As a student at the Milton Hershey School (MHS) in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Garry Gilliam was taught to develop his mind, body, spirit, and community, and continuously give back to others. Later, as a Penn State student-athlete, Coach Joe Paterno strengthened Gilliam’s commitment to demonstrating “success with honor” in all that he does. These two influences would directly inspire Gilliam’s personal mission to use his platform to give back to others and make a significant impact on the world.
In February of 2019, after playing in the NFL for five years, Gilliam was ready start his next chapter. He thought back to his business classes at Penn State where he was encouraged to identify a customer’s pain point and develop and a product or service that would solve the problem. The first issue Gilliam wanted to tackle was in his hometown, Harrisburg, PA, where residents experienced widespread systematic oppression. He decided the best way to counter these issues was to instill the same concepts he learned as a young man. To do so, he would replicate the Milton Hershey ecosystem in an innovative way.
In April 2019, Gilliam’s concept for The Bridge began to take shape and his team, fellow MHS graduates and athletes, was formed. Their mission would be to transform abandoned facilities in underserved towns like Harrisburg into sustainable, mixed-use “Eco-Villages” that offer housing, retail, co-working space, urban agriculture, education, and entertainment. By that fall Gilliam secured The Bridge’s main campus, the former Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg.
Over the next few two years, The Bridge team continued to build out their plan. While the COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges, it also brought opportunities; with many abandoned schools, malls and properties being turned over to municipalities and land banks, Gilliam could utilize American Rescue Plan dollars to secure these properties and convert them into eco-villages.
During this period, Gilliam reached out to Annie Hughes, Director of the Harrisburg Launchbox, who ultimately connected him with the Penn State Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and Business Consultant Will Hooten. Hooten initially helped Gilliam and his team develop financial projections and a business plan, and has gone on to support disparity study research, data compilation, the identification of and application for various grants, management consulting support, and expansion planning.
“The SBDC has been at the core of the business side of things,” says Gilliam. “I’m very grateful for Will, who has been great at consolidating data on a federal and global level to help us streamline information to make it palatable and provide actual solutions.”
Since their initial purchase, The Bridge has acquired properties in additional cities across the country, including the first “scattered ecosystem,” to be located in Pittsburgh, PA. Through these communities, Gilliam hopes to revitalize underserved neighborhoods, provide workforce preparedness for residents, combat systematic oppression by providing access to programs and opportunities, and empower others to make a change.
Gilliam’s work is being noticed on a national scale. The Bridge has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Medium, Business Insider, and more. The Penn State SBDC looks forward to continued work with Gilliam and his team as they expand their reach and impact across the country.