Ideas Into Action
Risk takers. Creative thinkers. Visionaries.
By Maureen A. Nolan
The alumni featured below — all of whom graduated from Hamilton within the past decade — prefer to scramble rather than to settle into a ready-made career. Yet if they were guests at the same cocktail party, their conversation would likely focus on potential, even as they acknowledge the challenges they face. “You tell yourself you see things other people can’t see, but I also think at times you are bordering on delusional,” says entrepreneur Chase Garbarino ’07. Perhaps that’s what makes them such an interesting and inspiring bunch.
‘Intrepid’ Sums it Up Nicely
Mark Kasdorf ’06 spent most of his last year in law school engaging with venture capitalists. He graduated with big debt, a wife and child — and his own software company. It lacked the money to pay him a salary, yet Kasdorf turned down a job with a law firm. He just wasn’t interested.
“My wife was freaking out, and it was a pretty scary time, but I wasn’t worried,” he said. “I knew something would work out.”
At 29, Kasdorf is a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who has launched four companies since his years as a Hamilton mathematics major. The first was the venture birthed while he was a student at Boston University School of Law. That company is no longer around, but Kasdorf says the other three, all based in Boston, are doing well. There is Intrepid Pursuits, an iOS and Android software development company that Kasdorf says has grown in the last couple of years from three to 30 full-time employees. The others are Intrepid Labs, a coworking center in which tenants pay a per-desk fee for operating space, and Timbre, an app that locates live music.
In September, the Mass Technology Leadership Council named Kasdorf its Emerging Executive of the Year for his work with Intrepid Pursuits. Intrepid is the right word. Kasdorf has pondered what makes him good at what he does and came up with three critical skills. “One thing is — this is going to sound kind of silly — but I have an almost pathologically high-risk tolerance,” he says.
Not that he’s skydiving or racing Harleys without a helmet; his risk tolerance is all about money. Kasdorf says he has zero fear about where he’ll be financially 10 or 15 years down the road. That confidence allows him to take risks in the near term that otherwise might seem crazy. His second skill is problem solving. Kasdorf acknowledges that this sounds like a cliché, but he doesn’t see problems; he sees an issue to solve. The third skill is salesmanship, an element of which is believing in what he sells.
“I think at some level every founder is first and foremost a salesman. I sell our products to our customers, I sell vision to the team, I sell our company to our investors. Everyone I interact with at some level, I’m selling them something,” he says. “It’s my job to keep the morale of everyone in the company, from vendors to customers to employees to investors, happy and excited about what we’re doing.”
In Kasdorf’s view, certain people are bound to start companies, which is why he reached back to Hamilton in 2011 to create a business pitch competition for students and alumni. When he graduated, he’d never heard of a venture capitalist and had only a vague understanding of “entrepreneur.” Kasdorf says if he hadn’t gone to law school in Boston, a city he describes as one of the best in which to start a business, he might not have figured out what he wanted to do until a decade or more later.
“I watch people in their 20s in Boston start companies all the time, and if you have the drive and the desire, it’s possible,” he says. “I didn’t think that many people coming out of Hamilton knew that.”
As swiftly as Kasdorf’s own career path has unfolded, it took a bit of time for him to realize he was moving down it. He launched Intrepid Pursuits in early 2010. “It probably wasn’t until mid 2011 until it really sunk in that this was all I was ever going to do with my life, that I loved it, and that I was never going to be a lawyer. I was never going to practice. At this point I’m pretty entrenched in the Boston start-up fabric, and I think I’ll be here for a long time,” he says.
Plan B: Laureate Records
When Charles “Siege” Santiago, Jr. ’09 graduated from high school, he informed his family that he intended to make a career as a rapper, a pronouncement that drew a predictable reaction from his father: “Absolutely not.”
“He said, ‘You know I understand and I appreciate that you’re an artist, and this is what you love to do, but you’ve got to have a back-up plan. You’ve got to have Plan A. Rap should be Plan B or Plan C. You should have a way to make a living,’” Santiago recalls. His father introduced him to a connection who, in turn, introduced him to Hamilton, and the young Santiago was college bound. He majored in sociology and minored in digital arts, where he learned skills, such as how to create music videos and cover art, useful in furthering his abiding goals of becoming a rap artist and launching a record label. Santiago’s goals also got a boost from an internship, secured with the support of the Career Center, at Atlantic Records.
Looking back on it, Santiago says that going to Hamilton was among the best decisions he ever made. (Thanks, Dad.) But after graduation, the rap and record label careers hovered at the Plan B level or below. He needed to make a living, so he earned a master’s degree in communications arts from New York Institute of Technology and landed a job as an encoding coordinator at the HBO Communications Center on Long Island. Santiago loves it. Still, it’s a day job.
In March, with encouragement from his father and mother, Santiago launched Laureate Records, which he says was scary, “like jumping into an ice-cold pool of water.” He is compelled to find a way to create and produce music, his own and that of other artists who don’t fit into a commercial niche. He wants to sign people who are more talented than he is and at least as passionate about making the best music they can. Santiago intends to make money to make music.
“When you’re in entertainment and you’re on the creative side, money is just a means to an end,” he says. “Ultimately you want to be respected for your music and you want to know that you made your best work because that represents you, and it’s an expression of who you are.”
Santiago found an angel investor who enabled him to take the first step, which was the legal work to form Laureate. He created the website, laureaterecords.com, and has enlisted a few friends with expertise. Right now they all are working for the future — no one is getting paid yet. The plan is to produce and promote Laureate’s first record, of Santiago’s music, this year, and thereby generate money and momentum to bring in more talent.
Santiago is optimistic he will succeed. He’s convinced that being optimistic is, like making mistakes and learning from them, an essential element of entrepreneurial success. Yet with the yin and yang of business reality, Santiago maintains both a belief in success and a recognition that it might not come. In any case, he has other passions he intends to pursue, such as opening a restaurant and starting a line of clothing.
“This trying of new things is going to continue,” he says. “Who’s to say just because I started a label and went to Hamilton and got my master’s, and that I’m a focused kid, that it’s actually going to work out?”
From Lawyer to Laudville
Get hired at a law firm. Become an associate. Move up to partner. Maybe claim a corner office. Soon after she landed what sounded like the ideal job at a Chicago law firm, Phoebe Scott ’06 could see the clockwork career progression that lay ahead, and she was not inspired.
“That felt like a death sentence to me. It doesn’t work well with my personality,” she says. “I’d rather be like: ‘I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to pay my bills in six months or if I’m going to be a millionaire.’ That sounds horribly terrifying to a lot of people, but to me, it keeps me excited and busy.”
Scott escaped the firm in May 2012 for a career path she began carving out when she was working as a lawyer and loathing it. Her venture is Laudville (www.laudville.com), a social platform that connects users to entertainment tailored for them across media, whether it be a book, music, movie or television show. Scott first dreamed of such a concierge service back in law school. She wished somebody would develop such a thing. As she faced her aversion to her chosen career, it dawned on her that she could be that somebody. Scott was a philosophy major and art minor at Hamilton with no technical background, but she was creative and logical and figured she could learn what she needed to know.
Her husband, a musician, was supportive when she brought him the idea, and she pursued it after work and on weekends. She found a couple of willing web developers. Scott invested her own money in Laudville and solicited support from family and friends. The point came when she realized she would have to quit the law firm to work full blast on Laudville. With each move, her confidence grew.
“It’s a very scary thing, entrepreneurship, because at every step you get more confident, it’s also a little scarier. It’s competitive when you’re out there on your own,” says Scott, who is also raising a toddler. “But, you know, it’s kind of a good balance. I find that every time I make a little progress, I feel confident enough to keep going and to get smarter about it and to do it a little better — and scared enough that I feel that I’m on my toes, and I have to work really, really hard.”
Her law background comes in handy when she reviews contracts and conducts research, but that career appears to be history. When she and her husband moved to California, she decided not to take the bar exam. Her new career is ever changing, uncertain and exactly what she wants.
Laudville is in beta testing, which means it is available for public use and accepts feedback. Scott has taken on a full-time web developer and an intern who handles social media, plus she has some part-time staff and an external marketing team. She’s looking to hire a technical director, a position she says will make it easier to raise outside capital. As she builds the company, she sometimes considers what it would mean if Laudville doesn’t play out the way she hopes. When Scott asks herself what she would do then, she has answers she can live with.
“Well, I would have had unbelievable experience in the career that I want to be in: technology,” she says. “If I can’t run my own startup, I want to help somebody else run theirs."
RocketHub Blasts to Success
Alon Hillel-Tuch ’07 says great things happen on a weekly basis in his job as chief financial officer at RocketHub, a crowdfunding platform he helped found. Still, some moments stand out. “Like getting a call from the White House that they’re sending over the executive director of the U.S. Treasury to meet with my office and myself,” Hillel-Tuch says.
Then there was the time he testified before the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. That was in June 2012, 10 days past his 27th birthday. “It’s a very intimidating group of people. Let me put it that way,” says Hillel-Tuch, who was there to talk about crowdfunding and implementation of the federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act. He spoke in support of rules that would help small businesses sell stock and attract investors through crowdfunding. He followed that up with a meeting with the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, among other officials, and was invited to the White House for an open discussion in the West Wing with its chief technical officer.
RocketHub is a web-based vehicle for people to raise money for businesses and projects and to spread the word about them. Entrepreneurs, scientists and artists, to name a few, launch 400 to 600 projects a day through RocketHub, which Hillel-Tuch says is among the top three largest crowdfunding platforms. RocketHub is a for-profit business developed in 2009 by four founders. Hillel-Tuch, who went to work at RocketHub full time in 2010, was an economics major at Hamilton and earned a master’s of science degree in negotiation and conflict resolution at Columbia University. That’s where he met Brian Meece, fellow RocketHub founder and CEO.
The multilingual Hillel-Tuch, who formerly worked in finance, left a stable, “horribly unrewarding” job for the risky, highly rewarding world of RocketHub. He has no regrets. “I believe that some of the best things happen when you just give it a shot and see what happens for good or for bad. And I learned to deal with failure in the past so it wasn’t something that really frightened me,” he says.
With RocketHub, Hillel-Tuch has written well-received whitepapers about crowdfunding. He’s been interviewed by national media, speaks regularly with representatives from the Securities and Exchange Commission, and was queried by the Treasury Department about how RocketHub creates jobs. When the official arrived to talk with RocketHub leaders, he found 30-plus business people eager to explain how RocketHub helped them.
“What happens is we see a lot of small businesses — and I’m not talking tech; I’m talking your typical small business in a small town — that instead of taking out a business loan or finding a way to load debt on their credit card are actually raising funds through us in order to expand their shops,” he says. One of his favorite examples is a tea shop in Shelbyville, Ky., whose proprietor raised a few thousand dollars to expand, which enabled her to handle more customers, sell more wares and hire two more workers. That’s the kind of experience that makes for a good week around the RocketHub offices in New York City, and Hillel-Tuch anticipates many more to come. The market for crowdfunding is huge, and RocketHub, already one of the leaders in the crowdfunding world, is growing. In 2014, the company plans to add 14 new hires to its staff of one dozen.
“We are absolutely just beginning,” he says.
Art and the ‘Ideal Woman’
Make a living as an artist? Allie Pohl ’07 figured that was not a viable option. She majored in communications, minored in studio art and after Hamilton went on to study graphic design, a subject with obvious career potential — except she discovered she didn’t want to have clients.
Pohl then earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Denver in 2010 so she could teach at a college, which she still looks forward to doing some day. Now, however, she’s engaged in the career she hadn’t thought possible. Pohl is a professional artist (www.alliepohl.com). A series of events opened her eyes to that possibility.
“I guess I would be described as a multimedia conceptual artist, so all of my work is based off of concepts or ideas, and then I use whatever medium best executes that whether it’s photography, sculpture, video or installation,” she says.
The series of events began with her master’s exhibit, “Ideal Woman: 36-24-36.” Pohl secured space for the show in Denver’s River North Art District, an up-and-coming area The Denver Post just happened to be writing about. A photo of Pohl’s show landed on the front page of the paper’s arts section, and the newspaper’s art critic then reviewed it. That publicity brought in gallery representatives; from there a gallery agreed to represent her, and she booked a solo show.
“That was sort of the moment that I realized: Wait a minute, this is possible, and I’m going to go after this for as many years as I can. Because, you know, I can always teach and hopefully the more successful I become, the better the institution or the more opportunities I have in that venue as well,” she says.
Her work, in particular the “Ideal Woman” series, has generated favorable media attention. “Ideal Woman” examines society’s obsession with the perfect woman and its commercialized concept of perfection. Pohl turned to the Barbie doll for the central, sculptural image. “I took the bottom half of Barbie and blew it up to Western societies’ ideals, so the waist is 24 and the butt is 36,” she says.
Pohl, who lives in California, is now represented by galleries in Denver and Dallas, and is negotiating with two more in California. Her goal is to find representation in New York City, Los Angeles, Paris and Beijing. She created a line of “Ideal Woman” jewelry and recently added another line of merchandise, baseball caps inspired by a series of work called “Peacocking.” That series looks at how men market themselves online and in person. The merchandise is a financial help, but Pohl wasn’t thinking bottom line when she created her “Ideal Woman” necklaces. She sees merchandise as another way to market her concepts.
“Everything I do, I honestly don’t think about money and hate thinking about money. Pricing things, negotiating, that’s like my least favorite part, but, of course, a very important part, and I’ve learned a lot along the way,” she says. Juggling all the pieces, from creating to showing, marketing and selling, is hard, but Pohl is hardly ready for the college teaching job.
“I feel like entrepreneurs are big dreamers, whether these dreams come to reality or not,” she says. “And I think there is something to be said to have the ability to sort of think outside of the box and dream big.”
Streetwise and Smart
Chase Garbarino ’07 and Kevin McCarthy ’07 were still at Hamilton when they launched their first digital media business, an online publication called CampusWord, which they created with Gregory Rogan ’07 and continued working on for a time after they graduated and moved to Boston.
From CampusWord, Garbarino and McCarthy jointly made their way into the broader world of digital media. It was a learning experience. “We basically had no idea what we were doing when we were doing it,” Garbarino says.
“Now we’re just better at pretending we know what we’re doing,” McCarthy adds.
They make a point of poking fun at themselves, but their successes are piling up. In 2009 and 2010, they founded what would in 2012 become Streetwise Media, which now has two online news sites and may be poised to expand. They started BostInno, in Boston, in 2009, and InTheCapital, in Washington, D.C., in 2012. These business-oriented publications cover lifestyle, culture and city news for a target audience of young professionals.
A former economics major, Garbarino is Streetwise CEO, and McCarthy, who was a chemistry major, is chief technology officer; they kept those positions after American City Business Journals acquired Streetwise in late 2012. That move enables Streetwise to take the next step. “They have resources for us to roll into a bunch of other cities. We’re looking at Chicago, New York, LA, a lot of the big hubs that have large populations of younger demo, 18 to 49,” Garbarino says.
American City bills itself as the country’s largest print and online publisher of local business news, and, in turn, is part of Advance Publications, owner of Condé Nast Magazines, Parade magazine, Newhouse Newspapers and more. When American City bought Streetwise, its president and CEO praised the company for its rapidly built “loyal and robust” audience. At that point, Streetwise was said to have a monthly audience of 9 million page views and 2.6 million unique users.
“In Boston we had a lot of success,” Garbarino says. “The property grew to be the second largest in Boston behind The [Boston] Globe in terms of online audience.”
As is often the way with entrepreneurs, the success the two found with BostInno wasn’t precisely the success they were aiming for. They created BostInno to promote another venture they developed — Pinyadda, which Garbarino describes as “a smart news aggregation technology that was a pretty cool platform.” Meanwhile, print newspapers were losing readers: “BostInno’s audience kept growing and growing,” Garbarino says. Streetwise pivoted to focus on online city news.
Over the years, the partners have had plenty of people tell them their ventures weren’t going to work, which only added fuel to their entrepreneurial fire. To be an entrepreneur, says Garbarino, you need to be comfortable with uncertainty and have an almost delusional belief in what you are doing. “You have to kind of blindly believe where others don’t, but you also have to question what you are doing all the time to iterate and make sure you are getting it right. So it’s two different extremes: belief and denial. It’s tough to balance the two, but you have to,” he says.
They aim for balance even when they have a moment worth celebrating, for instance a post on their website by the mayor of Boston or a mention in another publication when they thought no one was paying attention. “I think we occasionally have that moment, and then we start to make fun of ourselves and try to bring it back down to earth,” Garbarino says.
Still, their ambition is lofty: the reinvention of local news online.
Hold for TelephoneOnHold
During the summers while he was still a Hamilton student, Justin Ginsberg ’04 went door-to-door to drum up new clients. His briefcase was empty, but he was long on drive — enough to launch a business while he earned his degree. Ginsberg, a college radio guy, sold and created ads piped into the ears of customers and potential customers waiting on telephone hold.
The business conceived at Hamilton evolved into TelephoneOnHold.com, which Ginsberg says has roughly 4,400 clients throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, from small medical practices to Fortune 100 companies. Its major service is on-hold music and messaging, but Ginsberg and his staff are always looking for new opportunities.
The company, based in Central Valley, N.Y., has four full-time staff members and roughly a dozen part-time workers. Ginsberg is president, and he loves Mondays. Really? “Ask my wife,” he says.
He loves the challenges of running the business, which traces back to Hamilton and his “Justinio on the Radio” show on WHCL, the student-run station. A business owner he met through the Justinio gig asked him to develop some on-hold advertising. Once Ginsberg researched what on-hold marketing was, he said yes. As it turned out, he had a knack for it. He sold the ads, wrote the copy, did the voicing, added music and sound effects, and sent out the invoices. “And I had such a blast doing it,” he says.
Then he graduated, with an economics major, mathematics minor and client list, and saw his peers going off to work on Wall Street. “I mean that’s really what I should have done, right? That’s what I was kind of prepared to do,” he says. “But what Hamilton taught me is how to think, how to write, how to think on my feet and how to speak. And those are the skills that were most important in building what I’ve built.”
Ginsberg convinced his parents to give him two years to make a go of an on-hold enterprise. They offered him a place to live and basement space for an office. His most terrifying moment as an entrepreneur came the first time he sat down at his desk. He had his phone, a computer, a pencil and pad. The house was empty and deadly silent. “I felt my heart beating almost out of my chest, and I remember this moment like it was yesterday; I remember saying out loud to myself: ‘Now what? Now what?’”
He got a grip and hit the books to learn what he needed to know. He pushed himself. When he still operated out of the house, he had a no-couch rule, which meant he stayed off the couch during work hours unless he had the flu. Ginsberg still pushes hard. He can’t remember the last time he slept past 5 a.m., partly because he and his wife have a baby and partly because of work.
As Ginsberg and his staff build their bread-and-butter client base, they are exploring new products, one of which targets not the ears but the nose of potential customers. Imagine walking through the bakery department at a supermarket, smelling the freshly baked bread and reaching for a loaf.
“We actually have systems that we’ve deployed at client sites that kind of infuse the environment with this fragrance, specially compounded fragrances that we’ve custom created for some national clients, to create an environment that creates a more enjoyable experience for the customer who walks through — and also more sales,” Ginsberg says.
Seizing the Pawsibilities
A 20-pound mutt named Chloe tugged Erica Lieberman Wittenberg ’04 into the life of an entrepreneur. Wittenberg majored in art at Hamilton and earned a master’s degree in media studies from The New School. As she was job-hunting after graduate school, she volunteered at the Bideawee animal shelter in New York City. Wittenberg is a horsewoman and lifelong lover of animals.
When shelter workers told her they had more volunteers than they could use, Wittenberg counter-offered: She would photograph the adoptable animals and help with the website. With that, she became a shelter regular. She went through training and was cleared to walk dogs and fill in when a volunteer failed to show. She noticed animals that did poorly on a leash were slow to be adopted.
“And one day there was this dog there, Chloe, a Jack Russell mix, a perfect size for the city, maybe 20 pounds. Adorable. She was like 8 months old, the perfect age and everything, but outdoors she was a maniac,” Wittenberg says. Every pigeon and blowing leaf ignited the cute little terrier.
Wittenberg went home to binge on leash-training videos. She bought her first bag of soft dog treats at the Union Square Petco and spent the next four days working with the pup. On day five, Chloe found a home. Maybe the leash training helped; maybe it had nothing to do with the adoption, Wittenberg admits. “But I was hooked. That was it. I was like: ‘This is for me. This is too cool a profession for words.’”
Wittenberg considered going to school to learn dog training, but her entrepreneurial attitude won out: “I thought, you know, I’m really good at being a student; I’ve been a student a lot. I don’t know that I need someone standing over my shoulder saying, ‘Read chapters one through three.’”
She found jobs working with dogs where she also received training, she cultivated mentors, and she studied on her own. Wittenberg went on to earn credentials in training and obedience from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, which allows her to deal with issues of aggression, separation anxiety and other serious behavior problems. In June 2012, she launched Pawsibilities New York. She found her first clients by taking a dog, either hers or her in-laws’, to work with in Central Park. People inevitably would approach with questions, and she would hand them a card. “It didn’t take long,” she says.
Wittenberg works with dogs and their owners primarily in New York City. She also evaluates dogs for their suitability as therapy animals for the Good Dog Foundation. And she’s working to earn certification by a trainer she admires — Victoria Stillwell. Wittenberg loves what she says is the intellectual aspect of dog training and the educated debate among its practitioners over methods. She recently appeared in an episode of the reality TV series Pushing It, which features a personal trainer who needed help with her dog. That was fun, and it wouldn’t have happened if Wittenberg hadn’t struck out on her own.
“I went to law school for a semester, which my husband now — he was my boyfriend then — always told me he couldn’t see me doing because it wasn’t creative enough. And he was exactly right,” she says. “That’s why dog training is perfect. It allows me to be creative every minute of every day if I want to be.”
Fire + Ice = FaceGlove
The creators of FaceGlove are gaining ground with their product, a pared-down mask that covers only the portions of the face most vulnerable to cold and sun — the cheeks and nose. FaceGlove began as a personal quest of Kevin Bourque ’05, an outdoorsy guy just trying to keep warm and succeed in business. He’s a ski racer and hiker who put himself through college working as a landscaper.
Bourque is also a musician, writer and former English major who wanted to put his creativity to practical use. “I really wanted to work in the ski industry and saw face protection as the biggest problem it faced. [I] basically set out to solve the problem of foggy goggles and uncomfortable wet facemasks by coming up with a different solution,” he says.
He shared his concept for the minimalist mask with close friend Josh Kunkel ’04, a former chemical physics major who had worked in a startup and was experienced in turning a concept into a business. Kunkel is also a skier who hates wearing facemasks.
“After a little bit of talking the idea through, and having conversations with some other people, I realized that this is a pretty significant problem, and you probably could turn this into a business,” Kunkel says. “So I approached Kevin and said: ‘Hey look: I kind of have this unique skill set, and I’d love to help you turn your idea into a business. And it was just about that point where we saw the pitch competition come up.”
That’s the Hamilton Pitch Competition, in which student and alumni entrepreneurs attempt to convince judges that their business proposition is the best. Bourque and Kunkel won in 2012, which boosted their belief in their product.
Bourque is the chief technology officer of OuterU Gear Inc., the producer of FaceGlove, and Kunkel is CEO. They sell FaceGlove online and in a number of ski shops, including one at the base of Mount Everest. “We have some really cool photos of a Sherpa wearing our mask on the top of Mount Everest. I mean that is literally the pinnacle of where we should be, right?” Kunkel says.
OuterU has had preliminary discussions with several big companies that have stores at ski resorts in Colorado, California and Wyoming. The FaceGlove founders, who still have day jobs, say the business is making steady progress. Bourque calls himself the fire in the partnership and says Kunkel is the ice who reminds him, when necessary, to stay calm.
“But it does take that fire,” Bourque says. “You really need to be passionate and believe in what you are doing or no one else will get it at all. And the most important thing for us right now is to continue building our team and building sales. So it’s a balance of staying level headed [and] being really passionate about what you are doing. And then that final keystone of it all is the perseverance — just not giving up.”
Wandering Toward Wanderlust
After Hamilton, Emily Johnston ’10 spent time in a job she found to be so unchallenging that, as she puts it, she felt like her brain was melting. Or maybe it was just warming up — it was then that she started developing plans for Wanderlust Travels, a summer program in Germany for high school students. Johnston has plenty of challenges now.
“I’m learning everything from German employee regulations to insurance for summer camps. And I built my own website. Just crazy things that I never thought I’d be doing — learning how to cold-call people. Oh my gosh, that was painful! But you know, I’m getting used to it,” Johnston says.
She plans to take her first group of students to Germany this summer. The bedrock for the business is Johnston’s desire to share the kind of experiences she had through her affiliation with Hamilton: study abroad, Adirondack Adventure and a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship in Germany the year after she graduated. Johnston, who stayed an extra year in Germany after the fellowship, says lots of kids don’t get the chance to travel and learn with adults who believe in them. She’d like to give them that opportunity.
The former German studies and history major describes her venture as a cultural and language immersion “travel adventure” program. It’s three weeks long and open to high school students who have had at least one year of German and who have a recommendation from their German teacher. The trip includes time in Cologne, hiking and camping in rural areas, and a homestay. Students will spend time along the way with native speakers. “They are not going to be fluent after three weeks, but I think they’ll have a better appreciation for the German language and culture,” she says. In addition to the immersion trip, Wanderlust will offer an “introduction to German” trip with no language prerequisite.
As Johnston becomes more experienced, she’s adapting her tactics. At first she went after a national market, but now she is looking for clients within a several hour drive of her home in Massachusetts so she can take a personal approach. She’s talking to teachers at private schools within that radius and making classroom presentations. She took a class for entrepreneurs and plans to take more business courses. And she’s learned to use Twitter. The lessons continue to unfold.
“I’m realizing also that I can’t do everything myself — that was probably the biggest thing I learned last year. And so I’m getting a couple of other people on board,” Johnston says. A friend from Germany will handle more of the business on that side of the ocean. Another friend and fellow Fulbright recipient Erika Desmond ’12 will help with social media and marketing. If all goes well and the summer trip turns a profit, her two associates will receive paychecks. The goal is full-time employment for all three of them.
Launching the business hasn’t been easy, but Johnston is relying on her desire for a creative, nontraditional job to move her through the challenges. And loving what she’s doing — or almost everything she’s doing — is critical.
“Every day when I’m doing this, except for the cold-calling, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing,” she says.
Danphe Energy Takes Flight
If launching a business in a developing country poses extra challenges, it also offers an alluring flipside: lots of opportunity. Or that’s how an entrepreneur would see it. Pragyan Pradhan ’08 was working as an energy analyst at ICF International in Virginia when he began to explore a potential opportunity in his home country of Nepal, which was in the midst of an ongoing energy crisis.
“Power cuts during peak season went up to 20 hours a day. That sparked my interest, so I spent most of my free time trying to understand the intricacies of the Nepalese energy market,” Pradhan says. He soon realized that his academic background — he double-majored in economics and mathematics — and his exposure at ICF to the world’s energy markets and systems could be helpful for Nepal. He views entrepreneurship as a way to make a difference in one’s own life and in the lives of others.
Pradhan decided to return to Nepal to study its energy industry up close, and the upshot was his company, Danphe Energy, born in August 2012. “Danphe,” which is the Nepali word for the country’s national bird, provides commercial and residential renewable energy systems and consulting. Pradhan went the entrepreneurial route because he liked the idea of being his own boss and of taking risks as he saw fit. Also, he couldn’t find an existing enterprise that fit his interests and aspirations. Pradhan is Danphe’s managing director and one of three founders; the other two are engineers. The company also has an accountant, a technician and is adding at least three more engineers and a marketing assistant.
Pradhan exited college with zero knowledge about starting or running a business. He honed his work ethic and discovered his inner team player at ICF, he educated himself, and he networked constantly, but he says the real learning began when he decided to make the leap of faith and start his own company. “Amidst all the challenges, the steep learning curve that this huge global industry provides is a big prize for someone like me who is filled with perpetual intellectual curiosity,” he says.
He may also be a perpetual seeker of challenges. In addition to his work at Danphe, Pradhan is the managing director of a new start-up, Bhavya Organizers, an event management company with a focus on commercial and corporate events. Bhavya means “grand” in Nepali. Also, Pradhan is studying the agricultural sector of Nepal’s economy. “Given the right prospects, I will not hesitate to enter the industry any time in the future. Nepal is a really small market, and therefore it is relatively easy to reach the saturation point in an industry here,” he says. “So there are only two options — diversify your work or expand internationally. To be a successful entrepreneur in Nepal, one needs to consider both options.”
As for his first-born business, Pradhan has big goals. “I plan to first establish Danphe as one of the biggest names in the country in energy services, not just in renewable energy. Then, I want to expand my capabilities in developing countries around the world,” he says. “Energy problems in developing countries are drastically different from those in the developed world. The information I will have gained in this struggling Nepalese economy in the next few years will be of tremendous value to other similar economies.”