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Seeking enlightenment: a Business Certificate Program graduate’s reflections

Guest post by Jeffrey Chon, graduate of BEDC’s Seattle Business Certificate Program

The Business & Economic Development Center (BEDC)’s Seattle Business Certificate Program (BCP) has recently wrapped up after six weeks of educational coursework and with over sixty graduates. We have invited graduates from the BCP to reflect on their experience of the Program; this is the first in the series written by Jeffrey Chon, Sole Proprietor of Jun Hong’s Kung Fu Club in Seattle.

chonI’ve always been a passionate martial artist and my goal is to never work a day in my life. You see, I’m not “working” if I love what I do. Coming from a family of martial artists, deciding to open my own studio was a breeze. However, after four years of operation, I’m ready to grow my business so that I could focus on teaching instead of worrying about money.

I’ve been a student of kung fu since I was eight. I’m a secular disciple of the Shaolin Temple, and a gold medalist in three different countries. Now I’m able to teach the discipline and philosophies that I’ve learned through Jun Hong’s Kung Fu Club. Through Jun Hong’s Kung Fu Club, students attain better health and fitness by learning the importance of both physical and mental strength through sports and meditation.

Auspiciously, a longtime friend directed me to the Foster School’s Business & Economic Development Center (BEDC), where I participated in their Business Certificate Program.  Held once a week for six weeks, professionals from all fields would come together to give lectures, covering everything from marketing to liability. My classmates, who are professionals themselves, were able to share their experiences, lead class discussions and propose insightful questions. Those questions and concerns were met with direct and in-depth answers. In short, all professionals who seek further knowledge and education can benefit from these seminars.

“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”  ~Sun Tzu

As a small business owner, sometimes we do things for the business with the idea that it will be beneficial, but without the understanding of “why.” During every class I would say to myself, “That’s what I do!” and I began re-applying what I’ve been already doing, but with a deeper understanding of the fundamentals. Within two weeks, I was able to bring nine new students to my business.

To me, it was the missing piece to the puzzle. These classes take what we do as business owners and provide us with the skills to further expand our minds and better our businesses.  Simple questions such as, “Does it work? Why or why not? What are other people doing? What do customers respond to?” helped me understand what areas I need to improve on. Sometimes finding success can be as simple as asking the right questions.

As business owners and professionals, we are always keeping long-term and short-term goals in mind. These classes allow you to re-calibrate what’s important and focus on future goals; not only for your business, but for your life. The professors help you ask the right questions, fellow classmates provide you with networking opportunities, and the synergy created in the class paves the way to endless ideas. I know that the Business Certificate Program will be a priceless and lasting benefit to my business.

You have to prepare yourself for when you’re blessed with an opportunity. As Sun Tzu once said, “opportunities are multiplied as they are seized!”

Giving back: BEDC alumna Stacy Nagata

StacyNagataStacy Nagata was one of the first participants in the Student Consulting Program (SCP) and experienced the start of what has become the BEDC’s signature program. As an undergraduate in the business school in 1999, Stacy had been president of the University Management Consulting Association and competed in a number of case competitions. She knew she wanted to go into consulting but didn’t have any experience. Participating in the Student Consulting Program (then known as the Business Assistance Program) gave her the real-world experience she needed to land her first consulting job at LEK.

From the start, Stacy felt that she was ahead of her colleagues: She had practical knowledge, tactical abilities and could see the big picture, skills she had learned through the Student Consulting Program.

Stacy also knew that the Internet was going to dramatically change business. She became fascinated with companies such as RealNetworks and Amazon that were just taking off when she graduated college in 1999. The power of technology in media and business became her passion and eventually led her to jobs in the entertainment industry, including West Coast Integration lead for the NBC Universal merger.

Key to her work at NBC/Universal was the question- how does technology impact the entertainment industry? Stacy worked to make content available digitally, helping launch the website Hulu, which involved creating an entirely new business model.  Helping shape the future of entertainment was exciting, but Stacy decided that she missed Seattle and knew that a move back to her hometown would give her the chance to give back to the community.

Stacy returned to Seattle in 2012 to work for Xbox. Her new role will be to take interactive gaming to the next level, and as a former gamer, she thinks she’s up to the challenge.  She also began to support several organizations that helped jumpstart her career.  She is a board member of the Seafair Foundation, where she served as an ambassador in High School. She’s also serving as an Alumni Mentor for the BEDC’s Student Consulting Program, helping the next-generation of business leaders.

Through mentoring student teams Stacy has realized that she can make a big difference in students’ lives. And she learns from the students, noting that they have a much higher level of sophistication than students of 14 years ago.  She has some advice for them too: “Just because you are young doesn’t mean you don’t have great ideas”.

And she is proud to see how much Foster has grown in 14 years. Programs such as SCP enable students to have experiential education and greatly enhance the classroom learning. “That’s the magic of Foster,” says Stacy. “There just isn’t enough time in the day for the many opportunities available.”

South Carolina Huskies

Not only are LaJuan Davis and her brothers Dwayne and Ricardo Ellison the next generation of leaders JBE Incorporated, they are also proud graduates of the University of Washington’s Minority Business Executive Program (MBEP) – which is saying something considering that they hadn’t really heard about the UW or this program 18 months ago. Following their graduation from MBEP last June, they each took back lessons they learned and they saw an immediate impact.

LaJuan, the company’s treasurer, took back three key lessons: That for small businesses “sometimes it’s important to sacrifice growth to insure liquidity,” empowering employees to make decisions is key to enabling the executive team to focus on the future, and that while you can’t always measure the impact of marketing expenditures these investments are key to long-term growth.

LaJuan Davis and her brothers Dwayne and Ricardo Ellison, graduates of the University of Washington’s Minority Business Executive Program (MBEP) .Ricardo, one of the company’s Vice Presidents, reflects on how he’s become a better leader because of what he learned at MBEP: “senior executives don’t need to be a part of every decision,” he says. He also noted that rather than focusing most of the company’s top talent on solving today’s problems, they are now “spreading talent around so they can focus on today and the future.”

Dwayne, another Vice President, says the program changed how he views the entire company. He’s become more acutely aware of the power of branding the company in moving the company forward. He’s learned that as a senior leader of the company he needs to “work on the business rather than work in the business,” and through this he’s able to empower others to make decisions.

These three siblings are confident that what they learned at MBEP will have a long-lasting impact on their company, but they’re also proud that, in part because of how they’ve changed their leadership of the business, JBE set a record last year by crossing the $40 million revenue threshold for the first time. They’ve also begun to directly manufacture products in addition to the assembly and supply chain management services they’d previously offered.

LaJuan, Ricardo, and Dwayne had the opportunity to attend MBEP because of their relationship with The Boeing Company. JBEP was founded to provide services to the automotive, paper, and textile industries. They began to court Boeing as a customer in 2008, and when Boeing selected Charleston as the site for final assembly of the 787 Dreamliner, the relationship took off. Last year Boeing invited JBE to be in their mentor-protégé program, which led to the offer to attend MBEP. While JBE was looking at similar programs offered on the east coast, when they learned about the Foster School’s year-around work to grow minority-owned businesses through the BEDC, they decided to accept Boeing’s offer.

To learn more about the 2013 MBEP, please join us at a Sampler and Information Session on Thursday, May 16 from 7:45 to 9:00 a.m.

Achieving the American dream

Exequiel Soltero, owner of Maya's (gentleman in orange shirt), stands with his UW BEDC Student Consulting group.
Exequiel Soltero, owner of Maya’s (front row, third from left), stands with his UW BEDC Student Consulting group and advisors.

Exequiel Soltero arrived in the U.S. from his small hometown on the southwestern border of Mexico determined to pursue the “American Dream” via the traditional culinary delights of his native Mexico.

A positive mindset, entrepreneurial spirit, and desire to provide for his family aided Exequiel to labor through the restaurant industry, beginning as a dishwasher and progressing to a waiter. By 1979 Exequiel had accumulated enough savings to open his own restaurant devoted to Mexican cuisine, Maya’s Family Mexican Restaurant in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood. Staying true to the restaurant’s name, and Exequiel’s initial motivations for opening a restaurant, each and every one of his siblings—nine sisters and three brothers—spent time working together to build a strong foundation for Maya’s.

Nearly 35 years later, Exequiel’s authentic recipes have lured a solid following, and allowed him to expand well beyond the original 850-square-foot restaurant. Maya’s brand now includes a full-service Mexican restaurant and a growing catering service.

As the trend of mobile food trucks is continuing to grow, Maya’s has launched a fleet of food trucks that will soon be located next to Seattle’s CenturyLink Field during Seahawks and Sounders FC games, as well as on Microsoft’s Redmond campus during weekday lunch hours. With growth, however, comes new challenges and Exequiel realized that success of Maya’s new division-based business hinged on seeking outside guidance.

Exequiel, who has been a long-time friend and partner of the Business & Economic Development Center (BEDC), turned to the BEDC’s to participate in our Student Consulting Program to help him reach his business goals:  “I was motivated to participate with the BEDC Student Consulting Program because I was interested in growing my business, and what better way to grow my business than to get the input from business students, teachers, mentors and advisors.”

The BEDC’s Student Consulting Program improves management and marketing skills of small business in under-served communities with the aid of teams comprised of of business students and faculty of the UW Foster School of Business, Foster alumni, and mentors drawn from the Seattle Rotary Club. Exequiel explained what he was hoping to gain from his participation with the Student Consulting Program:

 “I was hoping to receive a different perspective from my own. I have several ideas and visions for the restaurant and catering department, but I felt I needed to get the opinion from someone who has valuable input that could help change the way I do business.”

Through the Student Consulting Program, Exequiel, along with 14 other business owners, was provided advice from his student consulting team on how to strategically grow all divisions of Maya’s, including specially-tailored marketing strategies and financial/managerial guidance.

Now, as Exequiel’s interaction with his student consulting group concludes and he begins the process of actualizing the plans and goals presented with the continuing support of his BEDC mentors and advisors, he has great hope for his company’s future:

“I feel very positive about the future of my business, especially with all the recommendations the student team had to offer at the presentation [of their findings]. I learned the importance of sending out thank you notes to all catering customers upon completion of their event, [the value of] up-selling, tips to get my food cost and labor back to a respectable percentage, and that having someone managing our social media outlets would dramatically help with sales and customer retention.”

If you are business interested in being a part of the 2013-2014 Student Consulting Program, or if you have any questions about the Program, please contact Wil Tutol at wtutol@uw.edu.

Real-world strategies for success

Ken Denman & Andrew Lindsay In March, more than twenty Business & Economic Development Center (BEDC) undergraduate students temporarily pushed aside their group projects and studying for exams to think about career approaches following graduation while attending a BEDC-organized luncheon with Machine Perception Technology CEO, Ken Denman (MBA 1986), and Jawbone Chief of Staff, Andrew Lindsay.

Designed as an informal, personal setting for students to actively engage in discussions about career and entrepreneurship options, students questioned Denman and Lindsay and put forth their own questions for navigating the business world. Students who attended came seeking real-world advice. For instance, Diana Nguyen, a student of the Multicultural Marketing class and an executive member of the BEDC’s Leadership Team, arrived at the luncheon seeking to learn how Denman and Lindsay “knew that they were making the right choices” along their career paths, and “what advice…they have for [students] as [they] try to achieve [their] own goals today.”

Both Denman and Lindsay stressed the importance of accessing one’s own individual goals. “Think about how you want to live and what you want out of life,” said Denman. Passion for your work is critical, and one must be invigorated by what they do each day. “There are too many opportunities to do a job you don’t love waking up to every morning.” And, as Rai Huang, another student of the Multicultural Marketing class, pointed out, the importance of “seizing opportunities available in the business school environment” was another chief point made by Denman for current students.

Additional key takeaways from the luncheon were threaded around a theme of best practices for business consulting as a profession—notably one of the “fastest growing industries in today’s corporate world and one of the most popular career choices” for new graduates—and business strategies for start-ups. Denman and Lindsay said that, whether you are steering the choices of businesses in trouble or striving to be entrepreneur, the blueprint to a successful business is to solve a problem or provide a service of incremental value that the consumer market is willing to pay for. Denman asserted that finding new ways to provide incremental value to the marketplace is one of the greatest challenges for small businesses. Conducting introspective market research, appropriately predicting the future of one’s industry, and perusing a risk-adjusted approach are fundamental.

Undergraduate Students at Denman & Lindsay LuncheonStudents also expressed considerable interest in the benefits and challenges of consulting for small businesses versus large corporations. Denman and Lindsay agreed that, while working with large companies can be advantageous for gathering valuable skills sets and acquiring knowledge of proper consulting processes and policies, large corporations can be more resistant to revision and restructuring than small business. Small companies, on the other hand, are more nimble and open to change, and the result of alterations can be more quickly discernible, but the emotional investment on the owners’ part can be far greater. In turn, Denman and Lindsay recommend that the key to successful consulting is to deliver arguments for change with confidence, verified statistics and objective facts.

The hour-long luncheon was a time for students to reflect on their futures, and gain recommendations regardless of the career path they choose. Undergraduate Rai Huang recapped the event well:

“It reinforced my belief that, if a person chooses to follow their heart and keep moving towards that direction, they will eventually find success.”

The BEDC’s ability to connect students with business mentors depends on the generous contributions receive from individuals, corporations and foundations. Please donate to the BEDC to help us train future leaders.

Making shabu “chic”

Kien Ha describes himself as a risk-averse entrepreneur. And given that restaurants are notoriously risky start-ups, Ha went with a concept he knows well – shabu-shabu. Shabu-shabu, or Japanese hot pot dining, is a trendsetting phenomenon that has long driven technology transplants  from California to expect its healthy, simple, and affordable food on almost every street corner. Ha’s discovery that Washington is the fourth fastest growing state for Japanese-style restaurants convinced him to launch Shabu Chic at the UW’s 2008 Business Plan Competition.

Open Friday through Sunday in Seattle’s International District, Shabu Chic boasts fans who are true devotees talking and sharing photos of the restaurant and the unique food presentation. Yelp gives Shabu Chic a 4.5, and the restaurant got 200+ Facebook “likes” when it posted the possibility of adding a Kimchi sauce in the fall. “Word of mouth has been great,” Ha says. But once a customer is in the door, he relies on wait staff training and social media to share little morsels of Japanese food history along the way.

Still working part-time as an advisory manager for a Seattle accounting firm, Ha is content taking things a bit more slowly than his tech entrepreneur peers. “Most restaurants fail in the first year because they’re under-capitalized. Having no outside funding from the outset has kept us on task and deliberate in all that we do,” he said. His hope is to break even in year two, make a profit in year three, and go full-time with a second location.

Ha sees tech start-ups and restaurant start-ups in the same light. “Whether it’s a tech or food,” he says, “you have to own everything from end to end.”  By serving Seattle’s unmet shabu-shabu need, Ha is developing a market for something people in Seattle never knew they’d love. An entrepreneur’s dream.

Less pivot, more mountaintop

Erik Viafore, the CEO of Mountains Plus Outdoor Gear is Mr. Focus. His small Seattle-based start-up has seen 237 percent three-year sales growth by focusing on core competencies: delivering excellent gear, emphasizing customer service, and tending to vendor/supplier relationships. Since founding the company in 2003, Viafore has clearly kept his eye on the mountaintop. So much so that the 2012 INC Magazine 500/5000 rankings listed Mountains Plus at  #64 in retail, #24 in Seattle, and #1,301 overall.

Though there have been temptations along the way to “pivot so much we’d end up going in a circle,” as Viafore puts it, he chose to step back from an extremely successful product line in the economic downturn of 2008 to stay true to the “outdoor gear” of Mountains Plus’s core mission. Car rooftop rack boxes had been selling like crazy, but Viafore recognized that shipping them all over the country was not a smart business decision.

Viafore’s experience in the 1998 Business Plan Competition with “Personal Jukebox” won his team second place. The process, he said, did two things: it “helped round out the rougher edges that younger entrepreneurs have,” and it drilled into his brain that an entrepreneur should “never undercapitalize his business.” What Viafore has loved about the growth of Mountains Plus, which has doubled its number of employees this past year, is the experience of “growing up” alongside a few now-great outdoor gear brands that were also very small and just starting out. “It’s fun to look back and see how much we’ve all contributed to one another’s success along the way,” he says.

Being named to the INC Magazine list (for the second year) certainly is a marketing boon, making Mountains Plus Outdoor Gear more credible in the eyes of its customers, vendors, and competitors. But, as Viafore wryly notes, “It also means my phone rings more often, with very cold calls.” Good thing he has his choice of gear and so many happy customers to keep him warm.

Accelerating first-time start-ups

The start-up process is messy and unpredictable. And student start-ups are certainly no exception. When teams that wow judges and win competitions move to the real world, the sheer enormity of the transition can be overwhelming. Licensing intellectual property, producing a manufacture-ready prototype, lining up customers, raising money—all critical and all daunting. The Foster Accelerator helps early-stage, student-led companies through those decisive first six months.

At  CIE, we believe it’s possible to create a TechStars-like program within a public university environment. True, we can’t pay a modest living wage to the founders. But we do look at the broad range of start-ups—and we don’t take equity.  In the Foster Accelerator, we provide six months of mentoring, a framework for achieving “reasonable but measureable” milestones, much-needed connections, and an incentive—as much as $25,000 in follow-on funding.  May not sound like much, but $25,000 can represent another three months of runway for a young company.

This year there are 10 start-ups in the Foster Accelerator.  There’s everything from consumer products (JoeyBra, Strideline,  MyPartsYard) to cleantech (SuperCritical Technologies, LumiSands, Green Innovation Safety Technologies) to service companies (PatientStream, Urban Harvest) and socially responsible companies (Haiti Babi and Microryza).

Does this work? It does!  In the last two years, we’ve worked with 10 companies—6 of which are still making progress.  Cadence Biomedical, which makes a medical device that helps people with mobility impairments walk, has raised $1.2M and is now selling a commercial product. Wander, formerly YonogPal , morphed from helping Korean students learn English via the web to a cultural exchange mobile app. And they were one of the top three 2011 “stand-outs” in Dave McClure’s 500 Startups. Stockbox Grocers just opened their first store-front location in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, selling fresh food in a “food desert.”

The Foster Accelerator started with a three-year grant of $240,000 from the Herbert B. Jones Foundation to create the Jones Milestone Achievement Awards. Since then, other donors have come on board to provide additional financial support. You can follow this year’s Foster Accelerator teams on the Foster Unplugged Blog. They’ll be writing about their experiences over the next six month.

Challenges drive environmental innovation

Why are “challenges” so crucial in driving innovation?  We asked Connie Bourassa-Shaw, the director of UW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship about this, specifically in relation to the Center’s annual Environmental Innovation Challenge.  Here’s what she had to say:

We launched the Environmental Innovation Challenge in 2009 because we believe that “challenges” drive innovation, and we were looking to engage smart, passionate students in the quest to produce real, market-conscious solutions to environmental problems.  My story at the time was the Solar Car Challenge, which has been going on for the last decade or so. Most people know it. But the point is that we’re still not driving solar cars. That’s what I didn’t want to see. I wanted to see market results with the EIC.

So we narrowed it down to this: Tell me what the environmental problem is, tell me about your solution, show me that it works, tell me about the market opportunity, and demonstrate the potential for impact. Now, what we’re asking students to do is hard. Designing and building a prototype is hard. Getting it to work is even harder.  And we’re not interested in the $5,000 solution to the $500 problem. It’s got to be appropriate technology, especially when you’re looking at technologies targeted for third-world countries.

The Challenge is run by CIE (which is in the Foster School of Business), in partnership with the College of Engineering and the College of the Environment. We want cross-disciplinary teams–from undergrads to PhD students. We start the process with a fall quarter class–the Environmental Innovation Practicum. Those students walk through the process of thinking about and planning for the Challenge, which happens late March or early April. We get $25,000 from the College of Engineering to provide small grants ($500 to $5,000, but generally under $2,000) to teams that need prototype funding. We give all the money away.

This year (2012) GIST won the $10,000 grand prize. Barrels of Hope and Urban Harvest won prizes as well–and both went on to our annual Business Plan Competition, which follows the Challenge. In fact, about half of the EIC teams go on to do the BPC.

What happens is really interesting–students get caught up in the excitement of thinking about making this a real company. Many are very serious.

The EIC is full of great stories, and the “challenge” process itself is the key.

Reaching the milestones of start-up success

When it comes to student start-ups, more seed capital is better than less, motivation is an imperative, but a team of trusted and experienced advisors might be the greatest asset of all. So in an effort to provide more attention and resources for the most promising start-up teams after the UW Business Plan Competition, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship worked with the Herbert B. Jones Foundation to launch the Milestone Achievement Awards.  “We wanted to accelerate some of these start-ups,” says Michael Bauer, president of the Jones Foundation, a long-time supporter of the competition. “So we came up with this idea of a real financial incentive for the teams to set and reach key developmental milestones.”

Serious about starting their companies, five of the winning teams from the 2010 competition have spent the last six months participating in the Jones program. The start-ups worked with CIE staff and a special advisory committee made up of CIE board members and past winners of the Business Plan Competition to draw up a short list of “realistic but measureable” milestones they could reach within that timeframe.  “We’re proud to say four of the five start-ups reached their milestones and will receive awards,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of CIE. “But what’s really stunning about each of these teams is that they all raised angel or grant funding and have made great progress on their prototypes or pilot projects.”

Led by CEO Brian Glaister, EETech is developing a medical device that enables people in wheelchairs to walk again and received a $25,000 award. Another $25,000 went to YongoPal, a service created by Darien Brown, for South Korean university students who want to hone their conversational English with American peers at top US universities. WISErg, with team members Brandon Baker and Jaimee Jewell, developed a solution that uses compostable organic waste to create natural fertilizers and biogas, and received $15,000. Emergent Detection, led by Eric Fogel and Keegan Hall, also received $10,000 in additional seed funding for their handheld device that measures and records fat loss.

“The committee helped us identify what the most important milestones would be for our first six months, in order of priority and contingency,” said WISErg’s Jaimee Jewell. “That helped us keep each of our revenue streams fresh in our minds, but also prioritize what needed to happen to bring them all together.”

“For me, the mentorship was the best part of the program,” said Brian Glaister of EETech. “As a first-time entrepreneur and a first-time CEO, it was really helpful to have an outside view of the company, particularly to put the advice of our internal team and directors into the proper perspective. Even though the program is finished, I expect the relationships with our mentors will continue, which I’m very happy about.”

Members of the Jones committee included Marc Barros of Contour, Bill Bromfield of Fenwick & West, Alan Dishlip of Billing Revolution, Geoff Entress of Voyager Capital, Alan Portugal of Ivus Energy Innovations, Adrian Smith of Ignition, and Michael Bauer, of the Jones Foundation. And the committee had their share of accolades for the teams, noting that it was gratifying to help fellow entrepreneurs start off on the right foot and avoid some of the common pitfalls and “newbie” mistakes. “I got a real kick out of seeing the teams make progress on their first set of milestones,” said Geoff Entress. “I’m already looking forward to next year.”

Photo left to right: Brandon Baker and Jaimee Jewell of WISErg.