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At Home in Birmingham

Four residents share how they got here — and why they stayed

Many people move to Birmingham not knowing what to expect, only to fall in love with the Magic City’s energy and sense of community. Creatives, entrepreneurs, medical professionals and dreamers of all sorts have found their home in the ‘Ham, and we are all happy they did. Meet five transplants who now consider Birmingham home — though they have differing stories of how they got here, they all agree it’s the right place. 

Congratulations to Ryan and Helene Westover on Pizza Grace's nomination in the 2023 James Beard Foundation Awards, announced just as this magazine went to press.  
 

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Ryan and Helene Westover
Owners, Pizza Grace

Prior to his move to the Magic City, Ryan Westover claimed two different places as home: north Georgia and Washington, D.C. The owner of Pizza Grace on Morris Avenue spent his formative years down South after being born in the D.C. suburbs — then, as an adult, he returned to D.C. for 12 years to fine-tune his career. When the time came to pitch his dream pizzeria, Westover discovered larger cities weren’t quite as receptive as he’d hoped. “I was pitching to anyone who’d listen to me,” he remembers. 

That’s when his uncle suggested Huntsville, where he and his wife had recently retired, prompting Westover to explore the idea. Ultimately, he chose Birmingham over Huntsville, charmed by the artistic vibes as well as the food scene. “I checked out restaurants — went to Big Spoon for ice cream, Bottega for cake, the Essential, which was fabulous, among other places — and saw the passionate people here, perfect as the foundation for my pizzeria,” he says.

Westover and his wife, Helene, sold their D.C. residence and moved to Birmingham after a long weekend. The couple now appreciates biking to their restaurant from their Avondale home (after being in the car for hours each day in our nation’s busy capital), the dog-friendly nature of the ‘Ham and the overall quality of life. 

Westover says he was also attracted to the “quality and character” of available business space — Pizza Grace is located on Morris Avenue in a converted multi-use warehouse — as well as the number of interested potential business partners. “The business community showed up quickly,” he notes. “People here go out of their way to make sure you feel welcome.”

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Dr. Viral Jain
Assistant Professor, Division of Neonatology at UAB Medicine

Originally from Mumbai, India, Dr. Viral Jain relocated to the United States to study medicine. He spent nine years training in the three major cities of Ohio, then, after one of his research mentors departed the Buckeye state for Birmingham, he convinced Dr. Jain to move as well, and the Division of Neonatology at UAB has benefitted since. “The first time I ever visited Birmingham was when I came for the interview,” he shares. 

Fast-forward to today, and Dr. Jain has been swayed by the Magic City’s charm like the rest of us. The majority of his time at UAB is spent researching, though he spends some time doing clinical work in the neonatal unit. His main goal is to figure out why babies are born prematurely — and to encourage proper development post-birth. During the pandemic, he wrote a book for families in the neonatal unit called Baby Bookworm, about giving infants a solid start. He’s also written a song called “Sweet Little Baby,” which he calls “a NICU lullaby," along with the Grammy-winning Zac Brown Band. The song focuses on the importance of parent-infant bonding.

Dr. Jain loves living downtown in the Pizitz building and keeping his finger on Birmingham’s pulse. “I like walking around the city,” he declares. “I’m a foodie, and great restaurants are within walking distance. There are a lot of new shops and foot traffic on the weekends, plus great bars like House of Found Objects, Queen’s Park, and Pilcrow.”

In the last two years he’s been a local, Dr. Jain has involved himself with organizations such as the Rotaract Club and the Young Professionals of Birmingham and has met welcoming community members who help him feel at home. An avid blues musician, he loves to catch live music anywhere he can and has goals to get on stage again in the future. 

“I used to perform in Ohio, but so far here I have not —  I haven’t found a band here,” he says. “So, I hope to find a band and perform soon. Work keeps me busy! But I still want to.” 

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Maggie Belshé
Chief Customer Officer, ResBiotic 

Maggie Belshé grew up in San Francisco, then attended Barnard College at Columbia University in New York City. She found herself with a growing interest in entrepreneurship and decided upon graduation to apply for the Venture For America program. In 2015, this program brought Belshé to Birmingham, a place she knew almost nothing about “except what was in American history textbooks,” she admits. For almost five years, Belshé worked in marketing for Pack Health, eventually elevating her role to marketing and communications director. She then spent nearly two years establishing Birmingham operations for the global entrepreneurship nonprofit Endeavor before joining ResBiotic, a physician-founded respiratory wellness startup, where she combines her passions for holistic health, science and storytelling.

Though Belshé admits she “didn’t plan to stay this long,” Birmingham’s robust opportunities encouraged her – and her then-boyfriend and now-husband – to make the Magic City home. In the beginning, she was happy to be “in a different city, barely on [her] map,” and now, she has joined the scores of people she met along the way who appreciate the ‘Ham for its underrated yet intriguing status. “I remember the day I interviewed at Pack Health, meeting other transplants and boomerangs who shared excitement for what they described as Birmingham's renaissance,” she says. “They took me to cool neighborhoods and restaurants; they took me downtown and to Avondale and Railroad Park – it was easy to imagine a life here.”

Today, Belshé and her husband are thriving with a strong social network and community involvement, in addition to their careers. Belshé appreciates the food scene like most of us, as well as nonprofits like Jones Valley Teaching Farm and creative institutions like Sidewalk Cinema and the Birmingham Museum of Art. “I love the BMA; it has a great collection for a city of our size — and I’ve heard speakers there where I thought, ‘Wow, this artist came to Birmingham?’ For example, Manjari Sharma [creator of the exhibit Expanding Darshan] – hearing her speak was amazing.”

“People are investing in this community,” she adds, pointing to Rotary Trail and City Walk as examples of successful developments during her time here. “I think there’s a lot of creativity in Birmingham, and hopefully we’ll continue to see the city grow and thrive.”

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Jessica Majno 
Founder, Idyllo.com

Jessica Majno grew up in Boston, then spent time overseas before moving to Washington D.C. While there, she worked both domestically and internationally as a strategy consultant. “I built a career and my first company around new market development and innovation, working with some incredible companies and governments all over the world,” she says. 

Majno’s first interaction with Birmingham was as a mentor to the city’s Techstars program after meeting Managing Director Nate Schmidt. “Nate and I first connected as people working to cultivate innovation ecosystems outside traditional hubs like Silicon Valley. It was quickly clear that he and his partner Brooke [Gillis] were building something special in Birmingham.”

Majno already had wheels turning in her mind for a new marketplace company focused on home improvement. “One of the things I stumbled into as a homeowner is that all the marketplaces out there  — like Angi or Thumbtack — make money on ads, and, as a result, the best professionals often aren’t on them" she says. "Idyllo is built to solve this problem. We get to know the best local businesses in a city, make referrals based on your home and goals and take care of booking the first step. We take a small curation fee, like Airbnb or Uber, only when work gets done.”

As it turns out, the Magic City is the ideal spot to launch the first iteration of Idyllo, thanks to a diverse real estate market and an expanding startup ecosystem. Majno came to Birmingham to participate in Techstars and decided to build Idyllo locally. “The momentum in Birmingham is palpable. We’re taking a swing at a huge market opportunity, and we see the core inputs we need to be successful right here.”

She’s also savoring the beautiful outdoors, the culinary scene and arts and culture offerings. Majno and her husband, also an entrepreneur, live downtown and love being in the heart of everything along with their bird dog, Callie.“The mix of quality and creativity we’ve found here is inspiring, and we’re really thrilled to get the chance to be part of it,” she shares.

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