Len Gray is a fan of the underdog. In fact, the Memphis native is so supportive of the overlooked and underappreciated that he's been known to switch NFL allegiances when the team he's rooting for gets too good. Call it the reverse bandwagon effect.
Admittedly, Cleveland was at the bottom of the list when Gray was looking for a new home for Inlaw.me
, an online recruiting aid that connects legal employers with candidates. The startup's bearded co-founder has family here -- his sister and mother moved to the area during the late '90s -- but Gray had always viewed Cleveland as a better place to visit than live.
"I've seen downtown maybe a half dozen times in my life," says Gray, 35. "For me, Cleveland ended at the Clinic. I never thought I'd end up here."
That attitude changed drastically when casting about for a city in which to launch his company. Cleveland was vying against some handsome suitors for Gray's entrepreneurial affections, among them Philadelphia, Seattle, Austin, and his home state of Tennessee.
Gray was impressed by aspects of other metropolises, particularly Seattle's robust tech culture, but the surprising accessibility of Cleveland's business community, not to mention its own growing tech clusters, quickly moved the city up in the rankings.
"I met so many people excited about the idea," Gray says. "I needed Cleveland to knock my socks off -- and it did."
The would-be entrepreneur, who moved here only three weeks ago, currently is in talks with a local startup accelerator about a possible partnership, a match Gray hopes becomes reality by the time this article runs. Meanwhile, business development agency JumpStart
has provided him with much-needed mentorship opportunities and advice.
This palpable spirit of collaboration and enthusiasm was an attraction in and of itself, says Gray. He feels as if he's part of an ongoing civic revival, a far cry from the "ho-hum defeatism" some people associate with Cleveland.
"I wanted a buzz, [a place] where collective action was being taken to improve the area," he says. "Collaborative action means we're all better off."
Of course, it's unlikely that Gray would have moved to Cleveland if he didn't think the infrastructure and capital were going to be here. The local market boasts a number of large law firms, while Northeast Ohio's law schools are stocking a rich talent pool that could one day use Inlaw.me as a resource.
As for funding the embryonic enterprise, Gray's interaction with Cleveland's open-armed entrepreneurial community has made him optimistic. "I see a city trying to invest in itself," he says. "I'm confident the money will be there."
What the area's venture capitalists might soon fund is an idea that Gray first heard from his friend and business partner Steven Holzman. Gray, who earned his law degree from University of Michigan and later worked in Atlanta, Houston and New York City,
knew the frustrations of an attorney recruiting process largely dominated by headhunters pursuing the same candidates from the same 100 law schools.
With no centralized resource for budding lawyers trying to crack the job market, the current recruitment method is inefficient, Gray believes. His company aims to streamline the process by tailoring placements to the best candidates at a lower rate than what is charged by headhunters.
"For us, it's about making the best matches," says Gray.
The website's approach is novel, notes its co-founder, and has already garnered 2,800 job postings in 500 domestic and international markets. What's more, Inlaw.me can shift the moral compass of a recruitment industry that too often shoves any candidate into any job for the love of a fat commission. Gray wants to cultivate his company on a socially aware platform that even he admits is idealistic, if not a bit Pollyannaish.
"We can be a positive influence," he says. "We want to be viewed by our clients as a partner and friend."
While acclimating to Cleveland, having family here has helped speed along the process. His sister Jamie Light lives in Beachwood. His mother Shari Meyers lived in University Heights before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2009.
Now he's happily enmeshing himself in all the city has to offer. His last stop was the hipster haven of Brooklyn, so he'd like to settle down in a similarly walkable, diverse and urban neighborhood. Currently renting in the Coventry area, he's looking at more permanent addresses on the West Side; among them Tremont and Ohio City.
Fresh eyes have afforded Gray a unique view of Cleveland, which he describes as "islands of awesome among pockets of emptiness." His adopted home reminds him of Memphis, a city he references often and with great fondness. Both towns have been afflicted by a so-called "brain drain," and both are now actively trying to reinvent themselves to reverse that process.
Gray half-jokingly says he's been cooking his phone and social networks to recruit friends to Cleveland. He's also been enjoying some the area's finer hangouts, including Mahall's Lanes in Lakewood and Nano Brew on W. 25th St. A Coventry Road coffee shop is another of his favorite chill out spots, as is Rockefeller Park, where he likes to walk his dog Molly, a Swiss mountain dog.
As much as he loves Memphis, Cleveland very well might end up serving as home base for Inlaw.me, Gray says. And if his adoptive city is reawakening the way the young attorney believes it is, he'll be glad to act as a cog in the machine when it really starts to crank up.
"Cleveland has a way to go to see what it will be," he says. "I'm carving out my own piece."
Photos Bob Perkoski