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Brett Kaufman Gets Comfortable With Himself

The developer overcame a painful childhood before finding success.

Laurie Allen
Brett Kaufman at Gravity in Franklinton

Early last year, Brett Kaufman, founder and CEO of Kaufman Development, had 10 minutes to speak before an audience of more than 1,000 at the Columbus Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. He spent eight minutes talking about his personal journey, not his business.

“I can’t talk about one without the other,” says the developer, entrepreneur and investor. Standing in front of city business leaders, he knew it was important to present himself authentically, without fear. Ironically, Kaufman, who hosts a podcast, coaches and is involved in other high-visibility projects, considers himself an introvert. He says he speaks because it is part of his purpose. “We all have a responsibility to love one another and support one another,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the love and support. It does mean something.”

Kaufman talks freely about his painful past. He says he grew up with a father who was beset with various addictions. “That was really difficult,” he says. “At the same time, he was trying to instill values around being a man … his stuff came out on me. There was a lot of verbal abuse.”

Kaufman considers himself fortunate to have been in therapy most of his life, and to have a mother who was courageous enough to take him and his sister out of the dysfunctional, unhappy home when he was 10. She eventually remarried and Brett established a healthier father-son relationship with his stepfather, Gary Schottenstein.

People’s early years have a profound impact, yet need not encage or define them, says Kaufman. Sharing experiences, whether in a 12-step group, during therapy or with a trusted friend, “seems to really make a difference … I think you just have to raise your hand and have the courage to say, ‘I need help.’”

Today, Kaufman is grateful that his experiences helped define both his career path and personal vision.

“I have a deeply held belief in how things happen. They are there to teach, to help me learn and understand, and be part of the divine architecture,” he says.

He graduated from Ohio State University, after attending the first two-and-a-half years at the University of Arizona. Kaufman then chose a career in banking—for all the wrong reasons, he says. “I tried to fit in with societal norms of look good, be successful, make money, be somebody, be something,” he recalls. “I became a banker so I could show up at my five-year reunion with a business card. I dressed up in a suit and tie every day. I knew that looking good was the key thing. I knew how to fake it.”

His job with Bank One Capital took him to Texas, where he met a developer who inspired his interest in real estate development. Years later, he was introduced to Landmark Forum and other personal development and entrepreneurial leadership programs that focused on “how to become the best version of yourself,” Kaufman says.

The combination of those experiences and therapy work led to the dawning realization that “I could author my own life,” he says.

The past influenced but did not define him, and he set about incorporating things that mattered to him—meditation, sustainability and uplifting others—with his professional vision when he started his company in 2011. “It became part of how I would build communities. What if we put all of that at people’s doorsteps?”

Kaufman’s Gravity project at 500 W. Broad St. embodies his world view. The mixed-used development blends apartments, offices and event spaces with restaurants and public art. Designed to promote holistic living, Gravity’s wellness-based resident programming includes meditation, yoga and public art. Kaufman has partnered with Columbus charity clearinghouse Besa to bring numerous volunteer activities to residents, and a unique program called Rhove offers equity to apartment dwellers.

Demystifying therapy and making it an uplifting experience is the driver behind Innerspace at Gravity, a planned co-working space for a wide array of mental health and wellness professionals, including therapists, substance-abuse counselors, coaches and nutritionists.

The idea of coalescing wellness with business “is unfolding more and more,” Kaufman says. “Ten years ago, you would try to explain to a banker why you’re spending money on a meditation center. Today the banker is taking off his tie and coming to the meditation center.”

He says Kaufman Development has engaged therapists and coaches since its inception, which underscores his belief in the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace and dissolving the stigma around it.

And, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged him to adjust on both a personal and business level.

“Some things have made me sad and afraid,” he admits, but “the work I’ve done allows me to be a little more grounded in times of turmoil.” Inspired by efforts to unite the community early in the pandemic, Gravity launched a program to move murals created by local artists throughout the city’s hospitals to uplift those within.

He finds it helpful to “really make room for all of it, including the emotions that are hard to be with. I am a believer in silver linings, and that this experience is serving and teaching me and that, yes, life is beautiful.”

But he acknowledges that he doesn’t always feel that way. It’s important to honor negative feelings rather than take “a spiritual bypass,” he says.

“I don’t take the privilege that I have for granted,” Kaufman adds. “ ‘It’s meant to be’ is not always so easy when you lose your job or you get sick … there are a lot of people suffering.”