Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 24, 2010

Downtown venture combines 'fitness, food and friends'

Lawyer-entrepreneur aims to pursue her passions and do good

by Chris Kenrick

Fitness, food and friends.

For people of a certain age — empty nesters, perhaps, with a bit more time on their hands — that's a powerful combination.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Dianne Giancarlo has gathered those passions into an unusual new downtown Palo Alto start-up, The 3rd Door, which marries a fitness program, a cozy café and a social club.

The café, and an artsy retail shop, are open to members of the public — whom Giancarlo calls "unknown friends we call strangers."

Access to fitness facilities and a club room — which hosts events such as a book club, Friday night happy hours and a weekly "beer 'n' bridge drop in" — is through a membership fee.

The new venture has set up shop on a busy Lytton Avenue corner, next door to an Indian restaurant and down the street from the new boutique Hotel Keen.

"We have a lot of business people in this neighborhood, start-ups and professionals who come in for lunch and happy hour," Giancarlo said.

"We looked everywhere, and I just feel really lucky we found this space."

Membership fees support the maintenance of The 3rd Door's fitness facility, with 100 percent of profits going to WANDA (Women's Achievement Network and Development Alliance), a nonprofit organization Giancarlo co-founded several years ago that works to boost economic self-sufficiency for single moms in San Mateo County.

Giancarlo, a lawyer and former Castilleja School trustee, is no stranger to start-ups, having launched WANDA and — decades ago — her own corporate securities law firm that grew to 20 employees.

With her older children now grown and out of the house, she took time to consider her next venture.

"This idea has been brewing. I always heard that if you start your own business, make sure it's something you really care a lot about, whether it's a dry-cleaning business or a car wash," she said, perched on a chair outside her cafe.

"The 'fitness, food and friends' happen to be three things I feel very passionate about.

"The time people have with each other on a face-to-face basis is incredibly important — what life is all about — whether face-to-face helping or face-to-face playing a game of poker or bridge.

"It's really the fabric of life, and it's getting lost with all the convenience of the digital age we live in. There may be times when there's no need to leave your house, and I think that's really sad.

"Having time together is a lost art."

Clad in exercise attire, Giancarlo conveys her passion as she walks around the facility, conversing with trainers, baristas and clients.

On Thursday, club member Kim Aldridge was lunching on salad in the cafe while Giancarlo worked the espresso machine behind the counter.

Aldridge, a designer of sports souvenirs who lives in Redwood City, said she heard about The 3rd Door from a bridge instructor in San Francisco. She joined for the opportunity to play more bridge, but hopes to participate on the fitness side as well.

"I think it's a great club Dianne has created," she said.

"I really like that the proceeds will go to help women who are going through a divorce with children," Aldridge said.

The 3rd Door also serves as headquarters for WANDA, which serves 54 local single mothers. The group offers a financial literacy program, including an Individual Development Account (IDA) for each client, managed through the Opportunity Fund of San Jose. WANDA donors have guaranteed to double-match each woman's savings up to $2,000 — for a total of $6,000 — if the funds are spent on assets such as a house or education.

"The real asset we're building here is the moms," Giancarlo said.

WANDA was launched three years ago by a group of Castilleja mothers and has grown into regular team-building and education sessions involving the single moms and donors on topics such as family traditions, stress reduction and how to dress for the workplace.

"The content is important, but it's also the whole process of bringing together our group and having them have each other to bond with and feed off of.

"It's been an amazing process."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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