Of Success//Of Dreams//Of Ways To Change The World
An entrepreneur can come from any walk of life. However, it seems that many successful young entrepreneurs have one major thing in common: each one knew they wanted more at an early age. They dreamed bigger, believed in themselves and pursued their dreams with determination and gumption. They left a net of security and took a leap of faith, turning a blind eye to doubt and the risk of failure. Creating your own business out of thin air seems daunting because it is. It takes courage of conviction and a strong will to be brave enough to take the risk involved.
It just so happens that the University of Central Arkansas is in the business of cultivating young entrepreneurs, in an effort to guarantee that each student has a personalized and unique experience to help them thrive once they break out into the great big world. A solid educational and social foundation is the cornerstone to students achieving their goals. When students feel confident in their educational backgrounds, their ambition has room to grow, and their vision has room to flourish.
The following stories follow the journeys of four individuals who all graduated from UCA and set out to turn their dreams into a reality. Even though their stories are vastly different, their goals were the same: to find success, to follow their dreams and to make a difference.
//Clay Parker ’07, ’08
When Clay Parker ’07, ’08 found out where he would be traveling with the University of Central Arkansas Travel Abroad program, he couldn’t even point to his destination on a map, and he had no idea the lifelong impact the experience would have.
“I originally thought that I would be going somewhere in Europe or some place that was a top-tier business environment,” Parker said. “But the opportunity to study in Tanzania was presented to me, and I thought it could be a good learning experience. And then I had my world rocked.”
Parker witnessed extreme poverty levels in Tanzania, leading him to make the life-altering decision he made in 2011. When Parker returned from Tanzania, he began working in Little Rock with Dale Dawson, a man who was doing economic development and volunteer work in East Africa. While Parker was intrigued and interested in Dawson’s work in Rwanda, he wasn’t quite ready to take that kind of leap. Parker went to work at Circumference Group in Little Rock in order to gain the skillset he needed and learn investment banking and financial analysis.
“I loved my job, but the whole time I was staying tuned in with what they were doing in Rwanda. Something was tugging at me to give it all up and go to Rwanda,” said Parker. “So, in 2011, I just quit my job and moved to Kigali, Rwanda and pursued doing business there full time.”
Little did he know that his decision would be so influential, not only for his own life but for the lives of thousands. Parker joined a team that processed and exported coffee in Rwanda to participate in post-genocide efforts to restore and grow the economy there. Their company is called Westrock Coffee Company, and they work directly with 70,000 coffee farmers in Rwanda.
Parker started out as the director of sustainability, working with farmers trying to build income with the coffee communities in Rwanda, and after a year, he took over the business. He currently lives full-time in Rwanda, where he runs his business, Rwanda Trading Company, a subsidiary of Westrock Coffee Company, and comes back home to visit family twice a year.
“There are 11 million people in Rwanda and 20 percent of them are in the coffee business in some capacity,” said Parker. “If they have a coffee farm, it’s a very small plot of land, 100 coffee trees or less. It’s a cash crop for them but in the grand scheme of things it’s a very small amount of income they get from it.” And that’s what Parker set out to change.
Westrock Coffee Company’s goal was to take down the coffee duopoly in Rwanda and build up the farmers’ personal income. According to Parker, everyday, Rwandan farmers were being cheated out of personal income by the two major coffee exporters, so Westrock Coffee Company decided to pay higher prices for coffee.
“Ultimately we still had to make a profit, but we knew we could pay higher than everyone else was paying and still make a profit. We’ve been able to see the results of that and the impact of that has just been incredible,” said Parker. “On day one, we saw the cash that went into the farmer’s pockets increase by 50-80 percent depending on which area of the country we were in.”
Before Westrock Coffee Company, the coffee farmers in Rwanda were selling coffee on credit, sometimes waiting up to four months to see any profit. The business model Parker implemented works on a cash-only basis and pays farmers upfront, every time, at a higher price than his competitors. If the sale goes really well, then the farmers receive a bonus payment.
“We were making money, they were making a lot more money than they were making previously, so we decided it was time to start implementing community projects,” Parker said. “We started out with agronomy training, teaching farmers new farming techniques to help them increase their yield. They didn’t have to plant anymore trees; they just had to do a few tweaks to help their trees produce more coffee.”
After the second year of training in 2015, the farmers’ yields have increased more than 150 percent, without having to plant any extra coffee trees. The agronomy training also improved the quality of the coffee significantly, so as the exporter, Westrock Coffee Company was able to charge a higher price to their buyers and come back and pay an even larger bonus to the farmers.
In addition to agronomy training, Parker’s team implements different projects as needed in every community they are stationed.
“We work on creating clean water where there isn’t clean water,” said Parker. “We partnered with Heifer International to give away cows in communities that need more protein and help with healthy eating, so they use the milk for family nutrition, and they use the fertilizer from the cows to improve their coffee trees and again, improve their yields.”
Parker credits his time at UCA for all of the good he has been able to do. “As my role as director of this business, I lean on my education from UCA daily,” Parker said. “I knew very little about the path I wanted to follow before I got to UCA, but when I got here, my time at UCA pushed me in a direction that has led me to where I am now. I wouldn’t change one second of it at all.”
//Brittany Hodak ’05
Brittany Hodak ’05 was initially drawn to the beauty of the University of Central Arkansas campus when she traveled from Fort Smith to see a Goo Goo Dolls concert. But it was the Schedler Honors College program that helped Hodak ultimately decide to attend UCA and move to Conway.
While earning her degree, Hodak had a brilliant idea: ZinePak.
What is ZinePak? The word itself is a fusion of “magazine” and “package,” and it’s a tangible product built for music super-fans. Inside each ZinePak is a CD and an array of fan-related items such as glossy magazines, interviews with the stars and other music-related merchandise.
“I had the idea for ZinePak when I was here at UCA, when I was about 20 or 21,” Hodak said. “And I’d started working on the idea for ZinePak as the topic of my honors thesis, but then when the band, who was supposed to be the subject of the first ZinePak, broke up, I had to rush into another thesis really quickly, which I did.”
But she never forgot her brainchild, and she soon headed to New York to learn more about the music industry, make connections and network. In 2011, Hodak, along with her co-founder, Kim Kaupe, made her college idea come to fruition.
Hodak’s company took off and business was going great. ZinePak was working with well-known artists ranging from KISS to Katy Perry. “We were very fortunate that we did over $1 million in revenue in our first year. Fewer than 2 percent of women-owned businesses ever do more than $1 million of revenue, so that got a lot of people’s attention,” Hodak said. “We got a lot of great publicity, and we were on some under-30 and under-40 lists.” One of the lists they were featured on was the Inc. 35 Under 35, a nationwide list of 35 entrepreneurs of 2014.
“We were the only self-funded company on the list and that caught the attention of the producers of ‘Shark Tank,’ ” said Hodak. “Shark Tank” is a popular reality television show on ABC where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of potential investors. “It was a really fun experience, and while I was there, I had the inspiration for a second venture that I began in May of 2015 with my first cousin, Jennifer Barker, and it’s called Per Diems Against Poverty.”
Per diems are daily allowances for expenses, often food, that are given to professional athletes, governmental figures, corporate executives and those who work in the entertainment industry. While appearing on “Shark Tank,” Hodak was paid a per diem each day.
“They were giving us around $65 a day to eat. It seemed like a significant amount of money to me, especially since I had spent about $11 feeding myself while I had been there because they had free food at craft services and we were really only responsible for our late night snacks,” said Hodak. “So I thought to myself ‘There’s got to be an organization that exists for people to donate their per diems when they get this contractual money but they don’t depend on it’… and there wasn’t.”
Since many people who receive per diems do not rely on them financially, Hodak’s hope is to one day collect these unneeded per diems to donate to those in need. Per Diems Against Poverty is focusing on professional athletes first, because most sports have contractual per diems of more than $100 a day.
Hodak’s newest endeavor is nonprofit and self-funded, and she has partnered with Feeding America.
“Since we’re not taking anything out from any of the donations, I’m just covering all of the expenses. And Jennifer is being gracious enough to work for free until we’re able to really get things to take off,” said Hodak. “We just both felt like there is so much distrust in the charity space that we wanted to make sure that it was 100 percent transparent that we were giving absolutely every dollar.”
While Hodak was at UCA, she participated in the Travel Abroad program where she traveled to Italy. Seeing a different country gave her new perspective, and Hodak suddenly realized that the environment she was living in comfortably was, unfortunately, not universally enjoyed by everyone else. She decided that she wanted to do what she could to make the world a better place.
“I certainly did not go on ‘Shark Tank’ with the intent of starting another business. I had my hands very full already with ZinePak, but it was one of those things that once I became aware of the problem, I couldn’t just ignore it,” said Hodak. “I felt really embarrassed that as somebody who had lived for almost 31 years in America, I had no idea hunger was such a huge issue.”
With nearly 50 million Americans depending on food kitchens and food pantries every year, Hodak is determined to make a difference with her company.
“I think about how I feel when I’m a couple hours late for lunch and how hard it is for me to think and function and perform when I haven’t eaten for seven hours. And I can’t even imagine what it must be like to not know where your next meal is coming from and to try to perform at your job or to go to school and try to learn and concentrate. That just must be the worst thing imaginable,” said Hodak. “So any little impact that we’re able to have to help people not be hungry I think is really exciting for both of us, to think that we have the ability to affect and change that statistic.”
//Chauncey Holloman Pettis ’11
At 15, Chauncey Holloman Pettis ’11 saw a problem and fixed it. When she was looking for a birthday card for her friend, she realized that the voice of her generation was missing in the greeting cards lining the shelves of stores.
“There were no greeting cards from a teen’s perspective at all,” Holloman Pettis said. “And there are very few African-American greeting card lines. I saw a problem, and I wanted to create a solution — See a need; fill a need.”
Holloman Pettis grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, most of whom are writers, so when she decided to start her own greeting card company called Harlem Lyrics, her mother took her seriously.
“I told her my idea. She thought it was a good idea, and she told me to put together a business plan. I was 15, but that’s the way my family works,” Holloman Pettis said. “I was so serious because I wanted it to be perfect and professional, so I took my time putting it together.”
But what Holloman Pettis didn’t know is that her mother was teaching her a valuable lesson in taking her time and doing her research. Years later, her mother confessed to her a big secret.
“I found out that my mother was taking that time to save money to help me. Instead of saying, ‘Chauncey, we don’t have the money to help you chase your dream right now,’ she gave me a task to make me feel like I was taken seriously and that I had to do what every other startup business owner did, regardless of my age,” Holloman Pettis said. “She was able to put together those funds, and just like that, she saw a problem and filled that need as well.”
Harlem Lyrics started with eight greeting card prototypes, which were first sold in Kroger. Holloman Pettis’ company then branched out to Walgreens, Simply Fashion, Borders and Macy’s.
“All in all, Harlem Lyrics became an integrated product line,” said Holloman Pettis. The product line developed to include clothing, stationery, school supplies and more.
Holloman Pettis always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but just as she is a fourth generation entrepreneur, she is also a third generation Bear.
“Both of my parents and my grandmother attended the University of Central Arkansas,” Holloman Pettis said. “I got my degree in mass communications and theater with a minor in marketing, and started my own business. This was my plan my entire life.”
Once she graduated, Holloman Pettis decided she wanted to pursue something new. She had never worked for anyone but herself and decided to look for a more conventional form of employment. She began working for the Small Business Development Office for the City of Little Rock.
“It was very different for me. Not only was it my first time to be working for someone else, but it is a nonprofit organization,” said Holloman Pettis. “It was a jump and a learning curve.”
The City of Little Rock offers an entrepreneur training class twice a year. There is a beginner’s course that teaches start-up businesses how to write their own business plans, and there is a growth course that teaches new businesses how to stay afloat in their beginning years.
“Every year, twice a year, I teach 24 new small business owners who are just now starting to chase their dream or trying to keep it afloat,” said Holloman Pettis. “I know how to help. It’s a passion of mine. Entrepreneurship and small business development is what I do. I’ve made this my career, which is weird to say that being 27, but I feel like I’m really lucky to be able to be able to step back for awhile and have a nine-to-five job and still be in the world of entrepreneurship while helping as many entrepreneurs as I can.”
Playing the piano may not seem like an extreme sport, but University of Central Arkansas Schedler Honors College alumna Susan Erwin has taken the classical art form to a new level. A small-town girl from Magnet Cove, Erwin has been playing the piano since she was six years old.
“Everyone knows me for the piano,” Erwin said, “but I came to UCA with the intent of becoming a doctor.” During her senior year, however, Erwin realized that even though she was making good grades and excelling in all of her extracurricular activities, she still didn’t feel like she was on the right path.
“I was the president of Alpha Sigma Tau, and I was involved with the music program. I was in the jazz band, and I played piano as an elective,” Erwin said. “I was even voted Miss UCA in 2001. But long story short, I ended up with a math degree, pure mathematics degree, very heavy in physics.”
“UCA really laid down a foundation for me and my career. My college experience and having that foundation really prepared me for the bigger picture in the great big world,” said Erwin. “I wouldn’t trade my education here at UCA for anything, but specifically I wouldn’t trade my experience with the Schedler Honors College and Dr. Norbert Schedler. I just can’t say enough good things about that program.”
After graduation, Erwin landed a job as a radio frequency engineer and learned the ropes of the corporate world. “I entered corporate world thinking ‘I am going to do this until I figure out what it is… that it thing for me in my life.’ Because I always felt like there was something else for me out there,” Erwin said. “I didn’t know what it was quite yet, but I wanted to feel that calling and that gut instinct.” And then, she discovered the magical world of dueling piano bars.
“It was a very cool niche for me,” said Erwin. “I discovered it could be really lucrative. For about a year, I worked full-time at the piano bar at night, and I was in corporate world 60-plus hours a week. After a while, I decided I needed to focus solely on my creative career, and I jumped corporate ship and devoted myself to piano.”
Making the leap from the safe corporate world into the risky business of the creative arts was the best choice Erwin could have made. There were not many, and still are not many, females who play in piano bars. Erwin has traveled all over the world with her talent.
“I was a prime performer in Los Angeles for two years. Then I was able to go to Las Vegas, where I was all over the main piano bar scene for about two years,” said Erwin. “I don’t just do dueling piano bars, but I now perform my own show as a solo piano performer in places like Amsterdam, Norway, all over the Caribbean. I have performed on cruise ships, yachts, and once I played the piano while it was fork-lifted on the edge of the ocean in the British Virgin Islands!”
Her talent took her to Nashville, where she went into the recording business and cut her first album in the fall of 2014. Erwin is currently working on her second album and has even bigger plans for her future, which primarily involves moving her talent to Hollywood.
Erwin is not only a classically trained pianist with a rock and roll edge, but she also paints, writes and sings her own songs, has her pilot’s license and released her own fragrance line with a French-Caribbean company. In true entrepreneur fashion, Erwin funded her first album using the money she earned selling her paintings.
“About three years ago, I decided that I would start painting again and it was a way for me to fill time on the road to do something that was creative and fun, and I could easily travel with my watercolor kit,” said Erwin. “People just started loving my paintings, which was a great thing! I was like ‘Heck, if I could sit home and paint and make money on painting, and then write and perform on the weekends… well, it’s just a perfect fit!'”
Even with all of her success, Erwin doesn’t think of herself as a businesswoman. “I think of myself as an entrepreneur who’s an artist, all-encompassing,” she said. “Piano is definitely central… music will always be central. And then these little offshoots of things I’ve done, like my paintings or my fragrance line, kind of fit my brand as an artist and an entrepreneur. But I don’t want it to ever distract from my music because that’s who I really am and that’s what’s truly important.”
//A FAMILY PASSION
Ethan Erwin mixes music and innovation with his short bow.
Like his sister Susan, Ethan Erwin has a knack for music and innovative thinking. The younger Erwin sibling is a classically trained violinist who also had a big dream.
Ethan, a senior in the University of Central Arkansas Schedler Honors College, wanted to create an advanced bow for the violin that would allow him to sing while he played. He began designing his violin “tool” at the age of 17 and three months later, his prototype for the short bow was designed.
The short bow is worn on the violinist’s hand and allows the musician to play the instrument as if it were a guitar. Ethan received a United States patent in December 2012 for the short bow. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette selected him “Top 20 to Watch in 2013” for his invention.
Ethan has always been inventive. As a fifth grader at Lakeside Middle School in Hot Springs, he created a bait retriever and entered his invention in a National Invent America! contest. Ethan won second place and a $500 U.S. Savings Bond. He has also wrote a book entitled “Zero to a Thousand: An Educational Guide to Effectively Hunt and Shoot to 1000 Yards,” which can be purchased on Amazon for Kindle.
Ethan is studying pre-medicine and pre-dental at UCA and is a member of the Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity. He is an 11-year classically trained violinist, has three years of experience teaching violin students and has performed across the state of Arkansas at churches, pageants and community events.