Startup stars

issue 01 | winter 2024
Coffee cup with beans on an orange background

At ReMix 2023, Alan Phung ’22 was back on the campus where his entrepreneurial spirit took flight — powered by a highly caffeinated kick.

The founder of Mai Coffee returned not only as a ReMix guest speaker but also as the distributor of two new products, Vietnamese Nitro Cold Brew and fruit-infused Cold Brew.

Inspired by memories of drinking Vietnamese coffee with his father, Phung has been running his own company since his first year at Denison. He’s the first to admit that not all progress is linear for startups, and even great ideas and quality products are subject to humbling learning curves.

“It made me frustrated in the beginning, because I was like, ‘Why is this not working?’” he recalled. “These are the pains of trying to run a Vietnamese coffee business.”

He’s so committed to Mai Coffee, however, that he walked away from a full-time job as a credit analyst at Morningstar, a financial services company, after 11 months. While Phung still does contract work in the financial sector to pay bills, he’s invested heavily in expanding his business.

He’s partnered with a Columbus, Ohio, company that created revolutionary machinery for cold brewing coffee. The machine uses enough pressure to bend an inch of steel, making the java much smoother and less acidic. Mai Coffee will be distributed in kegs, dispensed out of taps, and available on campus and other locations.

“When we give it to people now, it’s already brewed,” Phung said. “All they do is press a button, and the coffee comes out. No way it could go wrong.”

Through all the trial and error, Phung said he’s indebted to the encouragement and support of Denison. He got his coffee beans shipped from Vietnam thanks to a connection made possible through David Hirsh, president of Atrium Corporation and an executive-in-residence for Denison’s Global Commerce department. The university’s Red Frame Lab also leveraged connections, helping him find a roaster and places to sell his coffee.

“Denison is an amazing place,” Phung said. “I can’t imagine doing this anywhere else.”

The brilliance and clarity of the stars over Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming brought tears to the eyes of Chevon Linear ’13 in the summer of 2020.

Growing up and living in Chicago, Linear and her fiancé, Kam, were unaccustomed to seeing such a radiant firmament at night. “I started crying because it was just so beautiful,” Linear recalls.

What also stood out about the trip — the couple’s first after the onset of Covid — were the demographics of people hiking and camping.

“There were no people of color on the trails,” Linear said. “It was everyone else but Black people out there.”

The couple documented the vacation with a series of short videos that became the foundation for a TikTok account (@black.people.outside) with nearly 72,000 followers. They have more than 29,000 followers on Instagram.

Linear loves to travel and has seen plenty of diversity in her overseas trips. As for her journeys into the outdoors, not so much.

“We’re not just trying to be influencers,” Linear said. “We really want to help other Black people get outside and enjoy nature. Spending time outdoors is better for your physical and mental health.”

As her contract ended with Google, where she was a data analyst, Linear opted not to renew or look for another full-time job in June 2023. Instead, she went all in on Black People Outside, ramping up their social media presence and building connections with tourism boards, apparel brands, and adventure travel companies.

Her Instagram followers can learn about upcoming group hikes, opportunities to find nature spots in the Chicago area, and tips on camping. Through videos, the couple also seeks to remove the intimidation factor in outdoor exploration.

During a three-month summer stretch in 2023, the Black People Outside Instagram account gained about 25,000 followers.

“We finally got serious about developing a business plan,” Linear said. “We’re stable enough financially to give this a shot. We don’t have kids and we don’t have any major bills hanging over us. If I have to go back to work I will, but right now we’re focused on reaching our ultimate goal, which is getting more Black people outside.”

David Howitt ’90 enjoyed attending law school after graduating from Denison. He found the subject matter stimulating and quickly passed his state and federal bar exams.

Once he began practicing law, however, his view changed.

“It was soul-draining,” Howitt recalled. “I knew I needed to do something else.”

Howitt’s instincts set him on a path of sustained success. He’s an entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience providing business strategy and brand counsel to startups, small businesses, and Fortune 100 companies.

His career arc and business philosophies also have made for good reading. His 2014 book, Heed Your Call: Integrating Myth, Science, Spirituality, and Business, earned him a guest appearance on Good Morning America and led to a TEDx talk.

“When I turned 40, I put together a bucket list, and this was one of the things on it,” said Howitt, founder and CEO of the Meriwether Group. “I had been keeping a journal with a lot of ideas. I enjoyed the process of writing a book.”

After working briefly at a law firm, Howitt served Adidas as corporate counsel and vice president of licensing and business development. He and his wife, Heather, also launched Oregon Chai, a company that produces all-organic tea, which they sold for $75 million in 2004.

That same year, he founded the Meriwether Group, a boutique private equity firm that supports, advises, and invests in entrepreneurs.

Howitt stays active with his alma mater, serving on a regional Alumni Board of Advisors.

LaForce Baker ’10 grew up on Chicago’s South Side, in neighborhoods where retail businesses that many take for granted were absent.

No grocery store. No pharmacy. No coffee shop. No cozy spot where friends, in the words of Baker, can “break bread and raise a glass” to celebrate a life event.

“I’ve always been interested in delivering essentials to people,” Baker said. “In a lot of black and brown neighborhoods, these kinds of amenities don’t always exist.”

Baker is serving as a change agent in his hometown. He’s vice president for community impact at World Business Chicago, a private-public economic development agency serving the south and west sides of Chicago. He’s also a budding real estate developer in a field where few people of color run their own companies.

“We have a lot of undeveloped land and dilapidated buildings that are in need of renovation,” Baker said. “It’s difficult to bring retailers into these types of neighborhoods.”

This represents a career pivot for Baker, who had been CEO of Moon Meals, which specializes in distributing healthy plant-based grab-and-go meals in national retailers.

His love of big challenges dates to his time at Denison, where the self-described “fat kid” began training for marathons. He’s finished marathons in the past 13 years.

Baker hopes his next long run will be in real estate. He joined World Business Chicago in 2021 and has since founded Baker Enterprises, which completed its first market-rate apartment building renovation last year.

World Business Chicago recently arranged a bus tour for more than 50 national retailers, who rode through developing neighborhoods to scout potential locations.

“There have been issues with the quality of housing in south and west Chicago from the time I was growing up,” Baker said. “I’m trying to build density in neighbors that will attract more retailers. All people deserve access to neighborhood grocery stores and pharmacies.”

Laura Kriska ’87 spent four years at Denison acquiring knowledge and learning to appreciate views and opinions different from her own.

Recently, the distinguished author and expert in intercultural collaboration was thrilled to return to campus and educate students on a timely topic.

In an age of social and political polarization, Kriska travels the world teaching businesses how to build unity within workforces. The goal is to create more productive and inclusive environments.

She brought that framework to Denison in the fall of 2021 and 2022, working with global commerce professor Karen Spierling to run a series of unity themed sessions called “WE-Building.”

“Facilitating WE-Building inside large corporations is my main job,” Kriska said. “But having the chance to influence young people to be WE-Builders as they prepare to take their place in our increasingly divided world is a calling.”

President Adam Weinberg frequently encourages students to talk with others on campus who don’t share their worldviews in hopes of bridging divides. This is Kriska’s life’s work. She’s written two books, The Business of We and The Accidental Office Lady, dealing with cultural issues within the workplace.

At age 22, Kriska — who spent a semester in Japan as part of Denison’s study abroad program — became the first American woman to work in the Tokyo headquarters of Honda Motor Company.

Through her many experiences and associations, she’s trying to close “us vs. them” gaps created by ethnicity, race, religion, politics, and gender orientation.

Kriska touts a three-step process: foster awareness, self-assess, and act.

“A lot of times it’s a matter of taking simple steps,” she said, “and making small gestures to build relationships.”

Terry Jones ’70 is a name synonymous with entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. He’s a visionary in the digital age who founded five startups and launched two billion-dollar IPOs — Travelocity and Kayak.

But his business acumen wasn’t always a strength. Jones loves to tell the story of his first job as a receptionist at a travel agency.

“On my first day, I was asked to type up an invoice, and I said, ‘What’s that?’’’ Jones recalled. “My boss said, ‘Well, you know what a bill is, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, my parents get those.’ I had to adapt and learn quickly.”

Fortunately for Jones, his Denison education prepared him to excel in a rapidly changing world.

“A liberal arts education teaches you about learning to learn and to think critically,” said Jones, who majored in history. “That’s what Denison gave me.”

Jones’ rise from travel agency receptionist to venture capitalist to digital disruptor has been fueled by a curiosity instilled by his mother, and a willingness to learn courtesy of his alma mater on The Hill.

He’s the author of two best-selling books, ON Innovation and Disruption OFF, and remains one of the corporate world’s most in-demand public speakers.

Jones encourages business-minded college students to develop a wide range of skills in data, economics, and accounting.

“These are now all available at Denison,” he said.

He also cautions against the idea of becoming an entrepreneur too early in your professional career. He’s keen on gaining experience through working at a startup or large company.

“Go work for a company, get some skills, and learn enough to say, ‘This company is stupid, it should be doing things differently,’ and then go out and do that,” Jones said.

Jones, who’s coaching four GPT startups and has served on 15 startup advisory boards, offers Denison students one other nugget of advice.

“Remember, innovation isn’t about changing the world,” he said. “It’s usually an incremental step, and it builds on the shoulders of others. You tweak it, you change the user interface. Today, it’s about making it easy. It’s about developing something that makes it easier for consumers to use.”

Sisters Alison Brown Nissen ’89 and Marcy Brown Stoudt ’94 were enjoying successful careers even before they considered combining forces.

Nissen was an author working in academia. Stoudt had spent two decades in the corporate world. While thoughts of a joint venture enticed them, they didn’t want anything to jeopardize their family bond.

“We came up with the ‘sisters first’ promise,” Stoudt recalled. “It was maintaining a culture that prioritized sisterhood over business.”

Five years after they launched their new venture, Revel Coach, their relationship is as strong as ever.

They designed Revel Coach as a platform to mentor executives and entrepreneurs who wish to find career and family success. The sisters lead programs dedicated to women in leadership.

The combination of Stoudt’s business acumen and Nissen’s storytelling provide a good mix for clients.

“We’re here to help them make connections,” Nissen said.

The sisters take pride in staying connected to Denison. Revel Coach, in fact, debuted at the 2019 ReMix entrepreneurship summit. Stoudt and Nissen attend the event each year.

They’ve also partnered with Big Red women’s athletic programs to teach student athletes how to leverage their experiences in career planning.

“I built my confidence in telling stories at Denison,” Nissen said. “Now, we’re trying to teach others why telling good stories will help them make connections and grow their audiences.”

Mark Heckmann ’11 believes hearing “no” as a budding entrepreneur is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning. His resume is evidence that Heckmann has done a lot of talking.

As founder of Crooked Ventures — a business consulting and services firm — he’s worked with about 75 businesses across all stages of maturity. Heckmann helps entrepreneurs with businesses up to $10 million in annual revenues create distinctiveness and align their professional pursuits with their personal goals.

His time at Denison taught him the value of intellectual curiosity and humility. He also served as a recent student trustee on the university’s Board of Trustees when it selected Adam Weinberg as Denison’s next president.

After graduating from Denison, Heckmann earned a master’s degree in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University in his native Pittsburgh.

An entrepreneur at heart, he’s a fan of self-reliance and making a lot of “small bets” instead of a single big one. It took him only one year working for an investment fund to realize that wasn’t the career path for him.

Once he founded Crooked Ventures, “I started to see business opportunities everywhere.” He thrives on creating value for other entrepreneurs and discovering people and ideas that challenge the prevailing norms of their industry.

Heckmann also serves as borough council president of Castle Shannon in Pittsburgh, while dabbling in boxing and volleyball in his free time.

“I like to keep busy,” he said.

Kevin Bratcher ’12 didn’t understand how valuable his four years as a pitcher for the Big Red baseball team were — until he started traveling the globe to launch and operate companies.

“My Denison experience helped me build a well-rounded skill set,” Bratcher said. “Balancing academics and athletics taught me a great deal about managing my time and excelling in multiple areas at once.”

Bratcher serves as the chief operating officer at Nature Coatings, a biochemical startup making carbon-negative pigments from wood waste.

Working for companies that promote environmentally safe and allergy- and gluten-free products has been a constant for Bratcher in recent years.

He co-founded Beyond the Equator, which specialized in allergy friendly foods. He loved meeting customers with children who had never tried peanut butter due to allergy concerns and seeing them be able to eat the company’s product.

“It’s probably a mixture of philosophy and coincidence,” Bratcher said. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time for opportunities, but I do try to make sure projects I work on are making a real, tangible impact.”

His career has required plenty of travel, including working in Bolivia. He believes studying abroad in New Zealand during his junior year ignited his passion for travel.

“It opened my eyes to the wide variety of experiences the world has to offer,” he said. “Ever since then, I’ve intentionally made travel a significant part of both my personal and professional life.”

Published December 2023
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