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
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
We checked in with some RIT grads who did just that. Here are
|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
"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
"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
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
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
"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;
"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."
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.
|Shari Shifrin invented an organic, non-toxic textile
ink that is used in her T-shirt printing business.
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
"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
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?
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
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
"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
For more about Real World Success, see www.realworldsuccess.com.