Conversation breeds opportunity

As I waded through hours of PTP video archives yesterday I came across a video Brett shot after our first month on tour. The clip consists of Brett interviewing me about my impression of the first month and what impressed me most. The primary issues I focused on were two I had since, nearly forgotten…

First I expressed a genuine sense of surprise and encouragement at people’s candor and need to talk. I had very few expectations going into the trip. A primary reason; I couldn’t envision the interview process. My preconceptions were that many people would not want to speak with us and that those who did were unlikely to volunteer anything truly personal and therefore valuable. This skepticism was put to bed on the first day and the month that followed was characterized by adventurous activity and conversation unlike any I had previously experienced.

The second idea I expressed was my surprise at how little I had previously asked questions. I felt that every person, at some point, should travel for an extended period with a question they hope to answer. The nature of the question is not important. It could be trivial or profound. The important part is that it gives you an excuse to speak with strangers’ every day. Once I became aware of peoples willingness to talk I began to feel irresponsible in my neglect to ask questions. The knowledge and experience that a simple conversation can yield are incredible and yet we allow countless conversations to slip by un-had or executed insincerely.

As we tramped across the country we kept attempting to explain the conflicting feeling that the world was much bigger than we envisioned, but smaller than we imagined. What we were beginning to understand was that the size of our world and its potential for opportunity far exceeded our prior expectations. But, our proximity to opportunity and the obstacles that stood in our way were much smaller than we imagined. The best way to understand our world was to experience it with those we shared it with.

Noah Kagan

Noah Kagan, president of software development company Kickflip, will tell you what he does for a living, but don’t make that your lead if approaching him at a cocktail party. “I hate that question,” says the 25 year old Berkeley grad, who has worked for at least four separate companies that should have made him rich, if he had stayed around long enough. Although money is a final result, this self-proclaimed “results oriented guy” is more concerned with making decisions in the moment, not building his 401k. He quickly brushes over stories about Intel, Microsoft and Facebook to name a few, working his way toward current and future projects with far smaller companies.

Noah has a voracious appetite for action, something that is underappreciated in the world of large corporations. No bother. Noah finds places that fit his tastes, not the other way around. Money, to the Cupertino, CA native, has never been a driving force. Rather, Noah looks at jobs like relationships, investing emotionally, working hard, yet keeping in mind that it may just not be the perfect fit. It is an outlook that has made Noah a desired mind in just about any company, and has led him to start his own.

Interview

What is it that you want people learning or knowing or watching? 

I kind of have a nasally Jewish voice. 

I became interested in technology because of porn.  I really did.  Downloading lots of Pamela Anderson content from AOL chat rooms.  I was like ‘This shit is sweet.’  The fact that I can get Pamela Anderson in a bikini from a chat room and collaborating with other people was just a wild time. 

Fortunately my stepfather was an engineer.  He raised me.  Way back in the day there was this brick of a computer you could fold out the keyboard that was DOS spaced.  Doing things on that like ‘CD dot dot.’  Or just playing with Q-Basic.  Just seeing what you could do with these things and how much more efficient it makes life, I was just like, real turned on. 

My whole life, like in high school and college I wanted to be in computer science so I could go make those things.  Then I realized I’m not that smart.  Which is challenging.  I’m not dumb.  It was that I wasn’t that interested.  I can’t code for eighteen hours.  I’m just not good at it.  I realized I needed a basic understanding of the code and then be the person that works with the coders and make things happen to move forward. 

I worked at Intel, Facebook, Microsoft, everywhere.  I was an intern at Microsoft.  I asked Bill Gates if there was a hundred dollar bill on the ground, if he would bother to pick it up.  He gave me a complex, economically correct answer.  And I worked at Office Max. 

Everything, it’s like girls as well.  Everything, after you get dumped or after you get a new job or anything, what did you learn is what I try to think about.  More and more, after I’ve gone through these experiences, I realized I don’t like big companies. And maybe one day, this is the bad thing about getting it on tape, is that I might work for a big company.  And they’ll be like, ‘I thought you didn’t like big companies, tough guy’ (Laughs). 

More and more, it’s just that I don’t want to be in a big company.  I’ve realized the people I want to be around.  I enjoy the very small environment.  Making things and making quick decisions and getting instant reactions.  I don’t think I’ll ever see myself working at retail again.  Or working…maybe a bar would be really fun to open but at the same time…(snaps) web and technology…(snaps twice) testing is instant. Put out something, and within seconds I’ll know if it works or not.  If I want to see if this works or this works, fine.  Like for a menu at a restaurant.  Here’s a menu, you wait three weeks, you’re not sure.  There’s a lot of variables there.  It has to be a lot faster to be interesting to me.  The future for me is doing small web companies. 

What do you tell people when they ask you what you do for a living?

I hate that fucking question.  I think it’s the worst question.  You go to a party, and if someone asks me that before they ask me other things, I know I won’t like them.  I’m just like, I don’t like you.  No offense, but like, you suck (Laughs). 

Back in the day I used to say I worked at Walgreen’s.  I don’t want people judging me or saying that this person is going to be better or worse based on what they’re really doing.  What I do now is I am the Director of Marketing for a small dot com.  The website is for young people and shows you how to make money.  It shows you how your money is doing and it shows you ways to save.  It’s a powerful tool for a lot of young people in debt. 

In my spare time I put on conferences.  I had one this weekend.  There was about 200 people, lot of drinking, lot of people meeting each other, lots of knowledge.  It was good. 

I guess what I do is…I like making things happen.  I’m a results oriented person where I like seeing things come to fruition.  The difference between me and others is that they talk a lot and don’t actually do it.  I do it.  So what do I do?  I make things happen.

I don’t like conferences.  Which is funny because I keep doing it. The thing is, money never has been the issue. For this past one and the last one, it’s always been asking the question, ‘How can this kick more ass?’  Like, I gave away an iPhone this weekend.  $700.  What can we do to make it better quality and then it was like last time, I was like holy shit, we made money from doing this?  Like, I had a lot of fun.  This is something that I wanted to do and it was people that I wanted to meet and hear them talk, and in the end I’m going to make money and people are going to think I’m smart?  People are like wow, this was good.  I’m like, really?  Okay.

I always knew I would do something in tech and business.  I started a club in college called Computer Science and Business.  To me, technology is very interesting.  Consumer, web, the fact that we can touch millions of people across the world.

So how did I get here today?  Well, it’s all failure.  Pretty much my whole life has been a failure.  You usually only see the happy parts.  No one ever sees failure.  I got an internship with Microsoft my junior year.  Normally, anyone who gets an internship gets the job.  I was rejected. 

I had a job offer at Google pre-IPO and they rescinded it for some reason.  I don’t know, maybe they didn’t like me.  I would have been really rich, pre-IPO Google.

Was going to go work at Wells Fargo and then I applied for a job for a women only job at Intel.  They were like, sure we’ll hire you.  But not for the women’s job, for this other one.  That would have been tight if I dressed up as a women to get the job though. 

With that, I went to Intel, and I loved Intel, but it was like the best and the worst for me.  It was a job that was close to home, they paid me a lot of money for doing Excel work.  But the people there were going home at 5 and they were soccer dads.  That was their life.  Some people that are at Intel are really unhappy…but that’s everyone in America. 

I was really interested in meeting new people and talking about the web and being involved and making things happen.  I always knew I would go do some consumer stuff or something by myself. 

I dropped a resume at Facebook because I like the web and I like people.  I did a lot of college marketing to college businesses and so they offered me a job.  I went in there, did product management for seven months.  I made a lot of feature, met a lot of people.  Worked, fucking, nonstop.  Lot of fun.  And then, I wasn’t good there?  I’m not sure what happened there, but I did get laid off.  And Marky…Mark and I maybe didn’t get along, I’m not sure. 

Things happen.  I have a tough time getting over things.  But you just have to keep moving forward. 

I taught business in Korea for two weeks.  My friend had an opportunity to teach English and business to this really smart, elite students.  I went there and talked about online marketing and how to create a business.

From there I met some guys at the company I’m at now and was blown away with what they’re doing.  So I was like, yeah, I’d love to come on board and get people to know about this product.  And that’s today, wow.

So how do you overcome failure?

Fuck.  I’m horrible. Even like this week there was a girl I liked…fuck, I’m shitty.  I don’t.  Really, it’s moving on to the next thing.  Keeping yourself busy.  When you move on to the next thing you kind of put things in the past.  You have to accept it.  What I’ve done with the Facebook thing is being honest with myself.  So I got laid off.  That’s a really hard fucking thing for people.  Especially at a company where I’d be a millionaire. So its on to the next thing and become a millionaire in other ways. So I guess to overcome failure is accepting it, being honest with yourself, and moving forward.  And just giving it time.  You know this is going to suck and you’re going to be sad, but its going to be that way.  I don’t know, maybe smoke a lot of weed, eat, drink a lot, I don’t know, jerk it?  Whatever you need to do to make you realize it will be better in the future. 

There’s that stupid saying ‘I would do this even if I wasn’t getting paid.’  But that really is the case.  Go do something and not get paid and see how long you can really do that for.  Because what happens is people quit.  And me too.  I’m scared.  When I wasn’t working after Facebook…yeah I had some money in savings so I wasn’t worried about it for a few years but its still a very scary experience.  Passion is someone who is committed to what they want to accomplish by all means necessary. 

Passion is something you get excited about, like a hard on.  You just get really excited about doing something every fucking day when you wake up and when you go home you still want to work on it, not because you have to, but because you want to. 

And is that where you’re at right now?

Um…the company I’m at has been interesting for me.  It’s been great.  Right now we’re looking to get the product out the door and keeping people moving forward in the company.  I’m excited about helping people.  It’s very broad but I do like the idea that we’re going to be able to affect a lot of lives.

I just have too much fucking energy.  The weed has slowed me down a bit, but the cocaine helps.  No, just kidding.  I don’t do drugs. That much.

A good thing and a bad thing about me is that I’m not very focused all the time.  When I am focused, I kill it.  And then I go on to the next thing.  But I need a wide variety of things to do to keep me entertained. 

Frankly, I never thought I’d be this old.  I thought I’d die.  I don’t know.  I didn’t come from the hood.  I didn’t come from the streets.  I’m from Cupertino, the most suburban area you’ll ever be in. 

I’m from this area originally and I went back to Intel.  At Intel, the people there were going home at 5 and they were soccer dads.  But that was their life.  I was really interested in meeting new people and talking about the web and being involved and making things happen.  So I started reaching out to people and said, let’s do Tuesday club.  Let’s meet once a week and go out to dinner and meet as an elite group of people.  And I’m not elite.  I worked at Intel.  How elite is that?  Intel used to be cool, that’s the sad part.  They still are cool, on tape. 

We did it twice, and then it flopped.  That kinda blows.  So what I did was get all these young entrepreneurs who are successful come and speak to us.  That’d be really cool. 

I think the challenge with young people is that they’re often discouraged.  They tell themselves they can’t do it, or that they have to go get experience from Microsoft.  You’ll never get experience from Microsoft to run your own company.  You’ll just experience on how to run a corporate company.  Or be in a corporate company.  Or work in a cubicle. 

I wanted to create something where people could help one another.  Not to network, because I hate that word.  But to educate each other and socialize.  Maybe figure out how they could collaborate with each other. 

How has your online presence changed your offline life?

Well, it hasn’t gotten me laid.  So that’s the main problem. (Laughs.)  My online identity, or whatever that is, that’s what people do on Facebook and Myspace.  They put their online identity out there. 

I just try to be completely out there and open.  If you want to find my information, it’s all out there.  What it does is help me a lot more than people realize.  People can read my website, see my video, read all my blog posts, look at what I’ve done and they get this impression that I’ve done some cool things.  And I’m kind of smart and kind of important in some small ways.  And that’s awesome, right.  It stereotypes me in a positive light, I feel.  People can get this perception, and because I have all of this stuff, then they want to meet me.  Then I disappoint them. (Laughs.)

It gives them the idea that I’m a semi-cool guy.  I like that.  It makes it really nice for me because then people have a brand of what I am. 

I think that’s the biggest problem today.  I think anybody up until 35, 45 is just facing that one, inevitable question, “What should I do with my life?”  Even today I’m still facing that.  Alright, if I was a millionaire, what would I do differently?  If I was not college educated, what would I do differently?  What is the end result?  I work for this start-up, then it gets sold.  Okay, do I stay here? 

One of my interests lately is I want to go abroad and work from beaches.  I want to go work on beaches and with bitches.  Okay, bad joke.  (Laughs.)  But then what?  So I travel and I work there and then what?  So I’m scared and I’m still curious about what the hell is next for me.     

Postscript: Noah left the small start-up four months after our interview to start his own internet company.  He decided to travel abroad to Argentina.  “Why? Why not.  Luckily the internet is everywhere, so I can work from anywhere.” 

But it’s about fulfilling today.  I enjoy what I’m doing now and if I can continue to do those things then hopefully when I die I can leave something that is somewhat meaningful for others. 

If you could offer yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would you say?

That’s a really fucking good question.  I’m going to write that one down…I think it would be to take more risks.  But that’s the thing!  Why am I not taking more risks today then?  I guess a start-up is taking a risk. 

I guess the advice I’d give is to accept the failure and know it is going to come.  Maybe deal with it better…prepare yourself for that.  Be willing to take more risks.  Whatever I’m scared of doing, maybe consider doing it.  I was going to say with a condom. (Laughs.) 

Not make stupid decisions, but be a little more risk preference?  What else would I say?  That’s a really great question. I don’t know.  What would I do differently?  I’m satisfied with the way things have turned out.  As many things that have gone wrong, in terms of getting fired or the jobs I didn’t get hired, even though I was guaranteed them supposedly, I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished.  I’m proud of it.  But to me, I never think about what a great job I did on this.  I always think about what’s next.  And what I’m going to do.  It’s just continuing to keep doing things.  Don’t give up.

Nathan Kaiser

Nathan Kaiser, founder of npost.com, was not sure what to do with his degree in microbiology from the University of Washington. Working for a large medical manufacturer, he began, in his free time, to interview interesting people about their jobs and their career paths. From this sprang nPost, a resource for people looking into the world of technology start-ups. The site is a collection of interviews, and also job listing specific to the tech start-up world.

Nathan has denied listing jobs from Fortune-500 companies, simply because, in Nathan’s view, it would hurt the overall character of his website. Many people thought he was crazy for leaving a well-paid position to start nPost.

“I’d rather be crazy than working unhappily,” Nathan says, “People don’t realize what they’re missing.”

Nathan may not be fully maximizing the profits of his business, but if he is concerned with that, he hides it well. “When you’re doing your own thing and supporting yourself,” says Nathan, “there’s nothing better in life. Plus, he adds wryly, “I’m wired, so I do a lot of work from friends’ sailboats.”

Linda Harrison

The last television appearance we had was on NBC-Nashville. The segment aired that Friday night, and even though I didn’t see it, Linda Harrison in Hermitage, Tennessee did.

Linda went to our website and submitted her story. She wrote:

“I am currently a Fainting Goat Rancher but have a business degree with an accounting major. I am a LONG way from my first post graduate job of working for a major CPA firm. A few varied pit stops along the way and now I raise goats and have never been happier. Ranching is my passion and goats are my dream. Raising goats is by far the most rewarding thing I have ever done. Don’t leave Nashville before coming to see me…”

I received her submission early Monday morning, and, having little on the schedule that day, ran the idea of interviewing a goat rancher by Zach. I caught him in a sleepy stupor and with a little convincing, we were off for a day on a goat farm.

In Hermitage, where rural and residential are intertwined, Blessed Green Pastures has goats, chickens, dogs, sheep, and bees that bask in sycamore shade. What started as a natural way to reduce the workload of mowing lawns, Linda and Brian have seen their original crew of a few sheep and myotonic goats blossom into a nationally recognized goat breeding operation.

And it all started because the accountant Linda, who worked in corporate cubicles to begin her professional life, just wanted to be outside.

INTERVIEW

It’s interesting because people tell you that you can get paid a lot of money and hate your job, or get paid a little money and love your job.  But it’s always the intangible perks that make it what it is.  Something you love to do.

Of course being outside is a big one for me. 

After I made it the whole first year, because it was fun to come out when it was nice in the fall.  I can handle heat, so that’s not bad.  But after January, February, and March, I wondered if it would be a pain and I’d want to be put back in an office.  I hauling goat feed and making sure the water wasn’t frozen.  After I made it through the first year, I love it. 

My son is 25.  He’s got an engineering mind.  I was telling him about everything I do because he was going to watch over the goats for a week.  He was throwing out all these suggestions on how to do it quicker.  I said, ‘Well I’m not out here to do it quick.’

That’s when I realized that subconsciously, I look at these animals every day.  I know who is looking more pregnant today than she did two weeks ago.  I know who is looking a little thin and maybe make sure she’s not getting shoved out of the feed bucket too much. 

That was one of the first moments where you go, ‘Wow.’  Because subconsciously, you’re just doing it.  It’s just in your nature to do that.  And then that scripture, ‘I know every hair on your head’ came to mind.  Because you always think about why you would want to know every hair on every one’s head?   That makes no sense.

Then I realized.  When you care about something, you want to know everything about it.  It was just one of those revelation moments. 

People can’t believe I remember the name to every goat.  To me, they’re as different as people you know.  Not that I think they’re people, but you just come to know them just as you would people.  They’re all different.  They all have their own personality.  You want all of them to be happy and healthy and fed.  It just becomes a passion. 

The first time I took care of a sick goat.  I guess that’s how I look at it.  There’s things you’re able to set aside, dollars and sense, that makes something a passion.  And the first time we went to look at some goats, there was this little goat and he had a runny nose.  He looked kind of sickly.  I picked him and the two old farmers were like, ‘That goat needs to stay with his mother.  Give it a shot of pencilian and it’ll be fine.’  He brings this dirty rag out to wipe his nose with.  I’m like, ‘No!  Don’t wipe his nose with that!’ 

So we bring this goat home.  It took a little more than a shot or two of penicillin.  I mean I nursed him for three weeks.  He was congested and stuff.  We started giving him Benadryl at night.  It was hilarious.  He was like a Benadryl addict.  We’d get that dropper out and he just couldn’t get ahold of it fast enough.  All of a sudden he’d get it and his little tongue would curl up.  He ended up being a very healthy goat.  He lives in another state now.  He’s in charge of a little herd of his own.  But I remember when I was taking care of him that that accounting sense kicked in.  It’s like, we had to write a check for him.  I didn’t have to pay a lot for him, but I could tell my husband was like, ‘You’re going to buy that little baby goat.  Why?’  Because we had already picked out two really nice goats.  I carried this little thing home and stuff.  When I was working on him and stuff and trying to figure out what I should do for him, all those dollars and sense kicked in.  It was like, ‘You’re going to spend more medicine and your time on this goat.’  When you understand billable hours, you’re thinking that you’ll spend more hours on this goat than he’ll ever be worth.  All of a sudden it was one of those revelation moments where you realize you’re looking at it wrong.  You are in charge of this animal.  You want it to be healthy and you want it to be perfect.  You don’t count the time when it’s something that’s your passion.  It was in that moment that I made the decision that yes it’s a business. Yes I’m going to make sure I have a website.  That’s the nice about farms like this is that you’re seeing it everywhere.  Little farmsteads are popping up.  One of the great things is the internet.  You can get online and I did my own website. 

I have two goats that now live on a big horse farm in New York.  Some lady found my website.  She was looking for a particular kind of goat.  I ended up having both of what she wanted.  They’re living on some big fancy horse farm in New York now. That’s kind of cool.  It used to be that you had a little farm like this and all you had to was put a sign out in the road.  Or advertise in your local paper and hope someone would buy what you had.  With the internet now, you can have a farm and people know about you from all across the country. 

So how long have you been doing this?

2 ½ years. 

Nice.  So basically your main source of being in business is selling goats? 

That’s why we got into the registered goats.  Generic brush goats, which means they’re not a particular breed.  They’re not registered, they’re pretty cheap.  You can find those anywhere.  Those are the kind people just throw out in the back and let them clear land and they sell them for meat.  You just don’t do a whole lot with them. 

I thought if I was going to spend the time, and there’s a market in registered animals just like there is in registered dogs and registered horses, then that would be a good move.  So that’s why we got into the registered animals. 

Some of these, I know their bloodlines.  I have papers on them and all that.

Z: What do people buy goats for?

A lot of people on farms where they do need a good brush clearer.  Goats can clear an area and make it look like a park. 

I’ve learned how to be a Shepard.  They will clear pasture.  They’ll eat poison ivy.  Goats will clear it all for you.  And they are a meat source. 

But because they faint, you get the best of both worlds.  They’re a novelty and they’re useful. To us they were the broadest market.   

I got to wear work clothes all week long.  Saturday you cram in everything.  Sunday is given up for church.  For me, that’s too much. 

But doing this, I’m so at peace and so happy all week that when Sunday comes, I haven’t been in work clothes and hoes all week long.  I’ve been like this all week.  It gave me a balance in life where I don’t feel rushed all the time.  Sunday is the chance to go see other people and not goats (laughs). 

So it gave me a spiritual balance that has been really good for me.

B: So you were talking about when you were fifteen years old.

Well, when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do in college, my mom asked me what I liked to do.  Because that’s where you always start.  ‘What do you like to do?’ 

We had woods behind our house and I’d spend a lot of time out there.  I’d say well, the only thing I know for sure is that I like to be outside.  She thought a minute and said, ‘Well, we all like to do that.  You’ll just have to get over it.’ 

So I decided to go into information systems which ended up being accounting.  So I sat in an office for years trying to figure out how to get outside.  Then eventually I decided I needed to be outside.  Because what your passion is at 15 is more than likely going to be your passion when you’re 30. 

B: Yeah?

Easily.

B: That’s something that we found in a lot of people we talk with.  Those things that they enjoyed as a kid, it’s amazing to see how they’ve come back to that and are doing it as a profession. 

Yep.

So how long did you work in accounting before you transitioned to goat farming?

I was in accounting for fifteen years.  First as a public accountant.  CPA.  Then I did contract work where after being a CPA and being in a lot of different businesses, I just loved being self employed and marketing myself.  Because that way I could focus for two months, six months, however long they needed me so I could take that break and get outside. 

Then I decided I really needed to do my own business.  I tried a couple businesses but I kept running into that, ‘I want this business to be successful so I can go outside!’  So finally I said that I needed to find something else to do.

B: You mentioned earlier you were ‘working to work.’

Yes.  Working to have time off.  I never could figure out how that would work because I was always, it wasn’t that I didn’t like what I did.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t good at it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t make money at it.  But it just didn’t satisfy my soul. 

So I would work furiously for three months just to be able to say that there was money in the bank and I could take two weeks off to recover from the fact that I worked indoors for that length of time.

B: How draining was that type of lifestyle?  How would you describe it?

Well back then, and that’s how we ended up here.  I used to spend my Saturdays and any free time I could find in a park somewhere.  Running or jogging.  I almost could not live without that when I was in an office. 

Interestingly enough, there’s a state park just up here at the end of this road.  That’s how we found this property.  I would bring my dogs and go do six miles in the park.  I always said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to live near the park.’

This place became available when we moved in.  We started with a few animals and got a few more and got involved.  Now I’m lucky if I make it to that park once every two months. 

My little dogs, my indoor dogs who used to get to go to the park, they’re fat and sassy in the house because they don’t get to go anymore.  And that amazed me, because I always thought I’d be someone who had to run and be in a park because you always have that busting out feeling.  ‘Get me outta here.  Get me outside.’ 

Now that I do this, that feeling is satisfied. 

B: You just want to be outside.  That’s so funny that this whole time you had this simple interest, this simple goal, and now here you are outside with your own goat farm. 

Now looking back, that’s why I think it’s always hard to decide what you want to do at 17 or 20.  Looking back, maybe I would have been a good adventure leader.  The people that take people out who do work in an office all week.  But I didn’t develop those skills because I wasn’t pursuing that.  I was trying to be a good accountant in an office.  Maybe I would have been a good park ranger.  Who knows. 

I just never allowed myself to pursue all those options at that time because I thought I needed to be in an office making a salary.

B: Why did you feel you had to be in an office?  Just because what your mom was saying?  Social pressures?  Why did you stay inside, in accounting for fifteen years?

Well, probably because I’m just older enough than you guys that the whole, ‘Bust the corporate ceiling and women can do anything.’  When I first came out of college, it was back when we wore suits that kind of looked like guys.  Oh they were awful.  You know those little bow ties?

Just the fact that you could be in a corporate office in a male dominated environment.  Back then, accounting was a male dominated environment.  It’s kind of like if something opens up, then you ought to do it. 

Once you’re into it, it becomes like everything.  It becomes more and more difficult to change once you’re in it. That’s why everyone dreams of doing other things or throws themselves into golf.  Whatever it is, because you don’t feel like you can allow yourself.  And it’s very difficult, the older you get. 

And I did that for awhile.  I’ll never forget.  I decided I knew I wanted to be outside, so I decided I wanted to be a botanist.  So I had one of those jobs where they let me have a little flexibility.  I went back to college and was taking biology courses.  There was a lot of vet people in the class and people doing medical things in the classes.  I remember saying, because I’m thinking I’m doing something exciting, because I’m studying plants.  I’d love to be able to know that I can take medicinal plants and it would be so interesting to know all that stuff.  Because I spent so much time in the woods, it was like if I knew what to do with this plant like the Indians used to, that’d be awesome knowledge.

I remember sitting there and someone said, ‘You want to do plants?  That’s so boring.’  I was like, ‘Here we go again!’  People would tell me, because I had an accounting degree, if I got a botany degree, I’d still be in an office.  They’d have me managing projects in botany. 

You’re like, ‘Okay.  I’m going to spend all this money to get a different degree, only to still be in an office.’  Field work turned out to only be a small part of a lot of those fields.  Whereas a long time ago, if you were a botanist or biologist, you spent a lot of time in the field.  It’s gotten so molecular that you don’t even do that as much.

So I gave that up.

So if you could go back to when you were 22, 15, or somewhere in that age range, and you could just give yourself one piece of advice, what would you say?

Do what you like to do.  Take a course or two where you have no idea where it’s going, but interests you.  I loved horses, but when I was in college I was taking business.  I was told I needed a good business degree unless I wanted to work at Burger King.  That’s what my dad would tell me.  He’d say, ‘You can’t just get a general business degree because you’ll end up managing a Burger King. You have to focus on something.’  I was like, ‘Okay.’

But I never took those classes that just were a passion.  I wanted to get the hours and get done.  Maybe if I’d taken an animal husbandry class or horsemanship for a PE class in college.  Anything that’s something you want to do because it interests you.  Not because you see how it could be a job or anything like that.  Just something that sparks your passion.

Z: Is this something you think you would have been able to do if you hadn’t saved a bunch of money as an accountant that helped you do this?

No.  No, no, no, no (laughs).  I know some people that do that, but no.  To be quite honest, when we moved here, the decision to first get sheep, I was still working, my husband was still working.  Sheep were sort of going to help pay for what we already had done.  Because this was more property than we had ever owned.  So no. 

It’s not that we got to work hard for ‘x’ number of years and now we can do what we want.  Because for me, that wouldn’t have worked for me.  I couldn’t be in an office for sixty hours a week for 10, 15 years to make the money to just be able to walk away with a big pile of cash.  I could never do that, which was part of the problem. 

I’d work thirty intense hours, but then I gotta be out of there. 

Actually, that’s why this has been an interesting walk.  There’s the passion part of it.  But then there’s the part that we don’t have lots of cash to just play at this.  It’s got to work.  The accounting degree does help there.  I do think about all the costs that go into something.  But I also know to say, like with the little sick goat, sometimes you put that aside and do what your heart tells you what you’re supposed to do.  You’re in care of all these animals and you’re their source.  Therefore, you have to take care of them to the best of your ability.  Whether there’s a dime profit in it or not.  That’s not how every livestock person looks at it, but you will find lots of goat owners who definitely look at it that way.

Because it is a passion.  You care for these animals and you know that they look up to you to take care of them.  I think we all have that basic need.  If someone looks to us to take care of them, we’re going to try to do it at least to the best of our ability.  Maybe girls more so than guys, I don’t know.  That nurture thing. 

But my husband does a lot of the research.  I’m the technician and field worker.  He goes in and does all the research.  He researches the feed.  Whether it has the right amount of protein.  So we make a very good team.

And that’s the other thing.  If you’re going to pursue your passion, you need to find someone who supports that passion.  That’s another difficult thing.  A lot of people figure out what their passion is, but they’re in a life situation where the other person involved, or the family involved isn’t on board with that.  But luckily, we’re on board with this together.  And we complement each other really well.  He can give injections and wrangle goats that I can’t.  Or sheep that I don’t want to.  It lends to the balance of how it all works because he’ll go in and spend hours researching technical stuff.  And then it’s like, ‘What do we need to do?’  Then we do it.  So it works.

Z: So many people do something because they thought it was what they were supposed to do.  They did it because it was socially acceptable.  And then there was this survivor guy who was a goat farmer.

That’s what his title was.  It said ‘goat farmer.’  I thought it was kind of embarrassing.  I was like, ‘What kind of career is that?’  Because I was still an accountant then.  I knew there were people who had jobs they loved, but there were on a different continent or under the ocean or somewhere, but not the average person.  I do think that’s another thing you see happening is I come from the generation of ‘Who wants to live on a farm?’

It’s boring.  There’s nothing to do.  It’s mucky.  It’s nasty.  And so many kids who were growing up at that time on farms was like, ‘Son.  I want you to have a college education so you don’t have to work on the farm.’  So we sort of have gotten totally away from small farms.

When I used to hear about small farms going away and now there’s just big corporate farms, if that was efficient, then that’s fine.  Now having done it, if I were at an age where I was going to have kids, I wouldn’t raise them any other way but here. 

I grew up on the concept that kids need to do team sports to learn team skills.  I don’t think so.  Bring them somewhere like this farm so they can see what they do contributes.  If you want to have eggs, you go get the eggs out of the barn.  There’s just a whole culture there that we lost when we started this big drive that we all needed to go to college so we can have big paying jobs in the city. 

Z: It’s like this ultraspecialization.  Help make the food.  Help take care of the animals.  Do all these different things.  Just get really good at one thing, and then you don’t have to worry about making your own food.  You don’t have to worry about taking care of your animals.  Because if you’re a good enough accountant, you can pay everybody to worry about that other stuff.

For some people that works.  But I think there are just as many people out there who are multi dimensional.  I can go in and design my website on the computer and spend hours in front of the computer, but then I still need this.  You can’t pay me enough to sit and design websites on the computer.  I’m good at accounting.  I know how that works.  I used to enjoy making everything balance.  It wasn’t about those complex calculations you did.  It was the putting everything in order and knowing that if this account was out of balance, it’s because these three journal entries were wrong.  I had a real analytical mind where I could go in and sort out messes.  Even if I didn’t technically understand what the company did.  I just had that organizational imprint in my mind.  And I was good at it.  And it worked for awhile to do some of that and then do everything I could to get outside.  By far, the balance now is much more what suits me. 

So then it’s not work.  And you always hear that.  Do something you love because then it’s not work.  And you’re like, everything is work.  But it’s really not.  It’s throwing around a few hay bails.  I’ll joke because I go to the feed store and be trying to load stuff in my car.  And we live in the South, there’s nice gentleman that want to help you out.  And I’m like, ‘Oh no.  This makes me sure I’ll never have to pay to go to the gym.’  I carry buckets of water and feed and do all that. 

I mean it’s very healthy.  Yes you can have a career and pay everyone to do everything and pay to join the gym.  But here, I have a free gym that’s a lot more fun.  If I need a little exercise I’ll go clean out the barn.  If I want to go for a little walk, I go take the goats to eat in the back pasture.  If I’m tired of that I’ll go in and work on the website.  Or do that housework I haven’t done in two weeks (laughs). 

I always did like being self employed.  It’s not a matter of motivation.  I just prefer to be self motivated.  Which is a lot of your sales type people.  There’s people who have that kind of drive.  Let me be in control of it and I’ll do 110%.  For me, that’s how this works.  Each day is different, but in the end, it all gets done because I’m motivated to do it.  Because I know if I don’t do everything, then the goats aren’t getting the best care.  It works somehow.  I guess that’s why, when you do your passion, it all works somehow. 

Z: Do you have old co-workers and friends that you tell you’re a goat farmer now?  Do you think they’re surprised or do you think part of them is kind of jealous because they’re still sitting in an office?

Well, that’s another interesting thing.  When you find your passion, you just have to be ready that there’s a lot of people that aren’t going to get it in the least.  I mean, there’s a lot of people that even because there’s the business side, the fun side, and yes this suits my outdoor nature, but then there’s a big spiritual side for me that would take more time than you’ve got.

But even when we go to church and tell people we have goats and it’s been so amazingly fulfilling and connected.  I mean, look at Moses.  He was in Egypt with all kinds of luxury.  He was a city boy.  And he went out and spent forty years being a Shepard.  He seemed to do alright in the end.  It all worked.  So I figure that I’m following in those same footsteps.  Walking away from the city and this is it.

But people still don’t get it.  But the amazing part is that if there’s one person who doesn’t get what you do and thinks you walk around in goat mess.  For every one of those, there’s that person like the man that came here from South America.  I couldn’t even communicate with him.  His daughter translated.  He has goats halfway around the world.  There was just such a connection there that transcended culture and language.  I took him up in the back pasture.  We have these plants, these vines, that are passion flowers.  I was showing him these passion flowers and he just lit up.  They had those in their country.  They could make a juice from it.  It was a surreal experience.  I just can’t explain it.  For everyone who doesn’t get it, you have those kinds of experiences where you connect with somebody who gets what you do, and is excited about it.  And it’s priceless.  You can’t pay for those kinds of experiences.  He was just so excited.  You could tell the son in law was feeling bad because all this interpreting was going on.  Like maybe I was frustrated with it.  Because they weren’t here to buy goats.  And I was having a blast.  It was neat to me.  They were leaving to go back to Columbia and they were just on a farm tour.  And then we got a phone call a month ago who was a student here at Vanderbilt.  He’s from Kazakstan.  He was asking if I had any sheep available. We had talked to people that will let you process on your property.  But we’re still kind of in the middle of the city, so we didn’t know if our neighbors would appreciate us processing animals on the property.

But they were looking for one, so we said they could come out.  These three guys came out, from even further around the globe, and two of them came from Shepard families in Kazakstan. 

Jesus Delgado

Jesus Delgado-Jenkins, founder and president of JNI, LLC, knows something about hard work and commitment. As the son of Cuban immigrants who instilled a great deal of patriotism in their son, for his new country, Jesus attended West Point and served in the United States Army for five years. Entering the private sector, Jesus immediately began to excel in the world of business turnaround, where business are acquired and streamlined to reach their maximum potential. Jesus points to the mentors under which he was able to work as helping to shape him for his future, individual endeavors.

From 1999 through 2001, Jesus began to look carefully at his own opportunities, but never closed a single independent deal. This proved fortuitous when, after 9/11, Jesus felt obliged to serve his country. In two years at the United States Treasury, Jesus advanced to become the CFO of the Treasury, overseeing account volumes the likes of which most businessmen never see. He calls the numbers “humbling.” After two more years of public service, Jesus once again entered the private sector, this time with a better grasp of economics on a global scale.

Now, Jesus has taken JNI from a startup to a multi-million dollar company, completing his piece of the American dream: an immigrant family, whose son serves his country, then enters and dominates the business world. “If you work hard enough, and long enough,” Jesus says simply. “You will achieve your dream.”

INTERVIEW

So at 22, you were at West Point going into military service for five years? 

Yep.

So you mentioned on the walk over here, you’ve had a variety of experiences.  You also said that it’s been a stepping stone to where you’re at today.

They end up being stepping stones.  I think at least for me personally, a very important part of my success has been I’ve felt I’ve had an obligation to succeed.  My parents came to this country with nothing.  They had escaped communism.  Because the United States had let me and my family stay here, I felt this sense of obligation to succeed and eventually give something back.  That’s part of my passion.  I feel like I have an obligation to succeed. 

So as I was growing up I felt obligated to get good grades.  I think that’s important. 

If you’re already at a later stage in life, grades are irrelevant. You got to pick up from where you are, and start driving yourself from there.  Find it within yourself to drive on.  The past doesn’t matter as much.  You just have to look forward and drive on and succeed according to whatever success means to you. 

For me it means being excellent at what you do.  It means being competitive.  Being in the top 5 at something.  If you’re a company in the XYZ industry you’re a top 5 company or you’re in the top 5%.  Customers like your product.  They like your employees.  That, for me, is success. 

Along with that, I feel that as an executive, you will be more successful in the long run if you share the wealth with the employees.  If you create career opportunities for the employees that allows them to evolve and engage, and you listen to what they have to say, and if you reward them with part of the benefits that the company generates, the profits the company generates, you will build a winning, progressive culture. 

If the executives are in it for building their own wealth, they aren’t going to share it, they’re going to scoop up most of the stock compensation programs, it’s pump and dump.  The company stock will rocket fairly quickly because you’re going to cut costs and you won’t reward employees long term.  And the stock will bounce back down again, but that’s when the executives will have left.

If you try to build something long term, in terms of a company, which is what I define as success, that’s why I’m talking about a company and not myself.  That’s what I’m trying to do now.  My partner and I are buying companies with a focus on the retail industry.  What drives our passion is that we build a winning, long lasting organization that has a legacy.  And we believe that by doing that, we ourselves will benefit in the long run.  And we won’t have to worry about that.

So that’s what we’re doing now.

So you went to one of the best leadership programs in the world.  How does that shape you today?  Do you still take away those things that you learned?

West Point had a dramatic impact on me as an individual.  Both in terms of my physical stamina and my mental stamina.  My ability to organize and analyze problems.  Whether I know something about the subject, or not. 

You’re really taught there, regardless of the environment, to find yourself and cope, adapt and learn quickly.  To think through your decisions and consider the consequences.  Take a wholistic approach to yourself and the individuals that are there in that environment that you’re operating with.  And then find a way to survive and thrive and dominate the environment.  That’s what they teach you.

The honor code is an important part of that.  Integrity is important.  When you lead by example, and you follow the standards you set for other people first, that makes a big difference in the organization.  West Point teaches you the importance of that.  Our honor code is that a cadet will not lie, steal, or cheat.  The motto of the institution is ‘Duty to our country.’  If you think about those two, they don’t have anything to do with the individual, they have to do with the individual serving.  Having a service ethic for others.  You build a passion for that at the academy.  And you go on to build on that as a military officer.  Not for yourself, but for others.

You’re serving something bigger than yourself.  That then builds a foundation for having a passion to succeed by making others successful, the organization successful.  And thereby you succeed by doing that. 

I think that type of philosophy, religion is another way you would look at it.  Not just a spiritual religion, but a religion of leadership.  I think the Academy was very important in giving me those things.  I’m very grateful for that.  That has been an extremely important component to me being successful because that’s where I started from. 

I graduated from there and had a successful career in the military.  I transitioned from there into the private sector and had success there.  I was basically using the skills and the tools that I first learned there and continuously applying them. 

The other thing too is I’ve had a bit of luck.  I’ve been very fortunate in that for the most part, I’ve worked for very good leaders.  I’ve learned from them.  I’ve learned how to apply what I’ve learned at the academy by watching them do it.  By watching them do those things in difficult situations.  In situations where it’s a gray area, where it isn’t black and white, it’s confusing.  And you’ve got to make tough decisions that have ramifications beyond just today.

Watching them use their judgment, taking all the facts at hand and making their decisions, I learned through that.

So you’ve had quite a few career changes.

I have.

If you go down the list you’ve had a lot of different industries.  A lot of people, especially with our generation, we’re starting to not be so hesitant to do career changes.  It’s no longer get a job and stay there for thirty years.  It’s more bouncing around.  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.  Because it seems like people aren’t as fearful any more to make career changes.  I was wondering if there was any generational differences?

Generational differences.  I think what you may find is that generations in part are known for what they’re known for based on the environment they grew up in and lived in.  If you have an economy like the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, where it’s a macro economy, you’ve got maybe two choices for Kraft macaroni and cheese.  That’s it.  There’s not a lot of change in that type of economy.  You can only have so many colors for cars.  There’s not that much of a change.

As we innovate and technology improved, and companies were able to give customers and address their needs more specifically, more uniquely, you’ve got all this change evolving.  Now there’s five or ten different macoronis.  You look at any brand, any family brand, you’ve got all these choices and varieties in that aisle. 

Whereas in the past, you didn’t use to have that.  Well that springs up a whole bunch of new industries and new needs and new companies that have to be in place to deliver on all those varieties and all those complexities.  Information technology, marketing, advertising, distribution of advertising through a different medium.  That spawns a whole new set of industries.  Then what happens to the next generation is that they’re living in a very different environment than the previous generation. 

Now you have all these different choices.  Not only that, but look at all the resources you have to go get a job.  Heck, you can just type a job description into Google.  Whoof! Options and all this stuff pops up in front of you on a computer screen.  You couldn’t do that in the sixties and seventies. 

I think now there’s a lot more transparency in the market place.  Individuals have a significantly different amount, or have a much higher set of resources that are cheap.  What does it cost to type a job description and hit return on Google?  What does it cost you?  Nothing! 

If you had to go find an executive recruiter in the 70’s or 80’s, you had to get in your car, take a half a day, put all your resumes together, drive somewhere for forty-minutes.  You had to meet with the person for an hour.  Drive back another forty-minutes.  You had to pay for the gas.  You had to do all that and spend half a day and then you really didn’t any information.  All you did was deliver your resume.  Now, it’s the complete reverse.  You’re typing eight words, or five words into a computer, and you’re getting thousands of job listings. 

So what’s happened with technology and information validity has dramactially opened up people’s options and the information people can review to generate and consider options.  That obviously is going to create the opportunity for individuals, when they’re not happy in a company, or when they’re not happy in a career, they have choices to switch out. 

In the past, it was much more static.  It was a less flexible structure.  You didn’t have choices.  If you had a good job, and it was a good job that paid the mortgages, paid for the kid’s school, you were half stuck in that job.  You had to wake up in the morning and find it within yourself to be passionate about that job.  A lot of people can do that, a lot of people can’t. 

Now there’s two sides to every coin.  For all the benefits that you get by being able to switch when you can, there’s probably consequences to that.  What those are I’m not as familiar with.  But you know, maybe you don’t have companies now that take care of their employees as much.  Because everyone is coming and going.  It gets expensive when you do that, right? 

Even though you have all these benefits, it’s never a free lunch.  You know e=MC2.  There’s always an answer in balance. You can’t get something for free.  There’s going to be an offsetting balance.  What you’re trying to do is make good choices based on what tradeoffs you’re willing to live with.  For very few people it’s nirvana.  For better or worse, maybe I’m wrong.  So you have to decide for yourself, ‘What tradeoffs do I want to live with in order to find what I like to do?  What are the costs I’m willing to incur in order to get those benefits?’  So those become individual choices.

What are some individual tradeoffs that you’ve taken in order to get to where you are today?

When I made my decisions, I try to make decisions that would give me flexibility in the future.  Because I always felt that I wouldn’t always know what I’d want in the future.  And as I changed as a person in the future.  What I would want or what I would desire might change.  So I try to pick careers and jobs that if I did them extremely well, I knew that in the future, I could opt into four or five or six different careers or job types within a career or within an industry. 

You have different industries and different career paths.  If I did early jobs in my career, I did them extremely well.  And I had very good general skill sets that made me competitive and desirable as a person, an employee to an employer.  I would have more choices and more freedom to have an impact on the outcome of my life.  Have an outcome on what I ultimately wanted.

So when I chose to go to West Point, I knew it was a very good leadership school.  It was a very academic, challenging environment.  Both mentally and physically.  I felt if I could survive that, that in most environments I’d probably be competitive. 

Then I went in the military and I specifically picked an overseas assignment because I felt that if I had an overseas experience, again, it would be something unique to my resume that would separate me against the people I’d be competing with for future jobs that they may not have on their resume. 

I was billingual, which again is another skill because I know Spanish, German and English.  By going to Germany I’d learn a third language.  And getting exposed to all these cultures and different ways of doing business.  Of course, in the military I was stuck with contractors.  I just thought it would be another enhancement to my resume and my background and my skill sets. 

When I left the military, I felt the military was my big corporate experience.  Like a General Electric or a Kellogg or a Exxon Mobil.  I felt that I needed in my background a small company with entrepreneurial experience.  So I specifically tried to pick to work for companies with no more than 250 employees.  I want to look for that.  Some kind of criteria that would force me to look for a small growing company. 

I was just fortunate in that I got work that introduced me to those opportunities.  It was tough at first.  But finally I found a real estate acquisition construction company.  They had a turnaround situation which I thought again was a good opportunity because now I had a turnaround opportunity, and entrepreneurial.  Worked both of them.

So I accepted that job.  It was supposed to be a two to three year assignment.  Six months into the job I realized that I could do parts of the job extremely well, but I didn’t have the business vocabulary that I thought I should have if I really wanted to be competitive in the business world and the private sector. 

So I started talking to friends to see what I could do to develop this part of my resume or skill set.  They said to go to a top 10 or a top 20 business school.  It’s a pain in the butt to apply.  You have to fill out all these forms, you have to write all these essays, it’s really tough.  You have to take a test.  I said okay, I’ll do it.

So I worked fifty hours a week, and at night, every night, I came home and wrote my essays.  I applied to a bunch of schools.  I was lucky enough to get into Kellogg Graduate School. 

I realized very quickly within six months that I needed to do this.  Then I was jammed up because I only had four months to apply (laughs).  I had to cram all these all nighters, working my butt off, fill out all these applications, write out all these essays.  And I got in, but I ended up leaving about a year and a few months after I started at this small company.  I ended up going to Kellogg. 

So 20/20 hindsight, maybe it would have been better for me to stay there another year.  But it turned out to have worked out okay.  I got my year’s worth of a small entrepreneurial experience.  I did well there.  At the end of the year they offered me to run the whole southeast region.

So I ended up going to Kellogg.  I spent two years there.  Again I wanted to maximize my flexibility, so I didn’t specialize at Kellogg.  Instead of going deep in one area, like a master’s in finance, I took the minimum number of courses in marketing, finance, and strategy so I could get all three. 

I left Kellogg in ’93 up in Evanston.  And interviewed with a bunch of different companies.  I interviewed with industry companies like Kraft and Whole Foods.  And I interviewed with consulting firms.  And I got job offers at both, and ultimately, again, not knowing yet, at this point in my life, I was 28, 29 years old. I wanted to keep my options open so I felt that going to work for a consulting firm it would keep my options open because I would work with several different companies and several different industries and for several different types of business projects. 

I ended up going to work for PriceWaterHouse in their strategy consulting group.  Most of my projects were in the food industry.  But I did both retail and suppliers.  So I did Frito, Coke, Nabisco, Pepsi, Kraft, General Foods, so I worked for them even though I didn’t take their job (laughs).  As a consultant.  I did Dow Chemical, some automotive companies, oil companies, and I did that for about three years.  And then I felt that I needed an executive experience.

What I tried to do was target a job that was ahead of my time.  Could I get a job where the average person was eight to ten years older than me?  That’s what I was trying to target.  I was trying to accelerate my career path.  Those type of jobs were usually held by the #2 or #3 person in a large divison.  So I started looking for that, and it just so happens that my boss at PriceWaterHouse was contacted by a headhunter.  They were recruiting him for a job at Dominic’s.  He decided he didn’t want to take it and thought I was the best candidate.  He passed it on to me.

I interviewed.  They went ahead and gave me the job.

I was the #2 person in the operations division for Dominic’s Finer Foods, which is a $2.6 billion dollar company.  It’s 120 stores.  Basically, I took everything I learned at PriceWaterhouse as a consultant, how to write presentations, how to do all the economic and financial analytics that I did for these Fortune 1000 companies at PriceWaterhouse. 

These were real deep, intense projects that we did for these companies where you can sit for 10 or 12 hours uninterrupted and think about a problem.  Really do deep analysis.  That consulting in and of itself developed a lot of skill sets for me.  It really honed in on a lot of different frameworks on how to attack the problem.

So if I take my West Point military experience, which is the leadership, organizational, motivational part, and I add to that the PriceWaterhouse experience which was the real deep intellectual development in terms of business analytics, when you put those two together, it’s a very strong set of skills that I could now take to Dominic’s, which was my first executive experience.

At the time I was 33 years old.  My budget was a $350 million dollar budget.  I had to run 120 stores and was the #2 guy in the division.  My boss, late forties, really counted on me for a lot of the decisions they were making because of the analytical skill sets I had. 

One thing I want to remind you is, these jobs were tough.  These were sixty, seventy hours a week.  When I was at Dominic’s, six months after being there, some people would say, ‘It’s just not worth it to go through that.  It’s just not worth it.’ 

When I was at Dominic’s, the stress was so much I had purple spots on my forearms from the stress.  I had a condition called Linkin Plantis.  It doesn’t hurt you.  It’s not painful.  It’s just related to stress.  Because I was drinking a lot of coffee.  I was working Saturdays and Sundays.  But, I loved my job.  I loved what I was doing.  I knew I was having a big impact on this company.  That was a real turn on for me.  I really liked doing it, so I didn’t mind going into work.  I didn’t mind working sixty or seventy hours. 

After about two and a half years, the company did extremely well.  We more than doubled our value.  We went public.  We had a value of $3 a share, book value, before we went public.  We went public at $18 a share.  I got a stock plan at $3 when I first got there.  We went public at $18 a share.  In less than two years, we sold at $49 a share. 

So I did extremely well with my stock plan.  At that point and time in my life I decided to take a year off. 

Some of the things companies do in order to pay for these mergers is they get rid of the overhead of the company they just purchased.  So everyone knew that when we sold, half the executives were going to go.  For me, that was a good thing because they buy out your option package on the spot.  Instead of having to wait.  Because if you would have waited, you wouldn’t have been able to cash in your options.  You would have had this unrealized value sitting out there at risk because the stock can always go down.  Which is actually what ended up happening at Dominic’s. 

They really changed the company’s strategy and it didn’t work for them.  So what I decided to do is to take a year off.  I relaxed.  I didn’t work.  I traveled around the world.  I went to South Beach for two months during Spring Break.  I read novels on the beach.  I read all my high school novels all over again.  Catcher in the Rye, Farenheight 451.  I read all those books.  It was just a great experience to do that.  I went to Southeast Asia and spent four months backpacking with no itenierary.  No prebooked hotels, nothing.  I went to India, Cambodia, Vietnam.  Thailand, Hong Kong, Malysia.  It was a great experience.  Really got to take a year off, relax, and not worry about work.

When I came back, I formed a partnership with a friend of mine and we started doing consulting.  We felt that’s what we were best equipped to do, and at the time, I didn’t want to go back into a Fortune 500 company.  I wanted to be more out on my own and have more flexibility to do the things I wanted to do. 

To make enough money I’d have to work 60 hours a week.  I felt like after having done that for 10 years, I needed a little more of a break so I could spend more time with my family and friends, etc.  Go to the Cubs games, that kind of stuff. 

So we did consulting. We did well with that.  We had a thirty-forty hour work week.  I did a project for Exxon Mobil.  I did mostly IT related or profit improvement type of projects. 

After about a year of doing that, we said, ‘Why do this for someone else?  Why don’t we look to acquire companies that we can build and grow?  We know how to fix companies and know how to fix problems and know how to work with people extremely well. 

So we started asking ourselves what industry we would have the best fit for.  That also has the most opportunities for upside.  Because we didn’t have a lot of equity.  So we had to find a way where we could aquire companies without a lot of equity and have a big impact.  That’s what we were tryting to find.  It turns out that convienance stores, because they have a real estate component, because it’s real estate and the operation both, and you can buy them both, because it’s real estate you can borrow a lot of money from the bank.  You don’t have to put up a lot of money relative to the size of the value.  Alright? 

So if you think in terms of doubling the value of something, if you just take a million dollars and you’re going to double it to $2 million in three to four years.  If you only have to put down $100,000.  If you’re buying a million dollar asset and you only have to put down $100,000, and you double it’s value in three years, you now own something that’s worth $2 million, but you only owe $900,000.  So you put in $100,000 and you now have $1.1 of net value that you own.  You’ve eleven times your money. 

That’s how business works.

That’s how business works.  You leverage the equity.  We thought convienance stores were a great opportunity.  It’s a very fragmented industry.  So all the things I learned at PriceWaterhouse, at business school, at West Point, putting it together.  What turns out as I look back at my career, even though it wasn’t planned this way, each of these opportunities ended up being stepping stones or building blocks to the career or opportunity that I have now.

West Point with the leadership and organization.

The military with training on how to run people and how to run an organization. 

Kellogg, my real estate experience, Kellogg, PriceWaterhouse, developing the intellectual.  How to talk business, how to service the consumer.


The executive experience at Dominic’s.

Applying all of those things in an executive role from other executieves.  I learned difrectly from the CEO and the COO, now getting to take all those experiences and using them for a company I know own and work. 

So it was slow to build.  And you don’t have to take that risk!  There’s a lot of 25 year old who’re saying that they’re going to learn that on the job.  I’m going to buy my company now and motor through it.  I just choose a different way of doing that.  There’s no right or wrong.  You can do it both ways, where you’ll be just as happy and successful both ways.  I’m just giving you my personal experience about how it evolved.  How each one of these ending up being a building block to where I’m at right now. 

We looked at about twenty deals.  I got to tell you I was very frusturated.  You do all the work on a deal.  You do all the analysis, the research in the market, you fly into all the stores, you take pictures of all the stores, you’re working like a dog.  You make a bid, and then someone else outbids you.  You spend all this money and time, and you have zero.  Goosegg to show for it. 


So it was a very frusturating experience.  But you have to have perserverance and you have to have a dogged determination to do this.  These projects were costing us money.  We weren’t getting paid a salary.  Once we decided to do acquisitions, we no longer had income.  We were just spending our savings.  So you’re spending your savings to live, and you’re spending your savings to live on these projects and it’s frusturating when you’re not turning anything over.  So for a year and a half, we weren’t getting anywhere. 

It just so happens that as we were in the middle of doing this, 9-11.  I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase, ‘9-11 happened.’  Because I’d gone to West Point, because of my family’s background having escaped Cuba, with my sense to serve with an obligation to succeed in this country, I felt obligated again to go serve the country. 

I faxed my resume to the White House with a note saying, ‘I’m here to serve.  I’ll do whatever you need me to do.  I’d love to apply my skill sets.’  The White House responded saying they had a lot of management problems.  They wanted me to interview with a couple of the different secretaries of departments we had. 

Zach: You sent it to the White House directly?

Yeah.

Zach: Wow.

I mean, I just said I’m going to fax it right in.  It’s a department called Presidential personnel.  The White House is a huge office.  It’s not just the ‘white’ house.  They’ve got offices off the White House grounds. 

So I faxed it in.  I got a good response from the White House.  I went and interviewed with a couple departments.  The Treasury ended up being the best fit.  So I went to the Treasury.  My job, again, was catered towards my skill sets.  I was the senior advisor to the chief operating officer and chief financial officer.  It’s the same person doing both jobs.  The COO and CFO.  They have management responsibility for all the 13 operating bureaus in the Treasury, which is the U.S. Mint Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  Where they print the paper.  The IRS.  The Alcohol and Tabacco Tax.  Trade Bureau.  Bureau of Financial Services.  Bureau of Debt.  They sell all the $8 trillion in debt the country has.  They sell that off and manage that.  The Treasury audit.  The audit of our country financial.  All that stuff.  That individual is responsible.

It was my job to make their life easier by tackling special projects.  So I did a couple of those.  We set up some new offices to tackle Terrorism Financing.  I helped out with that.  And after about four months, based on the work that I did, they decided to make me Deputy to the CFO/COO.  So I was then the #2 person managing all that stuff.

Z: How much would you say you were working during this time?

I would fly out Monday morning at 6am to Washington because my family stayed here in Chicago.  I got back Friday evenings at 9pm.  Then I worked about fifty hours a week there.  I may do a couple hours of work on the weekend.  One weekend of every six weeks I would stay in D.C. to catch up.  So I did that two year commitment with the White House.  My first four months I was senior advisor.  My second four months I was the Deputy to the CFO/COO.  And when the CFO left, they made me CFO.  They made me CFO because they had liked the work I had done and liked my approach to problems. 

I wasn’t expecting that kind of a job.  That’s a much higher level job for a person my age.  But it was a great opportunity.  I loved serving the country.  I loved the people I worked with.  Very dedicated civil servants. 

I did that for two years.  At the end of my commitment I left. I came back to Chicago.  While I was at Treasury I met a 1970 Anapolis grad who was actually my chief of staff.  He’s a high net worth individual.  He saw how I worked.  He was already a retired CEO.  He was in this for the same reasons I was.  He just wanted to serve his country.  He had been a retired CEO twice over. He had a company in Silicon Valley which he built and sold.  He had a couple other companies he ran.  He was a marine pilot.  When he left the Marines in the 70’s, he ended up going to IBM.  He grew up through IBM.  He moved up through the IBM sales ranks.  He was an executive at IBM and left to go start up one of his own technology companies. 

We took a liking to each other because we had the same philosophy in terms of how to motivate people, how to work with people, how to take care of them in an organization.  How to manage by numbers and goals.  How to hit targets.  So he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

He said, ‘Look.  Instead of going to work at some consulting firm or private equity firm, or a Fortune 500 company, why don’t I back you, and we’ll go out and buy companies and do acquisitions.  I said, ‘Great!’  I couldn’t turn that down. 

So we formed a partnership.  When we got back he said to take a month off and not worry about it.  In July of ’05, we started looking for convienance store acquisitions.  In order to pay some of the bills, we did some consulting projects.  We did some financial advisory projects.  We started in July ’05, we signed our first purchase agreement in March of ’06.  We started doing bidding and bought our first chain in March of ’06.  We signed the purchase agreement and then it took another six months to close.  Which was frustruating.  All the lawyers, we were spending money.  It was just forever. 


But we perservered.  Now we have a foundation and a base to build off of. So we closed in Nov ’06 with 15 stores, $135 million in sales. 

Z: Are they in the Chicago area?

It’s about three hours west of Chicago.  So now I’m commuting again, unfortunately.  But I have a very supportive wife.  I’m gone about four nights a week.  I’m back on Fridays and the weekend.  Sometimes I have to stay the weekend over there because things go on with the stores. 

But, again, building for the long term.  Building for the long term.  We’d like to have 500 stores in less than ten years.  That’s our goal.  My partner and I, that’s our goal.  We’re going to be at 19 stores by October 15th.  We’ll be at about $45 million in sales.  The base sales are growing, plus we have these new stores that are growing. 

I’ve been working on several other acquisitions where we’ve been selected as the buyer.  It’s going to take a half a year, a year to close.  It’s the same thing it just takes forever.

Z: Are the stores not called the same thing?

My philosophy on marketing and branding is when you first get in there, don’t think you know more than the other people do. You think you do, but you don’t.  You have to get in there and listen, learn, and observe before you change anything.  So our approach to this particular industry segment is that when you buy a chain of stores, you don’t change their name.  You leave the name alone.  It’s either very specific, rational reason for why you’re doing this after you’ve learned about the customer and the consumers hand in that market first.  Going in there and saying, ‘Hey.  I’ve got a better brand than you do.’  And slapping it on.  Like a lot of companies do.  A lot of retailers do that.  That’s not the approach I’d take.  For me it doesn’t work.  Maybe it works for them, but it doesn’t work for us. 

So what we like to do is, as opposed to coming in and changing everything, we like to come in and build on the legacy of the previous leaders and employees.  And let them know that they’re doing that.  We’re building on your legacy.  What we do over time is keep the good things and we weed out the bad things over a year or two. 

We believe that long term, that builds a better company.  As opposed to coming in and cost cutting, changing the marketing plan.  Firing people and bringing in new people.  We think ultimately we get some short term hits.  But then you have all of these invisible costs that start to pop up. 

For example, you go into a meeting, and you may have heard this or not, but I’ve been in a meeting that when we changed such and such, we didn’t realize that XYZ was going to happen, and now it’s biting us in the butt.  What are we going to do about it? 

So all the gains you’ve made in the first three months, all of a sudden you’re paying it back because you didn’t realize something was going to happen because of the change you made.  When you change something, all these other little things change also.  They’re invisible.  You don’t realize until after the fact.  You get this upfront gain that you thought you were going to book, and all of a sudden you’re spending money on the backside because you didn’t listen, learn, and evolve the change in a planned way.

We think that if you do it the way we do it, you keep the goodwill of the employees.  They then are going to work better and harder for the company because the company is listening and engaging them.  Very valuable of the part of the organization.  And that makes all the difference in the world.  Because then you got fifty people in the world thinking about the problem instead of two people thinking about the problem.  Fifty heads are better than two.  I don’t care how smart the two heads are.  Fifty heads are going to be better than two. 

That’s how we approach our positions.  We integrate the acquisition slowly.  We’re going to build on the legacy of the company we’re acquiring.  And if they have a great brand and we can leverage that brand, we’ll leave that brand alone.  We’re not going to touch it.  We’ll just do all the things behind the brand on the supply chain side.  We’ll be efficient.  We’ll integrate.  We’ll solve problems.  Those kind of things.  With the employees help.  Not from the outside with arbitrary decisions.  Because that’s thinking you know more than them.  That’s not our approach.

So you pretty much just ran down your whole life story.  I was trying to nail down the high point and the low point.  But I was wondering what you consider the point where you were at the low point.

The low point, I guess in all of my opportunities was about halfway through the time when I ended my year off, after Dominic’s, and going to work at the Treasury department.  That was about a three year span.  Right in the middle of that, it was a low point, I didn’t feel good because we hadn’t closed on any acquisitions, we had spent a lot of money trying to close those acquisitions, and it was extremely difficult.  Despite the money I made at Dominic’s, having spent all this money was extremely difficult economically.  I still had plenty of money to live off but knowing that you had this much, and now you have this much. 

So why do you keep going?

Because I told myself that I’d get 99 ‘no’s’ to a ‘yes.’ I budgeted 99 ‘no’s.’ I budgeted 99 failures.  Whether I had them or not, it didn’t matter.  I told myself I know I’m not going to have 99 failures, but if I budget 99 failures, then I’m not going to give up.  Because no matter how many failures I run into, I’m just telling myself that’s failure 13.  I got another 86 to go.  I just told myself I was going to fail 99 times before I got to the top of the mountain.  That gave me the endurance, the stamina, the perserverance to get through that three year period.  Because it was tough.  We looked at 20 deals.  20 different markets I flew to.  I put the books together.  Took the photos, I went to the bank.  And then someone else would outbid us.  We’d be running, but then someone else would pay $500,000 or $2 million more because they were bigger companies.  They would just pay more than we could.  So we’d spend all this time working fifty, sixty hours a week with no income coming in!  Zero.  Making no salary, no money.  Spending our savings in doing this with no revenues coming in. 

It’s different when you’re starting a company.  If you open up a shop or a distribution center or factory, yeah you’ve spent your money, but at least you’ve got some revenue coming in and you see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Here, all the money is going out.  We’ve got no revenues at all. Zippo.  And that was frusturating and disheartening.  That was a real low point. 

But I knew deep down that if I perservered, it would only be a matter of time before these big companies would be so busy that there would be an acquisition I would bid on, they wouldn’t have time to increase the bid.  Because we were bidding pretty well.  These other companies actually had to outbid us.  When they do that, they have to do more work.  They have to make sure they’re not screwing themselves because they’re not overbidding.

I figured that if I kept at it, eventually I would find an acquisition that would fall through the net.  That they didn’t have time to do, or it didn’t fit their strategic portofolio, and I would end up with that chain.

Now the other frusturating thing was the absolutely lowest point was when 9-11 happened and I knew I felt the responsibility to go serve, but I had just spent all this money.  And now I was going to put it on pause?  That meant my broker network was going to go cold.  My banking network was going to go cold.  Because I was putting all this on hold for two years.  I was going to make a two year commitment.  I was going to get cold, but it was important enough for me to serve to do that. 

It turns out, and I didn’t realize this at the time, that having the CFO title of the Treasury Department, CFO of the U.S. Treasury, actually made it easier for me to get a loan from a bank.  It gave me more credibility.  So even though I didn’t know I would get that benefit, for going back to serve the country, and having done that job, it actually turns out by fluke, it has actually helped me tremendously in getting these deals closed.  Because it gives me a lot of credibility. 

I didn’t think about that when I was going to do these jobs.  It didn’t dawn on me til after the fact.  When I realized that I was going into these meetings and people were telling me that a big part of this meeting is because you were the CFO of the Treasury Department.  They might have to pay a higher price, but I have the credibility now.  People were willing to work with me.

That was a benefit that I did not plan on having.  So that was the low point.  That halfway point of struggling through, not having any successes, and having to perservere. 

So one of the things that we’ve come across in our travels and about a hundred interviews in the last two months is that pursuing your passion is associated with an upper middle class status.  Coming from an immigrant family, going to Miami, I was wondering what your thoughts on that were. 

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t be what you want to be.  Because it’s not true.  You work hard enough, you work long enough, you really do have your destiny in your hands.  The problem with that is you have to be self accountable.  Some people can’t deal with that.  Some people can’t deal with the ‘Who I am and what I am is up to me.’  They want to blame someone else or they want to blame the environment or whatever. 

And yes, it’s not a fair world.  Some individuals start out with a lot tougher road than other individuals.  You can’t change that.  So if you can’t change that, don’t focus in on it.  Don’t worry about it.  Worry about what you can change.  It is what it is.  If you’re born into a family with a billion dollars, yeah, it’s going to be a lot easier. 

If you’re born into a family that doesn’t have any education or doesn’t have any money or financial resources, yeah, it’s going to be a lot tougher road.  Guaranteed.  It’s going to suck half the time.  It’s going to be tough.  But, if you focus in on the things that you can control, and you excel at those things, and you perservere and you work hard, really the future is in your hands.  No one can tell me that’s not true because I’ve personally experienced it.

When we got here we didn’t English.  We didn’t have a dime.  Nothing.  My dad started fishing for a living.  He went out in the morning.  He caught a bunch of fish.  He came back in the evening and sold them at the pier.  That’s what he did.  That’s all he knew how to do. 

Then he bought a little gas station with the money he saved up from going fishing.  Right?  Because he knew how to fix engines.  He knew a bit about fixing motors, so he bought a gas station.  He worked that for awhile, and that didn’t do so well. 


At the time, my dad was involved with trying to go back to Cuba.  He would buy guns and stuff and try to go back to Cuba because Castro was still there.  So for the first five years we were here, I failed first grade because I didn’t know how to speak English.  I failed first grade because I didn’t know how to speak English.  Because my dad and my mom thought we were going back to Cuba.  We thought Castro was going to fall.

When it became obvious he wasn’t going to fall, then we decided to start learning English.  My dad said, ‘If you don’t get good grades, even if you pass, I’m not going to let you pass, so you’re not going to be with all your friends.’  So I got good grades, so when my friends went from second to third, I would go second to third.  Because my dad told me that if I didn’t get A’s and B’s, I wasn’t going to third grade.  He was going to pull me back voluntarily (laughs).

So from then on I always got good grades.   And then it became a habit of getting the grades.  And then it became a desire to get good grades.  But if you work hard enough and long enough, you will achieve your dream.  It may take you longer than you think.  It might cost you more than you think.  And then you have to decide if it’s worth it.  Is it worth it? 

When I was at Dominic’s I had those purple spots.  They went away after seven or eight months because I got used to it.  Because when I got to Dominic’s I didn’t know a lot of things.  I had to learn.  In order to do the job well and not knowing some of the things a lot of the executives knew because they’d been there for twenty years, and I just got there, it was very stressful to succeed in that environment. 

But I perservered.  I lasted.  The spots went away.  And I did really well there. 

I think the key to success is, part of its balance.  You have to have a balanced life. Even though I worked hard, I always went salsa dancing.  I went out with friends.  I went to go see the Cubs game.  I always found time to enjoy life.  So I hate the term work hard, party hard, but I always managed to have a good time with a work life balance.

So if there was just one piece of advice, if you could go back to when you’re 22 years old, and offer one thing to say to your 22 year old self, what would you say?

Buy real estate.  Don’t rent.  If you can afford to buy.  I’d buy.  Then when you move, keep it.  And rent it out.  And hold on to it.  I’ve got about five or seven units now.  I know that’s not life oriented advice, but instead of driving that brand new Celica, get yourself a dumpy old twenty year old Datsun, as long as it gets you from A to B.  Take the difference in that money, save it up, and go buy real estate.  Because you will be a little mini real estate mogul with a lot of money. 

Because over time, if you buy real estate early in your life, over time, as you pay that real estate down, and you own more and more and more real estate, it actually becomes your own personal bank.  Because whenever you need to go get a loan, you go to the bank and say ‘Hey.  I’ve got fifty percent equity.  I want to bring it down to twenty.  I need a loan.’  Boom!  Overnight, they’ll give you a loan.  You always have access to money if you start at a young age and build up the real estate portfolio.

Yes it’s a lot of work.  Yes they call you at three in the morning with the plumbing backed up.  But again, is it worth it?  I think it is.

You start young, you buy a little condo every two years, every three years.  But the time you’re thirty-five, you’ve got five or six of these things.  The first one is a third to a half paid off.  And now you got rental income coming in. 

Z: Can you take the equity out of the first one and buy the second one?

You can do that, but that takes longer.  If you don’t have new equity coming in, you wait for the first one to build equity, you may buy one every four years or five years.  But you have to be careful.  You have to know what you’re doing.  You have to buy the right place.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.  But I’d submit to you guys to start at a younger age. 

Sometimes you move so far that you have to sell.  But then you make some money out of it.  If you buy in the right places.  Then you take that money out and put it in the new place you move and immediately you find something and buy it.

One way to do it is if you move to a new place, buy the place you’re going to live at, and within three months when you’re settled, buy another condo.  Buy that one and rent it out, or buy that one and rent yours out. 

You will build wealth, not at the very beginning, but at the second half, you will build tremendous wealth in your life if you start early.  I didn’t start in real estate until I was thirty three years old.  It was the first piece of real estate I bought.  That was the one regret I had.  If I go back, and if I could start my real estate at 22 or 23, instead of 33, I’d have even more financial resources than I would even have now. 

Z:  How old are you now?

Right now I’m 43. 

The angle: If Jesus is the hardest worker we have, which is represented nicely by his purple spots on his arms, then we have a winner.  Son of Cuban immigrants, failed the first grade because he didn’t speak English, worked hard all the way through WestPoint and Fortune 500 companies to become the CFO of the U.S. Treasury. Now acquires properties and spearheads a convenience store business worth $45 million.  All because hard work and perseverance.            

Emilee Warner

Some people can’t hide how much they love their job; Emilee Warner, the voice of Country Music Television’s radio network is one of those people.

At 21, Emilee has graduated college, bought a house and found her way deep into the Nashville music scene, all because she is a charming extrovert and, more importantly, a diehard fan of bluegrass. At 21, Emilee has accomplished a great deal of things. Her freshman year in college, where she studied marketing, Emilee founded a bluegrass radio show. By the time she graduated three years later, Emilee had already had two internships and three
jobs in the music business. The youngest to audition for her current position, Emilee won the job through sheer confidence and will power.

“If I could hug and kiss Nashville,” Emilee says, “I would. I love this town.”

Emilee has placed herself in the epicenter of the bluegrass world, an obvious choice for a fan and banjo player such as herself. The lesson that Emilee has to teach everyone, even those many years her senior, is that extroversion is an incredibly powerful tool. “If you love music and you’re outside,” says Emilee, “You’re going to meet a lot of people.” And a lot of people Emilee has met, taking the Pursue the Passion crew to numerous concerts, parties and events within the bluegrass community. Emilee’s passion is for music, and could see herself doing just about anything in the music world.

“I’d love plain old marketing,” she says, with a grin. “As long as I’d be marketing good music.”

INTERVIEW

If you could just say…

Your name, what you do, who you do it for, and how old you are?

You know the drill.  You’re a stud.

My name is Emilee Warner.  I am the voice of CMT Radio Networks.  I am 21 years old.

And you’re from Crossville?

I am from Crossville, Tennessee.

So your family are all the most important people in Crossville, right?

That’s why I had to move away (laughs).  My dad is the general sessions judge.  My uncle is the sheriff. My cousin is the chief of police.  And I have another cousin who is the county clerk (laughs).

That’s crazy.  So we’re in Nashville at Country Music…

This is Country Music Television.  This is it!  This is the headquarters.

Z: This is the epicenter of the country music movement.

Pretty much. You are in country music city.

So have you always liked country music?  Or did you fall in love with bluegrass awhile back.  What was that like?  When did you start getting your interest in this type of music?

When I was in high school, the best radio station in my hometown was a country station.  WOWF- Crossville.  When I graduated high school I worked part time for them for the summer.  I was their intern.  I just fell in love with the music.

It was really catchy and I liked it.  And it was the best radio station around. 

I went to college.  I got really into bluegrass music.  A lot of my friends were into that.  I started to play banjo.  And I started a bluegrass radio show my freshman year of college.  That’s the first time I really found something that I loved and could stick with.

So you’re 21 years old.  Not a lot of people our age have a badass job like this.  How many friends are envious of you?

Well, I was the youngest person who auditioned for this job, which was pretty crazy.  When I actually started here, I was younger than our intern.  Which was pretty crazy.  Our intern was a year older than me. 

It’s kind of weird.  My boss didn’t know that I was only 21 when he hired.  He just assumed I was older because I came in really confident and it worked for me.  So it’s pretty weird.

I think all of my friends have really cool jobs, whether they’re a musician or whatever.  I don’t know anyone who has a really terrible job.  I just think mine’s really cool.  Other than waking up early in the morning.

Zach:  Why do you think people think you’re older than you are?  Have you always been more mature?

I’ve always had friends who are older.  I always dated older.  My cousin told me the other day that when I was a baby he always thought that I had old eyes.  But I don’t know.  I think I still have a lot more wisdom to gain.  But so far, so good. 

What about your personal journey?  Has there been anything special that has gotten you here?  What separates you from other people who are working accounting jobs or something like that?

I fell in love in music.  During that year in school I was studying production, radio, and TV.  I just thought it was so fascinating and really cool. 

I’m someone, I mean, I can admit that I like attention.  And I really like good music and I really like exposing people to great music.  And I’m a really hard worker.  I’m a go getter. I’m not very patient.  I have to get stuff done fast. 

So the timeline was, I got into bluegrass music my freshman year of college.  My school is about 45 minutes from Nashville.  I was living there.

Within six months, I had moved to Nashville.  I got a job at a booking agency, one of the best booking agency in bluegrass music.  I was working for the artists that I was a huge fan of.  That all happened in six months.  From one of the first big bluegrass shows that I gone to, which was the Del McCurry Band at the Ryman on New Year’s Eve, to working for Alison Krauss’s booking agency.

I was just persistent.  And it was luck.  I met a man in a bookstore and told him to listen to my bluegrass radio show, and he turned out to be Alison Krauss’s booking agent.  It was pretty crazy.  I just kept hounding him.  I was like, ‘Hey, I’d love to have lunch.  I’d love to be an intern.  I don’t know if you have interns.’

One day he called me, during my radio show, he had been listening, and they had a receptionist position that came open.  I already had plans to move to Nashville, and I ended up getting the job.  And I moved to Nashville within three days.  It was pretty crazy.  It’s been crazy cosmic luck.

But it’s more than luck.  You’re setting yourself up for it with your persistence and getting involved that early. 

My school is really known for the degree of music business.  You go to college and get a degree in music business.  I didn’t do that.  I majored in marketing. I have a bachelors in business.  I know so many kids who take the five year plan and major in music business and if you don’t do the music business, you don’t have anything to fall back on.  With that degree.  You have nothing

The way the music business changes, it’s not worth getting a degree in.  It changes every single day!  Look at MySpace, Facebook and iTunes are just changing the whole industry.  You can’t rely on a degree like that, you just have to have a business sense.  So I’m hoping that’s working out for me (laughs).

A lot of my peers majored in that.  They’d live in Murphysboro and if they were lucky, maybe they had one internship by the time they graduated.  When I graduated, I had already had two internships and three part time jobs.  All in music or radio.  Just in those three years of college. 

And you started your own show.

And I started my own radio show at the college station. It’s just a matter of finding it.  And a lot of people don’t ever think to find it.  Or don’t have that persistence mechanism to network all the time.  I mean, I went to Kinko’s and made business cards.  I spent forty bucks, made business cards, and every concert I went to, if I met anyone I gave them my card.  I just handed out the card and got there’s.  I have a huge Rolodex.  I don’t know who half these people are, but those three or four where I actually handed it to the right person got me to where I am today.  And it’s so worth it.

Zach:  Did your specific degree ever help or hurt you?  Did you feel like you needed a music degree? 

It probably would have helped on some things. As far as music legal things.  But, overall I think I made the right decision.  I don’t regret not majoring in music business.  It would have taken me another year to graduate.  I wouldn’t have been able to have this job, for sure.  It would have cost more in school.  My marketing degree I ended up graduating in three years. 

With the Tennessee Lottery Scholoarship, I got to go to school for free.  Which rocked!

The Tennessee Lottery Scholoarship?

Yeah.  We have a state lottery.  You go to the gas station, you buy a lottery ticket.  All that money goes to education for college.  So it’s a great cause.  Georgia does that.  There’s several states that do it.

Cool.  So is this job enough to pay the bills?  Is it sustainable? 

It could pay the bills if I wanted to eat Ramen every day.  Well, I take that back.  I like to go out.  I like to go out to eat.  I like to go out to music.  I decided a couple of months ago when I got out of school what I was working for.  Yeah, you have to work for money, but where do you want your money to go?  What’s the whole point?

I decided music was a huge priority.  I’m never going to regret paying a lot to go to a show or a festival.  I just decided I’m not going to let myself feel guilty, because that’s something I love.  I’m not going to regret going out to eat once in awhile, because I love to do that too.  I love to be with people.  I love to have a beer once in awhile, or more than that sometimes (laughs).

And I just bought a house.  I work three jobs right now.  CMT is technically a full time job.  I’m a freelancer here, and I’m on a weekly stipend.  I could live off it, but I like to have a little extra to go to shows, to pay bills easier, and try to save.  Since I’m young and energetic, now’s the best time for me to have three jobs.  Rather than if I was married or if I had a kid.  Or if I had a dog.  Or a plant that needed a lot of maintenance or something.  While I’m able to do that, I want to. 

So I work for a publicist and a local rock radio station. 

Zach:  So what were some of the things that weren’t so important to you when you thought about that? What you didn’t want to spend your money on.

That’s a good question.  What I didn’t want to spend my money on?  I don’t care about having a nice car.  That’s one thing.  I really wanted to own a house.  I was tired of renting, because I didn’t see the point.  And the way rent prices were in Nashville, it’s within $300 of a mortgage.  I know $300 is a lot per month, but I also work two extra jobs.  So I’m able to come up with it.  If I don’t eat out for a whole week, I save probably a lot of money for myself.

Things like that weren’t very important.  I was going to buy a new computer this fall.  I’ve had mine since freshman year of college and it’s missing some keys.  But instead of buying that, I decided I was going to put that towards a house. 

Zach: So you’ve invested in lifestyle things like friends and making connections and doing that type of stuff.

I much rather not have the nicest clothes and shop at a thrift store and be able to go see Bob Dylan at the Ryman with great seats.  Any day.

What makes Nashville so special?  You seem to love it.

I love this town.  If I could just hug Nashville and kiss it I would.  This town has been so good to me!  I have great job.  I love it.  I have great friends.  I’m really thankful.  I never have ever regretted moving here.  Ever.

I grew up two hours away, so I always knew Nashville.  But I had never been to the Grand Bell Opry until sometime in the past two years. 

Nashville is one of the most welcoming cities.  It’s so easy to move here.  It’s so easy to visit.  It’s so easy to make friends.  All you need to be is just not inside.  If you just get out and go to one show, you’re going to meet somebody.  If you love music, you’re going to meet a lot of people.  If you play music, you’re going to meet even more people.  More than you want.  It’s just a great place.  I love it.

Z:  So you could say you’re an extrovert.  Clearly.  But we’ve talked to a lot of people about managing your state and a lot of people are introverts and have trouble with a lot of that stuff.  It’s kind of the most important thing.  Talking with people on a real level.  Is it something that’s always come easy to you?  Or do you ever find yourself not wanting to do that stuff where you have to consciously tell yourself to make sure to do it because you know it’s important. 

I’ve always been an extrovert since I was a kid.  I’m the baby of my family, if you haven’t noticed.  My sister is a couple years older than me.  She is an introvert.  She is a high school teacher married to a dairy farmer.  She likes the very simple, very structured lifestyle. 

Me on the other hand, I’m a little crazy!  And I like it that way.  I like talking to a lot of people.  I like talking all the time.  And I don’t like being quiet and sitting in a room alone.  Not that I’m unstable, but it’s just that I love having people around. 

Sometimes I get nervous.  There are some social situations since I’ve gotten into the country music scene, where I’m surrounded by stars that I see on TV, that is a different situation that I’m still getting used to.  It’s really hard to go up to people and joke around. Or bring up something to talk about because I don’t know those people very well yet.  But in the bluegrass world I know everybody. 

So going into the Station Inn, and having my hair messed up with no makeup on is not a big deal.  But if I were to go to Big & Rich’s #1 party, I couldn’t do that.  Not yet.  But one day I will. 

So is Billy Ray Sirius the biggest star you’ve talked to?

So far, I’ve met a lot of different artists.  But as far as doing a straight up interview, I’ve only done a couple.  Billy Ray was pretty cool.  Billy Ray Sirius was fun.  It was right when all the Hannah Montana stuff has been going on.  Which has been bigger than I knew.  At the time, I didn’t have cable.  So I didn’t know how big it was.

Z:  But that’s a kid’s show. 

It’s a kid’s show, but hey, I still love the Disney channel.  But I remember Billy Ray Sirius from when I was a kid.  Achy Breaky Heart was the cool thing.  My family had a cardboard stand up of him with his mullet.  I interviewed him in this very room.  I got really nervous.  I kind of locked up a little bit.  But it’s just practice.  You have to keep doing it.  The second interview I did was Recee Palmer, a new country artist.  We did a great show.  It was just crazy having a good time.  Her single is called ‘Country Girl’ and we just had so much fun.  So that was cool. 

The day I started my job I went to a #1 party for the band Sugarland.  The duo.  I met them and it was pretty cool.  It was my first day.  I went to Azcap, which is a music row.  You’ll probably drive by there at some point.  That’s where they have the #1 parties for their artists.  I met Sugarland because I knew their VP, Dan Keane, and Dan brought me in.  He was like, ‘Congrats!  You just got the job at CMT.  Here, you have to meet the band.’  I’m like, ‘What?’  He’s like, ‘Jennifer, Christian, this is Emilee Warner.  She does the scoop at CMT radio!’  They were super cool and super nice, so that was pretty neat. 

So one of the questions we get all the time is ‘Who is the most passionate?’  Not a question I like, but as far as professions go, where do musicians here in Nashville stack up in that lineup of people passionate about their job?

I don’t think anyone is more passionate than I am.  Other than waking up early.  That part of my job is not fun.  I think musicians are some of the most passionate people you’ll ever meet.  They don’t care to be poor.  They don’t care to only own a mattress and a couple of shirts and maybe a pair of underwear if they’re lucky.  Which is the case with a lot of people I know.  They don’t care to be poor, but they want to play music for a living.  They’ll be poor to do so because that’s what’s important to them.  They want to do what’s making them happy.  It’s not the paycheck.  That’s a big thing for a lot of people, to decide that.  And to accept it.

It’s not really about money, it’s about lifestyle. 

Yeah.  You never get rich in radio.  Anyone will tell you that.  Unless you’re in sales.  I mean, I’m in this knowing that for the rest of my life I’m never going to live in a huge house with a swimming pool.  I may or may not have kids.  I’m probably never going to own a brand new car.  But I’m going to see a lot of great music.

And that’s why you do what you do.

Yeah.  I’m going to see more great music than a lot of people.  That’s all I want.  And maybe a hot tub (laughs).

Z:  Kind of indulge us.  You were saying last night that the Del McCurry show changed your life.  What was that realization like?  Why’d you have that realization at that night at that show?

That was the New Year’s show at the Ryman.  Del McCurry used to play there every New Year’s at the Ryman for a good string of years.  Well I found out that they were playing there.  I was starting my bluegrass radio show that following January at WMTS.  My college radio station. 

So I found tickets on eBay.  It was front row seats.  Seats 1 and 2 at the Ryman.  I don’t even remember what I ended up charging on my dad’s credit card (laughs).  But it was probably close to $200 bucks for those tickets.  Me and one of my very close friends, Emily Cavender went and drove up.  It was our freshman year, so you get kicked out of the dorms, which totally stinks.  I always hated that. 

So we got kicked out of the dorms and came up that night to Nashville.  There were like four or five opening bands.  They were all young artists that were playing bluegrass.  I didn’t know there were young people who were good looking and not old men missing teeth.  That was what I thought of bluegrass. These were good looking guys you could see in any magazine.  They were pickin’ their tails off.  They were so good. 

So in between some of the shows, we would go out and meet the bands.  We’d get their autographs or whatever.  We were superfans.  One of the bands actually, this is kind of embarrassing, found them on MySpace a month later, and ended up being buddies with them.  They were in Nashville a lot, but not from here.  We ended up hanging out with them, going to shows when they were in town.  That band, they had the same booking agency I ended up working at.  So that kind of handy.  I met them as a fan, and I was working for them within five months.  Handling their itenariries.  That was kind of crazy.

I think of you as a person is a testament to what being positive all the time can do for you.  So many doors have opened up and you’re definitely bubbly and energetic.  Just to go out and meet every person with that same enthusiasm, I think that’s why you’re sitting here.

Yeah! It’s great.  The reason I even knew this job was open was a girl that we both did shows at the college radio station.  She graduated before me, interned here, got a job here as a production assistant, and she called me when the position became available.  She said I better overnight a package.  Because I listen to your show every week, and you would be the voice of CMT Radio.  I love your show Bum Diddy.  It’s fun.  We listen to it in the office.  You better send something in.  I thought, ‘Well I’ll never get that.’  So I didn’t even send it for a couple days.  She calls me back, and she’s like, did you send it yet?  She said you better overnight that. 

I did, and I ended up getting that.  Pretty crazy.  Because I didn’t even know this girl that well in college.  She just listened to my show and liked it.

So do you want to do this forever or what’s your deal?

What’s my deal?  I don’t know what I want to do forever.  There’s a lot of things I want to do.  But this is great.  I think I’m going to be here for several years.  I’m on a year contract is how it works.  So next June we’ll go through negotiations again and hopefully I’ll still be around.  My boss and I already talk and act as if I’ll still be here.  I have no reason to leave.  I love it here. 

Z:  Do you get hung up on thinking about that stuff at all?  Like what’s a long time for you to be thinking about in the future?  Is two years a long time?  Or would you generally go into a job thinking that you’d work there for three years?

I like to think very long term.  In my mind I’ve already been married and divorced and had a kid and I’m retired (laughs).  But I’m really forty-five trapped in this twenty-one year old body!  So I do think about things really long term.  There are a lot of great places I would love to work at some point.  Or just a lot of great people I’d love to work with or work for. 


I mean, were here at Country Music Television, but we’re here in their radio studio.  So there’s even a whole television part of this.  I don’t know if that’s something in my future or not, but I’d be cool either way.  I love radio.  I love TV.  I love plain ol’ marketing.  If I’m marketing good music.  I can do a lot of different things. 

So when did you graduate?  May of 2007? 

I graduated a couple months ago. 

That screws up our interview format.  The way we end every interview is asking people if they could go back to 21 and give themselves one piece of advice, what they would say.  But is there anything you would say to yourself?

Well, since I’m 45.

Yeah, since you’re 45 you can go back to 21.  But when you were just about to graduate, or maybe even before that, if you had to give yourself one piece of advice, what would you say?

I would say to invest in one of those companies where you could buy bulk gas at a lower price.  Because I commuted from Murphysboro to Nashville for two years.  That wasn’t cheap (laughs).  That would have been some great advice!  Nobody makes a lot of money in the music business.  They’re all fooling you.

Z:  You’re working in a really cool niche in the music business.  Bluegrass, I don’t want to say it’s marginalized, but it’s such a close knit culture that’s a bit smaller.  Do you think you could be as happy working in a different area?  It’s got to be an advantage to meet these artists face to face and be embraced by the people you look up to. 

Yeah.  It’s pretty crazy that I’m now friends with people I was once a huge fan of.  There’s a guy who’s a friend of mine now who is a great banjo player. One of the world’s best, named Nome Pickelne.  He once played with Leftover Salmon.  He is currently playing with the Chris Thely Solo Band.  I think their current name is Punch Brothers.  Who knows what it’ll be by the time people see this. 

But Nome Pickelne, great banjo player.  I met him once here and I called his record label to get his CD to play on my show.  Now, he’s like roommates with my buddy Tony.  He doesn’t even know that, but I called and got his album for free from his label so I could play it on the radio. 

It’s just that I love bluegrass music.  I love a lot of Americana.  I like Blues.  I like some jazz.  I mean I like a lot of really good music.  A lot of it kind of goes together.  Heck, I go to Bonaroo every year, but I also go to Murlfest and Crystal Rhythm Roots and Reunion and IBMA.  So I could be happy in things somewhat similar.  I work at a rock radio station.  So I like it all.    

Thanks for taking the time. You’re off the hot seat. 

Z: You want to say anything else?

These boys, they’re crazy.  But they are a lot fun.  Come back to Nashville guys. 

Z: Brett’s a really good kisser, right?

Brett!  I wouldn’t know (Laughs)!  Noah though.  That’s the one all the ladies need to watch out for.  He’s a polygamist (laughs). 

Do you want, like, a walk around the building?

Alex Guarnaschelli

Alex Guarnaschelli, executive chef of NYC’s Butter, did not, after college, have the “frame of reference” to enter the culinary world with her art history degree in tow. So, the daughter of a cookbook editor did what anyone else would do: she took a road trip across the country with her three best friends.

After a year of introductory learning in the kitchen, Alex entered a work-study program in Burgundy, France. Often the butt of jokes during her first couple years in the kitchen, Alex was glad to be there, and learned as much as she could.

“Who cares if you’re a clown,” she says, “as long as you’re dancing in the circus.” Ready to come home, Alex’s mother suggested a short stint at a friend’s restaurant in Paris. In a story similar to that of California’s Paella king Gerard Nebesky, Alex’s three days in France became four-and-a-half years.

Alex’s first piece of advice for aspiring chefs is to “park gender at the door, and just survive and learn.” She recounts vivid stories of doing just so, in the often-intense, male dominated French kitchens where she spent her formative years. Another lesson gleaned from Alex’s life is to fear abandoning “normalcy” in the name of following a dream. Alex quickly learned that feminine style had no place in the kitchen. She also, more drastically, chose France over marriage, a choice she stands by today.

“You have to get it out of your system,” she says, of fun and youthful choices, “so that when you hunker down, and choose something you’re truly passionate about, there’s no static on your mental radio, because you’ve lived a little bit to your own liking.”

INTERVIEW

Alex Guarnaschelli is the executive chef for a restaurant frequented by New York’s A-list celebrities.  The restaurant is called Butter. 

I graduated from Barnard College with a BA in Art History.  After driving all around America with my three close friends- note to self: when you drive around America with your three best friends, maybe they’re not your closest friends when you’re done- I worked for free in a restaurant called an American Place.  For a very American ingredient driven chef.  At the time, in 1991, that restaurant was in its heyday. 

So I was cutting and burning myself all day long. At that time I had nail polish, eye shadow, lipstick…I came to work thinking something different about my job.  I walked in that first day and the chef said, “this is not a glamour show.  Just to let you know.”  He took one look at my little outfit and said, “this is not a glamour show, just so you know.”

Fast forward, six months later, it was a very different story.  Hair in a bun.  Carmex once a week, if I was lucky.  But more than that, I worked in the pastry, I worked in the pantry, I made salads.  I did that for about a year.  The minimum wage was really rough.  I made like, $200 a week for the most absurd set of hours.  But they were lovely.  They were good to me, they were patient when I screwed up a lot of stuff.  And they didn’t care.  They just gave my screwups to the staff for dinner. 

I’m just on the cusp of 23 after doing that for a year.  I decide that maybe it would be a good idea if I went to culinary school.  So I bought a book guide to culinary schools for $9.95.  I thought, “How could the answer, to my universe, be $9.95?”  In it I found a work study program in Burgundy for a school called La Verne, which still exists.  I wrote to them and said that I wanted to be a work study student.    

I was thinking the less I invest in myself monetarily without knowing if I wanted to do this, the better.  They accepted me, and I went.  For nine months I lived in the middle of nowhere in Burgundy and did a lot of dishes.  I drank a lot of Pinot Noir.  I met some interesting chefs who would come and guest teach and leave.  That led to a little stint at a restaurant in the Alps for a couple months.  I ate more cheese.  I drank more wine.  And cut my fingers. 

Then I was really ready to come home.  I was broke.  I was hungry.  I was grouchy and overworked.  I really just wanted to eat a bagel.  And chill out and watch fourteen episodes of the Brady Bunch. 

So I called my mother weeping from a parking lot in the middle of nowhere in the French Alps.  “I want to go home…(imitating a crying 23 year old Alex) I’m sick of this shit.”  My mother, who is a cookbook editor said, “Well, okay.  But first, before you come home, go to my author’s friend’s restaurant in Paris for three days and do a little stint there.  Just to get a feel for a Parisian restaurant before you come home.” 

So I was engaged to be married.  To an American.  Long story, not for now.  That does not have to do with my passion for my career, but other passions.  I was all set.  I had my whole little American life sort of mapped out to myself in my head.  In my head.  I stress that part of the sentence. 

I went up to this restaurant in Paris and it was very nerve racking.  It turned out to be a two star restaurant in the middle of Paris called Guy Savoy.  It was not what I had been accustomed to.  There was a person for each job.  One person seasoned the fish.  One person cut it.  One person cooked it, another person cooked the vegetables.  It took like five people to put a piece of fish with some vegetables on a plate.  It was not at all what I was used to.  So I was horrified. 

The chef asked me if I knew how to shuck oysters.  I said, “Of course.”  No idea how to shuck an oyster.  But figured like I better act like I did.  Big mistake.  I screwed up all the oysters.  They wound up having to puree it and turn it into a vinaigrette.  Because they were so badly mangled because of my job that they were unusable. 

But they somehow thought it was kind of humorous that in the midst of all these hot to trot little French chefs there was this American female just sort of oddly plopped there.  You know, dropped off from the latest spaceship.  They found me amusing.  I was a subject of amusement more than an actual cohesive member of a functioning team.  But, who cares if you’re the clown, as long as you can dance at the circus. 

That’s pretty much the attitude I’ve had about my line of work my whole life.  I have a BA in Art History from a good college.  I went to Horace Mann.  I could have gotten a job in an office.  I could have gotten a normal job.  For some reason I decided to jump in and take a chance at something that I wasn’t good at.  Which is also very painful.  It’s painful to be 22 years old, because at that age, you think you can take over the world.  And you realize very quickly that the world is the boss of you.  Because you don’t know how to cut a pepper.  It’s kind of hard to grapple with. 

Guy Savoy came into the kitchen my third and final day at the restaurant.  He wasn’t there the first two days at all.  They had a whole team of people, but he wasn’t around.  I thought that was kind of better, because the way they talked about him, they were like (whispering) “He’s not here today.”  Like Darth Vader.  So he came the third day and said, “You’re welcome in my kitchen.  Whatever you want to do, you’re welcome here.  I love having you.”  I was like, that’s because you don’t know what I’ve been trying to make and screwing up.  But thanks buddy. 

I had such a great day that third day.  They were like, “Okay, tomorrow, we’re going to show you how to pick arugula and clean a rack of veal.  We’re going to do all that tomorrow.”  I couldn’t bear to say, “Well actually this is my last day if you remember I was only supposed to be here three days, and I have a flight home tomorrow.”  I couldn’t bear to say it. It just wouldn’t come out of my mouth.  I was just like, “Okay, cool.  A rack of veal tomorrow?  Great!”  I left the restaurant and I was like, “I have to learn how to cut that veal.  I can’t go home.  I’ve got a veal to cut.”

So I went back the next day.  I missed my plane.  Then I went back again, and again, and again, and again and I just couldn’t…

I walked through an open air market to get to my work, and the ingredients…I never smelled strawberries from eighty feet away.  Strawberry, to me, is a food you look at and you’re like, “Oooo, I want to eat that.”  But imagine catching a whiff of strawberries in the distance.  These kind of sensory experiences with ingredients in Paris really bowled me over.  This is not like the supermarket that sprays everything periodically to make it look good.

So I called my boyfriend at the time and said “I love you.  But I just can’t come home right now.  I just can’t do it.  I’m sorry.”  I wound up staying at that restaurant for four and a half years.  It took me that long in my own eyes to really learn how to cook.  It’s what I call an apprenticeship in the classical sense of the term. 

I worked for free for like six or seven months.  At that point, I was staying with my friend still.  For like six months.  I would cook for her and stuff, but I had no money.  I love when people say (hands in quotations) “I have no money.”  I mean, I’m saying, I had no money. 

So I woke up one particular day and I overslept.  You know when you have sheet marks on your face and you’re late for work?  I ran downstairs and the mail was sitting on the counter in the lobby of the building and there was a letter from a friend of mine.  In it was fifty bucks.  I think I wrote her a letter, kind of catatonic, and told her I had no money.  I think I wrote such a bad letter that she sent me fifty bucks.  And I was like, “I have fifty dollars!”  I walked out like, “I have fifty dollars!” 

But it was in American money.  I didn’t have francs, and I didn’t have any money on me.  Euros and email, did not yet exist.  Just to give you an idea of how old I am.  I went into the Subway and didn’t have money for the Subway.  Six francs, at that time.  So I jumped the turnstile.  And I got caught.  Now keep in mind also, that I don’t have papers.  I am living illegally in France working illegally and I don’t have papers.  And those cops, in those very serious outfits now have me.  And I’ve jumped the turnstile.  And I’m late for work and I have sheet marks.  Should I speak English and act stupid?  Should I speak French and act stupid?  Should I speak either, or both, and act smart?  What do I do? 

Luckily I was overtired and didn’t have my wits about me.  I think that’s when you make some of your best decisions.  So I was like, “I’m sorry, I’m American, I didn’t have the money.  I only have American.”  And I pulled out the American money to act dopey.  So they wrote me a fine.  They took my name and everything.  They wrote me a fine, and the fine was exactly fifty dollars. 

So I get to work and I’m right back where I started, but alive.  As the day progresses, it was a particularly unnerving day.  As the day progressed, I just got more and more rattled.  I am broke.  And I’m tired and grouchy.  I started to get that desire to eat the bagel and watch the Brady Bunch again.  The su chef came in and he’s like, “We haven’t been paying you, have we?”  And I’m like, “Nooooo, you have not.”  He said, “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”  So I was like, wow, maybe karma is going to come around and instead of kicking me, its going to pat me on the back. 

Guy Savoy called me down to his office.  At the time I was making a big bowl of potatoes with butter and was mixing it.  So I had butter to my elbows.  Just a sheet of butter on my hands and elbows.  On the way to his office I was thinking that I would either get paid or asked to leave.  I wasn’t sure.   

So I went down the stairs like Frankenstein.  Just dripping butter walking down the stairs.  I’m in his office and the butter is like, drip. Drip.  Drip.  He’s like, here’s some money, which I took with my buttery hands.  I got butter all over the money.  It’s kind of ironic I work at butter now.

He was like, “you’re doing a great job.  Keep up the good work.” 

So that was like one of, and is still, other than the birth of my daughter, definitely one of the most gratifying moments of my life.  It was like, “I can slog through all this and I can make money.”  I can’t be rich.  But I can make money and I can sustain myself.  And do what I really love.  It kind of made everything worth it. 

So I stayed there over four years.  Then I worked in another one of his restaurants as a su chef for a year. Which was…I mean, to try to get ten French whippersnappers to listen to an American female authority figure…I don’t recommend it.  Unless you have WELLBUTRIN, I don’t recommend it.

I came back to America.  I worked at a restaurant for a couple years and moved out to Los Angeles to get out of New York.  I worked at a restaurant there called Patina. 

Again, one thread through my entire career so far has been green markets.  In Paris, in the Alps, in the south of France, in California, and in New York.  I’m a big green market kind of gal.  I know it sounds cheesy, like “I love fresh ingredients.”  But they really are now at the point where they constantly inspire me.  I get up out of bed in the mornings, Wednesdays and Saturdays, when I go to the market here, and I’m like, “I’m going to convene with the crops today.” 

After all those big restaurant stints, I’m like, I’m never going to get married.  I’m never going to have kids.  I’m never going to have my own life. Because it eats you alive.  A lot of careers do.  But when you wake up and you’re like, 37, you’re not 22 or 28 or even 34 anymore.  You’re like, “Oh, I’m going to be 40 soon.”  I should maybe have something for myself. 

So I gave up.  I walked away from it all. I got a job as a private chef making quesadillas on Park Avenue for a family and a lot of money.  And that’s what having the good pedigree gave me.  If you have a good pedigree and you’ve worked in good restaurants, you have endless options.  People always want high quality people.  I don’t know if we’re high quality, but we’ve always worked in high quality places (Laughs).    

So I got a job as a private chef and I started teaching at the Culinary Institute of Education.  Now I’m the position of teacher and private chef.  It was very different.  I was like, “I’m going to do some dating!”

Somebody called me and said that Butter really needs an executive chef.  They just lost their chef, blah, blah, blah. I was like, “I’m not doing it. Nope.  No!”  I hung up the phone.  Here I am.  Four years later.  I’ve been here four years. 

Are you happy?

I really love it.  Especially because I’ve been here so long that its kind of my own.  What I do here is I do the wine list, the food.  I have a good time.  Eventually you swap everything for a little freedom. 

It sounds like you got married and had a kid.

So I was teaching this cooking class as an emergency last minute substitute and there was this really great guy in the class, and he is ten years younger than I am.  I kept saying to him, “You’re too young.  Go over there and get one of those girls with their color coordinated outfits with the beaded necklaces from Banana Republic.  Have your babies and do your thing.”  He was like, “No.”  He was an attorney, but he decided he wanted to get a culinary degree.  So he started hanging around Butter to learn how to cook.  We started dating, and uh…he was like, “I think you should get pregnant and I think we should get married.”  I was like, “okay.” 

I think there has to be, for young career minded people that want to just go for something off the beaten path, or there’s no clear way to do it.  A lot of careers, there’s no clear way.  You can do a million things.  It’s very confusing.  I think a lot of people, when they get out of college, they’re like, “Well, I’ll just work here.  Until I figure out how I’m going to be a needle pointer.  Or buy a loom and play the harp.”  You have to go to the harp players house and ask how to play a harp.  You have to, like, bleed until you figure it out.  That’s what you have to do. 

There’s been a certain way that I’ve been totally manically focused on my career and yet, let the tide take me, sometimes.  Now I have a baby girl and a really great husband.  And a job I really enjoy.  But there was a lot of work and a lot of moments where I was like, “Am I crazy?”  And there’s no one to ask.  If you’re crazy.  Other than your parents, who are crazy anyway. 

There wasn’t any point of reference for me when I graduated from college.  Now I know, I’ve actually offered myself up to Barnard Career Services.  I call them up and I’m like, “Hello.  If anyone comes in there wanting to be a muffin baker as a floor mopper, send ‘em over. And I’ll show them ways that they can jump into the field.”  Especially women.  You know?  We need to help the ladies. 

I think a lot of people associate cooking with women in a very deep way.  I have to say this for anyone that reads or listens to my story.  You have to part gender at the door when you’re cooking.  You have to go with the social environment that you’re in.  You have to decide what your survival tactics are.  Because what you want to do is number one, survive in the environment with everyone.  And number two, learn.  Those two things are all you have to thing about. 

You have to be able to say “so what?”  You know, so what.  And then go home and cry.  Drink a half a bottle of scotch and eat a pint of ice cream and go back.  Really, I had those days.  I would go to Hgaden Daz on the Shon Lizce and buy a quart of ice cream and go home and cry.  But then I’d go back to work.  The stuff that I did, I mean, we got some snapper in one day and I didn’t know how to filet the snapper.  No idea how to filet the snapper!  No one could help me because it was really busy.  So I screwed it up, completely.  I made this mangled snapper hamburger patty things.  It was awful.  I knew that the minute it hit the pan that it was going to be nothing short of the crucifixion. 

So I went to the (Mate tra die) and asked him to not sell any snapper that day, if he could help it.  He’s like, “Honey, whatever I tell them to buy is what they buy. I got you.”  Now that’s where the power of relationships is really important.  He was on my side, so to speak.  We didn’t sell any snapper.  I went down to the open market in between lunch and dinner and bought some snapper.  I had the guy behind the counter show me how to clean it.  I brought it back and swapped it out.  I fed the mangled snapper to my cat that night and for weeks thereafter. 

I said to the chef when we were cooking the snapper I had bought to replace down at the local market, “The local market down the street has really great fish, have you ever looked?”  He’s like, “uggh, that fish is crap.  Look at this fish, this is beautiful.  Nothing like the fish down the block at the market.”  If he only knew. 

I did some really wacky things.  Those were moments I can giggle about now, they make a great story, but when they were happening they were horrible.  It was like the universe was bombed, I don’t care.  I just screwed up this snapper.  Doesn’t everybody get it?  It just couldn’t get any worse than that. 

So that kind of crazy passion…if you have that, I don’t know, the rest kind of falls into place. 

Someone along the course of this trip told us that there’s really not a reason for the universe not to support you.

Yes.  I’ve almost the exact same staff since the four years I’ve been here, which is one of my biggest achievements, in my own book.  But when I came here, there were two little firecrackers working at the pantry and the salad station.  I just took one look at them and I was like, wow.  And one guy who worked with them was slow and dropped stuff.  The two whippersnappers were like, “uggh (rolling her eyes).”  It was like two backup singers angry that the front signer doesn’t sign as well as they do.  They were whispering to me like, “you should get rid of him.  He sucks. He can’t do anything.  He’s always dropping stuff and burning stuff.”  And they would whisper all this stuff to me during service.  And I would say, (nodding) “Yeah.  I see that. Uh huh.” 

That guy, that dropped everything everywhere, is the su chef now.  And the two whippersnappers answer to him as an authority figure now when I’m not around. 

Someone did it for me, when I was burning stuff.  So when you take someone like that, and you believe in them, and you invest in them, they’re indebted to you.  They’re indebted to the love they have for what they do.  It’s like a cheesy pay it forward thing.

There is a certain amount of teaching craft, like cooking, that’s physical.  Where you have to say to the person, “could you just do that.  Don’t look at me and worry about it.  Just do it.  And when you burn it and its screwed up and on the floor, we’ll talk about it.”  That’s my attitude.

But there are moments where you have to remove emotion and other things and just let the tide take you.  Those are very difficult moments after you’ve gotten an education and sat in seminars and listened to Plato.  It’s hard to put all that beautiful romance and philosophy aside and realize that it’s just about this hot oil and this piece of snapper right now.  It’s hard to come away from all that. 

My father said to me once, after I said something like, “I’m worried about this this and this.”  My dad goes, “Uggh.  You’ve been to too many seminars.”  And I thought, “there’s something really to that.”

Cooking was something totally different.  And I have to stress how bad at it I was.  I was really bad.  Bad.  For like, a long time.  I still consider myself learning how to cook.  I know that sound trite.  But it’s true. 

Whenever I teach a cooking class or talk to people about cooking, I say, “Hey, I burn a lot of stuff still.  I put bread crumbs in the oven.”

When you’re human, that helps.  I think a mix of humanity and humility is a really good idea.  It takes your patience factor much higher.  I mean, learning how to cook takes a long time.  Learning how to do anything takes a really long time.  It’s really annoying.  Really upsetting thinking about how long it took me to cut a pepper and not myself and have it look okay.  It was really, really angering.  It was like, “Uggh. I’m too good for this.”  On some deep level.  You know?  I wrote a ten page paper on Moby Dick in a half an hour.  I can do this.  And then the pepper is looking up at you like, (makes a smart alleck face).  You wish you had that copy of Moby Dick back.  It’s weird what’s simpler is harder. 

If you were able to give yourself a piece of advice at 22, 21, 23, 24, what would it be?

I have one that’s a joke, sort of, and one that’s serious.  The piece of advice that I would give that’s sort of a joke but not really is if you haven’t really partied, and really gotten a lot of that out of your system, do it rapidly.  So when you hunker down and you pick something, and you’re really passionate about it, there’s no static on your mental radio.  Because you’ve lived a little bit to your own liking. 

Number two, I would say that it’s a really bad idea, even at that age to sit around and say, “Yeah, I haven’t really figured out what I want to do.”  My advice is to put on a costume of some kind and pick something, and be it.  And if it doesn’t work out, take the costume off, pick something else that seems closer to what you love, and be that.  Just practice actually being one thing instead of…contemplating.  And not doing. 

Along the same vein, don’t work in an office doing computer programming if you want to learn how to play the loot. Go learn how to play the loot.  Don’t pretend to yourself that you’re going to do it on the side.  It never works.  Be super broke and ridiculously broke for awhile and go right out at what you love.  Even if it’s acting.

Acting, coal mining, fishing, farming, and chefing, probably the hardest professions.  All in different ways.  You can’t not practice your art.  Even if it leaves you drinking dehydrated coffee and eating toast for a really long time.  I ate a lot of toast.

Don’t kid around with yourself.  Because when you’re that young, you can suck it up and live at home.  Or live on your friend’s couch and not care.  If your clothes aren’t entirely clean, you don’t care.

When you get 30, and 35, and 40, you start to care.  You need your eight hour sleep and clean laundry.  You start to care about the necessities.  At 22, no matter how much you think you need them, you can do without them.  It’s kind of fun to be grimy and in the thick of it.

You’re kind of looking at it right now.

That’s fine.  You guys will be happy 38 year olds.  I have a lot of friends at my twenty year high school reunion coming up, where there will be a routine line of people waiting to talk to me about whether they should quit their $450,000 job at AT&T to be a chef.  I say the same thing every time now.  “You know that barbeque you had a month or two ago for eight of your friends?  And how fun it was?  It’s not fun when it’s 800 people waiting who don’t care about you.  And they don’t know you.  It becomes a different thing.”

Professional cooking and home cooking are not the same.  Wives come up to me and say “Oh, my husband.  He loves cooking at home!  He really wants be a chef…” It’s not the same kind of cooking.  It’s like you strap on your tool belt and say let’s do this.

I get pissy and disagreeable if I go a few days without making a salad or a soup or something. 

There’s a million different things.  Cater, work at the food network, work at a school cafeteria.  Write about food.  Work at a magazine.  Million and one ways.  Teach nutrition.

It takes a lot of time.  I had a woman in here the other week who was 24.  She said, (arrogant tone) “By the time I’m 30 I want to have my own restaurant.  I want to be married.  I want to have two kids.  By the time I’m 30.  I have 6 years.  No problem.”  I’m just looking at her like, I know I talked like you when I was your age.  I know that I talked like she did.  And I turned around and I’m 38, and I have half of that, I’m like, super happy.  I opened up my mouth and I started to say something, and then I just went (shoulder shrug with lips spitting)

Everybody has their own journey and their own timeline.  I really don’t have any advice for anyone, other than to say, don’t sit at a desk and dream about something else.  Or, don’t do something else and dream about sitting at a desk.  What’s wrong with a desk job by the way?  Nothing wrong with that. 

As long as you’re doing what you love, it doesn’t really matter what form it takes.  There’s a little bit of the grass is always greener no matter what.  People always say to me, “I’ve always wanted to be a chef.”  And I say, “Did you enjoy the holidays with your family like the last ten years, because I spent the last eight Thanksgivings cooking dinner for people in a restaurant.”  So they got something I didn’t and I have something they didn’t. 

Dreams involve a lot of gambling.  Sometimes you win and sometimes you have a stack of chips and you turn around and then you have one little chip looking at you. 

My name is Alex Guarnaschelli.  I am the Executive Chef at Butter restaurant on Lafayette Street in Manhattan.

Whitney Johnson

Whitney Johnson left a seven figure Wall Street job in an effort to help women dream. Her BLOG, Dare to Dream, states: “women in the U.S. may be placated, even pampered, but because we aren’t dreaming, we are also desperate and depressed.” Whitney hopes to inspire other women to dream as big as she has. With a degree in music from Brigham Young University, Whitney moved, with her husband, to New York City, where she was promptly told she would be a good secretary. Whitney took the opportunity, but went back to school for accounting, and was soon placed on the administrative track on Wall Street.

Ten years later Whitney left Wall Street ranked among the best investors in the world. “Every time you make a big decision,” says Whitney, “there’s a push and a pull.” The push, she says, was reaching the ceiling of accomplishment in investing. The pull was turning forty, which she calls a “mid-life opportunity.”

Now, she counts blogging, publishing and managing a hedge fund among her pursuits. Organize Magizine, of which she is an investor and member of the advisory board, has a circulation of 100,000, and is available in many major retail outlets. Whitney’s advice for those pursuing their dreams is to simply “go out and try. Don’t be afraid. You have to be willing to take risks to dream.”

Whitney’s BLOG is found at: www.daretodream.typepad.com

Maura Policelli

Maura Policelli, chief of staff for U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ 8th), has been working on Capitol Hill for twelve years, and seems to have lost none of her passion for public service. “A lot of people are cynical about our government,” says Maura, “but I’m still in awe of our democracy.” Maura continually appreciates the opportunity to take part in the inner workings of the United States government. Although the pay is hardly equivalent to the private sector, Maura seems perfectly content with where she is. “We’re debating really important issues,” she says, “and making very consequential decisions here.”

Maura hopes the salaries of public servants do not discourage young people from entering the Washington D.C. job force; it is one of the sacrifices made to take part in governing a country as diverse as the United States. “Not many people get to see the inside of our government,” Maura says. “From road maintenance, to the quality of our air, to the quality of our schools, people come here to fight for their passionate views. We care very much about the policies of our country.” Maura says that hard workers, good writers and team players all have the opportunity to advance rather quickly through the Washington ranks.

To see what Rep. Giffords and her staff are doing in Washington, visit: http://giffords.house.gov/

INTERVIEW

My name is Maura Policelli.  I am the chief of staff to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who represents Southern Arizona.

How long have you been working on the Hill in DC?

I’ve been in DC for almost twelve years.  Most of that time I’ve been working on Capital Hill.

Do you like it?

Yeah.  I have enjoyed it.  And even in the few years I wasn’t on the hill I was working in public policy.  Although a lot of people are cynical about our government, I still am in awe of our democracy.  That’s part of why I’ve worked on Capital Hill for so long.  I think that while it’s not perfect, our system of government is an incredible form of democracy.  The strong differences of opinions and the partisanship, while it can be ugly at times, for sure, it’s a substitute for violence.  Maybe that’s the most stark way to look at it. 

We’re debating really important issues and making really big decisions for the country here on Capital Hill.  The members are, and we as staff are helping them.  Ultimately, I think good results emerge from that.  There are a lot of very thoughtful people here contributing to the discussions. 

Just walking around DC today, you have a bunch of fresh faces.  You have guys like Jeff that are interning and making financial sacrifices.  Why are people so driven to be involved in politics and be a part of the whole scene?

I think a lot of people come to DC right after college.  Some people have internships while in college to get some exposure.  But I’ve seen a lot of people come right from college and just hit the ground trying to find a job.  You have to do it while you’re here, not from a far.  Just taking the chance to get on Capital Hill.  Even if it’s a little while.  Maybe just a year or two years.   I love it so I’ve been here twelve years. 

It’s because not many people get to see the inside of our government and how it really works.  And to understand that and understand how it affects so many aspects of our lives.  Our roads, the quality of our air, the schools our kids go to.  So many of the decisions that are made here affect our lives, so people come here to get a better sense of that to understand it. 

But also, I think a lot of us are here because we have passionate views about a lot of these issues.  We care very much about the policies of our country and the priorities they represent.  They’re driven by the values that we have and want to bring to the discussions within our government.

So what does it take to succeed and have a salary?

A lot of young staff don’t get paid well.  They have to work a second job.  It’s tough.  We have a lot of receptions on the Hill that our staff go to eat because it’s free food.  It’s tough. 

But people move up pretty quickly on Capital Hill if they write well and are willing to put in some extra hours because it can really be a lot of work around here.  Be a team player.  It moves quickly in terms of someone being able to from a junior position and stay on the Hill long enough to get paid more and have more responsibility. 

I don’t know if any of this could be used for the book, but certainly for the website.  A career in politics would be appealing for our site, and Maura offers that.  Not book material though. 

Bob Nanna

Bob Nanna, director of promotions and public relations for the Threadless t-shirt company, in Chicago, graduated from the University of Illinois, and then he went on tour. As a touring musician for twelve years, Bob did some excellent networking. So excellent, in fact, that it allowed a seasonal packaging position to become what he is doing today. Bob’s degree in communications and advertising, in his opinion, was never meant to actually support a career; it was simply the quickest way to get out of school, and onto the road. Yet, as fate would have it, his degrees now allow him expertise in a field in which he never saw himself working.

Bob’s story is an important one, because often touring musicians are not seen as people who integrate well into society, after their touring dreams have expired. In Bob’s case, however, he never would have been able to get to the position he has, without having gone on tour. He is able to work with bands, for promotions and contests, because he knows the bands, and is able to communicate more efficiently with them. Although parents may not enjoy their children being told to go on tour as a way to better their careers, they will like Bob’s advice to his 23-year-old self. “I would beat myself up, take my credit cards, and slash them up.”

Threadless t-shirts are designed by a community of users, based on an award program. They can be found at Threadless.com.

INTERVIEW

My name is Bob Nanna and my position here is I set up all of the special promotions that we do with bands, events, and movies and stuff like that are above and beyond the actual t-shirt competition that takes place all the time.  That’s my main job and I also handle all of the press requests that come in and all of the sponsorship things we do with bands and promotions that we do with the bands as well.  And any kind of special contest giveaways that we do on the site as well. 

Noah: What kind of bands do you work with?

Pretty much the smaller indie bands.  Like the ones that could use the exposure.  But also some of the bigger bands.  Bands like Ted Leo and the Pharmacist and Iron and Wine.  Another one with this band called May.  I don’t know, just bands that we feel and I feel would appeal to our demographic pretty much is.

Cool.  What led you here?

What’s funny is that I was in a touring band for about twelve years.  I was just home for the holidays almost two years ago exactly and I needed some extra money for the holidays.  I put out a bulletin on Myspace to my friends saying I that I need a job to make some cash for the holidays.  One of my friends contacted me and said she worked at Threadless and needed people to help pack orders for the holidays.

I came in and got to know everyone.  Turns out I actually knew some people.  Most of the people here are from Chicago or around the area of Chicago.  We got along so well that they hired me.  I worked in the mailroom for awhile and then got promoted to doing what I’m doing now.  Pretty much since I did a lot of touring, I knew a lot of bands and stuff.  I had a lot of good contacts so that’s what they thought I’d be better off doing.

I feel better doing that as well.

Cool.  What’s your educational background?

I graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in Communications and Advertising.  But I didn’t ever plan on going into that field.  I just graduated with the easiest thing I could muster up so I could just go on tour immediately after graduation.  That’s what I did all through college.  All the breaks and everything I just left.  I just wanted to graduate.  It didn’t matter with what.  The thing I thought I might be best at, and the easiest thing I thought I could do with the least amount of effort.

We’re sort of traveling around the country and interviewing people who are passionate about their job.  We see where they were when they were 22 years old.  I feel like those questions are kind of worthless here because, how old are you?

I’m 32.  I’m one of the oldest people here.  The bosses are between 25 and 28, I think. 

Well, you graduate at 22.  Then you were touring. 

Yeah.

If you had to go back in time and give yourself a single piece of advice at 22 years old, what would it be?

Well, I would beat myself up and take my credit cards and like, slash them up.  Because I was in a touring band and I don’t know.  We didn’t really think about saving money or anything.  We spent beyond our means, whether it was with gas or food or just car, vans, equipment and stuff.  I didn’t really think of the consequences.

My advice would be to keep up with credit card payments.  I feel like I’m still paying for that.  And quite literally, I am.  But whatever.  That’s pretty much it.

As far as job direction, I’m totally happy with what I was doing, just like I’m totally happy with what I’m doing now.  So I wouldn’t really give myself any different advice for what to do professionally. 

We’ve got a graffiti artist that is going to be doing murals in the store we’re opening.  It’s opening two weeks from today.  So they’re all over there. 

You guys seem to be doing well.  Basically, I’m tired of being in a world where you have to be super professional and going to work.  How much of how successful this place is has to do with offering a genuinely good product and idea and not caring about the superficial bullshit.

I think it has almost everything to do with it.  It’s probably due to the fact that everyone here is pretty young and we’ve all had a little experience in working a job that we didn’t like, that we hated, and had to dress up and wear a tie and play the game and work for people who were mean and didn’t care about you.  So why would you care about them? Etc. 

From a work standpoint, having an atmosphere like this is just amazing for everyone that works here (laughs).  It’s just amazing for everyone who works here.  It creates this positive work environment.  Because of the fact that also, none of us had much business experience, per se, we just kinda came from a punk rock background.  The ethics behind punk rock, where it wasn’t really all about business, it was about creating a community. 

We still don’t do any advertising.  We’re pretty staunchly anti-advertising.  I don’t know.  I think it’s helped us keep closer to the people that come to the site.  We’re actually all part of the community that comes to the site constantly and blogging or whatever and interacting.  That’s really important. 

I mean, if we were sitting here in ties and kind of delegating things, we’d be pretty detached from the people who actually come to the site. 

Interesting.  So do you make t-shirts for lonely rappers from Tucson and California?

Uh, t-shirts you can wear?  Sure.  No sweat. 

The atrium. Murals all over the walls.  Cartoon cardboard cutouts.  Video games.  Books.  Flatscreens.  Graffitti all over the walls.  Darboards.  The Science of Sleep.  Threadless Party of Doom.  Models dressed in ridiculous garb.  Squirt guns and boas and an astronaut helmet.  Another manican has a football helmet.  Super punk rock.  Murals are based on the designs that will be coming out that week.  Pool table.  I love Threadless. 

This is actually an office.  Looks like a photo booth.  Charlie does podcasts in here.  From time to time he does interviews in here because bands are always coming through.

Loud Aesop Rock music with 20 temps packing shirts.  All of them wearing Threadless t-shirts.

“I feel like I’m not even cool enough to be in here.  I hate it when the temporary employee is way cooler than I am.”    

Graffitti is literally everywhere.  Every wall. 

I hate to even ask, but how many should we get? 

I don’t know, five or six?

Thank you.  You just saved me from doing laundry for a week.