Entrepreneurs are the believers, the trendsetters and the inventors who have the courage to turn today’s ideas into tomorrow’s outstanding companies. They help us determine what’s next.
Now through November 10, we take a closer look at many of our Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2017 regional award winners, sharing new stories each week that explore these winners’ varied paths to the future and show what it takes to build and sustain a thriving enterprise.
As we recognize these great talents, we hope to inspire others to leap into the unknown and create what is next. Click on the photos below to read more about these courageous entrepreneurs.
The big idea
Every entrepreneur’s journey is propelled by a big idea.
The big idea: develop technology smarter than the human brain to fight cyber crime.
When the Democratic National Committee (DNC) discovered it had been exposed to a cyber attack in the middle of the 2016 presidential election, CrowdStrike Founder and CEO George Kurtz was called in to help. Soon thereafter, Kurtz and his team discovered that hackers had infiltrated the DNC’s systems — a hack now considered the largest in US political history.
It is circumstances like these that originally inspired Kurtz to found CrowdStrike, a company centered on the big idea that if the world’s largest global organizations wanted to stand a chance against cyber criminals, they needed technology that could outsmart the human brain and process information in a way no employee could. Today, CrowdStrike’s cloud-based technology can process in one day the amount of data that Twitter processes in one year — more than 33 billion actions from millions of sensors deployed across 176 countries.
In creating the cyber security industry’s first cloud-based approach, CrowdStrike has disrupted the multi-billion dollar endpoint security market and is now trusted by some of the largest organizations around the world, including three of the 10 largest global companies by revenue, five of the 10 largest financial institutions, three of the top 10 health care providers, and three of the top 10 energy companies. Kurtz was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Northern California Award winner.
The big idea: create a healthy and delicious alternative to soda.
In 2005, Kara Goldin was trying to kick her diet soda habit. She scoured grocery store shelves for flavored water void of sweeteners or preservatives, but came up short in her search for a healthy alternative to plain water. That’s when Goldin had the big idea to launch her own line of all-natural, unsweetened flavored water. But industry experts told her not to bother — people were addicted to sweetness.
She set out to prove them wrong. After several years of research and development, Goldin experimented with small batches of water with hints of natural fruit oils and essences while working to perfect a more shelf-stable product. She had a breakthrough when she discovered a new way to preserve her product, making it possible for her healthier beverage to hold up in stores. Goldin also pioneered fresh distribution strategies, such as subscription services and direct-to-supplier sales, to compete with big beverage companies for shelf space and market share.
Today, hint has emerged as the dominant brand in the unsweetened flavored water category in the US, with 21 different flavors in both still and naturally carbonated options. Under Goldin’s leadership, hint has achieved more than 50% year-over-year growth. Goldin, a member of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ Class of 2012, and was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Northern California Award winner.
Love Your Melon
The big idea: fight pediatric cancer one hat at a time.
In 2012, Zachary Quinn had a big idea while sitting in a college business class: create a meaningful retail enterprise that can help cancer patients. He landed on the idea to produce hats that would help struggling patients cope with the hair loss that typically accompanies radical cancer treatments and named the company Love Your Melon.
He vowed that for every hat sold, he would donate another to a pediatric cancer patient. In just two days, Love Your Melon sold 200 hats and helped the students on their chilly Minnesota campus warm their heads and hearts. Five years later, Quinn has impressively grown the company to operate at a profit each year, achieving 450% growth in 2016 alone.
To date, Love Your Melon has donated more than 110,000 hats to pediatric cancer patients and $2.6 million to their nonprofit partners. They are one of the leading knitwear producers in the country with more than 500 currently available styles made in the US. The explosive growth of Love Your Melon is largely due to the revolutionary ways Quinn uses social media to spread the company mission.
Each year the company runs a celebrity outreach program, partnering with influential celebrities who share their products online. In addition, believing that millennials are the key drivers of the Love Your Melon story, Quinn started a program across the US that allows students to participate in the business via social media while learning entrepreneurial skills. He was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Upper Midwest Award winner.
Jessica Honengger and Travis Wilson
The big idea: jewelry that empowers communities.
As a teenager, Jessica Honegger traveled to Africa where she was awed by local artisans fashioning gorgeous jewelry. When she returned to Uganda with her husband years later to adopt a son, she saw an opportunity to bring the beautiful African jewelry back to the US, sell it to her friends and use the profits to fund her family’s adoption. There was overwhelming interest in her first trunk show.
That’s when her big idea was born: empower global artisans by scaling her model and providing a mainstream sales outlet. She teamed up with friend and fellow entrepreneur Travis Wilson to start Noonday Collection. Together, they have successfully built a supply chain that includes more than 4,400 artisans in 12 countries and become the largest fair trade accessories company worldwide. And in the spirit of its founding, Noonday also donates significant funds to adoptive families.
In 2016, the company hosted more than 12,000 trunk shows across the US, gathering roughly 150,000 women whose generosity resulted in more than $121,000 in donations that went to roughly 900 adoptive families. While the exclusive jewelry, unique artisans and dedicated ambassadors are the core of Noonday’s business, its heart lies in Honegger and Wilson’s urge to make a difference in communities worldwide by empowering women in developing countries to transform their lives. Honegger and Wilson were named Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Central Texas Award winners.
Taking the initiative
What does it take to turn a big idea into something real?
Dan Flaherty, Jason McCann
Taking the Initiative: stand up for a healthier workplace.
Has sitting become the new smoking? When Dan Flaherty and Jason McCann read a Mayo Clinic study on the risks of sitting too much, they knew they needed to respond to the massive need for more active workspace solutions. They decided to revolutionize the way we do our jobs every day, challenging desk- bound employees to quite literally stand up for their health and wellness.
Flaherty and McCann’s solution, VARIDESK, breaks 100 years of status quo in office furniture by providing a standing desk option that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars or take hours to build. And in just four years, Flaherty and McCann have ignited a revolution towards a healthier workspace. With affordable, fully adjustable office furniture – including standing desks, conference room furniture, seating solutions and moveable walls – they are enabling a more active work environment.
Given their success rate, it seems the trend is here to stay. VARIDESK counts 94% of Fortune 500 companies as clients and is positioned as a leader in workspace design innovation. VARIDESK offers its award-winning products in 130 countries and has 1 million product enthusiasts worldwide. The company has donated more than 5,000 products to nonprofit partners, and, under the guidance of Flaherty and McCann, has grown to 160 employees with plans to hire at least 50 more by the end of 2017. Flaherty and McCann were named Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Southwest Award winners.
Jaime Schmidt, Michael Cammarata
Taking the initiative: ditch unnatural deodorant.
For Jaime Schmidt, something didn’t smell right about traditional deodorant: the aluminum-based compound that prevents perspiration has been theorized to cause various health problems. Pregnant with her first child and fed up with the harsh products that can wreak havoc on our bodies, Schmidt set out to make a natural deodorant that actually worked.
Schmidt, who was then a corporate HR professional, already spent her weekends selling a small line of homemade personal care products such as lotions and soaps. From her kitchen, she began expanding her enterprise to perfect a deodorant formula to create an entirely new, natural version sans aluminum that uses plant-based powders to absorb wetness.
As her product gained more attention, Schmidt recruited global strategist and brand innovation prodigy Michael Cammarata to help her scale the business and shake up a century-old industry. Today, Schmidt’s Naturals is leading the charge to show how health-conscious formulas with captivating scents and elegant packaging can create a customer experience that excites people about removing chemicals from their lives. The brand has experienced rapid expansion, achieving nearly 300% revenue growth in the last year, and gone mainstream by launching in stores such as Target, Walmart and Kroger. Along with endorsements from well-known bloggers, celebrities and other influencers, Schmidt’s Naturals has continued to grow organically – earning global attention without any direct marketing outside the US. Schmidt’s employs nearly 200 professionals nationwide, with plans to expand product lines to include a bevy of liquid and solid soaps in a variety of scents, as well as natural toothpastes in unique flavors. Schmidt and Cammarata were named Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Pacific Northwest Award winners.
Taking the initiative: simplify home buying and selling.
Most people today feel comfortable buying a lot of things online: clothes, groceries, beauty products, even cars. But would you buy a home online? According Eric Wu, you should. As Wu watched industry after industry transform via online sales, he spotted one industry that stood untouched – real estate.
Wu decided that needed to change, so he founded Opendoor. Using machine learning to determine pricing, the company buys homes sight unseen. Then, Opendoor matches those homes with buyers in search of their dream properties. This model enables Opendoor to make competitive offers on homes within 24 hours, to buy them within days and to match them with motivated buyers via their always-on search platform, eliminating much of the strife that often accompanies home buying and selling. Instead of the traditional weekend open houses that cut into buyers’ schedules, Opendoor offers viewings on demand. And if you buy a home on Opendoor, you have a 30-day money back guarantee.
Wu’s path to success wasn’t easy. When the company nearly ran out of funding five different times, Wu took the initiative to learn how to fundraise and raised enough private capital to not only stay afloat, but succeed despite all odds. And the company’s future-friendly technology has proven to be a sustainable, competitive advantage in a crowded online marketplace and a multi-trillion dollar industry. It would seem Eric Wu’s gamble to build an online marketplace for home buying is now paying off. Opendoor now operates in Phoenix, Dallas and Las Vegas, completing 5,000 transactions so far with a total value of $1.1 billion. He was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Northern California Award winner.
Punch Bowl Social
Taking the initiative: capture the hearts of millennials.
Karaoke, shuffleboard and bowling served with a side of avocado toast? It’s all possible, courtesy of award-winning restaurateur Robert Thompson. With Punch Bowl Social, it seems he’s found the perfect pairing of food and fun to reach the millennial generation.
For Thompson, the decision to open the first Punch Bowl Social in Denver wasn’t motivated by a single eureka moment. Instead, it was the culmination of lessons learned after years of witnessing disappointing ventures while working in the restaurant business – on average, 60% of restaurants fail. Thompson had a new vision for “eatertainment,” or the art of combining an award-winning dining experience with an entertainment adventure. In spacious, industrial-style buildings in carefully selected cities, Thompson creates a Punch Bowl vibe that’s part hipster tavern, part arcade hall and part award-winning restaurant. By combining locally sourced culinary creations with craft beverages and old-school experiences such as bowling, arcade games, pool and karaoke, Punch Bowl Social has masterfully managed to engage a generation that often eludes new and seasoned businesses alike.
Since founding the company in 2012, Thompson has inspired young people to seek out Punch Bowl Social locations in cities across America. And under his leadership, Punch Bowl Social surpassed financial benchmarks by 35% during in its first year with one location in Denver. With nine current locations, there are plans to open nine more this year alone. For his persistence and ingenuity, Thompson was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Mountain Desert Award winner.
Embarking into the unknown
What obstacles do entrepreneurs overcome as they push forward?
Union Craft Brewing
Embarking into the unknown: connect Baltimore with craft beer
In pursuit of a lifelong dream, Adam Benesch abandoned his career in private equity to launch Union Craft Brewery — the first brewery to open within the Baltimore city limits in 30 years. Embarking into uncharted territory, Benesch navigated strict city and state liquor laws — some dating back to the Prohibition Era — that made getting the brewery off the ground a tougher challenge than it might have been. But Benesch’s understanding of what it took to open, operate and grow a business — thanks to his background in the financial world — equipped him with the right tools to forge ahead.
Fueled by his belief in the power of beer to unite communities, Benesch set out to give the people of Baltimore a unique, great-tasting beer they didn’t think they could get locally. The 10 signature beers on tap at Union Craft Brewery that honor Maryland’s rich history are an extension of that belief, and serve as proof that local can still be tasty. There’s “Old Pro,” named after a landmark Ocean City miniature golf course; “Steady Eddie,” after a Baltimore Orioles legend; and “Duckpin,” a nod to one of Baltimore’s distinct pastimes. Benesch did, and still does, face tough competition, as mainstream breweries accelerate their craft beer output to satisfy consumer demand. But Union Craft Brewery’s success to date proves Benesch’s theory that an intimate connection between the story behind a craft beer and the community where it’s made can make all the difference in the way customers react to it.
To satisfy increased demand, the brewery is expanding its taproom from 600 square feet to 7,000. And it’s opening a 140,000-square-foot business collective that will offer space for nonprofits, keeping true to the desire to be a community brewery. Benesch was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Maryland Award winner.
Death Wish Coffee
Embarking into the unknown: brew some of the world’s strongest coffee
For serious coffee drinkers, a strong cup each day isn’t just a lifestyle choice — it’s an obsession. This fascination has helped Mike Brown build a cult-like following for Death Wish Coffee, a brand proud to brew a beverage that serves up an extra kick.
From 2008 to 2012, Brown’s independent, brick-and-mortar coffee shop struggled. He poured his life savings into his business, sold his home to keep the doors open and did everything he could to stay afloat. He paid close attention to his customers, realizing they craved a stronger jolt — and then he saw an opportunity: abandon the traditional model and develop a stronger, better-tasting coffee to serve these hyper-selective coffee drinkers — the truck drivers, shift workers and time-crunched college students who were left uninspired by a traditional cup of java.
He threw out the traditional shop menu of coffee brewed with popular Arabica beans supplemented by extravagant, sugary lattes. Instead, Brown started using Robusta beans, which carry double the caffeine and are considered by some the strongest in the world. And he decided to make his product available exclusively online. This first-of-its-kind e-commerce coffee shop quickly gained traction, and in only four years Death Wish Coffee has recorded a staggering 6,500% revenue growth. Brown’s drive to #GrindItOut is what makes Death Wish Coffee one of the top e-commerce coffee companies in the world. Brown was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 New York Award winner.
Embarking into the unknown: transform the way people travel
HotelTonight CEO Sam Shank set out with an ambitious goal: further disrupt the travel industry by offering a mobile-only hotel booking tool to help jetsetters capitalize on last-minute deals. No one saw his vision. Even consumers themselves didn’t get it, asking, “Why can’t I just get these deals on my computer?”
As the company struggled, investors pleaded with Shank to admit defeat. But he persisted, sticking to a model he knew would thrive as soon as his target market caught up. Unsure of what the future might hold, he made the gut-wrenching decision to lay off 20% of his staff and completely restructure the company, optimizing the app’s cloud-based platforms, negotiating better bank rates and more. Shank focused on profitability while remaining steadfast in his commitment to his idea. Seven months later came the breakthrough he’d waited for: consumers fully shifted to a mobile-first, last-minute mentality.
Today, HotelTonight makes it possible for 11th-hour travelers to book premium hotel rooms in more than 1,700 cities in 30 countries worldwide within a week of their planned departure. And waiting until the last minute provides even steeper discounts, with the best offers going to travelers who book within one day of a stay. The brand engages roughly 25,000 hotel partners and recorded more than $300 million in bookings over the past year. Shank keeps costs low and stays competitive by maintaining a mobile-first business model and not requiring hotels to commit to service agreements. Rather, they upload their desired inventory directly to the app in real time. With loyalty perks, in-app concierge services and location-specific rates, Shank and his team have changed the way we travel by giving us the ability to book a hotel room at the best rate, from a mobile device, in just 10 seconds. Shank was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Northern California Award winner.
Embarking into the unknown: meaningful mealtimes minus the mess
Mealtimes at Lindsey Laurain’s house used to be hectic. She’d find herself more focused on keeping her kids’ plates in one place rather than enjoying a meal with her family. Tired of the mess and troubled by the distraction that came with it, Laurain was desperate for a better solution — but she couldn’t find one. So she took to Kickstarter, shared her rudimentary idea for a stay-put plate that could withstand the terror of a toddler and raised nearly $73,000 in just 30 days.
Part plate, part placemat, part suction cup, her solution became known as the indestructible ezpz Happy Mat. It uses 100% FDA-approved silicone to stick to any surface, whether at home or in a restaurant. And since launching in 2014, ezpz has significantly expanded its line of products to include the Happy Bowl, Mini Mat, Play Mat and ezpz book, with more solutions in the works.
Laurain’s products have gained tremendous popularity, with appearances on Shark Tank, The View and The Today Show. With that notoriety has come an influx of counterfeiters and copycats who’ve tried to replicate her product, making this the leading challenge for her personally and the biggest stressor for the brand. But in 2016, Laurain filed a utility patent to protect the self-sealing suction feature of ezpz’s all-in-one placemats and plates, allowing her to focus on expansion.
And while the practicality of ezpz’s products for small children speaks for itself, the products have also been extremely beneficial for older children and adults with disabilities. Laurain realized that ezpz doesn’t just transform how we feed our kids; it helps create better, easier, more enjoyable mealtimes for families of all kinds. Laurain was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Mountain Desert Award winner.
The heart of their universe
How do entrepreneurs decide who sits at the core of their company’s universe – employees or customers? How do they make these groups feel valued?
PANDORA Jewelry, Americas
The heart of their universe: commemorate moments that matter most
Over the past 35 years, PANDORA Jewelry has built a global reputation as a leader in the extremely competitive high-quality, hand-finished modern jewelry industry. Its signature customizable charm bracelet, which can commemorate the most precious moments of people’s lives, has become a meaningful accessory for women around the world.
Today, the company sells its products in more than 100 countries and operates roughly 900 retail stores. At the heart of PANDORA’s most recent expansion is Scott Burger, President, PANDORA Americas. During his decade-long tenure, he helped take the company public (in 2010), led its strategic expansion into Canadian and Brazilian markets and negotiated a 10-year product partnership with Disney. Nevertheless, customers continue to sit at the core of PANDORA’s business, as the emotional connection and expression of individuality that the jewelry delivers remains the driving force behind the brand’s success.
And while meaningful relationships with customers are critical, Burger is equally committed to capturing the hearts of his employees. Last year, more than 75% of PANDORA employees said they would recommend working at the company to others. And in an effort to tap into an even stronger employee base and strengthen recruitment, Burger moved the Americas headquarters from the suburbs of Baltimore to a coveted downtown address with enviable views of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. For his business success, as well as steadfast dedication to both customers and employees, Burger was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Maryland Award winner.
The heart of their universe: groceries delivered with care
From crowded parking lots to long checkout lines, grocery shopping needed simplification – and Bill Smith knew there had to be a better way. That’s why he founded Shipt, a membership-based, mobile-enabled delivery service that connects consumers with fresh groceries and everyday essentials.
Shipt’s success comes in part because of its strong partnerships with leading grocery retailers and local employee shoppers who fulfill customer orders. And with people sitting at the heart of what makes his company tick, Smith is focused on nurturing Shipt’s relationships across the entire supply chain – with its members who submit their shopping lists, the employees who satisfy the orders and the retailers who keep the shelves stocked. With a promise of excellent customer service and a guarantee to handle orders with care, Shipt’s model leaves members feeling confident they aren’t forfeiting quality for convenience.
Since its founding three years ago, Shipt has rapidly expanded and now offers quality, personalized grocery delivery to more than 17 million households in 32 markets across the country – with each household paying an annual $99 membership fee. And Shipt is proving a fierce competitor to online marketplace giants, with more than 90% of Shipt markets proving profitable after six months. From 2015 to 2016, under Smith’s leadership, the app’s total gross revenue grew more than 700%. With his emphasis on the people at the heart of his business, Smith expects Shipt to serve millions more homes in more than 50 metro areas within the next few years – giving back to customers what they value most: time. Smith was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Southeast Award winner.
The heart of their universe: deliver an irreplaceable first impression
You only get one chance to make a first impression. And Ruby Receptionists Founder and CEO Jill Nelson has built a successful business around her clients’ need to do just that. Nelson, a former receptionist herself, launched the company in 2003 to offer personalized live receptionist services to small businesses across North America.
But when the economic recession hit in 2009, Ruby Receptionists, like many other businesses, found itself in trouble. In survival model mode, clients were cutting costs wherever they could, often starting with staff they deemed disposable – receptionists. To defend the company against the crippling weight of tough times, Nelson focused on making her staff so instrumental that clients couldn’t afford to cut their services. She did this by “practicing WOWism” – the idea that any reaction besides a “wow” from a customer wasn’t good enough. She handwrote notes to newly signed customers and guaranteed every person on the other end of the phone was met with a professional, helpful and pleasant voice even in the midst of stressful economic times. Her strategy worked, and at the end of the first quarter of 2009 Ruby Receptionists’ customer base had grown by 30%. And in the years since, Nelson has expanded the ‘wow’ factor to how the company treats its employees. Five core values to drive employee satisfaction while making customers happy: practice WOWism, foster happiness, create community, innovate and grow.
Since its inception, Ruby Receptionists has recorded double-digit growth every year, expanding organically through word-of-mouth referrals and strong customer retention. The company has also gained national recognition as a FORTUNE magazine Best Small Company to Work For in the US, a Best Company to Work For in Oregon, as well as one of Oregon’s fastest-growing companies for the past nine years. For always creating the “wow” that drives business results, Nelson was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Pacific Northwest Award winner.
Creating shared purpose
How does a shared purpose inspire a company and its workforce?
DHI Telecom Group
Creating shared purpose: keep the US armed forces connected to home
A single father at a young age, Wallace Davis enlisted in the US Armed Forces, which meant time away from his family. He spent years working in countries distressed by war, including Iraq, Qatar and Kosovo – regions that lacked reliable internet service providers (ISP), making it difficult to stay in touch with loved ones back home. Deeply committed to doing his part to enhance the lives of service members, Davis tapped his IT background and founded DHI Telecom Group to enhance the lives of the people who defend our country by keeping them connected to home with better internet service.
The company’s goal to provide more reliable service was immediately bolstered by support from soldiers, their family members back home and civilians. It didn’t take defense contractors long to take notice and start using DHI Telecom Group’s services for various business needs. As other providers fell short of meeting the expectations of those serving in Afghanistan, DHI Telecom Group won a long-term Department of Defense contract to provide telecom services at every US/NATO military installation throughout Afghanistan.
Today, with the support from some of the youngest and brightest IT professionals in the world, DHI Telecom Group has made it possible for deployed fathers to be "present" for the birth of their children, for men and women abroad to check in on ailing family members and much more. Davis’ vision has fundamentally redefined the level of communication men and women defending our country can have with their families, as well as made it possible for them to share in many special moments they would otherwise miss.
Through its partners, DHI has connected more than 5 million service members deployed in the Middle East and Eastern Europe to their loved ones, making the company the world’s largest ISP in active war zones. For his innovative and entrepreneurial approach, as well as his commitment to serving the brave men and women who serve the US, Wallace Davis was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Gulf Coast Area Award winner.
Mary Ann Scully
Creating shared purpose: be more than a bank
Mary Ann Scully is passionate about two things: banking and Baltimore. Having spent more than 30 years in finance, she yearned to provide small- and medium-sized businesses in her hometown better economic resources.
So in 2004 Scully founded Howard Bank with a vision for a better community banking model: provide superior service, offer only the products businesses and customers need, and genuinely care for the community. As time passed, Scully refined her strategy, hired talent that rivaled the big banks and forged highly localized relationships with businesses to build trust within the community. Word started to spread: Howard Bank had the technology of a large bank with the knowledge and personality of a trusted neighbor.
The city took notice, and in a little more than a decade Scully has transformed an initial capital investment of $16.5 million into a publicly traded company with $1 billion in assets and a $190 million market cap. Today, Howard Bank is still a growth-focused community bank in the Greater Baltimore Metropolitan Area that is deeply committed to putting the customer first in everything it does.
Scully is routinely recognized by the Baltimore Business Journal as one of the “Most Generous Corporate Givers.” She also fosters a philanthropic culture, giving employees time off to volunteer in Baltimore. For achieving enormous growth, as well as her commitment to deliver more than your average bank, Mary Ann Scully was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Maryland Award winner.
Heather Brunner, Jason Cohen
Creating shared purpose: put diversity at the heart of problem solving
When start-up veteran and stay-at-home dad Jason Cohen’s popular blog kept crashing, he knew he needed a solution if he wanted to keep his readers happy — and fast. Finding little outside resources, he put his technical background to use and developed his own WordPress hosting platform to fix the issue. Cohen quickly realized he couldn’t be the only blogger fed up with crashes – and WP Engine was born, a solution that keeps sites fast, scalable and secure. He achieved a cash-flow break-even in just seven months.
After three years, Cohen realized that if he wanted to focus on what he was passionate about — the technology, his product vision and the future of the platform — he needed to bring in a leader with solid management experience. That leader was Heather Brunner. She was already a member of the WP Engine Board and brought extensive experience partnering with founders and entrepreneurs. Since taking over the CEO role in August 2013, she’s navigated the company through critical stages, delivering annual growth greater than 100% each year.
Together, Brunner and Cohen have expanded their staff from 50 to 400 employees and built a team focused on solving their customers very real, and very interesting, problems. And they foster a culture that embraces diverse perspectives to solve these problems, one based on inclusion — of ideas, experiences and cultures.
This means hiring the best and brightest minds regardless of background — 33% of staff members don’t have a college degree. And the business thrives on diversity: 65% of the executive staff is female, 22% of management is non-white and 5% of staff identifies as part of the LGBTQ community.
And these diverse team members have earned the trust of more than 60,000 companies in 140 countries, proving they have the ingenuity to solve problems head on. For their consistent growth, as well as their commitment to hiring real people to solve real problems for their customers, Heather Brunner and Jason Cohen were named Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Central Texas Award winners.
Creating shared purpose: change the way the world learns
The basic concept of higher education hasn’t changed for centuries. Pete Pizarro, President and CEO of ILUMNO, thinks that is about to change. He predicts the current model will experience more significant changes in the next decade than it has in the past 1,000 years. The driving forces behind this impending shift? Technology, globalization and access to knowledge. Thanks to technology, students no longer need to be in a classroom to learn, making it possible for them to enroll in any international institution regardless of where they call home. They no longer need to trek to the library, with a world of information available through the internet. Keeping these imminent shifts in mind, ILUMNO is leading the charge to architect a new set of methodologies and technology solutions that supports a sustainable, digitally-powered higher education revolution.
Under Pizarro’s leadership, ILUMNO improves the experience of students, academics, administrative staff and institutional leaders. The company’s technology helps partner institutions increase their enrollment numbers while raising their retention and graduation rates. They also provide state of the art technological tools and a comprehensive academic model that enhance the classroom learning experience while facilitating virtual education. ILUMNO has also designed and implemented methodologies that drive operational excellence and help member institutions achieve optimal operating efficiency.
Since its founding, ILUMNO has gone from 100,000 students to almost 250,000, serving 13 higher education institutions in 8 Latin American countries with more than 12,000 faculty and staff. ILUMNO is also considered a top 10 global leader in the higher education sector. For his forward-thinking approach to higher education, as well as his commitment optimizing the way the world learns, Pete Pizarro was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Florida Award winner.
About the program
The Entrepreneur Of The Year® program, founded by EY, has recognized the endeavors of exceptional men and women who create the products and services that keep our worldwide economy moving forward. Since its inception, Entrepreneur Of The Year has grown dramatically and now includes programs in more than 60 countries and 145 cities worldwide. The Entrepreneur Of The Year US Awards gala is the culminating event of the Strategic Growth Forum®, the largest gathering of entrepreneurs in America.