East of Philadelphia, over the Delaware River, lies a hamlet named Mount Holly. This New Jersey town is where Quakers first settled in the late 1600s. At one time, during the Revolutionary War, it became the state capital.
And, in the late 1940s, Earl W. Stafford was born in this same tight-knit community—a community he dubs “one of those George-Washington-slept-here towns.”
Raised in humble circumstances with meager means, Stafford is one of 12 children. He believes his upbringing made him the industrious business leader and philanthropist he is known for being today. He learned the values of charity, ethics, and kindness surrounded by the love of family and neighbors. “We weren’t rich by any stretch. If we wanted money, we shoveled snow, recycled bottles, cut lawns. It stuck with me,” Stafford recalled. He was fortunate, thanks to a neighborly, business-minded woman, Ms. Mason, who taught him the basics of business selling hot dogs and soft drinks around the block. He said that that entrepreneurial spirit still resonates within him today.
A Business Idea
After high school, Stafford went on to honorably serve in the United States Air Force for two decades, specializing in air traffic control. Equipped with leadership skills, along with an undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an MBA from Southern Illinois University, and a graduate certificate from Harvard Business School, Stafford was ready to serve the world.
He had hope for success upon leaving the Air Force. Stafford founded a new aviation-related manufacturing company in Washington, D.C., called Universal Systems & Technology, Inc. (Unitech). He utilized his expertise in air traffic control services to create training programs and simulation technology used by the FAA and the Department of Transportation.
But it was difficult for the first four to five years.
“I wasn’t getting paid, and the lights and phones were sometimes cut off,” he admitted. “We endured; God worked it out for us. I stepped out in faith based on the values I was raised with.”
Stafford’s company eventually rose in revenue to the tune of millions. The success wasn’t lost on him or his faith community.
“One day, my pastor called me. He wanted me to go to Haiti to build a church. I thought of every reason not to go. But I found myself in Port au Prince, a bit disgruntled,” he said. “After a week or so there, getting dirt under my fingernails,” he continued, “I realized that these people were not looking for a handout. They were looking for a helping hand.”
Humbled by the experience, Stafford returned home with a new perspective. His belief in God opened his heart and eyes to recognizing similar circumstances in which people needed help, he said.
The Meaning of Giving
In serving others, Stafford found purpose outside of his career. In 2002, he founded The Stafford Foundation as a faith-based philanthropic endeavor. One of its capstone projects early on was the People’s Inaugural Project, an initiative to bring disadvantaged Americans to experience Washington, D.C., and celebrate the presidential inauguration in 2009. Stafford’s vision brought together several nonprofits that helped to select and welcome some 400 individuals from all walks of life—including wounded veterans and men and women staying in homeless shelters—and from all over the United States. It was a grand event.
With first-class accommodations and dressed in tuxedos and fine gowns, the charity recipients mingled with multi-millionaires. “You couldn’t tell the haves from the have-nots! They intermingled and integrated into the ball filled with over several thousand people.” Stafford continued for the next five years working side by side with those organizations to support the recipients through job training programs and scholarships. The foundation also ran a “Give Before You Get” program: giving homeless or at-risk populations an opportunity to lend a helping hand by building homes and volunteering at hospitals and assisted living centers.
These projects allowed Stafford the opportunity to explore exactly how to serve others—to do good in the world. “One of the things the Foundation realized,” said Stafford, “is that we live with our hearts instead of our heads. We want to help everyone.” He believes that the Lord has helped him find the missions that need the money most.
The work Stafford feels is most pressing today is for the foundation to provide assistance in Africa. Across more than 25 countries, the foundation has helped to build over 20 churches along with orphanages, training centers to teach women to read and write, and a business center to help small businesses grow. “We want to help people to help themselves. In fact, there are more ways to be helpful than writing a check. Helping others doesn’t have to be on a grand scale or on the front page of the news to impact people. We are judged not by what we give but how we give,” he said.
With grandfatherly wisdom, he believes it is important to listen to God. “When God uses you, it doesn’t mean you are the total solution. It means that sometimes you are part of a solution. When I reach the usefulness needed, God allows others to step in and help further.” He believes wholeheartedly that one can impact others in immeasurable ways. In the community where he grew up, if someone was in need, others gathered and tried to help, even if they didn’t have much themselves. “I knew my mother more than once sent a pot of something to a family who needed it more than we did.”
These kinds of values Stafford understood as an obligation to be “your brother’s keeper”—and he says we still have that obligation to each other today. “It’s not about ego. And it’s not about evaluating impact,” he stated. “We must continue to serve and plant the seed, and one day we will see what grew. We can’t be so satisfied with ourselves when we don’t know the impact we have had,” he said.
What do an at-home water testing kit company, a luxury watchmaker, and an online farmland real estate investment platform have in common?
First, they were started in America’s heartland—Zionsville, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; and Fayetteville, Arkansas, respectively—far from the usual, bicoastal venture capital hubs. Second, their initial potential was spotted and funded by AOL co-founder Steve Case and his team of investors, as part of his Rise of the Rest Seed Fund’s efforts to find and invest in the most innovative startups outside of Silicon Valley. The watchmaker, Shinola, is one of the more familiar names, but hundreds of start-ups have flourished so far under Case’s initiative.
The premise behind his idea is simple: Local entrepreneurs know the problems that face their communities, and they know the solutions. What they need is funding.
For example, in 2016, the founder of the at-home water testing kit company, Megan Glover, simply wanted to find out if her local water was safe for her children to drink. When her local utility company proved unhelpful, and a local water testing company quoted a whopping sum of $3,000 for a test, she took matters into her own hands. Today, her company, 120Water, fills about 100,000 kits a year, each sold for $50 to $80, in use across 180,000 locations in the country. Government agencies, schools, and local water systems across more than 19 states use its products.
When Case held a pitch competition in Indianapolis in 2017, a stop on one of his cross-country Rise of the Rest bus tours, Glover had taken the chance to present her pitch. Case was immediately intrigued. “The idea was simple to grasp, completely original, and it addressed a true need in the community,” he wrote in his new book, “The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream,” which documents his findings after his tours. Glover was chosen to win $100,000 to start her company.
After leaving AOL in 2005, Case launched Revolution to back entrepreneurs with growth, venture, and seed funds. Since 2014, Case and Revolution have traveled the country by bus, holding a pitch competition and awarding $100,000 to a winning company at every stop. In 2017, Revolution launched the first $150 million Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, backed by well-known entrepreneurs like Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, Tory Burch, and the Walton family (Walmart); a second $150 million seed fund was announced in 2019. Today, the bus tours continue, but the majority of the Fund’s investments are made outside the pitch competition. The Fund has since backed more than 200 companies across 100 cities.
Through his tours, Case has witnessed how industries are being transformed and people’s lives made easier through inventive ideas—thanks to people like Glover who have the pulse on what’s going on in their communities and want to see them thrive. Tech hubs are emerging everywhere, spurring innovation in heartland cities and small towns that were once neglected following America’s manufacturing decline.
“A lot of places are struggling and feeling left out and left behind. If we can back new companies that can create new kinds of jobs and create more hope and opportunity in those communities, and do that in enough places, it also has the potential to help lift up, and maybe even in a small way, unite a very divided country,” Case said in an interview.
Over the past decade, 75 percent of venture capital has gone to New York, Massachusetts, and California. But that is steadily changing. In 2021, VC fundraising outside New York, the Bay Area, and Boston totaled $21.4 billion, compared to just $3 billion a decade ago, according to a joint study conducted by Case’s investment firm Revolution and the market research firm PitchBook.
Case hopes his Rise of the Rest Seed Fund will help further bridge that gap.
Believing in Entrepreneurs
Born in Hawaii—where TV show episodes could arrive a week later than on the mainland—Case knew the feeling of being left out. “That might have helped to inform some of my thinking and passion around Rise of the Rest … to create a more inclusive economy so that people don’t feel left out,” Case said. His upbringing gave him “more empathy for the communities around the country that, in this innovation world, feel like all the action is somewhere else and not in their own backyard.”
He soon discovered that there were plenty of entrepreneurs in America’s heartland, away from the spotlight in major cities. They tend to be more impassioned than the Big Tech workers in Silicon Valley, Case said, because they feel deeply connected to their cause. Craig Fuller, for example, came from a family in the trucking business in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a hub for long-haul trucking. “My grandfather was a patriarch of long-haul trucking,” Fuller told Case in the book. “He was one of the first to put two people into a truck and drive across the country when the interstates were popping up.”
Fuller worked with his father on the family company, but after college, he became interested in starting his own business. He noticed that the trucking market was highly fragmented and lacked transparent information. That inspired him to start FreightWaves, a logistics data company, in 2016. Fuller mobilized the freight industry to come together—convincing local mayors and chambers of commerce to organize a first-ever industry-wide meeting in 2017 with 70 Tennessee companies. Five years later, in 2021, the company earned $32 million in revenue. In the last quarter of 2021, its revenue was a 103 percent increase year-on-year.
Carter Malloy, meanwhile, grew up on his family farm in the Grand Prairie region of Arkansas, a place he called “a big, flat, beautiful part of the world,” and knew he wanted to contribute to the farming community. After college, he went to work for a hedge fund in San Francisco and made buying and selling farmland a focus of his work. He had financial success, but he noticed that the transaction experience was always very difficult. He launched AcreTrader with the hopes of making farmland investment accessible to all. He had to build trust with farmers on the ground, and his upbringing, coupled with his company’s headquarters in Fayetteville, helped convince them that he wanted to help them prosper.
Leaving a successful career in San Francisco to start up in Fayetteville was a real risk, but Malloy told Case in the book, “I felt that it was really important we be close to the farmland in the middle of the country.” AcreTrader proved that with risks also came promise. This year, the company grew to 70 employees—with staff relocating to Fayetteville from all parts of the country—and received over $60 million in Series B funding, including $20 million from an Ohio-based venture capital firm.
Helping start-ups navigate risk and reap the rewards is central to Rise of the Rest Seed Fund’s mission. Case recognizes that the entrepreneurial journey can be filled with uncertainty, but “you need to believe in yourself. You need to believe in your idea and you need to believe in your team. … Sometimes success comes from not just you, but somebody else that helps you, or being in the right place at the right time.”
In his book, Case tells the story of how he and his team saw the potential in Shinola, the Detroit-based watchmaker, during their first tour in 2014. His investor partner and Revolution co-founder Ted Leonsis had just bought a Shinola watch. While there, a salesperson spoke passionately about the company’s mission to create good-paying jobs for Detroit workers. The company understood that millennials who care about a connection to what they wear would want to support a brand championing American manufacturing. “Wearing the watch would be a patriotic gesture, symbolizing the revival of the nation’s heartland and its beloved city of Detroit,” Case wrote. The city in turn “had a chance to symbolize a particular American resolve to do something, not because it’s easy but because it’s hard,” he added. Today, the company has 450 employees, with over $100 million in revenue annually, and has evolved into a luxury lifestyle brand demonstrating the quality of American manufacturing.
Sean Henry of Stord, a supply chain software company, expressed a similar sentiment about the workforce in Atlanta. He said in the book that, compared to people in Silicon Valley who constantly want to leap over to the next big thing, “the talent here is very mission driven. They want to be at companies for a long time and build them into something very successful.”
There’s also a growing trend of people who left their hometowns in search of tech jobs in major cities, only to come back home because of the affordability, burgeoning opportunities, and proximity to family. Case observed that the trend has accelerated since the pandemic. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a building in the Innovation District (a tech hub established in 2014) includes fully-furnished units, communal kitchens, and organized activities—ideal for both returnees coming home and new hires wishing to be connected to the local community.
Case’s investment work is inspired by case studies all across America, especially where heartland cities and small towns have used technology to grow their local economies. He has observed that entrepreneurs thrive in places where there is a “tech ecosystem”—a network that can help bring their ideas to fruition. He compares it to a wheel with seven spokes: startups, investors, universities, government, corporations, startup support organizations, and local media all synergize to create an environment that nurtures innovation and entrepreneurship. In cities with strong research universities, such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, tech innovations have revived the local economy. Long known as being part of the rust belt, a place that has already seen the end of its glory days of manufacturing most of the world’s steel, Pittsburgh has become a center for robotics and AI development thanks to strong research programs at Carnegie Mellon. The university is one of the top five in the country attracting venture capital in companies started by its graduates.
In Phoenix, Arizona, then-mayor Greg Stanton spearheaded an effort to transform the deserted Warehouse District—a shipping and production hub during the late 1800s and early 1900s—into a tech center. Funding and support came from Arizona State University, the city government, the Marriott hotel chain, and local sports teams. Columbus, Ohio, is also enjoying startup success due to public and private sector investment, as companies realize the city’s low cost of living and local talent pool make it an attractive choice for setting up headquarters. Intel announced this year that it would build two semiconductor plants near the city, bringing thousands of jobs and making it the largest semiconductor manufacturing center in the world.
Startup job creation has allowed local economies to prosper. A study by the Progressive Policy Institute found that the country’s top 25 metro areas averaged 11.9 percent private sector job growth over the period from 2007 to 2016, compared to rates less than half of that in areas with lower levels of startup activity. The symbiotic relationship between startups and the communities that support them illustrates the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. Case cites an African proverb in the book: “If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you must go together.”
Believing in America
Ultimately, Case believes that anyone who has an idea for a new business should be able to pursue it, regardless of his or her background or social network. “That’s what will ensure America remains the pioneering country that got us here, and preserve our lead as the most entrepreneurial nation on Earth,” he wrote in his book.
Case said our country itself is similar to a startup. “It was just an idea of a new nation, with a different approach to democracy, and it led to people choosing to be part of America and coming over from various countries to be part of building what we now think of as the American dream,” he said. Although there were times when it seemed the experiment would fail, “people stuck with it. Eventually, the republic survived and then thrived, and we led the way as a nation in the agricultural revolution 200 years ago, led the way in the industrial revolution 100 years ago, and have led the way more recently with the technology revolution, the digital revolution. And that’s why we’ve gone from this kind of fledgling startup nation to being a leading economy and the leader of the free world,” he said. To ensure we maintain the country’s edge, he believes we must continue to back entrepreneurs everywhere.
He thinks back to his time at AOL, when he was trying to provide internet access to every American. With Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, he has a similar goal of “leveling the playing field. But the difference is, now we’re trying to level the playing field in terms of opportunities, so anybody with an idea can create a company, and every community can have a potential to rise up and be a more vibrant community that’s growing and creating jobs.”
It has been said that the world always looks brighter from behind a smile.
And that adage has been shaping Alina Morse’s thriving business decisions since she invented Zolli Candy at the age of 9 years old. Now, at 17, Morse not only creates new products for her extensive line of alternative candies, available through various retailers throughout the country, but gives back through the Million Smiles Initiative, the nonprofit arm of Morse’s candy empire.
“From the start, it was important to find a cause,” said Morse. “In running a business, there are rough days, so finding that aspect that drives you and makes you feel good about why you put in all the hours for the business is important.”
Tooth decay is the biggest epidemic facing kids in America, according to the United States Surgeon General. This gave Morse a shock. “It is a preventable disease. … Why wouldn’t there be other initiatives to combat this problem?” she said. “This fact drove me to create not only a delicious healthy candy alternative, but to find a way to give back and educate people.” What makes Zolli Candy a healthy alternative? According to the company website, a proprietary blend of naturally-sourced sugar replacements—such as isomalt, which is derived from sugar beets—makes it 100 percent sugar-free. The company’s non-GMO blend is not only tooth-friendly but also food-allergy-friendly and vegan.
Morse spent hours upon hours working through sugar-free recipes to come up with just the right concoction. Although a messy process, Morse eventually worked out the recipe that millions have since been introduced to through the Million Smiles Initiative. By giving away free candy all across America, it was an opportunity to talk about the root problems of oral hygiene. Over 250,000 lollipops have been donated since the company’s inception.
She believes that while her products are great, an education can fuel generations of change. A determined Morse now translates this passion and leads others her age—in schools—to rally around the importance of oral health care. Her business has led to important discussions on the topic, garnering extensive speaking engagements including a TED Talk, “Why I Eat Candy To Avoid Cavities”; appearing on various shows and venues like South by Southwest; and making the cover of Entrepreneur magazine.
“I do virtual public speaking with organizations to inspire kids and give them resources to start their own company. I’m a huge advocate for kids but specifically young girls and women. So few women are in the candy business. It’s been tough to pave that road and find the mentors so I try to act as an advocate,” she said. She has shared sage advice with experienced entrepreneurs and those new to their craft. Seasoned entrepreneurs who have been around the block should take the time to listen to those with more youthful perspectives. “The thing that makes young entrepreneurs a commodity is that they are curious and tenacious. Find opportunities to connect so as to never lose that childlike curiosity.”
A Young CEO
Young inventors, Morse claims, will experience success if the company is built on the merits of a fantastic team.
“The CEO title does not mean you can do every job. And you’re never going to grow and reach success unless you find people to delegate to—people you can trust. Always look for people who you can learn from, trust, delegate—and, in turn, you can form a great team of people with a mutual understanding of goals.”
As Morse understands from her own million-dollar venture, start-up businesses require considerable work and time. However, finding dedicated people who believe in the company’s mission is the first key ingredient to success. As she reiterates, “Business is a team sport!”
Today, ZolliCandy encompasses many trademarked candies including Zollipops®, Zolli® Drops, and Zaffi® Taffy. But what started it all was a delicious formula—a vegan, all-natural, sugar-free lollipop. She learned important lessons by purchasing ingredients, melting and cooling the non-sugary confection, and making a huge mess.
“Initially, I tried to make it at home in our kitchen. I learned not to melt sugar substitutes like Stevia and other funky stuff that couldn’t make the cut to our finalized Zolli products,” she recalled. Trial after trial led to a tweaked basic formula that led to the best possible product. In the beginning, it was tricky because no one had ever done this before. With such an expansive line, Morse was always inventing, creating something new that adhered to her standards. Any product she made had to be allergy-, keto-, and diabetic-friendly.
People don’t have to worry about it being harmful. According to the teen inventor, the company’s unique selling points are that it must be able to help clean your teeth or it meets the standards for those who suffer from allergies or eat from restrictive diets. “It is important to have variety. Not everyone will be in a lollipop mood,” she added.
Looking back upon her success, this regular high school student appears well adjusted despite her fame as one of America’s youngest CEOs. In fact, Morse admitted that although she is tenacious, she is a normal, healthy teen just like her peers at school. An extremely supportive set of friends over the years, as well as a strong family support system, has bolstered her aspirations.
“I am lucky to have supportive parents who believe in me and trust in me. They were willing to invest in me to make this idea a reality. And, I’ve been fortunate with supportive friends who encourage and treat me like nothing is different.”
What Morse finds most rewarding in her day-to-day management duties is the messages from those who have tasted her treats and are, in turn, grateful. Some have told her that her candy line has saved their lives or that they couldn’t enjoy candy until now—and these messages make it a very impactful experience for the teen.
So impactful, in fact, that Morse has been known to use an effective catch phrase, “Keep smiling!” to inspire others through her videos, social media, emails, and appearances. She tries to work positivity and goodness into conversations even if it makes just a little difference. She says it is a good reminder to stay positive and enjoy life.
“So just keep smiling!”
After all, smiling has amazing powers. And her cause with Zolli Candy is not only delicious, but positively contagious for consumers and her business.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.
Michael Owens came from Irish stock. His family had escaped a potato famine and an oppressive British regime by immigrating to America, eventually settling in Wheeling, West Virginia. Here, there was mining work to be had. Being poor and one of seven children, it was important for 9-year-old Michael to contribute to the family income. Into the mines he went. The year was 1868.
One day, Michael was struck in the eye by a piece of coal, accidentally let loose by the overzealous swing of a fellow miner’s pick. The blow knocked the boy to the ground, and out cold. Mrs. Owens immediately decided that young Michael’s coal mining days were over. At age 10, then, he went to work as a “blower’s dog” in a local glass factory.
Ironically, coal remained a major part of the boy’s job. As a blower’s dog, Michael assisted the (adult) glassblower by keeping the furnace filled with the sooty stuff. The constant heat—not infrequently burning the boy—ensured that the soda ash, sand, and other ingredients mixed inside large pots and placed in the furnace could melt into blowable molten glass. The crew with whom Michael worked (perhaps half a dozen men and boys) produced roughly one glass bottle per minute.
Young Michael Owens worked 60-hour weeks. He was paid 30 cents a day. He went home each night covered in ash and coal dust. It’s a fair bet that his lungs were full of ash and dust, too.
Throughout his teens, Michael rarely if ever had the opportunity to benefit from a traditional school setting—but as the years passed, the lad gained a reputation as a diligent worker. He came to be meticulously trained in every aspect of the glass-making process. “Young or old,” Owens told an American Magazine reporter years later, “work doesn’t hurt anybody.”
At 20, Michael was still in the glass business, but now he was an employee of Edward Libbey’s Toledo Glass Factory. And Edward Libbey had money to invest in Michael Owens’s big idea.
Inventing a Bottle-Making Machine
It took Owens five years to produce it, then a few more to perfect it, but in the end (and after burning through half a million of Libbey’s investment dollars), he’d done it. Michael Owens had invented a working automated bottle-making machine.
With six rotating arms (later more were added), each outfitted with a pump and a plunger that could suck up the molten glass and then push air into the mix, bottles were “blown” without a single human touch. The machine even cut the bottles and set them on a conveyor belt, which guided them into a furnace for final heating and cooling.
Even the first version of Owens’s machine was unquestionably more efficient than the most skilled human team of bottle makers. Thanks to his invention, one bottle per minute was now six bottles per minute. After making improvements, six turned to twelve. And not only could bottles be (many times more) efficiently produced, but they also could be more cheaply produced, since expensive, skilled blowers were no longer required. In addition, all bottles were now identical—sharing the same dimensions, the same weight, the same everything. Costs per bottle plummeted 94 percent.
Libbey and Owens quickly co-formed a new company in 1903, the Owens Bottle Machine Company, stocked with the new machines, which the two now licensed out to other companies. Within just a few years, Owens’s automated bottle-making machines could crank out almost 250 bottles per minute!
Founding Big Companies
Owens and Libbey went on to establish the Owens Bottle Company (1919) and, despite frequent criticism from doubters, collaborated over the years with another inventor, Irving Colburn, to perfect the production of distortion-free plate glass. The trio succeeded, and the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company (1916) went on to make millions, too.
Now in his 60s, some wondered if the indefatigable Owens was considering retirement. “The real reason I keep on is because I like to [work], I want to work,” he is reported to have said. “It is the most interesting thing in the world, and it is the most constructive thing. I’ve enjoyed 52 years of it, and I hope to enjoy a good many more.” Owens went on to develop laminated glass for automobiles—he called it “safety glass”—which was much more crack- and shatter-proof than earlier varieties.
Toledo came to be known as “The Glass City,” Libbey was hailed as the father of the modern glass industry, and Mike Owens died a rich man at age 64 in 1923. In a tribute to the inventor published in The Toledo Times, Libbey described Owens as “self-educated,” possessed of “an unusual logical ability,” and “endowed with a keen sense of farsightedness and vision.” Libbey hailed him as “one of the greatest inventors this country has ever known”—one whose name “will stand out as a pronounced example of what can be accomplished by vision, faith, persistence, and confidence in one’s creative efforts.”
The Owens Bottle Company merged with the Illinois Glass Company to become the Owens-Illinois Glass Company—a Fortune 500 company to this day.
And 60 years after Owens’s passing, the bottle-making machine invented by an erstwhile West Virginia child laborer was hailed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as “the most significant advance in glass production in over 2,000 years.”
Dr. Jackson, who teaches Western, Islamic, American, Asian, and world histories at the university level, is also known on YouTube as “The Nomadic Professor.” You can follow his work, including entire online history courses featuring his signature on-location videos filmed the world over, at NomadicProfessor.com
When Travis Hollman launched the Locker Room Contest, inviting students to send videos of their outdated locker rooms, he had planned to gift the winning school only with new lockers. But when he saw the video tour of Beecher High School in Flint, Michigan, he was motivated to do much more.
“They had no plumbing, no doors on the bathroom stalls, no place to study, no recreation room, and no internet access,” Hollman said in an interview. “The school is so nice now. We’ve got heating, plumbing, doors on the bathroom stalls, and we’re finishing the rec room floor and putting in basketball nets.”
Hollman is the founder and CEO of Hollman in Irving, Texas, the leading manufacturer of team sports, fitness workspace, and custom lockers. Together with his colleague Daniel Gilbert, co-founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers, he spent $1.5 million on renovating the Flint, Michigan, school.
“I’ve always been pretty good about giving back, and when you meet these kids, you just get more motivated,” Hollman said. “If Beecher High School had been a public building, it would have been condemned, but because it was a school, it stayed open.”
Up until the 1960s, Flint, Michigan, had been one of the wealthiest cities in America, but the end of the industrial era and the automotive boom ended in urban decay, urban flight, and water contamination. “Flint has one of the highest crime rates because they’ve got no police funding,” Hollman said. “Property valuations have come down so much.”
“There is supposedly this racial divide in America, and Beecher High School is 100 percent African American,” Hollman said. “I wanted to prove to those kids that there is no divide. It’s the media making that up. We still love everybody. We saw on the video that the school was in bad shape. There was no heating, and the showers didn’t work. What mattered was that they were students at a school in need.”
Although COVID-19 made it a challenge to travel to the school and oversee progress, Hollman said he’s proud that the commitment was maintained. “The cost of wood increased, and the price of gasoline has almost doubled,” he said. “All that stuff impacts our business, and it also impacts our giving. If it costs 20 percent more to build in raw materials and it costs 30 percent to 40 percent more to ship the product, it gives us less that we can do.”
Hollman sits on the executive boards of a domestic violence charity as well as Big Brothers Big Sisters, and his wife, Stephanie Hollman, is the star of the Bravo TV reality episodic “The Real Housewives of Dallas.”
“My wife and I decided we had to help,” Hollman said. “We just want the students to have a little bit better life and to keep those kids off the street.” Because of the renovations, Hollman said the school has become a favorite place for Beecher students, who are staying at school until 10 o’clock at night. “If just one doesn’t die from a gunshot wound because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, then it’s a win.”
Juliette Fairley is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Born in Chateauroux, France, and raised outside of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Juliette is a well-adjusted military brat who now lives in Manhattan. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TheStreet, Time magazine, the Chicago City Wire, the Austin-American Statesman, and many other publications across the country.
When Virginia-based tech entrepreneur and angel investor Pete Snyder realized COVID-19 had created an economic crisis for small businesses, his wife Burson Snyder and he began calling friends in the philanthropic community to raise funds.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our country,” said Snyder, who serves as CEO of Disruptor Capital. A former candidate for the governorship of Virginia, Snyder founded the 30 Day Fund in April 2020 as a 501(3)c to distribute forgivable loans to small businesses.
One entrepreneur who benefitted from the 30 Day Fund is Tina Miller, who owns Walkabout Outfitter, a local outdoor supply store in six locations across Virginia. “In our case, we were decimated, just decimated,” Miller told NBC News. “It was also important that somebody cared about our small business.”
The Walkabout Outfitter is among the more than 2,500 small businesses that the 30 Day Fund has assisted. “Trying to keep up with the need was a constant challenge, but thanks to the good hearts of people all across the country, we were able to raise significant funds to bolster small businesses and help them survive another day,” said 30 Day Fund board member Generra Peck.
The Snyders called it the 30 Day Fund because they thought 30 days would be the life of the fund, but more than a year has passed since the pandemic emerged and businesses are just beginning to return to normal operating policies. “Businesses have had to endure more than a year of closures and restrictions, decreased sales, staff reductions, and uncertainty after uncertainty, but The 30 Day Fund is still focused on helping small businesses in the short term and has plans to continue its tradition of entrepreneurs ‘paying it forward’ to help those in need,” Peck told the Epoch Times.
As previously reported, paying it forward implies businesses that receive funds will, in the future, reinvest money back into the fund, which will then be allocated to another needy small business owner. “We are overwhelmed with the number of people who want to help,” Snyder told Virginia Business Daily.
The Snyders financed the 30 Day Fund with an initial $100,000 in capital. “It has raised more than $45 million through all of its efforts in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Georgia, New Jersey, and Arkansas,” Peck said in an interview. The fund provides up to $3,000 to selected small businesses that apply for financing. Beneficiaries are chosen based on a three-minute video and a one-page written application, and once selected, the business owner receives the money within three days.
“We don’t have time for red-tape,” Snyder said in a statement online. “We don’t have time for delays. The VA 30 Day Fund is designed to be quick and easy. … We will provide small business owners with both funding and hope so they can keep their employees on payroll and keep working to lift our communities through this crisis.”
30 Day Fund partners include United Way, the Kimsey Foundation, and Maltese Capital. Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) and his wife Suzanne are on the fund’s advisory board.
“The 30 Day Fund has assisted other leaders to replicate its model with efforts in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Mississippi, and New Jersey,” Peck said. For example, in December 2020, Dave Portnoy, founder of media company Barstool Sports, created The Barstool Fund – an affiliate of the 30 Day Fund.
“There’s no right or wrong reason why we’re choosing one business versus the other,” Portnoy said of The Barstool Fund. “They speak to us for whatever reason. I wish we could help them all. We’re going to help as many as we humanly can and try to keep these small businesses alive. So, that’s the plan. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it’s better than nothing.”
Portnoy has stayed true to his word, raising nearly $40 million for 391 small businesses through The Barstool Fund. Businesses that have received financial assistance through The Barstool Fund include Iconic Fitness in Escondido, California, The Donut Experiment in St. Charles, Missouri, Flame Nightclub in Duluth, Minnesota, and Social House of Soulard in St. Louis, Missouri.
Roughly 43 percent of Americans have been inoculated against COVID-19, and most states have rescinded government-mandated shutdown orders. And while those changes are helping businesses return to normal operating procedures, Peck said many are still reeling from a year of hardship and uncertainty. Others are struggling with a worker shortage in states where employees can earn more collecting unemployment benefits with additional federal pandemic assistance than reporting to a job, according to media reports.
“While the challenges these businesses face today are not the same ones they faced in the beginning of the pandemic, many are still struggling to fully recover, and the 30 Day Fund continues to be here to help,” Peck said.
In January, the Snyders announced they were stepping down from the day-to-day operations of the fund. Since then, former Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Jim Cheng has assumed a senior leadership position.
“Even though we’ve been at this for nearly a year, we are just getting started,” Cheng said in a statement online. “The ‘pay it forward’ movement the Snyders started is catching fire all around the nation and will be helping thousands and thousands more struggling small businesses in the weeks and months to come. I look forward to ensuring the continued success of the Virginia 30 Day Fund.”
Juliette Fairley is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Born in Chateauroux, France, and raised outside of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Juliette is a well-adjusted military brat who now lives in Manhattan. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TheStreet, Time magazine, the Chicago City Wire, the Austin-American Statesman, and many other publications across the country.
My story is set in an imperfect world where it seems like everything can be bought with money. This is in stark contrast to my childhood growing up in Hollywood Beach, California, where life was more about outdoor adventures with my horse. At a young age, the values of truth, trust, honor, and faith were taught to me by my parents. I carried these values into adulthood, believing in them as a foundation of character-building and integrity. To me, this was what built America—freedom, honor, self-respect, and responsibility.
After 14 years of marriage, supporting my husband’s career in the high-end resort field, I asked for a divorce after learning he had a different lifestyle on the side. I moved to the big island of Hawaii. Instead of buying a home, a parcel of incredible beauty called to me. When I bought it, I stood there saying to God, “This is the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen, Lord.”
I prepared the land and planted a Kona coffee orchard of 2,000 trees. I planted grass down the rows to hold the top-soil, with the trees situated further apart allowing the breeze to bring moisture and nutrients to my trees twice a day. This had never been done before, and I was laughed at by many local farmers. I fogged my orchard with an organic seaweed mixture that attracted ladybugs to eat the unwanted scale. As my orchard grew vibrantly, I would drive the tractor through the rows singing and talking to my trees, not knowing this land had been King Kamehameha Royal Gardens back around the year 1824.
Within five years, my trees tripled the average crop per tree on the Kona Coast, registering at the North Coast Coffee Mill with 95 percent Fancy-Extra Fancy grade! Prior to my coffee tote packaging design that took national packaging awards, all Kona coffee was presented in brown paper bags with peel stick labels. In 1993, after winning 1st place at the Kona Coffee Festival Cupping Event against many large farms, The Chef de Cuisine of the Kona-Kohala Coast five-star resorts adopted my Keopu Mauka Lani Plantation Coffee (the Heavenly Belly of The Mountain) as their representative of Kona coffee. I designed the dessert coffee for the Ritz Carlson Resort Hotel, and I was asked by our state representative to represent the Kona Coffee Industry for several years at the opening of the State Legislature. All this stimulated the Komo brothers, long-time coffee farmers, to want to sell their 228-acre parcel next to my plantation to me at a very low price of $1 million to honor the land their father had left them. They said they had watched me work as hard as they did for years, and couldn’t believe a woman from the high-end five-star resorts world could become so involved with making Kona coffee beautiful.
Their proposal was overwhelming to me. I was still building my coffee business, but I agreed. Later, when I had the land appraised, I was shocked at its $8.2 million appraisal!
The formal business plan I created for this organic, undeveloped land was to set aside ten acres for a Hawaiian Cultural Center so the Hawaiian Historic Society would have a central place to teach its language, arts, crafts, and dance, and 14 acres were set aside at the top for youth outdoor education and school camping since there were no camps for children on the islands at the time.
I interviewed enthusiastic developers including Lucky Bennett, architect of The Mauna Kea Resort, and Adrian Zecha, developer of The Bora Bora Resort Hotel. The plan was for the purchasers of the five-acre parcels to develop Polynesian-style homes to be leased back to the private resort. My coffee company, Keopu Mauka Lani, would install and manage three of their five acres in orchards, giving back a crop share percentage with low agriculture state tax. A real win-win-win!
I interviewed numbers of potential finance partners and because of time restrictions, I decided to take a man who presented himself as being a single investor from Honolulu. I had my attorney check out his credentials. However, as legal partnership documents were created and signed, I learned the man was just “the frontman” for two very powerful “silent partner investors.” They didn’t want me, they wanted all I had pulled together over the years of planning, labor, and investment. I had been duped. I quickly shifted from managing my coffee company to defending against a barrage of hostile legal “takeover” attempts. The silent partners were high-profile agricultural businessmen with mainland markets, Harvard attorneys, a former governor backing them, and connections to investors “with deep pockets.”
The corruption my attorneys and I witnessed over the many years as I struggled to defend what was rightfully mine was overwhelming, to say the least. It involved corruption of controls in the banks, the law firms, courts, and certain politicians. What did I learn from this? Not all human souls upon this earth are honest, caring, and come from an integral foundation—money and power drive many of them. I had trusted these men and the advice of my attorney.
From 1991–2012 (21 years), I fought like a mother tiger trying to protect her cubs. During intense legalities, my attorneys and I had our phones tapped and our lives threatened. Throughout those years, I spent about $1.2 million striving to get justice in the courts. Finally, I won a $2.2 million settlement … only to have the settlement challenged.
I had to leave Hawaii. In 2010, I moved back to Hollywood Beach. I had no alternative but to file for bankruptcy, which took another two years for the court to sort out.
The hard pill to swallow was that the Bankruptcy Trustee didn’t want to investigate the accounting that I requested. Without any investigation of the changed illegal document of a loan agreement from a straight percentage rate into a percent being compounded monthly, the Bankruptcy Trustee agreed with the opposition to grant all my land, development plans, and home, destroying my award-winning Kona Coffee Company and handing over the $2.2 million settlement to the corrupt side. The judge shook her head that the document presented was not researched, but said she would have to grant everything to the corrupt challenging side. I walked out of the courtroom with my family as we dragged our mouths on the floor in disbelief.
During these years, I watched as “white envelopes” of cash bought attorneys and even judges to rule against Hawaii state statutes. Thus, “he who has the most money wins.” I flew back to the Keopu Mauka Lani Plantation to retrieve my belongings and say goodbye.
At 72 years of age, I walked off my land after standing on the old ancient Hawaiian stone wall, overlooking my orchard and 14 miles of Kona Coastline, saying to God, “I never owned this land. I only owned the privilege to direct and protect it … now Lord, I give it back to you. May I learn my lessons of soul … and may those who took it … learn their lessons. Amen.”
These past ten years, in an effort to keep my innate “positive outlook of life,” I have written and illustrated 16 life-value children’s books, through my Lollipop Media Productions, LP. Ten of these books have won national and international awards in book festivals, from Paris, London, and Amsterdam to Chicago, Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the Greater Southwest.
In the Abraham Lincoln book, he shares with the child reader: “Of all the countries in the world, America is the only Country with a Birthday! So why do we celebrate your birthday, my birthday, and America’s birthday?” Questions stimulate curiosity. Curiosity drives passion to know. Life becomes fun and exciting. Using this thread of creativity in learning about life, I’ve just completed 90 “Homeschooling PuPus” (in Hawaii, pupus are delicious appetizers).
Also, I’ve dedicated myself to a visionary project to build The Pavilion and Chapel of Nature to educate children and visitors to the importance nature plays in our everyday lives. We have explored various potential sites in California and Arizona. When I was a student at Arizona State University in the early 1960s, I fell in love with the “organic” architectural designs and creations of Frank Lloyd Wright through Taliesin West. He designed The Trinity Chapel of Nature in 1958 that was never built. I’ve always admired this idea, so going forward we’re hoping to secure necessary financial support for our project to really educate people of nature’s exquisite importance in sustaining life here on planet Earth!
Integrity, honor, faith, love, giving from our soul … these are the real gifts of life … the real happiness that many souls never discover, and that money alone cannot buy.
Walt Disney’s last words to me in the summer of 1964 were: “Suzy, never give up your dreams no matter what anyone says. And always remember, failures are stepping stones to success.”
Love life, be available to life, learn your lessons with the joy of wisdom, and the rewards will come within your heart and soul.
With gratitude, Suzy
From Levi jeans with a plaid shirt and blonde pigtails flying, riding her horse Paint as a child, Suzanne Farrow became a polished, knowledgeable young lady at Colorado Women’s College and Arizona State University. Her life over the years expanded into many incredible and creative experiences as an entrepreneur.
From the first hello, you can tell that Angela and Moe are go-getters ready to make things happen. Angela Knight and Maureen (Moe) Stone are both moms from Jupiter, Florida, who share a passion for their work and love for America. The friends have known each other and worked together for 15 years, first as partners in a successful charity, and then in event planning.
In March of 2020, not long after the onset in the states of COVID-19, Angela and Moe stepped out of quarantine, leaving their husbands at home, and drove to Liberty University to pick up Angela’s daughter’s belongings. Her daughter had come home for Spring Break, but was then not allowed to return to school. The ladies thought it would surely be a fun get-away road trip, but on the road they were shocked and devastated by the many, many failed businesses they saw along the way. ““The small southern towns seemed eerie with involuntary abandonment. It felt like a black and white episode of the Twilight Zone. Products were still on display inside the dark shops and upcoming sales and event signs of things that would not happen still littered the window,” said Angela. Moe added, “All these small businesses closed for so long, how will they ever come back from this?” They recognized that these weren’t just closed businesses, this scene was the destruction of the livelihood of hard-working Americans. For the next ten hours, they drove home brainstorming how they could do their small part to help their American community.
“We talked about what we wanted: to help others stay connected, feel loved and appreciated and fight the division that is plaguing our country. We talked about how to help these small businesses get going again once everything opened back up,” Angela said. Inspired by the diligent and joyful little sparrow, Angela and Moe chose Sparrow Box Company as the name of their endeavor to showcase hardworking American artisans and businesses. They’re businesses like Grey Ghost, a charming bakery in Charleston, South Carolina, where the friends had the opportunity to tour the bakery and hear from the founder the story of their journey of growth; and Willa’s Cookies, a mom-and-pop team; and Forest and Hyde, run by an entreprenurial young husband who had just bought a leather company to combine with his own.
Angela and Moe had previously worked at a nonprofit, Pink Purse, whose mission was to connect women with various causes, and in their seven years of work there were able to help 70 charities, organizations, and families. Taking their years of experience in marketing, communications, event planning, and design, the two friends sprinted out of the gate and are taking the gifting world by storm, connecting with a community of American vendors to create gifts that bring joy and beauty. It is important to them that they deal only with American-made products and that they are helping small businesses during these somewhat trying times.
American Essence focuses on traditional American values and great American stories. It recounts significant historical events, from the time of the Founding Fathers through today, including average Americans who want to give back to their communities and country.