Perhaps we've all had a flash of inspiration that we were positive would lead to success: the million-dollar idea, the can't-miss business concept, the surefire solution to a vexing problem.
While most of us never get those great ideas off the drawing board, the Grinnellians on these pages have turned their visions into reality. From part-time businesses to companies with a global reach, they've found willing buyers for their innovative approaches.
Their stories are inspiring and engaging -- and we hope they might even motivate you to take action on your own grand plan:
- Animal Instincts ( Dierdre Farr '75 )
- VersaTile ( Ed Gates '79 )
- This Is Your Life ( Ellen Leupker '64 )
- Betting on the House ( Rob Buntz '74 )
- Picture Perfect ( Asha Moran '92 )
- One Man's Trash, Another Man's Treasure ( Steve Korstad '72 )
- The Best Medicine (Atulya Risal '90 )
Like most veterinarians, Dierdre Farr '75 got into the field because she wanted to heal animals, but after more than a decade in practice, she began to fear that even her best work might be doing more harm than good. Many of the treatments she prescribed for animals were painful, invasive, expensive, and worst of all, didn't always result in improvement.
"Western medicine does a lot of good things, but it's a flawed system," she says.
Frustrated by the limitations she saw in her field, she was on the verge of letting her license lapse when she began studying Eastern philosophy and medicine. She was intrigued by its non-invasive, holistic approach to health, and when she met another vet who'd transferred the approach to his practice, she was convinced she'd found a way to reconcile her desire to heal with her interest in compassionate care. "This was a gentler medicine," she says. "It fit my personality."
She took classes to learn how to do animal acupuncture, chiropractic care, and herbal medicine, and she began rethinking the way she practiced veterinary medicine. To rebuild her career, she bought a house in Des Moines with an attached clinic, and rethought her previous approach to the animals she treated.
From beginning to end, Farr was committed to keeping animals calm and comfortable: instead of practicing on cold and sterile exam tables, she uses a futon, and she'll often spend more than an hour with an animal on the initial visit so that she can get a good sense of the animal's physical and emotional health before suggesting treatment. Her recommendations range from diet and lifestyle changes to acupuncture and chiropractic care; she uses no traditional Western-style medicine.
It wasn't long she found a devoted base of clients. "I have a group of clients who already have a holistic bent and just like the philosophy of care, but I also see people who have dead-ended with Western medicine," she says. She finds that her methods are particularly effective for older animals with chronic conditions such as arthritis.
She admits that Eastern medicine can't solve every malady. "It's not usually for acute situations," she acknowledges. "I always tell people that if my appendix is about to burst, I'm not going to go on acupuncture." Still, she believes that her approach holds an essential place in the spectrum of medical care, and she's earned the respect of many other veterinarians in the area, who will frequently refer patients to her if they believe an animal could benefit from her techniques.
As health care for animals continues to rise, Farr says it's time that people recognize the benefits of alternative medicine. "We're willing to spend thousands of dollars a year to pay for medicines for our pets, but so much of it is a crutch to deal with the side effects of other drugs.
"Sometimes less is more," she says. "I think there's a place for all of us."
See more at: Des Moines Veterinary Acupuncture.
Ed Gates '79 knows that when most people think of tile, they think square, and they think floors: kitchens, bathrooms, and patios, mostly. But as a founder of Aloe Tile, he'd like to see people expand their horizons a bit. "We try to define tile as we're going," he says of the two-person shop that he runs with his wife, Cornelia. "You can do anything with a tile -- it can be interlocking, like a puzzle piece, or tessellating, like an M.C. Escher drawing -- a bird turning into a wave turning into a fish. It's open to your imagination."
You won't find his tiles at Home Depot or Lowe's, but if you visit one of the 20 or so public schools, the bus shelter, or the two public rest areas where his work has been commissioned, you'll see his creations on the walls. For more than a decade, Gates has been handcrafting tiles to use for murals, wallhangings, tables, and as commemorative pieces. "People want beauty and color in their lives," he says. "[Handmade] tile can express a person's individuality."
Gates first got interested in ceramics in junior high. He bought his first wheel in high school, and at Grinnell, he ran campus workshops in pottery in the basement of Darby. After earning a degree in ceramics from Kansas City Art Institute, he bounced around the Midwest before landing in Texas, where he took on jobs as a potter, woodworker, and teacher.
It was while working as a teacher at the Corpus Christi Creative Arts Center that he began delving into tile more seriously. The local regional transit authority wanted to work closely with the center and the community to beautify a bus shelter, and Gates helmed the project, working with art educators, students, and other artists within the community to create a mural of tiles.
Gates loved the project, which allowed him to focus on his art while working with the community, and that became the basis for Aloe Tile. He began taking on other tile projects, like murals for public schools and (perhaps more surprisingly) rest areas. "When people get off the road, they don't want to see an old, scary rest stop," he says. "They want to be at a place where they can breathe and stretch. [The murals] are etched and hand-designed and painted. It's a lovely thing."
His tiles, which are often quite detailed, look almost like paintings. They might feature birds, animal, people, or landscapes. And while many are designed to be stand-alone pieces, others are incorporated as accents into projects with "field tile" -- the solid color tiles that most people think of when they think of tile.
Now working in a large warehouse just a block from Corpus Christi Bay, he and his wife keep busy working on large beautification projects and smaller works including thousands of "ceramic documents" created to commemorate and recognize outstanding service, tenure on boards, or special events.
While his services are in demand, he's happy just where he is. He says he never wants to be sitting in an office just overseeing tile work -- he's committed to keeping his hands in clay.
"Our interest isn't in getting bigger and bigger," he says. "Our interest is in making something better every day. We're trying to create beauty."
See more at: Aloe Tile Works
When Ebenezer Scrooge tossed and turned his way through an evening full of nightmares in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, he was having more than just a rough night -- he was undergoing a life review, says Ellen Leupker '64. By examining the events of his earlier life through older, wiser eyes, he began to understand who he was -- and how he might still change.
Most of us won't have such perfectly-sequenced, epiphany-revealing dreams, but Luepker, the founder of Living Portraits, believes that the life review process is for more than just characters in novels. "[A life review] is for many people -- people who may be terminally ill, or people in their 70s or 80s -- or even their 40s or 50s," she says. "A life review can create coherence and purpose in people's lives. They become clearer about who they are, and it can enhance the sense of meaning in their own lives."
Since 1995, Luepker has been creating video life reviews through Living Portraits. She works with individuals and their families to capture the highlights of a person's life through thoughtful questions that get to the heart of how they've lived their lives.
The process from start to finish is remarkably thorough: once a life review is requested (often by family members of a particular individual), Luepker meets with the subject of the life review, then collects questions from family members. After organizing the questions chronologically, she meets with the individual for two or three two-hour sessions and goes through the questions, videotaping the entire process. From there, the video is edited, organized, and put on a DVD. In all, the process can take up to 60 hours to complete. "People find this to be an extremely pleasurable experience," she says. "It's not therapy, but it's a therapeutic experience."
The therapeutic aspect of the work is part of the reason she got into the business in the first place. Luepker, who has done psychotherapy and counseling work for decades, says she was inspired to start Living Portraits after she learned about a graduate school mentor who had done life histories for older women in Japan. "I was fascinated by the process," she says. "People need to review their lives and make meaning out of them." Her training in psychotherapy gave her the skills to do loosely structured interviews that guide -- but don't intrude on -- a given train of thought.
While life reviews are similar to the more commonly known oral histories, there are key differences. Unlike oral histories, which tend to focus on particular groups of people -- nurses in World War II or survivors of the Holocaust -- life reviews focus on individuals. They also don't limit the discussion only to a particular segment of a person's life.
She says the visual aspect of these life reviews are also unique. "With video, people can remember the body language of those who are no longer with them."
While Luepker's Living Portraits work represents only a portion of her income (she also continues her therapy work, supervises training for psychiatry residents, and has authored books on counseling), she finds the work finds deeply satisfying. Last year, she had a dozen clients, and as the baby boomer population ages, she'll have a growing audience for her work. And someday, she may even turn the camera on herself.
"I think that I would welcome the opportunity to do a life review," she says. "I'd love to have my own children asking the questions."
See more at: Living Portraits.
When Rob Buntz '74 first got into the real estate business in 1977, he bought a run-down duplex in St. Paul, fixed it up himself, and sold it for a profit. Since then, he's done the same with condos, townhouses, and hotels -- renovating the spaces and turning a profit by renting or selling them. But now he's got an even bigger idea: he'd like to fix the real estate business itself.
Buntz has spent most of his career in real estate, but admits that that it wasn't his plan when he graduated from Grinnell. He took a job as an admission counselor at Macalester College. but it wasn't long before he was itching to be on his own. He'd worked in construction before heading to Grinnell, and he thought he might be able to parlay the skill into his own business. "I had this romantic notion that I was going to design and build furniture," he says.
It was a successful venture, but as his customers requested ever-larger projects, like built-in shelving, decks, and house additions, he saw a new opportunity in real estate. He bought a duplex in need of repairs just a few blocks from Macalester -- a purchase he financed with a credit card -- and began renovating the spaces. "I did a lot of the work myself, and I was living in the plaster dust," he says.
His success with the duplex -- as well as the red-hot real estate market -- led to other projects, and by 1981, he was mulling over the idea of buying a Lake Superior resort that had fallen on hard times.
By that time, however, real estate was crashing. "I was still pretty young, and I hadn't noticed that the economy had gone in the tank, interest rates were high, and we were in a pretty bad recession," he recalls. "It took me two and a half years before I finally got a shovel in the ground. I can't tell you how many bank doors I knocked on, trying to find someone who would provide financing."
The wait proved to be worth it. Bluefin Bay, the result of the purchase and renovation, has been a remarkably successful resort, attracting couples and families year-round for summer activities, fall color tours, and winter skiing and snowshoeing.
Buntz has other projects in Minnesota and Colorado, but after three decades in real estate, he's turned his attention to the business itself. This past spring, he launched WebDigs.com, a site that's a mash-up of traditional real estate sites and Google maps. It offers a flat rate for buying or selling a home -- and, he promises, as much information and savvy as most of the best real estate agents.
In addition to locating properties within a specific price range and offering specific features, the site can also find houses that are within a few minutes of your office, church, or favorite shops. You can also request a specific school district. "These are the sorts of things that a really great real estate agent would know -- but this is something you can do right on the website," he says, noting that the cost is significantly below the traditional 6 percent commission that an agent would command. "It's the best of both worlds."
He says the time is right for such an advance. "When Charles Schwab announced that it was taking everything to the Internet, everyone laughed at him, but we went from paying $250 to a broker for a couple of stocks to $7.95 on eTrade," he says. "The same is going to happen to real estate industry for the same reasons. The consumer now has access to the information because of the Internet."
While the site will only offer information on Twin Cities homes for now, he's hopeful that it will expand significantly over the next two years. You can bet on it: after all, he's proved adept at finding the perfect opportunity -- and improving it.
If you want to relive your childhood memories, you might start by hauling out a few scrapbooks and flipping through the pages. If kids today want to do the same a few decades from now, they might end up heading to a computer and pulling up images on a website.
When Creative Memories (then Shoebox to Showcase) began in 1987, its founders had to reinvent the way scrapbooks were marketed and sold. Two decades later, with digital photography and the Internet changing the way we save, store, and display our images, Creative Memories President Asha Moran '92 is helping transform the company again. "This is [the company's] 20th anniversary, but we really have to think entrepreneurially again," she says. "Digital photography has had a huge impact."
Creative Memories made its presence felt early on with an innovative way of selling scrapbooks: instead of picking up supplies at a craft store, independent consultants hosted workshops to sell scrapbook supplies -- think Mary Kay or Tupperware. Those who came to events brought their favorite photos, and consultants helped attendees select the right products for their scrapbooking goals. The events may have been about buying and selling products, but people returned month after month because of the social aspect of the parties. "People love to come to the workshops, because they get to tell stories about their families and they build these very strong relationships with other people who they see on a monthly basis," explains Moran.
That successful scrapbooking model began to change in the late 1990s, when digital photography became more popular. That was about the time that Moran signed on with the company to host parties. While she had an easy link to the company -- her grandfather started the parent company of Creative Memories -- she had plenty of credentials to help her move up in the organization. Her business background as a consultant for Deloitte and Accenture, combined with the frontline experience as a host, helped her make strides in the company.
As she moved up the ranks in the company, eventually settling in as president in 2004, she saw that the Creative Memories would have to adapt to the changes that were happening in photography. "We know that there are diehard scrapbookers who love the social dynamic," she says. "But there's a different segment of the market that wants something faster and cleaner and easier that they can on their own time."
Rather than push stubbornly ahead with the business model that had worked in the past, the company decided to add a digital component to their business. They developed software that helped scrapbookers organize and personalize their photos, create scrapbooks online, and order copies of their creations to ship directly to them. "The great thing is that it can be duplicated," she says. "So you can create an album for each sibling at a family reunion, or for each kid after a trip."
While Moran admits that competition is getting stiffer -- sites like Shutterfly and Snapfish are taking a big piece of the digital photography pie -- she believes that scrapbooking in many forms will continue to thrive.
With company consultants in nearly a dozen countries, including Japan, Germany, Canada, and Australia, she sees a world of opportunity ahead.
"It's amazing how much is universal," she says. "People love to tell their stories and celebrate their memories no matter where they live."
See more at: Creative Memories.
Lugging your garbage can out to the curb each week might be a nuisance, but for local and state governments that have to find a place for all of it, it can be an even bigger hassle. Americans send 140 million tons of trash to the landfill each year.
But landfills aren't just a smelly eyesore -- they can downright dangerous. Harmful chemicals from our discarded stuff can leach into the groundwater, and a significant amount of methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, is released from landfills as well.
And that's where Steve Korstad '72 comes in. Korstad, the chief financial officer at Coronal, believes there's an elegant to solution to the growing problem, and it's called combined heat and power (CHP). He's convinced it has the potential to reduce landfill waste while creating an efficient form of energy. With the help of local and state government officials, his company plans to build a CHP facility in International Falls, Minn. If all goes well, it could be the first one in the nation.
At the heart of the solution is the plasma torch. The torch, which was first developed by NASA, creates an electrical arc that can reach temperatures of 25,000° F (hotter than the surface of the sun). The heat breaks down waste into basic elemental components; the resulting gases can be converted into energy, and the solids are transformed into a glassy, igneous rock that can be used for road aggregate, tile, or bricks. "All the bad stuff, like mercury and lead, gets encapsulated in the rock, and it doesn't leach out into the water," Korstad says.
Unlike the incinerator technology that has been used to burn trash and produce energy for decades, the plasma torch technology has the potential to offer a cleaner, more efficient way to produce energy. The CHP facility in International Falls, which will be able to process about 100 tons of trash daily, could produce enough energy to power more than 3,000 homes.
While the technology isn't brand new (there are facilities in Japan already using the plasma torch technology), there's nothing yet available in the United States.
Korstad says there's growing interest in finding solutions for the landfill problem. In addition to grassroots support that plasma torch technology is seeing from communities where landfills are becoming major problems, government funding is helping foot the bill to get the first CHP facility up and running. In 2006, Coronal received $2.5 million from the state of Minnesota to help with design and construction of a CHP facility, and Korstad estimates that the first CHP facility could be up and running in Minnesota as early as 2009.
"If it works, people can come up and kick the tires, so to speak," says Korstad. With its scalable and modular design, he's optimistic that plenty of places will be able to use the technology to address the landfill problem. "This is something that could be implemented throughout Minnesota and the rest of the country."
See more at: Coronal.
Atulya Risal '90 had his life all mapped out when he left Grinnell: he'd get a master's degree in electrical engineering, follow it up with a Ph.D., and land a cushy job soon after. He was dutifully plugging away at a master's at Purdue when a friend asked Risal to join him and two others to create a new software company.
"It was a fork in the road," he admits. "But I was getting bored in Indiana, so I said I'd do it for a year." He wrapped up his studies and headed down to Florida to join his friends, and he never looked back
He and three others founded Pilgrim Software in 1994, a business that builds compliance and quality management systems primarily for medical device, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology companies.
It may sound complicated, but the idea is fairly simple: because of the growing global marketplace, a wide variety of government entities and outside organizations have developed standards to ensure the safety of products that are developed. Whether it's a regulation developed by the FDA or a section from Sarbanes-Oxley, companies must know and follow the guidelines set forth. Pilgrim's software helps companies keep on top of these requirements. "We have applications that help our customers run their process better, and in that process, they also comply to the regulations," he explains.
The company started just before web and software companies started receiving millions of dollars of venture capital (VC) funding during the dot-com boom, but Risal says they already had everything they needed. "We say we had VC funding -- Visa cards," he says wryly.
While it's easy to joke now, he admits that the early days were tough, and he and the other founders considered getting day jobs while they worked to get the company off the ground. Ultimately, they opted against it. "We decided we had to jump in with both feet," he says. "If it wasn't going to work, we still wanted to be able to say that we had done our best." These days, it's no longer a worry: the company has attracted many big-name clients including Pfizer, Bristol-Myers-Squib, and Boston Scientific.
It took a bit more than a year before the company was in the black, and today, Pilgrim Software employs about 100 people in the United States and another couple dozen in countries around the world.
With the benefit of hindsight, Risal says he'd encourage almost any recent graduate to try to start up a business. "The time to work the hardest is in your 20s, when you have the most energy. You might as well push yourself and do something for yourself," he says. "If it doesn't work out, you can always work for someone else in your 30s.
"To me, it's been an adventure every day," he says. "There's always a factor of luck in whatever you do, but you should pursue what you believe in."
See more at: Pilgrim Software.