Building a better world
Britnie Keane was 12 years old when a prophetic dream set her on the course that would inspire her life’s work.
Raised as the second oldest of six children on a South Carolina farm, where she and her siblings were home-schooled by her mom, she developed an early empathy for animals and the young. Yet she was sitting in church actually thinking about boys — not how she could translate her compassion into a future career — when she had a vision of herself doing mission work in Africa.
Her purpose seemed set.
“All I really wanted to do was save babies in Africa,” says Britnie. “I wanted to be a missionary.”
Same drive, new vision
Yet today Britnie is the founder and CEO of Aerial Development Group. The Nashville-based real estate firm was named the sixth fastest-growing, woman-owned company in the world by Forbes last year. At the time, Britnie had just turned 28.
Being a celebrated entrepreneur and real estate mogul may seem worlds away from her childhood aspirations but she’s still very much doing what she always dreamed she would.
“I was always driven by my purpose but my idea of what that looks like has changed drastically,” she says. “It started with me wanting to be a missionary in Africa, and ended up with me being a real estate developer in Nashville, who is learning every day how to use her resources as a force for good.”
Developing with a purpose
Aerial, which she launched at the age of 21, prioritizes building community, not just houses. Its revitalization of urban neighborhoods, initially through the redevelopment of blighted communities and now through infill development (new construction on vacant or under-used parcels), has focused on creating safe and vibrant living areas.
East Greenway Park, for example, is a recent single-family home project in East Nashville that includes urban gardens, walking trails and outdoor gym equipment. With Tennessee among the top 10 states with the highest obesity rates in the country, the neighborhood was designed to promote active, healthy lifestyles. Aerial gives a bike to every household.
The company has also selected a nonprofit that employs women getting out of prostitution and sex trafficking as a tenant for a neighborhood coffee shop.
A broader impact
“Helping others has been my top passion my entire life,” says Britnie, who recently has been spending much of her time in the British Virgin Islands, where she has several friends, working on strategies to rebuild in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“It is easy to stay motivated when you know that your life can make a way for others,” she says. “My life purpose is to create opportunity for those who have none.”
That includes the orphans she initially imagined she’d spend her life saving. Aerial sponsors an orphan in Africa for every home it sells.
It’s a melding of capitalism and philanthropy that keeps her focused, says Britnie, on “excellence and impact.”
“It’s the concept of having a mission-focused company that people don’t have to support to feel good, but they want to support because it is excellent. As the future generations arise, I believe it’s the only sustainable business model,” she says.
The path to her dreams
Britnie did actually take several mission trips in high school, juggling five jobs, including waitressing and lifeguarding, to travel to Kenya and Jamaica in the summers. She even enrolled in a leadership program at MorningStar University, a South Carolina ministry school, that taught students how to survive in extreme situations.
There she was inspired by a talk given by multi-millionaire investor Gene Strite who suggested she could make enough to do good anywhere in the world by buying a house with no money down and renting it out.
She bought her first house at 18 while working long days as a waitress and reading every book on real estate she could find.
When she decided to move to Nashville, success didn’t come easy. She found and lost a job, volunteered to work for free for two real estate investors rehabbing houses in a drug-infested neighborhood, and lived on and off in her car.
“And finally,” she says, “I flipped my first house. I kept flipping and flipping and flipping until I started my company.”
Strength and perseverance
“I definitely struggled being a 21-year-old woman in the south operating in a predominantly male industry,” says Britnie. “I learned I had to be smarter, work harder and be more focused than any of my competitors if I wanted to do the things I didn’t look the part to do.”
Like any business leader, she experiences setbacks, has moments that frustrate and overwhelm her. But thinking back to a mission trip she took to Costa Rica at the age of 16 helps her keep perspective.
“I looked into the eyes of a little girl who had been sexually abused by her father. In that culture, it was accepted for the father to ‘break in’ his daughters. I was so devastated by this news that I decided to dedicate my life to change what’s socially acceptable,” says Britnie. “When I have hard days, I see her and it keeps me going.”