere from the UK to Malaysia home, when we asked what the biggest shift to life in Iowa has been the responses were surprisingly similar. Overall, one of the biggest changes was the culture and community in Iowa. Almost everyone commented on how friendly—occasionally, a little too friendly—and willing to get to know new people the Iowans they’ve met are.

“Iowans have a community mindset. In comparison if you go to Chicago, New York, or Paris, you’ll notice that people are much less friendly,” says Julien Duhautois, originally from France. “I used to think it was strange of the cashiers at Hy-Vee to ask me how my day is going. I thought it was weird when I had a drink at a bar and my American friends would start socializing with other random groups or individuals they didn’t know.”

“Brits are renowned for being personally reserved so we tend not to dive into personal talk right away,” Anthony Counsell added. “Sometimes that can be interpreted as cold or aloof (it’s not!). Iowans are generally very open early in conversations so I have adjusted to that.”

Not only have these immigrants felt welcomed in Iowa, but more specifically within Gravitate’s community of entrepreneurs, remote workers and independent workers. By far their favorite thing about the space was its variety of members and the community they’ve created around it. When it comes to making improvements, the most anyone could say was that they’d like to see an effort to attract more members and continue expanding the Gravitate community.

“My favorite thing working out of Gravitate is the aspect of community and the members,” says Wesley Ng. “It’s really helped me transition from a student life into working life in the sense that I have met so many new people and build relationships and networks.”

So you can get to know them a bit better, we asked a handful of Gravitate’s coworkers with international backgrounds to share a bit about themselves and their experiences in their own words.


Anthony Counsell, England

I am from Manchester in England and moved to the U.S. (Raleigh, North Carolina) in 2004. A year later I was moved by my employer to Des Moines. I flew to Des Moines once or twice for business meetings and then made an offer on a house in an afternoon without a tremendous amount of due diligence. Actually, with no due diligence.

Photo courtesy of Anthony

Photo courtesy of Anthony

I was in my mid-20s at the time, very career-oriented, and wasn’t thinking “lifelong decision” at that point. Ten years later, I am married to a local (from Oskaloosa, Iowa) and have lived in Waukee the entire time. I would qualify as an “Iowa captive” and voluntarily so. I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather live…ask me again in January.
 
What do you do for work? How did you come to be at Gravitate?
 
I work for Dell as part of a sales team focused on data center technology. One of the most fun parts of the job is traveling throughout the state. I haven’t formally checked them off a list, but I think I have visited all 99 counties. [I’ve visited] lots of unique people and places. I love finding quirky bars in small towns.
 
In big businesses you can find yourself fairly disconnected from the local ecosystem. Companies have their own cultures, customs, vocabularies, and even their own accents, believe it or not. I am an entrepreneurial spirit (I sold my first business in 2000) and wanted to become more connected to the local Des Moines innovation community. Local being the key. It’s a sense of community as much as anything else. That’s why I joined Gravitate—different perspectives outside the echo chamber.
 
Dell has an office in West Des Moines, but I like to come and work a couple of times a week at Gravitate and also participate in various user groups hosted at Gravitate.
 
One of the things I like to bring is helping connect people. When you work in a town for years you meet a lot of people. I always enjoy connecting people and watching good ideas turn into things.
 
How is living in Iowa different from your home country? What's been the biggest adjustment?
 
You can point to the obvious—driving on a different side, vast distances, severe cold weather, paying for healthcare—but surprisingly, I’d say there hasn’t been a huge adjustment. People are truly more similar than they are different. I think the most interesting adjustments have not been the big things but the subtleties of communication and building relationships.
 
There are layers of complexity there that you could write a book about. Not just at the international level but even between cities (say Des Moines and Minneapolis) I think. 
 
As a very broad statement, and therefore wrong, I would say communication is somewhat less direct in Iowa because there is a greater emphasis on achieving personal consensus. For the unaccustomed it can be hard to read. Brits are renowned for being personally reserved so we tend not to dive into personal talk right away. Sometimes that can be interpreted as cold or aloof (it’s not!). Iowans are generally very open early in conversations so I have adjusted to that.
 
What's your favorite thing about working out of Gravitate? What would you like to see more of?

1. Meeting crazy people. 2. The beer keg. I would like to see more of both.

Andrea Doubleday, South Korea

Tell us a bit about where you're from and how you came to live in Des Moines.

I was born in South Korea. I lived there until I was two years old. I was a military brat so I moved a bit. We lived in Virginia until I was 9, and moved to Florida then. I decided to move to Iowa when I turned 18 because I wanted to meet my extended family. I've been stuck in Iowa ever since. I definitely wasn't planning on living here for 10 years—this winter! I've been back to Korea twice now—for six weeks while I was in elementary school, and over three months in high school. I miss it so much. Korea isn't very big but it has a little bit of everything—city life, mountains, beaches, lakes, etc. 

What do you do for work? How did you come to be at Gravitate?

I work at Hatchlings, a social media gaming company. I do social media, event planning, customer support, and whatever other things need to be done that aren't coding or graphic design. Hatchlings was a part of Gravitate from the beginning, so I got to be a part of this community when I started Hatchlings over a year ago.

Julien Duhautois, France

Tell us a bit about where you're from and how you came to live in Des Moines.

I was born in Canada and lived in Ottawa for two years. Then we moved to France because my parents and family are French. It turns out my parents were simply working in Ottawa for a little while. I do not have Canadian citizenship because at least one of your parents has to be Canadian for that to happen (different from the U.S. where you only need to be born in the land). I’ve lived in France until I was 19 years old, which is the turning point in my life. I went to Coe College in Cedar Rapids to complete my senior year. I ended up staying in Cedar Rapids for five more years, and I moved to Des Moines five months ago.

What do you do for work? How did you come to be at Gravitate?

I am an Account Manager for SmartLead, a CRM software and marketing automation company. I have a handful of Fortune 500 and large privately owned companies that I consult with. I design, project manage, and report on lead management and marketing initiatives. I have been working with SmartLead for over four years. As I wanted to move to Des Moines we looked into options for me to stay with the company without working from home. We found Gravitate and it turned out to be the perfect place to work remotely.

How is living in Iowa different from your home country? What's been the biggest adjustment?

Photo courtesy of Julien

Photo courtesy of Julien

Living in Iowa is very different from France. The population density is 200 people per square mile where I am from. In Iowa it’s 55. It makes a huge difference because I can’t quickly travel from town to town. There is a ton of empty spaces in between and the next big city is usually at least two hours away.

On the good side, since Iowa doesn’t have big cities or population centers, Iowans have a community mindset, even in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. In comparison if you go to Chicago, New York, or Paris, you’ll notice that people are much less friendly. I used to think it was strange of the cashiers at Hy-Vee to ask me how my day is going. I thought it was weird when I had a drink at a bar and my American friends would start socializing with other random groups or individuals they didn’t know. Today I’ve entirely assimilated this culture and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s one of the main reasons why I love Iowa and want to stay around.
I used to be super bored, too. Activities aren’t the same. When you first move to a different country it takes a few years to figure out what people do with their free time. You learn to redefine your own occupations. I wouldn’t spend a summer without going canoeing, floating, playing tennis tournaments all over the state, and drinking around a fire pit. I didn’t do any of these things in France.

Of course there has been other adjustments such as cooking ($10 for a tiny block of cheese?! Really?!), language etc. But the above is definitely the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make.

Gabe Nanaziashvili, Azerbaijan

Tell us a bit about where you're from and how you came to live in Des Moines.

I came to the U.S. with my parents, my brother, and my grand mother in 1991 as refugees from Baku, Azerbaijan. I guess I was 14 back then. The toughest thing was to leave some of our family and all of my friends behind. The U.S. Embassy found the Jewish Federation in Des Moines to be our sponsors. That’s how we ended up in Iowa and have been here ever since!

What do you do for work? How did you come to be at Gravitate?

Photo courtesy of Gabe

Photo courtesy of Gabe

I am a Software Engineer by trade, and I enjoy being close to software product development. My business partner, Alex Niswander, and I started building MenuMento about three months ago. MenuMento is an app to make it easy for people to stay connected with restaurants. I love going to restaurants and want to stay more connected with them, which is how MenuMento got started.

How is living in Iowa different from your home country? What's been the biggest adjustment?

Public transportation versus having your own vehicle is one of the biggest differences. Otherwise, I wish there were mountains here and a body of some salt water!

What's your favorite thing about working out of Gravitate? What would you like to see more of?

Gravitate is a great place to be able to get away from the home office, especially in the morning, just to have a place to begin a productive day ASAP. The community is great at Gravitate. Everyone pretty much has an “open door policy.” Everyone is friendly and happy to help. I love the open floor plan in the Google Bullpen. I can't ask for more. I’m happy to be part of Gravitate community.

Wesley Ng, Malaysia

Tell us a bit about where you're from and how you came to live in Des Moines.

I’m from Malaysia, a tiny country about the size of Alabama in the southeast Asia region. Malaysia is an extremely diverse country and, in my opinion, has probably one of the most exquisites cuisines due to the wide range of diversity. It’s located on the equator thus having a tropical, hot, and humid climate. I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, which has a population of approximately 1.4 million.

When I was in high school, I decided that I would go to the states to study in attempts to follow in my brother’s footsteps. I came to Drake University to study Actuarial Science (graduated with a Computer Science degree) with the reason that I wanted to live in a smaller town and experience a friendly American culture as I had lived in a city all my life.

What do you do for work? How did you come to be at Gravitate?

I’m a Software Developer for Docustream Inc, Medical Claims Processing Company. I work closely with the .Net framework and mainly code in C#. My company is based in California and I work remotely out of Des Moines, which is how I came about Gravitate. Gravitate is a great place to work in my opinion, it exposes you to so many opportunities to meet people, network and build relationships.

How is living in Iowa different from your home country? What's been the biggest adjustment?

Living in Iowa has been a great experience, I absolutely love the people here as they are so friendly and generally cheerful! That aside, Iowa and Malaysia have significant differences with a few major ones being:

  • Food: Food in Iowa or U.S. as a whole has an entirely different palate emphasis than Malaysia. Malaysian food tends to contrast flavors such as sweet and sour and can sometimes be overpowering while food in the States tends to have a tendency to pair ingredients that share many of the same flavor compounds.
  • Weather: Malaysia has tropical weather while Iowa has freezing cold during winter and blazing heat during summer. The extended days and shortened days during season changes are also a very exciting difference!
Wesley (right) and his family, photo courtesy of Wesley

Wesley (right) and his family, photo courtesy of Wesley

But the largest adjustment, in my opinion, is culture. The difference between what is socially acceptable and what isn’t—grammar that is used (I remember when I used to say “I am going to the toilet” and people would look at me funny) and styles of communication. In Malaysia, being direct may be perceived as rude and disrespectful, especially when it comes to a debate or disagreement in opinions. Other than that, Malaysia emphasizes collectivism while America emphasizes individualism. It sounds very vague, but it creates such a huge impact because it affects people down to the way they tick. In the sense that America leans towards encouraging individuals to be more ambitious and to be the difference that they want to make while Malaysia would lean more towards considering how their decisions would impact their families, colleagues, and friends. Also, most meals that I’ve had in Malaysia were shared in the sense that we would order dishes to share while I get my meal all to myself here! That aside, it was really weird and oddly exciting wearing shoes into a person’s home as opposed to taking them off at the door!

Steve Sherlock, Australia

Tell us a bit about where you're from and how you came to live in Des Moines.

In my case to answer "where you're from" isn't straightforward. I was born in Dublin, Ireland, the youngest of six children. In 1970, my parents courageously immigrated to Australia (with kids ranging from 1–14 years of age). I grew up in Melbourne and consider myself an Aussie—but it sure is handy to have a European passport as well.

Before coming to Des Moines, I lived in Berlin and before that in Santiago, Chile. My brother and I came to Iowa by way of the Global Insurance Accelerator, and I decided to stay on and build the business out of here rather than returning to Berlin.

What do you do for work? How did you come to be at Gravitate?

Photo courtesy of Steve

Photo courtesy of Steve

Did you hear the BOOM? That’s the speed of growth in the vacation rental and Airbnb markets. We help Airbnb managers to cover their guest travel and cancellation risks in a super easy and high-tech way. I initially worked every now and then from Gravitate, before I started working with Turker and Jay building software, and we now share one of the corner offices together.

How is living in Iowa different from your home country? What's been the biggest adjustment?

I'm a pretty adaptable person after having lived in six different countries over a seven year period. I guess it's fair to say I'm not here to enjoy myself socially, but instead focused pretty much solely on building our business (which is a joy in itself). Des Moines is obviously a much slower pace. It's much whiter, and colder (at least in winter) than I'm used to. I do enjoy how compact the city is, how close the YMCA and yoga studio is, and how easy it is to get around on my bike. I appreciate the very active tech and startup scene, which I find very supportive.