Posted: May 01, 2011
People making a difference in business and beyond
For our inaugural ColoradoBiz Trendsetters, we wanted to examine people whose work in the business world didn't stop at business, people whose passion for their industries and communities transcended bottom-line success. Beyond that, we wanted to focus on people whose stories of entrepreneurial success or philanthropic endeavors have not appeared in our pages. - Mike Cote, ColoradoBiz editor
Justin Gold / Justin's Nut Butters
Justin Gold's business began as a way to rectify a major inequity between bread slices everywhere: a gazillion flavors of the "J" in PB&J, and just two humble versions of the proverbial PB: crunchy or smooth.
What about adding cinnamon or chocolate or honey? Gold wondered. How about changing up the peanut into almonds or hazelnuts? And how about making nut butter as pocket friendly as a wallet, by putting it, say, in a 1.5- ounce squeeze pack?
"I didn't invent peanut butter, and I didn't invent the squeeze pack," Gold says. "But I was the first guy to put them together in a marketable way."
What began as a yummy idea in 2004 is even yummier now, with millions in sales and eight varieties of nut butters sold on the shelves in Whole Foods, REI and a bunch of major (and minor) grocery stores and chains coast-to-coast. Retailers love the whole squeeze pack thing because they can put them next to full-sized jars so that consumers can try before they buy, Gold says.
"For consumers, for the first time ever, they can travel with a high-protein energy snack," he says. "It's become snacks at work or in between meals, and it's also portion control for people who can't buy a whole jar of chocolate hazelnut because they'd eat it all."
There's just one problem: What happens to the squeeze pack after the nut butter's gone? The company, which uses locally grown nuts and runs its offices on solar, is on a quest to help create a compostable, sustainable squeeze pack.
Gold convened a Squeeze Pack Summit in Boulder that attracted the little guys and the big ones - including Nestle and Whole Foods. There are now four different pack structures that didn't exist before, he says.
And here's another little trend: Justin's Nut Butter Cups in a handy two-pack, in two varieties: milk chocolate and dark chocolate.
Move over, Reese's.
www.justinsnutbutter.com - Lisa Ryckman
Pete Wagner / Wagner Custom Skis
When it comes to making skis, Pete Wagner breaks the mold.
Literally and figuratively.
Most custom skis come out of a pre-cast form, but Wagner blends technology and craftmanship to create something altogether different.
"We're not trying to be everything to everyone," Wagner says. "We have a specific focus, which is helping people ski at their absolute highest athletic potential."
A Midwesterner with a mechanical engineering degree and a deep love of the slopes, Wagner came to Telluride in 1998 and began making his custom skis eight years later - after he earned an MBA from CU and completed a thesis that served as his business plan.
About 1,000 pairs of skis and snowboards come out of Wagner Custom Skis' ultra-modern, solar and wind-powered shop each year, made to exacting specifications by computerized diagnostic and design tools and carrying a price tag of $1,750 to $2,700.
"We work with people all over the world - we just shipped a pair to Norway and one to Japan," Wagner says. "As a small company focusing on a certain niche, the Internet has enabled us to reach a large audience of skiers interested in the products that we make."
The process begins with detailed info - the better to map the "Skier DNA."
"It's how we define who a person is as a skier and therefore what equipment would best suit them," Wagner says. "We look at physical information like height and weight, what kind of terrain you like and any feedback on past equipment. We look at the variables, and we have a design tool that analyzes that.
"It's more science than art," he says.
The art part happens on the slopes, which Wagner employees frequent as often as possible, thanks in part to a peach of a perk.
"We have a Powder Day clause," Wagner says. "If Telluride reports more than five inches of powder, we don't show up at work until 1 p.m. so we can take advantage of it."
www.wagnerskis.com - Lisa Ryckman
Dr. Sunil Cherian / founder and CEO, Spirae, Fort Collins
Dr. Cherian founded Spirae in 2002 to develop infrastructure for next-generation distributed energy and smart-grid applications. Under Cherian's leadership, the company has emerged as a trendsetter in its space.
Spirae is actively involved in the Fort Collins Renewable and Distributed Systems Integration (RDSI) pilot project, the cornerstone of the FortZED (shorthand for the Fort Collins Zero Energy District). The mission of FortZED is to transform the city's downtown and the CSU campus into a zero-energy district.
"This summer, the installed system will be actively managing peak load on two of Fort Collins Utility's distribution feeders serving Old Town and CSU," says Cherian, labeling RDSI "a stepping stone" for realizing the Fort ZED vision.
With some of the country's most advanced smart-grid simulators and labs, Spirae is on the cutting edge of a burgeoning space. Cherian says the first wave of smart-grid innovation - "metering infrastructure upgrades, residential energy information portals, and rudimentary forms of demand response" - will go mainstream by 2014, but the evolution of the grid will continue into at least the 2020s.
Another Spirae-CSU collaboration, the newly founded Center for Smart Grid Advancement will begin offering courses on smart-grid operations this summer that will utilize Spirae's world-class InteGrid Lab and Smart Grid Network Operations Center.
"The Center concentrates Spirae's outreach efforts to provide thought leadership, demonstrations of smart-grid innovations, and hands-on training to stakeholders, consumers, and professionals," says Cherian. "Our hope for the center is that it becomes a hub for smart-grid stakeholders from around the world."
www.spirae.com; www.integridlab.com; www.fortzed.com - Eric Peterson
Dafna Michaelson / Social entrepreneur / The Journey Institute
As Dafna Michaelson says, "It takes a little crazy to make a difference."
"When you're doing something you're passionate about, you're doing it 24/7. You've got to be a little crazy to work that hard," she says. "But you've got to channel that crazy into your passion."
In 2009, Michaelson started a project that might have sounded a little daft to anyone who lacks her passion for community building and workable answers. She called it the 50 in 52 Journey, and it took her to 50 states in 52 weeks to find people who were solving problems for themselves and those around them.
It taught her, she says, what it truly means to be a social entrepreneur: doing good in a way that supports both your family and your community.
"I learned ways people were coming together and rallying around a problem and not waiting for others to solve it," says Michaelson, whose background is in nonprofits. "My personal takeaway was to embrace my entrepreneurial side while not ignoring the part that is very much connected to and committed to the betterment of the community and our country."
Out of that project came the Journey Institute, which has developed tools and materials to help communities become their own problem identifiers and problem solvers.
The latest piece in her personal and professional journey: Her radio program, "Building Community with Dafna Michaelson," features community problem solvers and idea generators from across the country. She's also working on a PBS series, and she conducts workshops on the same topic.
"We don't come into the community with the answers. You have the capacity to identify the challenges facing your community and develop the solutions," Michaelson says. "We're just going to pull it out of you."
www.journeyinstitute.org - Lisa Ryckman
Keith Montoya / president of D1 Solutions (formerly Doc1 Solutions), Denver
After working for standout law firms like Patton Boggs, Keith Montoya blazed his own trail when he founded D1 Solutions in 2002. Not even a decade later, Montoya has earned numerous awards and accolades as D1 has emerged as an industry leader.
D1 expanded to Washington, D.C., last year to focus on the federal market, Montoya says. "To really go after that market, you have to have a presence in the District," he says. "We already had a presence in Denver, the second largest federal hub. Now we have a presence in the largest federal hub as well." Since the expansion, D1 landed contracts with the U.S. Government Printing Office, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of the Interior.
Also in the last year, Montoya launched CM Strategy, a federal contracting consulting firm, with D1 CEO James Crane. "We have a lot of people asking what we did, how we did it, and how they can do it," Montoya says.
So how did you do it, Keith? "Identifying the buyers and going out and hitting the streets," he says. "We did all of the pre-work first" - i.e. getting the relevant clearances and certifications.
D1 is also bucking the status quo by being "software agnostic," Montoya adds. "Most of our competitors have proprietary software they try to shove down their clients' throats," Montoya says. Another trend his company is setting: "Instead of going to the law firm, we go straight to the corporate client. We did that with Qwest and won a long-term contract. Law firms are spending hundreds of thousands if not millions of their clients' dollars on our services - they like to know where it goes."
www.doc1solutions.com - Eric Peterson
Brice and Karen Hoskin / Mountain Boy Sledworks & Montanya Distillers
Brice Hoskin loves wooden sleds, so he makes those. His wife, Karen, is a rum aficionado, so she makes that.
Then they sell them to people who want the best of either - or both.
The Hoskins' Mountain Boy sledworks opened in 2002 and has won renown as the nation's top maker of handmade wooden sleds, with names like Elegant Flyer and Bambino Superior. Both of those sleds are made in their Silverton workshop, which is being moved to Crested Butte. It produces just 400 of the company's 14,000 sleds: kicksleds, which are hard to outsource, and something really special.
"We make a line of really fancy sleds," Hoskin says. "People who want that incredibly cool gift and are willing to pay $500 - we have that amazing sled for them."
The other sleds, along with wagons and ornaments, are built in China and then imported (Brice Hoskin, who is fluent in Mandarin, inspects the China operation's products several times a year).
And then, there's the rum.
The Hoskins started Montanya Distillers three years ago, after they decided that the Rocky Mountains had all the right ingredients to make a great rum: better water, higher altitude and fresher barrels. It seems to be working.
"We're winning awards like crazy," Brice Hoskin says. Awards include a gold medal for Montanya Platino at last year's San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
He attributes the rum's success to amazing water and altitude aging.
"At altitude, you get lots of temperature variations from day to night. We keep our barrels in a building that heats and cools in that same cycle. It makes it fantastic."
Great sled, great rum - do they ever mix those?
"Officially, no," Brice Hoskin says. "Unofficially? Of course!"
www.mountainboysleds.com - Lisa Ryckman
Jack and Carmen Barker / founders and owners Innovative Water Technologies, Rocky Ford/Dumont
Through their Dumont-based water and wastewater services firm, AAA Operations, the Barkers distributed the General Electric Homespring water filtration system. Impressed, Jack asked, "Wouldn't it be neat if we could get this technology to the people who need it the most?"
The pair spent most of 2007 developing the Sunspring, which Jack describes as "a portable, self-contained solar-powered, microbiological water purifier." Word got out, and the Barkers were alerted to an orphanage in India in need of clean drinking water. They decided to install a Sunspring on their own dime. Subsequently, more than 70 Sunspring units have been shipped from the Innovative Water Technologies factory in Rocky Ford to Haiti, Mexico, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other locations.
Under optimal conditions, one $25,000 Sunspring can purify 5,000 gallons of water daily for 10 years. The Barkers see it as a natural fit for not only the developing world, but national and state parks and the military. To support troops in Afghanistan, the latter largely delivers bottled water by convoy - a dangerous task with a daily price tag of $500,000 for every 20,000 troops. The Barkers say about $1 million worth of Sunsprings would support the same number of troops for a decade.
The Barkers are motivated by things other than profits. "A child dies every 20 seconds from unsafe drinking water," Jack says. "Half of the world's hospital beds are filled with people with waterborne illnesses. It's statistics like these that drive us."
Carmen says they plan to set up an associated foundation to raise funds and send Sunsprings to needy communities. "Everybody who hears about it wants to help raise money," she says.
www.innovativeh2o.com - Eric Peterson
Pam Proto / Proto's Pizza and 3L Foundation
Pam Proto loves talking about pizza almost as much as she loves talking about Thai orphans.
The founder of the six-location Proto's Pizzeria Napoletana is also a cofounder of 3L Foundation, a nonprofit that helps abused, abandoned, and exploited children in Thailand. A few years ago Proto traveled to Thailand with Ashley Syms, who now lives in Boulder but traveled to Thailand as a child, doing volunteer work with her parents. Proto and Syms visited an orphanage in Pattaya, Thailand.
The experience moved Proto. "Your heart breaks, and you can't even stop crying, so you have to help," she says. "I decided I could not be the only beneficiary of the success of Proto's Pizza."
She and Syms visited the orphanage several times, and in 2008 they met Matt Cline, an Ohio-based photographer working on a book on the orphanage. The three launched the 3L Foundation - the three L's stand for Learn, Laugh, Love - in 2009.
The foundation recently finished its first project, the Dining Sala. It's a safe place for orphans and for kids from the slums to eat together. For their next project, 3L hopes to open a drop-in center, where slum kids can spend the day while their parents look for employment.
Proto hopes to open another Proto's, which serves thin crust pizzas with gourmet toppings. Proto's has locations in Denver, Boulder, Longmont, Lafayette, Broomfield and Boise, Idaho.
She is also trying to improve her Thai language skills. "It's empowering for them and for me. There is not any English spoken in the slums."
- Nora Caley
Tracy Jenkins Winchester / CoLours TV
Tracy Jenkins Winchester says there is room for inspirational programs on television. There is also room for more multiculturalism, and as president and CEO of the cable network CoLours TV, she is putting more of both on the air.
CoLours TV is available to 14 million households through Dish Network and other carriers. The network offers talk shows, cooking shows, entertainment, and documentary-type programming, all focusing on connecting cultures.
"It's real TV as opposed to reality TV," Winchester says. "The focus is on self improvement."
Think of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "The Suze Orman Show," and "Dr. Phil," she says, but with an African-American, Asian and Hispanic perspective.
Winchester has worked in the cable television industry for 26 years. She graduated from Georgetown Law in 1985, worked for law firms, and knew she didn't want to practice law. She won a fellowship from the Walter Kaitz Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting diversity in the cable television industry. At that time there were three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) and cable consisted mostly of Ted Turner's TBS and CNN.
Winchester went on to work for Jones Intercable and for Fox Family Channel. She joined CoLours TV in 1999. Today there are approximately 500 channels.
The nonprofit Black Star Communications launched CoLours TV in 1999. Instead of traditional paid advertising, businesses pay for sponsorships, similar to public television. Winchester says they plan to launch another cable network with paid advertising. They're also looking into expanding the Hispani programming, such as telenovellas with English subtitles.
"The whole family can watch," Winchester says. "From grandma to teenagers."
Nicole DeBoom / Skirt Sports CEO, Boulder
Nicole DeBoom's epiphany came on a run through downtown Lyons in 2003.
As the former Yale University swimmer and current professional triathlete ran past store fronts she saw her reflection, and it made her feel "like I look like a boy." She was outfitted in all-black workout gear and began brainstorming ways she could still feel pretty even while working out.
The idea she came up with was a running skirt. She started Skirt Sports based on an idea she originally scribbled on a napkin following that run. "Pretty" is what she wrote down. The company enjoyed modest growth over its first five years before a 50 percent increase in sales in year six. She projects another 50 percent increase this year.
"It is really taking off," DeBoom said. "We're outfitting women head to toe."
But the Skirt Sports story isn't simply a good business idea manifested. DeBoom said her mission is to make women happy and inspire them to exercise.
"I don't want to be known just for our product," DeBoom said. "I want to be known for our inspirational side." By that she means inciting people to take action.
Skirt Sports sponsors a series of 5K and dash races around the country designed to promote opportunities to meet new people. The races, dubbed "Skirt chasers," begin with women running first followed a few minutes later by men.
Skirt Sports also started a mentoring program where women who already have found the power of running seek out friends or loved ones who would benefit from more exercise and encourage them to run, too. They then apply for the program in pairs, and the mentor can steadily influence her partner.
- Kyle Ringo
Linda and Peter Jeschofnig
Retired educators Linda and Peter Jeschofnig weren't necessarily looking to start a business in 1994 when they developed the idea to provide Labpaqs for Peter's online science students at Colorado Mountain College.
But they recognized their solution for the student's problem - providing an at-home ‘wet' lab element to the class - was a groundbreaking idea in distance learning and they later founded a business that has developed into Hands-On Labs, Inc.
"We really want to make the world a better place by improving people's lives through science education," Linda Jeschofnig said.
The Jeschofnigs, both Fulbright professors, have since collaborated with colleagues to produce a variety of Labpaqs in all major sciences for students studying in distance learning situations at the college and high school levels. Satisfying the lab component is a major part of whether chemistry and other science classes will count toward a degree at the college level.
"The way that you learn science content is to physically perform experiments and making observations yourself," Linda Jeschofnig said. "You have that firsthand knowledge."
Linda's expertise in business as a business professor was an integral factor in taking the idea to help one small group and building it into a business that helps many. When they aren't driving their business, the Jeschofnigs travel the world working to "help elevate the rest of the world" immunizing children and teaching the less fortunate.
- Kyle Ringo