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Kara Romanik: And I thought you know what I’m a single mom, I’ve got 3 kids, 50 years old. What's my second act? What am I going to do?
Kristin Livingston: In 2014, Kara Romanik was selling pies out of the back of her SUV. Today, Mamie’s Pies can be found online and in thousands of grocery stores. Romanik has been on QVC 40-plus times. She’s pitching ballparks, airlines, cruise lines, and has sold over a million pocket pies worldwide. How did she make the little pie that could?
KL: I’m Kristin Livingston with Bentley University and this is How I Made It.
KL: Every family has its own legend—or something legendary that’s passed down generation to generation. For Kara Wetzler Romanik, class of 1985, it’s been her mom Mamie’s pie recipe.
KR: My mother has always been known for her Macintosh apple pie, that 9-inch pie that she brought to every family gathering. And um she always taught, she taught me how to make it. We’d be in the kitchen rolling out the crust and I would get all the scraps and I’d spread them with butter and cinnamon sugar and put them in the oven and they’d bake along with the pie. So, it's just something I've done all my life.
KR: Then when my daughter came home from school one day and she said, “Mom, we don’t have enough money for the DJ for the dance. What are we going to do?”, and my, the way I am I’m just well we’ll figure it out let's raise the money it's not a problem, so I baked some of my mother's pies and I said, “Why don't we bring some of Mamie’s pies into class? Have the teacher call me, and I’ll make as many as you guys need.” And the teacher called, and she ordered 120.
KR: Fast forward about 8 months, my daughter was a junior, junior/senior in high school, and I thought you know what I’m a single mom, I’ve got 3 kids, I was 50 years old, what's my second act? What am I going to do? And I just literally jumped into this business. I thought, I've got a great product, and um I’ll design some packaging and I did that, sold my house, cleared out my retirement account, and moved my kids and I into an apartment.
KL: Kara rented commercial kitchen space for 8 hours a week. She picked the brain of the grocery store owner who’d help her freeze pies for the school fundraiser to figure out exactly what it takes to package a product and get it on the shelf, like Universal Product Codes, those barcodes on every piece of food that goes across a checkout scanner.
KR: And I ended up selling my 9-inch, my mother's 9-inch pies out of the back of my SUV and I did that for about a year. Um and about a year and a half in I was doing a tasting demo at a local grocery store and these customers would come up and say, “We love your pie. We had it at the holiday, it was absolutely delicious. But now it’s March and my kids aren't home and it's just my husband and I and we love your pie, but we don’t want a 9-inch pie sitting on our counter. Can you make something smaller?” And for me, I don’t like little pies in a pie tin with lots of crust and not much filling, so I just started to Google shapes and pocket pies and I came up with this idea of doing individual, handheld pocket pies in the shapes of apples, and blueberries, and pumpkins. So, in order to kind of justify it all, if I'm going to scale the business and how I want to grow this, I went to the Fancy Food Show at the Moscone in San Francisco.
KL: For those of you not in the commercial food industry like me, Fancy Food Shows are kind of a big deal. For thousands of dollars, you can rent a space and exhibit your product to big name stores and brands. I like to think of the Westminster Dog Show, but swap the pugs and poodles with fruit and vegetables and meat and olives oils and…pies.
KR: And it’s a huge menu and the booth spaces are 10,000 dollars.
KL: And did you have that?
KR: No, I did not, and so what I did was join this marketing group that would have tables there, four feet by two feet and that’s all I had.
KL: Well you have little pies.
KR: Little pies, little table, perfect! And um, by the end of the show I had QVC, Oprah, Stonewall Kitchen, Williams Sonoma. They were all interested. Large grocery chains. They couldn’t believe—they’ve had never seen anything like this. Went home, knew this was something I had to figure out how to scale and at the same time the kitchen that I was using was closing. So, I thought ok this is it, and at that same time, Oprah’s team called and said we saw these, could you please send them to us we want to taste them. And the next thing you know they said, “We want to make these Oprah's favorite, but you need to be available through e-commerce.”
KL: Yeah you can’t get a pie, and you get a pie, and you get a pie, if they’re not online right?
KR: You got it, you got it. So, I, literally it was perfect timing. I stopped making the pies, I took the next year, built out an ecommerce platform, built out um co-packing facility, and uh found a co-packer to make the pies and we were named Oprah’s favorite in the August ‘17 O Magazine issue. And the next thing on he agenda was QVC.
KL: So, tell me about QVC...
KR: Scary... Scary.
KL: It would be, those bright lights.
KR: It’s um, I’ve always been a talker, but I’ve never in a million years saw myself on QVC ever, on TV. And so I did a training session with them which is what you have to do in order to go on air. And I did the class first and aced it, feeling really good about it. And then you go on set. And it’s not live, but all the cameras are there, you’re with a real QVC host, who by the way are some of the nicest people I've ever met, um and I bombed...
KR: I did, I did. I did not know what to say, even though I know my product and I know my business like the back of my hand, I just couldn’t get it out. You really have to think about who you’re talking to, who your audience is and that you have limited time on air, and you need to get across all the really important points about your product and I flubbed it up. And in the middle of it I said, “Can we start it over?” And they said nope, keep going! And I thought, oh my gosh, they are never going to let me on air. After I got off my 6 minutes, they made me watch it.
KL: That's torture.
KR: It was complete torture. And critique it, and I watched with one eye closed but listened and um they had us do it again I had a different host this time, and I did it! I wasn’t perfect, but I did a lot better. And now I’ve been on over 40 times.
KL: And to watch Kara on QVC you would have no idea that the night before her first taping she was a wreck. She was dreading every moment, considering flying home. She’s a complete natural. She’s this warm person trying to feed you tiny pies. Who wouldn’t want that?
QVC Host: And the pocket pie recipe is special to you.
KR: It is. These are my grandmother’s recipes and my mom’s name is Mamie. And she taught me how to make them. So they’re all classic ingredients. I do not change a thing.
KR: And it gets easier and easier every time. I never, my butterfly never goes away, I kind of like that because it’s so exciting when you see that light go on the camera, that red light, and you’re on air. But when you really think about who you’re talking to…it’s my neighbor, you know, it’s my friend. We’re out back, we’re over the fence, were chatting, we’re just talking about, “Oh, where'd you get that?” “Oh, this is such a great price; go there!” You know, that’s what you’re doing. And we sell a lot of pies. And to date we’ve sold um over a million pocket pies.
Customer 1: I ordered these from QVC, these Mamie’s Pies. And they’re the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. And I cook all the time and I think I’m a good cook, but I think she’s got me beat.
Customer 2: I live in Yonkers, New York. And you don’t have to call me back. I just want to let you people know that it’s the greatest thing that I ever got on QVC and your pies are fantastic. God bless you all. Thank you.
KL: And so after Bentley though, you were in finance...
KR: I was, I majored in economics. I wanted to go right to Merrill Lynch, which is what I did. It took me until I was 50 to kind of put it all together but I needed to listen to my creative voice and give it as much credence as my sales and financial background voice, I really needed a way to put them all together.
KL: Yeah, but you did not have a business plan.
KR: I did not! I didn’t. I didn’t. As I look back, I should have followed my gut a lot more you know growing up but as you get older you get wisdom, you get a little wiser. And so, I followed my gut and I just knew that I was onto something. So, I kind of did things backwards but now I’ve got a great plan and strategy and one thing that I'm learning is you have a great story and there's a million great ideas out there and when you have a great story it doesn’t work unless you get a great strategy around it. Kind of the bottom line is, you have to go into it wanting to build relationships.
KR: So we’re taking our success on QVC and the relationship I've built with those customers, ah it's wonderful. They call me at home, they leave messages for us, um how much they love um, they love the pies; it brings back memories for them. And they’re either bakers or their mother or their grandmother was a baker. So, we built all these great memories and I’m able to take that and talk to the grocery stores about it. But to actually hear a customer on voicemail and it warms my heart to hear their voices and how much they love our pies and what it means to them!
KL: I mean food is so personal, right? It is love. It is relationships. So, this has been a family business from the start, right? You had the kids at the tasting tables.
KR: Oh my gosh, I did. So, we had our first um I think our first year in business was Thanksgiving and it was the day before, so I had my two boys doing a demo together in Mill Valley, I had my daughter in northern part of San Rafael doing one, and I was downtown at that original store that started it all, um housing the pies. So I was at that store and um we were selling them like crazy and I would be leaving the store and I would run to um our kitchen and I would get more pies and load them up in the freezers there and we sold out. So, we were finished, I get into the car, I drive to one store and pick up my daughter, I drive to the other to pick up my sons, and um we’re in the car and they’re just like, “Oh my god, Thanksgiving is tomorrow. I can't wait to finally have a pie. We’ve been working so hard.” And it dawned on me: We had no pies. We had literally sold out everything. So, I...
KL: A blessing and a curse!
KR: It was so, it was so, it was like we wanted this reward of our pies and they weren’t available. So um I told my daughter, here’s um here’s some money. I’m driving to one of the grocery stores where I know there’s a pie left. I said take off your apron and run into the store and she bought one of our own pies. And we have the receipt to this day.
KR: Pumpkin? Of course!
KL: Yeah it’s Thanksgiving!
KR: I love, and I mean the pumpkin with molasses and brown sugar. It’s whipped. It’s delicious.
KL: So, what's next?
KR: Well let's see, so we’ve got the grocery launch that we’re just um really excited about. Then we’ll have our ecommerce platform um set, we’ll have our, our retail grocery and the next frontier is food service. And we see Mamie’s in food service pretty much endless. Um the options are everything from cruise lines to airlines, um major league baseball.
KR: That’s one of my um really exciting things that I can’t wait to do. And you know we all love baseball; um my dogs name is Fenway.
KL: Aw what kind of dog?
KR: English Springer Spaniel. My Fenny. He’s um 12 years old. But um he’s Fenway because I love my Red Sox and I love major league baseball and I love apple pie and no ball parks really carry apple pie because it’s messy, you need a plate and a fork and all that. Well what about a handheld apple pocket pie, crust on the bottom and on the top it’s hand held, shaped like an apple, in a stand-up French fry container? It’s grab and go.
KL: It’s 100% American.
KR: Oh, what's more American than baseball and apple pie?
KR: Nothing. We have a local minor league team called the San Rafael Pacifics here in California and um called the owner, said just what I said baseball and apple pie, he said, “Yeah, let's do it!” And so, I had my kids in the Pacifics’ gear hand out samples, and then I said guys go back up around the 4th inning after they’ve had their hot dog and we sold out every night.
KR: We all know that there are a million good ideas that never see the light of day, right? And I think it's because we have this idea and we see where we want it to go and then we realize there’s a thousand steps in-between and it’s overwhelming. And pretty much people say uh I really can't do that how could I possibly do that. So, my best piece of advice is take two steps—only two. So, once you take those two steps, guess what happens? The next two steps reveal themselves. And that’s how you do it; it’s two steps at a time. Don’t get overwhelmed with it. Um it’s just like having kids, if somebody said when your child was born, ok this is what's going to happen, these are the thousand steps. You’d be like, “Oh my god, how am I going to do this?”
KL: Take this back!
KR: Exactly, but you know it’s just like two steps! And the next two are like oh ok I get that. And that’s what I’ve done all along and as I’ve done that, I’ve been able to create the strategy behind the story.
KR: You know we’ve been in a business a little over five years but we’re still a startup. And that’s a good thing, that’s a really good thing. Um and I love that, one thing that I really, really love is when I started this business, nobody came to me and said, “Here’s a million dollars.” And I think what happens is a lot of times you have great idea, and somebody says, “Oh, I’m going to back you. Here’s a million dollars.” And then you kind of throw things and see what sticks, and you end up wasting money, and you end up wasting time, and I don’t think you really know your business. Starting the way I did, selling my house, really you know, really making decisions strategically, because, if anything, and you’re always going to make wrong decisions, there’s always going to be a hiccup, or a bump but I made them on such a small scale that they were easily fixed. Um so I think that’s a really important thing: know your business, know it from…I know it from making the pie, sheeting the dough, staying in you know ‘til 2 in the morning in the kitchen.
KL: In the trenches.
KR: In the trenches. I mean the stories I could tell you, the kitchen stories. Um doing it that way and knowing your business inside and out and being strategic about the money that you spend and why you spend it… it pays off in spades as you go because you can speak with authority about your business. There’s never a question mark of should I do this? It’s, I’m going to follow this path because it’s been the right way since I started. I think it’s just really important, and all along you know you do a friends and family round, right? You know it's funny, I had friends saying, “Oh I want to invest!” and I’d always say not yet. I have to know exactly what my next step is. I have to have my vision in the short run. I’ve always had a long run vision; I needed my short run, the next two steps and once I got those and then I’ve moved on a little further, it’s like ok now we can do friends and family.
KL: And that’s a key to relationships, right? Security.
KR: It is, it is. Because what’s most important? Yes you want the money to grow, but if it’s a friends and family round, you want to make sure you still have those friends and family. You know?
KL: Speaking of which, what does Mamie think?
KR: My mother.
KL: Marilyn Wetzler was able to see Kara bring Mamie’s Pies to life. But she passed away in January of 2019.
KR: But I’m so happy that she got to see it. And even to the point where me on QVC, the hosts would always say hi to her. “Hi, Mamie!” And my mother would be at home watching. It was, ah, I loved it. I absolutely loved it. So, I have great pictures of her with the pies.
KL: That's fabulous.
KR: Yeah I’m pretty happy about that.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Special thanks to Isabelle Bader, Caroline Cruise, Jenna Floster, Molly McKinnon, Terry Cronin, and Pauline Carpenter without whom this podcast just wouldn’t exist. To hear more episodes go to bentley.edu/howimadeit and to share your story of making it send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. To get your hands on a Mamie’s Pie go to mamiespies.com. We’ll see you next time.
KR: I had a big, huge bowl of, huge. This is a commercial kitchen and these bowls are big and it was pumpkin filling.
KL: How big are we talking, like a small kiddie pool?
KR: A small kiddie pool that I could actually hold in my arms. Um and it was full of pumpkin filling. And I was coming out of the freezer with it and I went flying.
KL: It's like a pumpkin slip and slide.
KR: Oh, it was. It smelled great, though. The whole kitchen was just covered.
Arik Levy: You know I always told myself if I come up with a good idea, I’ll give it a go. And it was the right time, I was like 25 and single and um you know my big problem was I could never get my laundry done.
Kristin Livingston: When Arik Levy founded Laundry Locker in 2005, it wasn’t because he had a burning passion for laundry. Or lockers. He just didn’t have time to dry clean his clothes. How did he build a service empire out of a need for clean shirts? I’m Kristin Livingston with Bentley University and this is How I Made It.
AL: You know I graduated in ’96 so ’92, ’93 was really kind of the dawn of the internet, and you had laptops in your room, and so we played around and got involved in the internet and doing stuff there and we ended up getting an internship at a computer consulting company. And at the time, the owners were like can you figure out how to get us on the internet. And so, uh he found some clients, one client wanted to sell horses online and so this was early days of ecommerce, I mean Amazon was not around.
KL: Yeah, E-Bay not at thing.
AL: None of that stuff, I mean you were dialing up on AOL and you know Netscape browser had just come around and that was kind of the big thing. And so, we started building an e-commerce website where people could buy stuff online and you know that internship and the experience that I learned there along with school was super valuable when I was coming out. You know, when I came out, when I graduated it was just, every company was looking for people that had some internet experience. And uh I was able to get a job in the IMLP program from General Electric.
KL: Arik liked working for GE, but it was a big company and he wanted to feel like he was making a personal difference. He headed to Vermont to work for a former GE colleague. The year was 2000 and the timing, he says, was good.
AL: 2000 was really kind of the peak of the dot com days, and I always wanted to move out to the west coast, I grew up on the east coast, went to school on the east coast, and always wanted to be on the west coast. And so, at the time it was great, you know they were paying relocation bonuses and big salaries and the whole nine to get anybody out to the west coast if they had good internet experience. So that’s what brought me to San Francisco. Um about 6 months later the dot com crash happened and everything just kind of went to hell.
KL: Oh no!
AL: San Francisco today versus San Francisco in 2000, I mean it was a mass exodus; it was crazy. Rents were going down, it was vacancies; it was nothing like you've seen today. Uh it was actually great, I really enjoyed San Francisco during that time.
KL: It was probably affordable.
AL: Yeah it was very affordable, and you could drive around and park everywhere, nothing like it is today. But it was hard to get jobs, I mean everybody was getting laid off. It was crazy.
KL: He worked his way up to VP of Operations at a company in Santa Rosa, but was commuting 2-3 hours a day. It was a lot of time in the road, but also a lot of time in the car to dream up ideas.
AL: You know I always told myself if I come up with a good idea, I’ll give it a go. And it was the right time, I was like 25 and single. You know my big problem was I could never get my laundry done. Imagine I was leaving the house at 6 in the morning and getting home at 7 o’clock at night, and literally like I just had piles of laundry that you know it was the weekends were spent doing laundry and dry cleaning wasn’t even an option even though there was literally a dry cleaner in my apartment building. So I worked out a deal her and was like can I just leave it in front of my door and you’ll come pick it up and put it back, etc. So I came up with this concept, I was like, if I had a locker in my building, this would be great, I could just drop it off in the locker, she’ll pick it up, put it back in the locker and I’ll have my clean clothes. And so I was like that’s a good idea—somebody’s got to be doing that! And so, searched high and low, and you know this was when internet was pervasive it was in everybody’s house now, the um Palm Trio really had come out and that was sort of one of the first devices where you could browse the internet from your cell phone. And so uh that’s how Laundry Locker was born. I came up with this idea and said, that’s a good idea and nobody’s doing it, let me give it a try!
AL: And it really was the perfect timing; I mean San Francisco had really high adoption of internet in people’s homes, um a lot of Palm Trio’s and a lot of mobile devices out there and we really needed that Palm Trio so real time we could check in the orders, when we’re out there in the field, and you know sort of combine that offline presence with the online presence. And in about 3 years grew to become the largest dry cleaner in San Francisco, so really took off.
KL: Did you have an investor, or did you just use your capital?
AL: Uh so I started um with my own money, you know I, I didn’t have much but I…the company I was working with was great, it was a small company, about 20 million dollars, maybe you know 50 employees. And so, I met with the CEO and said listen I’ve got this idea, I want to start my own company. She was super supportive of it, and uh gave me, you know I gave her like 6 months’ notice. And so, in those 6 months from when I decided I wanted to do it to when I launched the company, I literally saved every single penny, just went into hoarder mode, and every dollar you can save, you do. I think I saved up like 25-30 thousand dollars. I got a tax return. I sold my car.
AL: Um and uh you know went all in on this thing. Started, uh I found a supplier down in LA who made lockers, I would rent a rider truck and drive all the way down there, pick it up, fill it up, fill up my apartment with lockers.
KL: How big are these lockers?
AL: A truckload worth of lockers, you couldn’t even move around the apartment it was pretty hysterical. I kind of gave up my entire social life and went all in on this thing and said I got to give it a go. Uh, so yeah it was fun.
KL: And so walk me through it, you were going and picking up lockers in a truck and then just bringing them to locations and installing them, and then that was it? And then programming them in so people knew the locations?
AL: Yeah so you know I’d go pick up a truck load of lockers and a lot of times I would presell the buildings, so I’d go on Craigslist and look for apartments for rent and I’d call those apartments, and hopefully I was talking to the property manager or owner or something like that and I would pitch them on Laundry Locker and say, “Listen, it’s no cost to you can we put these lockers in? It’s a great amenity.”
AL: Uh we would, in the early days we were even sharing some revenue with them and so they said well we’ve got nothing to lose. And this was, you know now amenities and apartment buildings is a much bigger thing than it was back then but even then, it resonated quite a bit. So I’d get a truck load from LA to San Francisco, I had to store them somewhere, then I’d rent a van, and go and place them myself and in the morning I would go and pick up the laundry, bring it to my dry cleaner, they would clean it, uh and in the afternoon they would give it back to me, and I would run around and make the deliveries back to the lockers and then at night I would sit in the apartment buildings talking to everybody that was coming by to try to pitch them on this service. Yeah it was pretty uh pretty roll up your sleeves grassroots at first to get it started.
AL: You had asked earlier about investment, yes so, I had started it with my own money um fairly quickly, about 6 months I ran out of that and so I hit up a couple friends and family, and probably raised another like 50 grand of money.
KL: That’s great!
AL: From them, and on loans, I would say, “Hey, can you just give me a loan? I’ll pay you back one way or another.” You know I always knew that if it didn’t work out, I could go get a job and one day pay them back. And then we raised our first kind of real round, it was about $250,000 um about two years in.
KL: Mm-hmm, and how many lockers were you up to at this point?
AL: Oh boy, we probably had, we had close to a hundred locations at that point.
KL: Wow, yeah.
AL: Yeah so, we were starting to get some traction, buildings were really interested in it, people were starting to use it. I don’t think we were making any money, but um it was definitely starting to grab hold. So that let us get an office space, I wasn’t working out of my apartment anymore, and um you know hire a couple employees, so I had a driver so I didn’t have to drive anymore and I could focus on starting to build the business, um and it was a crazy journey, I would say fun looking back at it, but I don’t think during the time it was super fun, but you know it was hard work, and um just growing it step by step took to build it up something.
AL: Uh, so we had built some pretty powerful software to run Laundry Locker. And there was nothing out there like it. Like I was forced to build the software because nothing existed. And other people had started hearing about Laundry Locker I mean we became fairly well known in the dry-cleaning space because we were kind of the only innovation that had come around in a hundred years. Um and so, you know a lot of dry cleaners, a lot of entrepreneurs were really interested in doing what we did and bringing it to their market, so we looked at franchising, we looked at doing it ourselves, but we realized that the software we had built would enable anybody that had the experience or the wherewithal, um to go do it given the platform to build it. So that’s how Drop Locker was born, and we started licensing that out and that’s how we, we’re in about 75 different markets right now, about 15 different countries, probably like 20 different countries.
AL: Um so, if you see dry lockers in an apartment building for dry cleaning, they’re most likely running our platform. We kind of have some patents on it and really have the dominant share of the marketplace when it comes to locker-based dry cleaning.
AL: It was very well known in the industry, I think it changed the industry, I think that’s what I, you know, have found sort of my calling to be, is using technology in business experience to you know try to change the market. And I love what we did at Laundry Locker, I think it was so inspiring to our employees, it’s inspiring to the entrepreneurs, uh that’s probably one of the more rewarding things is all these folks have built successful businesses based on the same platform that I invented. Um so yeah it makes me proud. It’s fun, um gives me a lot of purpose, and uh you know, really enjoyed it.
KL: Yeah, did you know you were an entrepreneur when you were driving down to LA to pick up some lockers?
AL: Well at that time I did. I mean now I think entrepreneurship is very celebrated and everybody wants to be an entrepreneur, I never really had like this burning desire to be an entrepreneur, I enjoyed my job at General Electric, I loved working at PNI, um I had no problem working for someone and being successful at that. Um but you know I kind of say hey I want to give it a go one time and for me a lot of it was just proving to myself that you know I could do it. Um I think when you’re at a company it’s easy to hide or you have a specific role, whereas when you’re running your own company there’s no hiding, you know you look at the numbers every day and that’s how you did.
KL: You might think Arik had had enough of laundry after founding two companies, but just wait.
AL: So Drop Locker was doing great, that was the software company where we were like I said in 75 different markets, and what would happen is all these entrepreneurs who were out there selling these lockers to apartment buildings or placing these lockers in apartment buildings for dry cleaning, were coming to me and saying, “Arik, like, this is great, you know we’re selling these dry-cleaning lockers, but everybody has this massive package problem and they want to use our lockers for packages. You know they used to get 4 or 5 packages a day and now they’re getting 50 or 100 packages a day and they need a way to manage this, can we use the lockers for that?” So, I ideated and kind of created some lockers for packages. Um and then through that progression, um worked and built this electronic package locker system.
KL: Luxer One was born.
AL: But the challenging part was, how do we come up with the business model? And so I kept struggling with you know who’s going to buy these things, how are we going to pay for it, um and you know we settled on, listen, this is going to save the carriers, the UPS, the FedEx’s a ton of money; we can give them access to apartment buildings that are really hard for them to get into, we can give them guaranteed first delivery; this was something that makes a ton of sense for them, they’re going to want to partner with us. And so I probably spent the first two years really working on that business model and trying to get the carriers to revenue share in essence share in the cost savings with us to get us to deploy lockers. And that’s been successful in other parts of the world, but we couldn’t break through the US, I mean, the carriers are just so massive and trying to get them to embrace a new technology like that was challenging and concurrently at the same there was a couple people who saw a similar market opportunity and had relationships in the space.
KL: Arik decided to sell lockers directly to apartment buildings — with a brilliant ROI. Most of the people who lived in those apartment buildings, worked in other buildings that also had packages piling up near the mailbox. Especially retailers; LuxerOne is now in over 1,000 retail locations. So that’s three, count ‘em, three locker companies in 10 years: Laundry Locker, Drop Locker and Luxer One.
KL: So where are all of these companies now? You said you sold Laundry Locker.
AL: Yeah so, we sold Laundry Locker uh last year to Mulberry’s, who’s you know, now the largest dry cleaner in San Francisco; they were a Minneapolis based company. Um Drop Locker is still around I still have you know a good ownership piece of that. And then Luxer One we sold at the end of last year as well, um to a company called Assa Abloy, out of Sweden; they’re the global leader in access control and door opening solutions.
KL: So how did it feel to kind of let these companies go? You know you had started so scrappy getting this off the ground, how did it feel to naturally just gain employees, let duties go, let responsibility go, sell?
AL: You know they’re different scenarios so Laundry Locker, we sold that really just because we, I couldn’t give it much attention and there was a lot of um uncertainty and primarily around CEO and somebody running the place, and so my biggest fear was if I lose my management there, the company is just going to go under because I can’t give it any resources I have to focus on Luxer One. So getting rid of Laundry Locker was sad because it was sort of my baby and it’s actually the engine that helped us sell Drop Locker because um you know it helped us develop our software; most software companies don’t have a real customer that they own that is implementing their software.
AL: Luxer One we didn't go into the process trying to sell the company. We were trying to raise money; we had grown the company to almost 40 million dollars in about 5 years. And um when we had done that it was profitable, we raised, well not even raised, Laundry Locker put $250,000 into it; we paid that back in six months, so it was a cash flow positive business, growing at warp speeds. And when we landed that big retail client, their payment terms were very different than the way that we had worked with everybody else so it really put some real cash restraints on our company. And so, we went out to try to raise funding and during that process had several companies that were interested in acquiring us as opposed to just giving us money. And so the way I looked at is it if we’re going out there and we’re going to raise venture capital, um you know we’re going to sell 25% of the company for 10 million bucks then we’re going to have to be a 100 million company to be able to sell this thing um at the same rate, where we could have sold it today at 40 million dollars. And so, um you know it worked out really well, we never had any venture capitalists, and it kind of goes back to the beginning right when you talked about how did I start the company, it was loans from my friends and family, some investors I had been with for 15 years, and that was probably the most rewarding piece about selling the company. Um and even raising money from those folks, it was always really scary to take money from my friends and family because I knew A. I personally was on the hook to pay it back to them uh worst case scenario, but I always said to them listen you’re putting this money in — there’s a good chance this isn’t going to turn into anything and they believed in me which was incredible, so for them to be able to get really large checks just completely unexpected um you know was life changing for some of them and definitely the most rewarding piece. That and you know paying out the employees and the people that helped us grow the company to what it was, um was really fantastic, something that I never really expected.
KL: So I was looking at your LinkedIn and someone wrote, “Best. Boss. Ever.”
AL: Really? I hadn't seen that one on my LinkedIn! I’ll have to go check that out, that’s cool.
KL: Yeah, so how’d you get to be like that? I mean when you set out to do this I’m sure you weren’t thinking I’m going to be the CEO one day of all these different companies, and sort of do you have any advice for entrepreneurs or people who are getting up to that level to be successful to be the best boss ever?
AL: Um yeah I mean I’m humbled by that statement. I never really consider myself a great boss. Um I definitely lead by example, so you know I’m not afraid to go roll up my sleeves and install a locker or go deliver laundry. People see the passion, they see um the problems we’re solving, they see entrepreneurship living every day, and I think that’s really inspiring for people. And you know it’s how do you give them the autonomy to go out and succeed, um how do you believe in them, how do you, how do they believe that you believe in them and that you know, you’ve got their best interest in mind.
AL: Um, but I want the people who are around me, my employees and people that are committed to me um to succeed as well. And so now it's around how do I help them kind of do a little bit of what I did, I think that’s sort of what inspires me now.
KL: Best. Boss. Ever.
AL: There ya go, ha-ha.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Special thanks to Isabelle Bader, Caroline Cruise, Jenna Floster, Molly McKinnon, Terry Cronin, and Pauline Carpenter without whom this podcast just wouldn’t exist. To hear more episodes go to bentley.edu/howimadeit and to share your story of making it send us a note at email@example.com. And if you’re in the Bay Area check out laundrylocker.com for dry cleaning on the go. We’ll see you next time.
AL: I’d like to probably not have to work 80 hours a week anymore and back off a little bit. I still like, it’s so ingrained in my mind that you know I’m still at work at 7 am every day and leave at 6 pm, and you know, um still work my butt off, but I’m trying to pear that back a little bit?
Elise Caira: I knew I wanted to do my own thing. I just didn’t know if A. I had the guts to do it and B. exactly what it would be. But I knew I was going to get ready for it regardless.
Kristin Livingston: Elise Caira went from a solid job in finance to fitness franchise owner, turning profit in the first month and rallying her local communities. How did she make the perfect sweat fix? I’m Kristin Livingston with Bentley University and this is How I Made It.
KL: When Elise Caira was a kid in Wakefield, Massachusetts, she grew up as just one of the guys.
EC: I grew up in one of those neighborhoods that’s just full of kids. And it was mostly boys. So, what do little boys do? Most of the time they play a lot of sports. And I wanted to like be one of those little boys playing football or basketball so I wanted to fit right in so I was right there with them. Basketball was definitely my favorite sport. I would spend hours in my basement, we didn’t really have a basketball hoop at that time yet, but I would spend hours in my basement, even in the winter, just dribbling.
KL: Elise isn’t sure if it was growing up with boys or a competitive family, like her older brother who was a big time hometown football player; but while her friends were at the beach, Elise was at basketball camp. She craved the competitiveness — as a team. Everyone pulling their weight, working together for a common goal. And she found that, on the Bentley basketball court.
EC: When you first came into the team and you’re like a freshman and you’re doing preseason workouts your eyes just like light up. When Coach Stevens walks onto a court, she’s a legend. She’s up there with Gino Ariema and all the best coaches of all time. When she walks into the court there’s this energy that you just can’t describe. So it could be the games are awesome but even the practices there was an energy there was a level of expectation that you just knew and felt like you were a part of something. And I felt like when I got to Bentley I was like this is what I’ve been working for, like I found my home with a bunch of people that have a similar mindset, a coaching staff that has a similar determination and focus and discipline; I just felt finally that like I found my spot.
KL: Until she hit her sophomore year.
EC: About three games in, three or four games in, I tore my first ACL. Yeah, not fun for anybody who’s ever torn an ACL, I feel bad for everyone whenever I see it. Um, so I red-shirted, so I was able to stay for a fifth year though and get my Master’s in accounting. Um, along the process I ended up tearing my other ACL. Yup, so that was definitely not fun, but being on that team and also dealing with the hurdles of the injuries, it was a huge learning experience and definitely kind of shaped who I am today and changed the trajectory of where I would have went.
KL: Elise graduated with her MBA from Bentley in 2012. She went from 24/7 basketball to a Big Four, KPMG. After three and half years of digging into all of the numbers, learning how the company ticked, watching Planet Fitness go public, she headed to Vistaprint in Waltham. But less than a year later, she got a text. There was a storefront for rent in her hometown.
EC: I was always I feel like looking for something, like I would work what 60 hours a week at KPMG, but I would still get up at 4:30 and go teach a five a.m. boot camp. So, while I was grinding away at accounting and doing this, I was always having a side hustle. I knew I wanted to do my own thing and I just didn’t know if a. I had the guts to do it and b. exactly what it would be. I knew I loved working with people; I knew I was competitive enough, disciplined enough, hardworking enough to make my own thing work — but would I ever have the chance? I wasn’t sure. But I knew I was going to get ready for it regardless.
KL: Regardless of anything, she had decided: She was going to start a fitness studio.
EC: So I would take any classes I could, I would do all the certifications, I would write business plans, I would call studios across the country, they probably thought I was crazy, I might have been a little bit, and I would just ask them, “Hey, I would love to pick your brain. It looks like your company is doing awesome via Instagram like that’s what I’d see. What worked for you? What was tough for you? Like how did you start this?” And some people were awesome, and they’d pick up the phone and they’d give me a call and give me 30 minutes of their day and they probably thought this girl’s never going to do this but I’m still going to talk to her a couple insights.
EC: I was kind of just waiting. Waiting for the opportunity and if it ever came up maybe I would be able to take a chance on myself. But I wanted to be ready if it ever happened.
KL: Elise had saved enough so that when it was time to hit the ground running, she could do it all on her own, as the sole investor. She made sure she had a safety net of about $10,000 dollars for wear and tear and the usual panic moments of starting a new business.
EC: So I got a text about a space which I helped this woman who had this space that we’re sitting in right now do a boot camp. So she was like not using the space at 5:30 am during the week and I thought that’s crazy, I’ll come and do it. Let’s use the space and I would run bootcamps here. Um, eventually she decided to go another direction um and she texted me one day and she was like, “I’m going to get rid of my personal training studio do you want it?” I looked at my job, I loved Vistaprint; they were great people, but I knew there was something missing. I knew if I sat at that job and something happened, health-wise, which something eventually did, which we can get into in a little bit, I knew I wouldn’t have been happy just settling. So I quit my job and I opened Sweat Fixx in four weeks. So signed a lease, we got into this space, and at four weeks, meaning the logo, the trademark, the website, the insurance, the instructors…the workout. I needed to come up with a workout, um I drove down to Water Rower, I carried a rower out of their headquarters, put it together and put it next to my Christmas tree and started making up workouts. So I got in and then on January 14, we opened the first Sweat Fixx with no investors, no partners. Everyone thought I was crazy, including my parents who thought I was leaving this great career that I went to school for, um for a very oversaturated fitness market, with a workout that nobody has ever seen before.
EC: Soul Cycle, changed the game. Nobody did spin the way that they did. Everyone was used to the old-school spin style, just like everyone’s used to the old-school row style. So when it came down to it, I wanted to open a company that nobody’'s ever seen before. And when I started doing different things on the rowers—obviously we’re not Soul Cycle, they’re amazing. I wanted to switch up the game a little bit. I wanted change what people think when they think of rowing and fitness studios.
KL: Elise and I are sitting in her Wakefield studio, on the floor, between about a dozen water rowers and I ask her, what makes this unique?
EC: So at Sweat Fixx we’re all about low impact, high intensity workouts. I thought I was this in-shape ex-college basketball player and I was humbled. When you row for the first time you are super humbled. It is very tough but at the same time, there’s so many things that I thought we could do with it that people weren’t. And making it into this fun workout that’s accessible for everyone and you put that with strength and you’re onto something.
EC: But this workout…you see somebody’s face light up as soon as they’re done and they’re like “What just happened?” and then you get addicted because you see numbers and you’ll start to like see your goal times and at the same time you’re competing with everyone else in the room or you might be doing a partner drill where you and me are partners and we’re going to try to beat her and her group and it’s just fun.
KL: Franchising was pretty organic for Elise. She’d go for a walk through a downtown area, grab a coffee, go to the brewery, visit other fitness studios, and get a feel for the community. In Arlington, she saw a “For Lease” sign and grabbed the location. It happened again in Southie, in Beverly, and then in Amesbury.
EC: The first week I actually opened this one, somebody came in and asked where the other franchises were and I was laughing to myself and I’m like, “We just came up with this three weeks ago, like, this just came to like came to life!”
KL: Three years in and Sweat Fixx is in five location throughout Massachusetts, with forty-plus employees. Beyond her own capitol and commitment, Elise has also been super collaborative the community.
EC: So, I’m all about raising other females and other business owners up with me. I think a rising tide definitely lifts all ships, um but this market was super saturated; it was super competitive when I came in. Um we came in and we wanted to collaborate with the yoga studios, with spin studios. So we’ll do sweat crawls almost every month where we’ll reach out to a local studio in town and we’ll do a flip flop workout where we all end at a brewery and we all get to hang out. I think that’s another way where we create community and it’s spread because we’re very inclusive.
KL: Another secret to Elise’s success has been monthly Karma Fixx classes, where 100% of the proceeds go to a charity of the month, chosen by a member of the studio. When Elise and I spoke, they had just finished raising money for pancreatic cancer.
EC: So my mom had pancreatic cancer, she got it about 6 years ago and actually survived. So she was 5 years, all her markers were clean, everything was, was completely normal. Um, my mom my entire life had never worked out. So she got up to about 220 pounds at one point. When I opened Sweat Fixx, something changed. She loved Sweat Fixx and I think it was because of the community. So she would come here six days a week, somebody that we couldn’t beg to just walk around the lake was now coming here six days a week, doubling, she was 160 pounds of just muscle. Um, living her best life, as strong as she could, and then one day she got a cold; she didn’t feel that good and within a couple months, um, she passed away.
KL: There’s a big picture of Elise and her mom on the wall of the studio, both looking like total bosses.
EC: You look at that picture and you think she’s worked out forever. She rode 10,000 meters by herself to raise money for breast cancer when we did that one year. Yeah so it’s really cool and something that definitely something that means a lot to me and we’re definitely going to keep doing.
KL: Karma Fixx has also raised money for Polycystic Kidney Disease, which Elise has. Right now, Elise, the picture of health, the face of a fitness studio, has kidneys double the size of yours and mine. They’re filled with cysts and, as of now, PKD is incurable.
EC: So they just keep getting bigger and bigger to the size of footballs and you lose function in them. So a little over a year and a half ago, I have a hernia, I still do, and I went into the doctor’s, to just — they do a CAT scan they want to just check out the hernia. And I remember being on the treadmill when I got that phone call, um she said, “Yup, you have a hernia.” I’m like I know. She’s like, “But we found something else.” And that’s that, “found something else” moment where you just like, everything gets drained from your body. Um I remember just, I think I started crying before she even said what it was because you just are like, “Oh god, what did they find?” um and my dad actually had it so as soon as she said, “There’s cysts all over your kidneys,” I knew exactly what it was.
EC: It took me a year to process and even tell anybody. Like my family, other than my dad and my mom didn’t know. My grandparents didn’t know, my cousins didn’t know, um a couple people at Sweat Fixx knew but I didn’t want to be seen as this like wounded person that needed help and I wanted to just keep moving forward, and like, I felt great and I was passionate but that’s what I meant about when I was sitting at my desk, if I found out that something happened, um would I be happy sitting there at Vista Print? And the answer was definitely no. But that fact that I had this and I had this community, I taught that same day that I found out, and I walked into the studio and surrounded by all these people, they had no idea what I just found out, but just their energy, I was like: Thank god I took a chance on myself.
KL: Now, Sweat Fixx raises money for PKD every year. Elise’s dad had his kidney transplant years ago. And Elise has some advice for anyone out there who’s out there idling, waiting to take a chance on themselves.
EC: And I think a lot of people wait for that like red carpet moment, where everything is going to be perfect, where their money amount’s going to be perfect, the business plan is going to be perfect, the pot is going to be perfect, the relationship is perfect, but that’s never going to happen, so everyone is waiting for that “Now's the time, here's the light like I should do it.” But it's never going to happen like that, so I always tell people to start now. Start researching now, start going out taking classes now, no matter what field it is, it doesn’t have to be fitness, start doing your research, start networking, start putting your business plan together because what if you get a text one day and it’s, they want to know in a week if you’re going to do this, now you're going to do all your research in a week? So, I tell people definitely to start now and then just take a chance. Be confident in yourself, as much as you are for other people.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Special thanks to Isabelle Bader, Caroline Cruise, Jenna Floster, Molly McKinnon, and Terry Cronin without whom this podcast wouldn’t exist. To hear more episodes, visit bentley.edu/howimadeit. And to share your story of making it, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. To meet Elise and hit up a class, visit sweatfixx.com. We’ll see you next time.
EC: When I can watch TV because I’m kind of busy, but when I watch TV I do have like the guilty pleasure of like The Challenge on MTV. I think I actually sent in a video to Survivor. I like would love to be on one of those so yeah, one day.
Pauline Han: You know there are lots of other brands out there but they don’t bring the same emotion that often comes when you say you work for the Walt Disney Company.
Kristin Livingston: The next time you go shopping for a stuffed Olaf, a Captain America costume, or a pair of Princess Leia hair buns, think of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Walt Disney Company workers around the world who are behind these products. Pauline Han manages a heck of a lot of them — and the last time you were in Disney World or Disney Land, she probably had a hand in getting those Mickey ears on your head. What does it take for a corporate giant like Disney to get thousands of safe products on the shelf every day? I’m Kristin Livingston with Bentley University and this is How I Made It.
KL: So full disclosure, I am a Disney nut. When in Disney, and I am at one of the parks worldwide at some point every season, I often have to stop and ask myself, do you need more Disney art? How much art is too much Disney art? There’s never too much Disney art. But, needless to say, I’m excited for this interview. So, let’s get going.
KL: 25 years ago, Pauline Callender Han, Class of 1991, visited California with her Bentley boyfriend. She was only a few years out of college and working for PwC in Boston.
PH: And uh long story short but I happened to land an interview at Disney while I was on this vacation and I thought I’ll never have the chance to interview at Disney again. So, I took the interview for fun and for practice. Because at that point I had been at the firm for four years. And I knew that as I got promoted to manager which was expected in the next promotion cycle, that I’d be expected to sell services and I don’t like selling things even in high school for the trips I hated selling the chocolates and all that stuff. Well um I was shocked that I landed the job, and since then I've always said the best time to get a job is when you're not trying to get a job. And so after consulting with my mother she encouraged me to take the job. 24 years later I’m still here!
KL: So, good move.
PH: Good move but about 15 years into it she asked me when I was coming home.
KL: I was going to say I don’t think you're going back now.
KL: And so, like walk us through those 24 years, coming from east coast, I'm sure that was also just a transition coming to the west coast, not to mention the career!
PH: Yeah no really it was, it's funny you bring that up because I remember thinking back to the interview because I flew out for vacation so I didn’t have any interview clothes so I had to go to the mall. And I had a really difficult time buying clothes because coming with my east coast sensibilities I wanted a skirt that went below the knees, I’m trying to find closed toe shoes. And it was very different in California, uh so yes it was definitely an adjustment coming out here.
KL: Pauline started in consumer products and worked her way up, setting up warehouse procedures to merchandize inventory at, of all places, Dodger stadium.
PH: Because at that time Disney handled the merchandise licensing for the Dodgers.
KL: Oh that’s interesting.
PH: I know, pretty cool. Um I also did accounts receivable reconciliations for Walt Disney records. I also did a financial statement audit for the Disney store in London. And uh we helped to reengineer the financial close consolidation process for the international regions. So, all of this work led to a supervisor position with that international consolidations team. And then that led me to backfilling an open manager role within our Latin America region and it was intended to be a five-week project but near the end of that project uh the CFO asked me to take on the role um on a full-time basis. And so, a few weeks later here I am living on Miami Beach! So, working in an international office gave me a lot of exposure early in my career. It was definitely a role up your sleeves job. Um even though I was based in Miami I did a lot of travel throughout Latin America.
KL: Eventually, she headed back to LA to work in the studio segment of Disney, doing accounting and finances for their international and domestic film distribution and the Broadway side of the company, like the stage productions of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
PH: So, while in these positions um I helped implement our SAP implementation at the company which was massive for us um because we went from disparate general ledger systems down to just one general ledger system around the globe for the whole company and also got to implement Sarbanes Oxley at the company.
KL: For those of you not in accounting, like me, SAP is an accounting software and Sarbanes Oxley is a Congressional Compliance Act from 2002 that protects shareholders and the public from fraud and accounting errors.
KL: But after these initiatives and years working on the studio side, Pauline headed back to her roots in consumer products.
PH: And then over two years ago I leveraged the solid skills that I had built at the company along with those I obtained while getting my MBA and I moved into a position that manages compliance with our various programs impacting our supply chain. So that’s the position I have now. So, I lead a team of over 160 people that help ensure Disney branded merchandise is manufactured responsibly and is safe for our consumers.
KL: Which is a lot. That’s a big job.
PH: Thank you.
KL: I mean it’s summed up very neatly on LinkedIn but you know when you think of Disney you think of Mickey Mouse you don’t think of the thousands of people behind him and the company name that are touching all of the products that we see in the stores, all of the things you just talked about.
PH: So my team monitors the 40,000 facilities that are creating Disney product uh in over 100 countries. Um we monitor those facilities for compliance with our policies and standards relating to the working conditions in those facilities. So that’s ensuring that when you buy a Disney product, you know that it's made in a facility that you know doesn’t have child labor, is paying equitable or fair wages in accordance with the local laws, uh safe working conditions for the employees in the factories, that type of stuff so that’s the compliance program. And as it relates to product safety, my team reviews hundreds of thousands of products annually for compliance with regulatory standards and our own Disney standards for wherever those products are being distributed.
KL: Yeah, which are high! I mean, so you feel good going to the happiest place on earth for vacation, you want to feel happy knowing that if you're going to buy a t-shirt, you’re going to buy something, it's as happy as that place that you’re in.
PH: Yeah exactly. And this really goes into that brand affinity. It makes me proud to know that the company really finds value in this and stands by it with such a large team that we have um to ensure this. So, this is something that’s important to us that we want you know our consumers to feel good buying from the Walt Disney Company.
KL: Good 360. So, when most people think accounting, they might not think of it as a quote unquote ‘fun’ job. So, what's fun about your job?
PH: Yeah, well I have to say I might be, it might be a rarity but I’m one of the people who really enjoyed public accounting.
KL: Not at Bentley, I don’t think that’s a rarity.
PH: Oh good, good. Yeah no I really enjoyed public accounting and I think what made it successful for me was that um I really was in charge of you know making sure I found jobs that I really liked and being on those audits. So, as people were leaving the company, it’s like, “Oh, you're leaving. What are the audits that you work on?” So, it’s just something I just got myself into. Um but coming back to the job and what's fun, I think it's really cool to say your work for Disney and the smile that appears on people’s faces when you say that it’s really that brand recognition and the reputation that the company has. You know there are lots of other brands out there, but they don’t bring the same emotion um that often comes when you say you work for the Walt Disney Company. Um so that is something that makes it really fun to work with the company; often most people have some sort of positive association with the company.
KL: You mean like right now where I'm grinning throughout our whole interview because I love Disney.
PH: Yes, as well as our little pre-chat when we talked about um...
KL: And our post-chat that will come up when we talk about vacation.
PH: Yes, exactly ha-ha.
KL: What are you most proud of?
PH: When you take the 24 years in totality, I'd say I'm most proud of the people that I work with. It makes me proud to see former team members progress in their careers at the company and I'm also grateful for those international business trips I've had, and there have been many of them. But it really helps to broaden your perspective and I think that, in turn, has played into my you know leadership skills and just the way I get my work done and how I interact with others.
KL: Yeah, what kind of leader are you?
PH: Ah, that's a good question, uh probably one you should ask my team! I think I would say I'm the type of leader…I really don’t want to just tell people what to do but I want to take them on a journey that helps them decide what to do. Uh and this helps me to develop great leaders and it also gives me just great joy um in just the work that I do every day right. Um I’d say my other leadership style is I like to have fun at work and for the most part this is a fun place to work.
KL: It’s Disney!
PH: Right, it’s Disney! And so I like to connect with people; you know we spend so many hours a day at work. So, I just like to make sure we have a positive, enjoyable work environment. And so we work hard, and we play hard.
KL: Yeah, as you can see when you look around the office there are nice big portraits of all the characters and beautiful scenes from all the movies so it's a good reminder.
PH: Yes but it's also just taking time out to recognize um our accomplishments, right, so we look back on what we’ve done, we set our goals for what we want to do, what we want to accomplish um and you know just taking some time out to have meaningful um experiences that we can get together as a group and develop some of those memories and to allow people, maybe team members who don’t typically interact with each other, uh to you know have those experiences so that they're building their relationships and the next time they're in the kitchen they now have something to spark a conversation on.
KL: So what’s been one of your greatest successes?
PH: Going back to school, full-time, to get my MBA while I was in an executive position with a spouse and a 21-month-old baby was no small feat.
KL: No, not at all.
PH: Uh so in the first month of school, Disney announced the acquisition of Lucasfilm so I really had my work cut out for me because here I am a new student again and it had been a lot of years since I had gotten my undergrad, um and now I had this major acquisition to work on. But I had a great boss, fantastic staff who I could stretch and I knew my position really well uh so I was able to graduate within the two years of the executive MBA program and we didn't miss a beat with any of our integration work with Lucasfilm. So that is really a proud moment for me, and it’s actually one that I’m often questioned about when I'm speaking with people for mentorship, or other types of conversations people just ask me how do I juggle, how do I balance everything, particularly going back to school and getting an MBA.
KL: And I think a lot of women, you know, they question should I be a mom full-time? But then if I go back, I'm so far behind. So it is, it often becomes a choice, right?
PH: For me, at that moment it was a now or never situation. So, at that point it had been a lot of years since I had graduated from Bentley and I had been a vice president for um a number of years, but I wanted to supplement my career. I knew I would be competing with other people who did have an MBA on their resume, and I felt I really needed to go back. Hindsight being 2020, if I had known then how much work it was going to be, I’m not sure I would have done it.
KL: But that’s what hindsight’s for, right?
KL: What's been your favorite Disney product?
PH: Um you know I've seen a lot of merchandise over the years, um and as a parent of two children I feel like I have a lot of stuff at home and I don’t like seeing a lot of stuff so I will say that my favorite Disney product is the Disney cruise line. We love the Disney cruise!
KL: Good choice! That’s a big product! I was thinking you know your little Winnie the Pooh love when you were little if there was like a record or something.
PH: Yeah and maybe that goes with um today, as I've read articles and whatnot, that people tend to value experiences more than things. Um and I really do just love the whole experience that comes with the Disney cruise.
KL: I've never been on a Disney cruise. I got to get on that.
PH: Well, you must go.
KL: Yeah, you know that’s going to the top of the list.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Special thanks to Isabelle Bader, Caroline Cruise, Jenna Floster, Molly McKinnon, Terry Cronin, and Pauline Carpenter without whom this podcast wouldn’t exist. To hear more episodes, visit bentley.edu/howimadeit. And to share your story of making it, send us a note at email@example.com. We’ll see you next time.
PH: My favorite Disney character is Sebastien and reason why is I just loved his Caribbean voice and my family is um, my grandparents are from Barbados and so just being, um you know the Caribbean influence, I just love that character.
Mike Mangini: For me that was actually the wildest ride of my career even to date, um having experienced massive highs, massive lows, and everything in between all in the span of a single day.
Kristin Livingston: Mike Mangini’s is a classic entrepreneur’s story: Making it, losing it, and making it back again in more ways than one. But what I want to know is…how? I’m Kristin Livingston with Bentley University and this is How I Made It.
MM: As a young kid I used to um always read the Wall Street Journal and I was always into stocks and an uncle of mine used to always tell me about, uh he used to trade “Yoohoo” during the late 90s. Turns out it was Yahoo. He didn’t know the name of the company, but he knew that the price was flying at the time and he used to talk about it with me and uh and so uh I was hooked from a young age.
KL: Bentley and the trading room were a natural fit for Mike. After graduating in 2001, he went into finance.
MM: Started out as a financial advisor with American Express, um had a wonderful time doing that, um wonderful by the course of 9 months.
KL: Very wonderful.
MM: Ha-ha yeah, um I had an insatiable itch that I just kind of needed to scratch um and it was, it kind of brought together the two loves of my life, sports and markets, and um and so I left my job and I started a company.
MM: So, the National Sports Exchange, in the conception of the idea was to create a marketplace where you could trade equity and professional athletes.
KL: So you're talking fantasy sports, like if I love Tom Brady and I want him to win, or lose, I’m not on either side...
KL: Ok ha-ha so I would put um what would I put into him, is it fake money quote unquote?
MM: So, the idea was really centered around the concept of a value of a baseball card. Ultimately a baseball card is just a piece of cardboard and it's got a picture on it, some stats on the back, and it has a certain number of them that are issued. And so ultimately that as we know now for those who collected baseball cards a long time ago, most of them are now worthless but at the time there was supply and demand and the factors that weighted into that supply and demand gave that thing a value. And so, for me I wanted to digitize that in a way and create an exchange where you could trade fictitious equity and professional athletes and equitize that with real money. Um and so there was kind of an element of gambling, there was an element of markets, there was an element of fantasy sports.
KL: All in one marketplace: the National Sports Exchange. Users could trade in football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
MM: I left my job, didn’t know the first thing of how to create a company. Uh and so my father and I would um sit down at his kitchen table and kind of hash through a business plan. Um we raised about $150,000 from friends and family.
MM: Um and that money carried us through two years actually, me and four uh guys, um carried us through two years of development; ultimately it wound up being a success.
KL: But raising capital, without ever having done so before, proved tough for Mike and his partners. He moved home and met a friend of a Bentley friend, a guy whose magnetism he just couldn’t get out of his head. Jed Leslie.
MM: The moment I met him I knew instantaneously that this was the guy I wanted to build uh this company with and um and low and behold um the adage of great people know great people…uh within a week we had two other folks that um that Jed had known. Um so it was Jed, Taisto, Kaya, and myself. And so the four of us were the founders of the National Sports Exchange.
KL: And so you, it did well and it eventually sold.
MM: It’s kind of the classic story of a startup where you start with this thing and there’s an enormous amount of energy and you can’t fail, you're building this thing and every single day is a new high and a new low uh all wrapped into one. We lived together, we worked together, we partied together, we did everything 24/7 this group of people was together and um for me that was actually the wildest ride of my career even to date, um having experienced massive highs, massive lows, and everything in between all in the span of a single day.
KL: That’s stressful.
MM: Starting a company is not for the faint of heart.
KL: Classic clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. Almost. It turns out, they were making what the market wanted. Again, almost. So they went through three iterations of NSE, hosting their platform on a little local machine and building tech very quickly, well above their pay grade, in a vacuum.
MM: And ultimately what we learned from that is you have to listen to your customer.
KL: Mhm and what was the customer saying?
MM: The customer said to us that uh we built something that was really awesome but for a very small audience, so we learned the hard way that even though this thing was very cool, and uh a lot of people thought it was very cool, um the people that thought it was very cool were not large enough to command massive amounts of uh capital inflows and capital outflows.
KL: Sports agent Jeff Moorad heard about the National Sports Exchange and got in touch with Mike. He had the connections they needed to get NSE into the industry and together they sold the company to ProTrade Sports, which was then acquired by Yahoo! Or, Yoohoo, as Mike’s uncle would say.
KL: Mike says the idea of selling shares of professional athletes has been tried a few times, but it’s difficult to execute, for legal reasons. Blockchain, the pioneer of cryptocurrency, may unlock some of those capabilities. But after NSE, Mike wanted to get the band back together again. He couldn’t get a certain risky investor out of his head: George Soros.
MM: George Soros was really famous for um, this one massive trade that he made. Um the British Pound uh had a massive dislocation, he predicted it, he made tons of money and he wrote a lot about this.
KL: George Soros is known as "The Man Who Broke the Bank of England" for selling short $10 billion dollars-worth of British pounds sterling during the Black Wednesday UK currency crisis of 1992. It’s estimated that the gamble made him $1 billion in a day.
KL: So, how do you sell short on the currency market? Say, I want to trade Indian rupees for US dollars, and one dollar is worth 50 rupees. I borrow 50 rupees today to buy one dollar. But tomorrow, one dollar is worth 100 rupees. I sell my dollar for 100 rupees, return the 50 I borrowed, and keep the rest (minus all those fun administrative fees). Times that by 10 billion, trade rupees for pounds, go back in time to 1992 with the forethought of George Soros and you, too, can break the Bank of England. (Thank you, Wikipedia, for the financial lesson.)
MM: What ultimately came of this, was I just started reading crazy amounts of, spending a lot of time reading about the currency markets, and uh and so I had this wild idea to get the band back together, and I worked with some of the cofounders of National Sports Exchange to help to build uh an automated trading platform that enabled me to um get in and out of the currency markets thousands of times a day. Uh so you know picking up nickels in front of a steam roller ultimately, we learned the hard way that we got steam rolled, uh which we’ll get to in a moment, but we identified a really interesting opportunity to take advantage of slight arbitrage and do so at a very rapid pace and these algorithms that we built were beautiful and they worked extraordinarily well until they didn’t.
KL: Yeah, it's giving me Office Space flashback; we’re just going to take a teeny tenth of a penny off the top.
MM: That’s right no one will notice.
KL: No one will notice, why do we have 5 million dollars in our ATM account, yeah. So you took your eye of off it for a split second?
MM: You know, um that would be one way to look at it. In fact, what uh what I learned was risk management is uh even more important, it's as or even more important than the trading algorithm of buying and selling itself. Um and so for all of the Bentley future traders out there, I would highly recommend you pay very close attention to risk management as you're building out your models. Uh and so for me, uh being a bit of a trading cowboy of sorts, risk management was not something that I paid much attention to because I always saw that our models uh always got back. And so even when we were losing a lot, we would always make it back. And so, uh we were trading this, and we were trading this live. We were doing extraordinarily well. Hundreds of percents of return on our invested capital. Um and so there was a moment where I thought I was 27 years old I thought I was going to be retired by 30 and buy an island and I was going to be rich.
KL: Yeah, we would be there now!
MM: Yeah exactly, this podcast would be on my island.
KL: Mike’s island.
MM: Perhaps next time. Um but the um and so what ultimately wound up happening was there was a major dislocation in the markets as everyone is now aware, the mortgage crisis hit, and prices went haywire. Um when Lehman failed, uh and then all these other things started to matriculate in the market, over a very short period of time the US dollar dislocated massively from every other currency. And so for us our algos were trading super, super fast during this time and ultimately that, that almost killed us — not literally, but in our bank account sense.
KL: Yeah nothing that you could have predicted at all, unless you had watched the big short 15 years later.
MM: In hindsight, yeah.
KL: Yeah in hindsight 10 years later. Yeah, and so from there though, now you have built this career of recruitment and sort of building up startups and doing it from the other side.
MM: Yeah, so after this epic fail, it was, I was about two weeks away from getting married.
MM: And so, um so Robin, um I love you. She um she always had my back. This was sort of one of those moments in time where like you take a deep breath, you're going to dust yourself off, you're going to get back up, you're going to do something else. It's going to happen; you just know it. So go off get married, do this thing, come back and very shortly thereafter I had an opportunity to meet a gentleman by the name of Chris Farmer. Um Chris is the founder of SignalFire, it’s the firm that I currently work at. Um and Chris and I met at a diner in South Boston and over eggs we talked about this model that he was trying to build for venture capital where the idea would be building a platform of sorts, a data platform which enabled you to make all sorts of really smart decisions without having to use human inputs, um a service model where once you invested your money into entrepreneurs you’re able to help and support them in ways that were not consistent with what a lot of other venture firms say they would do. Um so the things that we said we were going to do we were actually able to do, this was for recruitment, this was for business development, this was for data science and algorithm development, all sorts of different things and my mind just exploded when I met this guy uh. And so uh after that breakfast I walked from South Boston back to Cambridge. Um, long walk.
MM: Um I took a long walk and I just thought and thought and thought. And I was like wow I don’t even know like what just happened to me, but I just met someone who struck me as this brilliant individual who will stop at nothing to see this thing to fruition and it was instantaneous. And I saw it in him and um you know 10 years later here we are.
KL: Mike is currently the head of talent for Signalfire, an investor that provides seed money, supports acceleration and scale for startups, and, in Mike’s case, scouts out people like Chris Farmer. Brilliant, magnetic individuals with a vision. Mike then recruits key executives and teams to support these CEOs and company heads. And it isn’t always easy. They can run from an Elon Musk (Mike’s current favorite entrepreneur) to a Lord Voldemort. When I asked Mike about an ideal CEO, one others should emulate, he told me about Mark Lore who started jet.com, an e-commerce company.
MM: I got to know Mark in the development of Jet uh when it was basically just a sketch on a napkin. And um I think most people know the story of that company they went on to sell to Walmart after a couple of years for an enormous sum of money and now that team essentially runs Walmart’s e-commerce business. Mark’s one of those guys that has all the things: extraordinary vision, palpable magnetism, amazing clarity of thought, the ability to distill complex ideas down into something very simple and bite-sized, um the ability to uh convince people to take major pay cuts to come and work for that mission.
KL: And say you have all of those ingredients, what happens though, do you see companies with those ingredients fail, still?
MM: Yeah, you know Pets.com for example, right? Um I mean those ideas today are worth billions of dollars, but the market wasn’t ready for it back in 1999; the infrastructure wasn’t there. Um you know a recent example of this would be Chewy, where they sell pet food and deliver it to your home. Well that’s a $9B company right now. People were doing this back in 1999, the problem was the infrastructure wasn’t there, the supply chain, the logistics, all of that stuff has now taken a 20-year maturation cycle and you can optimize things with data, you can figure out where to put your warehouses, like the model has shifted, the market has shifted, and so it enables those things to become uh successful businesses. So sometimes it's not about the idea, it's not about the team, it's about right place, right time, and so there is an element of luck.
KL: It’s luck and sort of what’s trending. And what have you seen trend?
MM: So there’s a lot of things that are trending right now. I would say that um one of the industries that is probably the most ripe for major disruption is um, is fintech.
MM: The financial technology space is ripe for major disruption because big banks uh kind of lost their way. If you think about a lot of dynamics that are at play in the financial industry, you’re looking at massive amounts of power that are consolidated into a very small uh cohort of people. And the technology industry doesn’t like that. Uh the technology industry sees an opportunity, they see that with mobile phones, with, with digital payments, with digital currency, with algorithms that can help to prescribe a specific method for you to get yourself out of debt or for you to budget for a certain thing. Um these are the kind of things that are coming online now. You know takes a bank years to develop a single mobile product. It takes a startup a week. And so the ability to move very fast and to leverage cutting edge technologies, to understand an emerging market, so the millennial market for example is very different from the Gen X market is very different from the boomer market. Every market tends to, or I should say generation is different in the mindset that they approach spending with and saving. I think that the financial industry right now is um is in a tough position because everyone has kind of got their eyes on them.
KL: After hearing about all the ups and downs of his startups, I asked Mike: Would you ever want to start something from scratch again?
MM: I feel like I have this amazing job right now that allows me to um be both an entrepreneur and sort of a person that collects a regular paycheck. Um and I have the best of both worlds. At some point in the future I do feel like the itch will need to be scratched again, um and I don’t know if that is something as simple as like starting a coffee shop and just like serving a really good cup of coffee to somebody and having that experience be the thing that I connect to, uh or if I start another technology company I don’t know. Um but the things that I learned the first time around, uh that I would highly encourage our Bentley community to pay very close attention to is knowing who you are and knowing what you’re not. Uh I think those are really important things to recognize because for me what I learned that I wasn’t was I am not a technologist, I'm not an engineer, I'm not somebody that’s going to build a product from 0 to 1. And that was a lesson that was very difficult to learn earlier in my career and so figuring out what it is that makes you special and really doubling down on that is some of the best advice I can give anybody.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Special thanks to Isabelle Bader, Caroline Cruise, Jenna Floster, Molly McKinnon, Terry Cronin, and Pauline Carpenter without whom this podcast wouldn’t exist. To hear more episodes, visit bentley.edu/howimadeit. And to share your story of making it, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll see you next time.
KL: Oh, one last thing I forgot to mention, Mike once worked for one of the most famous CEOs of our time: Mark Zuckerberg.
KL: Did you need a secret handshake to get into every meeting?
MM: No you did need a badge that got you in the door though.
KL: Had to change your profile picture every time, update your status.
MM: That’s right.
Kim Harrington: And the first time I saw it on the shelf I cried, because it had been a long time coming, um for that little girl who wanted to be a writer and that very different winding path I took to that moment.
Kristin Livingston: Kim Harrington has done what countless others only dream of: Become a successful author. How did she make it from the slush pile to commercial bookshelves? I’m Kristin Livingston with Bentley University and this is How I Made It.
KL: Talking to Kim is like talking to an old friend for me, because we’re both writers. We both have bottom drawer books we know will never get published, as much as we love them, and we both grew up wanting to write.
KH: When I was in high school, I always wanted to be a writer, um starting very, very young. Um but in high school when like things are starting to get real, you know, I started to waver on the whole writer thing because you know there's this idea of the starving artist and, you know, my dad has been laid off a couple times and that had affected me and I was really, really for a young person, very worried about money all the time. And so, I went to one of those career fairs and I went up to this booth for like accounting and um the guy just had one question. He said, “Do you ski?” and I said, “No?” and he goes, “Alright you can be an accountant.” Because apparently you know you’re going to miss ski season because that’s tax season you know? And I said, “Yeah. No, I don’t ski!” and he was like, “Alright, great.” And so, I go to Bentley as an accounting major.
KL: It didn’t stick. Kim ended up graduating with a Marketing degree in 1996. She married her Bentley sweetheart, worked part-time in corporate marketing, and when their son went off to kindergarten, she hit the blank page. No expectations.
KH: And I'm like you know what I'll just write and you know nothing has to come from it, I’m not going to tell anyone about it, no pressure. And so, I wrote a book and I was happy because that told me at least I could finish one. It was horrible, and 100 agents agreed with that assessment, but I proved to myself that I had the endurance — I could finish a book. So now I just have to get better at my craft. And so you know, I worked hard, I wrote a second book, which was like half-crap? But um a big improvement over the first. And then my third book I felt like this is really good and I did score an agent with my third book. But then I learned the lesson of publishing that just because you have a literary agent that doesn’t mean a publishing house is going to give you a contract.
KL: The third book didn’t sell. Into the bottom drawer it went. Kim wondered if she should quit. Focus on something else.
KH: Um but then you know I thought you know a year ago I would have killed to be in the position I am now which is with an agent so it’s like just write one more, you know. And so that book was Clarity, which was, even though it’s my fourth book that I wrote, it's my first book that I sold and that got me a two-book deal with Scholastic.
KL: So tell me about Clarity. Where did Clarity come from?
KH: Oh gosh that was so long ago, that was 11 books ago. Um so it takes place on the Cape, and it's this um kind of funny family of psychics who do readings for tourists on the cape and they get pulled into a murder investigation. So I was really influenced by my dad who grew up in Hyannis and all the stories I’d heard from him growing up about this dichotomy of meeting the tourists but also hating the tourists. And you know and I thought like that could be like a really fun setting especially for like this family business or whatever. And so, at this point in time, the book came out in 2011 which is when um paranormal YA was you know at its peak or whatever.
KH: Yes, yeah so this was a couple years after that and it was a little bit of a twist and the reason I thought it would do really well is you know it wasn’t the YA Paranormal with um vampires and werewolves and stuff like that but it still had you know because I really loved writing thrillers and murder mysteries, but this just had like a tinge of the paranormal to it with the whole psychic thing. But I thought it was really fun; it got optioned by Warner Brothers for a short time which was great, I got to read a script, which was hilarious. It was optioned for television. It was really weird, one of the strangest parts of that whole journey was reading that script because these are like characters that I created but like doing things I didn’t have them do. I suppose it’s probably similar to reading fan fiction because it's just sort of like “Wow!” it’s just so cool, just so cool. But it ended up not um getting made, but that as a cool process to be a part of.
KL: Kim was discovered through the slush pile, the mountain of queries and manuscripts from hopeful writers that sits on every agent or editors’ desk — or in their inbox. Each entry usually consists of the query letter, which is basically the elevator pitch for the book and, if the agent is magnanimous with their time, the first chapter.
KH: Yeah so everything was from slush; I knew no one. I was actually at jury duty um, when I got the call that um, one of the agents that I had sent the book to wanted to represent me and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can't jump up and down and scream because I'm at Jury Duty right now!” When I’m listening to this voicemail. But so that was you know very exciting.
KL: Kim was almost there. She had the ring. She could see Mordor. But there was still a Gollum to face: Getting Clarity on press.
KH: Oh gosh, the original title of Clarity was awful, awful. And I don’t know what I was thinking but it’s a line from the first chapter. Um you know when the main character is talking about this strange life she lives or whatever and she ends the chapter with “Welcome to the freak show.” So that was the title of the book, Welcome to the Freak Show, but this was of course the point of time when you know all the top titles in YA were one word like Twilight, you know. And so publisher’s like “Yeah we want to buy this. Now about the title...” Um and the first time I saw it on the shelf I cried, because it had been a long time coming, um for that little girl who wanted to be a writer and that very different winding path I took to that moment.
KL: Fast forward almost a decade and Kim’s the author of eleven books. Two series for kids: Sleuth or Dare and the Gamer Squad series. For teens there’s Clarity, Perception, The Dead and Buried, Forget Me, and Revenge of the Red Club, which was released in October. When Kim came in for this interview, she brought a stack of her books to show us. Some were released abroad with different covers and even different titles. One totally freaked me out. The American cover was of a girl in a mysterious setting and I think it was the German cover was a clown face. Think: American Horror Story, the one in the circus. And as much as I have to say about that, Kim has no say in things like cover art for her books.
KH: I’m not a graphic designer, you know I’m just a writer so it’s like they have access to sales data, trends, they know like what's working, what's not, so I try to keep that in mind when I get a cover. Um though I’ve liked almost all of mine you know and like the newest one, Revenge of the Red Club, Simon & Schuster knocked it out of the park!
KL: That is a cool cover.
KH: Love it, we love it.
KL: It looks like superhero, comic book.
KL: Fist pumping.
KH: Lots of girl power.
KL: Tampons on the cover.
KH: Yes! Like I was so excited because I’m like you never know really how the publisher’s going to deal with this.
KL: If you haven’t picked up on it, Revenge of the Red Club is about a period-positive support group at a middle school, complete with a secret locker full of emergency supplies for that time of the month. When the club is banned by the school administration the girls start a rebellion to find out who’s behind the shutdown — and why.
KH: I’m being very forward and out there in the book, you know having a lot of period talk in this middle grade book and you know how are they going to handle that and they just put tampons on the cover, I’m like “They are going for it. I love this! Like, lean in. Let's do this!”
KL: Yeah, I was reading on your website there was a review about this is sort of a pivotal “Me Too” movement book for young readers. How do you feel about that?
KH: I enjoyed reading that, because to be honest I started writing this book in um late November, early December 2016, and I had a lot of rage and there was just a lot of stuff in the news at that time that I felt um as a woman I was just angry. You know, and I’m like “Where does all this start? Where does all this start?” And it starts young, you know, and you know a lot of the stuff that I took in the book is stuff that I took from the news, stuff with sexist dress code, um and just the whole how periods are like just so shameful. Why is that an insult? It’s a normal part of every month for half the population, you know?
KL: It’s not a preexisting condition.
KH: Yes, so I said where, you know, where do these attitudes come from? And you know I’m like it starts young. Um and so I’m like “I’m going to channel all these feelings into a book and if it sells it sells, if it doesn’t, it’ll make me feel better.” You know because like some people will like pound on the treadmill, some people will like garden, you know to get their rage out.
KH: Yeah cook! I write.
KL: How did you go from Sleuth or Dare this really fun series, to a gamer series, a spooky monster gamer series which I love the title. I love, love, Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind, what an awesome title, and Clarity and these paranormal series to Revenge of the Red Club?
KH: It is very, it’s a different book for me, definitely. Like Sleuth or Dare um was right up my alley because all of my books at that point had been mysteries and Sleuth or Dare is just a younger mystery. Um, but what I did with that series what I really loved is that my two main characters were like huge nerds and proud of it. Like just, and it was a huge part of the series that they were just so proud of being nerds, and I loved that, yes. And then Gamer Squad actually came from um the summer that my son and I played Pokémon Go together.
KH: And it was just such a happy time. And then again the main character, my female main character was a coder, you know like she’s, it's very like STEM-positive and she's a total nerd. Um and then Revenge of the Red Club, even though it seems like completely different for me, um it still has a mystery in there. I don’t know if I just love writing mysteries or if I just don’t know how to structure a book without one.
KL: Hey I write romances, so I don’t know, I don’t know. So, do you, do you feel like your characters are doing things that you wish you could do in real life?
KH: Oh yeah, oh. There is definitely in some of them there is some fantasy fulfillment, absolutely. Like in Clarity, um she is bullied pretty badly, and there were a couple years of middle school where I was bullied and um you know Claire my main character stands up for herself in a way that I wish I had when I was young. And so, there’s definitely some wish fulfillment in those pages, like absolutely. Um but yeah and there's a tiny part of me in some of the characters.
KL: Mhm, wish fulfillment that hopefully inspires readers to take action.
KH: Yeah, I got a really nice, I love getting mail from readers, it’s like the best. When I first started publishing, it was usually like snail mail but now I’ll get like little emails and it’ll be like “Sent from my iPad” you know and it's like aw you can picture them in their room you know? But one of the best letters I ever got was after Clarity, it was from a girl who had been bullied and she said that you know reading about Claire standing up to her bullies and all that like really helped her and I like legit burst into tears reading that letter, like tears staining the paper, like sobbing. Because it's just like that made it all the more real like I’m not just writing for myself, like there are actually real people that I’m not related to or friends with who buy these books and read them. And so that was you know, like a pivotal moment.
KL: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers, people who want to get published about sort of the behind the scenes, the down and dirty business of publishing?
KH: Yeah. My number one piece of advice is, whether or not you make it in this business has less to do with anything else than it does to do with resilience. You can't get stuck on one book and keep like tweaking that one book or whatever because if I had done that you know, I never would have gotten my contract. You have to be willing to let books go. And I have to do that even now, you know I'll write a book and I’ll think like “This is definitely going to sell!” and it doesn't and it breaks my heart and I have to put it the drawer and start the next project. You have to be willing to move past um and you also have to have thick skin, which I think is hard because writers in general I think are very empathetic people, that’s how we can write other characters so well by getting in their heads. So I think it's interesting because we’re very empathetic people so by nature we’re sensitive and thin skinned but we’re forced in this business to be very thick skinned, so you just have to find a way to make it work or you. Um and at first, you’re facing rejection from agents. And then after that, face rejections from publishers and then after that you face rejections from like the entire populous. With like you know Amazon and Good Reads reviews and stuff like that. And everyone sort of finds their own way to deal with it. Or they don’t and they leave the business. But um with my first book, I was like “I’m fine. I’m tough. I got thick skin. You know reviews won’t bother me. I’m going to go on Good Reads and read everything.” And then what I found would happen was I would read 10 5-star reviews and barely remember them, but that 1-star review that said like “This author is too stupid to live” would reverberate in my head over and over for like a month. Take your favorite book that you love so much, go on Good Reads, and read the 1-star reviews. And then you’ll realize how subjective the whole thing is.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Special thanks to Isabelle Bader, Caroline Cruise, Jenna Floster, Molly McKinnon, and Terry Cronin for their help and support. To hear more episodes, visit bentley.edu/howimadeit. And to share your story of making it, send us a note at email@example.com. And you can find all of Kim’s book — and those five-star reviews — at kimharrington.com. We’ll see you next time.
KH: There is a book and I still haven’t given up on it. It’s a middle grade book that I wrote a couple years ago that I feel like this is a good book this should sell. I can look at some of my old books and be like “Yeah you didn’t deserve to be in hard cover, pal.” But this one I do feel it does.
Jesse Campanaro: I kind of had three paths that I was exploring: go to New York and maybe work on Wall Street do something like that which could have been or start my own thing or go into the family business. So ultimately I decided to go into the family business.
Kristin Livingston: For Jesse Campanaro, the family business was Total Gym, an exercise empire in personal and physical therapy training. But, as we know, even the best empires can fall. How did Jesse ensure his parents’ legacy into the new century and beyond? I’m Kristin Livingston with Bentley University and this is How I Made It.
Christie Brinkley: Total Gym, let me count the ways I love you. One, triceps. Two, biceps. Three, chest…
KL: When Tom Campanaro started Total Gym, it was the early 70s and personal fitness wasn’t really a mainstream thing. Today, one in five Americans belongs to a health club. And Total Gym has become synonymous with in-home fitness and celebrity infomercials (like the one we just heard with Christie Brinkley). Tom’s son, Jesse, now president and CEO of the company, has had a front row seat for Total Gym’s decades-long transformation.
Christie Brinkley: Total Gym!
JC: There was an old school fitness training product back in the 1800’s that was very similar and they kind of took that idea and refined it into the original Total Gym product.
KL: Oh, very cool, so there was a product in the 1800s?
JC: It was like a skiing, like a cross-country skiing type machine.
KL: Like a Nordic track?
JC: Um similar but different, more like a Total Gym actually, right.
KL: Ok, yeah, yeah.
JC: You know but had that kind of skiing theme to it. And they took that and refined it for general fitness and the concept is you know you use your body weight on a glide board on an incline and you raise or lower the incline to change the resistance, so you lift more, a higher percentage of your body weight like walking up a steeper hill or a lower percentage of your body weight when you lower the incline. And consumers’ our largest market obviously but we do very well in the medical and rehabilitation space as well as our emerging and fastest growing market is the commercial fitness space and some of our new product portfolios that we’ve added into the mix for that space, which we’ve done recently in the last couple of years.
KL: Very cool. And so back when you guys started or when your dad started, how quickly did it take off?
JC: Oh, it was a 20-year overnight success.
KL: Ha, yeah?
KL: Yeah, because I think people think Total Gym, they think Chuck Norris, they think Christie Brinkley; it’s sort of iconic. It’s sort of a household name. But did it take a while to get into the households?
JC: It did, I mean the company started in 1974, in the 70s there wasn’t cable TV, there wasn’t, you know I mean there was maybe VHS back then if even that, right? So, the method by which they got the message out about the product and what it could do for the market was going to trade shows. So, in the early days, in the, you know, late 70s, early 80s uh they were just trucking around to hundreds of trade shows a year, any kind of trade show.
JC: Really with a focus in the late 70s, early 80s, of selling the product to consumers first. But what happened is they ended up kind of stumbling along the rehab market and there was a paradigm shift in the 80s where physical therapists and um high-level athletic trainers were shifting their protocol from isokinetic or fixed plane kind of selectorized equipment to more closed chain body weight or partial body weight type of movements and training which the Total Gym fit perfectly into. So we were able to jump into this paradigm shift in the 80s and actually the physical therapy market and private practice therapy clinics as well as hospitals became the first real adopters of utilizing the equipment to its full potential. And that became our largest market.
Chuck Norris: Hi, I’m Chuck Norris. This is what’s great about the Total Gym. It works on all the muscles. You name it: chest, arms, tris, bis, shoulders…and at the same time, it’s working the gut.
JC: Then in 1996, we partnered with an infomercial company and obviously as we all remember back in the 90s, right, infomercials were all the rage, you had lots of channel surfing going on, um cable TV was still quote-on-quote “new”, right, and there's hundreds of channels, and you’re flipping through and there’s a lot of programming available, lots of infomercials, you know spooling up, some good, some bad.
KL: You had to click through.
JC: You had to click through so you could stop, you’d see Chuck Norris and you could stop. Lots of celebrity-driven kind of channel stoppers, essentially. So that was the strategy, so we were uh lucky enough and smart enough to team up with one of the best infomercial companies in the business.
KL: Jesse’s talking about American Telecast, an infomercial giant that has partnered with Total Gym since ’96. He credits them and their pioneering infomercials for getting the brand to really take off.
JC: By the late 90s early 2000s we had millions of people per month that were working out on a Total Gym in a physical therapy environment. So, think about all of those demos, or all of those experiences in a very professional, very safe environment where people are getting healthier, now they go and they see this similar, a consumer version of this product that they used to rehab their knee surgery or their hip surgery, they see it on TV with Chuck Norris promoting it and they buy it.
KL: They think I did something right, and now I’m doing it again.
JC: Exactly, exactly I want to continue my rehab at home. And obviously that’s not the only thing that fueled the consumer environment. The media and marketing and the strategies behind that have been huge, but that validation in the commercial space and the rehab space and the fact that we have so much traction there, has been one of the things that we believe has kept us on air for now over what, ’96 to now, like 24 years.
KL: When Jesse graduated from Bentley in 2002, it wasn’t a given that he’d come home and get on the front lines of Total Gym.
JC: I always had that entrepreneurial spirit, we’ve always had that kind of theme in our family right. So I figured I had, when I was in school, I kind of had three paths, that I was exploring because I was a finance major at Bentley so it would have either been go to New York and maybe work on Wall Street do something like that, which would have been fun, uh or start my own thing or go into the family business.
KL: He spent six months in Austria, getting his sea legs at a fitness company and learning German. When he came home to San Diego, he wasn’t just handed the presidency started in sales and worked his way up. And when he finally did take the helm, leading a brand of this magnitude—and stepping into his parents’ shoes—took some bold moves.
JC: Um, it’s interesting taking over a family business right, because you get all of the family history, you get all of the good stuff that comes with it, you get all of the challenges that come with it, etc. and when you’re at least in my scenario I was taking over leadership of an organization from my dad as CEO and my mom as marketing director basically. So, when those two left they were playing very active roles I had to backfill those roles, either with myself or with some new or additional employees. Now fast-forward to where we are today, I guess the biggest leadership challenge for me has been really finding the right people that fit with my leadership style and the difference in my vision from, say, my dad’s vision.
KL: After making big personnel changes, Jesse took a closer look at the brand itself.
JC: Um, we had hit a plateau. And uh so I wanted to get us into the next growth period, and I felt like I needed a different mindset, a different thought process around our business, a new, completely new fresh approach to the business. Because a lot of things that we had been doing and had been successful in the past and had got us to where we were, were not working anymore.
KL: It's a new century.
JC: Exactly it’s a new digital age. You know even on the media side of our business while we still believe it or not run a half hour show with Chuck and Christie on it, that runs a whole lot less than it used to, and it has a whole lot less people clicking through it and stopping on it than it used to, so our infomercial partners are going through a shift, I created a shift in our organization to hit the next growth curve and it took time. You either have to have a bunch of money to pump into it to do it fast, or you just have to power through and do it methodical and be diligent, and get through and so we went through you know three years of flat, we managed to stay on a plateau, and not dip too much, um and then this year we’re now back in growth mode and we’re up 30% over last year and we’ve got a path to being up 30-40% next year. Um and a lot of that has just been this revamping of mindset, revamping of process, revamping of team, uh the additions of the products in portfolio, etc., to then get onto this next growth curve.
KL: A lot of that growth is thanks to Elevate. Elevate is Jesse’s pride and joy. It’s one of the ways he’s expanded Total Gym’s product line beyond the original machine to meet the growing needs of the fitness consumer and medical spaces. Prior to Elevate you could basically only get 8-10 versions of the same product, the Total Gym, at different market price points: say, $6,000 for a rehab version down to a $400 version at Costco.
JC: And essentially each of the Elevate pieces, there's 5 of them, does a few things, instead of hundreds of things. Right? The nature of the Total Gym is that you can do over 220 different strength exercises, over 200 different Pilates exercises, and a myriad of physical therapy specific exercises on the equipment for people right. In a gym environment, that’s too much stuff.
KL: Yeah that’s a lot.
JC: That's too much stuff! You look at it, you’re walking through the gym right you’ve never been there before.
KL: That’s intimidating.
JC: You’ve got this machine that’s got cables over it that maybe you recognize from Chuck Norris or whatever. But in your home, you can mess up on stuff and you know you’re bare foot and you’re watching a video and you’re not going to get embarrassed right. In a gym environment you have to be able to be quick on the uptake, do stuff quickly.
KL: Yeah and there’s other people waiting.
JC: Exactly, they don’t want people on a machine for too long so. So we started making these derivatives. It first started with the core trainer, which is abdominal training machine. Then we moved on to a pull-up machine, a press machine, and a squat/plyometric jumping machine called the Jump Trainor. And then ultimately to the newest product we launched last year which is the Elevate Row 80J. That particular product has quickly moved to one of our best sellers.
KL: How do you do that market research to figure out what price point you should put it at?
JC: With all of our products they’re all proprietary and patented. So, we’re the only ones that have that particular product, right. Um when we looked at the rower market, or the rower category, the reason that we decided to do our unique version of a rower is because we saw the industry was growing, lots of health clubs, studios, cross-fit facilities, you name it—they’re putting rowers in. The primary rower they’re putting in is the Concept 2, that’s kind of the leader in that market. And you know just about every other…you know, the secondary rower in that market is the Water Rower.
KL: If you haven’t listened yet, Elise Caira, founder of SweatFixx, talks all about her water rower franchise in the episode “How I Made SweatFixx.” Tune in after this.
JC: So you know we looked at price point and essentially you know it's like economics, right? When demand’s high you can raise price, demand and supply ratio there. So we kind of priced it right in the game with kind of the top competitors. Some of our other products that’s not as easy to do, because there isn’t a comparable product. Uh so in that case we just look at what we think the market would see value in.
KL: And over the past 45 years, the Total Gym has been on a total roll. From the 20-year run of their infomercials alone, the company’s sold over 5 million units in 85 countries and made over $2B in sales (that’s billion with a B, as in boy, do my biceps feel good thanks to this Total Gym workout).
KL: And so you have Elevate coming on now, what else is next?
JC: That’s top secret. Can’t tell you. Can’t tell you.
KL: Oh ok ha-ha that was my last question.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Special thanks to Isabelle Bader, Caroline Cruise, Jenna Floster, Molly McKinnon, Terry Cronin, and Pauline Carpenter, without whom this podcast just wouldn’t exist. To hear more episodes go to bentley.edu/howimadeit and to share your story of making it send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. To get your hands on a Total Gym, go to totalgym.com. We’ll see you next time.
KL: So have you and your dad ever butt heads?
JC: Yeah of course.
KL: And then how do you work that out? Do you do match ups, like competitions on the Total Gym?
JC: Yeah, we punch each other but that worked when I was littler and now that I’m bigger he doesn’t like that one as much, so he bruises easier.
John Yazwinski: You know it’s funny my first week on the job as the executive director, I said, “Hey, Father Bill, do I even have a job description?” and he said, “Your job description is to close Father Bill’s Place.”
Kristin Livingston: John Yazwinski has had one job for 23 years: directing Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a homeless shelter network and nonprofit on the South Shore of Massachusetts. How is he ending homelessness in the Commonwealth? I’m Kristin Livingston with Bentley University and this is How I Made It.
JY: I grew up in Yarmouth, Maine, right outside of Portland and um I went through my church group, my mother went in and volunteered at a lunch program for homeless people. And that night, I had to help a veteran that was sleeping under a bridge, I had to help him eat dinner that night, and he wasn’t able to. And I just was, just very impacted greatly by the idea that with all the resources we have in this country, why is there a veteran that’s helped fought for our freedom, why is he experiencing homelessness? It always stayed with me so when I went to Bentley and had an opportunity to choose a certain social issue, I chose homelessness.
KL: At Bentley, John joined Service-Learning newly founded, now the Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Center.
JY: Back in the day before cell phones, we were able to get um a phone company to donate voicemail boxes to homeless people.
KL: Oh, wow.
JY: So, part of my job was to go out and get the different shelters onboard. So and when I got to see how people now have their own phone number and they were struggling with homelessness and by just giving somebody their own phone number they were able to, when they were going to get a job, or they were looking for housing, or even they want to communicate with their family, just how a simple step like being able to communicate with people got people out of homelessness.
KL: John started volunteering for Father Bill’s Place in Quincy and after graduating from Bentley in 1996, he joined full-time.
KL: In the 80s, Rev. William McCarthy, affectionately known as Father Bill, started getting requests from his parishioners. They needed more than confession or a meal. They needed a place to sleep, to spend the night. Of course, Father opened his church to them, hoping it would be a temporary fix. But decades later, the Band Aid still hasn’t come off, though John is working on it — because Father Bill believed in him. Even when he applied to become the executive director of the shelter just two years after starting in the organization.
JY: And of course I didn’t get the job at that time, but about a year later um there was a change again and Father Bill and other people in the community, you know Father Bill was basically like let's give this guy a chance and I’ll mentor him. And so, I got to work side by side with Father Bill and just saw how every day he wanted to take care of everybody and there was no challenge that was too big for him to take on. And I was very impressed with his courage overall and his spirit never to judge anybody when they walk in the door.
JY: You know it’s funny my first week on the job as the executive director, I said, “Hey, Father Bill, do I even have a job description?” and he said, “Your job description is to close Father Bill’s Place.” You know, and he goes someday I hope people drive by it and it’s not there, um that means we’ve ended homelessness.
KL: That would stick with you, yeah. What are the numbers that we’re up against in this country for homelessness?
JY: Yeah, I mean on any given night, there’s um you know there’s going to be over half a million people that are homeless. Um you know I think what we’ve seen is you know in the late 70s and early 80s there weren’t that many homeless shelters in this country but wherever you were living you may have known there were a lot of mental health hospitals. About 90% of those beds were closed. We never, on a national level, on a policy level, we never said: OK, if a group of these disabled people are going to go back into the community what are they going to need? And so, if you look at when Father Bill’s was created and the majority of the shelters across the country, it really came from the faith community. We all kind of started within the same like 10- to 15-year period.
KL: Oh wow that’s so interesting. So, prior to the 70s and 80s you were just out on the street, there really wasn’t anywhere for you to go.
JY: Well you just didn't have, I mean we’ve always had poverty in different places, and you might have had a few shelters but like in Massachusetts in 1982 there was only two state-funded shelters. So, people like Father Bill McCarthy, who I fell in love with um his mission in Quincy, in the early 80s they started to see people that used to be in public housing, or used to be in um affordable housing, sometimes in these institutions falling through the cracks and ending up sleeping outside. It was just, it was a new phenomenon. We just haven't been able to make sure that all income levels have appropriate housing.
KL: I wonder too if it had anything to do with the surge of Vietnam veterans, drugs, the accessibility of drugs, and then PTSD, and all of these things combined.
JY: Well it is amazing, when I first came to Father Bill’s, right out of college, about 20% were veterans. Under the last administration, under the Obama administration, there was um tremendous resources committed to the VA, to end veterans’ homelessness and we reduced it over those eight years by 50% in this country. So, we can end homelessness, we just have to have the political will.
KL: Over the years, John has grown Father Bill’s to become Father Bill’s & MainSpring.
JY: We have about 23 um different facilities. We shelter about 250 individuals across Southern Mass. We also shelter about 130 families and we have 500 units of permanent supportive housing. So that’s been my passion, has been housing, so we’re not trying to just manage homelessness we’re trying to end it and that’s a variety of ways but one of the things we’ve done is we’ve become a housing developer. Um supportive housing. It’s very affordable we really target the people that are in the 0-30% median income, our poorest neighbors.
JY: You know we um looked at the family shelter system years ago and said to the state: Listen, everybody that’s coming to the front door is getting shelter, it's like everybody going to the emergency room and getting a Band-Aid. Why don’t we look at instead of everybody going into an expensive system like shelter, why don’t we see if we can do prevention and diversion upstream a little bit for these families and we were able to pilot that and now that’s being done in every location across the state.
JY: So, it's all about housing, that’s the number one driver here. Yes, we will have people that struggle maybe with a physical disability, uh fixed incomes, uh young adults aging out of foster care, substance abuse, mental health issues, but one of the things that we’ve been able to show at Father Bill’s & MainSpring and many places across the country have been able to show that it’s more cost effective to house somebody that is ricocheting in and out of systems of care like police cars, corrections, emergency rooms, detoxes, um those price tags are adding up for the tax payer. So we’ve always taken it, part of what I’ve been able to do, is take it as a business approach to the homeless issue here and say what's it costing us, the community, um the state, the town to shelter somebody and have them in and out of all of these systems and then what’s it cost us to house that same person. And so how we’re trying to end it is with supportive housing. And what we’re trying to do is convert our shelters to not just be shelters but really be a resource center that can literally prevent and divert people so they never have to spend a night at the shelter.
KL: Band Aid. Meet corrective surgery.
JY: If you’re somebody that is sleeping outside and struggling with substance abuse or mental health, um we want to house you first and then support you while you’re in that housing. You know, we took a veteran that had been living outside next to a golf course for ten years and we just went right up to this tent and said here’s your key; let’s come to the house.
KL: Oh wow.
JY: Um and so you know that’s been very innovative for us to be able to say we’re taking people right to housing. Now for a month he slept on the floor even though he had his own unit, um because he had been sleeping on the ground for how many years. But after that month, he slowly made his way into the bed.
JY: Our development of housing is not for 100% of the people, we are targeting 20-30% of our population — it’s that chronic homeless group. So, we’ve looked at as a business who are our most expensive customers, to us and to the community, and it used to be the people that were in a lot of the residential institutional hospitals in this country that do not exist anymore. So, we’ve taken a very business, pragmatic approach to it, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a you know a Republican or a Democrat, A., it makes sense morally, but it makes sense business-wise.
KL: 99% of the chronically homeless people Father Bill’s & MainSpring serve are still in homes after one year. And 93% after three years. Imagine that model across the country.
KL: If you could go up to Capitol Hill right now and put a plan on the floor, what would it look like?
JY: It would be about um supportive housing. It would be about, we need one funding source that both supports capital, investment, operations and services. We got to see the VA, when they got the resources how they put the resources towards veterans and towards housing and um we’ve been able to reduce it like 50%. For Father Bills & MainSpring tonight we will shelter over you know 250 individuals and the state will pay for 126 at $30 a day so every bed is costing us $40 to house everybody and we’re putting up over 100 people a night that we have to privately fundraise for. It’s hard to invest in outcomes when all you’re doing is trying to fundraise just to make sure nobody sleeps outside.
JY: You know I remember a veteran, one of the first veterans I housed, um at Sheila McIntyre House in Quincy, it’s an 8-unit house. And I said how did the house help you? And he said, “You know you gave me my own key. And when I got my own key, I got my own toothbrush rack, I had my own phone, I had a reason to stay sober, and then I had an opportunity to get a job.” And he actually got employed with the VA and became an employee there for a long time and then moved into management. You know just being able to see how those things, how just giving someone a key can make a huge difference in their lives.
KL: Yeah I've never thought about it. You take it for granted your whole life having these keys that jangle around in your purse or your pocket and they really mean opportunity here.
JY: In 2001 I got a call from a CEO of another nonprofit um that was renting a building that was a teen shelter and it was the only one on the South Shore. And they weren’t bankable at the time, but the owner wanted to sell the house and was going to put it on the market within a week. And it was a beautiful house, it was on a busy street, um right near South Shore hospital. And um so I called Father Bill, and I said, “Father, this is the story, they're not bankable, they can't buy it, we only have a week before they put it on the market. What do you think we can do?” And he calls, and he schedules a meeting with a CEO of a bank, and then he calls what I call his angels, a philanthropist, somebody that’s a supporter of ours. And Father and I bring them to the house and they see the kids playing, and Father turns to the donor and tells the story and he’s like, “I need a down payment.” And he turns to the banker, and he’s like, “I need a loan.” And we were able to get the deal done over French fries with the kids.
KL: Although Father Bill passed away in 2009, John has no plans to end his mission.
JY: People save people. And it's been very nice to get up every morning and know that this organization is doing great work for people.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Special thanks to Isabelle Bader, Caroline Cruise, Jenna Floster, Molly McKinnon, and Terry Cronin for their help and support. To listen to more episodes, go to bentley.edu/howimadeit and share your story of making it send us a note at email@example.com. To learn more about Father Bill’s & MainSpring, go to helpfbms.org. We’ll see you next season.
JY: Father Bill, you know he was very funny. The first week he went and introduced me to the mayor of Quincy and we drove up and I was driving his car and he goes, “Pull into the mayor’s spot.” And I’m like, “Really?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, he’s not here yet. He’s late for our appointment.”
Hi, everyone. Kristin here, coming to you live from…my apartment. Before I dive into the second season of How I Made It, I wanted to ask: How are you? This is a really scary time. I think most of us have passed the one month mark of isolation. The luckiest among us, and I count myself as such, still have jobs. Are able to work from home. Are able to pay our bills. Are taking care of our kids, or, in my case, cats.
What’s going on is surreal. But what is absolutely real and making a concrete difference and is so inspiring is what some of you are doing to go above and beyond for your fellow humans right now. So in tribute to these amazing Falcons, I’m pivoting the podcast until things are slightly back to normal. You’re going to hear stories of alumni and maybe a student or two who are in the thick of the coronavirus: running tests, making masks, making hand sanitizer, making donations so other people can get through. I hope their stories bring you hope, if not some distraction from the news.
And if you’re giving back, you’ve shifted your business, you’re working in a hospital, or you just want to share what’s going on in your head, in your kitchen, in your car when you need to escape your kids for five minutes so you can sing a show tune at the top of your lungs or take a nap, leave me a voicemail at 781-891-2604 or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And let’s see if we can get you on here or connected to Bentley in some way. Lastly, but most importantly, don’t forget: there are 65,000 Bentley alumni around the world, all in this together, right now.
I wish you well. And I hope you’re safe.
Kristin Livingston: If you’re quarantined in Kentucky right now, you’re in good company. Because Tony Remington, class of 1992, is at the helm of a diagnostics lab that’s close to processing 2,000 COVID-19 tests in a single day. How did Tony get ahead of the coronavirus—and how is Gravity helping us to get out of it? I’m Kristin Livingston and this is How I’m Making It Through.
KL: I unknowingly had the privilege of interviewing Tony Remington on April 8, his birthday. He turned 50. I’m fairly confident in saying he didn’t imagine spending the day at an epicenter of coronavirus testing. How did he get here?
KL: After graduating from Bentley with a marketing degree, Tony spent a couple of decades in healthcare sales. Today, he’s the co-founder, president and CEO of Gravity Diagnostics, a pharmacogenomics lab. What’s pharmacogenomics? Basically they take genes and drugs and try to figure out how your DNA might predispose you to reacting positively or negatively to certain drugs. Upending the one-size-fits-all approach to prescriptions and tailoring it to you. Gravity has actually been partnering with Bentley since 2018 on a study to see how DNA influences opioid addiction.
Tony Remington: We’ve been around four years, we’ve always what's called a clear laboratory license in all 50 states and we were doing toxicology, pharmacogenetic testing and then we started doing upper respiratory testing about two years ago, looking at like bacterial, fungal and viral infection.
TR: So I'm not a physician, but when you have flu-like symptoms, most of the time the doctor would do like a rapid flu test and then they'll give you some sort of prescription based on that result. Well, you can go deeper on that and look at all the pathogens like we do over 30 pathogens.
KL: AKA germs.
TR: You might have a fat fungal or a bacterial viral infection versus, you know, quote-unquote the flu. Right. So you'll bump into people that are like, oh, you know, I thought I had the flu, but I tested negative, but I still don't feel well. Right. But there's other things. And so we were always doing that. And so we would do about 70 of those samples a day with our current customers. And we were having like a record year, month in February. We did more than we did in January, but it was probably about 70 a day, maybe a thousand samples for the whole month. And then COVID-19 came about in China. And in January my main PhD just came to us and said, hey, should we try to validate this? And we said, yeah, go for it. But without any expectation or knowledge that we'd be where we are today.
KL: With that January green light, Tony and his team were ahead of a game most of us didn’t even know we were playing yet. COVID-19 was previously thought to be a form of pneumonia, reported on New Year’s Eve 2019 (hence, COVID-19). It didn’t become an actual public health crisis by the World Health Organization until the end of January. It didn’t even have a name until February 11; many of us didn’t start sheltering in place until mid-March. As of the final editing of this recording, the CDC estimates more than 632,000 cases in the U.S., with almost 31,000 lives stolen by this virus.
KL: I hate clichés, but when I think of the temporary morgues, the lack of test kits, I hear that line from Titanic. There aren’t enough lifeboats. Not by half. But by getting ahead of the crisis, Tony and his teams, 50 people in the Kentucky lab and 120 on the sales side in Florida, they’ve been able to rocket launch production.
TR: We never thought it'd be this big this quickly? But what we did see that where I think we had some we were kind of ahead of the media. What was being said is we saw the scarcity of products, whether it be the needing gloves and gowns, actually prep the samples or whether it means the swabs. You need to run the samples of the reagents or, you know, we we did see that ahead of time. And so we went out and bought about a half million dollars in new instrumentation. We started hiring. We hired 13 new people already during this time. So we were able to kind of get ahead of this. Probably more than other companies our size or other labs like us. And we're building our capacity to be able to do, you know, two, three, four thousand a day. So we think in the next week or so we'll be doing a couple thousand samples a day.
KL: That's incredible. And you guys have a 48 hour turnaround.
TR: It's kind of interesting because whenever someone says 24 to 48 hours, especially if I'm a Bentley grad, you know, I'm like, well, that those are two different numbers. Which one is it? And the reason we say that is because it depends on when we get the sample. So U.P.S. comes to our lab at 6:30 in the morning every day, six days a week, Monday through Saturday. They come at 6:30 in the morning. So if we get that sample at 6:30 in the morning, we're gonna report that back to that clinician a lot of the times by the end of the day. The samples coming in at 6:30, we're getting out that day unless it's missing some information or something like that…that slows us down.
KL: Can you walk me through the process? Because I think for most Americans, I don't think we really understand how these tests are created. I think Theranos and the Edison box that promised everything with a drop of blood but delivered basically nothing.
TR: I watched that movie with intensity. I can tell you a whole, another side story about that. But no. So. So what we're doing is we're using instrumentation from Thermo Fisher. As a laboratory, you have to create methodology and validate that your results are accurate. So I can take the thermo fisher instrumentation and their reagents and create my own method to get a result on a test. Right, whether it's urine, toxicology or pharmacogenetics or in this case, upper respiratory testing. And then I have to show that my methodology gets me an accurate result every time.
KL: Tony’s transmission cut out a little here, but the next steps are to get samples from other labs, and validation from state labs.
TR: And in this scenario, because it was a national emergency, the FDA is involved and they came up with something called an emergency authorization. We'd already done a couple of thousand of these samples. Like I said earlier, for different types of all these were pathogens. So we already had a bunch of methodology and validation in the building of knowledge. And so we had to just add this this pathogen or virus to that prove that our methodology was accurate.
KL: So, what does a COVID-19 test actually entail? “You’ll hear the term kit,” Tony says, “but it’s a swab.” Either a small paint brush or a “sophisticated” Q-tip. The swabs are overnighted to Gravity, who then enters the data and moves the swab to an extraction area where the DNA is taken. The scientists run the test, make the call, and two others review the result for quality control.
TR: We've been working with the in-patients and the first responders at the hospitals that need results quickly. And that partnership with the state of Kentucky, I don’t know if you read about that. There was a governor press conference on Sunday that we’re the lab partner for the 30 plus community hospitals that need help.
KL: Governor Andy Beshear also announced that Kentucky is partnering with Kroger, a national grocery chain, to launch free drive-thru COVID-19 testing across the state—right now these free tests are limited to health care workers, first responders, seniors and individuals with chronic health conditions. And Gravity will be processing all of those samples. In fact, Gravity has processed more than 4,000 tests since the outbreak, with a goal of running up to 2,000 samples a day in the next week and reaching 5,000 tests a day by May.
TR: What I've been trying to do is just, you know, whether it's family, friends or people that I know is to say, look, it's all about isolation. It's all about social distancing. It's all about all of the things we're all doing. But it's also about testing. Right. And right now, everyone's running through walls to test people more than we you know, we we can. And what my analogy to you would be, toilet paper is still hard to find four weeks later. Right. So even if we come out with amazing instrumentation and all the diagnostic companies are do amazing things, you're still going have a lag in kind of availability of the swabs or the kits or whatever you want to call it. So I think the only thing that we were doing probably better than most in our space was seeing that this wasn't going to end anytime soon. And so I think we just were using our common sense. I can't get sandy wipes you can't get Clorox wipes. So how are you going to make 300 million kits in a week? Right. And so, you know, that was about four weeks ago that we were feeling that. I would say now with the programs the state federal government are doing, which I think the government's been amazing at running through walls to to do all they can. You know, we are getting there, you know, so I think that there's this massive positive momentum. But I think testing will need to be done for several more months, not weeks. And quite frankly, I think health care has kind of changed. And a lot of ways, you know, a year from now in terms of, you know, different type of testing, we'll probably do on a regular basis that we didn't do in the past.
KL: Yeah. You said you're you're aiming to ramp up. What do you see as the goal for the next couple of months?
TR: You know, we have our moments where we're tapped out and we don't know if we can take on any more. But I think our our passion and mission is to spend help as many people as we can. So. We're already running two shifts a day. We're running a full shift on Saturday. We'll probably start doing a shift on Sunday. And so our goal is to be able to do, you know. Twenty five thousand tests a week. So, you know, four to five thousand a day. You know, one week you can't get instruments, next week you can't get swabs. You know, it's a moot. So even if you and I said, hey, let's build a lab to do one hundred thousand a day, it's not that simple because of all the moving parts. So we've been kind of fortunate to be scrappy and not accept no and find ways to get the supplies we need.
TR: I think we've always been about paying it forward, thinking outside of the box, trying to make an impact, change medicine, do something different. So when we started to see this happening, we didn't really slow down. We didn't let you know. We we started saying we need gloves when you gowns, we need swabs. We blew out a wall. We dealt with our pick. You know, we just kind of ran and went for it.
KL: It's hard to be proud of anything when there’s a daily death toll in the thousands. But I did ask Tony: Is he proud?
TR: It's been…it's complicated, right? I mean, whether you're a parent at home homeschooling your children or your, you know, my mother who's isolated by herself in Florida or, you know, someone at Gravity. I mean, I think we all have different challenges and. Different highs and lows, you know. So I think it's nice to be part of the solution and be able to be distracted in a good way right now. And it does feel good to see the four years of putting this thing together come, you know, be able to help people and make a difference. So, yeah, it's good. I mean, it's hard to be too excited about anything right now. I haven’t see my kids in four weeks. And, you know, there's a lot of people that have lost their jobs and, you know, just not good stories out there. But it is nice, I think, to keep a little positive energy during this. You know, seeing our employees come together, we didn't have one employee walk away from … It's been just area companies and the government and just, you know, whether it's the guy dropping off your packages or, you know, the local restaurants. I mean, it's been an awesome thing to see there. You know, that, you know, we'll get through this. Our country is amazing. We always do, you know. But I can't say I'm like reflecting right now. It's like I think I told you I turned 50 today. Right. So it's like it's my birthday and I'm not with my family. And, you know, I'm in Kentucky, but I feel good that I'm able to make an impact. And, you know, we've been giving out. We gave everyone, you know, bonuses and providing free lunch. And, you know, so we're like one of the few stories, I think, where we're able to, like, make it even better for our employees. So there's a lot of good here. I mean, there's a lot of good things happening. But personally, I’ll reflect on this a year from now, not not anytime soon.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. To share your story of making it through, leave me a voicemail at 781-891-2604 or send me a message at email@example.com. I wish you well, and I hope you’re safe.
Kristin Livingston: It’s nearly impossible to find hand sanitizer these days—unless you work in the alcohol industry, like Steve Riordan. The Class of 1981 grad joined a Florida-based distillery just last year. How did Kozuba & Sons make the switch from spirits to sanitizer? And what exactly goes into a hand sanitizer recipe? I’m Kristin Livingston and this is How I’m Making It Through.
KL: Steve Riordan has a classic Bentley story. He grew up in New England, excelled in academics, was one of five Bentley grads to join a prestigious company right out of college—namely, Ingersoll Rand, an industrial equipment and tech company. And he had a really successful, lucrative career. By 49, Steve was retired. He moved to Florida.
KL: And before I cut to Steve, just a quick apology for the sound quality; he was coming to us live from the distillery.
Steve Riordan: So I ended up down in Florida because, you know, I didn't want to deal with the New England winters. I grew up in Vermont. And I love this area. You know, it's big enough that it has a lot of the big city attractions, but it's small enough that it's not overwhelming.
KL: Steve and his business partner, Jesse Javens, were at a charity golf tournament when they met the Kozuba family.
SR: They came over to the U.S. from Poland in 2014. And they had been distilling spirits in Poland. But wanted to live the American dream.
KL: It’s almost like something out of a book when you read the family’s story on the company website: A retired Polish patriarch moves his family to the countryside where he tinkers with cordial recipes that gain a following. He moves on to vodka, and his sons help him turn a hobby into a micro-distillery.
SR: And the head of the family is Zbigniew. We call him Poppa because he can't pronounce his name. And then his two sons, Marczak, Mathias and Jacob. And, you know, the spirits are very good, very high quality. So you have good people and good product. The rest is just business procedures and tactics.
KL: The company was on the precipice of a rebrand launch when COVID-19 struck. Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration began allowing distilleries to switch gears to hand sanitizer in early March — and Kozuba, like everyone, wanted to help. And what do your favorite cocktail and hand sanitizer have in common? The main ingredient is alcohol.
SR: The FDA saw this as a natural step and they have authorized distilleries in the U.S. to produce hand sanitizer, which is not normally allowed.
SR: So our formulation is 80% alcohol. There's a few other components hydrogen peroxide, glycerol and purified water. So alcohol being the main content that was right up our alley. No problem. The biggest issue we found with this whole process is the supply chain for bottles.
SR: You know, people say they're having a hard time getting sanitizer but part of the problem is getting containers anywhere from the very small bottles maybe two ounce up to we currently have eight ounce and we have some six ounce on order. Gallon jugs we can't find. So that's the part that was a bit more difficult from the actual business we’re used to being in.
KL: Yeah, I bet. And did they have, did the FDA hand out a formula for hand sanitizer or did you guys come up with your own?
SR: No, they came up with it and it's supposed to be a requirement for distilleries. They have to do it for the WHO and the FDA guidelines. Which is 80 percent alcohol. You might be used to hearing like 60, 65 percent.
SR: But the FDA is saying 80 percent for distilleries.
KL: If you do some light research, you’ll find CVS brand hand sanitizer is 62% alcohol, Bath and Body Works is 68%, and good old Purell runs at 70%. So, Kozuba and distilleries across the country are still making strong stuff. You’ll also find that almost all commercial brands are sold out. Thankfully, the U.S. isn’t short on craft alcohol with more than 2,000 whiskey distilleries alone. Many of them aiding in the pandemic. Kozuba has donated thousands of bottles to local first responders and nonprofit organizations, and has sold thousands more to essential businesses in the Tampa Bay area and beyond.
KL: Oh and that charity golf tournament I mentioned earlier? Steve and his business partner started the event about 10 years ago for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, bringing Steve, Jesse, and the Kozuba family’s philanthropy full circle.
SR: You know they support a lot of charities, the family and then they helped the main charity I work on which is, Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which supplies college scholarships to the Gold Star children who were the ones left behind when their special operator parent, either the mother or the father was killed in action.
KL: Steve says Special Operations Warrior Foundation sees that child through college—and keeps in touch with them every step of the way, providing tutoring and paying for their education.
SR: So I thought, you know, that involves children education and the military. So it doesn't get any better than that. So Kozuba started supporting that? And then my buddy asked me to help look at the business, and that's how we got together.
KL: Kozuba has since created a special boxed vodka — you heard me, boxed vodka — called the Camo Box, with proceeds benefitting the foundation. I asked Steve what his favorite Kozuba product is, and I’m not gonna lie, it sounds pretty good. I can almost see myself at a bar in St. Pete in a couple of years, sipping away.
SR: One variation of the vodka, which is very good, is the cranberry juniper. The cranberry juniper or flavor is infused in the vodka. And it tastes very good. Just on the rocks.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. To share your story of making it through the pandemic, whether you’re changing up your business, you’ve invented something new, or you just want to share a message of hope with your fellow Falcons, you can leave me a voicemail at 781-891-2604 or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more episodes, visit bentley.edu/howimadeit. And to get your hands on a Camo Box or that cranberry juniper vodka, visit kozubadistillery.com. Stay safe out there, and we’ll see ya next time.
Kristin Livingston: It’s a truth universally acknowledged that life isn’t fair. But in the face of a pandemic, with 30 million Americans applying for unemployment in under two months, life can seem extra unfair. Everything you’ve worked for, dedicated your life to, can be gone in an instant. How are two Bentley friends and a Bentley dad helping people suffering from the COVID fallout make rent, buy groceries, and keep their lives on track? I’m Kristin Livingston for Bentley University and this is How I’m Making It Through.
KL: 15 years ago, Michael Connelly, Class of 1986, was on a trip with his family.
Michael Connelly: My son Ryan was about six or seven at the time and I were in San Francisco and a homeless person came up to us and said, can you help me? And I wished him a good day. And we went on our way and I probably brought my son a little closer to me to make sure he was safe and all that. And when we got past the person, my son said, Dad, you always said we should help others. You walked right past that person. We got home to Boston and he went into his passbook account and I went into my checking account and we both, we sent the check to a San Francisco homeless shelter. About two, maybe two months later, there was an article in the Globe talking about the scarcity of blankets and homeless shelters. And my son started to collect blankets at school, which then evolved into boots and gloves and fundraisers. And before you know it. We're helping to support about 10 homeless shelters in the Boston Greater Boston area.
KL: Over the years, Michael kept in touch with his Bentley roommate, Steve Alperin, Class of ’87. Steve supported the Blanket Fund and went to the annual fundraiser dinners. Here’s Steve.
Steve Alperin: One year he made a speech and he said, you know, we don't just provide blankets. Here's an example. We had a veteran who was getting evicted. He's terminally ill. Blanket fund paid for this veteran to stay in his apartment and die with dignity without having to go to a shelter. And it struck me that that was sort of like a wake up moment. The light bulb moment for me was, wow, that's really, really neat. The personal story, because that really hit me, you know, just the actual touch there. You're not just cutting a check to Saint Francis House or whatever shelter it is; you're tangibly helping somebody.
KL: Steve wondered: what else can we do?
SA: And that sort of started our conversations about, you know, at some point let's start something where, you know, which eventually became BullPen, which is our model, which is to partner with social service organizations and provide crisis resolution to fill gaps within their clientele for things that they just don't cover, be not budget or mission.
KL: The Boston BullPen Project was founded in 2017 by Michael and Steve and their friends, Alan Stern, whose son Jeremy just graduated from Bentley, and Ben Levin.
MC: Between the four of us. The nice thing about this partnership is we have four different jobs and backgrounds. Ben is a lawyer. Stephen was in finance. Al’s a pediatrician and I'm in finance and a banker. So we sort of bring to the table a lot of different networks. And from that, we've probably sat down with seven or eight of the biggest philanthropists in Boston and just sort of picked their brains. And it was amazing to get learn from them. But the one thing we didn't take with regards to advice was almost universally they said pick a certain area to help and focus on that, whether it's veterans or homeless or at-risk youth. And we decided not to do that. We just want to help whoever is in a crisis at the moment. And we're glad we did that because, you know, if it's a student that got robbed of his laptop and that was the difference between him staying and college not to replace that laptop, that that's a need. A veteran that needs a license renewed or a rent payment of someone over a Dana-Farber needs lodging for their family where they go on to chemo treatments, all those things. It falls on the umbrella of people in need. And that's really who we're trying to help.
SA: I'd like to say we researched this and knew this going in. We just thought we had a really cool model and we just didn't realize the tremendous need. And then the sort of gaps that are needed to be filled. And we really did it with our own money. The four of us.
KL: Aside from being Bentley roommates, Michael and Steve also played together on the Bentley baseball team. Hence the BullPen Project name. They’re the relief pitchers, ready to help the home team.
SA: For the most part. We just started we said, let's let's partner up with twelve organizations. Now, each of us got three or four to the table from organizations we were familiar with. And that's sort started it.
SA: By partnering with these organizations, we developed that they would come to us with a request. Once three out of four of us approved, it was a go. And then we just had to figure out how do we facilitate these? And we've done a pretty good job of that in terms of turning these requests around what's in 24, 48 hours. And I think that's one of the big differential factors with our organization is that, you know, I think we're one of them. We're one of the few that is doing that quickly. And we're able to do it because obviously we're small, we're pretty nimble. But also the organizations, they know what as you get more and more familiar. They know what we do. They know we don't do very we don't have a real complicated request process. It's really actually simple sort of four steps. It's: what's the issue? You know. Number one is give us some background. Number two is what are the specific requests? Number three. And number three is really important is the action. Number three is how does this solve the problem? Because that's a big you know, that's huge for us. If it's if someone needs rent free for April, please let us know how May, June and July, how this person is going to be OK going forward. We want to solve the problem and what's the best way you think we should facilitate this and we want to facilitate it directly. We've rarely cut checks to the organization. We never cut checks to the client. So we do a lot of payments to landlords, utilities, gift cards. So we know we're solving — we're not just writing checks to organizations. We're not acting as a pass through. We're trying to solve the problem.
KL: Steve says the average donation runs about $600. And with each gift comes a $25 gift card to a pharmacy or grocery store that they give to the client, so that he or she can pay it forward and make a gift to someone else in need. Over the past three years, they’ve reached out to family and friends for investment and are now partnered with more than 30 New England nonprofits.
KL: Have there been problems that have really resonated with you and you felt really proud to help out with?
SA: Yeah. The example I gave about a single mother who had to freeze her college account because she had to pay for a health issue with one of her kids. And we unfroze her account so she she'd go back to school. You know, it sort of exemplifies sort of the people we're helping who we're trying to do everything right. And here's an example of a woman doing everything right. Working really hard for a kids. And invariably something happens. It just. Life happens. Right. Um.
MC: We've helped Holocaust victims. We've paid for therapy for the stress and trauma they've gone through. And so that was very poignant to me. And there was a person was killed by a drive-by shooter in Roxbury. And we paid for that funeral because the family couldn't bury the deceased during the hurricane in Puerto Rico. Families were coming up to the Boston Greater Boston area and we were paying for food because what was three, four and a household became 10 and 12 and 13 very quickly.
MC: And I think the rape crisis center really hit me when…from my gender, my perspective, not understanding truly. We buy a lot of sheets and blankets and new beds for victims that were attacked in a room. They can't go back into our lie in that same bed. And it was to me, hit me very strongly as a profound. Wow. You know, that's something I wouldn't have thought of. And when they pointed it out, it's obvious. And so to be able to help victims get a new bed, you know, all the necessary items that go with that. That really made me feel good that we could do it. And that was profound to make terms a little bit.
KL: And so how have you seen the request change made to the pandemic?
SA: Rent and utilities. So rent and utilities probably brings it up to about a little under half of what we do. Those have sort of subsided a little bit? There's more of a switch to sort of real basic needs: food, clothing. And food’s the biggest by far.
KL: BullPen’s on pace to make up to 400 donations in 2020 — a big leap from the 15 to 20 they made per month prior to the pandemic.
SA: You know, it it's it's it's great that the four of us are just so diversified in what we do. And, you know, none of us were, you know, had been involved in non-profits. We supported nonprofits. But, you know, this is kind of on our own.
KL: Steve says the utility and rent bubble will eventually pop and need some support. And BullPen will be there to provide relief.
MC: The charity's been really a godsend for us and four friends looking for a way to give back. And this has been an opportunity for us to do that. We're all four of us have been very fortunate to be healthy and have decent jobs. And we're searching for a way to give back of that. I often say it's almost a selfish endeavor in many ways because we're trying to feed an urge within ourselves to say, you know, justify our existence and say thank you in this. This is a forum that allows us to do selfish and selfless acts of maybe improving the lives of others.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. To share your story of making it through the pandemic, whether you’re changing up your business, have a great face mask pattern, or want to share a message of hope with your fellow Falcons, call me at 781-891-2604 or send a note to email@example.com.
KL: Cynthia Lacey, Class of ’83, wrote in from her retirement in Florida. She says: “I just heard today that a family friend has succumbed to complications from coronavirus while living in a nursing home. Not a club I ever aspired to belong to.” But Cynthia sends her regards to everyone and wishes good luck to all of the students.
KL: Mark Hurley, undergrad Class of 92 and MSF Class of 97, writes in to say he’s been busy raising his two kids, the oldest of which was sick in February. But he’s making it through with a new job that started in the nick of time, and prayer. He says, “I am able to feed my family. I have a roof over my head for now. And I pray for all who are going through difficult times.”
KL: Margie Reina, Class of 86, married to Mario Montalvo, Class of 85, is a mom of four, including two Falcons, classes of 2012 and 2024. Margie writes in to say that she and the family have been having pool parties (just them), ping pong tournaments, cookouts and movie nights. She’s been keeping up with online learning to keep her real estate business going and wishes all of you to be safe and healthy.
KL: Robyn Silverstein, also Class of 86, says she’s making it through by reaching out every day to family and friends by just being there to listen, sending positive texts, and including them in her daily thoughts. She wishes all of her fellow Falcons to stay strong, safe and healthy!
KL: And, of course, Michael and Steve of the Boston BullPen Project send their best. To learn more about their great organization, visit bostonbullpenproject.org. And I’d like to send a special congratulations to their co-founder Alan Stern, whose son Jeremy just graduated from Bentley. Jeremy is a triplet. That’s three commencement celebrations missed: Harvard, Wash U and Bentley. So, let’s all close our eyes, remember our graduation day, and give a big cheer to the Sterns and the Class of 2020. I’ll see ya next time.
Schnelle Shelby: To date, I have made 459 masks. To date, I have donated 178 of that 459.
Kristin Livingston: I don’t know about you, but I found it nearly impossible to find a face mask earlier this spring, I Googled: How to make a face mask. And then, how to sew a face mask. And then, how to find the right face mask material. And then my brain started to melt a little. Being a maker isn’t natural for everyone. And we all know how hard it’s been to even get supplies. How did finance professional Schnelle Shelby, Class of 2004, start a social good pop-up from her living room in Boston? I’m Kristin Livingston for Bentley University and this is How I’m Making It Through.
SS: It's interesting, people look at me even at work, and they say, why are you even in finance? From usually my style of dress and even the way that they put it together, my PowerPoint presentations, people are like you're in the wrong industry. How come you're not in marketing? But I've always needed a creative outlet. So I've always been, I've always been crafty. I've always been making something.
KL: Since the start of the pandemic that “something” has been fashionable, cotton face masks, from neutral tones to bright colors and African heritage patterns, under the brand name Schnelle Cares.
SS: The sewing, though, comes from my mother. My mother's a fashion designer. So, um, growing up, most of my dresses are custom made, and she’s actually she's making my wedding dress. So it just helps even mentally to be able to have another outlet and something else to find joy in. And so that's what even making the face mask has done for me, especially during this time in COVID, where I can't be with my mother because she's in New York City. So growing up, she's a fashion designer, so growing up, hearing the hum of the sewing machine meant that my mother was home, talking to her while she was at the sewing machine. So while I'm sewing, I feel like I'm doing good. But it's also I feel like bringing me even closer to my mother and the humming of the sewing machine brings me comfort during this time.
SS: And it all started because when it was mandatory to wear a face mask, I didn't have one. And neither did my fiancee. And no one I knew even knew where to get one from. So I made a face mask for the both of us. And then, of course, he posted it on Facebook.
SS: And then people like, hey, Schnelle, are you making it, and I'm like, no, I'm not, like I have a full time job. I don't have time for this, like, what are you talking about?
SS: But then I started thinking about it and I was like, wait, I actually can be of help. And of use right now. And considering that COVID disproportionately impacts Black people, I wanted to, I was like, well, I can make face masks and what can I do when I donate to make sure that they're going to people that look like me because we are literally dying from COVID. My aunt just died last week, Monday. So this is like the third death in my family of COVID so I’m directly impacted by this.
KL: Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.
SS: Thank you. I wanted to make sure that essential workers, but not just doctors and nurses, but your grocery store clerk, you’re UPS driver, like all of those people. Because when you hear the conversation about donate face masks, it's mostly like, oh, give it to the doctors and they need it. You know, I'm not saying that they don't need it, but let's not forget everybody else that's helping the world go round.
KL: Absolutely. And you were telling me earlier than Bentley played a pretty big role in how you give back to your community.
SS: Bentley, I did service learning. So my commitment to service learning was ignited at Bentley. And I also did VITA, the Voluntary Income Tax Assistance Program. So normally, if it wasn't during COVID, I would be doing VITA right now. So I wasn't doing VITA. I didn't have a way to get back. And that's just something that's part of my DNA and something that was always doing. Go to school, do community service. Work, do community service. And now I'm in COVID, and I can't do anything but like stay in my house.
SS: And then also just like what is it, the GB101 that I absolutely, the general business classes, that I absolutely despised but were super helpful even now because I'm like drawing back on HTML that I learned at Bentley to help me, like, tweak my website. I'm remembering Porter's five forces, trying to figure out my website. But, surprisingly, setting up a website is easier than I thought it was, because there are so many sites that kind of are already built in. But then you can add some HTML.
SS: So, of course, how it first started was people were contacting me on Facebook. Then I set up, and no, actually, I said selling to my Bentley friends. I said, hey, I'm donating. You know, I'm donating these masks. Do you want to buy?
SS: So they were like, yes, sure, whatever they need to see pictures of them. They were just like, whatever. This is a great cause. I need a mask. Sure. So I started donating, doing this with my Bentley friends. Then I created an Instagram page. And considering that I do have a full-time job, it was way too much conversation with people. Like, what do you have available? What's going on?
SS: I was like, wait, no, we need to streamline this. That's how I ended up with the website, which is actually hosted through Shopify, which is really, really easy. And I think that it took me a whole weekend to set it up.
SS: And I was already taking pictures as it was, or just like putting pictures and figuring it out. So and then also a Bentley alum, she reached out to me, one of my friends, Martina Wilson, she's like, hey, I'm going to create a logo for you.
KL: That’s what college friends are for, right?
SS: Oh, OK! She created a logo for me.
SS: So the Bentley community has definitely been very helpful and supportive and helping me create this and turning my hobbies, I guess, into a business and just doing a social good.
SS: So right now, in the beginning, when you buy a mask, I was donating one mask. But remember, I'm one person. So I created over a hundred masks in addition to the masks that I was selling to people. And I donated to Fenway Health, Whittier Street Health Center, Rosie's Place, as well as various pop-up food banks within the Roxbury/Dorchester community, which is a primarily Black and people of color community. So that's where I did that. After that, I was researching that and I'm still going to donate masks. I just can't donate them at the same rate because it's really a lot.
KL: So how many masks have you made and donated to date?
SS: To date, I have made 459 masks. To date, I have donated 178 of that 459.
Wow, and how long does it take to mask each mask?
SS: If I sit and focus, it's like fifteen minutes. And that's just the sewing part. That's not cutting the fabric.
KL: It doesn’t look like COVID is going anywhere, so are you going anywhere or will you keep on?
SS: The need still is for masks. So that's why I'm just like, I'm going to do this until there really isn't a need. And then, you know, the Shopify website is just like, you know, shut it down, regroup, take a breath, come back, figure it out.
SS: Every every mask I make is going to have a cause. So right now it is COVID. But I have some other fabric coming in that is going to support the NAACP. I have some other fabric that. So. So these are the things that I'm thinking about how I can, I think, find my lane in activism. And that is through art.
KL: And that’s a unique lane. Not everyone has your talent.
SS: Yeah, it's been it's been so rewarding because, you know, they say like doing community service or helping others makes you feel good. And I know that a lot of people are dealing with depression and mental health issues or just like other like retraumatization from just being COVID or being home and being isolated. So finding something to do or finding some kind of purpose has been helpful for me. But, then I also do want to caution, because some people say, oh, my gosh, I feel bad, like you want to start a whole business in the middle of a pandemic. And I'm like, the most important thing that you can do in COVID is survive. Like, that's all you need to do. That's the most important thing that that you can do and to not, you know, judge other people or how productive you are.
SS: So I just want to mention that because my friends like, oh, I feel like so useless. No, you, you are doing fine. You know, all of us figure out a different way in chaos in a different way to maintain. And somehow I managed to find opportunity within chaos, which has which has helped me tremendously. So I am grateful.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. If you want to look good and do good, visit schnellecares.com. For more episodes of this podcast, visit bentley.edu/howimadeit. And to share your story of making it through the pandemic, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll see you next time.
SS: But I do not listen to music while I'm sewing because it actually is important to listen to the sewing machine while you were sewing. Like it's just like how you're driving. You're like wait, that sound was weird in my car, like your sewing machine is the same thing. Every week, I got to clean it. I got to oil it. I got to do all those things. And we only have one sewing machine. And if this thing breaks in the middle of COVID, I do not know what I'm going to do!
Kristin Livingston: Some apps are created to be deleted—like dating apps or homebuying apps. Guillermo Fernandes, Class of 2013, not only thought his COVID-19 tracking app would hit an expiration date, too—he hoped for it. But with the recent resurgence of the virus, not only is Opendemic still open for business, Guillermo and his co-founders are pivoting once more to help their neighbors. How is Guillermo helping COVID survivors spread awareness? I’m Kristin Livingston for Bentley University and this is How I’m Making It Through.
KL: David Hachuel and Guillermo Fernandes met at Bentley in the late 2000s before David transferred to a different school. They stayed friends over the years and, in June of 2019, David created an award-winning health app. Guillermo was impressed; the app is called auggi—short for “Augmented GI”.
Guillermo Fernandez: For gastrointestinal health technically, where it's a very high end, very artificial intelligence power to manage gastrointestinal diseases for people that have like Crohn's and IBS. And basically this derives like Opendemic derives from the backbone of auggi. So a lot of the things that they test at auggie and they developed for auggie were just very easily transferable into a new server. You could just copy here, paste here. And at the end of the day, the intellectual property, it's owned by the same people. So there really isn’t an issue, right?
GF: Over a weekend, we basically copy pasted that everything. That's why it was so quick. We just wanted to expedite it. So we had that for two weeks while we recruited a team of volunteers to dedicate a bunch of hours. I'm telling you about three hundred plus hours of coding, thinking, etc. to launch what you see now.
KL: What users see now is Opendemic, an app that allows you to anonymously report and track COVID cases in your area.
KL: So this was you, David, and another Bentley friend, Alphonso Martinez. When did you guys kick this off?
GF: So I can’t tell you the exact date, but it was somewhere in early April. And it really kicked up very fast. First, we were one of the ones to be first in this space. John Hopkins had developed their dashboard since very early on because they were tracking the disease from the moment it started in China. So they have one of the most respected epidemiology centers in the United States. And they also have the funding and the resources to really get these things going on a daily basis. So they not only track COVID. They have tracked every single disease, including seasonal flu.
GF: We noticed very quickly that on their dashboard it would show the state. But, you know, states in the United States are quite large. And perfect example in New York where David is and most of the teammates. I’m in Miami, which is Florida, you saw these huge numbers, but there was absolute like it was pointless and it was meaningless because you saw the number. But there wasn't a reaction on the street. So you could say, you know, 15,000 people are infected and you would see everyday people jogging. No masks, no social distance. At the end, we sort of concluded, that was a hypothesis, that the reason why that was happening is because people didn't really feel the connection to someone that had the disease or hadn't had to go through that, you know, through the, quote unquote, pain of just being connected to it. So we said, what if we showed the granular data and let you know exactly how close this is to you and how fast it is propagating around you.
KL: The very first prototype of Opendemic went live in late March and just three weeks later the site and app we see now were launched. Colored dots on a map denote the severity of the virus: various shades of yellow to orange mark symptoms, red marks a positive case.
KL: So, I’m a user. I’m COVID positive. I put in the information myself, and it’s secure? It’s anonymous?
GF: Yes. So that the way that we did it is that we wanted to make sure that people were importing their own information, because if we were to the ones to input any data, we would have to be compliant with a mandatory statute called HIIPA
KL: You’ve probably heard of HIIPA; it’s the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which was created to protect personal healthcare information from fraud and theft. Guillermo says that infrastructure would have cost Opendemic upwards of $100,000 to implement—which they don’t have. Having users input the data themselves while remaining anonymous has circumvented the cost.
GF: So we decided we need to get around this. And the way to do it was first, we couldn't manage any personal information and nor we didn't want to. Mainly because I think that if you tell someone, you know, I'm going to capture all your data and then show on a map that you will have this, less people are going to participate. And that's why we decided to do it anonymous. They do quit reporting it and that's it. But that came with some positive aspects like that one. But it also came with some negatives, which is that if you have two devices for the platform, it's two different people. Because we don't know that it's the same you know, the same user that has two, three, four or five devices.
KL: But better to air on the side of safety, right.
GF: You're absolutely right and you're right in saying it’s better to air on the side of safety. We basically sat down and said, you know, what is a problem that we're trying to solve? So we find that the problem was that there wasn't enough awareness because people didn't feel the connection that was close to them. So we said, you know what, if the same used for report twice. Does it still meet our personal goal of showing that the disease is close to you or not? And obviously, you know, like it's as a matter of fact, he's almost you could argue it's almost better because now it's creating more consciousness.
GF: So those reports you could do either symptoms. So you could say I have the following symptoms. And we basically went to the CDC and grabbed the list of symptoms that are authorized by them because we're not medical professionals. So we didn't want to, you know, assume something. We just have to go through what they told us or they're telling everyone. And. And the last option is that you could say that you have COVID and you would define that as you wish. We were basically given this, quote unquote, trust exercise to the community. Right. Like, you could not have anything and report it, but it would still meet our personal goal of creating awareness.
KL: So if anyone is questioning the numbers that you provide every day, they can look at the CDC numbers in their state or across the country to verify. And actually let’s talk about numbers, so how many people have signed up for Opendemic?
GF: So in total, we reported almost thirty thousand. It's like twenty nine and high. Twenty nine thousand, geo locations, which basically means, it means dots on the map. Remember, we don't we don't like to talk about users mainly because, you know, we, we don't know how many people have two or three, four devices. And that's you know, it would be untrue to say that it's thirty thousand people, but we have thirty thousand basically geo locations.
KL: And is that in the U.S. or is that globally?
GF: That's globally. Yes. The city that the best in terms of reporting was Miami actually. Because we really did just. Just out of luck. Mere luck, honestly, we were able to be on the news and on newspapers and it just kept happening.
KL: And this is a free app. This is purely volunteerism on your part.
GF: Yeah, there's absolutely. And once again, like, we don't we can't monetize it. Like, that's. I want to be very clear that even if someone which did happen by the away, like there was a company, an insurance company that provides telehealth services that very early on said, you know, tell me how much it is. Like we'll basically, like, take you guys in technically a, you know, acquire you guys for you to develop this so we can like we can basically brand our name associated with this. And the problem is that once we touch a dollar, we are not 100 percent sure of how that would actually end up affecting legally. The fact that we're managing this information for which I consulted with seven or eight different professionals in the legal field. And, you know, like it just said, they didn't have a single opinion, meaning, like I got some people saying, no, no, you should be fine. And some people say, like, this is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
KL: The first half of this episode was recorded in early June. Guillermo and I next touched base on July 15. 30,000 dots has grown to 42,000 on Opendemic. The CDC is reporting 3.4 million cases in the U.S. with nearly 136,000 deaths. And Miami, where Guillermo lives, has been called the new epicenter of the virus.
KL: Now, when we first spoke, you told me this was an app that’s designed to be deleted. I’m guessing that’s still the goal but that finish line, is that even in sight now for you guys?
GF: I just want to be clear, like we would be happy if the app goes away, because it means that the problem, it's either gone or under control up to a point where we don't need to have these tools. So that is a happy scenario. And, you know, we leverage and we created something and we learned from it. And it's just something nice to have, like on our personal curriculums. But it would be good if the app dies.
GF: So we were in that process where. We were internalizing that we depend on our users to provide us with the information and the lesser motive, like the less motivated they were to provide that information, meant that they were less worried about COVID as a disease. So it was a downward spiral. And we just so happened that our conversation happened at that specific time. Two weeks after it just exploded.
KL: The weekend before Guillermo and I spoke, Florida reported more than 15,000 COVID cases in a single day, setting a state record.
GF: This is really not wave two as some people describe it, this is just the consequences of not having taken the right precautions in wave one. People were out. People were not wearing masks. People stopped washing their hands. People stopped wearing gloves when they go to high touch surfaces such as supermarkets. Not surprisingly, a lot more people start showing symptoms and then being diagnosed with the disease. Also not to blame it all on people. Also, the government finally stepped up their testing game. And by you know, by definition, the more people you test, the more positive results you will have.
GF: I think that at this point, anyone you speak to knows that the disease is spread and knows that it could be closer to them than they think. Or perhaps knows even someone that has already caught and tested positive for it. So our tool needs to adapt to solve new issues that people are having.
GF: So what do we came up with, we are going to try to address it in two different ways. The solution, number one, it's going to incorporate in our map a tool that per zip code tells you whether the velocity of contagious contagion it’s increasing or decreasing.
GF: That's no problem. That's done. That's programed. We're working on the front end right now.
GF: The second tool that we're incorporating. We're having a ton of issues with it. We try to consider privacy to be our main focus. We think that as soon as you type information, that it's identifiable. First, people would like to contribute less. OK? Because people don't want there's a socialist stigma in the United States saying that you are positive with any disease. It doesn't really matter whether it's COVID or whether it's the flu.
GF: Because what we are seeking to do is to be able to send people a text message saying that you were in contact with someone that's self-diagnosed or self-reported having the disease. So we're running called these, you know, like an anonymous alert system. The idea is that if someone reports being positive on the platform, we give them the option to communicate this information to the people they were in contact with, but quote unquote, save them the hassle or the awkwardness of having the conversation.
GF: And it just ties up with this social stigma and all these things and moral responsibilities. So we decided, well, maybe we can do something where we can basically tell these people, hey, you know, we we will notify them on your behalf and not telling them he was you. We will just send a message saying, hey, this is the Opendemic team. Someone that you had contact with requested that we notify you that they tested positive for. Go get these, you know, take precautions. It sounds nice. It is really, you know, something that we're not seeking for, the one we from the bottom of our hearts believe it can help.
GF: Regulatory-wise, it’s been a headache.
KL: Opendemic surveyed more than 170 people who had COVID—most of them said that the toughest part of having the disease, beyond the physical, was telling everyone they were positive, especially their colleagues. The headache Guillermo is talking about is a floodgate of potential problems. Will users trust that their data is safe and anonymous? If I receive a text message out of the blue, how do I know it’s real? If a user files a lawsuit, because Opendemic isn’t HIIPA compliant, Guillermo and the volunteers who have created this app will be personally responsible for the cost. And they have no way of verifying if a user is telling the truth, so lawsuits are a major concern.
GF: It's different in China. And in Singapore and other nations where they basically force you to download an app. They assign some code to that app. And anywhere your phone goes, they specifically know it. They know they know who you had contact with. And they can reverse engineer everything whenever you get you know, whenever you get a test and they test positive. They know exactly who they have to notify. Google and Apple did their own version of that, which is equally invasive, but they call it that it's disseminated privacy, basically, that it's sort of private. But it's Google and Apple, you know, they they are trillion dollar companies. We are a six volunteer, $10,000 company. So we're just trying to play the game and see how we can do this and not get in trouble.
GF: You know, if you come up with an idea that could work for Opendemic, I would definitely welcome it. If someone hearing that podcast has an idea or a recommendation, we would love to hear it and to consider it.
KL: How I Made It is produced by me, Kristin Livingston, for Bentley University. Visit Opendemic.org to see if there are any COVID cases in your neighborhood. To hear more episodes of this podcast, visit bentley.edu/howimadeit, and to share your story of making it through the pandemic, send a note to email@example.com. We’ll see you next time.
GF: I get hundreds of messages saying thank you, thank you for doing this. My favorite said, God bless you. Like we have gotten so many “God bless you” messages.
KL: As you should!
Meet the Host
Kristin Livingston has been a Bentley storyteller since 2015. You can find her writing in Bentley Magazine and her videos in your inbox. Her favorite interview so far: John Fagan ’34, age 106. (And it’s not because of the whiskey shots.) She loves hearing a great story — and hopes you do, too. How I Made It is her first podcast.
To connect with Kristin and share your story of making it, send her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.