Friday, September 3, 2010

Commutes, Cats and Cakes: Enterprising Ideas!

     After a couple of decades as a computer programmer who commuted every morning an hour across the Potomac to work in Maryland, Carol Covin began to notice as she stalled in traffic that there were as many cars driving in the opposite direction each morning towards Virginia. Why commute, she wondered? If there were good jobs closer to home, she wanted to find them.
Her search led her to a publishing career. Her first edition of The Computer Professional's Job Guide for the Washington, DC Area sold out its 5000 copy print run in four months.      Her next step was to learn the publishing business so she could expand her guide geographically. Over the next few years Carol wrote computer jobs guides for New England, the Midwest, the Southeast and eventually a second updated edition for the Washington area. Then she published a national edition, 20 Minutes from Home: The Best Computer Jobs in America, under her own imprint, Twenty Minutes Press.
     Her next foray followed her 50th birthday. "I decided to create a 50-year plan with a task for each decade. I needed to think about other things I could do with my life outside of computers." At the top of her list was to help find a cure for cancer. But that motivation was not as grandiose as it sounds. One of her friends with inoperable stomach cancer had stumbled upon an alternative therapy developed by a scientist in the late 1970s that he claimed had shrunk his tumor. Wondering if that protocol -- a mineral salt currently sold over the counter -- had legs, Carol spent a couple of years learning everything she could on the therapy, including experiences of other patients. By 2008, she felt confident enough to create Sky Blue Pharmaceuticals, LLC with the participation of a pediatric oncologist with FDA experience to advise her on regulatory matters. Currently, Sky Blue is seeking funds and approval necessary to proceed with clinical trials. And Carol still has a couple of years left to reach this decade's goal -- before going on to planting forests in desert countries!
     Dr. Phyllis Scalletar also wanted a new focus. After a couple of decades as a manager in several government agencies, including a stint as chief operating officer for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, she turned to her cat for a business idea. "As you know, cats are picky eaters and it killed me to serve my cat those awful dried pellets they call cat food. So I decided to try developing cat sauces." Through the Department of Food Sciences at a local university, she isolated a byproduct from the extraction of oil from algae, in the former of essential biomeal for her sauces, to jazz up the dried pellets. "I know a lot of people want to solve the world's problems, but I just wanted to create more palatable cat food." But her Waterloo arose in the manufacturing process: every time she received a shipment of the biomeal, it varied in color, consistency and composition. Eventually she pulled the plug on that business, but not before learning "never to rely on another party for your product's key components; you can outsource a lot, but you have to keep control of your key ingredient." Now what she plans to do is to return to her roots in chemical safety and hazardous materials. With increasing public interest in workplace safety and environmental hazards, she sees new opportunities arising out of her former experience.
     For Jennifer Whitlock, the leap was, well, sky high! With advanced degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford, Jen signed on as a senior engineer scientist with Boeing to design jet aircrafts. For her work as the chief designer of the Blended Wing-Body (BWB) project, a passenger aircraft with 100 -800 seats with a military capacity to be a tanker, freighter, bomber, and combat support vehicle, she was awarded two patents. Then her personal life dictated a move. Her husband, a rocket scientist, lost his job and moved back home to the Midwest to work for Rolls Royce in Indiana, close to their families in Illinois. By then Jennifer had two children and wanted a more flexible schedule. So to satisfy "a creative artistic instinct" she moved from designing jets to designing cakes and cookies, starting a business called Posh-Pastries in 2009. Her most recent accolade: first place and grand sweepstakes prize for cakes and cookies at the 2010 Indiana State Fair. Any crossover benefits from her engineering days? "Sure," Jen says, "at Boeing I had to learn all about business, the importance of branding and selling your designs to top management, how to manage expenses. All that helps because I realize that baking a pretty cake doesn't mean you can run a business." Next step: well no plans for a moonshot this time, but maybe moon cakes, for which, Jen admits, she might use her aircraft drafting tools to decorate.
     What these entrepreneurs have in common are a couple of traits: flexibility and creativity. And business ideas often start very close to home. Please share where your ideas come from. Seems like they can crop up anywhere, even when you're stuck in traffic!

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