We are proud to present the second annual group of Young Entrepreneurs, people 35 and under who have founded or cofounded a business. It is tempting to refer to these young people as emerging leaders, but the fact is that some of them have already become clear-cut leaders in their own right. Consider this a mere introduction, for we expect to be seeing more of them in future issues, for these are the people who are building Minnesota’s future economy.
We were amazed at the diversity and versatility of our second cohort of Young Entrepreneurs for 2016, so instead of sorting them by age, we broke them up into different categories based on the nature of their enterprises.
About: Entrepreneur at #StopSavingYouth, a community-centered organization that aims to bridge the generation gap.
Revenue: $3,000 - $8,000 development
Web: Coming soon
Quote: “We spread the idea of a culture shift full of intentional and authentic youth-adult partnerships that uplift youth voices in community, organizations and groups.”
About: Co-founder and CEO of EOS International, a nonprofit that sells low-cost, high-impact technologies to rural families in Central America to improve their living and working environments.
Revenue: $220,000 ($77k in technology sales revenue in Nicaragua; $143k in fundraising)
Quote: “I believe that charity in the sense of giving products away in developing markets hurts the country’s development. Many non-profits working in international development give away products for free, creating an environment of dependency.”
Hunter Stanek (pictured above)
About: Founder of Born Passion, a company that connects communities, corporations and nonprofits to foster social responsibility through fundraising.
Quote: “Born Passion connects those interested in volunteering to a variety of different causes each year. We infuse a culture of generosity inside organizations by creating opportunities to support great causes.”
Nikki Abramson (pictured above)
About: Founder of Renew Hope, a business that aims to inspire people to seek new opportunities and to market and advocate for themselves.
Quote: “We’ve changed people’s lives and we’re making change for the better.”
About: Owner and founder of Paramount Planning, an emergency management company that develops training exercises for first responders in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.
Revenue: $85,000 - $125,000
Quote: “If a single plan we develop saves the life of one person over the life-span of Paramount Planning, I will consider that a great success. How can we put a dollar amount on a life?”
Abdul M. Omari, PhD
Company: AMO Enterprise
About: Co-founder and CEO of CYBERsprout LLC, a web design studio that specializes in sites for small to midsize businesses, and Pinnacle Commodity Group LLC, a brokerage firm that helps investors diversify into agriculture and energy industries.
Website: cybersprout.net; pinnaclecommodity.com
Quote: “It is great to be able to feed off of other entrepreneurs’ passion.”
About: Co-founder, financial advisor and portfolio manager of Phillip James Financial, an independent wealth management company focused on pre-retirees as well as providing advisement for younger generations.
Quote: “Our company motto is ‘Investing with Purpose.’ This reflects our belief in building long-term relationships with our clients and getting to know their reason for investing. Everyone has a purpose, we want to understand this and build a client’s comprehensive plan and investments around it.”
FOOD AND BEVERAGE
Ben Brueshoff (pictured above)
About: Co-founder of BET Vodka, a pioneering company that uses sugar beets — Minnesota is the number-one producer in the nation — to create a smooth vodka with hints of pepper and vanilla.
Quote: “Our vision is to craft a sipping experience that brings people together: A premium-pour sugar beet vodka pioneered for sharing.”
About: President and founder of Small Lot Wine, a curator of specialty regional wine to retail stores and restaurants.
Quote: “My vision is to bring to the Midwest for wine what we already have in the craft beer world and the food world. Great products at competitive prices that tell a wonderful story.”
About: Founder and president of Blackeye Roasting Co., a St. Paul-based roasting company and cafe that specializes in cold brew coffee.
Quote: “I participated in 1 Million Cups Entrepreneur Program to educate, engage and connect entrepreneurs. It was based on the notion that entrepreneurs discover solutions and network over a million cups of coffee.”
About: Co-founder and president of Vikre Distillery, a socially conscious production distillery that creates craft liquor such as gin, aquavit, vodka and whiskey inspired by the terroir of northern Minnesota.
Quote: “We give people tasty drinks, and contribute to culture and conversation!”
About: Co-founder of PubPass, a company that sells “passports” that provide customers with 25 free craft beers around the Twin Cities to promote local breweries and restaurants.
Quote: “We promote people getting out into the community while bringing new business for bars and restaurants.”
About: Agency Director of Community Blueprint, a marketing agency that focuses on organizations and campaigns that promote health, especially for younger generations.
Quote: “Our agency is unique because we work on projects we are personally passionate about. I left college with an internship at a large ad agency. In that time I realized I loved the world of advertising, but could frankly care less if more people ate Spam. I set out to create an agency that focused on campaigns that I personally cared about, because we believe our passion shows through in our projects.”
Elizabeth Camp (pictured above)
About: Owner of Healing Media LLC, a creative agency that provides social media management and online marketing strategies to companies with a social conscience; Yoga camp creates community events and retreats that promote yoga, healthy living and wellbeing.
Web: healingmediallc.com; yogacampmpls.com
Quote: “I think a lot of businesses in this day and age know they need social media but don’t know exactly why they need it and more importantly how it will help them — how to measure their growth.”
About: Co-founder and CEO of AdrenaCard, which is developing a new class of auto-injector for drug delivery that increases compliance for emergency medication. Under development is an auto-injector for epinephrine to serve the severe allergy market.
Quote: “We work to bring peace of mind to life for our patients.”
About: Owner of Element Boxing and Fitness LLC, a boxing gym in St. Paul that caters to professional boxers and community members alike.
Quote: “I spend my time growing my business, training boxers and being a loving father and husband. The work I do has created a development platform for many and inspires most.”
About: Owner of MedFit LLC, a business that provides physicians with training in regenerative medicine and teaches them how to incorporate medical fitness programs into their existing practice.
Quote: “We are changing [the obesity] trend without drugs and crazy fad diets. We are starting to help physicians take control and empowering them to provide the appropriate medical prescription to help patients reach their weight loss goals: fitness and healthy nutrition.”
About: Founder and CEO of Perk Health, a corporate wellness program for SMB that uses an AI “coach” to encourage healthy behavioral changes.
Quote: “75% of the health care spend in the U.S. is due to unhealthy habits/lifestyles.”
About: Owner and designer of Mod 86 Designery, an Etsy store that creates hand-made and customized journals, planners and other paper goods.
Quote: “I started this business in 2009 as a craft hobby and each year my sales have exceeded my expectations.”
About: Founder of caniform, an online retailer of T-shirts featuring foxes, wolves, bears and prints inspired by the landscape of Minnesota.
Quote: “My company shows that a single person can literally concept and build a brand from scratch using widely available tools and with low capital.”
About: Owner of Lafhaj Studios, a photography studio that specializes in event and portrait photography as well as videography, web development and graphic design.
Quote: “My business is art and what we do at Lafhaj Studios is out of the box. The world is filled with creators and we just help bring their vision to life.”
About: Founder and CEO of Vapeur, which designs and produces portable electronic vaporizers for dry herb and tobacco smokers who need a healthier alternative.
Quote: “We believe portable vaporizers are the future of inhalation. Vapeur is more than just a brand, it’s a movement.”
About: Founder of Urbain, a jewelry company that creates jewelry products that are made from raw materials from historic Minnesota locations like the Marine Mill and the Soudan Underground Mine.
Revenue: $100,000 - $200,000
Quote: “My vision is for everyone to become incredible storytellers. I believe the most powerful person in the room is the person with the greatest story.”
Riley Thiesfeld (pictured above)
About: Owner and builder at B.R. Furniture LLC, a furniture company that designs and builds unconventional furniture, repurposing metal, glass, concrete and iron within the wooden structure to create industrial, rustic and modern styles.
Quote: “Everybody has a personal touch and style to their home and I provide clients with furniture that fits with that style while serving their need of furniture.”
About: Owner and sole proprietor of JGC SMC, a social media marketing business that helps connect small, local companies in southern Minnesota to a broader customer base.
Quote: “I have old fashioned values that I bring to the table. I make true connections rather than just business partnerships. Everyone I work with becomes a friend and is treated like family.”
Robert Flessner (pictured above)
About: CEO of Vugo, an adtech company that places targeted, environment-specific ads in taxis and Uber and Lyft vehicles.
Quote: “Vugo has built a platform to allow businesses to buy and target ads in the real world. We help advertisers connect with individuals in a more contextual way.”
About: Co-founder and creative director of Humdinger & Sons, an independent creative agency that focuses on startups and uses innovative, client-based marketing solutions to promote their products.
Quote: “We help startups and emerging tech break through, while accelerating innovation to attract new audiences at established corporations.”
About: Founder and owner of be.Media House, Lake Time Magazine, a magazine that is written by and focused on Northern Minnesotans, Lake Bride Magazine, and Hotel Rapids, a media production company that partners with larger companies to provide strategy and marketing.
Quote: “My vision is to write something that people want to read or are inspired by. The vision today is ever-expanding.”
Sven Raphael Schneider (pictured above)
About: Founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of Gentleman’s Gazette LLC, a fashion and lifestyle website devoted to helping men look polished and act professional. Includes over 800 products from the Gazette’s men’s accessory brand, Fort Belvedere.
Quote: “Our readers develop confidence through style by disengaging with the cycle of trends to learn what suits them.”
About: Co-founder of Beta.MN, an organization that aims to support and promote Twin Cities–based startups through networking and events.
Quote: “Our goal is to make Minneapolis the startup capital of the north.”
About: CEO and CTO of Rakuna, a recruiting platform designed for college campuses that includes an app and employee dashboard for outreach into millennial communities.
Quote: “Whoever hires the best young people today has the best company tomorrow; with our technology solution, we empower employers to hire the best next wave of talent.”
About: Co-founder of Queblo, a digital platform that aims to bridge the language barrier by connecting Latino craftsmen to contractors and homeowners who might otherwise choose an English-speaking contractor despite the craftsmen’s high-quality portfolios.
Quote: “We build strong connections between contractors and workers to enhance the quality of the built world around us and re-vitalize the economy around the Twin Cities.”
About: Co-founder of Esqyr, a test prep startup that is launching with affordable study tools for the bar exam. As a public benefit corporation, Esqyr also donates 20% of its profits to help alleviate student debt.
Quote: “We hope to expand to serve other students who are underserved by current options. The cost of test prep shouldn’t render a profession out of reach for anyone.”
About: Co-founder of Townsourced, a local community bulletin board that connects consumers and sellers of goods, as well as connects communities with local events, housing offers, and job and volunteering opportunities.
Quote: “We’ve seen first-hand how strong, self-sustaining and connected small communities can be. They support their members through sharing and generosity or by reselling that which is used, but still useful.”
About: Owner of InXpress, a shipping and handling company that partners with carriers worldwide to help small and medium-sized businesses get the best and most efficient deal on shipping.
Revenue: $1.1 Million
Quote: “If I can help a US-based company successfully sell its product overseas, someone, somewhere may benefit from that product. Though I didn’t envision the product, or produce it, I was instrumental in how the person in that other country came to possess it and enjoy it.”
Andrew Ward, Ally Delgado & Nolan Goodman (pictured above)
Ages: 32, 30, 32
About: Co-founders of Merchology, a family-owned online retailer of high quality corporate merchandise.
Revenue: $20 million+
Quote: “Our vision is to make Merchology a household name. When someone thinks about ordering awesome swag for their company, we want to come to mind first."
About: Co-founder of NextDoor Inc., a company that rents handicap-accessible small homes that are placed in a family’s backyard, so that the injured, aging or disabled can have privacy and independence while still remaining close to family without the high costs of assisted living facilities.
Quote: “We strive for a world in which families nationwide have access to options that allow them to care for their loved ones.”
About: Founder and president of The Musicant Group, a holistic public space management firm that collaborates with community and commercial clients to revitalize underutilized spaces into centers of activity.
Revenue: $200,000 - $300,000
Quote: “We are changing the way companies, organizations, and people use, create and value space.”
About: Founder and CEO of Collegiate Leader’s Network, which was created as a place for top college students to come together and build their professional network with like-minded students and proven business professionals.
Quote: “Our mission is to help others so no one finds themselves lost at a dead-end with no support system. We help others by taking out the stress of transitioning from college into the real world.”
About: CEO of Homi, a college-specific social network that streamlines the on-campus recruiting process. Students use Homi to leverage alumni networks to find mentorship and career opportunities.
Quote: “Homi stands for Humans of My Institution and our mission is not to help people find jobs, it’s to help people share their stories and build meaningful relationships.”
Ph.D., regent, business owner
MNBIZ: What field is your degree in?
Abdul: Comparative and international development education from the University of Minnesota.
MNBIZ: When you were growing up, when did you get the idea of running your own business?
Abdul: Oddly enough, it never happened growing up at all. My father was an entrepreneur, but I never really viewed my career path as an entrepreneur. My brother was also an entrepreneur. For me, it was a 10:30 PM idea that sparked when I was in the middle of writing chapter two of my dissertation and had been thinking about some of the seminars that I facilitated in the past and had a really good one that happened to be on that day. At 10:30 at night I jumped on the secretary of state website and checked the name availability. It was available and I paid the fee. To my surprise I got an email two minutes later saying congratulations, you're the owner of AMO Enterprise LLC.
MNBIZ: Poof, you're an entrepreneur
MNBIZ: What is the genesis of the idea that became your dissertation?
Abdul: My dissertation is focused on the perceptions of mentoring, and I specifically looked at two populations. West African males and African American males in the state of Minnesota. As I think about my journey and my path and the numerous mentors I've had in my life and the impact they've had on me, I started to think about the dynamics I had as a Kenyan (father) and Jordanian (mother) in Minnesota, and what that meant to navigate my own identity and discovering my identity and interacting with what you might call your Middle Passage African Americans who have been in the United States for several generations. And discovering how I was able and unable to connect with those mentors.
What I wanted to do was look at a study and find out information about whether or not we can approach mentoring from a “one-size-fits-all.” I had significant inklings that we couldn't based on my own experience and that's exactly what I found in the study. Because I was in a comparative and international development education program, I tied in the emphasis of mentoring and education and how it's form of informal education for so many people.
MNBIZ: Describe who you studied?
Abdul: I looked at first, second and third generation West Africans -- so either a West African that was born on the continent of Africa and then moved here at a younger age and then perhaps his parents or grandparents who were born on the continent and then came here. We were looking at a lot of young men who were living or had lived in the first-ring suburbs, and then comparing that to someone who very much so identified as African American, and their families had been in the United States for generations.
MNBIZ: What's the difference?
Abdul: There are lots of differences. I would say there's not a single thing that you could say, Boom, that's the difference between the two populations. This was to my surprise, it was also very refreshing, I think. I could not discover that all of the African American males that interviewed and that participated in this study had this single identifier or this single thing that they're looking for in a mentoring relationship. Same with the West African males that I interviewed. What I discovered and what I thought was really fascinating and informative is that we need to be looking at attempting to understand respecting each individual's unique experience and needs in a relationship, particular from an adult and a young person, so that me as a mentor for example, I could not come in with this preconceived notion about what every young person needs.
I could give you a really good example of how this came to be for me and why the study was so important. The program with which I worked, I was a mentee within this program my senior year in high school.
My mentor was a really good. We did a lot of things together. We'd go work on his rental property, we'd work on different projects that he had. We were running errands, doing stuff and it was really good relationship. I'll never forget, toward the end of the program, we went to Southdale mall and walked into a suit store called Bachrach. In my head, I'm thinking, well, I guess he's going to buy a suit for himself or he needs to pick something up, not a big deal. We walk in and he says, "Abdul, pick out a suit, a shirt, and two ties."
I remember thinking, “Wow! This is nice and also very uncomfortable.” I remember when he checked out, it was about $500. At the time, in my head, this was probably one of the more embarrassing moments that I've had. I never told my dad about the suit, I never wore it in front of him. I did wear it. It was a very nice suit. Growing up, we never had a car that was $500. My father grew up so poor that he still doesn't eat white rice, because that's what he and his siblings ate growing up every day with nothing else. A $500 gift. I didn't know it was a write off, right? I'm sure he's thinking, “Well, this is a write off.” Had he said, "Abdul, I have an extra $500, and I'd like to give it to you in some form. How would you like to use it?" the dynamic of that relationship would have been completely different.
Now, he's not a bad person, I don't want to make it seem like he is, but there's a notion particularly in black communities that I head growing up all the time that every young black male needs a suit and this was his gift that we were going to help being Abdul along and one of the things that he needs is a good suit. That's really coming back to that preconceived notion of what young people need, and so just maybe I still would have said, "Yeah, I'll take a suit," but it would have changed the dynamic significantly. This is really in many ways what I was trying to unpack in the study.
MNBIZ: What do young mentees need and then what do they want from their mentor?
Abdul: Precisely, shifting it to a mentee-centered approach to mentoring, asking questions about what they're looking for and what they need. When I was in that same program, a lot of the focus was around getting college applications in and making sure that you met the deadlines and you took the ACT, so on and so forth. For me, luckily, I was already driven in that aspect. I was trying to navigate how to be black in the United States. I was more focused on that piece and making sure that someone is in an area where they're looking to go into a specific career or what have you, we need to provide those resources rather than saying, "Did you take your ACT?" Because they may have already done that.
MNBIZ: You had this mentoring experience in high school still, and then somehow that clung onto you when you went to college?
Abdul: Absolutely, yep, it went to college. Again, I stayed in touch with my mentor for quite a while. We've since lost touch. Very impactful in my life not in that more negative way if you will, and in the long term ended up being very positive, because I learned a lot from it, and have continued to have just countless numbers and people who have invested in me. I'm very, very fortunate to have the people I have in my life who have in many ways supported me along the way.
MNBIZ: Your conclusion is that you have to individualize around the needs of each mentee?
Abdul: Absolutely. I came up with 16 themes in the study. One is really focusing around what mentees are looking for and what they desire. A lot of the themes focused around the programmatic components of a mentoring program. How did you match mentors and mentees? How do you provide spaces for mentees to interact with the other mentors in the program even if they're assigned to a single mentor. What types of activities and events are taking place? How to use cultural intelligence in this approach to mentoring and being able to draw on and create more cultural experiences so that we can react appropriately in different situations.
MNBIZ: Could you expand on that concept of cultural intelligence?
Abdul: Yes. This is actually a framework that I used to think about the dissertation, and that I use in my leadership training and development as well. It really comes out of general intelligence –IQ -- emotional intelligence. What you're really attempting to think about is your metacognitive cultural intelligence, how we strategize around gaining cultural intelligence. That can be things from traveling if you have the means to do it. It can be simply reading a book. It can be immersing yourself in a cultural experience. Asking questions, what have you. Your cognitive cultural intelligence is simply “we know what we know.” The beauty of that and the flip side of that is “we don't know what we don't know,” and that's okay. That's the cognitive piece. You have your motivational cultural intelligence which is really about what motivates me to want this motivation. Perhaps I had a good experience. I really had some sort of cultural interaction that was interesting and joyful and so on and so forth.
The last one, and probably the most important piece of it, is in the behavior and the action piece. We take those three things that we just talked about and those three facets, and then what do we do with it? That is the most important piece of it. Now I know this information. I can respond and react appropriately in culturally complex or culturally different if you will arenas. It's all wrapped in this beautiful term that's been around for so long that I think none of us practice enough, mindfulness. Really just being, simply watching, taking your time, understanding, figuring out your feelings as you have these experiences. That's cultural intelligence.
I was thinking about the study, I was really trying to unpack whether mentors were using cultural intelligence, whether they knew it or not, then identifying moments where I saw cultural intelligence coming out and attempting to understand whether that was a good or bad experience. I found that in many instances where it popped out was a very valuable experiences for the both the mentee and the mentor.
MNBIZ: Can you give me an example?
Abdul: Absolutely. The cliché of young men -- seniors in high school -- want to talk about sports. Oftentimes that's very true. Sports can be a great connector. I love sports. I'm a huge sports fan. What I found in talking to a mentor, specifically in the study, is that he had a mentee that every time the big group met was in many ways silent because the conversation was around sports. He was trying to figure out how he could connect with this young man, and finally just decided, I'm going to go to his school.
One day, he said, "I'm coming to your school on such and such day." He went, and he found out that all the staff, all the teachers, and the majority of students really liked this young man. He's very outgoing, talks a lot, and so forth. He's walking him through the school, he's giving him a tour, and they stopped at the theater area. He said, "I'm in theater, and this is what I do. This is where I thrive." They went through and showed him the stage and what have you. For the mentor, it was a very large “ah ha” moment. Well, he's probably quiet in the large group setting because so often they're talking about things that he's just not interested in.
When we get to the action piece of this, what do you do with it? Well, the next time you're in a big group setting, you change the conversation to the latest movie. You change the conversation to what's playing at the Guthrie, and draw in the young man that's interested in theater so that he can then better connect with the other young men in the program and the mentors. And now, the two of them, mentee and mentor, have a different type of relationship. When you think of culture, it's in the broader sense. Broader sense of what culture means, and how you can use the experiences of someone else with your own to better connect.
MNBIZ: You're writing your dissertation and you're thinking, "Oh, this can apply to business." Is that what happened?
Abdul: It was actually the reverse. I was teaching a leadership course at the U for undergraduate students, and had been frequently asked, "Can you come to a keynote here? Can you come run a workshop here?" As I started thinking about it more, I said, "Oh, I can probably do something with this leadership training aspect." I developed six seminars, a $36 brochure, and a website I designed with some friends. Then I went out knocking on doors. Folks frequently say, "What does mentoring and leadership have to do with one another?"
In many ways, and the crux for me of it all, is this is all about relationships and connecting, right? I think about leadership and I do group and team dynamics, frameworks of leadership, and so forth. The mentoring aspect of it is, “How do we connect with people?” That for me is the basis of it. One, how do we connect with ourselves? Then two, how do we use that to connect with other people? Mentoring and leadership, there's not a pretty bridge that brings the two of them together, but my bridge is that connection piece. I can use much of the material that I gained from the mentoring study, and much of the material that I used in leadership training and development, and bridge all that together. It's just a different context.
MNBIZ: When did you incorporate your business?
Abdul: It was October 9th, 2013 that I officially got the LLC. At the time, I was teaching at the U. I'd been a bartender the whole time I was in school, so I was still bartending. I was making ends meet. For the business side of it, it was as if I got something great. I started off, I think one of my first consistent trainings was at Washington Tech high school with their high school students. It was more just, “Oh, I got some extra money now.” January of 2015, I stopped teaching at the U, really to put a large emphasis on finishing my dissertation.
At the time, I had a few contracts that were fairly consistent, then I landed a larger contract with Target Corporation, helping them do some work in their diversity inclusion. That in many ways launched a significant piece of the career because it's a big name and it was a nice, impactful contract. I finished my degree May of 2015, and really went head on with AMO Enterprise, and that's what I've been doing ever since.
MNBIZ: Does diversity training involve cultural intelligence?
Abdul: All of my work implicitly has a diversity and inclusion framework just by my makeup, and the basic point for me is helping people identify their own experiences and how that plays out. It's implicit in everything, but until recently, I had not offered a very large diversity inclusion emphasis, but luckily, by popular demand, unconscious bias and cultural intelligence have been frequently asked from organizations, and so I've developed, probably in the last 6 to 8 months, particularly working with the city of Minneapolis, I have a half day training, 100% focused around diversity inclusion, specifically cultural intelligence and unconscious bias.
I added that to the portfolio, officially, probably in the last three months and it's popular, folks are interested in it, which is great because we all have these unconscious biases, so we don't even realize it. Age, appearance, height, weight, then of course the other identifiers that people have. They're important and they're impacting people on both ends on the spectrum, so we have to find better ways to neutralize them. We'll never get rid of them. That's the first mistake made by particularly smart people, or people who think they're smart. They think they can get rid of their biases, and we cannot. That's number one. Finding ways to help combat them is really what we're looking for.
MNBIZ: We have a couple dynamics going on. The whole mentor side. Typically, when we look around or have done stories on mentorship, there's the boomer mentor, and the millennial mentee, and to add the diversity component, I would assume in a lot of places it's a white boomer and a millennial of color. People generalize among millennials, but what about millennials of color? Are they more alike?
Abdul: No, I don't think there's too much generalizability, particularly from a research basis. I think in many ways, millennials of color, particularly who are entering in the corporate world, are looking for ways to navigate and thrive in the environments that have already been set up, and that are there, and sometimes protected by baby boomers. I think for a lot of people of color in corporate America, it's one, either finding ways to navigate what's already there, and being able to move up in ladders, or finding nuanced ways to deconstruct some of the structures that have already been there. Of course, both of those come with some sort of a price and potential consequence, right? Oftentimes you see folks who are living in the constructs that are already there, and they're just very unhappy, and they feel isolated. Then you have folks who want to try to deconstruct, but when folks don't like change, then of course you run into some barriers there as well.
It's a very interesting and nuanced dynamic. I think about some of my time in the corporate world and other large agencies, and one of the things that's extremely important for us to think about is the notion that in order for you to move vertically up a ladder within an organization, at some point you have to manage people. I get it. Efficiency is important. Cutting costs. We don't want to have bloat. I've been on the Board of Regents at the U and we've gotten blasted for administrative bloat. I fully understand efficiency and why that's important. On the other side of it is, what if somebody's not a good manager? What if somebody doesn't like to manage?
Does that mean that he or she should not be able to move up a corporate ladder, or any organizational ladder, particularly if they're good at what they do? As organizations, I think we in many ways need to flip some of our thinking from what is the lowest overhead or most efficient way to do the job and think about, if I spend more, but then increase my mission impact or my bottom line, does that make sense? If you think about it that way, it does make sense, right? Finding new ways for people to thrive in their work and at their organizations without some of these old ways of thinking. In some contexts, those ways of thinking might still work, but really just thinking deeply about what that looks like, then coming back to part of your original question around the idea that it's probably the white baby boomer who's mentoring the person of color who's a millennial or entry level.
One of the most fascinating things to me about my study was this notion of reciprocity. I was very shocked at how mentors and mentees put so much emphasis around both of the parties gaining something from the relationship, and how you're both teaching each other things, and how at some point the idea is that you will go from a mentee/mentor relationship to more of a friendship if you allow the relationship to evolve enough.
I think putting that in the context of corporate or white baby boomer person of color millennial, at some point, and I think very early on, it's important for both parties to understand that they each have something to bring, and that they each have something to teach, and perhaps what we're learning; the baby boomer is learning new ways of using technology in workforce change, or design thinking. The baby boomer is bringing the historical context of this corporation specifically so you can better understand what's happening now. I don't know, right? I'm free styling that piece, but there is a sense of reciprocity and I would say a need or reciprocity if the relationships are going to last.
MNBIZ: You happened to mention that you are on the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota. How did that happen? You're so young.
Abdul: In many ways, this was a timing thing. I was at the U for undergrad, a master’s degree, and then of course for the PhD, and we have something a little unique at the University of Minnesota, which is eight student representatives from all five campuses. As an early on PhD student, I served as a student rep for two years. This is a non-voting member, you sit on committees and you can provide input.
I finished those two years and it was moving into an election cycle. At the time, the at-large student regent was going to be cycling off, and she and I had developed a bit of a friendship, and she suggested that I apply. The applications are due around November, so as it stands now there's a 24-person bipartisan committee that vets applicants, brings them in for interviews, then suggests typically two candidates for each open seat to the legislator. Every two years, four seats are open, so it's a rotating cycle. Then you go off to the legislature and you try to knock on as many doors as you can and get your 15 minutes to campaign for yourself.
MNBIZ: You learned how to lobby.
Abdul: Exactly, right? A very interesting learning experience. Then one time every two years, the full legislature, -- the House and Senate -- meet jointly to elect regents. What you need to be elected is half plus one, so you need 101 votes and for me that happened on March 6, 2013. Essentially, as soon as the vote's done, you are the regent for a specific seat. I'm about halfway through a six-year term and it's been fascinating to serve in the role. It's been joyful, it's been a pleasure.
MNBIZ: I would assume that you feel enormous responsibility being on that board.
Abdul: Precisely. Absolutely. Tremendous responsibility. The interesting thing, I try to reflect on this a lot, I have lots of friends who went to the U and folks that I don't know who are vested in the U and who care about the U. That's one of the things that I will say, the vast reach that the University of Minnesota has, and the number of people who care about the university, no matter how that caring comes out, whether it's frustration or anger or love, at the end of the day it's people who care. That has been one of the most humbling things for me to be in this role, to see how many people really care about the University of Minnesota. Go across the state, see someone wearing that black M, and you just have a sense of joy.
The responsibility piece is, you're absolutely right, it's a fine balance between wanting to constantly defend and provide more context to very complex situations, and just sitting back and saying, "Yep, this happened. It's wrong. It was not the right thing," and taking it in because at the end of the day, so frequently you can provide context, and all of these situations that we see are nuanced and not as simple as what we read or see on TV. If you come back to the crux of it, at the end of the day, oftentimes, yep, that was bad. On the flipside of that, there's so much good happening at the university, right? The number of discoveries and research and the touch that we have across the state, and the world really, and the success stories that I hear about and that come out in magazines from the different colleges are just vast. I feel a deep pride for those things, and a sense of responsibility when things don't go our way, or go the way that we think they should go.
MNBIZ: Your resume lists a couple other activities. You must have a board meeting every week. What else are you serving on?
Abdul: I'm still in my first year as a member of the board of the directors for the YMCA [Greater] Twin Cities. The YMCA has been a large part of my life and my leadership journey as I reflected more, being in high school and serving in a leadership role with young people in the beacon's program was in many ways a start to my leadership journey. Wonderful organization, loved the Y, and then also serving on the board of AchieveMpls, which is focused on preparing many Minneapolis students to be career and college ready at the time of graduation. We have college and career centers in every one of the [MPS] high schools, the traditional high schools are what we call them, that are having these touch points for young people to either be ready for the work force, or be ready for college, whatever that means -- two year, four year.
We also place 800 interns every year in the summer in corporate or public internships. I can't remember the exact dollar amount that they're bringing into their families, but I know it's over $1 million, and we're talking about young people who are taking that money and having the ability to help their families.
MNBIZ: They're not buying $500 suits.
Abdul: Exactly. Yes. That's great joy. We're almost done with a new CEO search, and so as long as that goes well, we'll have a new person at the helm in the next couple months. The last board that I serve on is a local startup called Civic Eagle. To put it simply, we focus in attempting to reduce political apathy and increase political engagement, so we have a mobile application for people to interface with some really interesting and dynamic opportunities and the platform allows for debate functions, it allows for you to check up on bills that you're interested in that might be passing through the legislature, and different ways to think about politics that are non-traditional.
MNBIZ: Have you ever thought about politics?
Abdul: I have thought about politics. In many ways, being a regent is very political. I think also in many ways unfortunately political. At the end of the day, for me, if I can continue to show my passion through helping people connect and driving them to be in places where debate and disagreement is okay, but it doesn't mean that you dislike a person simply because you disagree with them. That's where I really want to be. As far as politics goes, I grow very frustrated with politics and the situations that we see right now because I actually think that we are in a space where people who disagree won't have a conversation and won't be able to go to lunch or coffee or what have you. I think I would grow extremely frustrated if I ever ran for office, particularly if it's in the state that it's in now, and would be frustrated by not being able to move things forward in the way I think they should move.
MNBIZ: This year there's certainly a lot to talk about -- if only people would talk to each other.
MNBIZ: What's the best way young entrepreneurs can grow together?
Abdul: One of the things that has been key for me is recognizing what I do, and understanding what I do, which also requires recognizing what I don't do.
I get asked frequently, “Is this in your wheelhouse? I always say, "Well, I can create it if you want me to." At the same time, perhaps it's better for you to grab someone else, who this is what they do, and so I think as the world moves more and more toward collaboration and I think that this is going to be a significant requirement as we move forward, it's happening, is to be thinking about collaboration in the sense that my bottom line might not grow today if I collaborate or throw someone else in business. What I mean by that is I would rather turn down a piece of business than provide the product that they're not looking for, so really understanding and recognizing the limitations and being transparent about it. If someone wants you to come in and run something, as long as they know this is not my expertise, I will put it together if you want me to.
Really, being able to network in a way that gives you at least enough information to know what other folks are doing, and don't be afraid to throw some business elsewhere. I believe that as we put things into the universe, things will come back. For me, recognizing my limitations is number one.
Other advice — for me, I'm very much navigating corporate and organizational structures, right? Public, non-profit, higher ed, so on and so forth. I think one of the beautiful things about being an entrepreneur and being able to come in and work with organizations is once I'm in, in many ways I can push back in many ways that other folks internally can't. I love doing that. On the flip side, it's important for organizations who are hiring entrepreneurs to come in and work with them to allow for that. One of the things that I struggle with is once a contract is locked in, and I get it, I can't just come in and do whatever I want. However, there is a certain sense of, well, we hired this person for a reason. We need to allow this person to do what he or she does. The advice to the organization is, let them do what they do. You vetted them, you've talked to them, you get it, they're here for a reason. So allowing for some of that creativity to take place is important.
Lastly, thinking of entrepreneurs, it's important for us to recognize that we all need one another and if one thrives, that's great, but we're all attempting to solve some sort of an issue, some sort of a problem. One of my mentors told me when I was in high school, "If you want to be a mentor, all you got to do is solve people's problems." He made it very simple. I was like, "It's not that simple." At the end of the day, we're all trying to solve something. There might be some overlap, and there might be completely different issues, but the reality, I think for me, if we think about things in terms of, and I'll steal a term from the U, “grand challenges,” I'm not going to solve a grand challenge by myself, but with several folks at the table and several minds, different thinking minds. Then we can start to solve some grand challenges.
MNBIZ: Any other comments?
Abdul: I will say this. I am an entrepreneur and I love being an entrepreneur. One of the things that I struggled with a lot as I thought about my passion and my life and what not. Most people automatically, when I say I do leadership training and development, they know I care about higher ed. The first question is, oh, so you do it for colleges? Actually, I haven't done it very much for universities. The thing they're doing is they're linking the fact that they know I'm passionate about higher ed with my career, so they automatically think, right, higher ed. At the end of the day, what I would say is, I'm an entrepreneur. I love what I do. I'm very passionate about it. I also have significant other passions. One is huge in education. For me, quality education can be the equalizer. That's my thing. I always hope that I never get asked at the legislature this single question, if you could your money anywhere, where would you put it? The reality is I would put it in prenatal and early childhood education. As a regent, that's not a good thing to say, right? Education for me -- quality education -- can be the equalizer.
Coming back to all of this, the thing that is so very important is while I might not focus specifically in higher ed for my career, I stay connected to higher ed on the board. I stay connected to K-12 through Achieve Minneapolis. I stay connected to serving the community more broadly through the YMCA. Then Civic Eagle, we're talking about all that wrapped in one when we talk about politics, right? For me, really thinking about board service, career, other forms of service, and how does all of that wrap into what we're passionate about? When we're on board and we're serving an organization that we're not passionate about, that we don't have that deep interest, we'll feel it in our gut. We will, and when you feel it in your gut, it's okay. It's just time to pivot and put your focus somewhere else.
Still Kickin, and now accelerating
You’ve probably heard about Nora McInerny Purmort — maybe you follow her on Twitter or wait anxiously for the next #ralphiegrams on Instagram; maybe you’ve seen her articles in Elle and Cosmopolitan; maybe you remember the obituary she and her husband Aaron wrote that gained national attention when he passed away from brain cancer in 2014; or maybe you know her as the founder and CEO of Still Kickin, a nonprofit named after Aaron’s favorite t-shirt and treatment mantra, that raises money each month for a different person going through a “hard thing.” And now maybe you recognize her as the author of the book It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too), which was released this past May. However you first heard about Nora, we’re pretty sure you’re going to keep hearing about her — as a writer, an entrepreneur, and an all-around stand-out human.
MNBIZ: Tell me a little about who you are and what you do.
NORA: I do so many things now, but I am a writer primarily. I just published my first book.
NORA: Thank you! I write for Elle magazine, and Cosmopolitan, and Slate, and a couple other publications, and I run Still Kickin, which is a nonprofit that we started a year ago in July as a company. I really had zero idea what I was doing, which I think is a huge benefit. I think my entire life, I was like, "Just tell me what to do and I'll do that." Give me the steps to complete. This was the first time where I was like, "I don't need somebody to tell me what to do." The worst things have already happened to me, if it doesn't work, okay.
MNBIZ: Tell me more about Still Kickin.
NORA: When Aaron had his first seizure, he was wearing a shirt that he'd gotten at a secondhand store — it's threadbare, clearly a homemade shirt that maybe somebody made for their grandpa's 100th birthday or something — that says, Still Kickin. I have the original shirt still. We thought it was hilarious. He was 32. He had never been sick and he wore that shirt in ironic good health and then, all of a sudden, he wasn't. It became a theme for this treatments and a little bit of an inside joke. It's a very special shirt to him. He wouldn't let me borrow it — he was like, "You'll stretch it out." And I was like, "Cool. Awesome. Say that to me again."
It was really, really valuable to him. He'd had the idea, right when he was sick (around 2011-2012), of replicating the shirt in some way, selling it, and giving the money to brain cancer research. On his 1 year “tumor-versary,” as I called it, I set up a website for him and said, "All you have to do is figure out how to manage the inventory and selling and all that stuff.” We looked at each other and realized, "I'm pregnant. We have a baby on the way, you have f**ing brain cancer, and our lives are falling apart. Maybe we just pump the brakes on this and wait a minute.”
Then, as he was dying, Cotton Bureau came into our consciousness. It's a super brilliant idea — it's print on demand, but it's curated. It isn't like those sites where anyone can just put up a design and it comes to you heat transferred and shitty, you know what I mean? Cotton Bureau is design-driven, and they don't accept every submission. We submitted it and they accepted it, but in order for them to print the shirts, you had to sell 12. I was like, "There are 6 people in my family plus you, plus your parents, plus your sisters, plus your grandma ... If everybody buys one, they'll print it."
We sold over 300 in that two-week period for pre-orders. That felt good! They brought it back immediately and it sold 800. They brought it back again and it sold a couple hundred more. The final run sold like, 3,000. We initially gave the money to the Musella Foundation, which does brain tumor research, and which is very underfunded.
Aaron died without life insurance — do you have life insurance? You need to. You’ve got to have your shit together for other people, even though you don't want to think that way. I tell everybody to do that. Aaron didn't have life insurance and treatment is super expensive. People wanted to do something for us, but didn't know what to do. So people set up an online fundraiser for us and it was amazing. It covered his funeral. A funeral is so f**ing expensive. It covered most of his medical bills and it let me, basically, live for a while. It let me stay afloat in this situation where I could have easily lost everything, everything that I had.
The average gift to our donation page was maybe $20, which for a lot of people is a lot of money and for a lot of people that we know, not a lot of money. Really, we spend more than that on a dress at Forever 21 that we wear once. Those were all relatively small acts of kindness that really meant a lot to me. It meant I got caught when I was falling. Not everybody has that. After Aaron died, I would go through these websites where people were running their fundraisers, and there were people with nothing in theirs. So I started just giving away money to them — $500, $1,000, $200, whatever I could or whatever I felt could make a difference to them using the money that'd we'd gotten from the T-shirts, money that I'd gotten from our fundraiser. I did that for a while until I realized, "I don't have any money."
MNBIZ: Funny how that works! Why did you do it?
NORA: It felt good to be able to do something. Something small for somebody that I didn't know, because even with the Internet we are sort of confined to our own little social circle in so many ways. The world is full of sad stories.
A year ago in May, a man that I knew on the internet named Scott who also had brain cancer was actively dying. As he was dying, he'd set up his own brain tumor research fundraiser — not for his family and for his four kids, who he's about to leave behind, but for brain cancer research. He was such an incredible person and he set up this coordinated crossfit workout. I talked to The Movement about it and they were like, "Look we'll program our own workout. We'll call it the Still Kickin workout. We'll host it here and we'll give all the money to Scott."
I was expecting maybe like, 30 people to show up and 60 did, which was amazing! It was so well-attended that people that knew about it were like, "Can we do another one?" I'm like, "Sure, we'll do another one the next month." That validated the idea that people will show up for other people and that they just want something small to do. They don't have to know the person either. They really don't. It wasn't just because Aaron and I lived in the Twin Cities — Scott and his family lived in Texas. There was no way that any of these people would ever cross paths with them. All they knew is he had brain cancer, he was trying to help other people, and he has four kids.
When Scott died I sat down with Lindsay Wenner, who's now our COO, and said to her, "Here's my idea. We take a different person every month. We tell their story and we tell it without pity so it doesn’t become this sad story that people have to whisper about. Grief and loss and sickness are isolating. People don't want to see it. We really don't. But that person still has their humanity and it's so important to me. I never want to be in the business of pity. It's f**ing awful. I never want to be an ASPCA commercial.
MNBIZ: I change the channel when those commercials come on.
NORA: Oh wait, Sarah McLachlan, this is a f**ing assault! I'm not listening to that. I didn't want to do it that way, so I wrote about Scott because I knew him. I wrote a profile about who he was and the way he met Tracy and their love story. We held another workout and we stocked up on the shirts. I talked to Cotton Bureau, and they said, "We'll run this shirt for you for 100 years if you want us to, but when you're ready to do something else, tell us." I was ready, and they said, "Great. Here's our vendor for printing. Here's our warehouse — go."
MNBIZ: Once you had the idea, what was the first step towards Still Kickin?
NORA: I put it on my credit card and was like, "Here we go." I made an LLC; I stayed up all night making a Squarespace with Lindsay. We literally did not look into anything. We sought no extra assistance because I knew if I was worried about getting everything exactly right at first and doing it exactly the right way, I would never do it. I just wouldn't. I just wanted to test the idea and see of it held water and if it did, great. If it didn't, I could quietly fold that up and say, "I tried", and be fine with that.
At that point, I knew that it is important to me. Everybody always thinks, [bad things] are things that happen to other people and they are, until they happen to you. All these things sound so outlandish. People can't believe them, but I'm like, "Someday, you will have a story like this. You really will."
I had a perfectly normal-ass life until this happened. I refused this reality. I said, "Aaron, you don't have cancer." He had a brain tumor pressing on his brain and I was like, "It's not cancer. They would tell you if it was. You're fine. Go to bed. They'll take it out, and we'll get out of here." Even when they told us it was Stage 4 brain cancer, I just assumed they were test phases. I was like, "There's probably 10; 4 isn’t so bad.” Who uses a 1 to 4 scale anyway?
MNBIZ: What are your goals for Still Kickin in the future?
NORA: I want this to be everywhere. I want this to be a household name. We’ve sold T-shirts in 44 states and 16 countries. I want this to be a household name. We want to be able to help more than one person a month. I want it be everywhere and I want it to be the kind of thing that people see themselves in — “Still Kickin” are two words that you can see yourself in no matter what.
MNBIZ: Still Kickin started as a for profit business, correct?
NORA: Yes. We switched it to a nonprofit last October. Mainly because my accountant was like, "What are you doing? You cannot make money and then just give it to someone.” I was like, "Well, that's what I did for six months!” She's still figuring that out by the way…2015 was great for me tax-wise. Also, I thought being nonprofit would be too hard, but really I just needed people who were able to help me. We're going to be able to help more people to raise more money and give away more money.
MNBIZ: This issue is the Young Entrepreneurs issue. Did you ever see yourself as one?
NORA: The funny thing is my editor said to me the other day, "You're just so entrepreneurial. You're always coming up with ideas." I think that I always was. I always did have ideas, but then, I also thought, "Oh, that's not me. That's for other people to do. Other people do things like that and I do whatever I'm told to do.” I remember my dad saying to me in high school, "There are a lot of different ways to be intelligent and being really good at things people tell you to do is only one way."
I was so worried about doing everything the right way that I never would have thought of being an entrepreneur. I always watched other people do it. Watched friends who graduated and did their own thing and thought, "Oh my God, how could you possibly do that?" I always told myself it was way too hard for reasons like needing insurance. Well, I got insurance, and it took me about four to five minutes — that was not hard.
I guess I thought everyone else just knew it innately. No, nobody knew. Everybody had to learn. Everybody had to ask questions. Minneapolis is incredible. I work at COCO in Uptown and there's so many people there who know so many things. Even just knowing the right tax people to talk to and things like that. You don't actually have to know how to do everything. You have to know how to connect to somebody that knows how to do the thing that you don't know how to do. I think that is why I am this way know. I know that I don't have to do everything and I have the humility to say, "I have zero of these skills."
MNBIZ: But there are people who do.
MNBIZ: What do you fear (as either an entrepreneur or just a human)?
NORA: The worst thing's already happened to me so I don't really have a lot of fear of failure. I watched the two most important people in my life die and neither of them were like, "Oh god, I just really wish I hadn't messed up that one work thing." At that point, you don't give a shit and it doesn't f**ing matter. My main worry is that if I were the dead one, Aaron would be doing something awesome. I want to be as good as he always was. I don't know if that's a fear as much as it is a motivation, but that is the motivation behind everything, making sure my son has a mother he can be proud of and that I do the best for the person that I outlived for literally zero reason.
I also really hate centipedes.
MNBIZ: I hate centipedes too! What advice would you give to someone else who wants to be an entrepreneur, or start a nonprofit, or just do something different than what they’ve always done?
NORA: My advice is to not think it through. You'll always find a million reasons not to do something. I literally started this while I was an unemployed, single mother. On paper it made no sense. There was no reason for me to be like, "I should be giving away money" when maybe I should have been like, “Girl, you should be f**ing figuring out how to make money for yourself!” I think often, especially for women, there's this fear of perfection. If you can't do it perfectly, it isn't worth doing. We're really incredibly hard on ourselves. I don't know a single woman who isn't.
I think it's okay to be impulsive and to try something. There's no way it has to be right on the first try by the way. We went from an LLC to a nonprofit and I did not anticipate that. If you had to be perfect on the first try, we all wouldn’t be using our fifth iPhone — we'd all be using the ones we got in 2008 because they were f**ing perfect the first time! Everything that you don't know is something that you'll learn. The same way that you weren't born knowing how to walk and brush your teeth, but somehow you do that every single day.
MNBIZ: What is leadership to you?
NORA: God, I don't know. There's really nothing you can say that doesn't sound like it's from one of those inspirational posters with an eagle on it, right? For me, it's letting people in on this with me. It may be my organization, but I'm not the person doing the most work and I'm not the most important person to the organization. Leadership is bringing the right people along on the ride with you. Also, I don't think I'm the boss of anybody — I don't think leadership is the same thing as power. I feel like leadership is more humble.
When I think about leadership, I think of women like Nancy Lyons and Meghan Wilker, my sister. They both lead an organization, but everyone wants to work with them, and nobody feels like they're working for them. Literally, nobody at Still Kickin works for me — everyone works with me. That's f**ing incredible. I have the smartest, kindest, amazing people giving me their time for this. I think about that every single day and I seriously could cry about it right now. I had just a little idea and hoped it would work. I'm not the person who made that happen. I was lucky enough to be able to ask people who said yes and could make it happen with me.
MNBIZ: Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?
NORA: I want to make people feel a little bit braver and more capable. I think these things happened to me in a really public way, so people think that it was special in some way and it's really not, these are really common things. I've received emails from women who said, "I had a miscarriage and then, my dad died and then, my husband died." See? It f**ing happens. It's not just me. If I saw a movie like that I'd be, "No, over the top. Too much." Now, thinking back I'm like, "Yeah, no, it's possible." Shit happens, it does. I want people to be ready for their hard thing. It's not about me and it's not about Aaron, although he'll always be the spirit behind it. I just want this to mean something to people.
World Class from the Get Go
Through a chance experience during college, Joe Keeley found success by redefining nannies, sitters and tutors as role models
Within the last year, Joe Keeley’s College Nannies and Tutors expanded to include Sitters, and with a new mobile babysitting app – My Sitters -- the 15-year-old franchise company is poised to become the “Uber of babysitting.” They are already booking more than 100,000 sitter hours a month. Another sign of success is that the company added more than 20 new franchises to put it over the 100 mark – distributed to over 29 states. Total revenue is about $30 million.
Joe founded the company as an undergraduate student at the University of St. Thomas. One summer he responded to an ad for a male nannie who played hockey. The experience taught him that what families really need are role models for their kids, not just a watchful eye. He launched his business with the express purpose of strengthening families, which remains the mission today.
MNBIZ: You’ve said that in your senior year at St. Thomas you made more money from awards than in gross revenue from your business. What has been your most notable award?
Joe: I would say it was the Global Student Entrepreneur Award, which is a worldwide competition. I was deemed to have the best student run company in the world.
MNBIZ: How did you react to winning?
Joe: It's funny, and it was probably not the most appropriate thing to do, but I went up to one of the judges and I said, "I got to ask you. It seems like there were so many more successful businesses on stage. Frankly, why did I win?"
And he said, "Well, because it is really about vision and opportunity and scale and not necessarily stage. Every single one of us judges is a parent and we live in different parts of the country, in different parts of the world. You are absolutely onto something and we think that the world needs what you are doing."
That was not only incredibly humbling, but it was also a significant burden because you don't want to screw it up. At that point, it's not about you it's about the company.
MNBIZ: So you’ve received a lot of positive re-enforcement. Did you ever have a time where people didn't take you seriously because of your age?
Joe: Yes. Age of myself and age of the company. If you think about the 15 years I've run this, one could say at least half of them that was probably a factor. For example, I talked to over 80 insurances companies before we were able to get our insurance package in place. Imagine someone rolling their 401K into an IRA, and directing it towards buying a franchise and buying it from someone who is the age of their children. These are real issues.
MNBIZ: What was your survival strategy?
Joe: Two things. One, I really focused on building a strong team around me. Number two, I got over it. It was really in my own head, thinking I'm younger and therefore I may not know enough, or I don't have the experience. But as time went by and we kept hitting goals, that slowly melted away until it really wasn't an issue at all -- once I decided that it wasn't going to be an issue.
MNBIZ: For a lot of entrepreneurs there's always the fear that the company will grow so big that they are no longer the person to run it. Did you ever have that fear?
Joe: Sure. I've tried to be a student of growing businesses. I have also been a member of the Entrepreneurs Organization, which provides peer-to-peer learning and growth and continuing education. I felt like it was my job to be a steward of this business, and therefore I needed to continue to learn and grow, like any other leader, and earn that job, not just sit in that seat because I founded it.
MNBIZ: How did you decide on the franchise model?
Joe: That goes back to St. Thomas as well, where they had a franchising course. I liked the idea of building something on a national basis. My theory was, franchising was going to be less work and less money -- and it turns out I was wrong on both of those. It's a ton of work and it's a slower build because from a revenue model you get a percentage, a royalty percentage. I liked that idea of bringing on folks and helping them get into business.
MNBIZ: It seems there are more young people becoming entrepreneurs now than when you started.
Joe: I see that as well. I think perhaps the recession left fewer jobs, but I am also astounded at how the cost to start a business has been lowered. If you think about it, decades ago you had to get an office and buy a phone system, and that alone could be tens of thousands of dollars. Let alone the computers and technology.
Now you can get a website up -- tonight. You can get emails -- tonight. You can get a phone number -- tonight. You can rent fast software -- tonight. I mean it is extraordinary, this on demand rentable model that exists to start businesses and I think that has a lot to do with it.
MNBIZ: Tell me about how your business has grown. You saw a new angle on expanding your sittings services for corporations and consumers.
Joe: That is probably our largest growth area right now, because the babysitting market is unbelievably fragmented and it lacks a national brand. We partnered with a company out in Boston, in Bright Horizon Family Solutions for a corporate benefit called back up care. We are the majority provider for that corporate back up care. If you have this benefit and you can't make it to work today because there's a mild snowstorm that cancelled school -- but didn't cancel your important meeting -- your company may pay for a college nanny or sitter to come to your home. In many cases we deliver in less than three hours notice.
MNBIZ: That's a great part of your future growth.
Joe: It is, both in the B2B space and in the B2C space. Everybody knows somebody who could use a babysitter. The on-demand piece for scheduling and availability was really the linchpin here, so a couple of years ago we really started investing in our mobile platform and developed the My Sitters app. Our customers could be out at dinner and someone could invite them out to a game tomorrow. They could open up their app and book a college sitter right then and there and get them confirmed from their phone.
MNBIZ: You said that the market is rather fragmented. Are you trying to be the foremost national brand?
Joe: That is exactly correct. Yes.
MNBIZ: How far are you on that path?
Joe: On one measure, we're already got there. We are the largest employer of nannies and sitters in the world. We feel like there's a lot more to go, however. In a highly fragmented market, just because you are the largest of the smalls doesn't necessarily mean you have met your target completely.
MNBIZ: What advice would you give to all those sophomores in college that have an inkling to become an entrepreneur?
Joe: I would say give it a shot. Even for just a summer. The barriers to entry of some of these are very low and the benefits in experience, even if they're not financial, are significantly high. So give it a try.
The 2015 Young Entrepreneurs
An updated list from our first cohort
Wesley Otto, 22
Director of Strategy
OTTO MEDIA GROUP
Alexandra Feeken, 23
[Co-founder of Hidrate]
Erik Burst, 23
Benjamin Hohl, 24
Bianca Dawkins, 24
Founder & CEO
Faces of Hope SBC
Coleman Iverson, 24
Nadya Nguyen, 24
Sean Higgins, 24
Al Baker, 25
Alexander Hambrock, 25
CTO & Co-Founder
Eric Sannerud, 25
Mighty Axe Hops
Andrew Kincheloe, 26
President & Founder
Buddy’s Nut Butters
Joy McBrien, 26
Founder & CEO
Katherine Steller Schultz, 26
OwnerStellar Hair Company
Luke Riordan, 26
Grant Severson, 27
[co-founder of Pazta Pizza]
Jeff Sevaldson, 27
Martha McCarthy Krueger, 27
Co-Founder & CEO
The Social Lights
Emily Pritchard, 27
Co-Founder & COO
The Social Lights
Chris Schutrop, 28
Matador Business Accelerator
Christine Hehre, 28
Owner & Creative Director
David Holt, 28
Co-Founder & General Counsel
miVoyce (formerly CutMedicalBills)
Elizabeth Geisler, 28
Owner & Designer
Anish Das, 29
Chet Funk, 29
Director of Real Estate Development
The Reserve MN (formerly Cafe Inc)
David Amor, 29
Managing Partner & Principal Consultant
Jonathan Keller, 29
Kevin Capeder, 29
[co-founder of Altrulytics]
Independent Analytics Consultant
Timothy Denherder-Thomas, 29
Cooperative Energy Futures
Amee McDonald, 30
Co-Founder & CEO
Colleen O’Connor Toberman, 30
Northeast Investment Cooperative
Kalsey Beach, 30
Do Good Events
Kari Severson, 30
Founder & CEO
Robert Flessner, 30
CEO & Founder
Vugo (formerly Viewswagen)
Andrew Berg, 31
Co-Founder & Account Director
Humdinger & Sons
Erin Werde, 31
President & Owner
Jennifer Flavin Biswas, 31
Paisley & Sparrow
Grant Moody, 31
Express Employment Professionals
Peter Kane, 31
[founder of Startup Venture Loft]
Adrian Coulter, 32
Chris Carey, 32
Modern Automotive Performance
Cody Marshall, 32
Mike Rynchek, 32
Ryan Broshar, 32
Techstars Retail Accelerator (in partnership with Target)
Sammi Massie, 32
Massie Law PLLC
Taylor Baldry, 32
Co-Owner & Co-Founder
Vinoth Gopalakrishnan, 32
Will Davis, 32
Bethany (Mammenga) Palm, 33
Founder & CEO
Justin Musil, 33
Elite Sports Advising
Ryan Anderson, 33
Muhammad Abdurrahman, 34
[co-founder of Reemo]
University of Minnesota
Brett Brohl, 34
Startup Next Food and Tech
Hannah Barnstable, 34
President & Founder
Seven Sundays LLC
Michael Schlotfeldt, 34
Creative Director & Co-Founder
Nicholas Powley, 34
Nicole Wirth, 34
[co-founder of Koshi Footwear]
Virtual Personal Assistant
Tyson Schnitker, 34
Skaalvenn Distillery LLC
Adam Sieve, 35
Araya Jensen, 35
Owner & Designer
Willful (formerly Wind & Willow Home)
Clint McMahon, 35
MPLS/STP Clothing Co.
Debra Arbit, 35
Owner & CEO
Joe Keeley, 35
CEO & Founder
College Nannies, Sitters and Tutors
Stephanie Lee, 35
Host Agency Reviews
Tena Pettis, 35
Founder & Creative Director
Thompson Aderinkomi, 35
Founder & CEO
Jade Barker, 36
Jake Sturgis, 36
Jason Campbell, 36
Owner, IP Strategist & US Patent Attorney
Campbell IP Law (formerly DataRoutes Legal Services)
Jeremy Flaten, 36
Kathleen Harrell-Latham, 36
The Contingent Plan
Lee Meyer, 36
Pete’s Water & Sewer
Matt Hilker, 36
Founder & CEO
Melissa Harrison, 36
CEO & Founder
Allee Creative, LLC
Mike Jones, 36
CEO & Co-Founder
Updates from the 2015 Young Entrepreneurs
We asked the original Young Entrepreneur honorees from 2015 to tell us how being in Minnesota Business affected their businesses, and to give us updates on the growth and changes in their companies.
Here are their comments about the experience, along with their tales of remarkable growth.
CEO, Doomtree Records
The day of the cover shoot I [rather foolishly] assumed that there’d be a make-up artist on set. When I arrived, a little late and a little frazzled, to discover that that I ought to have brought my own cosmetics, it was much too late. One of the Minnesota Business staffers was kind enough to lend me a Sharpie with which to line my eyes and we were shooting within a few minutes.
Reaction: The response to the story was great — I received several messages from readers and listeners who had an interest in the Doomtree business model or just a kind word of encouragement. We live in a culture that doesn’t speak too frankly about how we make and spend our money and it’s always refreshing to be part of a conversation that’s a little more transparent than the prevailing norm.
Update: Since last year’s article, Aby Wolf and I toured Australia (where I lost a little money, but found a favorite new dessert), published some new literary material, and have been grinding away on new songs, out soon. Thanks for the chance to wear a guy’s suit, a smirk and a Sharpie cat-eye in full color!
Reaction: The feature definitely generated interest and buzz around our company. We saw an uptick in lead generation, dealer interest, and a lot of solicitations from businesses. We were actually able to start a couple of good, productive conversations.
Update: Our company roughly doubled in revenue YoY by August. We are on track for just over $2M. We have increased our capacity at our SD manufacturing plant by 150%, added three to four team members and started working on some quite large projects with Universal Studios and Carnival Cruise Lines.
CEO and Co-Founder, Vugo (formerly Viewswagen)
Reaction: We had some inquiries from interested customers from the article and additional press opportunities.
Update: We changed our name to Vugo, which we think it is more brandable. Plus we received a nice letter from an auto manufacturer, so we pretty much had to change it. We are launching Vugo in Los Angeles, where we have over 500 rideshare partners. We are looking at adding Minneapolis soon! Our customer base now includes a few Fortune 500 advertisers. To find out who, just keep an eye out for Vugo in rideshare vehicles!
Owner, Express Employment Professionals Mankato
Update: Our staffing agency company, industry and marketplace have grown significantly. My company has grown 27% from last year, or from total sales of $4,891,650 to $6,627,811. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the staffing industry will grow faster than any other U.S. industry in the next decade. Mankato has added more jobs per month on average to the region in 2016 than any other geographically recorded region in the state of MN YTD.
Founder and CEO, Fair Anita
Reaction: Being in the magazine allowed us to reach new markets, and find new customers and partnerships. We met one of our current retail partners, Paisley + Sparrow, because of the celebration last August.
Update: Fair Anita now has three employees, many amazing volunteers, and our revenue has about tripled. Even more importantly, we’ve been able to provide more fair trade jobs to women because of this growth, and we’re seeing the impacts of those jobs ripple throughout communities across the world.
Katie Steller Schultz
Owner and Stylist, Steller Hair
Reaction: Being featured in Minnesota Business had a positive effect on our salon. Our clients felt proud to support a successful young business, as well as brag about us to their friends! Right now, Steller Hair Company is booked out for the next 4 weeks. We turn away 10-20 people a day, and get 40+ new clients a week.
Update: In 2014 our gross sales were $293,973. In 2015 our gross sales were $409,670. So far this year, we have brought in $132,725 (more than $20,000 higher than the comparable time last year).
Managing Director, Techstars (previously Founder and Managing Director of Matchstick Ventures)
Reaction: Great exposure and a cool company to be associated with.
Update: Closed out our VC fund. Started Techstars Retail Accelerator in partnership with Target. Rapidly expanding Beta.MN and Twin Cities Startup Week.
Founder and Creative Director, tena.cious
Reaction: It was interesting to learn that I fell into the millennial category. I was asked to do a Tedx Talk this fall and before this article I wasn’t sure what I would focus on in my talk. Now it is clear to me that leading millennials is something I seem to have down pretty well!
Update: We have nearly doubled our revenue at tena.cious. We launched an annual small business conference called “The before. conference.” I also purchased an existing business in Stillwater, Capture Salon, with the help of my husband.
Reaction: Whether we’re in Minnesota Business for winning an award or for providing insight to a story, we always see a bump in new visitors to our website and overall brand awareness. The best part is getting to meet other young entrepreneurs.
Update: We’re currently on pace for around 30% revenue growth for 2016 and just had a record first quarter. We’ve added a handful of team members and plan on adding more. You should check out our HITRUST Certification blog post (spydertrap.com/blog). Data security is becoming a bigger and bigger topic.
Co-Founder and CEO, jabber logic
Reaction: Yes, jabber logic’s appearance in Minnesota Business magazine has helped our business. It give us more credibility as a startup, and people reached out to us from the article. For example, Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota president Amie Penny Sayler contacted us. We recently joined their organization as a member, and Amie has been our lawyer since September 2015.
Update: Our revenue has almost doubled. In the last month, we’ve hired two new employees: a full-time graphic designer and a marketing manager.
Owner, Paisley + Sparrow
Reaction: Yes. I was able to connect with other entrepreneurs and have worked directly with one of them as a result.
Update: Our company has grown 40% in revenue so far. We’re bringing on two interns for the summer for the first time. We’ve also expanded our product line to include apparel!
Co-founder and Account Director, Humdinger & Sons
Reaction: The exposure helped build my local network and spread the good word about what Humdinger does so well around the Twin Cities.
Update: The last year was a smashing success, expanding our services, clients and partners. In addition to our core — branding, video production and advertising — two new areas of focus we’ve found especially interesting and distinctive: crowdfunding and app & UI design. We won the top award at the Midwest’s largest advertising awards — Ad Fed’s The Show — for our work on the Amana brand identity. We’ve been Astropad’s creative partner from day one, which won MN Cup, thanks in part to our brand video. Finally, we partnered with Mike Jones (another ‘15 Young Entrepreneur) to help launch Alchemy.
CEO, Mighty Axe Hops
Reaction: I received many congratulations and shout outs across various social media platforms. It attracted a handful more ‘likes’ and follows to our pages.
Update: Since last check Mighty Axe Hops has completed a nearly $5 million raise and is on track to grow to 80 acres of hops by 2017. Minnesota hops just got a lot more real! (See story on minnesotabusiness.com.)
Recruiting Advisor/Owner, Elite Sports Advising
Update: We have been growing consistently for the last four years. We are in the midst of extensive growth into other states. We have expanded into Iowa and Nebraska and will be expanding into Illinois this year as well. Our revenue increased by 49% in 2015.
Martha McCarthy Krueger
Co-Founder and CEO, The Social Lights
Reaction: Several friends, colleagues and strategic partners saw us in the article and promptly acknowledged/congratulated us!
Update: Since this time last year, revenue growth is up 51.3%. We’ve grown to 12 employees (4x last year), moved into a new office in the North Co. building (Northeast Mpls), and gained retail industry expertise (picking up several new clients in the process). We will also be rolling out new service offerings that will be announced later this year.
Reaction: We were able to meet other companies in the manufacturing sector in Minnesota both through our appearance in the magazine and through the Young Entrepreneur party last August.
Update: In 2015, DrumLite signed a deal with Pearl Drums to become our distributor in the USA. This, along with other distribution deals in Europe, Japan and Canada, helped us grow revenues by 38%. Directly because of this, we moved to a new warehouse (roughly doubling our square footage) and increased our employee count from three to five.
Founder and Chief T-Shirt Maker, MPLS / STP Clothing Co.
Reaction: Being in the August 2015 issue was good exposure for us.
Update: 2016 has so far been a great year for us. We are on pace to triple what we did last year and we’ve also hired a marketing coordinator to take over our social channels as well as more community outreach. In 2015 we moved into a space in the Thorp building, but because of our growth we are moving again into a 2,300 sq.ft. space for ourselves along with other tenants such as WOODCHUCK USA.
Founder, Host Agency Reviews
Reaction: Minnesota has a strong base of travel companies, both large and small, and being recognized by Minnesota Business is a definite boost.
Update: We have seen strong growth in both our website visitors and our profits. Website traffic increased to 47,000 visitors/mo. in March 2016. Profits increased 201% from 2014 to 2015, which helped us add one full-time employee. We’ve bootstrapped the operation from the start and the company has seen impressive growth in traffic and revenue since its inception in 2012.
Founder and CEO, BAM Essentials
Reaction: Being featured last year led to increased traffic on the BAM Essentials website.
Update: Since last August, we’ve added 30 new product SKUs, and have developed new retail partnerships.
CEO, Matador Business Accelerator (formerly RoundTable StartUps)
Reaction: After appearing in last year’s Minnesota Business, a number of people congratulated me. Some knew what I had been working on and others hadn’t. It was good brand exposure.
Update: I have been focused on a few different ventures over the past year. One that launches in June is Stock & Barrel Gun Club in Chanhassen. It’s a “guntry club” model with a virtual shooting range, cigar lounge, valet gun cleaning services, a retail offering and more. It’s the only one like it in the state (stockandbarrel.com).
Co-founder and General Counsel, miVoyce (formerly CutMedicalBills)
Reaction: Our appearance in Minnesota Business helped connect us to other entrepreneurs and connections. We also saw a small uptick in sales.
Update: miVoyce is a patient advocacy, do-it-yourself, online training platform developed by a healthcare attorney and a cancer caregiver (mivoyce.com). We have grown in revenue by 400% but we still do not have any employees, although we do use a lot of independent contractors.
CoCreateX has accomplished many things since the purchase of the place we call “the house” in 2013 and in the last year since our appearance in the 2015 Young Entrepreneur issue of Minnesota Business magazine. We’ve built a machine shop, equipped an engineering laboratory and helped numerous people advance their projects by sharing our tools, talents and diverse networks of friends and capabilities.
What’s really special, however, is how we have helped some extraordinary young creators dramatically improve and advance their lives. By enabling raw talent to express itself by building, completing and sharing projects, we’ve helped people realize the value of being makers. Makers are people who eagerly develop new skills as they create things they enjoy creating. For some, with substantial project portfolios, simply providing them opportunities to inspire others with what they have already created has made the difference. For others, helping them find and complete projects has been the ticket.
Either way, we enabled one young woman to demonstrate her amazing engineering capabilities and truly creative personal culture to a 3M Corporate Scientist who has now taken her under his wing and provided her what can only be described as a dream job. Another dream job has gone to a young man with a similar penchant for learning on the fly and creating things all the time. Now he is paid to develop robots, survey oceans and zip around in fast cars and even faster jets. He just turned 22.
What is consistent in all cases where we have helped people to dramatically improve their lives is we’ve helped them to share their abilities to create with others. In whatever context, such creativity is inspiring. To be able to make something out of nothing is powerful.
Another young man, having built a fixture for a medical startup is now getting lots of referrals to do the same and he’s sharing these opportunities with his friends. He and others are using ‘the house’ and shops around town to fulfill business. Another has teamed up with a pair of seasoned medical device developers to create a new product. Their experiments with springs, masses, and things flying around take place in the garage. These experiments, while fun, are revealing the physics of how care could be delivered.
By my descriptions of our major successes, it would be natural to think that such opportunities to create and advance are limited to young people. Aren’t they? No. They are limited to people who create things. You too can create things and share your abilities with others. So please be our guest at “the house,” and build something. Chances are, before you know it, you’ll have built a more creative and fulfilling life.
Finally, thank you to Minnesota Business magazine for continuing to generously validate our community with its coverage. We appreciate both the honor and the tailwind. To get involved, please visit CoCreateX.com or email email@example.com.
Healthcare + AI: Minnesota should partner with Silicon Valley on Artificial Intelligence.
When I started Healthcare.mn in 2013, my vision was to make Minnesota the best place in the U.S. to launch a healthcare startup. Digital health initiatives were taking off all over the nation with seed funding, buzz and a bevy of high profile mentors. Minnesota was largely absent from this cycle despite our leading health care organizations and ability to navigate the the industry’s most complicated channels. Now, well past Silicon Valley’s digital health craze, Minnesota is in a better position than ever to emerge as the nation’s health care innovation leader. The noise has subsided, there is a high level of cohesiveness in our health care networks and we have some special health care startups on the rise.
Minnesota has been trying to recreate its glory days of innovation. We’re still bullish and eager to find the secret for sustained high-tech successes. Impassioned debates permeate our startup gatherings, co-working spaces and blogs. Although popular sentiment seems to dismiss Northern California’s well known startup eco-system, it’s a better time than ever for Minnesota to start a serious relationship with Silicon Valley.
The abdominal force in Silicon Valley now is Artificial Intelligence. Every major tech company is fighting to grab AI talent, and new AI startups are popping up like dandelions. Why? Because organizations not deploying AI are being outpaced by those who do. AI is being incorporated into our lives faster than we realize and its ability to solve complex problems has outpaced humans. With processing power advancements and breakthroughs in deep learning, the era of AI hit full swing in early 2016.
I moved to the Silicon Valley in Fall 2015, and re-launched an Artificial Intelligence community group in the Bay Area. Silicon Valley Artificial Intelligence (sv.ai) is the largest AI community in Northern California. We provide resources and connectivity for our members and industry partners. The area of AI we focus on is called deep learning. Deep Learning refers to training multi-layer neural networks, and it can produce phenomenal tasks like self driving cars, medical drug discovery, artwork, conversations, and describing the contents of a photo.
AI’s achilles’ heel is acquiring the enormous amounts of data required to create an intelligent system, and that’s why I am excited for Minnesota. We have the data, and enormous amounts of it. Minnesota truly has something Silicon Valley wants. I want to see the amazing results of Silicon Valley’s AI engineering talent and Minnesota’s healthcare expertise. We’ve built the networks, now lets create something bigger.