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Nashville Moment: Hal Cato

Cato is diving right back into nonprofits as the newly minted CEO of the social enterprise Thistle Farms.

Written By:  Kristin Luna

Photographers:  Shannon Fontaine

Hal Cato, Entrepreneur

In the business world, Hal Cato is one of Nashville’s most recognizable names, not to mention a relentless cheerleader for the city. For the past three decades, he’s oscillated between the private and nonprofit sectors; aside from having built an impressive career in health care, he served as CEO for Oasis Center for 10 years and founded Hands On Nashville. After selling his tech startup Zeumo—a platform that enables communication between hospitals and their physicians via phones and tablets—over the summer, Cato is diving right back into nonprofits as the newly minted CEO of the social enterprise Thistle Farms.

Do-Gooder: The Nashville native has long been an advocate for the city’s youth, having helped start Alignment Nashville, the Nashville After Zone Alliance, the Youth Opportunity Center, and the Mayor’s Child and Youth Master Plan.

“Shakespeare’s ‘to thine own self be true’ may have first been written more than 400 years ago, but it’s still the key to living an authentic, happy life today,” he explains. “I realized over the past few years that I am happiest when I’m doing two things: helping an individual overcome the odds stacked against them while simultaneously helping to change the odds for many others just like them. This is what great nonprofit organizations do, and my voice within was calling me back.”

Drilling Down: Cato’s grand plans for the nonprofit include building a new manufacturing facility, expanding the Thistle Stop Café on Charlotte Avenue, and enhancing the national educational and business opportunities offered to the 22 sister organizations across the country.

“The number of ways we can strengthen our brand, increase revenue, and most importantly, create more social, emotional, and economic opportunities for women coming out of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution are mind-boggling,” he says. “The hardest part is going to be saying no to some things and staying focused.”

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The Trifecta: Cato outlines three things the organization must offer in order to be competitive in the marketplace: a quality product, a beautiful package, and a powerful story.

“We have the most powerful story out there. We’ll be streamlining the number of products in our portfolio, focusing on quality and ingredients that are as good for the body as they are for the earth,” he explains. “I want to increase our wholesale presence fivefold and at least double what we’re doing in online sales. At the end of the day, the more we succeed, the more the women we serve now and in the future will succeed.”

Tough Love: Though Cato says he was worried about being a male leading a female-focused nonprofit “for about five minutes,” he ultimately let go of any fear.

“I’m quickly coming to recognize that that there is no greater privilege than to earn the trust of women who have been bought, sold, and abused by men their entire lives,” he says. “This will be the hardest job I ever loved.”

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