Alumni share their vision on the art and science of entrepreneurism
iscovering. Reinventing. Solving. The quest for the next big thing has driven humans for centuries. But a rising creative economy is triggering a boom in entrepreneurism. We asked Sac State alumni involved in the surge to weigh in on what’s making Sacramento a hotbed for bold thinking.*
Eight entrepreneurs—representing sectors ranging from fashion to finance, active children to efficient energy—gathered in Sacramento’s booming midtown to talk “a-ha” moments, learning through failure and how Sac State fueled their passion to make the leap to boss/owner.
Moderator Gordon Fowler, Sac State Magazine advisory committee and founder of 3fold Communications, got the ball rolling by asking the group to share, “Just what is entrepreneurism?”
Gordon Fowler, 3fold Communications: What does ‘entrepreneurship’ mean to you personally and professionally?
Clarisse Baca ’12, ’15 MBA, co-founder of children’s activity planning website Activity Jungle: It’s an everyday rush of creating something new. But it’s also innovating for something that’s already existed. Maritza Davis, Unseen Heroes: I look at entrepreneurship as risk-taking and passion as a two-fold thing. You’re willing to go out on a limb and it’s definitely a risk you’re taking because you’re putting a lot out there: finances, time.
Stacey Powell,’92, founder and chief creative officer for the Finance Gym: I think it’s trying to find a way to fix a need that’s out there but isn’t currently being served. In my realm, finance, people aren’t willing to talk about their money so there’s something missing in the financial services industry. I built around that.
James Chu ’13, founder of travel clothing site Haven & Florin: It’s to be able to see opportunity and when you do, applying action. It’s also being open to learning because this whole process is all about learning and how you can learn more to get to where you want to be.
Roshaun Davis ’08, co-founder of public relations and event planning firm Unseen Heroes: I think it’s vision and
implementation. You need to have a little of both in order to push things forward.
Kraig Clark ’91, co-founder and chairman of renewable energy firm JLM Energy: It’s building something from nothing, and then ultimately figuring out what gaps are there in the industry, trying to fill those gaps and solve problems.
John Meidinger ’09, MBA ’16, co-founder of children’s activity planning website Activity Jungle: And doing so with limited resources (laughter). I think when you have to deal with limited resources you have to be efficient and it’s all you. It’s all on your own.
Eric Ullrich, co-founder of the Hacker Lab: For me, it started out because I didn’t want to work for anyone (laughter). So the first goal was to create my own job, and create my own culture and style. But it’s grown from there. Creating jobs for other people and making sure you can continue to pay those people has become top of mind.
Gordon Fowler: I say that you can identify the entrepreneur—no matter the size of the company—because they are either the very best employee or the very worst employee. There’s never any in between, because they always think they know how to do it better.
The essence of being entrepreneurial
Gordon Fowler: What do you consider the traits of an entrepreneur? What do they need to possess to be successful?
Stacey Powell: I think as you’re ‘bootstrapping’ one of the most important things is you need to be comfortable enough with doing things that make you uncomfortable. Atsome point you have to put yourself in every position, even for just a little while, even if you don’t want to.
Maritza Davis ’07, co-founder of public relations and event planning firm Unseen Heroes: You have to be a decision-maker. You need to be able to make decisions and you need to make them quickly because they can make or break your company. You can’t let things sit too long.
Clarisse Baca: I think character and motivation are important. Having a role in mind, asking yourself every day, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Because the road is bumpy. If you’re not really into it, it’s easy to get lost.
Gordon Fowler: How many of you are operating the way you first laid out your business plan?
(Laughter and shaking heads)
Roshaun Davis: You need flexibility. There’s ups, there’s downs. And you have to be able to change things up. And if things aren’t working, you have to do it a different way. You need to be able to roll with those punches. You also have to be passionate. You have to be the first one in, and the last one out, at all times.
The lessons of failure
Gordon Fowler: Let’s talk about failure. It’s not in our DNA to fail so what have you learned from failure and how has it been a part of your experience?
Roshaun Davis: For me failure doesn’t mean the definition that most people think. In the many ventures I was involved in before this, I learned things along the way. If something comes up now I think, ‘I dealt with that years ago. I got it. I know how to do it now.’ If I wasn’t okay with failure, I wouldn’t be where I am now doing what I’m doing.
Kraig Clark: It’s a big journey and you are going to have a whole series of failures. It accelerates thinking on your feet, preparing and trying not to repeat yourself. You just have to keep going. Maritza Davis: Sometimes the best thing to have happen is failing on certain things. That’s when you really see those holes in your company or what needs to be filled in so that you can propel and move forward. Sometimes I want something to fail just so we can fix it and make it better.
James Chu: I think you’ve got to see the bigger picture. It’s easy to look at everything with a microscope and the smallest little bumps. But you can’t fixate on it. Those small bumps are not going to affect the overall picture. The “a-ha! moment” Gordon Fowler: What was the moment you knew you had something? What was that spark?
Stacey Powell: With Finance Gym, literally I woke up in the middle of the night because I was trying to figure out how to help people who have been struggling with their money and don’t have money to pay for finance coaching. And I woke up with this concept of a 24-Hour Fitness that looks like a coffee shop. If you can get people in talking about their money, then you can impact their lives.
Roshaun Davis: When I first started Unseen Heroes it was really just backing for my band. I was doing the marketing, the PR, the booking and every Sunday there was this guy from another band that would call and ask, ‘Can you do what you do for your band for me?’ I finally thought, ‘Why not? Why don’t we start in business out of this? If this guy will pay us we can get others to.’
Sacramento: a hotbed for entrepreneurs
Gordon Fowler: Entrepreneurship is growing in the region. There’s really an entrepreneurial backbone. How has the region welcomed you?
Maritza Davis: In Sacramento we are supportive of our own. If you are a Sacramentan or if you’ve been invested in the community for a while, people want to help you. The city’s in an upward swing. It’s one of the best times to be here. People here are willing to open doors if you are passionate. There’s a lot of talent coming out and as someone who’s hiring employees, you’re always looking for good candidates.
James Chu: I was born and raised here, and people talk about the small town feel. In this era of growth that’s not a bad thing. By having a small town feel, everyone is accessible. Everyone wants the city to grow and to be innovative.
Made at Sac State
Gordon Fowler: Tell me about your experience at Sac State? How did your experience help prepare you for what you are doing today?
Eric Ullrich: I had an unusual experience in that I only took one semester but the semester transformed my career. And my life. I was taking math classes, considering getting a master’s degree when I went to the Career Connection. Through that I got my first internship, which is what totally started my career.
John Meidinger: Activity Jungle is truly a ‘made at Sac State’ business. We are a tenant in the Center for Entrepreneurship. The connections we made, the networking are all from that. When we have an IPO I can’t wait to give back to Sac State.
Clarisse Baca: As an international student, it gave me the opportunity to learn a new language and culture and to get an education. What made me make the decision to come to Sac State is that it made me feel like family. They support you in your professional and personal life and they helped me to become a leader.
Gordon Fowler: Any last words of wisdom for up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
Roshaun Davis: Collaboration is key. That’s the vibe we have. As long as we can maintain that and collaborate we can keep growing.
Maritza Davis: Keep learning. We’ll never know everything. There’s so much out there to be inspired by.
James Chu: Don’t be afraid to fail. Because if you fail, you learned something new.
Eric Ullrich: There’s no excuses. It’s time to get out there and start something.
Stacey Powell: Data says with the next wave of graduates, there will not be as many jobs so people will have to default for entrepreneurism. My advice is to be prepared and ask for help.
John Meidinger: When I was in high school I didn’t know what entrepreneurism was. It’s important for Sac State to outreach to high school students and especially to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Kraig Clark: Persist and move forward and follow that passion that you have. There’s going to be a breakthrough.
Clarisse Baca: I would tell women in general, and especially minority women, that you can do it. It doesn’t matter your background, immigration status, it’s possible.
* Some quotes have been modified for brevity and clarity.