Entrepreneurship celebrated on National Entrepreneurs Day
Entrepreneurship rewards those who are willing to be creative, work hard, and take risks, and more and more Virginia Tech alumni and students are doing that in pursuit of those rewards.
After working in the same career for 25 years and going through two rounds of acquisitions, Julie Bishop felt an urge to explore a different path.
Yes, she had enjoyed the perks: good checks, quality benefits, and a nice retirement plan. Yet Bishop, who graduated with a master’s degree in food science and technology from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech in 1992, wanted something new and exciting. Those feelings brought her to a career crossroads.
“Going through another round [of acquisition] and doing what I was doing for 25 years in the same company — I don’t know if it was a midlife career crisis and wanting to see what else was out there,” Bishop said. “I think it was a little bit of both. There were a lot of things going on with the company and maybe there was an itching to explore something else.”
The appetite for change led her into the rather comforting world of … ice cream.
A friend connected Bishop with Allison Monette, who had an idea of producing different flavors of dairy-free gelato for those allergic to dairy products or lactose intolerant. Possessing a different set of skills — Monette’s background centered on sales and marketing, while Bishop’s focused on product development and operations — the two realized those strengths and their past experiences meshed well.
Together, they co-founded O’MY! Dairy Free Gelato, based in Richmond, in 2017. Four years later, their product is in more than 2,000 stores and in every state except Alaska.
Their planning, hard work, sacrifice, risk-taking, and success is to be celebrated today on National Entrepreneurs Day — and few schools celebrate entrepreneurship more than Virginia Tech.
The university has a center dedicated to entrepreneurship. Established in 2014 by alumni Brian Callaghan, Ted Hanson, Win Sheridan, and Jeffrey Veatch, the Apex Center for Entrepreneurship, which recently moved into a 6,000-square-foot space at a location in downtown Blacksburg, helps students build something new and launch their own ventures. It also connects students with fellow Hokie entrepreneurs who, like Bishop, saw an opportunity and reaped the benefits.
At its core, that essentially is the definition of entrepreneurship, according to Derick Maggard, executive director of the Apex Center.
“I define entrepreneurship as seeing an opportunity and to coalesce the resources needed to build toward that opportunity,” he said. “Entrepreneurs rarely have what they need to build a business or build a project from day 1, but what they have to do is sell others on that vision and be able to mobilize people, human capital and financial capital and other resources, toward that goal.”
But entrepreneurship first starts with an idea.
Innovative ideas often lead to successful ventures
After he graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in information technology in 2002, Bryan Daniels expected to work for a prominent company and make great money—which he did in his native Virginia Beach for nearly 16 years. But he lacked fulfillment.
“It was a stable career — good pay, good benefits, all the stuff that I didn’t want to leave behind,” Daniels said. “But my family could see that I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of life in general, and I needed to make some kind of change.”
A passion of he and his friends — brewing beer —sparked an idea that ultimately led to his current career.
The brewing process leaves brewers with a bag of grains called “spent grains.” Most brewers throw the grains away, but Daniels wondered about another use for them.
“I was like, ‘What can I do with this stuff to save it?’” Daniels said. “I’m not a good chef. I don’t have a culinary background at all, but I figured I could make granola bars.”
Some companies make flour out of spent grains, but that takes time, money, and patience. Daniels searched YouTube for granola bar recipes. He tweaked his ingredients, adding oats, brown sugar, honey and others, and after several attempts, he made one that tasted good. He then made several more and took them to his workplace, where he left them in a jar for co-workers who often left a tip in return.
“Then when I left [the company] … I kept getting orders from my older co-workers and from some of their friends and families whom they had shared the bars with,” Daniels said. “I eventually started getting more orders than I had grain because me and my buddies had stopped brewing at that point.
“So, I was like, ‘Let me go to a local brewery. They should have tons of the stuff every day.’ The first guy I went to, he was like, ‘Yeah, I just brewed some today. You can have this batch right here.’ That was the day it became my business.”
On that day, All Good Craft Granola Bars was established.
Though not her original idea, Bishop, like Daniels, played a direct role in producing the product — in this case, gelato. During her career at Ukrop’s Super Markets (and Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods when Ahold bought the retail stores), she oversaw product development, working with two chefs — one with responsibility for chilled prepared foods and the other who had baked goods.
Monette already had secured a contract from a third-party company to produce the gelato, but that company never had done that before. So, Bishop and Monette agreed to a short-term contract that called for Bishop, with no knowledge of making gelato, to work on some samples.
“I went to Williams-Sonoma, and I bought the nicest ice cream maker they had, and I spent the summer working on the bases,” Bishop said. “So, there is a base, and then you flavor it. We got the white base and the chocolate base done and then just worked on the flavors.
“I had my family as the initial tasters. Your family is always very honest, right? They’re not going to tell you they like something when they don’t. We had talked about the guardrails, what ingredients she wanted, so that I had parameters that I worked within. So, all the initial development work was done on my kitchen counter.”
Bishop spent the entire summer of 2017 working on ice cream bases—all plant-based and dairy-free. Monette liked what Bishop came up with and offered her three options: be finished working for her, extend their working arrangement, or join her as a co-founder of O’MY! Dairy Free Gelato.
Bishop didn’t hesitate.
“I was so excited because I had always wanted to work in a start-up and never thought I’d get the chance living in Richmond,” she said. “It didn’t seem like it would ever come my way. Obviously, I had put in a lot of work and effort to what we had and felt ownership of it from the very beginning, and I was overjoyed when that opportunity came along.”
Entrepreneurship requires risk
Maggard believes that all entrepreneurs possess common traits — selling the idea, telling the story of where that idea leads up, relentless work ethic, and having no fear of failure.
The last of these may be the most important. According to Forbes, 90 percent of start-up businesses fail.
“Entrepreneurs are OK if something doesn’t go their way because they can rebound,” Maggard said. “They can overcome what may not go right the first time. Oftentimes, many people can’t deal with that.”
Bart Butler knows all about risks and failing. The Washington, D.C., native, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in finance within the Pamplin College of Business in 1984 and now lives in Baltimore County, Maryland, worked several jobs before building a thriving real estate business. He later branched into construction, and he and his wife grew their business to the point where they owned three homes and traveled worldwide.
That lifestyle lasted until 2008-09 when the real estate market tanked.
“We were living the life, and we knew there was going to be a correction, but what happened wasn’t a correction,” Butler said. “The country pretty much fell off a cliff.”
The Butler family basically lost everything. They moved eight times in a span of eight years to keep a roof over their heads.
That, however, did not deter Butler. He returned to his entrepreneurial ways and gradually built new businesses.
Today, he and his wife own six businesses, including My Real Estate Mart, which is a one-stop shop for real estate services, and Baltimore Urban Renewal, which rebuilds distressed properties in urban communities.
“When we lost everything, it was like, ‘OK, back to ground zero. We’ll just start over,’” Butler said. “It’s not like I was born with a silver spoon. I had to work, so I just went back to grinding it out, and that’s always been a guiding principle, just never give up. That’s been my mantra.
“For most entrepreneurs, your failures don’t define you. They just give you another opportunity to succeed. That’s how I’ve approached it, and I would recommend that to any person looking to go into business for themselves because it’s not easy.”
Of course, accepting the risks can be hard to do, particularly when one’s personality trends toward being risk-averse. Like Butler, Bishop and Daniels both have children, so the decision to chase an unknown has farther-reaching consequences.
“You hear the statistics of how many businesses fail, and it’s like, ‘OK, this is our one time, and it can’t fail,’” Bishop said. “I have two kids. She [Monette] has two kids. We’re raising money. I can’t tell any of my people that I know who have invested, ‘Sorry, you’re losing your money.’ That’s just not an option.”
Plan for the jump
There are ways to mitigate the risk, though. Many experts in business recommend doing extensive research and detailed planning first instead of making a jump.
Daniels used friends and co-workers as “test” cases for his granola bar idea before doing anything rash. He explored the internet in a search for companies doing the same thing with spent grains and only found one in San Francisco.
He gave his idea a lot of thought before quitting his job and creating his own business. Research was essential for him because he lacked a background in both business and cooking.
“I didn’t jump into it,” he said. “It was a year-or-two discussion with my wife about how I was going to try and make it work. … We both went into it cautiously. Neither one of us are huge risk takers anyway.”
Bishop had a little more security when making her decision because of her career experiences and by learning from her father, who was an entrepreneur and built several businesses. Also, her partner, Monette, understood business.
Bishop and Monette had the experience. For them, their risk centered mostly on whether the market liked their product.
“I had 25 years of experience, and she had been working for almost 20,” Bishop said. “So, we weren’t a couple of 25-year-olds trying to take a stab at something.
“I think you’ve got to do research. From a business standpoint, you have to make sure it’s viable. Sometimes, you don’t always know that because it’s something new and innovative, but doing research and knowing your customers—it was important for us to know our customers.
“And then, it’s persistence. There are always setbacks and bumps along the way, but pushing through those is so important when you’re trying to build a business.”
No one template for success
For the most part, entrepreneurs define success through profits, but the business model for success can differ for every entrepreneur.
Butler, for example, took a more web-based approach with his first business after the real estate market crashed in 2008-09. Instead of doing various tasks within the construction and real estate sector, he now connects customers seeking real estate services with providers of those services.
Bishop and Monette first secured funding from friends and angel funding for purchasing ingredients for their product line and to produce large quantities of it.
They have products that are dairy-free, and all products are allergy-friendly. Plus, the new line is keto-friendly. They continually look to expand into novelty areas, such as sandwiches or desserts “on a stick,” and to plan for a potential buyout of their company if such an opportunity presents itself.
Daniels takes more of a grassroots approach. He makes his granola bars at home, and he hauls them to farmer’s markets. He also handles all the packaging for online orders and distribution to local retailers. He continues to get into more stores, is making a profit, and harbors dreams of expanding beyond Virginia Beach.
“I’m definitely enjoying it because I feel like I’m doing something good for the community, for the breweries, for sustainability, and hopefully to fight food hunger as well,” he said. “That’s what I hope to do with this new role I’ve taken on.”
By combining great ideas with a high risk tolerance, and backed by their Virginia Tech educations, Bishop, Butler and Daniels are inventing their futures, and they all love that chase. Yes, starting a business requires work, patience, sacrifice, and risk, but they embrace the challenge even if there is a chance of failing.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way … The challenge is what it’s all about—the thrill of it, the thrill of succeeding,” Butler said. “You know they say the ‘agony of defeat,’ but I don’t take it as that. I take it as a setback, and that fuels me even more.”
“I’m just someone who likes to do,” Bishop said. “A start-up definitely needs someone who likes to do. You don’t have department to hand stuff to, and that gets frustrating at times because you do need a break.
“But just creating something from scratch was just so exciting to me, just starting from the beginning and see if we could get this thing going.”
Virginia Tech’s current students hopefully can learn from examples like these, and of course, their own experiences in the entrepreneurial world. The university values experiential learning, and so, too, do companies in today’s economy.
That experience has never been more valuable.
“Their resumés show, ‘Hey, we did these things. We built these things,’” Maggard said. “Even if they’ve failed, they can talk through that story of them starting a company and failing and then shutting it down. Google and Microsoft and all those big companies love that.”
Today, the entrepreneurial world is open to everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. This world rewards creativity, hard work, and those willing to gamble — and not surprisingly, more and more Virginia Tech students and alumni are wanting to live in it.