Denise Parnell is a lifelong Memphian, but she grew up living in neighborhoods all over the city. Being able to see the distinctions and connections throughout these areas made her particularly well suited for a path focused on bringing people together for a shared purpose. She began her career expecting to focus on higher education, but after being frequently tasked with communications projects, she realized her calling might be in her ability to compellingly share a story or idea. She joined Explore Bike Share in the months before its May 2018 launch to help connect Memphis through the city’s first bike-sharing system. Now that the nonprofit’s bikes are on the ground, she is working to build a deeper understanding of Memphis through this new form of transportation.
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born right here in Memphis. I started in Binghampton, then Orange Mound, then we moved to Hickory Hill, and then Bartlett. I would say that my upbringing was really eclectic, because I got to see all over the city. I traveled a lot over the summers, so I got to see a little bit of the world as well. It was really cool to come back to Memphis and share those experiences with my friends who couldn’t really do those kinds of things.
What made you choose Memphis as the place to start your professional life?
I think, like a lot of Memphians, I decided, “Oh, I’m going to leave.” When you’re here, you think there’s something for you somewhere else. But every time I found a really great opportunity, it was always here, and I kept meeting really great people who were instrumental in my development who would tell me about opportunities or recommend me for things. I just wasn’t getting that other places. I think that’s something that’s really special about Memphis.
You worked in four different academic settings. What did you learn through your experiences in higher education?
I learned a lot about working with different kinds of people. I also learned that you have to meet people where they are and also understand you can’t try to push folks into a box. I worked at two small, private universities and then two mid-sized universities. I saw the difference in public and private and in size and came to understand that everybody has a different fit for what they need. The best way to serve people is to adjust to what they need.
What drew you into communications and community engagement?
I initially thought I would be staying in higher education, but every time it was “We need a newsletter” or “We need to start an ambassador program for promotions” or “We need social media,” it just always got sent to me. I found out that I really enjoyed it, and so I explored it a little bit more, and when an opportunity came up at Memphis College of Art, I was like, this is a perfect balance. I get to work with students, but I’m also still working in communications. So it was a great transition for me.
Your blog, The Elle Aesthetic, gives you space to explore food, travel and fashion. How does having that focus inspire you in your daily life?
It inspires me because, especially with traveling, I get to meet so many people and talk to them about Memphis. So many people have this really strange view of what Memphis is. It’s great to meet other people and tell them about the food and the people and the things that we have to do here.
I see TheElleAesthetic.com as a creative outlet and another form of community engagement. Blogging allows me to explore Memphis like a tourist and to share the great things happening here with followers across the city and around the world.
You have had many roles that involve connecting people to their communities. What are the things or places that make you feel a connection to Memphis?
I would say food is a big connector in Memphis. Whenever I am just getting to know somebody, usually that’s one of the first things we talk about — where is the best place to go for brunch, or where do you like to go for drinks?
Why did you want to be involved in bringing Explore Bike Share to Memphis?
I’m a native Memphian, and I thought this was something great that Memphis would need. I also wanted to bring my ideas and be in a place that was fresh – somewhere I’d be able to explore and develop with the company as it was growing. It was really exciting to me to see how everything in Memphis is changing, including how we look at transportation and biking.
I think a lot of times Memphis gets stuck on neighborhoods and people don’t really leave their neighborhoods. The great thing about this, even for me, is I’ve seen parts of the city I’ve never been to just because of our community rides. I wanted to be part of connecting the city and seeing things change.
The launch has exceeded expectations as far as ridership. What has it been like to see this project come from nothing and get such a positive reception?
It’s really great to actually see it and to have Memphians be a part of our launch. That’s been the really exciting part, having the skeptics see we can do this. We can do anything as a city. I think that gets the wheels turning for other projects.
What are your hopes for the system?
Definitely some expansion — I’m really excited about working with some more neighborhood organizations. It’s been great to meet with people and have them talk about the program and how they want to see it used in their neighborhoods. That’s going to give us a lot of flexibility and creativity.
Where do you take visitors or newcomers to Memphis?
I definitely take them on Broad Avenue. I grew up in Binghampton, so it’s been great to see the evolution of the street and the culture that’s happening over there. I would take guests to grab coffee at City & State. If we’re lucky and Kaleidoscope Kitchen is having another pop-up, there’s no better place to grab lunch. We would wrap up with shopping at 20Twelve and Mbabazi and finish with dinner and cocktails at The Liquor Store.
What is your best advice?
To paraphrase a manager I had at Hofstra University, “Learn it, own it, show it.” I came in a bit shy, and she was like, “This is your learning process, but once you learn it, feel comfortable and be able to delegate and show people that you are in this role for a reason. Don’t be afraid to take up space.” I think those are some great words of advice.
What are three things you can’t live without?
My phone, my Explore Bike Share membership and brunch.
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