Downtrodden and out of job with four children to support, Mary Shikukutu didn’t find much support among family and friends when she proposed the idea of starting an urban milling business for a traditional African grain.
“‘Are you crazy?’ was all I heard. `Who’ll support your business? You need to think of something else because there’s no market for that in the city.’ Yes, sometimes it’s good to listen to other people’s opinion, but if you give too much weight to what others think, you’ll never know what you are capable of or discover what life has in store for you. So despite all the no, no, no’s, I went ahead anyway.”
The fourth of six children, Shikukutu was born in Ondobe village in the Ohangwena region in the northern part of Namibia. According to Oshiwambo custom, which dictates children be split up and raised by family members when one or both parents dies, a five-year-old Shikukutu was sent to live with her aunty in the nation’s capital following her father’s death. Her oldest brother joined SWAPO, Namibia’s former national liberation movement, in exile where it was fighting for independence from South Africa in the 70s. (more…)
To taste Puja Satiani’s chocolate is to enter a world where you will never be tempted to buy a bag of mass-produced chocolate again. The 36-year-old has always loved chocolate, but it wasn’t until she started contemplating what she would do once she abandoned the corporate track that she started thinking about chocolate as more than just an occasional treat.
Satiani was seven when her parents moved from Pakistan to Miami, following their siblings who had already made the leap overseas, in search of better educational opportunities for their two daughters. Satiani’s path was fairly typical for first generation Pakistani Americans. She lived at home and worked her way through the University of Miami graduating a year early. She spent her last summer in Washington D.C. as a White House intern and fell in love with the city. So after graduation she went straight to law school at American University, worked for a federal judge, and then landed a job at a law firm where she worked as a litigator in government contracts. (more…)
Update March 2014: Barbara Werner’s musical pairing app is now free to download from iTunes and GooglePlay.
Airlines offer music on planes to help panicky flyers relax. Music is piped through the metro or subway system to reduce crime. And supermarkets have been known to play loud music to push customers more quickly through the aisles without reducing sales. So why not play just the right mix of music to your dinner guests to make them feel they’re dining at a Michelin-star eatery?
Absurd? Well no, not really according to professionally-trained chef Barbara Werner, “With an open heart, an open mind, and a simple mathematical formula, you can elevate a good dish to great and a great dish to near perfection.”
Werner collects degrees and certifications like most of us collect lost socks from the laundry. On top of an associate’s degree in culinary art, she’s certified in reflexology, payroll and HR and is trained as a beverage specialist, bartender, and equissageur (dog and horse masseuse in case you’re wondering). In addition, she’s taken sommelier classes and is a licensed manicurist and tattoo artist.
“I am always studying something and telling myself, someday this will come in handy, I don’t know where or how but it usually does,” says Werner who prefers the moniker of Renaissance Woman. (more…)
What’s a girl to do when she’s got a sweet tooth? For Lubna Rihani of Amman, Jordan, baking has always been a passion, but it wasn’t until she turned 40 that she found a way to turn it into more than a hobby.
The founder of Cupcake Fashion, which imports decorating supplies and baking tools from all over the world to Jordan to help fellow bakers have fun with their craft, started her career in the classroom.
Majoring in English and Political Science at the University of Jordan, Rihani knew she wanted to do one thing after graduation – become a teacher. “As soon as I graduated, I actually got a job teaching at the school that I myself had gone to as a child. It was a really lovely experience, and I stayed there for five years.”
During the last two of those five years, Rihani got married and she and her husband went to the UK to pursue their masters. “I had developed an interest in special needs education when I was teaching so I decided to study IT in Education. I found all the new ways to use technology to teach special needs kids fascinating.” (more…)
Ligia Galvao Vaz is an optimist right down to her toes. You just can’t help but feel good when talking to her … she’s contagious. Maybe it’s that indomitable Brazilian spirit, or maybe it’s just the way she’s wired, working hard to get where she is today but so positive about life and the opportunities she has been given.
“I’ve always had dreams. When I reach one, I move on to the next. That’s what I teach my daughter, if you have a goal, nothing is impossible if you want it enough.”
Born in Salvador, Bahia, on the east coast of Brazil, Vaz began her working life at 18 years as a secretary at a bus company. Straight out of high school, she decided to forego university so she could gain independence and buy her own place. She moved up the ranks to a supervisory role but left after six years to join a concert producer as an office manager. (more…)
With a 2-year and 2-month old, it’s amazing that yoga- and spin-studio owner Meghan Dowd has time for anything, never mind christening an upgraded kombucha microbrewery and launching a new line of probiotic sodas. But I guess that’s the benefit of being part of a family-owned business. Grandma can write press releases and cold call distributors while she babysits. And your brother can brainstorm marketing strategy with you while you plan the month’s instructor schedule. Meanwhile, Dad can sample the latest brews at the kitchen table while you all sit down for a Sunday meal together.
“Working with family is great but you have to negotiate and trust as you work together. It’s sometimes difficult because you know each other so well but as long as you are aware of work issues versus personal stuff, it’s fine. For me it’s obviously been great. As a new mother, there have been a lot of allowances and my business partners – my family – have allowed me to do what I can. I am so thankful this business is happening now, that this stage of my career is happening with my family.” (more…)
Jenny Fulton had been a stockbroker at Morgan Keegan for 16 years when in January of 2010 she finally succumbed to a round of layoffs in the latest recession. Despite her confidence that she could probably land another job at a different firm in a few months, she was burned out, and before rushing into the same old thing again, she decided to try to figure out something different. “I was 39 and I was tired. Tired of doing the same thing for so long. I wanted something new.”
She thought about her friend Susan Cameron, CEO of RJ Reynolds. Susan had started out her career in the office equipment industry, going door to door selling goods, but one day she had an epiphany. Jenny remembers hearing Cameron say, “I wanted to work doing something I loved, and I knew I loved brown liquor, makeup, and cigarettes!” So with that realization, Cameron went and applied for a job with Brown & Williamson, which was eventually bought out by RJ Reynolds, and worked her way up to the CEO position.
Applying the same approach to her own job search, Fulton said to her husband, “I want to do something I love. What do I love? I know I love softball and pickles. My husband said, ‘Well, you do make good pickles.’” (more…)
Trusha Patel has a passion for spice and finding just that right flavor as she cooks has always offered her sanctuary from the stressful life of corporate law. And now she has made it her mission to bring those high quality ingredients from the farms of India and Europe to your table, helping you transform all kinds of dishes in ways you could never have imagined. “A simple thing like adding a little ginger and cinnamon to smoothies or even black pepper to orange juice can turn good into exceptional.”
Born in Kenya to Indian parents, Patel moved to the UK as a child. Fulfilling her childhood dream, she studied law at the University of Manchester and, after training and qualifying with Linklaters, she moved to Credit Suisse First Boston as an Associate specialized in banking transactions. After one year, she was recruited to Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) in London where she spent the next 8 years as a front office derivatives lawyer.
“It was a trading floor position. Basically I sat among the traders and marketing guys, working with them on the transactions. I got a lot of exposure as to how things are really done. The trend at that time was very much on credit derivatives and everything that basically triggered the economic crisis. That’s what was driving the volumes, driving the revenue for the bank, all these high-end, multi-million-dollar transactions.”
It was a lucrative career, but it all started to come apart in 2008 with the lack of liquidity in the market. “It was all about cheap credit, cheap loans, and the bigger corporations leveraging off that to make money. I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was ten. I was pretty senior and successful, and at the time it was everything I had dreamed of,” she recalls.
Once the crisis took hold, CIBC’s focus was to mitigate its risk. It was not going to be easy as – of all Canadian banks – it had the greatest exposure to these types of transactions. Patel’s job centered around managing the losses and reducing inventory, essentially deconstructing all that had come before.
Two years earlier, after a trip to Canada, Patel and her husband had applied for permanent residency under the Canadian Federal Skilled Workers Program. “We were looking for a lifestyle change and wanted to open some options for our future. Since I was working for a Canadian bank, it seemed like a good idea.”
So it was providential timing that the residency applications were approved around the same time CIBC started cutting jobs and repatriating staff.
At the end of 2009, the couple relocated to Canmore, about 1 hour outside of Calgary, Alberta. Unable to practice law without retraining, she carried on working for CIBC but on a consultancy basis. Her husband was less fortunate and found it very difficult to find work. Reluctantly, he returned to the UK to work for a British bank. “We were having this long distance marriage, which was not in the plans, but we had to adjust to the situation. He was doing months there and a few weeks off in Canada. It was a very difficult time.”
Patel speaks openly about how she wanted to make the transition from the banking sector. “I felt pretty toxic about what was going on and really wanted to break free from it. I was on the lookout for something else.” Cooking had always been her passion, an escape. “I would lose myself in it without thinking too much, it would take me away from my long, long days in the office.” She had a special affinity for Northern Indian cooking as it recalled days spent in her mother’s kitchen.
Initially she thought she could open a modern Indian restaurant and catering business and conducted some marketing research but quickly it became apparent that “Canmore was not ready for that. There were people who didn’t even know what a samosa was!” But even aside from that small issue, Patel found she was having to adapt the ingredients of her favorite dishes to what was available locally. The quality of spices was particularly disappointing, “The dishes I made in the UK always needed additional seasoning. Even switching to more organic sources was not doing it for me, they just weren’t delivering the same flavor profile.”
Taking things into her own hands, she begin experimenting with her own blends and, encouraged by her husband, decided to sell them at a local market stall with tasting notes and advice on spice pairings. When they were quickly snapped up, Patel knew she was on to something. She began researching different spices and the buyers from whom they could be sourced. She was particularly interested in understanding the relationship with the farmers and how the spices were harvested and processed.
It took a further eight months to get all her suppliers on board, but the real challenge was establishing the business and dealing with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). “It was a completely new industry and new country for me. All the labelling rules, the bureaucracy involved in setting up the business, getting my organic certification, understanding what could be said and not said according to the CFIA, the little nuances or things that may be misinterpreted by the consumer… it all took me more time than finding the people I wanted to work with,” Patels explains.
There were other hurdles too. She learned a hard lesson by spending a lot of marketing dollars early on at a trade show. While interest at the show was high, the sales conversion was not great and the expected orders did not materialize for months. “After that, I just got on the phone and started cold calling. It was difficult. I’m not a salesperson. I’m pretty reserved. I took the rejection so personally. My husband was my savior because he coached me on how to respond to people and we even did some mind-mapping to help with my response to people’s feedback.”
But after a slow start, the Spice Sanctuary emerged undeterred. The production line was launched, the website was live with an online store, and bloggers started to mention her range. By the end of 2013 Patel was listed with 50 outlets and had built up a relationship with wholesalers. “Purveyors of Fine Quality Spices and Seasonings”, the Spice Sanctuary imports an exclusive range of premium grade organic spices, blends and rubs as well as Pukka-branded teas.
The best news came when her husband landed a job in Calgary and the couple was “finally able to have a normal life”. They celebrated by traveling to India to meet her suppliers and the farmers. “I came back recharged and in full-speed-ahead mode.”
“We got a gelato company on board, a popcorn manufacturer, executive chefs, and even a brewery uses our spices. Sales have doubled. Right now we are listed with 75 stores but my target is 100 by the end of this year. Being featured on The Marilyn Denis Show was especially fun.”
Does she ever miss law? The 40-year-old spice guru’s response is swift and unequivocal “No! It’s been tough to wait two-and-a-half years to see success and get buzz around the products, but it’s finally coming and I know I am on the right track. I have full job satisfaction in what I do right now.”
Tips from Trusha Patel
Always give things in life your best shot. As long as you know you have done your best, that’s what matters.
Make sure you have a support network (family or friends), someone who can give you perspective. Someone who knows you and gets you back on the right track.
Travel and see the world. It will enrich you in more ways than you might think possible
Life is too short so don’t be afraid to laugh, cry, believe and feel the beauty around you as much as possible!
Any active foodies hooked on travelling out there longing for a stroll through Aix-en-Provence and a great bowl of Daube Provençal? Montreal-born Carolyne Kauser-Abbott has got something for you. The former project and operations management specialist has launched her own food and travel blog that dips into cultural traditions and the history of cuisine around the world. And in case you get lost while on location or are just looking for some local hidden gems, she’s also created an App to guide your way.
An economics graduate of Queens University, in Kingston, Ontario, Kauser-Abbott took her first job as a runner on the floor of the Toronto stock exchange. She moved “upstairs” to become an equity trader for Wood Gundy (now CIBC Wood Gundy) and worked in the stock market for about five years, trading through the 1987 crash and pocketing what she refers to as “some great learning moments”. (more…)
Chef Hollie Greene makes a mean cornmeal-crusted sautéed okra. And she is pretty sure she can teach you how to too and convince your finicky vegetable-phobic 8-year-old to try it and even love it. “Have you ever seen the delight in a child’s eyes when they discover they love a blanched green bean or a stuffed zucchini boat? It’s magic. That’s what I love doing most, unleashing the joy in exploring fruits and vegetables for kids and their parents. I don’t start with a ‘get healthy’ objective. I start with joy. Good health and feeling great from what you eat is a natural outcome.”
Fresh out of grad school and armed with an undergrad degree and Masters in Human Resources (HR) from the University of South Carolina, Greene was recruited by Citigroup to join their management trainee program, which promised her a global rotation in HR. The fluent French speaker and lover-of-all-things-foreign was first posted to NYC but quickly transitioned to São Paolo, Brazil, where she worked on various projects. “I appreciated that CitiGroup sent me to a place where I didn’t speak the language. I had to learn very fast and rely on other skills. It stretched me to be out of my comfort zone. If you are worried about being an expert all the time, you lose a lot of learning opportunities. I embraced the idea of fitting in but I also learned patience and how to adapt to a different way of thinking. Brazil taught me you don’t have to stress about everything all the time to get things done. There are times to stress but most of the time, really, everything is going to be tudo bem. You’ll end up a lot less tired if you can take on this way of living.”
After a year in Brazil, Greene returned to NYC where she was a HR business partner, overseeing offshore banking investments for non-resident aliens for one-and-a-half years. After 9/11, her partner had trouble finding work so they moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where Greene worked in pharmaceutical sales for a year. “I quickly learned it wasn’t for me. I really missed HR. I had always been more of a consultant as people were asking me for ways to improve their business.”
So when Citibank re-recruited her for a position in its regional office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Greene jumped. The bank even went as far as to help her then husband find a job, kind of a “two-for-one special”.
After seven years with CitiGroup, Greene moved to competitor American Express in South Florida, which was known for its leadership development program at the time. On a professional level, everything was going great. On a personal level, the situation was far from ideal. She and her husband decided to part ways. It was a life change for her: “It’s something that shifts you. You’re going along and everything’s fine and then something happens. For me it was the personal relationship not working out. My planned trajectory hit a bump in the road.”
Free to make her own decisions and finally do something she has always dreamed of, Greene went on a cooking vacation alone to Tuscany, Italy, in late October. Staying just outside the idyllic town of Lucca, she cooked from 10-1 every day in the kitchen of the 15th century estate and toured the countryside in the afternoon. Being immersed in the experience was therapeutic. Greene recalls, “There is something about getting your hands into food, it’s very healing. In a corporate setting you are using your mind a lot but in the kitchen, you take something from a raw ingredient and you working with it to create this beautiful outcome that gives people a lot of pleasure.”
The return journey to the US was nothing short of disastrous. Stuck at Pisa airport for 24-hours and again in Milan for even longer, Greene used the time to write in her journal. The trip had triggered some self-doubt about whether she was on the right path. She made a list of what she could do in life, what she is good at and what she liked. “It dawned on me that everyone on the trip had been in their late 50s and 60s and yet it was the first time they had experienced extremely simple healthy cooking that was delicious. I kept coming back to the same thing. I teach people leadership development, I connect them with information to improve their lives. Why couldn’t I do this with children? Why couldn’t I teach kids about the joy of understanding what a balanced relationship with food is like. It’s as simple as that. When you are in that place in your life where it could go any which way, you are just crazy enough to think of the possibilities. You are open to change.”
Greene had been with Amex for only one year, so it was with some trepidation that the then-33-year-old approached her manager, Janice Carulli, to tell her what she wanted to do: “I know this is not your problem, but this is just what I have got to do. I need to make a change. I’m going to move to NY and attend culinary school and I’d love to stay with Amex so if I could get a transfer to our NY office, that would be great. And if you can’t help me, I understand but then we need to start talking about my departure.” A 20-year veteran of Amex, not missing a beat, Carulli replied, “Hollie, most people at some point in their life will say ‘I wish I had done X’. If this is something you really want to do and I can help you in any way, then I really want to help you.” True to her word, she rang the NY office and – serendipitously – there was a position open in leadership development.
Within three months of her trip to Tuscany, Greene was in NY with Amex. Two months later she started 9-months of night classes at the French Culinary Institute. It was pretty grueling, but she loved it, “I worked 45-50 hours a week and then headed off to culinary class around 5.30 and stayed until 11.30. It was very physically demanding but I thrived on the intensity in the kitchen. Once you find your tribe of where you are supposed to be, you will take off. Yes, you have to cook dishes over and over again until they are perfect but unlike business, where you talk circles around the elephant in the room, in cooking this is not possible. You learn by making mistakes. You may have a good night or a bad night in the kitchen but you know where you stand.”
With no plans to be a restaurant chef, Greene took her newly minted skills to the not-for-profit world and volunteered with the Sylvia Center and Wellness in Schools while she still continued to work Amex. “Amex was exceptional. They wanted employees to give back to the community so were very supportive of the work I was doing in afterschool programs. There was no risk for me personally in doing this work, I just wanted to grow myself as a person.”
But then the magic happened! When teaching her first class of inner city kids about cooking with fruits and vegetables, Greene was amazed at their enthusiasm. “They absorbed it like sponges. Even if they didn’t like the food it didn’t matter because they were having fun in the kitchen, having a positive experience. It was really fulfilling to be giving them a window into this new world, helping them to see fruits and vegetables in a new way. Planting that seed of possibility.”
As her volunteer work became more serious, the non-profits offered her paid hours as Education Director at the Sylvia Center and a school chef at Wellness. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse despite Amex dangling the potential of a promotion. “The universe was really tempting me, but I told Amex I really needed to do it and it was now or never. I had to explore this path and see if this was my true calling. I figured I’d give it a year and I could always go back to the corporate world if it didn’t work—like a year-long anthropological study of me!” So she resigned.
The move from corporate banking to non-profit was most definitely a step back financially but she had savings and her partner to support her, “Up to that point, I had always been the breadwinner and so definitely it was very scary to take that step to the side – but it was calculated risk. But I am very thankful I made that move. I’ve never been happier.”
After a few years, Greene and her husband moved to San Francisco for his job and Greene had to rebuild her community. “The best way to meet people and build you base is to get involved! I consulted with some non-profits as a chef to improve nutrition in schools and with families at home for about a year.”.
Last year, she started writing a food blog, Joyfoodly, targeted at parents to promote eating seasonal fruits and vegetables throughout the year. But importantly she didn’t want it to be a pet project and toyed with turning it into a business. So she hired a business consultant, Stella Grizont, founder of Woopaah and former co-managing director of Ladies Who Launch, to map out her brand identity and spent six months doing lots of research to uncover the biggest “pain points” around food in our country today. After many surveys and lots of brainstorming, Greene hosted an ideation session with parents, community thought leaders, and educators.
“I didn’t want to take something and just do it better. I really wanted to fill a need,” she explains. “A couple of themes emerged, the first being that their children’s health is the number one priority for parents, they want to feed their kids well even if the culture doesn’t support children eating healthily. They also lack the time and the skill to put healthy and tasty meals together quickly. I thought ‘I know how to teach kids how to love fruits and vegetables, I’m good at it.’ So my plan centered around engaging kids in ways parents would not necessarily think about and sharing my simple yet proven techniques both in cooking and exciting kids to love trying new foods.”
Because Greene’s key goals in launching JoyFoodly had been to make learning how to cook fruits and veg easy and fun but also economical and readily accessible to a wide audience, a tech solution seemed the best way to go in terms of scale and ease of use. Greene’s Creative Director, Michelle Venetucci-Harvey brought the design perspective and together they developed a prototype of the Joyful12™ concept last Fall at the San Francisco Food Hackathon.
An online Kitchen Learning Lab, the Joyful12 is a web-based cooking crash course for families that teaches them how to love cooking and eating 12 vegetables and fruits each season. A members-only site, it features video tutorials with Greene, allergen-and-gluten-free recipes, a time-saving shopping list generator, and a community forum to share successes and challenges with like-minded parents.
“Everyone can learn the basics of cooking fruits and vegetables and when you ask your kids to be part of the cooking process, that’s when they start to feel confident to explain how to make the food better…or at least taste better from their perspective. The Joyful12 is a self-paced course that guides you through each season and, depending on your constraints, let’s you try basic-to-adventurous recipes of in-season items. I believe it’s brings together the best of what’s out there in a unique and family-friendly way. It really is a true learning lab.”
The learning lab has been live for less than a month but subscribers are growing and Greene has created partnerships with companies like WholeFoods.
“We’re trying to do it the right way. Spring and Summer are built and I’m working on Fall and Winter. Basically I’m building the train and the tracks as I go along.” But it’s going well. Although all the recipes are gluten-free, she has hired Chef Annie Rose Hanrahan, a Natural Gourmet Institute graduate and former Sylvia Center and Wellness in Schools colleague, to re-test her recipes keeping an eye out for vegan, nut, and egg issues and to ensure any potential allergens are highlighted and substitutes are offered.
“I always look back at what I learned in culinary school. You learn by failing and clearly everything hasn’t been perfect, but I trust my instinct,” Greene says. “I’m surrounded by great people, people who stand by me, believe in what I’m doing, people who open doors for me. But I’m still learning, I have to have a lot of patience with myself. I still have that thread within me that wants it perfect today and wants it yesterday. That’s my journey … patience. If the intent of what I’m trying to do is good and the intent is for people to have a more balanced and enjoyable relationship with fruits and vegetable then it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in its own time.”
You can sign-up for the Joyful 12 here and learn how to make a subscriber favorite: Japanese roasted green beans with a sriracha mayo dipping sauce.
Tips from Chef Hollie Greene
Figure out your value, don’t undersell yourself.
Believe in your intent, keep your head down and do the work: you’ve got to be in it for the long game.
When you do your own thing there are no checks and balances so be sure you have the support around you to give you a reality check.
Keep going because you have to complete the story!
There are not many successful business women who would give up a well-paid and prestigious position at a successful start-up to move to a small Norwegian town – population 350 – to run a hotel. You might even call Aud Melås crazy, as she thought she was at the time, but there is a method to this ambitious woman’s madness: “I’ve lived in this role of change for so long it’s natural to me. It’s something I just do because I’m a very curious person. I love to learn new things. I hate to get stuck.”
While studying for her degree in business economics at the Norwegian Institute of Banking & Insurance and the Norwegian School of Business, Melås was working at Sparebanken Hedmark (a savings and loan bank) in the town of Hamar, Norway. Upon graduation, she took up a full-time position as a mortgage and tax advisor at the bank, and, by age 24, her career path in the banking sector lay solidly before her, but she wasn’t sure she liked what she saw. When they offered her a promotion to a management position, she thought, “If I say yes to this, I’m most likely going to stick with banking for the rest of my life. So I asked myself ‘What are you going to look back at when you are 50?’ Are you going to say ‘I wish I had’ or are you going to say, ‘wow! I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life, not all of them went well, but at least I tried,’ So, I chose the latter, declined the promotion, and decided to return to school.”
Melås informed her (very supportive) employer of her decision and left with a “four year leave of absence” instead of a termination and even a scholarship to help pay school fees.
Looking for an English-speaking environment coupled with warm weather, she followed her life-long dream of moving to California. She did some undergrad work at the University of San Diego and started the MBA program there. On moving to San Francisco, she finished the MBA with the University of Phoenix and – in order to remain in the US – took a position at Civic Bank of Commerce outside San Francisco as a credit manager and later VP & Manager of commercial lending at California Bank & Trust. Despite earlier misgivings about staying in banking and finance, altogether Melås spent 15 years in the sector.
One day she got a call from a former employer’s HR Manager about an opportunity to work with an online auction start-up for heavy construction equipment. They were seeking people with talent to build up the business. “I said to her ‘Are you crazy? I don’t know anything about backhoes or bulldozers!’” Melås laughs. The woman agreed but added, “But you do know about finance and building networks.” Melås declined the high risk venture but the woman was persistent, calling her for three months.
After some reflection and on hearing the company’s new name, Ironplanet, she decided to go for it. “I knew the company was going to be a success. It was the right name. Building business is something I really like to do. I believe the name tells you a lot. And besides, the business plan was excellent,” she reassures.
In the meantime, the business-savvy Norwegian had negotiated a good package in terms of options and severance so she felt confident to change tracks. “Once I took the decision, I moved very fast. I didn’t hesitate. Clearly it was a life-changing move because if I had not left, I would have stayed in the banking industry.”
And so there she was, co-founder responsible for risk assessment, supported by a staff of only ten, with the goal of selling excavators and the like online. It was overwhelming starting from scratch to build the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, but Melås saw the potential in the online auction business and stuck with it. It was a good call. E-bay tried unsuccessfully to buy Ironplanet in 2002 and today it’s the world’ largest online auction platform for heavy construction equipment.
After 4 years at Ironplanet, Melås got her second interesting phone call. This time from her brother, a psychologist based in Norway, with the “opportunity of a lifetime” for his sister and her American husband, Evan. He had found a small 8-room inn with an indoor/outdoor café situated in an ideal location — Sognefjorden, Norway. “Frankly, I thought he was off his rocker. I could not believe he would seriously think I would want to leave this fantastic company that I love so much to start working in the hospitality sector.”
That evening she recounted the story to Evan, laughing as she imagined herself running a B&B at the end of fjord in Flåm, almost 5 hours by car from Oslo, the capital of Norway. Her husband’s response nearly knocked her off her feet. “Well, I might be interested,” he said. Evan’s Silicon-Valley- based graphic design company had suffered during the 2002 crash and in the meantime he was making ends meet as a carpenter and a mortgage officer. “Basically he was miserable,” Melås recalls. “Norway has always been a fairytale country for Evan. So naturally he jumped at the chance to start over and do something new. But I remained unconvinced.”
Knowing that his wife was the key, together with Melås’ brother, Evan starting plotting how he could change her mind. They called in the big guns with comments like, “your mother is not getting any younger”. It took three long months but she finally agreed to visit the inn, examine the balance sheets, and talk with the accountant about the health of the business. In early January 2004, Melås met the owners. At 5pm, it was already pitch black. But not dark enough that she couldn’t read the look of distrust on the owners’ faces: “I knew they were thinking … ‘oh this American woman will ruin everything.’”
But Melås was impressed with the figures put before her. Although there are only 350 inhabitants in Flåm, she learned that 1.3 million tourists come through each year and all of them have to pass the inn when they get off the cruise ships and boats. There was clearly more to the place than met the eyes. The next morning with the sun resting on the snow-capped mountains, she saw for herself: “It is an incredibly beautiful place. The inn is situated right on the water in idyllic surroundings. The potential was palpable. It would seem my brother was not crazy after all.”
Dazzled by the scenery, business potential, and plans for expansion, Melås agreed to give it five years on the condition she would keep the house in California and they would return if it didn’t work out. A key decision-making factor was her ability to maintain the current staff. She signed on the dotted line and got on a plane to San Francisco to pack up her life. Midway over the Atlantic, panic set in. “I thought ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’ It was almost like it wasn’t me who had been to Norway. The numbers had looked great but in reality I had no idea how I was going to do it.”
The next few weeks were difficult. She had to face the fact she was leaving Ironplanet, a company she had helped build from scratch. “That was tough. It was my baby. But I had made a decision and needed to move forward. Evan had no such doubts. He was over the moon!” she laughs.
Melås had no romantic illusions about running an inn. “My aunt and uncle owned a small hotel and worked themselves into the ground…literally, as they both died before turning 70. I learned an important lesson from that. I would not want to build a business in such way that it would stop functioning without me being present.”
While her previous experience was clearly a bonus in terms of organizing, planning, putting start-up strategies and infrastructure in place, and dealing with the local bank, the first two and half years were hard going (to put it mildly). Legal issues put the plans for upgrading the hotel and building a micro-brewery on hold, but also it was difficult for Melås to return to Norway after so many years abroad. She recalls: “I don’t remember how many times I almost packed my bags to go back to California. I loved my life in the US. I had great friends, a wonderful job. The culture here was so foreign to me even though I visited every summer. Being the boss was hard as I tried to navigate the labor laws. It was much easier for Evan. He adjusted really well and picked up the language. He was adopted right away. Me? I was known as ‘Iron Woman’… let’s just leave it at that.”
Once they got past the legal wrangling, the couple renovated and expanded Flåmsbrygga Hotel and went ahead with their plans to open a Viking-themed brewpub (a pub that brews its own beer), on the premises. They were only the second brewpub in Norway at the time and the 9th micro-brewery overall. Eight years after taking over the inn, a brand new production brewery and a 15-room staff house were installed.
Named after Ægir, the Norse giant who lived where the river and the ocean met and brewed beers for the gods of Åsgard, Ægir Brewery boasts 40 varieties of beer, has won the accolade of ‘Best Beer’ in Norway, and taken home three silver medals at the Australian “Olympics of Beer Brewing”. “Norwegians are usually quite modest, but if I am allowed to brag a little, we are number one in Norway in our category,” Melås says. “Unlike the US, the brewpub is a unique experience here. We are investigating franchising opportunities and looking to increase exports to the US market. Our unofficial slogan has become ‘Why not?’ as this has proven to be an effective approach up to now,” she laughs.
The five-year self-imposed re-evaluation deadline came and went unnoticed. In year six, they knew they were staying. Now, in their tenth year of operation, Melås and her husband have grown the business from a small B&B to a multi-million-dollar venture. “I would never have seen myself here. Everyone thought we were going to fail … many were eagerly awaiting a big bankruptcy when we started investing in brewing. But Evan and I believed in our dreams and in the end, it’s been a wonderful ride. We had one goal: one day we would make money while we were sleeping! We reached that goal some years back and now we sleep very well indeed.”
Tips from Aud Melås
Follow your gut and dare to be different. You don’t have to be a sheep.
Don’t fool yourself. Running an inn is like any other business – to get to the stage where you make money you, you must work really hard. You are always working when your friends are on holidays, you work weekends, etc. There are no short-cuts!
When you open yourself to change, the most unexpected things can happen.
Questions for Aud? Post them in the Comments section and we’ll be sure she sees them.
Many of us can remember the doubts we had early on in our careers – the feeling we might be pursuing the path of stability at the expense of following our passion. Dr Kelly McNelis was lucky. She decided to forgo the safe and well-worn path while she was still young enough to enjoy the rewards that come with doing something you love. After just a little more than a decade in her first career, the 32-year-old chose to ignore her inner fears and follow her gut — giving up a lucrative government research position to go out on her own as a wellness coach… and, to her own great surprise, also, something of an internet star.
The Pittsburgh native’s determination is a key asset in her road to success. “I was one of those kids who always knew what they wanted to do. I’ve wanted to be a psychologist for such a long time, at least from middle school when I really understood what a career was. I still have a paper about my career plans I wrote in 9th grade honors English,” McNelis recalls.
With a degree in Psychology from Penn State University, McNelis went to grad school at the University of Rochester, where she studied for free by committing to the PhD program up front. She graduated early with a PhD in social-personality psychology which studies the average functioning person and tries to understand why people do the things they do. “It fascinated me because I was learning about everyone I knew. I combined my studies with my passion for exercise and healthy living. I tried to understand what motivates people to exercise, why they make New Years’ resolutions about getting fit and what keeps them going past the end of January!”
Looking to return to Pittsburgh, she found a research job at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) working on a team with other social scientists. Much of the worked centered around the study of underground coal miners and how to keep them safe and healthy. McNelis did a lot of lab work and conducted on-site research.
McNelis worked at NIOSH for three years, but frankly it was a slog. “It was not my thing, despite loving psychology, I wasn’t doing work that I was passionate about. Basically, it was a trade-off. I stayed there because it was a really flexible job: I could work from home, it was stable, and paid well. But I kept asking myself, ‘Why did I devote nine years to studying in order to end up working in a career that I didn’t love?’ I realized I was too young to give up. I felt like a ‘sell out’.”
Having her second daughter cemented the decision to leave. “I was trading all these hours away from my children, spending them on something I didn’t like. I wanted to continue working but I needed to feel the passion.”
And so McNelis decided not to return to NIOSH after maternity leave. When she called to inform her manager about her decision, he shared one last bit of info that tempted her to stay. “I was originally hired as a Fellow. When I broke the news he offered me a long-term position and a promotion to permanent staff with a salary increase. My head said yes but my heart said no.”
Very nervous as she hung up the phone, McNelis thought she was making a huge mistake. But her family and friends stood by her decision. “My husband was great. He knew something would turn up, and we honestly believed it was a good time for a transition.”
While contemplating if teaching would be an option, McNelis found herself fascinated by an article her mother-in-law had sent with a note “thought of you”. It featured a woman who had started a business as a wellness coach. “I always I thought I would start my own business, but that it would be later in life when I had more experience and was older and wiser. But at that moment, I really felt ‘now is the time.’”
McNelis enrolled in 12-week certification with WellCoaches®, with the goal of opening her own coaching business for the average person desiring better habits. “Maybe they want to just eat better, exercise or lose weight, or even get the confidence to start a business like me. It would be an opportunity to combine my psych background with my passion for health and I immediately decided to target new moms who could use the advice of someone at the same stage in life but with a PhD in psychology!”
She started building New Leaf Wellness gradually. “My husband made a fabulous site for the business,” said McNelis (yes, she really appreciates her beau). She hired someone else to create a logo, and her uncle, a lawyer, helped her file as an LLC within a matter of months. She leaned heavily on social media to drive interest in her business and wrote a blog for new moms to drive traffic to her site. “The blog, advice and all the easy recipes I was offering were really a free way to support the women I wanted to coach.”
McNelis admits she was a bit naïve about the number of clients she expected to see coming through the door. But while the coaching side was slow to shift, other parts of the business started taking off in unexpected ways. “My blog gained traction and I started writing e-cookbooks. One article I wrote to promote my cookbook, 15-Minute Freezer Recipes went viral…it just blew up!” With 150K page views in one day and thousands of cookbook sales, this was all the reassurance McNelis needed to know she was headed in the right direction. “All my hard work was paying off. I had spent a year-and-a-half writing my blog and months paying my babysitter more than what I was making,” she laughs.
Where did the recipes come from? “I made them up! When I was pregnant, I would have loved some recipes to stock my freezer before the baby came. There’s a couple of breakfasts, lunches, cookies…I made them over and over again until I thought they were perfect.”
It’s been six months and another baby since McNelis’ post went viral. She has since published her third cookbook on crockpot recipes and continues to make a steady income blogging about recipes and wellness. And she couldn’t be happier, “I share my passions for food and healthy living with other moms. I’m able to be home with my daughters and devote my time working to a career that I love. I am living my best life now. This is it. My best day is today.”
Tips from Dr Kelly McNelis
You cannot create demand. I might think every mom needs to work with a wellness coach, but it doesn’t matter what I think. You can only try to identify the demand and then try to figure out how to fill it.
Don’t let your fears hold you back. Think of fear as a signal that something is important to you. Embrace the fear that you feel about making a career change or building your business and know that your passion for it will help you to be successful in the long run.
Stop living your life for tomorrow. Don’t spend all of your time thinking about the future or what you’re doing to do with it. Start living for today. Enjoy the here and now. Celebrate how far you’ve come and finish each day happy and grateful for where you are.
Questions for Kelly? Write in the Comments section and we’ll be sure you get a reply.