Alumni entrepreneurs developed through their Berea experience give back to current Bereans
Whether running unique campgrounds, a bourbon distillery or a venture capital company, six Berea alumni agree the College played an integral role in the success of their lives and businesses. Almost in unison, these business owners credit their coursework and experience in the Labor Program for enabling their visions.
Hiking on a farm, sleeping in a treehouse
Jessa Turner ’07 followed her dream of owning a farm. Turner graduated with a degree in sustainability and environmental studies (SENS) with a focus on sustainable building design. Just two short years after graduating, she and her husband, Nathan Turner, officially opened the gate to their business, HomeGrown HideAways—a farm, campground and event facility just a few miles east of Berea.
In her search for the perfect farm to facilitate her dream, Turner faced several conflicts and setbacks. She was looking for a farm that provided 100 acres, 80 of which would be wooded with hiking trails, and was located within 20 minutes of Berea. She and Nathan spent the majority of her college years renovating their house in Berea as an investment to sell when they found just the right farm. They did classwork on weekdays and spent their weekends completely remodeling an old duplex into a single-family home. The five-year farm search finally came to an end on their seventh wedding anniversary, when they purchased the farm of their dreams in April 2009.
Turner relates much of her success to Berea College. The combination of coursework, a summer internship at Vermont design school YesterMorrow, her labor position in the SENS program and writing the HomeGrown HideAways business plan as a fellow in the Entrepreneurship for the Public Good (EPG) program all culminated in growing a sustainable, eco-tourism venture from the ground up.
“I think the biggest success of HomeGrown HideAways is that we had the vision, wrote it down into a business plan, and have seen that vision become reality through a combination of both baby steps and giant leaps of faith,” Turner said.
After eight years of working full-time and operating HomeGrown HideAways, Turner was able to transition away from her day job in 2017 and commit her time exclusively to the business. Today, her farm offers unique lodging opportunities in treehouses, yurts and a tipi. Guests can request farm-to-table meals from Nathan, a trained chef, and participate in a variety of workshops and retreats offered throughout the year. HomeGrown HideAways also hosts large events such as weddings, festivals, fundraisers and reunions. In 2017, their lodging facilities hosted almost 600 guests, and 1,200 people came from all over the country for the four-day PlayThink festival that happens every June.
“If I had not had my labor position, done an internship through Berea College and participated in the EPG program, HomeGrown HideAways would not be here today,” Turner said. “Berea College gave me the outlook of being able to succeed.”
Oil, gas and horses
Bill Daugherty ’76 opened his current business, Blackridge Resource Partners LLC, with Bill Barr in 2011. Daugherty graduated from Berea College with a degree in agriculture. He started his first business, NGAS, in 1984, which was an oil and gas company. However, after being listed on the Nasdaq as a publicly- traded company, he decided to leave and start Blackridge. Blackridge has two components, the first being oil and gas prospect generation. The second component of their company is Blackridge Stables, which breeds and buys horses. This is a medium for individuals to invest in race horses.
Daugherty used to own an oil and gas company that employed around 140 people, whereas now his firm consists of fewer than 10 workers. Since their cash flow has decreased from their original business, Daugherty said the company had to find its niche market and learn to operate on a much smaller scale.
Despite these new struggles, Daugherty’s business has experienced many successes. He has served on the board of the Kentucky Oil and Gas Association. Through his accomplishments, Daugherty has been able to affect the community around him by creating tax revenue in Kentucky. Building a natural-gas infrastructure led to creating more long-term jobs.
Daugherty points to Berea College as part of his success. Several faculty members helped him during his time at Berea. One person in particular was Bob Johnstone, the head of the Agricultural department.
“Bob Johnstone did everything he could to help me get a job,” Daugherty said. “The work culture at Berea College gives you a strong incentive to continue that through your life.”
Daugherty continues to be involved with Berea College. He received a 2017 Distinguished Alumnus award and has participated in Great Conversations, where he talked to students about lessons learned in his life so far.
Noodle Nirvana: Noodles. Drinks. World Peace.
Mae Suramek ’95 talks about her experience building her own business, Noodle Nirvana, a noodle bowl restaurant, located in Berea, Ky.
Esfandiar Lohrasbpour ’74 invests in companies as the co-owner of the venture capital firm, Novirian Capital in San Francisco, Calif. He started Novirian in 2012 after previously being a partner at Invesco Private Capital, a venture capital firm. His firm invests in small companies with the potential to increase in value and one day go public through an initial public offering (IPO) or be acquired by another company at a price that is higher than cost. After earning a mathematics degree at Berea College, Lohrasbpour focused on operations research in his post-graduate studies
The main challenge he has faced within his business is making sure the right people invest in his firm’s funds.
“Investors have to know that we buy illiquid shares of private companies,” Lohrasbpour said. Illiquid shares are stocks that are not yet easy to sell for a profit. “Liquidity requires patience,” he said.
At Berea College, I developed a strong work ethic, especially through the work-study program. Overall, I developed courage in a safe environment.Esfandiar Lohrasbpour ’74
So does investing. Throughout his life, Lohrasbpour has experienced a variety of successes. His business has helped several companies go public and has sold other companies through acquisition. In both cases, the investor usually receives a profit on their initial investment.
While Lohrasbpour does not directly tie his success in venture capital to Berea College, he recognizes the values the College instilled that guided him toward his accomplishments.
“At Berea College, I developed a strong work ethic, especially through the work-study program. Overall, I developed courage in a safe environment,” he said.
Like Daugherty, Lohrasbpour also has participated in Great Conversations, a networking event that brings together alumni and students in roundtable discussions about topics dealing with careers and life in general, and he routinely looks for ways to support and encourage students.
A shot of Kentucky
Deciding to mix business with pleasure, David Meier ’83 began making the golden elixir of Kentucky—bourbon. He started Glenns Creek Distilling in 2015.
“The process of bourbon fascinated me,” Meir said, “and the Old Crow distillery I bought has a lot of history in it.”
Fascination and history aside, opening a distillery presents its own unique challenges.
“Creating a distillery is a capital-intensive business, and anticipating demand is very difficult,” Meier said. “I have to be able to sell my product and estimate how much I need to sell several months ahead of time.”
Meier was successful in reducing his capital costs by building most of his own equipment. Intimately learning how all the equipment worked to ensure it functioned properly helped him learn even more about the distilling process, he said. Besides bourbon-making, Meier also travels the world providing his consulting services in lean manufacturing. This skill played a critical role in crafting the distilling process for his small-scale bourbon operation.
Being small has afforded the company some successes.
“We know so much about distillation, because we do every step of the process,” Meier said. “When we come up with a new product, we can experiment more, because our batches are much smaller. It is one of the advantages of being small. Bigger companies want to produce the same profile. We want our bottles to taste good, but to have a different profile. We provide a different experience because every barrel is a little different.”
Through technical skill development and mentoring, Berea College played an important role in Meier’s business venture. While studying for a degree in industrial technology management, Meier learned how to TIG and MIG weld, welding skills that he later used to create stills for his distillery. He also uses his knowledge of graphic arts to design and print his labels.
“Almost everything I learned from Berea can be applied here at Glenns Creek Distilling,” Meier said.
One thing from his time at Berea that has stuck with Meier was a quote from a professor, Dr. Don Hudson: “You make time in life for the things you want to do.”
“From then on, I decided to not tell people I don’t have time, I’m just going to do it, or not do it,” Meier said.
In an effort to give back, Meier provided two internships to Berea College students at Glenns Creek Distilling in summer 2017.
“I have tried to give back to Berea because I really appreciate the opportunity Berea gave me,” he said.
Designing a new life
Darin Brooks ’95 graduated from Berea with a degree in theatre, which is completely unrelated to the business he currently runs. He attended Pratt Institute after Berea College for his passion—design. In 2002, Brooks created an architectural design firm with a partner, but in 2010, he branched off to start his own business. Houston-based Brooks Design Works provides graphic design, architectural design and brand identity, as well as graphic publishing.
“I was a storyteller,” Brooks said. “In the world of residential design, I get to be intimately connected with people and their lives once they go home, which I find to be really inspiring in the design world.”
One of Brooks’ main struggles was hiring the wrong people and mixing work and personal life.
At one point, Brooks lived and worked inside the same building with his business partner. In the end, this lack of separation led him to break off and create his own company—one where he was the sole owner.
“The work-life balance is really important for entrepreneurs,” Brooks said. “I learned some very valuable and expensive lessons.”
Brooks has done interior design work for restaurants and condos. Beyond just running a successful business, he places great importance on community.
“Much of what I do professionally is to create a community, and that attribute of mine can be traced back to my time at Berea,” he said.
Brooks said Berea taught him that you have to keep going, or as they say in theatre, “the show must go on.” For him, Berea College felt like a community, especially as a residential college.
“Community was very important at Berea College,” he said. “I got along with classmates despite their different views or backgrounds.”
Although Berea College didn’t directly influence his career, there have been aspects that have carried over and helped him. To reconnect with Berea, Brooks attended one of the Great Conversations held at Berea College. He saw it as a beneficial event for him and the students who attended.
“I have maintained close mentor relationships with a couple of Berea students I met that night. We shared book lists, inspiration, confidences and life-planning explorations,” Brooks said.
John Harmon ’95 graduated from Berea College with a degree in studio art. Harmon spent 10 years as an environmental scientist/inspector, but desiring a more creative career, he started Harmon House in 2008. This initiative has become a successful business offering fine art, event photography, original music and broom craft.
Harmon crafts songs for the bands “John and the Time Traveling Bicycle” and “Carriage House Saints.” He also commits to some website design as well.
On all of the “John and the Time Traveling Bicycle” albums, Harmon is the sole songwriter and musician. He records all instrument sounds and vocals, mixes the tracks and designs the album covers.
An admitted perfectionist, Harmon said his biggest challenges were staying focused and being too self-critical.
“A huge success to me has been that I sit down and think about my failures and say, ‘It’s OK to fail; just try again or try something else,’” he said.
The experience forced me to gain self-confidence to do things independently and not let fear paralyze me.John Harmon ’95
Harmon says he has often struggled with self-criticism, but he has realized over time that accepting his mistakes has been instrumental in his lifelong learning. He has stressed that looking at tasks objectively and achieving a balance in life can remove many of life’s pressures.
Entering the business world was much simpler for Harmon because of the effective time management skills he learned while preparing his own schedule as a student at Berea. A key turning point in his life was the opportunity to study abroad in Florence, Italy in 1992.
“That trip was an amazing crucible that really changed the entire course of my life,” he said. “The experience forced me to gain self-confidence to do things independently and not let fear paralyze me.”
Harmon held a round table at Great Conversations through Berea College in 2013. Much of the talk at the table was about giving yourself room to make mistakes and move on.
Harmon and his wife, Amy Harmon ’99, have always been involved alumni. While living in San Diego, Calif., they were part of arranging alumni chapter meetings. John and Amy recently moved back to Berea, where Amy has taken a position working for the College as a major gift officer—so that they can continue their close engagement with the College.
“We’re very happy to be back in Berea and to be involved with the community,” he said.
These six entrepreneurs are wonderful examples of how the Berea experience shapes an outlook, instills confidence and resiliency, provides an opportunity to acquire work skills, like time management and working with people different from oneself, and prepares students for whatever the future brings their way. Berea alums are able to turn the challenges of creating a business into learning opportunities. They have been successful through their own vigor and determination, yet acknowledge how their alma mater continues to support their professional attainments and enrich their personal lives.