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Features Entrepreneurs

How a Girl Suffering From Eczema Became a Skincare Industry Pioneer

If you’ve seen Kate Somerville Cosmetics ads or have seen Kate in magazines or on TV, you would think that she’s always been beautiful and that her life is perfect and always has been. Kate says, “People usually expect me to be ‘silver spoon stuck up.’” But that is the furthest thing from the truth.

Kate grew up on a farm in Fresno, California, with a dad who was a high school football coach who wasn’t in touch with his emotions and a mother who suffered from mental illness and addiction. Actually, it was probably Kate who suffered most.

Kate’s dad was known to all as a great guy. He was beloved by the boys at the mostly black high school where he coached. He mentored those boys and helped them see that there was a good future for their lives. The single moms of the boys he coached were grateful because he helped them keep their sons in line. But at home, he was full of rage, so much so that Kate remembers that no doors were left standing in their house. Her dad was completely unable to cope with his wife’s erratic behaviors or to be there for her.

Kate describes her mother as an “eccentric hippy.” She would go out drinking and partying and then fall into deep depression. When Kate was 9 years old, her mother left her with her dad. But occasionally her mother would call to tell Kate that she was going to commit suicide. It was an emotional roller coaster. For the next year, it was just Kate and her dad living in the barn on their land. She describes it as, “incredibly eclectic and artistic with a beautiful garden, a trailer for a kitchen and an outhouse for a bathroom. I was the only person I knew who lived this way and I’m convinced it was the source of my creativity.”

Kate’s dad moved on, remarried, and started a new family, a family where Kate didn’t fit in. She loved her dad and knew he was a good guy (because everyone said he was), but she felt completely abandoned.

She spent her high school years “couch surfing” with friends and living with a relative, and then in her senior year of high school, she moved in with her boyfriend. All throughout her high school years, her mother would come in and out of her life, and every time she showed up, she brought chaos and pain with her. Fortunately for Kate, her boyfriend’s mother became a strong mentor in her life, providing a sense of stability.

Another important person in Kate’s life was her high school counselor, Mr. Talley. He knew that things were rough for her. He saw her struggling and not fitting in at school. He knew when Kate’s mother was in her life because Kate would get hives and have a painful flare-up of eczema from head to toes, complete with dried, cracked, and oozing skin. Mr. Talley knew that Kate was working, trying to deal with her mother, and suffering through the humiliation of the skin problems she experienced, so she wasn’t able to have a normal senior year. She couldn’t go to the prom or to games or do any of the other things that other kids seemed to be enjoying.

Mr. Talley, with whom she is still in touch today, made a deal with Kate—he would let her leave high school early (she had enough credits to graduate) if she would go to city college, which she did. Kate worked three jobs to support herself while attending college. Her mentor, Barbara Wells, her boyfriend’s mother, taught her the value of unconditional support and believing in yourself. Because she had grown up with horrible eczema, she knew what it felt like to be uncomfortable in her own skin. She had always looked for different remedies to solve her own skin issues, which sparked her passion for helping others do the same. So when a friend who was a dermatologist suggested she get a degree in esthetics, she enrolled in esthetician school and focused all her attention on helping others who suffered with skin problems.

Comfortable in Your Skin

As a result of the suffering Kate experienced with her own skin condition, she wanted desperately to learn what she could do for herself and others who suffered with skin problems. Kate knew intimately the impact of an ugly skin condition on one’s self esteem and confidence level. She had experienced the helpless feeling of her body’s obvious public outcry of eczema. Kate knew better than most that the trauma we experience in our lives takes a toll on our body, mind, and spirit.

While in school, Kate had an idea to work side by side with doctors to complement their services. This was unusual at the time, as most estheticians worked in spas giving facials. Kate created and presented a business plan to a cosmetic surgeon, and shortly after graduation, she opened her first clinic inside one of the country’s top cosmetic surgery offices. Celebrity clients quickly fell in love with Kate’s post-procedure care and began booking esthetics appointments with her.

In 2004, Kate opened her first Skin Health Experts Clinic in the heart of Hollywood. She built a team to help create custom skin care protocols for people of every age, ethnicity, and skin type. They found solutions for those who couldn’t find solutions anywhere else. Word quickly spread through the entertainment industry. Soon, the world’s most famous and photographed faces were coming to Kate for her expertise.

In that first year, one of Kate’s celebrity clients asked her to bottle her clinic super facial so she could take it on location while filming under harsh lights. Kate’s signature product, ExfoliKate Intensive, was born. This was huge because at the time, the skin care industry was dominated with products that were developed by physicians who were predominantly male.

Kate has seen over and over again the true personality of a person emerge as a result of her healing products, like in the case of a young, black teen who came into her clinic one day and couldn’t make eye contact. He had a ball cap pulled way down low over his face, and he kept his face down as he told the receptionist that he was hoping to see if Kate would help him. Kate took one look at him and knew that this was the worst case of acne she had ever seen. The kid told her that he had no money to pay her, but her tenacity kicked in, and Kate was on a mission to heal this young man.

Kate took that teenager into a room and began a healing process that involved him returning twice a week until he was totally transformed. He became part of the family. Everyone in the clinic cheered him on as they watched this young man transform from the kid who couldn’t lift his head to make eye contact into a handsome model and an R&B singer!

(Courtesy of Kate Somerville)

Kate Arrives

As Kate’s business grew, her national reputation as an esthetician and healer grew with it. At just 23 years old, Kate was featured in the front window of Henry Bendel’s on Fifth Avenue in New York. She said, “It was this insane window that said ‘Kate Somerville has landed.’ They had beautiful mannequins who looked like flight attendants.” She arrived in New York late on the day of the launch, and as this farm girl from Fresno pulled up in the taxi and saw the huge display that was her name and her products, she thought she would feel excited. Instead, she felt a huge pressure. She had arrived, but now she had to live up to the hype and maintain this national status.

“My team and I had created this hype before we were actually a big business. I was treating a lot of famous people. I had a vision of the brand early on when I was 20 or 21. So here I am, a young girl with big aspirations, never been to business school. I was an esthetician and a healer. I felt like I was on Mount Everest with fake nails and flip flops,” she said.

At the same time that Kate’s business was starting to take off, her mother was declining. She was living on the streets, was sick, and had lost all her teeth as a consequence of drug use. Kate remembers vividly the night that her products were going to be in the swag bags for attendees at the Oscars. This was huge for her! She was on top of the world. Her products were finally being recognized. But at the same time, she was processing the wild emotions of her mother being in her last days. While preparing to attend the Oscars, she went to a hospice to say goodbye to her mother. By that time, Kate had heard from some of her mother’s friends from high school about what her mother had gone through as a young girl at the hands of her step-father. Kate finally understood that her mother’s addictions were her attempt to medicate her pain in the only way she knew how. Her mother died on Valentine’s Day. Kate was able to forgive her mother and make peace with her before she passed.

By this time, Kate was married and had a son. And although she had a great life, Kate still harbored a lot of anger toward her dad. She would write letters to him and then burn them in order to get the anger up out of her. It was Kate’s marriage to her wonderful husband and their raising a son that led to Kate letting go of the anger toward her father before he passed away. She realized that her mother and father probably did the best they could with what they had.

Kate says that in hindsight, three good things came out of her childhood. First, Kate was exposed to diversity from her earliest memories. Her mother brought home friends who were gay and bi-racial, and her dad often invited the black football players he coached over to the house, so she has always been totally comfortable with people who are different from her. Second, she learned to work hard. She knew that if she was going to be successful, it would be because she worked hard and earned it. She never expected success to fall into her lap.

When asked how she healed from the chaos and loss of her childhood, Kate said, “Emotionally I’ve worked really hard, going to Al-Anon, reading self-help books, and seeing a counselor on my journey to be better and trusting.” Third, Kate has a fierce tenacity. She doesn’t give up. That tenacity served her well when she began her mission of trying to find the right combination of ingredients that would help her, and thousands of others, heal from serious skin conditions. Kate has been on a mission to do that ever since. And heal she has! Her skin is beautiful and radiant, and she has surpassed her goal of helping thousands of others. In fact, she has helped tens of thousands of other people to look and feel like the beautiful people they are.

Kate has continued to grow her business through helping and healing one person at a time. Her products are in all the high-end retailers and are available all over the world. She still maintains her clinic in Los Angeles. She wrote a book called “Complexion Perfection,” and she’s working now on curricula for training and certification for paramedical estheticians who will practice alongside dermatologists.

Kate says that a very small percentage of women get funded for business at this level. She’s grateful for the success she has achieved, and for the people who have helped her get there, but her greatest reward is the people who come up to her crying and saying, “You changed my life when you transformed my skin.”

Q&A

What advice do you give to others about their appearance?

Enjoy youthfulness because no one can have it forever. Your looks right now in your youth, enjoy it. It’s a commodity. It will be gone. Right now you can walk in a room and turn heads. At my age, you don’t turn heads as much anymore. And you know what? If you’re okay inside, it doesn’t matter. What matters most in life is doing whatever makes you feel fulfilled and doing it as much as possible.

What do you think is the most significant way someone can help a young person?

Mentorship is everything—especially for women! The greatest mentor in my life was a woman named Barbara Wells. She was my boyfriend’s mother, and she took me in young. She had unconditional love, but tough love. When I was 20, Barbara told me, “You have a choice of what you want your life to be. You can either dwell on your childhood and the past, or you can make your life what you want it to be.

Having grown up in a chaotic environment as a kid, I didn’t know what choices were available to me. Life felt out of control. Barbara let me know I had a choice and changed my life personally and professionally from that moment on.

What would you say to a young person starting out in business?

People told me my dreams were impossible. I didn’t take it personally. I found a way to defy impossible. Find a way to defy what seems impossible for you.

From a business perspective, it’s not to lose sight of what you’re trying to do. A business will take you over—the sales, the cash flow, etc. If you lose sight of why you’re doing it, it’s not fun anymore. For me, it’s important to connect with clients and stay close to what motivated me to start this—to heal people. Keeping your focus on the mission of what you’re doing!

Also, no matter what industry you’re interested in, have the courage to take the path. When there is a “no” or a slammed door, go the other way, don’t give up. Keep going. There are so many incredibly successful people who failed before they made it.

What would you say to women in business?

Delegation is key! Know what your strengths and weaknesses are and hire the people you need to. I am an esthetician first and business woman second, so it’s important to have the right team in place.

Also, take time for yourself! I love being a wife and a mother and a business woman, but with so much going on it’s important to take time for yourself in order to be able to be your best. Small luxuries like relaxing in a beautiful bath with candles lit allows me to recharge so I can continue to give to my family and my business.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

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Entrepreneurs

Consuelo Lippi: A Woman in a Man’s Hatter World

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Consuelo Lippi would stand at the counter of her hat store in St. Augustine, Florida and tell the suited-up salesmen of the hat trade that she was indeed the owner of the Panama Hat Company.

They would look her up and down and declare, “No, no, no. You are the missis. I need to talk to the owner. I need to talk to your husband. You are the missis.”

She would respond and say, “Yeah, I’m the missis, and I’m going to pay you for your merchandise.”

She said it took a number of years to establish her credibility because, at that time, the hat trade was dominated by men.

“I had to fight really, really hard with businessmen, but I did eventually gain their respect. Later on, they would come and be more open with me because they knew I understood what they were talking about.”

(Courtesy of Panama Hat Company)

Lippi understood because she had thoroughly researched the process of making Panama hats in her native Ecuador. And yes, Panama hats are not from Panama—they only bear that name because they were sold in vast quantities through the country of Panama to the world. In Ecuador, they’re more correctly known as sombreros de paja. They’re woven from the leaves of the Carludovica palmata plant, known in Ecuador as the toquilla palm.

The plants are evergreen shrubs that grow to around 12 feet tall on the western side of Ecuador. The stems yield a unique fiber that is then woven into varying degrees of coarse or ultra-fine material referred to as the “hat body”—a floppy dome of palm fibers that is then shaped and blocked by experts to produce a finished Panama hat.

The toquilla palm plants are in decline in Ecuador, along with the number of weavers. There are only around a dozen Panama hat artisans left who know how to weave a “super fino” Montecristi Panama hat. Many of the weavers have left Ecuador for higher rates of pay in other countries. Lippi stated that the genuine Panama hat might be extinct by the middle of this century.

As someone who has fallen in love with Panama hats and was tremendously pleased with the quality of the hat that I purchased from Lippi’s son, Tony, I found her prediction dismaying. I sincerely hope that the Ecuadorian people can save the Panama hat.

Although there are many companies selling Panama hats in America, the small shop in St. Augustine stands out, not just because of its location in a historic town founded in 1565, but because of the quality of its merchandise, its extremely loyal customer base, and the unique story of its founding, growth, and results.

In 2016, in the Boathouse in Central Park, New York City, the 112-year-old Annual Headwear Association gave their prestigious Retailer of the Year Award to the Panama Hat Company. The vote by the Board of Trustees was unanimous. One of the criteria for the award was the volume of merchandise sold in relationship to the store’s size. Lippi and her eldest son, Tony, received the award and were joined at the event by Lippi’s husband, Chuck, their younger son, Danny, and their daughters-in-law, Cat and Braiden.

The Lippi family at the 108th Annual Headwear Association Dinner in 2016. From left: Chuck and Consuelo, Danny and Catherine, Braiden and Tony Lippi. (Courtesy of Panama Hat Company)
Consuelo and her son Tony Lippi, a co-owner of the store, at the balcony of the Arrivas House. (Courtesy of Panama Hat Company)

Tony had joined the business in 2003 as a co-owner with his parents and now manages the store for Lippi, who is still going strong in her seventies. Their clientele includes a broad and interracial base of people who love Panama hats and is highlighted by famous names like the trombonist Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg and His Excellency Ramón Gil-Casares, the Spanish Ambassador to the United States who came to St. Augustine in 2015 for the city’s 450th commemoration of its founding.

After 36 years, the Panama Hat Company is a success. It employs between 15 and 20 people and is a fixture in St. Augustine. But, like many family-owned businesses, its birth was unexpected, and its growth was not guaranteed.

Lippi and her husband, Chuck, had arrived in St. Augustine in the 1980s. They met at a Peace Corp conference in Ecuador in 1968 when they were in their 20s. Chuck was a Peace Corps volunteer, and Lippi was a high-school teacher from the town of Ambato in the central province of Tungurahua, hired by the Peace Corp to teach Spanish to the volunteers.

They fell in love, married, and came to America, where Chuck established a career as an arborist, and Lippi expanded her career, teaching Spanish and the theory of teaching languages at Flagler College in St. Augustine. She also taught technical and conversational Spanish at the Mayo Clinic and continued teaching at Flagler for almost 20 years.

Consuelo and her husband Chuck Lippi fell in love and married after meeting in Ecuador in 1968. (Courtesy of Panama Hat Company)

St. Augustine and its rich Spanish history spoke to Lippi, and in 1985 she decided to rent a room in the Arrivas House, a historic landmark dating back to the mid 1600s. She purchased a number of Ecuadorian items, including some Panama hats, and offered them for sale. She was surprised at how quickly they sold and was even more astonished when Robert L. Gold, at that time the executive director of the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board, offered to rent her the entire building, on the condition that she maintain the quality of her merchandise.

It was a significant honor that Lippi deeply appreciated and one that produced a certain amount of panic since she wasn’t quite sure how she would maintain a much larger venture.

Built in the 17th century, the Arrivas House has been home to Panama Hat Company since 1985. (Courtesy of Ldmarion)

The next day she was on a plane to Ecuador to research and procure products in the famous market town of Otavalo. She walked through the market, following American tourists, and watched what they purchased. She then bought similar items to bring back to the Arrivas House, to her new business that would become the Panama Hat Company.

Many research and investigative trips to Ecuador followed over the years, with Chuck and Tony driving on broken, dusty roads deep into the interior of Ecuador to reach the remote villages where the toquilla hats were woven. Lippi and Tony learned from the experts how to block the hat bodies into high-quality Panamas and eventually brokered an arrangement with a hat blocking company in America so that they could scale their merchandise for volume.

Consuelo and her eldest son, Tony Lippi, travelled to remote villages to learn the art of blocking Panama hats. (Courtesy of Panama Hat Company)

It’s been a long journey of hard work and commitment for Lippi, a woman who started a business in a world where hatters were mostly men. She has done that work for something much more important than money. She told me:

“I don’t value the dollars as much as I value the praise that we get from my customers when we sell them an item that is genuine and is something that they will remember from my country, Ecuador. I am extremely proud to sell something that I know they are going to enjoy for the rest of their life.

“I have so much respect for the two countries that have been so gracious to me, and so generous—my country Ecuador and the United States. And… we have the best customers and the best employees, ever.”

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Camping Entrepreneurs The Great Outdoors

How to Pack Your Backpack for an Overnight Trip

Backpacking can seem like a daunting undertaking if you’ve never done it before. So, I almost always recommend a short overnight trek or a weekend outing for people wanting to try it out for the first time. That’s just enough time to experience backpacking without the intensity of an extended adventure.

If you’ve never gone backpacking before, then it is likely you also need to get some of the gear. Before you jump to buying everything you might need for an overnight backpacking trip, borrow or rent first. These options are more affordable since they give you the chance to try out the activity without the pressure of financially investing fully. Renting or borrowing gear from a friend also gives you a chance to try out different gear options before investing in your equipment as well.

Eventually, you’re going to want a few of your own things. And a great starting point for beginner backpackers is first to get your backpack.

Choosing a Suitable Pack

While the best option when starting any new activity is to start with what you have, even if you have a backpack for school or commuting on your bike around town, the chances are that it isn’t suitable for a backpacking trip.

Standard backpacks for day-to-day travel can work when you first start day hiking, but as you graduate to backpacking, you need more room and better support. Most backpacks we use for daily activities only have shoulder straps, have limited organization, and have no back support. On the other hand, backpacking packs are designed to help you comfortably carry heavy loads over long distances.

There are three main areas to look at when choosing the right backpack for your trip needs:

  • Size
  • Features
  • Fit

The size of the backpack you need will depend on the length of your trip and what you need to carry. For instance, if you are backpacking in the summer, a smaller pack could work, but in the winter you need to carry more layers, bulkier sleep gear, and maybe more fuel for cooking.

When looking at backpacking packs, the size is labeled in liters. For an overnight or weekend trip, a 30-50L pack should work just fine. For overnights specifically, a pack less than 35L can work. Liters are the standard measurement for backpacks because it discloses the volume of the bag. An easy way to think about the size of a backpack then is to imagine a standard Nalgene water bottle. One water bottle is one liter. So, a 35L backpack hypothetically should be able to hold 35 Nalgene’s worth of water. I don’t recommend pouring water into your pack though, that’s for visualization purposes only.

The features of your pack will vary depending on the style of the bag and the intended use. That’s why backpacking specific bags work best. They’ll have more features like exterior attachment points for gear, a frame to support the weight, various pockets for organization and easy access, a hydration reservoir, padding on the back and straps for comfort, and a hip belt to take most of the weight off of your shoulders. There are other possible features and additional accessories, so when shopping for a bag, look at all options to see what works best for your needs.

Finally, the fit of the bag needs to be specific to your body. They make male and female-specific backpack designs to better fit differing anatomy like broader shoulders or wider hips. There are also unisex options. Going to a gear shop to try on backpacks is recommended, even if you don’t buy them there. Most sales associates in those stores are trained to help customers find and fit backpacks to their body types and size. Although backpacks may be labeled as gender-specific, don’t let that stop you from trying them. For example, I am a female but use either male or unisex backpacking packs because I have broader shoulders, and female-specific bags don’t fit my body as well.

Renting backpacking equipment can also help you find the right bag for you as the outfitters will help find and fit a backpack to your body. Not all outfitters will have the same options, but if there is one with several brands and styles, try on a few and see which ones feel best. That way, you essentially get a test run of a bag before you buy it.

What You Need to Bring

This is an overnight or weekend trip, but the basics of any backpacking trip will require similar gear. How much of each thing and the type of gear will depend on the length of your trip, the climate/weather, and your personal needs. I’m not going to break down each type of gear in detail, but instead, provide a brief list so you have an idea of what you’ll need to fit into your backpack while you’re packing.

Items to include on a backpacking checklist:

  • Hiking shoes
  • Season-appropriate clothing
  • Tent (or other shelter)
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Stove + Fuel
  • Other camp kitchen supplies
  • Enough food for the length of trip
  • Water bottles + reservoir
  • Water treatment supplies
  • Personal hygiene products
  • First-aid and emergency kit
  • Repair kit
  • Headlamp

Other items can be included or even necessary to bring pending the type of terrain you encounter, the time of year you’re hiking, and to fulfill other personal needs.

How to Pack Your Backpack

Even though the list above isn’t exhaustive, it can still seem like a lot to fit into a 35L backpack! You’ll be surprised how much you can carry comfortably as you start to pack and hit the trail.

When packing your backpack for any trip, the first thing to do is gather all of your supplies and lay them out on the floor. This gives you a great visual to ensure you have everything you need. You can go down your checklist and double-check that it is all there. Then, you can begin packing your bag.

The Zones

Bottom zone: usually a sleeping bag compartment, this zone is designed to fit bulkier gear items that you won’t need until you get to camp.
Core zone: this is the middle of your pack, above the bottom compartment. Pack heavier items here like your food, bear canister, and camp kitchen.
Top zone: near the top of your pack is where you can store items that may be somewhat bulky, but may still need while hiking. These items include extra layers, a water filter, a toilet bag, and your first aid kit.

There are other usable areas on the backpack, like the accessory pocks and any exterior attachment points. Some packs have straps designed to attach a foam sleeping pad to the base of your pack, and others will have a brain with pockets that sit on the top of the pack.

These accessory pockets and lash-on points are ideal for items you need often or in an emergancy. They could be front pockets, hip belt pockets, water bottle holders, side pockets, or brain pockets. Each backpack will have varying designs. Examples of things often kept in accessory pockets include a map, snacks, pack rain cover, compass, headlamp, or your ID.

Don’t be afraid to pack, unpack, and repack your bag multiple times or change things around when you are on the trail. You want the pack to feel comfortable and be easy to carry.

The last thing to do before you put the pack on after it’s packed is to compress things as much as possible. Most backpacks will have compression straps to help press things together and make the bag more compact and easier to carry.

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Features Entrepreneurs

It’s a Bivalve World

On a warm yet cloudy day in late May 2021, Mike Arguelles and his helper, Tim Brown, were on their typical voyage of four-and-half miles by boat from Biloxi, Mississippi to Arguelles’s oyster farm off of Deer Island. On that particular day, they harvested 900 oysters for nine local restaurants. After lifting the cages from the water and spraying them off, muck flying across the boat, the oysters were spread out and counted by hand to fill each bag. Each oyster was inspected and dead oysters, which had opened, were tossed. What started out as a hobby has become a thriving business, the French Hermit Oyster Co., providing boutique oysters to distributors, restaurants, and shuckers.

It started with the introduction of a training program to teach off-bottom oyster farming—the practice of cultivating oysters via mesh containers that are held above the seafloor. With harvestable reefs depleted due to natural occurrences such as hurricanes, the need to educate oyster farmers on off-bottom oyster farming became critical to ensure the viability of oyster aquaculture.

A Local Business

Mike Arguelles on a trip to his oyster farm. (Jill Dutton)

Mike Arguelles always has a good story. He’s enthusiastic about harvesting oysters and is quick with a hearty full-belly laugh and a sparkle in his eye that reveals his playful personality. Arguelles said he was “Biloxi born and raised,” but spent about 10 years in Memphis where he met his wife, Anita. In 1999, the couple moved to Biloxi. Arguelles wasn’t working at the time, so he put his skills to work building the couple’s home on the river. This led to a marine contracting business called Arguelles Marine Contracting, Inc., building piers, bulkheads, and boathouses, which is still in business. Anita works as a marketing and communications specialist at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Marine Education Center. Even though they both were employed at this point, Arguelles said, “When we had the chance to take the oyster aquaculture class put on by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources in 2018, we were among the first to sign up to learn about off-bottom oyster farming at the Deer Island Commercial Aquaculture Park.”

After completing the class, they were given 12,000 seeds (tiny oysters) to fill their cages and wait for them to mature. These seed oysters are different from wild oysters, as they are hatchery-reared. The education and the chance to lease water from the state created a rewarding opportunity for the Arguelles. “It’s very rewarding when you can go and feel like you really accomplished something. I get excited every time we harvest because once they’re bagged and tagged, I know we’ll be feeding the best boutique oysters to diners.”

Mississippi’s Oyster Industry

Mike shucks an oyster from his off-bottom farm. (Jill Dutton)

Utilizing some federal funding to launch the boutique oyster industry, the state of Mississippi created programs to educate potential and current oyster farmers about off-bottom farming. The goal was to give participants the opportunity to operate and maintain these oyster farms which were both economically and environmentally sustainable, increasing Mississippi’s annual oyster harvest.

Although oysters are traditionally grown on reefs, because water quality would drop and reefs would be closed, the industry trend started to shift toward off-bottom oyster farms. To facilitate the introduction of off-bottom oyster farming, an area between two rivers was selected for its better quality of water for growing oysters.

The Arguelles, like other oyster farmers, completed a class through the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources to get a commercial oyster license for off-bottom aquaculture. The couple leased one acre of water from the state of Mississippi. Twenty participants per year take part in the two-phase training program. Phase one consists of both classroom and field education that includes aquaculture, business operations, and other necessary skills for operating the business. The second phase gives participants hands-on training to practice farming methods.

Benefits of Off-Bottom Oyster Farms

Whereas wild oysters on reefs often become prey for mammals, off-bottom oysters grow in meshed cages that keep predators out, while allowing space for the oysters to mature. Growing them off the bottom also keeps the oysters from burying in sediment. It’s a method that allows oysters to grow in waters where they wouldn’t normally survive.

Oysters, like wine, are known for the flavor they derive from their habitat. The bivalves are affected by a variety of factors including “currents and tides and the rainfall, temperatures, and the mineral content of the region,” Anita said. Even the same oyster species, if grown using the same techniques, will have a different flavor dynamic based on where it is grown. The Arguelles believe their delicious boutique oysters are a result of tender care and the salty, nutrient-rich waters of the Mississippi Sound.

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Features Entrepreneurs

Artifact Cider Project: Challenging the Way We Think About Cider

When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 B.C., he found the natives already imbibing a beverage made from tart and inedible crabapples. The Celtic Brits have a long-held tradition of brewing cider.

While cider was, and is, an enduring favorite in Britain and Ireland, colonists brought it to America and people like John Chapman—a man we know as Johnny Appleseed—promoted its popularity here by creating apple nurseries at the edge of the frontier during the early 19th century.

Two Cidermeisters and a Passion Project

Fast forward to 2014. Two true believers in a better way to source, ferment, and create a smashing apple-centric cider put their heads together to form Artifact Cider Project. Jake Mazur and Soham Bhatt founded the Massachusetts-based cider brand on a hard and fast rule: their cider must be of the highest quality, made from only locally-sourced Northeast apples, and use the most advanced fermentation practices. Their cider had to be exceptional as well as reflect, and express, the Northeast. They committed to helping sustain local orchards, especially those in Western Massachusetts. You’ve heard of craft beer; this is craft cider. And Artifact’s goal? They aim to change “cider culture” with novel processes and a new approach to cider-making.

Who Drinks “Wild Thing”?

Artifact Cider drinkers tend to be boundary-pushers, individual and eclectic, and they like their cider the same way. The small, resourceful team responsible for this artful drink are themselves boundary-pushers, bringing new insight to Artifact Cider and their innovative, outsider perspective to the company and industry.

Thanks to the solid partnerships it has built with orchards throughout the Connecticut River Valley, Artifact can source apple varieties that are unexpected and compose cider blends that sing. The portfolio, which can be enjoyed year-round, consists of monikers like Wild Thing, Magic Hour, Slow Down, and Feels Like Home. Seasonal blends include By Any Other Name, Wolf at the Door, and No New Friends. And the can designs are as vibrant as the cider inside.

Great Cider, Great Vibes

Headquartered in Florence, Massachusetts, which is home to its production facility, Artifact Cider invites people into The Cellar, its onsite tasting room. In October 2020, it expanded into the Central Square area of Cambridge, opening a taproom called The Station and hosting food pop-ups with local chefs and culinary personalities.

Artifact Cider’s tasting room in Cambridge, Mass. (Courtesy of Artifact Cider Project)

Those who are obsessed with Artifact Cider’s brews on tap can take it home with them by joining The Regulars, Artifact’s in-person club. Membership gets you early access to new releases, reduced pricing, and a plethora of member goodies. Those who prefer to enjoy ciders at home can join The Good Vibrations Series. Members are shipped three different ciders—some familiar, some new—every quarter.

Artifact Cider is committed to remaining true to its ethos as a regional, sustainable brand. It’s the drink designed for those progressive folks who want their cider to speak to them, as only Artifact Cider can.

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Entrepreneurs Features Generation to Generation

Mentoring Through Golf

When Sean Washington was growing up in Shreveport Louisiana, the only free summer program he had access to was golf.

“I grew up in a single parent household,” Washington said. “My mom raised me and my brother and we lived right up the street from the city golf course. It was a good way for all the kids on the block to go do something constructive.”

Washington was only 9years old but he says he will always remember the caliber of men he met there every summer until he was 15 years old.

“All the African American professionals went to that golf course,” he said. “It was a raggedy golf course but it was their country club, so to speak, and I got to see solid men like doctors and lawyers talk business while they had fun. I was part of a group of 8 boys who got to caddy for them because there were no golf carts at the time.”

Washington, who works as a financial advisor, now lives in Frisco, Texas where he recreated his childhood experience to benefit others with Golf 3:16, which he co-founded with Eric Williams.

“Golf put me in a place of seeing the positiveness of men and being around them and getting that culture and understanding of the ability of what I could do,” Washington said. “With Golf 3:16, we are exposing kids to the possibilities of what they can do versus where they see themselves today but, bigger than that, they are introduced to God.”

(Courtesy of Sean Washington)

Both Williams and Washington, who play golf every weekend, consider themselves to be men of God who serve as mentors in their local church. They envisioned using Golf 3:16 to teach at-risk students life skills like perseverance, leadership and overcoming challenges. That was 11 years ago.

“What’s invaluable for us is the core values that we teach our kids, which include faith, self-discipline, respect, servanthood, accountability, and integrity,” said Williams who works as a pharmaceutical executive. “While the game is played, within the ropes, these core values transcend the game and can help the students be strong citizens in whatever city they end up in by leveraging those core values.”

Since then, 130 children have participated in Golf 3:16. At least one has received a college scholarship for golf, specifically.

(Courtesy of Sean Washington)
(Courtesy of Sean Washington)
(Courtesy of Sean Washington)
(Courtesy of Sean Washington)

“We’ve had kids come through the program and end up excelling in other sports or academically,” Williams added. “We have several students who are now playing in Frisco Independent School District who otherwise would not have been interested in the game.”

Some 6 percent of all National Collegiate Athletic Association (N.C.A.A.) golfers are black, Latino, or Native American, according to media reports, with Asians representing 5.9 percent of all players. But with programs like Golf 3:16, Washington hopes more golfers of color will emerge in the future.

“If there was more exposure to the sport by family members and a commitment from people who are already engaged in golf, I think we would have a bigger number of kids interested in golf,” he said.
Golf 3:16 is an acronym for God Offers Love and Forgiveness from the Bible verse John 3:16.

“We create an environment of learning and we make that experience fun with gift cards and extra snacks if they do something different or putt or share a Bible verse, for example,” Washington said. “That helps break up the monotony of just hitting a golf ball.”

(Courtesy of Sean Washington)
(Courtesy of Sean Washington)

Golf 3:16 was among the 20 nonprofits this year that received a grant from the Village Giving Circle, a philanthropic organization dedicated to funding black nonprofit organizations in North Texas. Golf 3:16 plans to use the $11,000 to invest in their students and provide greater access and opportunity for them to learn.

“We wanted those funds to be able to purchase a vehicle so that we can get kids to our program who don’t have a ride,” Williams said.
The program takes place year-round on Sundays from 2 pm to 5 pm at the Lake Park Golf Course in Lewisville and includes monthly service projects as well as four life skill classes.

“The golf course we went to initially for about the first eight years was in The Colony, Texas and we didn’t have to pay anything because they believed in our vision,” Washington said. “It was a very small course and we were limited in what we could do. That’s why we moved from that course to Lake Park where we do now pay.”

To navigate around the cost of golf, Washington and Williams have turned to grassroot resources.

“We have a few fundraising events,” Washington said. “One is a big golf tournament we have held every year over the last six years, which is probably one of the biggest golf tournaments in North Dallas. It has given us the great opportunity to secure the resources we need from people who connect to our vision of introducing children to God with the game of golf.”

 

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Entrepreneurs Features

From Dog Poop to Electricity

Jendell Duffner is the owner behind central Ohio-based pet waste removal company Green Scoop Pet Waste Management. Founded in 2013, they are the first business in the country to collect pet waste and turn it into energy. According to their website, over 10 million tons of dog waste end up in landfill sites across the country. The company provides residents of central Ohio with a means to lower landfill waste while also supporting alternative sources of energy production. One of Duffner’s greatest achievements is producing many jobs. Since starting the company, she has helped many families earn a living doing a job that they respect. 

Through their Pet Poo Recycling Program, the company provides buckets and supplies to interested pet owners who then fill up their bucket with pet waste and have it collected on a weekly or biweekly basis by Green Scoop Pet employees. The waste is then deposited at a bio facility which collects the methane and converts it into energy in the form of electricity and natural gas. Some of the energy is used to supply power to the processing plant while the rest is fed back to the grid. The solids left behind undergo an extensive cleaning process, removing harmful pathogens and bacteria before being sent to farmers to be used as fertilizer for their fields. 

Duffner also provides an option for cat litter recycling. The company supplies a special cat litter made from locally processed grain in a pellet form that owners can use to compost their cat’s waste and turn it into energy! 

‘I’ve Always Been Passionate About the Environment’

Image courtesy of Duffner.

While in high school, she embarked on an environmental project which led to her convincing the mayor into purchasing a wood chipper for their small town in Bucyrus, Ohio rather than burn piles of branches that fell during the ice storms. 

After college, she continued her environmental studies, receiving training in naturalism and tree identification. With each new experience, Duffer realized she wanted to do more.

She always wished to start her own environmental business but didn’t want to compete with larger franchises. She settled on pet waste recycling but needed to come up with a unique angle—something that was missing from the businesses of the time. Having a background in environmental science was a huge advantage for her as it meant that she had a solid foundation. 

Duffner’s vision was to start up a business that turned pet waste into energy. During her research, she came across two existing companies that composted pet waste and used the output to generate fuel for energy. Inspired, Duffner went about incorporating that into her business model. However, it wasn’t what she had hoped it would be. Profit margins were incredibly low and the energy required to break down the pet waste was exceptionally high, resulting in great financial setbacks for her company. 

Learning From Her Mistakes

“As a business, you need to be able to make a profit to make a difference. And you need to be able to pay people properly,” she said. To offset the high operating cost, one would need a steady stream of customers, which would mean collecting a lot of waste. “It takes a lot of knowledge to use the right ingredients and recipes to make them [pet waste] break down on a timely basis,” said Duffner. “So for it to break down, you have to have a really expensive in-vessel.” The basic equipment itself tends to cost upwards of 200,000 USD, making it not the most cost-effective model for most small businesses. One needs to also ensure that the temperature in the in-vessel is high enough—131° F or greater, to destroy harmful pathogens present in pet waste—a very precise operation that can only be achieved through commercial means and techniques. For Duffner, it meant changing her business model to better suit her requirements. 

Despite the many difficulties and financial losses, Duffner realized that she could still make a difference without having to be directly involved in the composting. “I can do what I can, still make a profit while offering a good service, and still be able to grow my business,” she said. For her, the main focus was always about providing the best possible service to customers to ensure profitability which would, in turn, allow her to provide jobs for her employees. “Make sure you’re offering a service that they value. And then you integrate things from there. That’s how you can continue to make a difference. Not by trying to completely change every aspect of things that currently work,” she said.

‘Producing Jobs Is my Biggest Joy’

Duffner’s biggest source of joy is the ability to provide jobs to people. This effort has now become the main focus of her operation. “I have employees that depend on me for paychecks,” said Duffner. “When you have an employee come up to you and say thank you, because of you, I was able to buy a dependable vehicle. Because of you, I was able to move out of my sister’s house and get my own place. Thank you so much for giving me a job. That’s what really matters.”

She advises that the best way for people to help the environment is through reusing products. If you have a lot of plastic bags or you know someone at work who is getting rid of them, ask them to save them for you. Then, you could use it to pick up dog waste or to hold your produce at the grocery store. This is a more sustainable and environmentally friendly solution to purchasing more bags.

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Entrepreneurs Features

Bulletproof

A few years ago, Bruce and Ben Wolfgram started debating about how to design the ultimate shot glass. Pierced with a bullet, a combination of the father and son’s two favorite things—guns and drinking—the pun-fueled drinking vessel would basically defy gravity and challenge logic with its curved exterior and heat-embedded bits of artillery. Bruce Wolfgram, a retired artist who had years of experience in creative design, was up for the task. After a lot of research, and more than a few piles of shattered glass, BenShot was born.

“This was more or less a project to break my dad out of a retirement funk,” noted Ben Wolfgram, an engineer by trade who was working at a robotics company in Philadelphia when the concept was launched. “He toyed around with it in his garage; torching and molding the glass until he got it just right. He made a bunch and brought them to a local gun show. They immediately sold out.”

News of Wolfgram’s glassware spread rapidly via word of mouth, and Bruce spent much of his time traveling to gun shows throughout the country. As sales increased, the father-son duo decided to create a website and bring their products to a wider audience. Ben quit his job, moved back to his Appleton, Wisconsin, hometown, and, together with his father, opened a glass workshop on the grounds of a repurposed furniture factory formerly owned by Thomas Edison. The vintage workspace and rural Northwoods surroundings provided a unique glass-working environment.

(Courtesy of BenShot)

“It was our goal from the start to make everything here in the United States,” Ben Wolfgram said. “We wanted to create jobs in our hometown and source all of our raw materials from right here in this country. In five years, this business has grown from a one-man operation in a garage to a full-time staff of 40 employees working in a 50,000-square-foot production facility. Nothing is outsourced, and everything we use—even our cardboard packaging—is made right here in the U.S.A.”

Embedded with a real, lead-free, .308-caliber bullet, and handcrafted with glass furnaces and lots of heat, each two-ounce shot glass takes about seven hours to complete. Etched and personalized upon request, some of their best-selling varieties include tumblers emblazoned with the American flag or printed with the Second Amendment. The BenShot inventory also encompasses pints, rocks, and wine glasses, and there are decanters and beer mugs, too. Just this past year, the Wolfgrams extended their offerings, embedding their glasses with miniature fire axes, fishing lures, broadhead arrow tips, golf balls, and hockey pucks. Custom orders have included glass sets embedded with pinballs, guitar picks, and a variety of nuts and bolts.

(Courtesy of BenShot)

“We wanted to make other designs that would represent other people’s passions and professions,” Ben Wolfgram said. “Guys are hard to buy for, so we started brainstorming about different likes and pastimes. Golf was an easy one and made a good corporate gift. We started thinking about our first responders because one of our employees was enrolled in the fire academy.”

Sketching out a small fire ax in-house and modeling it in Computer-Aided Design software, the younger Wolfgram printed it in 3D and then made a mold to cast the ax out of molten pewter. “It’s become one of our bestsellers,” he said. “And the fact that it’s made here from start to finish—like all of our products are—is probably one of its most attractive features.”

BenShot’s sales have since skyrocketed. Their craftsmanship and customer service have propelled the brand into a multi-million-dollar sales range and forced a relocation to a more spacious factory. Still located in Appleton and selling the majority of their products on BenShot.com, the company also markets its wares on Amazon.

“We have a lot of engagement from small communities across the country,” Ben Wolfgram said. “Firefighters, police, and military make up the bulk of our buyers, but all of our customers appreciate the fact that the product is handmade right here in the U.S.”

And the company places great importance on giving back to the community that supports it. “We are honored to team up with like-minded nonprofit organizations,” he added. “To date, BenShot has donated to more than 300 nonprofit organizations throughout the United States. We care deeply about the military, law enforcement officers, first responders, and mental health causes.”

For Wolfgram, it’s an extension of his product’s top-tier standards. “Our success hinges on the quality of our products and whether our customers get everything they were promised,” he concluded. “Our philosophy is to make an innovative product while still keeping jobs here in the U.S. We enjoy what we do, and it’s our goal to share our enthusiasm and excellence with as many people as possible.”

Jessica Jones-Gorman launched her career in journalism at a New York City daily newspaper more than 20 years ago. She has worked a general news beat, covered fashion, and written countless features about people who inspire and lead.

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Entrepreneurs Features

Sugar’s Restaurant in Utah: How a US Marine Fought to Keep His Wife’s Dream Alive

Brandon and Jamie Ashby were married just shy of one year, when the latter decided that it was time to make her dream of opening a restaurant a reality. Jamie said that she’d wanted to open a restaurant since she was 15, when she worked at a small cafe in Nevada. “They did everything wrong,” Jamie said, “and I used to imagine how I’d do it differently.”

But due to her strict Mormon upbringing, she wasn’t encouraged to pursue such dreams. As she was preparing to graduate, she asked her parents if they’d set aside any money to help her pay for college. “My mom said, ‘Why would we do that? You’re just going to get married and have children,'” Jamie said.

So, she spent much of her adult life working for other people. “I felt like I was helping their businesses succeed, through management,” she said, “but not being brave enough to follow my dream.”

But when she met Brandon four years ago, she finally found the courage to pursue her dream. They were living in Boulder City, Nevada. Brandon, a 45-year-old veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a career policeman, agreed to help fund Jamie’s dream.

They opened a bakery in Boulder City in June 2020. Jamie made spudnuts—essentially donuts, but with mashed potatoes folded into the dough—according to her grandmother’s recipe. “She was small-town famous for that recipe,” Jamie said. The bakery was a small family business; Jamie only worked with one other person. Then, when Brandon retired from the Boulder City Police Department later that month, he joined Jamie at the bakery.

Jamie keeps this picture at the restaurant to honor her grandparents, Enid and Dan Stewart. (David Dudley)

“He started by washing dishes,” Jamie said. “Then he began helping me with baking. I thought it might take him a while, because he’d never really done this kind of thing before. But he took to it almost immediately.”

The bakery was becoming self-sufficient, until October rolled around. Due to pandemic-related shutdowns and limited-capacity dining, the bakery quickly went from a successful small business to being on the verge of failure. “We had to change our whole business model,” Jamie said. “When the state dropped dining capacity from 50 to 25 percent, we had to find another way to survive.”

They had to close the bakery’s doors because they weren’t making enough money. Jamie had already begun to accept the looming reality of abandoning her dream, but Brandon had acquired a never-say-die approach to work and life, from his time in the U.S. Marine Corps. “He told me that this was good,” she said. “He said that we’ll come out the other end stronger.”

From the Military Police to Restaurateur

Brandon attended high school in Anchorage, Alaska. He joined the Marines after graduating in 1994, when he was 19. His older brother, who had joined the Army, tried to convince Brandon to join the Air Force. “According to my brother, they had it easier,” Brandon said. “They had the best barracks, the best food, the best training.”

Brandon’s brother thought he wouldn’t make it in the Marines. “So, I enlisted in the Marines,” Brandon said, smiling. Brandon knew he wanted to join the military police, but his recruiter said there were no openings at the time. Brandon accepted that he’d be an infantryman, but then he was assigned to the military police force. “It was the luck of the draw, I guess,” Brandon said.

He was sent to Ft. McClellan, in Anniston, Alabama, for recruit training. He did seven weeks of infantry training, then three more weeks training with weapons and land navigation. “Then, I learned military law, and how to enforce it. The last month was like a police academy.” After completing his training, he was sent to Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in San Diego, California. He was eventually invited to join the Special Reaction Team, the military police equivalent of SWAT.

Brandon, who spent his career as a military and civilian policeman, skillfully cuts spudnuts from a disk of kneaded dough. (David Dudley)

Brandon said he feels lucky to have received the training he did. “It was the perfect path to a career in law enforcement.” He left the Marines after four years, then worked in construction and security. Then, Brandon was invited to join the Hoover Dam Federal Police. “This was just after 9/11,” Brandon said. “Hoover Dam was thought to be a terrorist target.”

After working there for two years, Brandon joined the Boulder City Police Department, where he worked for 12 years before retiring. “Then, I joined Jamie in the bakery. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me then.”

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

After the bakery failed in Nevada, the Ashbys decided to move to St. George, Utah, because Utah took a much more lax approach to COVID restrictions. They packed their belongings into a moving truck, and headed for St. George in November 2020. As they crossed the Nevada-Utah border, Jamie Ashby’s phone buzzed.

“It was an automated message from the governor of Utah,” she said. “He’d passed a mask mandate. I looked at Brandon and said: ‘We almost made it. We almost escaped.’”

Again, Jamie felt her dream slipping through her fingers. Moving to St. George and opening a full-service restaurant was her last shot. The couple had to jump through a series of costly hurdles in order to get their restaurant, Sugar’s, up to code before opening its doors to the public on February 11, 2021. 

A platter of fried chicken tenders, parmesan-dusted French fries, and cheesy mashed potatoes at Sugar’s. (David Dudley)

“When we opened, we were broke,” Jamie said. “We had to borrow money to stay open long enough to start earning money.” After a turbulent period, the Ashbys are finally making a name for themselves, and earning enough to keep their doors open.

“We came to St. George on a wing and a prayer,” Jamie said. “Throughout this emotional rollercoaster ride, Brandon has supported me in every way imaginable.”

“During my time in the Marines,” Brandon said, “I learned that you never give up. You fight until you can’t fight anymore.”

Watching Brandon knead dough, it’s apparent that he puts a great deal of care into what he’s doing. One may also get the sense that, as he and Jamie move through the kitchen, they’re fighting for their livelihood. That fighting spirit is the reason Sugar’s is open for business, and Jamie’s dream—which is a version of the American dream—is still alive.

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Entrepreneurs Features Giving Back Kindness in Action

‘Don’t Forget the Poor’

Children play outside their house in Colonia de Carton in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on July 8, 2021. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Sky Cross is a nonprofit, strictly volunteer-led charity organization that operates along the Texas–Mexico border. Its mission is to provide food, clothing, medicine, and first-aid supplies to impoverished children, families, and orphanages. The organization works closely with missionaries of various denominations who offer education to the poor, primarily in Mexico, in substandard villages called colonias, which lack basic living conditions such as running water, sewers, and electricity.

The organization was founded in 1995 by retired U.S. Air Force Col. Terry Bliquez and his wife, Kathy. David Young serves as the current president, having been a board member and mission pilot since 1998. Before that, Young worked for the Civil Air Patrol (part of the U.S. Air Force), another nonprofit organization, which performs search-and-rescue missions.

When Bliquez first discussed Sky Cross’s mission with Young, it sparked a keen interest. Young would often accompany Bliquez on aid missions to the U.S.–Mexico border to deliver clothing, medicine, and nonperishable food to the needy. Together, they flew multiple times to migrant centers and orphanages, such as those in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, and Matamoros, which is across the river from Brownsville, Texas.

Young said Sky Cross used to dispense secondhand clothing as well, but those deliveries have slowed down exponentially due to the pandemic. The organization has, however, distributed about 15,000 masks and more than 600 gallons of hand sanitizer across the migrant communities it serves.

The Importance of Helping the Needy

David Young, president of Sky Cross, unloads boxes of masks from his aircraft in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 8, 2021. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

“The primary purpose of Sky Cross is to help provide food for the needy people, the poor on the other side of the border—they’re very, very poor. Many of them come up to the border hoping to be able to come across, and they end up being in the colonias on the border, such as the one in Matamoros,” Young said.

Years ago, people in colonias such as Matamoros would dig holes in the ground, scavenge coverings for the holes, and live in the burrows. Young remembers “being over there one time and looking at what they had on a grill that they were cooking outside—it was fish heads that they had scrounged for,” he said. “I was amazed that people could even survive with that type of food.”

Sky Cross delivers nonperishable food in the form of beans, rice, cornflour, noodles, and more. “I feel like God has placed in my heart a love for the poor and for their plight,” Young said, after being asked why the mission at Sky Cross resonated with him so deeply. “It’s such a blessing to me personally to go out and be amongst these people and, with my resources, be able to help them live a better life.”

Young said that when he was growing up, his parents instilled in him a deep desire to dedicate time and effort to helping those in need. “My dad was a homebuilder, and he would donate his time to work around the church. He had me help paint the back end of a church building one time—it demanded stacking scaffolding because it was so tall. He and I donated our time and efforts to that when I was just a 14- or 15-year-old boy. My father enjoyed giving himself to the community, and that carried over to me.”

Making a Difference in the Lives of the Poor

Children play outside their home in Colonia de Carton in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on July 8, 2021. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Through donations, Sky Cross also helped the Matamoros colonia develop to a point when residents could build a school. To support efforts like this, the Mexican government will provide water and electricity once a school is built, in turn helping the colonia become a sustainable community.

Many children in poverty-stricken communities such as Matamoros suffer from malnutrition. According to Young, children’s hair will often show signs of this. “Normally it would be black, but they would have red streaks in their hair, which was showing that they were not getting good nutrition. With time, those red streaks went away,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be able to do that and witness that as time goes on.” For Young, results like these are important, highlighting the difference Sky Cross makes in the lives of needy children.

Young said that his time at the organization is completely voluntary. Nobody who works there is a paid staff member, and 100 percent of the donations go straight to helping the poor. Young’s personal assets, including airplanes, fuel, and other equipment, are also put to charitable use for the organization, transporting volunteers to the border.

Aside from filling his role as president at Sky Cross, Young serves as a board member for a school in northwestern Peru that has 200 students. Together with his wife and family, he also helps more than a dozen children at any given time along the Texas–Mexico border. The Youngs provide money each month to keep those children in school rather than out scavenging the dangerous fields in search of food and money.

“We sent a couple on to the university; one of them became a dentist and came back. They are now practicing within one of the colonias there in Mexico,” Young said.

Sky Cross helps upwards of 30,000 people each year. It has supported six orphanages and helped build clinics in several Mexican colonias along the Texas border, providing quick access to medical care for families in need. “We’ve built a school in Nuevo Progreso where they would train the women to sew and work on computers. We have seen the results of that, to where the people will get out of the cycle of poverty and actually begin to have the skills to go out and earn a living,” Young said.

Physically Poor but Spiritually Rich

Through his time volunteering for Sky Cross, Young has learned many important life lessons—especially about how the needy can find happiness in the midst of their poverty. “The children are especially amazing to me. They can take a simple ball and have fun with that and laugh and enjoy life because they don’t want anything else. And what spoke to me is that some of the things we take for granted in our own society are more precious to them,” Young said.

“What I have learned in doing what I do is that the poor will find joy, and have more faith in their poverty than a lot of people that have all the things they would want in life. We in America need to understand that even the poorest of us are probably richer than 95 percent of the world. We place too much emphasis on the material things in life and not enough on the spiritual.”

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Entrepreneurs Features

Escaping Religious Persecution: A Shoemaker’s Journey to America

Shoemaker Uriel Gurgov immigrated to the United States on Jan. 21, 1993. He was born in 1962 in Bukhara, Uzbekistan—once an ancient trading city situated along the Silk Road in Central Asia. Uriel embarked on a grueling journey out of his hometown in the late 1990s, during the time that former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and emigration among Bukharan Jews was prevalent.

Historically, Jews in Uzbekistan have always been religiously targeted. First, by the Sunni Muslims of the Bukhara Emirate during the late 16th century when they were forbidden from buying horses and forced to wear special clothing to distinguish themselves from Sunni Muslims. The religious persecution continued throughout Russian and Soviet rule. Finally, in the late 1920s, synagogues were permanently shut down and Jews were denied work in their traditional trades. Emigration was thus seen as a last attempt to flee persecution and discrimination in their homeland.

Having no relatives in the United States to support an affidavit application on his behalf, Gurgov was forced to cross over through Moscow. However, his journey was anything but simple and he met with several setbacks. Before his journey even began, he was apprehended in his hometown of Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Gurgov was falsely accused of buying a stolen television.

“I said, first of all, I don’t buy stuff from thieves. Also, from January to March, I was in Israel. How can I buy this?” Gurgov said. The crime allegedly occurred in February, when he was out of the country.

Searching for a Way Out

He was taken to jail and beaten in an attempt to make him confess to the alleged crime. When that proved useless, Gurgov was put on trial in front of one of the biggest judges in Bukhara. He went on to explain in the interview that the country’s government was very corrupt. His only way out of being condemned to a life in jail was to offer monetary payment to the judges and police.

“If you just bribe one, they will tell—so you have to have so much money to give each one now,” Gurgov said.

Many people encouraged him to escape Uzbekistan with his family. The government was well known for using Jews as a scapegoat for other people’s crimes. “Somebody stole this? They put it on you. Somebody hit somebody? They blame you. What kind of life is that?” he said.

This experience drove Gurgov to save money and prepare his family’s paperwork to flee Bukhara together. “But I didn’t tell anybody because everybody, everywhere, you have rats,” Gurgov said.

Before the family departed Bukhara, they paid a short visit to the cemetery to say farewell to their forefathers. Along the way, they paid out a lot of money to border police, guards, and airport security. Eventually, they arrived in Moscow, and from there, they flew to America in search of a new life.

New Shop, New Direction

(Lux Aeterna Photography for American Essence)

For three centuries, highly skilled craftsmen called “ustad” practiced traditional crafts in Central Asia and beyond. Some of this included jewelry-making, armory, carpet weaving, and shoemaking. Bukhara, Uzbekistan, was considered one of the major handicraft centers, often visited by wealthy merchants along the Silk Road. Skilled craftsmen would often take in apprentices who would learn their trade. This is also how Gurgov learned the craft of shoemaking. He explained that his father would often take him to many crafting hubs where he would be taught various skills in exchange for free work. These skills helped Gurgov kickstart his shoemaking business after moving to the United States.

Gurgov purchased his shoe shop in 1994, less than a year after arriving in the United States. With the help of generous friends and a bank loan of $15,000, he started a shoemaking business and has since been working there. His apartment is on the next block. “And what else do you need? I have a family, a wife, children, and grandchildren. I appreciate it, I’m satisfied.”

Shoemaker Gurgov considers shoemaking a real craft, one that requires the craftsman to really know his customer’s problem in order to help them accordingly. He places great importance on wearing the right shoes. “You can have a hundred shoes but none of them feel right. If you wear one shoe and you’re not tired of it, then that’s a good shoe.” He said many people wear the wrong types of shoes. They develop pain and fatigue, leading to serious health problems resulting in thousands of dollars in medical bills. He believes that making even a simple change in your footwear is enough to make a significant difference to your health. For instance, slightly changing the shoe size or purchasing one with good arch support can make a difference.

Today, he crafts sturdy, custom shoes for regular people and celebrities alike. Some of his past customers include Britney Spears and Patrick Dempsey. TV shows such as Boardwalk Empire and Gossip Girl have also commissioned Gurgov to design the cast’s shoes. He also carries out shoe, watch, and jewelry repairs.

Despite encountering many setbacks and enduring much suffering, Gurgov remains grateful and satisfied with life. He believes you can’t always be a winner and that sometimes losing is better as it helps one grow and appreciate things more. As Gurgov would say, “Today you give up, tomorrow you gain.”

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Cast in Stone, That Is, Iron

For a growing number of American households, Teflon-coated pans, copper pots, or anything else for that matter other than a handcrafted cast iron skillet, would be, well, an outcast in the kitchen.

Crazy as it seems, the people who make this heavily weighted and highly popular custom-made cookware are willing to face furnaces burning at 2300 degrees Fahrenheit on a hot summer’s day, inside an old mill building they bought with their life savings, just to put one in your kitchen.

“It can be a little miserable at times,” said Liz Seru, who owns Borough Furnace with her husband, John Truex. About 10 years ago, they converted an old turbine blade factory in Upstate New York into a foundry to pursue their love for cast iron cookware. At the start, Seru, an artist, and Truex, who holds a degree in metal casting, bought vegetable oil off Craigslist to run their blast furnace, before switching to an electric induction oven.

And they’re not alone. Cast iron foundries, once as American as blue jeans and apple pie, have resurfaced all over the United States.

Aficionados say the taste of food cooked on the same cast iron pan gets better with time.

The Cast Iron Collector, a website dedicated to cast-iron-cooking enthusiasts, lists more than 300 cast iron foundries in the country, with a heavy concentration in the Midwest and down south where Lodge, the oldest maker of cast iron cookware in the United States, hosts popular cook-offs and a national cornbread festival in celebration of cast-iron cooking.

What’s driving this trendy revival in cookware all boils down to the simplicities of a highly sought-after taste, unparalleled durability, and old-fashioned made-in-America craftsmanship. Some foodies have quite literally lost their taste for modern lightweight stick-free cookware, which, besides, being short-lived, doesn’t quite offer the same flavorful results of cast iron.

Like a fine wine, the taste of food cooked on the same cast iron pan gets better with time. It’s called seasoning, a somewhat scientific phenomenon that naturally improves the surface of your skillet as you use your skillet more and more.

“Basically, the fat and oils in the food adhere to the pan and polymerize to form a new, smoother cook surface,” Seru said. “It’s better than when it was brand new.”

Forged cast iron cookware is also made out of hot iron poured into a mold and then cooled, meaning it’s all crafted in one piece, with no separate handles or bottoms that may eventually come apart.

Borough Furnace’s cookware is crafted in one piece, with no separate handles or bottoms. (Courtesy of Borough Furnace)

In addition to skillets, cast iron foundries like Golden’s Cast Iron in Columbus, Georgia, have revived an authentic cast iron cauldron-like cooker—yep, the kind that brings to mind a steamy, bubbling witch’s brew.

Cast iron skillets are also popular among campers who want a little more than hot dogs and beans over an open fire. A skillet made by Finex, an Oregon-based foundry that prides itself on being “100 percent American-made,” appears on multiple published lists for must-have camping gear.

“We make our cast iron a little bit thicker than most,” said Michael Griffin, Finex’s brand director. “When you cook over a grill and open fire, you’re going to have hot and cool spots. That thicker cast iron helps even out the cold and hot spots.”

Finex’s other big attraction is its patented stainless steel spiral handles that stay cool longer and cool down faster. Even in the old days, cast iron skillets didn’t have such a feature. Griffin said the company got the idea from old-fashioned wood stoves that had similar handles on their doors.

“We wanted to reinvent the cast iron skillet,” said Griffin. ” It’s a very classic, time-honored American piece of cookware, but it hadn’t changed in design for a couple of hundred years.”

Cast iron cookware is now even topping wedding registries over coffee machines and vacuum cleaners.

(Courtesy of Borough Furnace)

The revival of the beefy, indestructible kitchenware is so trendy that it has inspired blogs with such titles as “Why I’m Replacing My Skillets With Cast Iron” and articles on how to spot an authentic vintage cast iron skillet at a roadside antique shop.

Wagner and Griswold cookware are like the Ming Dynasty vases of antique cast iron skillets. One piece can fetch up to $1,500. An authentic “spider skillet” originally designed by Paul Revere and made up until the 1890s can be worth up to $8,000.

There are, of course, varying tiers of cast iron skillets, depending on the level of hands-on craftsmanship. Borough Furnace is probably one of the most handcrafted foundries in the country: they do only about 15 iron pours per day.

The Finger Lakes-based company is working to catch up on orders for its 10.5-inch frying skillet, which sells for $300. The company also custom-forges porcelain-enameled dutch ovens and something called cazuelas, ramekin-like cookware made out of recycled cast iron—part of Seru and Truex’s ironclad commitment to keeping their foundry as environmentally friendly as possible. They are even voluntarily carbon emissions-certified.

“We do our best to reduce our footprint,” said Seru. “We want to preserve American tradition as much as America itself.”

Alice Giordano is a former news correspondent for The Boston Globe, Associated Press, and New England bureau of The New York Times. Alice loves to cook her vegetarian cuisine on the vintage cast iron skillet she inherited from her mom.