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.
As we’ve taken a closer look at many of our Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2017 regional award winners, we’ve shared stories that explore these winners’ varied paths to the future and show what it takes to build and sustain a thriving enterprise.
We recently welcomed these regional award winners at the Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, California, to vie for national recognition and add a new chapter to their stories. The Forum concluded with the Entrepreneur Of The Year National Awards gala, where we proudly announced our 2017 national award winners.
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.
2017 national award winners
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, 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.
How have you grown as a leader during your entrepreneurial journey?
Jennifer Jan Smith
Innovative Office Solutions, LLC
Leadership lessons: the old way isn’t always the right way
In 1994, when her mother fell ill, Jennifer Jan Smith left a comfortable corporate position to help her father run the family business selling basic office products. With her guidance, the company expanded from 8 to 40 employees and revenue grew nearly 1,100%. The swift growth garnered the attention of a big box industry consolidator, which offered to buy the humble business. At a time when the industry was plagued with uncertainty, Smith and her family decided to sell.
Several years later, Smith was approached by a handful of former employees — they wanted to work for her again. Inspired by their loyalty and in a better personal place to lead a business, she accepted the challenge and launched Innovative Office Solutions in 2001.
From the start, Smith considered what she found least attractive about the office product industry: the lack of flexibility and customization. Most dealers offered catalogs with 50,000 or more options, but they only really pushed the 2,000 or so major products they kept stocked in their huge warehouses. Often unable to get the less common products they wanted and needed, customers suffered.
Smith decided there had to be a better way — she made Innovative Office Solutions the poster child for “stockless dealers.” She focused on sales, marketing, customer service and delivery and let her wholesaler focus on product fulfillment. This gave her the flexibility to deliver exactly what customers wanted — not just what she had in stock. Today, she also remains aware of shifting customer demands in the office product industry and focuses on selling non-traditional office furniture, break room supplies, corporate branding and more. Further demonstrating the brand’s commitment to service, customers can always expect responsiveness, particularly from Smith herself. She hates procrastination and doesn’t go to bed with unanswered emails or voicemails.
Innovative Office Solutions has achieved consistent double-digit year-over-year growth and boasts an employee retention rate of more than 90%. Jennifer Jan Smith was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Upper Midwest Award winner.
Anne Wagner, Mike Wagner
Leadership lessons: relationships are the foundation for success
When Anne and Mike Wagner founded WaveStrike, they aspired to create the ideal workplace for software engineers who wanted to focus on big data analytics, cloud solutions and cybersecurity. Their ambition was fueled by their years of experience working in the intelligence community, where they carefully absorbed the leading practices for creating excellent teams: nurture relationships, learn from everyone and find a mentor.
With that in mind, Anne, President/Chief Executive Officer, and Mike, VP/Chief Technology Officer, have operated WaveStrike with a lean business model from the very beginning. They reduced management costs, freeing up dollars to spend on employees and the technology they need to deliver exceptional solutions. By eliminating investments in other areas, they also have been able to hold true to the lesson they’ve learned over the years — it’s the people who matter.
Now, the software engineering firm provides mission-critical applications to the U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence communities. Specially trained teams provide technical knowledge to solve some of our most difficult national security challenges while remaining nimble in an ever-changing business climate. And despite the competitive battle to win talent, tech-savvy minds are hungry to work at WaveStrike, with more than 90% of current employees coming from internal referrals and an approximately 95% retention rate in recent years.
For her success to date and to help realize the enormous potential still to be unleashed at WaveStirke, Anne was admitted into the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ Class of 2015. Now, for their combined strengths in business, program management, finance and innovative software engineering, Anne and Mike are Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Maryland Award winners.
Joseph E. Fluet III
Leadership lessons: learn, perform, adapt
Joseph E. Fluet III is known for his strong work ethic and competitive mentality. A distinguished veteran who served for 20 years, he was a combat commander in a variety of aviation and special operations units in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as various other locations overseas. Fluet’s military experience gave him a front-row look at the critical role real-time information played during missions, ultimately saving time, resources and lives.
Inspired to deliver this same type of situational awareness to the masses and help solve the world’s toughest challenges, Fluet and several partners combined their life savings — $4.5 million — and launched MAG Aerospace. Today, the company is the industry’s most comprehensive “tip to tail” services provider for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), supporting federal, international and commercial customers worldwide. From helping law enforcement teams assess risk before storming an unknown location to advising commercial builders if unexplored terrain is suitable for development, MAG Aerospace’s solutions helps customers make more informed decisions.
Fluet’s service-driven, results-oriented, adaptable mentality — which he honed as a soldier — has shaped him into the leader he is today. He tells his staff regularly: we must perform or we will be replaced. And that disciplined leadership has helped MAG grow to nearly 1,000 employees worldwide since it was founded in 2009. That performance is also driven by Fluet’s belief that flexibility is a key factor for success — and that leaders shouldn’t constrained by a “strategy” once they’ve outgrown it. Rather, focus on the end goal and adapt as needed to embrace growth and change.
In less than a decade, through organic growth and acquisitions, MAG Aerospace has grown to $152 million in annual revenue. Fluet was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Mid-Atlantic Award winner.
How has your steadfast commitment helped you deliver significant growth?
Phyllis Winchester Newhouse
Xtreme Solutions, Inc.
Personal commitment: keep America safe on all fronts
A retired United States Army officer and service-disabled veteran, Phyllis Winchester Newhouse knows a thing or two about commitment. She spent 22 years dedicating her life to defend and protect her country. After her service ended, Newhouse vowed to continue to protect the nation — this time against cybercrime — and founded Xtreme Solutions, Inc., which offers protective IT services to both federal and commercial clients.
During her military career, Newhouse served at the Pentagon, where she developed state-of-the-art IT solutions and helped lead the creation of a Cyber Espionage task force. Her work served as one of the first proactive responses to protect US government data from compromising cyber attacks. When Newhouse left the Pentagon, she realized how much more advanced was her military work compared to the market trends she was seeing in the commercial market – and she launched Xtreme Solutions to bridge that gap. Today, Newhouse and her team of expert ethical hackers develop platforms and technologies, including cybersecurity consulting and forensic analysis, informed by her work at the Pentagon.
Newhouse had the technical knowledge she needed to launch Xtreme Solutions, Inc., but finding financing presented a new set of hurdles. Newhouse hadn’t developed any commercial credit history during her time in the military, and she found it challenging to source capital for her business — until she found a small lender willing to back her. From there, Newhouse focused on building Xtreme Solution, Inc.’s portfolio of services to satisfy security needs for government and commercial customers – giving her non-government clientele access to the same innovations that hadn’t traditionally been available to the mass market.
In the past three years, Xtreme Solutions has more than doubled its revenue by capturing more clients and offering more complex solutions than ever before. For her early success, Newhouse was named a member of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ Class of 2013. And for her continued innovation and growth, Newhouse was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Southeast Award winner.
Personal commitment: turn struggle into something stunning
Facing a formidable battle with leukemia, Derek Maxfield, an already successful entrepreneur, decided to start a new company with his sister. They called it Younique. The brand’s purpose? Create a foundation to provide long-term support of female victims of sexual abuse.
At first, Maxfield focused on selling women’s jewelry and apparel. But after a series of disappointing rounds of sales, he decided to shift gears. Maxfield, whose entire personal wealth was tied up in Younique, gathered several focus groups, launched customer feedback forums and sought out expert advice. In the end, Younique completely pivoted to concentrate solely on cosmetics sold via social media. Under Maxfield’s leadership, the company pioneered “virtual parties,” where representatives pushed certain cosmetics via their social media channels, making Younique one of the first brands to use social media as its primary sales platform. In turn, a majority of Younique’s sales to date have been made via a mobile device.
But Maxfield’s vision for Younique wasn’t just about selling products that make women feel beautiful on the outside. He wanted to help women on a deeper level. Since 2013, Younique has been the primary funding source for The Younique Foundation, a charitable organization that provides therapy for female sexual assault survivors and offers education on the impact of sexual assault — fulfilling Maxfield’s vision.
Younique has hundreds of thousands of representatives in 11 countries who sell cosmetics and earn income from Younique’s platform, enabling women all around the world to use their social influence to earn a living by selling jewelry via their personal social accounts. Derek Maxfield was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Utah Region Award winner.
Lewis L. Bird III
Personal commitment: revive a fading brand
Lewis L. Bird III took a huge leap of faith when he stepped down as president of a top athletic apparel company in 2009 to launch his own private equity firm. Six months into his venture, he received a call from a bank looking to sell a floundering retail chain: Garden Ridge. He pursued the deal relentlessly, investing nearly $100,000 of his own money and putting together two different PE deals to buy the brand. But the deals fell through when the owners took the chain off the market. Less than two years later, Bird’s earlier commitment paid off when the investors who had purchased Garden Ridge brought Bird in to execute the transformation he’d spoken so passionately about in the years prior.
Since joining At Home as Chairman and CEO, Bird has turned a stagnant business into a high-growth public company that sells affordable home decor. He’s reshaped the product mix, changed the business model, led a rebranding, moved the corporate headquarters, transformed the in-store experience and built an employee-centric culture. His personal commitment to reviving a brand others had deemed lifeless has made At Home the prominent retailer it is today.
Under Bird’s leadership, At Home follows a disciplined product development process, with more than 70% of the company’s offering aligned to private label, unbranded merchandise specifically developed for At Home. The brand also takes a unique approach to real estate. A majority of the stores are second-generation big box stores, vacated by earlier retailers. This allows At Home to negotiate attractive real estate terms and then transform once desolate shopping centers into vibrant retail hubs. The investments made toward improvements are typically recouped in less than two years. Before Bird joined the company, employee satisfaction was at an all-time low. Since joining At Home, he’s implemented sweeping changes and reduced employee turnover by almost 70%.
From fiscal year 2013 to 2016, At Home’s revenue has grown roughly 20%. At Home’s success most recently culminated with an IPO in August 2016, with Bird using the proceeds to pay down debt and further strengthen the company’s balance sheet. For leading the way and successfully transitioning a run-down, 35-year-old brand into an empowered and refocused public company with great promise of national growth, Lewis L. Bird III was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Southwest Award winner.
How do entrepreneurs recognize when they’re on the cusp of success or failure?
Walker-Miller Energy Services
Turning points: resolving to rebuild
In 2000, Carla Walker-Miller was a 17-year employee of a $40 billion multi-national energy systems company. When her largest local customer wanted to diversify its medium- and high-voltage utility equipment, Carla saw no viable options in sight – while also recognizing a gap in the market. So, armed with faith in her idea and $50,000 from her 401(k), Carla left her stable job to start Walker-Miller Energy Services (WMES).
Using her engineering background, business experience and product expertise, Carla grew WMES into the first African-American-led, Detroit-based distributor of a complete line of electrical manufacturing equipment. For nearly a decade, WMES averaged annual revenues greater than $10 million. But when the economic recession hit and her sole supplier cancelled its distribution agreement with WMES, Carla was faced with a devastating decision: let every employee go.
But rather than accept defeat, Carla spent the next two years climbing out of debt and restructuring her company’s business model. She kept a close eye on the industry, anticipating the impact of new Michigan energy legislation that would require Michigan utility customers to reduce consumption by 10%. Even before the legislation passed, Carla ascertained how she could satisfy the future energy needs of her community.
When the legislation passed in 2009, Carla’s business took a turn from utility distributor to energy efficiency services company. Today, WMES is partnered with several utility companies across the US and helps with energy optimization program design and implementation. WMES also works with a major manufacturers in the industry to provide the highest-quality transformers, breakers, capacitors, protective relays, substations, switch-gear and more.
WMES has averaged more than 50% annual growth over the past three years and today is a top supplier of advanced products for energy efficiency in Michigan. Carla keeps WMES ahead of what’s next by making sure her team is nimble and responsive to the fast-paced changes of the energy industry. Carla Walker-Miller was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Michigan and Northwest Ohio Award winner.
Eat’n Park Hospitality Group
Turning points: learning to fail fast
Eat’n Park Hospitality Group’s story started in 1949 as Pittsburgh’s first carhop restaurant. In the years that followed, as the restaurant’s popularity spread and growth accelerated, the humble brand evolved to meet customer demands by offering dine-in restaurants. Today, more than 65 years later, the company has expanded into two divisions – Parkhurst Dining and the Restaurant Division – and serves nearly 50 million guests annually across all its dining experiences.
Both divisions are overseen by current President and CEO Jeff Broadhurst, son of the chain founder and prior CEO. Starting as a cook while in high school, Broadhurst joined the company’s management team in 1996. Determined to innovate in a culture that had historically resisted change, Broadhurst spearheaded the launch of Park Classic Diners, a spin-off of Eat’n Park Restaurants. When the diner format did not take off, Broadhurst adopted the “fail fast” approach and abandoned the idea he’d been so passionate about. He acknowledged that failing is an integral part of innovating and that as long as he was learning along the way, he was making progress.
More than 15 years later, Broadhurst has led Eat’n Park Hospitality group through the inauguration of several new, successful restaurant concepts such as Hello Bistro, The Porch and Six Penn Kitchen – all concepts that revolve around the evolving demands of restaurant customers, including the desire for quick, fresh, healthy food. He still brings the fail fast motto to every monthly team meeting, encouraging his employees to voice innovative ideas and supports their endeavors, urging them to take risks – as long as they’re willing to learn from their mistakes.
For shepherding a 68-year old family company from a single carhop to a diversified food service provider, Jeff Broadhurst was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia Award winner.
Holland America Group
Turning points: inculcating efficiency
Fine dining, musical entertainment, designer shopping, rock climbing, ice skating and the comforts of a five-star hotel in the middle of the ocean – it’s no secret that an elegant cruise experience is a logistical marvel. When Stein Kruse became President and CEO of Holland America in 2003, his goal was to consolidate the company’s highly complex business model to create a better experience for travelers.
At the time, Holland America was operating multiple individual cruise lines each losing time and money on shipbuilding, technical operations, hotel operations, food and beverage, and environmental operations. These inefficiencies left too few resources to focus on guest experience. Kruse believed a consolidated model could provide vital efficiencies and allow each brand to maintain its own onboard identities – an approach that was completely new to the cruise industry.
Kruse architected the consolidation of the organization under Holland America Group, which brought together the Holland America Line with several others, including Princess Cruises, Seabourn and more. As one company, each line could streamline back-office operations, learn from each another’s experiences and focus on their passengers. Under Kruse’s leadership customer satisfaction has soared across brands, with sales growing, too.
Holland America Group now operates 41 cruise ships, with more than 36,000 employees worldwide delivering 25 million passenger cruise days annually. Stein Kruse was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Pacific Northwest Award winner.
How do entrepreneurs define success?
Carlos David Michan
Strata Equity Group, Inc.
Measuring success: deliver to investors
For Carlos David Michan, CEO of Strata Equity Group, Inc., trust guides his entrepreneurial journey. When he graduated college in 1972, he decided to leave Mexico for the United States and set out to become a mechanical engineer, eager to build a prosperous life for his wife, children and future generations.
After spending some time settling in the states, in 1983 Michan and his two brothers decided to focus on real estate investment and together founded Strata Equity Group. In the years that followed, the company grew to specialize in acquiring land and preparing it for development, as well as investing in and managing existing single-family and multi-family residential homes, commercial and retail properties, and renewable energy projects in Southern California.
After years of respectable growth and an amicable buy-out from his brothers, Michan became the sole owner of Strata Equity Group in 2005. Today, Strata Equity Group owns and manages more than 15,000 apartment units across 54 projects, as well as more than 17,000 acres of land in 23 locations. To get there, Michan needed to earn and maintain the trust of a nearly 230-person investor base, which he secured by making the right investments and providing the returns they seek. Carlos David Michan was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 San Diego Award winner.
Measuring success: become the go-to, end-to-end industry solution
Historically, technology advancements in auto lending systems have been largely overlooked. But in 2012, equipped with the determination instilled by an entrepreneurial family, Stephanie Alsbrooks set out to revolutionize the industry.
When she started her journey, auto lenders typically had very few choices when it came to loan origination system software — and those options were often expensive and inflexible. This left small and mid-sized lenders at a disadvantage. Having spent a majority of her 15-year career buying, modifying or building loan origination software, Alsbrooks set out to develop a system that would meet the unique and changing needs of lenders, regardless of size, processes or goals. Without an office or salary for herself, she pulled together a team of industry experts to create a flexible, feature-rich software platform in just six months. She called it defi SOLUTIONS.
With defi SOLUTIONS, Alsbrooks has made auto loan origination software affordable, scalable and easily adaptable to allow lenders to keep up with ever-changing market demands. Customers can manage application life cycles and service loans, as well as receive reports and analytics from a single, highly customizable platform that brings together buyers and sellers.
Today, defi SOLUTIONS now collaborates with more than 30 data partners, digital document handlers and e-contracting systems for some of the fastest funding, servicing and analytics reporting in the auto loan industry. Under Alsbrooks’ leadership, the company has doubled revenue, employees and products each year. And within the past six months, built on the idea that the auto lending industry should not be immune to modernization. defi SOLUTIONS has released three new services to bring it one step closer to becoming the go-to, end-to-end solution for the auto lending industry. Stephanie Alsbrooks was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Southwest Region Award winner.
The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company
Measuring success: become a top-10 life insurer
When the recession hit in 2008, Eileen McDonnell boldly declared: “Penn Mutual will not participate in the recession.” McDonnell, then Chief Marketing Officer, vowed the company wouldn’t fall victim to impending economic stagnation, despite vulnerabilities facing the insurance industry.
McDonnell’s unwavering commitment in the face of adversity earned her the nickname “Chief Morale Officer” as opposed to Chief Marketing Officer. And just three years later, that same tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit earned McDonnell the role of CEO of the 170-year-old company.
Since taking the top seat, she’s used that groundbreaking mentality to lead Penn Mutual into the future and fix its most transformative goal yet: to make Penn Mutual a top-10 life insurer by 2025. To achieve this, McDonnell has rebranded the Penn Mutual advisor experience, focusing on supplying everyone with industry-leading, cutting-edge tools. Now the entire customer experience, from submitting an insurance application to filing a claim, can be done virtually and almost automatically. She’s also modernized the 1980s headquarters into an inspiring workspace environment with a multimillion-dollar refresh to attract younger advisors and energize current employees.
Under McDonnell’s leadership, Penn Mutual has also strategically added more than $1 billion in assets by acquiring several smaller insurance companies. Collectively, these transformative decisions have helped Penn Mutual break into the Fortune 1000 for the first time since its founding in 1847. Eileen McDonnell was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Greater Philadelphia Award winner. She is the company’s first female CEO.
What strategic decisions do entrepreneurs make as they grow their companies?
Nate and Vanessa Quigley
Scaling growth: make subscriptions more valuable
Vanessa Quigley longed to preserve every moment of her children’s lives. But as a busy mom of seven, finding time to scrapbook or print photos weren’t realistic options. She found herself searching for a solution that would help amass her family’s most precious memories in a unique and meaningful way. That’s when the concept for Chatbooks came to life.
Vanessa, her husband Nate and their small development team spent three years working to refine a cloud-based platform specifically designed to help families store and share photos, videos and other digital mementos. Everyone loved the idea — but user adoption was lacking. With a better understanding of how challenging it had become to motivate customers to download and use yet another app, they knew they needed something different.
One night, as Vanessa prepared to tuck her youngest son into bed, she found him clutching a photo album his preschool teacher had made him. Vanessa realized the album he gripped was more than a collection of paper and ink: it was an artifact that represented the memories her son held dear. She now knew what Chatbooks was missing – a tangible product.
Vanessa, Nate and the team quickly shifted their approach to evolve Chatbooks into one of the world’s first subscription-based photo book services. Now, the Chatbooks mobile app syncs seamlessly with customers’ social media apps and phone camera rolls. By tapping into the digital photos their subscribers are already sharing via platforms they use every day, Chatbooks instantly and automatically aggregates photo memories into small, printed books the size of an envelope and delivers them monthly to subscribers. In the first two years embarking in this new direction, Chatbooks sold more than 1 million books. Today, the company has more than 300,000 subscribers, and its customer base is expanding daily.
The Quigleys encourage everyone to #getinthephoto and endeavor to help families preserve memories for a lifetime. The Quigleys were named Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Utah Award winners.
Scaling growth: redefine culture with employees at the core
Historically, technology advancements in auto lending systems have been largely overlooked. But in 2012, equipped with the determination instilled by an entrepreneurial family, Stephanie Alsbrooks set out to revolutionize the industry.
TruGreen is one of the country’s largest lawn care companies, serving more than 2.3 million customers. But just five years ago, it was in serious trouble. When David Alexander joined the company in 2012 as CEO, customer satisfaction and retention had reached an all-time low, and revenue was following suit. Seeking a solution, TruGreen was sold to a private equity group only a few months after Alexander came on board.
Alexander embraced change and set out to cultivate a new corporate culture. He visited branches across the country and conducted a listening tour with associates to help him develop a new set of values for TruGreen. He opened communication channels with upper management and launched annual leadership meetings with general managers across the country. He focused on ways to make employees feel valued with a personal recognition program. Alexander’s new approach to TruGreen’s culture resulted in increased employee retention, which stimulated revenue growth.
With a fresh vision and revived employee morale, in 2016 Alexander negotiated a merger with TruGreen’s largest competitor, Scotts LawnService — a company that had tried to purchase TruGreen just a few years prior. During the merger, Alexander communicated openly with his team, distributing a monthly newsletter to share the progress of the merger with employees of both companies. His transparency resulted in retaining 96% of Scotts LawnService associates when the merger wrapped up.
Alexander revitalized TruGreen from the inside out, and his efforts to boost employee satisfaction are still in full swing. Recently the company launched a campaign to “Live Life Outside,” which offers outdoor seating areas with Wi-Fi to encourage employees to work outside. David Alexander was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Southeast Award winner.
Rocket Software, Inc.
Scaling growth: nurture strategic partnerships
“It's not rocket science. It’s Rocket Software.” That’s the motto behind Andy Youniss’ technology company. Founded in 1990, Rocket Software delivers solutions for a diverse array of business needs including application life cycle management and development, archive and backup management, business intelligence, analytics, data migration, data visualization and more. Over nearly 30 years, Youniss has grown his business from a spare bedroom to 31 offices around the world serving North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.
Youniss, an engineer by trade, has kept the same philosophy for Rocket Software since he and his first employee began the company: to build software that matters. Instead of relying on trends and fads, Youniss’ team builds critical tools and solutions to match customer needs. This philosophy is what has inspired Youniss’ more than 25 year partnership with IBM, which remains Rocket’s most significant technology and business relationship. And although the company has been profitable since day one, Youniss’ continued success has stemmed from the cohesion of exceptional technology, solid partnerships and a remarkable team.
Now a 1,400-person operation achieving hundreds of millions in revenue, Rocket Software shows no signs of slowing down, and its smart business partnerships continue to present new opportunities for Youniss and his team. Andy Youniss was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 New England Award winner.
Building a legacy
How do entrepreneurs create a legacy?
Building a legacy: leading the global expansion of a healthy-living staple
Wan Kim first experienced Smoothie King when he was a college student living in California. He was so captivated by the brand, he ended his college career determined to find a way to blend his passion for Smoothie King with his first professional venture.
After college, Kim took Smoothie King with him back to South Korea. He faced the huge risk that it might not catch on. But by focusing on the health benefits of the brand’s products, Kim successfully opened roughly 120 Smoothie King locations in seven years. By introducing South Koreans to the brand, he helped break down cultural barriers for people to embrace healthier foods like smoothies, energy bars and vitamin supplements. But South Korea was just the beginning; Kim had his sights set on spreading the Smoothie King franchise around the world. In 2012, Kim approached Smoothie King Founder Steve Kuhnau and asked to buy the company. After a successful buyout and in his new role as CEO, Kim returned to the US to launch his new vision for the global healthy living brand.
Under Kim’s leadership, Smoothie King now operates more than 850 stores across three continents. And the brand has plans to grow to more than 1,000 locations by 2018. By globalizing the brand and ascending to the company’s top leadership role, Kim has built a legacy that directly extends the company’s long-lived mission to help customers live a healthier life — no matter where they call home. Kim was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Gulf Coast Area Award winner.
Bellisio Foods, Inc.
Building a legacy: re-establishing trust to proliferate growth
When Joel Conner was named Chairman and CEO of Bellisio Foods, the company was in crisis. A non-food safety infraction had shut down a primary production facility, resulting in a storm of unhappy workers and uncertainty about the future of the business. In the midst of misunderstandings and miscommunications, Conner quickly promised the transparency, honesty and inclusion necessary to re-establish trust and mutual respect with a fragile constituency of employees, shareholders, suppliers, lenders, USDA regulators and union leaders.
In the years that followed, despite intense global competition, Conner was able to repair and advance Bellisio’s relationships with private equity investors — which helped the family-owned business accelerate its rebuild and tackle additional growth. Bellisio more than doubled its net sales through a global licensing strategy, which brought recognizable brands to the business and increased market share. In 2016, Conner’s calculated growth plan helped to close the sale of the company to Asian food conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Foods. Conner continues to serve as Chairman and CEO of Bellisio and has an intelligent and loyal cadre of managers who contribute to Bellisio’s success. Today, the company is considered the third-largest marketer and manufacturer of frozen meals, appetizers and snacks in North America and has its sight set on additional international expansion into 12 countries.
Taking Bellisio from a small family-owned business to a global powerhouse, Conner employed savvy and an innovative mindset to drive the company’s strategic growth. Bellisio succeeds as a flexible, cost-efficient manufacturer and distributor with more than 2,250 employees and licensing agreements with customers such as Atkins, Chili’s Grill & Bar and Boston Market. Conner’s principle of honest and loyal relationships has secured a foundation for the Bellisio legacy to continue for decades to come. Conner was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Upper Midwest Award winner.
Building a legacy: reinforcing a reputation built on trust, quality and integrity
As a privately held, fourth-generation family business founded in 1945, Schuman Cheese has been built on the ideals of trust, quality and integrity. When Neal Schuman, grandson of Founder Arthur Schuman, took on the role of CEO in 1985, he promised to carry on his grandfather’s core values — but he also vowed to inject fresh ideas into the business through product diversification and advanced production facilities.
After spending years traveling, assessing dairy markets and researching industry trends around the world, Neal developed an understanding of the industry allowing him to take risks to keep the company thriving. Under Neal’s leadership, Schuman Cheese has added three domestic cheese processing plants to complement its off-shore production facilities — a decision that was heavily informed by Neal’s expertise, anticipation of future trends and an industry shift to US-based dairy production.
Along the way, Neal has remained steadfast in his commitment to deliver quality products — what customers ultimately value from any brand. To assure customers they can always trust they’re receiving a top-notch product, Schuman Cheese launched the dairy industry’s first “trust mark” in 2015 — a seal on every one of its packages verifying product quality. Neal Schuman was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 New Jersey Award winner.
Creating what’s next
How are entrepreneurs creating what’s next for business?
Dr. Sohail Masood
Creating what’s next: new possibilities for in-home health care
While attending the USC School of Pharmacy, Dr. Sohail Masood made a discovery that would revolutionize in-home treatment options for patients suffering from neuromuscular and dermatological diseases, autoimmune disorders, cancer and more. His finding? Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) — the sterile solution of concentrated antibodies administered directly into a patient’s bloodstream to treat these conditions — didn’t need to be administered immediately after being produced in a lab. Dr. Masood’s realization meant that instead of having to receive treatments in uncomfortable hospital settings, patients could be treated elsewhere — even in the comfort of their own homes.
In 2010, he founded KabaFusion, a home infusion company committed to putting the “care” back in health care. By revolutionizing the way IVIG is administered, Dr. Masood is making in-home care a reality for so many suffering from ongoing conditions. To help deliver top-notch care, KabaFusion teaches doctors to properly administer the treatments and educates insurance companies on the benefits of covering the in-home treatment over costly hospital stays. Thanks to Dr. Masood’s dedication, the once relatively unknown treatment has become mainstream and is covered by most insurers and Medicare.
Today, with nearly 350 employees and 7 locations, KabaFusion provides IVIG therapies to patients in more than 35 states. His “patient first” mentality has fueled KabaFusion’s more than 40% annual revenue growth. Dr. Masood, President and Chief Executive Officer of KabaFusion, was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Greater Los Angeles Award winner.
Creating what’s next: an enlivened Internet of Things
In 2000, Chris Diorio dreamed of delivering positive change by connecting and giving life to digital items in the everyday world — a movement that’s only recently become known as the Internet of Things. His vision was born during his tenure as a professor at the University of Washington, where his research led to the development of a self-adaptive silicon chip that could change and react to its environment, digitally delivering real-time information about physical objects.
Diorio recognized the chip’s commercial potential and was confident that his idea could completely transform traditional business operations. He pitched his idea to investors, who immediately saw the implications, and Impinj was born. Today, the company tracks billions of items using RAIN radio frequency identification (RFID) and gives each a unique digital identity, allowing them to be tracked in real-time. For example, almost every item you purchase at any major retailer is equipped with an RFID tag. When that tag is taken out of the store, Impinj can tell the manufacturer — completely revolutionizing the way companies manage their supply chains. Hospitals benefit by tracking medication dispensing, airlines can track checked baggage, and grocery stores can plan for restocking more efficiently than ever before.
With 236 patents, Impinj currently holds the No. 1 position in RFID market share. The company has outpaced the projected growth of the industry, selling 17 billion RAIN RFID solutions — half in the past two years alone. With an estimated trillion items that can be connected, the future for Impinj is limitless. Diorio, CEO and co-founder of Impinj, was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Pacific Northwest Award winner.
Creating what’s next: refining automotive manufacturing
Inteva CEO Lon Offenbacher aims to become the leading global supply partner for innovative, value-based, environmentally friendly automotive products that enhance quality and performance. He approaches every day with imagination and strives to foster a culture of creativity, all in an effort to make that mission a reality. Steered by Offenbacher’s leadership, Inteva is setting the pace for the future of auto design, manufacturing and engineering.
Since 2008, Inteva employees have developed new approaches to glass encapsulation and sunroof integration, as well as better-engineered door latches for improved performance and safety, increasing market share, expanding business with existing customers, entering new markets, and initiating strategic partnerships and acquisitions. And in just eight years, Inteva has achieved nearly 300% growth in customers, global footprint and revenue — despite a recession. Today, the company employs nearly 15,000 and operates 50 sites around the world. Despite Inteva’s growing global size and breadth, Offenbacher continues to maintain an organizational structure based on empowerment while streamlining communications and accelerating decision-making.
Offenbacher remains hyper-focused on what’s next for the industry, teaming with innovative market entrants focused on self-driving electric cars, penetrating adjacent commercial vehicle markets and developing products for complementary markets. Offenbacher was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Michigan and Northwest Ohio Award winner.
Head office EY Belgium
De Kleetlaan 2
1831 Diegem (Brussels)
Free parking | Breakfast will be served before the session | The conference language will be English
21 June - Prof dr. Alexander Mattelaer, The Institute for European Studies
10 October - Dominique Leroy, CEO Proximus
19 December - Chris Burggraeve, Founder of Vicomte LLC (U.S.) - NYC Based Marking Capability and Strategy Consultancy
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.