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Self-Propelled

RIT alumni talk about the challenges and rewards of building their own businesses

Making decisions for yourself, reaping the rewards of your own efforts, getting the glory when things go well, taking the blame when things go awry - building a business can be exhilarating.

It's not easy, and it's not for everyone. "But once you taste that freedom, you don't want to go back to working for someone," says J. Anthony Askew '85, owner of James Anthony Askew Capital Management in Albany.

There's something in the mind, in the make-up, of some people that makes them seek more than a career," says James Froehler '79, chairman of People's Pottery Inc.

"Being an entrepreneur is all about the word vision,' seeing into the future," says Andrew Baker '79, founder of Contact Lenses Online.

It should come as no surprise that many RIT graduates number among America's 13 million entrepreneurs. "An RIT education is intended to develop the traits characteristic of entrepreneurs, including courage, confidence and creativity," says RIT Provost Stanley McKenzie. "Our students acquire the technical training and leadership skills necessary to turn a good idea into a business opportunity."

We checked in with some RIT grads who did just that. Here are their stories:

With Jim and Carla Froehler at the helm, People's Pottery has grown from two stores to 73 in five years.

James Froehler '79

When Jim and Carla Froehler bought People's Pottery Inc. in 1996, the business had two stores. At the end of 2000, there were 73 stores and no end to the growth in sight. The launch of the company's first store in Hawaii in December 2000 opened a whole new world: From there, a jump to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and even Australia is possible.

"We believe that's just the start for us in the Pacific Rim," says Jim Froehler.

The husband-and-wife team learned retailing through years of work with important retailers including Hickory Farms of Ohio, Borders Books & Music, and others. When People's Pottery caught their attention, their research persuaded them that upscale stores offering beautiful, hand-crafted items could be successful almost anywhere.

"We looked around the country and found mostly small Mom and Pop' stores and seasonal craft shows offering this kind of merchandise," Froehler says. The key to reaching a wider audience, they believed, lay in presentation and service. "We've packaged the concept, with careful attention to the way the stores look, the music, lighting - and we're probably the only retailers who display merchandise by color."

People's Pottery stores stock about 5,000 different items from more than 1,000 American arts and crafts studios.

In 1999, People's Pottery was named No. 1 on the annual Rochester Top 100 list of privately held companies. On that occasion, Jim and Carla Froehler presented $10,000 in company stock to RIT along with equal gifts to four other area educational institutions.

Education is important to the couple; Froehler credits professors in RIT's College of Business with providing the practical, real world experience that aroused Froehler's interest. "I was just mesmerized by that type of information," says Froehler, who received undergraduate and graduate degrees from RIT. "It helped me find the things I was capable of achieving."

For more information, see www.peoplespottery.com.

Bradley Fluke '84

Brad Fluke was the fifth employee of Silicon Laboratories when he was hired as vice president of marketing in May 1997. Today, the Austin, Texas, semiconductor manufacturer is a publicly held company with 250 employees in three divisions and annual sales of more than $100 million.

The company was founded in 1996 by three "brilliant engineering types" who left another semiconductor company. Silicon's first product was the DAA silicon (direct access arrangement), a computer chip-set that could replace a computer modem sub-assembly, traditionally made up of numerous discrete components. Since that first product, Silicon Labs has introduced a number of innovative semiconductor products that serve wireline, wireless, and optical networking applications.

"The success of the company and its products has been very exciting," says Fluke, an RIT electrical engineering grad who is vice president and general manager of the company's wireline products division, in charge of more than 50 people.

Interestingly, of the company's nine-member executive staff, three are RIT electrical engineering alumni: Gary Gay '73, VP of sales; Jim Templeton '86, head of the optical networking division; and Fluke.

"The electrical engineering program at RIT is very demanding," comments Fluke. "I know I found it very tough. Certainly, RIT gave me a solid technical foundation, and more than anything, taught me to work hard and not give up on my goals."

For more information, see www.siliconlaboratories.com.

Andrew Baker '79

Back in 1994, when most people had barely heard of the Internet, Andrew Baker came up with the idea of selling contact lenses online.

"It was the information dirt road at that time," recalls the Peabody, Mass., optometrist. But Baker had patients and friends working in the Boston-area's thriving high-tech industry, and he had a vision of things to come.

His venture, Contact Lenses Online, was immediately successful, with gross sales doubling every year. A large percentage of sales were to overseas customers.

Massachusetts optometrist Andrew Baker started a business that was the first company to sell contact lenses online.

But Baker realized that sooner or later, competition would make the business less profitable. In 1999, with four companies offering to buy the business, he decided it was time to move on.

He ultimately accepted an offer from a Utah company, 1-800-CONTACTS.

Baker, who credits his education at RIT's College of Science and National Technical Institute for the Deaf with providing the tools "to develop a scientific mind and a business mind," expects to launch another business in the near future. Meanwhile, he enjoys counseling others in business matters.

"I do not suggest that anybody can be an entrepreneur," he says. "Many people have good ideas. It's another thing to make them become reality. A true entrepreneur is able to recognize a need in an area where demand exceeds supply, and set up a structure to meet the demand."

Anthony Askew '85

"I'm not lighting cigars with $100 bills, but I'm happy with my progress," says Anthony Askew, who founded the Albany, N.Y., based James Anthony Askew Capital Management in 1996.

Askew, who has a B.S. in business administration from RIT, has been interested in the stock market since high school, and operated an ice cream vending business during his years at RIT. He spent a decade working for one of the top brokerage firms before starting his firm "with a laptop, an orange crate and an old oak desk." Today, he has three employees and a growing client base.

He jokes that he "works half days "just 12 hours." And sometimes he's in his office round the clock. But Askew loves what he's doing. As an employee of a big firm, he hustled to bring in new customers to meet quotas. On his own, he works with individuals and small businesses he gets to know personally.

"There's more to success than the amount of money you get out of it," he says. "I've learned a lot about the industry - and about myself. Sometimes I just can't get out of bed fast enough."

Shari Shifrin '85

"To tell the truth," says School of Art graduate Shari Shifrin, "owning a business was something I never wanted to do."

But when she worked for others, she quickly rose to a leadership role because she knew more about the business than anyone else. "I realized the value of the education I got at RIT. I learned about art but also the management side."

Shari Shifrin invented an organic, non-toxic textile ink that is used in her T-shirt printing business.
Twelve years ago she became co-owner of the company now known as Planet Ink Inc. in North Fort Myers, Fla. They produce organic cotton T-shirts printed with a patented botanical ink formula invented by Shifrin. Customers include many environmental groups.

The development of the organic ink came out of a concern that inks used to print 90 percent of T-shirts contain toxic chemicals.

"I've been a textile screen printer for 17 years," says Shifrin. "When my son was born in 1993 with minor birth defects, I began researching the effects of plastisol inks on screen printers. In 1994 I developed and patented a botanical, all-natural, water-based textile ink.

"A lot of what I came up with was founded right there at RIT," says Shifrin. "One of my professors, Donald Bujnowski, was very concerned about toxins in ink, and always insisted we wear gloves, goggles and respirators. When I called him years later when I was working on the formula, he was really helpful."

Today, Shifrin says, many people appreciate the value of Planet Ink's Earth-friendly approach. "When you go into business, I think you need to think about the customers and suppliers you'll be dealing with," says Shifrin. "I love being involved with people in the environmental groups."

For more information, see www.planet-ink.com.

Jim Rivas '85

When SYSCO Foodservice invites customers to a trade show, the sales reps expect to take tons of orders.

School of Printing Management and Sciences alumnus Jim Rivas has found a niche providing turnkey services including promotional printing, catalogs, and ordering documents to companies sponsoring trade shows. Additionally, his company provides software and expertise for attendee registration and on-site document processing to provide customers with instant answers, enabling them to concentrate more on their core business. Showmaster Systems, a division of Rivas' New Orleans-based company, Demand Publishing Inc., now has 38 full-time employees working all over the country.

Rivas joined his family's business in 1987. However, desktop publishing had a disastrous impact on the business forms industry and he closed the company in 1993. The enterprising RIT graduate began putting his printing expertise to use in a new area. The first customers for the trade-show service were former customers of the old business.

"A lot of people in the early days thought I was crazy," says Rivas. "They didn't think big companies would outsource this work."

The strong focus on customer service drives the business. "When they're doing a trade show, it's their big day in the sun," says Rivas. "We make sure they look good and have the tools to be more successful at their core business."

For more information, see www.showmaster.com.

Susan Holliday '85

Susan Holliday's first challenge when she bought the Rochester Business Journal in 1988 was to reassure the 25 employees that the publication would stay in business.

The bigger issue was turning RBJ into a viable, visible and respected voice in the Rochester community. "We were not well known," says Holliday, who earned an MBA from RIT in 1985.

And just as she was getting started, along came an economic downturn.

Tenacity, vision and serious journalism ultimately paid off. Today, RBJ has 30 employees. The weekly print edition has 10,000 subscribers and a readership of 50,000, and since 1995, there's been a daily online version.

"We were the first business journal to have a Web site," says Holliday. "We felt strongly that we should be in on this, as a way for us to widen our reach. As the Web has evolved, we've evolved with it."

Holliday, a Rochester native who worked for a financial institution before becoming publisher of RBJ, says building a business of her own has been very rewarding in many respects.

"I think we have been able to establish ourselves as a partner with the business community," notes Holliday, who is active in many civic organizations and serves on RIT's Board of Trustees.

"It's personally satisfying to be able to provide employment for 30 people producing something where everyone can see their contribution every week. And I believe it's significant that we produce a product, rather than a service."

Read Rochester Business Journal online at www.rbj.net.

Roch Whitman '81, '86 and Brian Lane '80, '85

You're a great cook and you want to open a restaurant. What's the first thing you do?

Roch Whitman
Brian Lane
Call Whitman Lane Associates. Founded 10 years ago by two friends who met at RIT, the company advises restaurants, institutional food services, hotels and corporations on a range of business issues.

"We've done a lot of start-ups," says Roch Whitman, who lives in Rochester. His partner, Brian Lane, lives in Kennebunkport, Maine. Both received B.S. and M.B.A. degrees at RIT and both worked at hotels, restaurants and resorts before combining forces; Whitman also had experience working with a non-profit organization in public relations and development.

Whitman Lane is allied with Yui & Bloch Design Inc., a Manhattan architectural firm. "We can offer turnkey service," says Whitman. "We can do virtually everything, from design right through opening day."

The firm's strengths, he believes, are in financial planning and management. Among their projects: They've been working with a superstar chef who plans to open two restaurants in New York City in 2001, and last year they helped open the Firehouse Restaurant and Brewing Co. in Illinois, a concept restaurant destined to become a chain.

Their RIT experience laid a firm foundation for what they're doing today.

"I learned so much at RIT and I use what I learned," says Whitman. "The practicality of this program is what makes it so good."

For more on the company, see www.whitmanlane.com.

Richard Morris '83

Since Richard Morris founded Real World Success in 1995, the company has delivered motivational training and custom workshops to Fortune 500 companies including AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies, and Coors Brewing Co. as well as small businesses, non-profit agencies and schools across the country.

The company offers training programs on communication, negotiation, teamwork, time management, positive attitude and other performance-related topics. In 1999, Real World Success added a speakers bureau of more than 18 experts.

"When I first started Real World Success, my dedication was to help deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals achieve success in their endeavors," says Morris.

Morris, who received a B.S. in computer science, says the company's services are now available to all professionals, not just the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

The winner of an NTID Achievement Award as well as an IBM Quality Award and other honors, Morris credits his experience at RIT and NTID with helping him overcome challenges to his own success.

"The academic skills I learned at RIT allowed me to land a job with a Fortune 100 corporation where I learned how corporate America operated," he says.

"It was also at RIT and NTID where I first learned that I have a great passion in helping other people achieve success in their endeavors."

For more about Real World Success, see www.realworldsuccess.com.




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