At its core, entrepreneurship is about turning ideas into something real. Whether it’s a business or an organizational legacy, entrepreneurs work to try to improve or create something that people might not even know they need.
Looking for inspiration? Och Tamale tapped entrepreneurial University of Redlands alumni in various industries, regions, and stages of their careers on how to make a good idea come to life, make a difference in the world, or depart on a yet-uncharted course … and turn an idea into an enterprise of lasting value.
1. Create your niche by changing perceptions
Ryan Molnar ’15
Co-owner of JoJo’s Grill–A-Dog
Redlands and Yucaipa
In his 20s, Ryan Molnar ’15 started a pool and spa service. Before he went back to finish his undergraduate studies at U of R’s School of Business, he owned Yucaipa Pool Supplies, a full-service pool and spa retail store. But JoJo’s Grill-A-Dog started as the business plan for his U of R capstone project.
“Everyone has to eat, and going out to eat can be entertainment,” Molnar says. Food, he thought, was a no-fail enterprise. He never thought of hotdogs as particularly healthy, but, inspired by a good hotdog he bit into, Molnar realized he could find a space in the restaurant industry that no one had yet tapped. “I thought, ‘Wow—if hotdogs could only be this good all the time, then it might change the consumer’s perception.’”
That, and he read that the National Hotdog Council identified hotdogs as the second-most consumed food in America.
The goal was to create the In-N-Out of hotdogs, so Molnar and his co-founder, Jason Tang, kept their products high-quality, yet simple. JoJo’s only serves gourmet hotdogs and hand-dipped corn dogs. Buns are baked fresh onsite, and the sandwiches are prepared in front of the consumer. “We placed the hotdog in a nice, sit-down environment,” Molnar says.
JoJo’s clicked—no small thanks to the capstone project that turned out to be a solid business plan. “JoJo’s was an educated risk,” Molnar explains. “As you gather and analyze data, you get a pretty clear view of what the pitfalls are and your ability to be successful. It took the guesswork out of what we were doing and helped the Grill-A-Dog brand be profitable.”
2. Mind the gaps and fill them with your expertise
Jodi Okun ’11
Founder of College Financial Aid Advisors
Long Beach and across the country
A social media strategist, speaker, consultant, financial aid expert, and small business advocate, Jodi Okun ’11 founded College Financial Aid Advisors in 2008. She considers it part of her second act in life. She had already raised her children when she went back to Redlands to get her bachelor’s degree at the School of Business, then honed her skills providing financial aid advice at colleges such as Occidental and Pitzer.
Today, Okun is often cited as an expert on financial aid topics. She was the brand ambassador for Discover Student Loans, worked at financial advice website The Balance as the money expert, and speaks frequently at conferences and events. She also authored a book, Secrets of a Financial Aid Pro (15th Street Press, 2016).
But in the beginning, her dream was to start a business where she could bridge a gap and give families an understanding of what financial aid was about. “When my children went to school, I volunteered a lot,” Okun explains. “I was PTA president. I was vice president at my temple. I was president of National Charity League. I’m really a numbers girl, so I put all the things I loved to do together.”
It was mentor Maureen McRae Goldberg ’85 (Johnston) who gave Okun the advice that changed her life. Goldberg advocated that Okun work in higher education and suggested Okun complete her bachelor’s degree in business: “Goldberg recommended Redlands, which I could attend while starting my company.” Like Molnar, Okun used her courses strategically: “Every paper or project I did related to opening my company.”
Now, Okun has 143,000 followers on Twitter and runs a weekly chat online called “College Cash,” which answers students’ questions about financial aid. Huffington Post also named her one of the top 30 social influencers in personal finance and wealth. “I’ve really tried to make [myself]a 360-degree brand,” she says, “where a businesswoman and owner comes to life.”
3. Focus on what you love
Danny Genung ’04
Owner of Harr Travel Inc. in Redlands
Sometimes, doing what you love for work is a no-brainer. Often, it’s a matter of taking advantage of what you already have. That was the case for Danny Genung ’04, owner of Harr Travel. His grandfather started the first iteration of the Redlands-based agency. By the time Genung attended Redlands and was studying in Salzburg, the operation was closed completely; his grandfather was 80 and couldn’t run the business anymore.
A history major, Genung was completely smitten with Salzburg. “It was such a transformational experience for me. … It really opened my eyes to what was out there in the world, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to find a way to do this [for a living].’” Back in Redlands, his grandfather gave him advice, explained how the industry worked, and introduced him to a few travel contacts.
From there, Genung built Harr Travel up again from scratch, and started selling trips. “I went to U of R’s study abroad office and told them when I was abroad nobody was really there to help me with flights or rail passes. I offered to do it.”
Harr still books the U of R’s trips to Salzburg; he’s leading his sixth trip this spring. Today, planning river cruises and privately guided group adventures is Genung’s company specialty. He finds it rewarding work: “I believe the more people travel, the more they’ll see that people around the world might look different or have a different religion, but ultimately we all love to eat, drink, and want what’s best for our families.”
Aside from his bachelor’s, Genung received his teaching credential at Redlands’ School of Education. He worked as a middle school teacher before running his agency full-time. “Teaching middle school was good practice for running my guided trips,” he jokes. “At the base of every business is understanding the most important part of what you do. For me, it’s about establishing relationships and understanding people’s needs and how to meet them. It’s about taking care of people.”
4. Look toward a growing market
Tabish Hasan ’06
Founder of the Muslim Ad Network
Greater Los Angeles and worldwide
There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and Tabish Hasan ’06, who earned an M.S. in information technology from Redlands, knew they represented a largely untapped commercial market.
He started the Muslim Ad Network in 2010 because he had created a few websites—one similar to Digg.com, a job board, and a BitTorrent site for Muslims—that were growing and he was looking at how to monetize them. However, Hasan’s audience was conservative.
“A Disney ad might be considered “brand-safe” or G-rated,” he says. “But if it showed a bikini, it still wasn’t appropriate.”
So Hasan—who previously worked for a digital media company and a content distribution company—aggregated his sites, partnered with a few other Muslim site creators, and packaged the audience to advertisers. That was the start of the Muslim Ad Network.
“I saw the need from multiple perspectives—I couldn’t be the only website owner who needed filtered ads,” he says. “In addition, the Muslim lifestyle market was so big and had so much spending power, brands could no longer ignore it.
Hasan credits his Redlands degree with helping establish him in the industry: “It set me apart in the market and made it easier to gain various executive-level positions in multiple startups. It allowed me to use technology to build my business.” Today the Muslim Ad Network reaches about 10 million Muslims in North America and the United Kingdom. “We’ve served more than 500 million ad impressions in the form of banner ads, and we cover about 90 to 95 percent of North American and U.K. markets,” Hasan says. “In terms of growth, we’d like one billion ad impressions a year.”
But it’s not just a growth trajectory that gives Hasan the satisfaction in owning his own business: “Making the lives of consumers and advertisers easier … that’s pretty satisfying.”
5. Do whatever it takes (maybe even the craziest thing you’ve ever done)
Erin Minckley ’04
Founder of Relativity Textiles in Chicago
If you want to be successful as an artist, there’s no formula to follow,” says Erin Minckley ’04, founder of Relativity Textiles. “I was unsatisfied with being an artist showing work in galleries as my only goal. I wasn’t going to work in my studio for the next 35 years and struggle to support two kids, just hoping for my big break. The tooth fairy wasn’t going to visit and leave money under my pillow.”
Minckley conceived of Relativity Textiles while she was a part-time college professor and working for barely minimum wage at a wallpaper factory. She had two kids, a student loan, and childcare bills; she dreamed of building a business that would show the value of her artistry.
Her eureka moment came when she saw one of her pieces, created for another artist, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago: “To see my own labor at the MCA was really eye opening, but I didn’t get any credit. I thought, ‘Why am I making this for someone else?’”
She started designing her first collection inspired by images that surrounded her: Moroccan rugs, her twin’s tattoo. It took some time for Minckley to gain the confidence to go out on her own, but in the meantime, she researched everything from how to launch an LLC to wallpaper techniques and design of a website.
“I knew I needed $20,000 to start, but had no idea where that would come from,” she recalls. “So I started a Kickstarter campaign online. It was pretty much the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I had so much support and raised $21,850 in 60 days. I paid off my maxed-out credit card, filed legal paperwork, photographed the entire collection, printed packaging, and built my website. And finally I was a real brand.”
As a Johnston student, Minckley learned the importance of taking the initiative—a lesson essential to succeeding in her own business—and created her major in art and Middle Eastern studies after falling in love with the region during a study abroad trip. The patterns and the colors she saw abroad impacted Minckley—and later, Relativity Textiles—greatly. “I was always interested in foreign cultures and how people expressed identity—in garments, architecture, and culturally specific patterns. I wanted to bring that spirit into homes across America.”
6. Let the challenge drive you
Thomas Bowman ’78
Founder of Bowman Change Inc.,
from Long Beach to the polar ice caps
Thomas Bowman ’78 woke up the day after he graduated from Johnston, stared at the ceiling, and said, “Huh, I wonder what happens now.”
Bowman grew up in a household that valued a liberal arts education for the sake of becoming a well-rounded person (his father was Doug Bowman, one of Johnston’s founders), so education was always an exploration.
At Redlands, he focused on fine arts because he wanted to do “creative things.” Doing creative projects and making a livelihood out of it, however, was a new challenge—one he surmounted with a successful exhibition design business. For 25 years, his company produced exhibits for museums, trade shows, and even the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup.
About 10 years ago, he was designing an exhibit for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. There, a scientist told him that every ocean basin was already warming down to 1,000 meters. “At that moment, literally, the hairs went up on the back of my neck,” he says. “I was having a hard time breathing, I was so terrified. I couldn’t go about my business as if I hadn’t learned the extent of this danger.”
As a communications professional, Bowman was well-equipped to translate what climate scientists were learning to a broader audience, so he launched Bowman Change Inc. to find ways to engage with people on the challenge. “I’ve hosted conferences, written a book, and now consult with companies about ways to cut their energy use and carbon emissions,” he says. “We have to shape the future. We can’t just let it happen to us.”
7. Don’t be afraid of sacrificing the now
Ron Pugh ’14
Owner of Kantan & Co. in Los Angeles
Ron Pugh ’14 knew the value of working for oneself early on. Raised by entrepreneurs (his father ran a chain of salons and produced cosmetic products), at 14 he also worked for his godfather, a lawyer who ran his own firm, answering phones and entering data. As a college student, he created a micro marketing company, designing flyers for small businesses around the neighborhood and hiring an older associate to pass them out.
That foray was a precursor to what Pugh does today. He owns Kantan & Co., an agency that develops digital marketing strategies for small- to medium-sized businesses. “When you’re talking to small business owners about digital media advertising, you want it to be simple,” he says. “I break down the idea of marketing using an easy-to-understand approach.”
Pugh, who earned his MBA from Redlands, says his degree allows him to better communicate with business owners: “I understand the nature of their business, so I’m given a lot more trust.”
While he knows a business degree isn’t necessary for success, he believes in its value. “No matter what, you’ll experience a lot of bumps and bruises,” he says. “But if you’re educated, instead of taking a risk in real life, you can conceptualize it.”
He also applied his entrepreneurial skills to co-founding the Urban Economic Development Corporation, which is centered around financial literacy for entrepreneurs just starting out in the Los Angeles area. The corporation also seeks to help low-risk ex-offenders. “Many inmates exit the prison system with a record that makes them difficult to employ,” he says. “So, we provide them with business training to create their own enterprise.”
8. Lean into your loved ones (or, know yourself (and your partner))
Barry Pulliam’65,’67 & Leslie Pulliam’76,’79
Co-Founders of ETS Pulliam, now global
Drs. Barry Pulliam ’65, ’67 and Leslie Pulliam ’76, ’79 met and worked as longtime educational administrators in San Bernardino County, aiming to educate students and change lives. Over the years, they felt challenged to pursue a better way of serving students through a business approach. When Barry was 55, the Pulliams developed (and later sold) a software company focusing on improving teaching and learning.
What started as a company of three—Barry, Leslie, and an administrative assistant—grew into more than 150 programmers and instruction specialists in three years. “By the time ETS (Educational Testing Service) bought us out in 2006, we were in 17 states and three or four countries,” Leslie says. “It really was rewarding.”
Anyone who wants to build an enterprise, Barry says, should have a good understanding of what the marketplace does and does not do well. “The discrepancy oftentimes identifies the opportunity,” he adds.
Growing a company with your spouse isn’t for everyone, the Pulliams say. Knowing your role is important. Leslie says, “Barry had a wealth of experience in business, personnel, and software development. My experience focused on instruction, assessment, and leadership. We respected each other’s skills and talents. I could not have run that business without Barry, and he says he could not have launched it without me.”
9. Place matters
Sherry Manning ’05
Founder and executive director of Global Seed Savers,Denver and the Philippines
After graduating from Redlands, where she was a government major and Associated Students of the University of Redlands president, Sherry Manning ’05 spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. It wasn’t exactly her first choice, she says. “But I always like to say that the Philippines chose me, because I had such an amazing experience and really consider it a second home.”
There, she learned indigenous farmers were losing the right to plant their own seeds, as corporations were slowly patenting food stocks around the world. Inspired by her host family, who operated an ancestral farm-turned-eco-tourism space, Manning founded Global Seed Savers, a nonprofit supporting organic farmers and environmental conservation throughout the Philippines.
“It’s all about returning the power of our food system to the people,” says Manning.
Since she began operating Global Seed Savers full-time in 2015, Manning has helped educate over 1,000 Filipino farmers. The organization helped launch a farmers’ association and a seed library in the community she served in the Peace Corps as well. “People were inspired by my service and wanted to help,” she says. “It has grown into something much greater—which is exciting.”
Stella R. Murga ’06
Founder and executive director of Adelante Youth Alliance, Pasadena
Like Manning, Stella R. Murga ’06 ventured into social entrepreneurship by responding to a compelling need she saw in front of her.
When her children were young, Murga worked for the State of California as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, helping to re-employ injured workers. In 1985, she started her own business in vocational rehabilitation counseling, later going back to school at the U of R when she realized she could conveniently go to classes on the Pasadena campus while working.
In 1992, however, the L.A. riots changed her perspective. She realized her own community needed help. With her background, Murga knew she could help local underserved youth of color and she volunteered with the Human Services Commission in Pasadena.
Today, Murga is the founder and executive director of Adelante Youth Alliance, which produces the two largest annual college and career conferences for Latino youth in California. “Our initial plan was to help young people prepare for employment and secure jobs,” she says. “When we saw our kids staying in those jobs, we stepped up our game and started focusing on college and careers.”
Murga advises, “Just find your passion, and work with a nonprofit that fits what you’re passionate about. That’s the trick.”
10. The worst risk of all is not to take risks
Tess Taylor ’87
Founder of the Los Angeles Music Network (LAMN) and the National Association of Record Industry Professionals (NARIP)
Tess Taylor ’87 is a classically trained pianist and a magna cum laude graduate of Johnston, where she was a self-described “part-time slave in the Creative Writing Department,” spent her junior year at the University of Vienna, and received her degree in music, German, and literature. Out of college, she parlayed her creative energy and multidisciplinary talents into a unique niche connecting music industry professionals to jobs and opportunities.
In 1988, she founded the Los Angeles Music Network (LAMN) and, in 1998, launched the National Association of Record Industry Professionals (NARIP), which now has chapters in nine cities and events in Berlin and Paris. Both organizations promote career advancement, education, and goodwill in the music and record industries.
The catalyst for starting her own venture was what seemed at the time a major career obstacle in her job in publicity—a boss who didn’t like her. “I realized I’d been wanting to quit my job and run my business full time,” Taylor says. “I just kept putting it off as I kept getting promoted. But I knew I would always regret it if I didn’t try.”
After all, she thought, “The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work. And then I can go back to getting a job at a record company or making sandwiches.” Instead, what came to pass was more akin to a best-case scenario. Now a sought-after speaker, teacher, author, and expert commentator dubbed by Music Connection magazine as among “50 Innovators, Iconoclasts, Groundbreakers & Guiding Lights,” Taylor has made a positive impact on her industry and has created organizations that can make her proud.
11. Pay it forward
Chuck Wilke ’64
Founder of Meridian Capital, Seattle
Chuck Wilke ’64, a U of R trustee and member of the University’s Global Business Advisory Board, is the founder of investment banking firm Meridian Capital; he also ran Raleigh USA Bicycle Company and Gerry Baby Products Company.
Early on, Wilke realized working in a large corporation, in a structured environment, wasn’t for him, and instead he wanted to have more of a personal impact and make his own decisions. Since then, he has worked in all aspects of business leadership.
“I’ve built companies, invested in startups, and been a principal shareholder and a board member,” says Wilke, who was an economics major at Redlands. “I wouldn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur so much as somebody who finds a challenge and enjoys the creativity of trying to build and establish a company.”
His business advice includes identifying with the consumer and transparently communicating goals to manage an enterprise successfully.
“Another part of success is mentorship,” says Wilke, who has advised others in the U of R community, including Brian Murphy ’04, now a fellow U of R trustee and immediate past president of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. Wilke hired Murphy as a young alumnus, and Murphy now serves as Meridian’s president and managing director. “You want [to be able to]give your [company’s] managers the responsibility and authority to execute the business plan and carry it through.”
Wilke credits Redlands with providing the foundation for his success, giving him the confidence to take risks and try new things. Today, Wilke is a generous supporter of mentorship opportunities at the University, including Career Pathways, a daylong event sponsored by the Global Business program that brings together Redlands students with alumni.
12. ‘Get s*** done’
Davis Masten ’73
Marketing consulting pioneer, now in the Lake Tahoe area
Davis Masten ’73 was part of the first class of Johnston, where he focused on marketing and psychology; after graduation, he was among the early members of Cheskin, a consulting firm, with fellow Johnston alumnus Darrell Rhea ’74. The firm was highly successful, a pioneer in providing research and marketing insight for brands such as Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, Hewlett Packard, and PepsiCo. Today, Masten sits on boards of various entrepreneurial companies; he is a distinguished visiting scholar at the mediaX program at Stanford; and, from 2007 to 2016, he co-chaired the President’s Circle of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The education he acquired at Johnston formed the core of Cheskin, Masten says. By the time Masten and Rhea sold the company in 2007, Cheskin had multiple offices around the world.
“My compelling interest was finding the right questions,” he says. “The interdisciplinary approach I learned at Johnston helped me see issues from many angles. Core to Johnston was an empathy for how different people lived their lives. We were taught an ethnographic approach to understanding, by observing how people behave and their cultural context. Darrel and I brought this to product development and communications. At the time it was very edgy, but is now part of best practices in many companies around the world.”
One distinguishing factor between a successful and unsuccessful entrepreneur is resilience, he says. “All successful entrepreneurs I know have had more than one moment when they look in the mirror and wonder why they ever started their company,” Masten notes. “The successful ones keep going. At the same time, an entrepreneur needs to constantly reinvent their company. We reinvented Cheskin more than a half-dozen times.”
More advice? “Keep the politics out of management, be generous, play well with others, and get s*** done. You could have all of the great strategies and the best research, but, when it comes down to it, people are only going to pay or reward you for getting s*** done.”
Are you an entrepreneurial U of R alumna/alumnus with tips to share? Let us know at email@example.com.