Tag Archives: entrepreneurs

Making Their Own Way

September 18, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The military teaches people to work as a collective. In some ways, it can be called the ultimate team. It also teaches many how to work as individuals.

James E. Walker was one who learned how to work as an individual. Joining the U.S. Army was an easy decision for him.

“I just had no sense of direction,” he says.

It was 1979, and Walker—who had dropped out of high school two years earlier—saw a lot of merit to the idea of getting three hot meals daily, a place to stay, and a monthly paycheck.

“It was a no-brainer to me,” says Walker, now 57 and owner of Custom Diesel Drivers Training, an Omaha truck-driving school that trains about 300 students a year.

He served in the Army just after the Vietnam War, and was a recovery specialist whose job was to retrieve broken equipment from the front lines and bring it in for repair. Among his tools were a 28-wheel tractor/trailer and a 5-ton wrecker.

The work suited him. 

“I was around trucks quite a bit growing up,” says Walker, clarifying the age he started working with trucks was about 9.

While growing up in southwest Iowa, he lived across the street from a man who had a couple of semi-trailer trucks, and young Walker sometimes drove them.

“That wasn’t too legal,” he says. “I couldn’t even touch the pedals. Just turn on the key, shove it into gear, and get rolling.” 

Walker enjoyed his time in the Army, and considering re-enlisting as his hitch was coming to an end in 1982. But he had recently married Bonnie (now his wife of 37 years), and his next posting would have been in Germany. The couple had a baby on the way, and she didn’t want to go overseas. Instead, the couple moved to Colorado.

After James left the military, the transition to civilian employment wasn’t easy. Much of the problem had to do with the difference between military and civilian management styles.

“When you’re in the military, they pretty much give you a mission, and you go and do the mission,” he says. “It just doesn’t work that way in the real world, because too many people are breathing down your neck, watching what you’re doing all day. It’s a real pain.”

Supervisors’ training also differed between military and civilian life. In the Army, he says, those who tell others what to do are already skilled in those tasks. That isn’t always the case in the civilian world, as Walker discovered in some of his post-military jobs in construction and manufacturing.

“You’ve got people who are telling you what to do when they don’t even know how to do it themselves,” he says.

He eventually worked for a plastics injection-molding company—an opportunity that would put his career path on a new road.

“I was able to work my way into driving the truck for them, which really worked out well for me,” Walker says. The job lasted four years, with two years spent driving the truck and the rest managing the company’s warehouse. 

What followed were 22 years of over-the-road semi-trailer truck driving, “hauling swinging beef out to Hunt’s Point, New York—stuff like that,” he says. Walker also drove grain trucks and flatbeds.

He and Bonnie eventually moved to Omaha, near her hometown of Gretna. As their two children headed toward their teen years, Walker began driving trucks locally, which went on for a decade.

He then became an instructor at Custom Diesel Drivers Training, and after a year was offered the opportunity to purchase the then-nearly bankrupt school. 

“They sold it to me for a ridiculous low price,” he says. “I couldn’t turn it down. I had nothing to lose by buying it.”

Since Walker purchased it, the school has grown, going from one truck, one trailer, and one office employee to six trailers, six trucks, and nine office employees. The office, formerly in a 700-square-foot space near Sapp Bros., recently moved to a 10,000-square-foot office at 5020 L St.

Many of the school’s students are veterans. Walker says the trucking industry offers them
an opportunity to—as in the military—work without interference.

“That’s the freedom of driving a truck and being your own boss,” he says.

For veteran Dario Dulovic, 43, being in a wartime environment was nothing new.

Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina (formerly Yugoslavia), Dulovic’s first experience with war happened at age 18, when an early 1990s religious conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims tore his country apart.

His father owned a pizza restaurant, but that ended when the war broke out.

“We lost everything in about 10 days,” he says. “So we had to run to Montenegro.”

Dulovic’s family—including his father, mother, and sister—lived in that small southeast Europe country for about four years, then emigrated to America.

With help from the U.S. government, they settled in Danville, Kentucky. The family received a month’s rent and three months of food stamps. 

Dulovic’s knowledge of America had come through the movies, most of which were set in large cities such as New York and Chicago. Danville, with a population of about 16,500, was not one of those. 

“It was an experience,” Dulovic says.

As the only family member who could speak English, Dulovic found himself bearing a lot of responsibility. He found a factory job and went to work.

“I was supporting everyone for three or four months,” he says.

Six months later, he joined the Kentucky National Guard as a way of paying for college while remaining near his family.

Training happened on weekends and during the summer.

Then came 9/11. 

“After Sept. 11, everything changed. It was like the regular Army,” he says. Training became constant.

In 2006 and 2007, his unit deployed to Iraq, where it was situated on a former Iraqi airbase.

Though Dulovic had been trained as a vehicle mechanic, in Iraq he was a base security guard.

It wasn’t a cushy desk job. He had to help defend the base, which came under sniper fire. Improvised Explosive Devices, also known as IEDs, were a hazard on area roads.

“That was my second war,” Dulovic says.

As for transitioning back to civilian life, it wasn’t a problem.

“I can adapt anywhere,” he says. “It’s like that survival instinct.” 

Though he didn’t have a problem with getting back to civilian life, he acknowledged that others do. He also says it’s important to think “out of the box” and stay positive.

“Use your energy to work on things you can change,” he says, “And never give up.” 

After coming back to the U.S., he enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University to study computer information systems. 

His involvement with computing had begun decades before, when he got his first computer—a Commodore 64—in 1987 at age 11.

Eventually he got a job working for the Department of Defense. In 2011, he moved to Bellevue for a job at Offutt as a software developer for the Air Force Weather Agency.

Three years later, he started a side business fixing residential computers.

“It was just more for fun, really,” he says.

He didn’t expect it to grow, but grow it did. 

A year ago, he quit his software development job to concentrate on the business, called DME Computer Services, which provides information technology support for small- and medium-size companies in metro Omaha. DME is based in the home Dulovic shares with his wife of three years, Mirela, and their children, Emma and Oliver.

Dulovic is planning to spend another year as a one-person operation, then will consider adding staff. 

“I don’t want to rush anything,” he says.

Visit cddt.us and dmeomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the October/November 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

This online version has been changed from the print edition to reflect updated information.

Dario Dulovic

Entrepreneurs of the Great Recession

July 30, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Even the Great Depression couldn’t keep some entrepreneurs down. Enduring companies and brands including Sony Music, Westin Hotels, Allstate, Rubbermaid, Ray-Ban, and Tyson Foods all originated during the economic downturn in the early 20th century. Similarly, the period of economic recession that began a decade ago didn’t stop several local entrepreneurs from starting businesses during a time when numerous companies were floundering or failing.  

Kirt Jones was already a business owner when 2008 began. He had started Jones Construction in 2005 under a strong market climate, which may have helped him achieve financial stability, but, ironically, did not foster rapid growth. 

“[That] made it very hard to find lots to build houses on in good developments. Simultaneously, banks were not interested in working with a new company to provide construction lending,” he says. 

He started Castle Brook Builders in 2008 not knowing a market crash was around the corner.

“The change to Castle Brook Builders was for marketing purposes. We wanted to bring brand awareness to the company by developing name recognition to the Omaha area. We started before the market crash, but we accelerated growth during the downturn,” he says. “When the market did slow down, banks paid more attention to our strong financial position and land developers were willing to listen to my proposals on multiple lot purchases. I developed a successful business model from these long-term lot purchase agreements, providing higher profitability for Castle Brook Builders.”

The timing was advantageous but Jones says other factors also contributed to his success during a time when so many of his competitors struggled. 

“I have a financial background, so developing long-term strategies and partnerships allowed me to rise above the competition with stronger sales and profits. We invested some of this profit into creating and continuing our brand awareness,” he explains.

Having been through the economic downturn, he says he is ready now for anything that happens in the next 10 years and beyond. 

“Reputation is very important in the Omaha market. We have worked very hard to establish strong relationships and partnerships with other respectable homebuilders and land developers in the area. This will provide CBB a very strong competitive advantage far into the future,” he says. 

Chris Hughes’ IT job was eliminated in 2009 as a result of the economic downturn, and he needed to create another source of income after landing a job that brought in about one-third of the salary he once commanded.

“I was obviously looking for any other avenue, and I was making tote [bags] in my basement to sell on Etsy,” he says. “That started to take off for me, so this decision to launch Artifact was partly due to timing and largely due to necessity…I’m pretty risk-averse in general and the idea of entrepreneurship—it would not have been my first pick.” 

The well-crafted bags he sold on Etsy for extra cash became a big hit, and he officially launched Artifact Bags in 2010, when the economy was slowly starting to turn. It is thriving today. Looking back, Hughes says that, although he may have felt then like circumstances forced his hand a bit, waiting for the economy to turn around would have actually been a misstep.   

“I think it’s becoming more and more difficult to do what I’m doing. The market is more saturated with people who are doing similar products or business models to what I’m doing,” he says. “I was on the bleeding edge of it and there was a time, with e-commerce, where Google was at a point where I was able to really leverage my standing in Google search in a way that was more democratic and didn’t require as much capital as it would require now to pay for that space.” 

The frustration he encountered in trying to find a new job turned out to be somewhat motivational, he adds. 

“When you’re backed in a corner and you’re trying to tell people what you’re capable of, there comes a point when you give up and you demonstrate what you’re capable of, through entrepreneurship or just doing your own thing. And I think that it speaks more than just your own self-speculation about what you think you can do for some company,” he explains. “Everybody’s got an idea written down on a napkin somewhere, but execution is everything. I’ve met a lot of people along the way through the eight years of doing Artifact, and I hear tons of great ideas all the time, but they don’t mean anything. A great idea that is never executed is worse than an average one that someone works their butt off to try to get out there in the world.” 

For more information, visit artifactbags.com and castlebrookbuildersomaha.com.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

Chris Hughes

Expanding Times, Expanding Horizons

June 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Networking groups offer ideas and kindle relationships, but they also have drawbacks. “John” only sees the same people at his networking luncheon. “Bill” might desire to join the coffee group, but he needs to open his store by 8 a.m. And “Jane” doesn’t have $200, let alone $1,000, just to come once or twice per year. 

Michelle Schrage and Jay Miralles can relate, which is why they started Business4Business Professional Society in 2014, using a different business model that includes a variety of networking events like morning coffees, afternoon luncheons, and evening gatherings. 

They have been a part of traditional networking groups, including some based on professions such as bankers, drywallers, or real estate agents. Schrage and Miralles decided to bring together connected, motivated, and forward-thinking people, regardless of profession.

In the first couple of years, B4B’s leadership team and board were concerned that not having a regular, predictable meeting schedule might be making it difficult for businesspeople to connect and engage. It soon became evident that this strategy was actually advantageous. 

“We now embrace it,” Schrage says as the organization enters its fifth year and has hosted more than 100 events, or nearly two events per month. “Our members are busy professionals and we’ve found that they want access but not necessarily commitment…we have a core group of regulars but there are always new people from various walks of life and industries.”

As a single mom to a 13-year-old son and a busy professional herself, Schrage understands firsthand how important flexibility is to today’s professionals. 

The B4B founders discovered early that a lot of people did not want to pay a membership fee for a professional networking group. So, although a $249 one-year all-access pass allows unlimited entry to all events, attendees can also simply pay as they go on a per-event basis, Schrage says. Every event is self-contained and offers something different; i.e., in March, B4B was the first group to host an event on Blackstone Social’s new patio. 

“We maintain that our events are held at places that have a unique, interesting aspect to them whether they are brand-new, not accessible to most people, or not known to most people,” she adds. “It’s a great way to bring people together.”

Event elements may include workshops, efforts to support nonprofits, gala-quality fundraisers, speakers, and behind-the-scenes tours in addition to face-to-face networking opportunities. Speakers have included Firespring CEO Jay Wilkinson, Peter Kiewit Foundation Executive Director Emerita Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, and motivational speaker Ron ‘Gus’ Gustafson.

“We’re constantly thinking, ‘what’s something new?’” Schrage says. “It gives us a lot of flexibility to keep our eyes and ears open to amazing people, amazing endeavors, and amazing companies we feel the community can benefit from knowing about.”

B4B regular Christopher Pfanstiel, director of business development for Hustad Companies Inc., says B4B has presented opportunities to connect with new people and businesses, and even helped him gain a new client or two.  

“I really enjoy B4B…it’s networking that’s done in a loose fashion versus a very canned environment,” he says. “You meet new owners, and managers, and entrepreneurs…you get to meet the key players and learn a little bit about them and their businesses.”

B4B succeeds because developing a face-to-face rapport is still important and relevant in the age of electronic communications, Schrage says. 

“When you get to share space with somebody, and read each other’s body language, and make eye contact, and exchange ideas that aren’t necessarily electronically communicated, you create strong bonds,” she says. “I think people are missing the mark if they rely too much on technology.”

To find out more about upcoming events, visit b4bsociety.com.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Michelle Schrage

Outdoor Entrepreneurship

May 23, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There have been a few viral online videos for Ultimate Fishing Gear’s Skinzit electric fish skinner. The handheld device can also been seen on the rack at Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops, or on Amazon.com. Chris Kielian, an Omaha-area native and one of four owners of Ultimate Fishing Gear, says he crunched the numbers, and then sat back, amazed—the owners did not expect their product to generate $1.4 million in sales in the first year.

The prototype of the Skinzit was made from an electric tool.

The Skinzit is a machine that removes rib bones and skin from a scaled-fish fillet, leaving the meat intact. Kielan says the device produces 30 percent more meat than a typical fillet because the device allows one to spare the belly meat rather than simply discarding it. Simply cut the fillets from the sides of the fish, and Kielian says, “the device does the rest.” With a bucket of 10 panfish, 30 percent more meat per fish adds up fast. Kielian’s business partners are his brother, Brian, and brothers Eric and Perry Parks. They all share a love of fishing. Chris says they each contribute their unique skill sets to make their business successful. Chris is the main sales and marketing person. The partners agree that leaving their money in the business will help it grow. “We as owners don’t take much out—we keep it in there. Everything is paid for,” says Chris. “We reinvest.” Chris is able to reinvest because Skinzit is not his main source of income. By day, the Parks brothers run Computer Cable Connections, where the Kielians are also employed. Chris says the idea for Skinzit comes from the Townsend Fish Skinner, which is an out-of-production device that skins fish using the same mechanism, albeit hand-powered and narrower.

It took Chris and his co-owners roughly four years to create the product. Milestones in Skinzit’s actualization include selecting an engineering firm, testing and tweaking prototypes for a number of months, having parts manufactured on the assembly line in the Philippines, and having packages show up on the doorstep ready to sell.

Finished Skinzit product

“It took 4 years to get the first 5,000 (Skinzits),” says Chris. The capital cost was “heavy,” more than $500,000. Ultimate Fishing Gear owns seven patents on their product, which took roughly three years to acquire. A special electronic certification was necessary and recertification is required quarterly. But their greatest asset is their ability to use the internet.

Videos of their invention have racked up more than 30 million views across social media. The product hit the market in 2014, and in 2015 one video created by a customer generated almost 9 million hits. Another video of a customer using the product in late 2016 generated several more million views. Each video causes a large spike in sales.

“[Once you have a viral video], it wipes out your inventory,” says Chris, who suggests that Ultimate Fishing Gear has other ideas for novel products, but he cannot disclose them due to patent reasons. “I wish I could,” he says, sounding hopeful. His advice to other entrepreneurs and inventors is simple: “You need the time to make it work, the cash, and the capital. You want to have a product that no one else has—that was the key to the success of our product.”

Visit fishskinner.com for more information.

From left, Brian Kielian, Chris Kielian, Eric Parks, and Perry Parks

This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

Kabul Cousins Find Common Ground

March 9, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A trained sniper and special forces service member from Kabul, Afghanistan, is not who people expect to see standing behind the counter of a grocery store. Even more uncommon is that the store is run by two cousins from Kabul who wound up in different parts of this country before reuniting in Omaha to run an international grocery store.

Muhib Hassan and Niamatullah Habibzai were born in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. They attended the same high school, and signed up to work with the U.S. military as linguists soon after they graduated. Habibzai spoke Dari and Pashto, two of the most commonly spoken languages in Afghanistan. He started working with the U.S. military in 2005. Hassan began working with the U.S. two years later.

“When the U.S. military came in, there was a very urgent need of linguists back then,” Habibzai says.

“If you knew a little bit of English, they would hire you, just to communicate with local people.”

Habibzai worked as a cultural adviser and interpreter between the U.S. military and the Afghan National Army. Hassan worked with U.S. special forces, and helped train the Afghan Local Police, Afghan National Police, and the Afghan Border Police. He also went to villages and communicated with local elders.

Habibzai and Hassan faced threats both implied and physical for working with the U.S. military. Habibzai says he cannot return to the village where their family lived for fear of retaliation by the Taliban.

“Even our relatives were blaming us for bringing Americans to the village,” Hassan says.

Hassan took shrapnel in his hand when he was involved in a firefight in 2012. Sitting next to a white freezer at their grocery store, Subzi Mundi, Hassan rolled up his sleeve and traced a line across his left thumb and index finger where the shrapnel entered. He says he has almost no feeling in his left index finger.

Hassan and Habibzai’s service helped them each obtain a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), which are primarily given to Afghans and Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military. In 2016, the state department estimated it granted about 20,000 SIVs to Afghans who have assisted the U.S. military (the number also includes family members of those who have helped). 

With his SIV secured, Habibzai moved to Fairfax, Virginia, in April 2011. He was still working for the military as a contractor. He then moved to North Dakota because some of his friends in the military were living there. In 2014, Habibzai moved to Omaha.

“I wanted to settle somewhere that I can have a family and raise my kids,” Habibzai says. “I thought Omaha was a good place.”

Subzi Mundi became a go-to grocery store for ingredients common to his cuisine, like goat meat and fresh dates. After repeated trips, he expressed an interest in buying the store outright. However, undertaking all of the responsibilities of running a grocery store is too much for one person. He needed a partner.

Enter his cousin.

Hassan moved to Durham, North Carolina, in 2013. He chose this location because he knew friends in the military who lived there. While in Durham, he worked as a truck driver and a driver coordinator (recruiting other truck drivers). Hassan brought wife Noorya and his daughter (since then, they have had another daughter, 3, and a son, 14 months old).

“It was hard for them,” Hassan says. “When I was at work, they were just sitting at home all the time.”

In his first few months in the United States, his daughter fell ill with a fever and kidney infection. He didn’t even know where to take her.

“I called my friend, he was living two hours away from me,” Hassan says.

His friend drove to his home and gave the family a ride to the hospital. While at the hospital, Hassan said he didn’t even have an insurance card on him.

“I didn’t have anything,” Hassan says.

What he did have was family, and when Habibzai asked for help running a store, Hassan and his family moved to Omaha.

Last year, Hassan agreed to help his cousin in buying Subzi Mundi. Habibzai had saved money he made contracting with the military and used it to secure the business. He and his cousin formed an LLC (AFG Cousins). In October 2016, Hassan and Habibzai became owners of Subzi Mundi.

The two cousins also have a nonbiological family member in Omaha who works with Lutheran Family Services. Lacey Studnicka, director of advancement for community services at LFS, heard about Hassan and Habibzai’s story. LFS provides assistance to SIV holders. Studnicka says LFS, as well as the state department, provides similar services to SIV recipients as refugees. The primary difference is the path to getting a visa is usually much shorter for SIV recipients because of the services they offer to the U.S. military, even though the vetting process is just as intensive, Studnicka says. The actions of linguists like Hassan and Habibzai have saved soldiers lives, something she routinely hears from service members.

“Not only did they serve our country, but now they’re business owners, and giving back to the community,” Studnicka says.

Visit @subzimundi1 on Facebook to learn more about this grocery store.

Muhib Hassan

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.


January 10, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“He does everything I don’t want to do and vice versa,” says Andy Robinson of his business partner, Brad Richling.

Maybe that’s what has given RetroShirtz such momentum. In rapid succession, the business launched in January, opened its first storefront in May, and opened its second location in Westroads Mall in early November.

Their first storefront (OmahaShirtz), at 464 S. 84th St., is like many shirt-printing shops: It’s tucked on the back side of a small shopping center, and Robinson will give you directions over the phone. RetroShirtz, on the other hand, can be found on the first floor of Westroads, between DSW and Journeys.

A presence in a mall, among the foot traffic and the food court, makes more sense for their nuanced approach to the printing business—custom-ordered shirts printed while the customer waits.

“We can print a shirt in four minutes,” says Richling. “We make, right then and there, their product, exactly as they want it—their size, their style, their color.”

Customers can choose from hundreds of designs already made or provide their own photo, image, or quote. And then they can choose from a wide stock of shirts—or even bring in their own.

“We’re in a mall,” says Richling. “You want to print on something different? Go buy it, and, as long as it’s 100 percent cotton, we can print on it.” He adds, “Today, for example, somebody came in with a maternity shirt”—a market that doesn’t seem to have much selection in quirky t-shirts.


Their designs will include retro cartoons and throwback references, as well as pop-culture references and parodies. Customers can create their own ideas or bring in their smart phone and get a photo printed on a shirt—or a canvas, another major offering from RetroShirtz.

What makes their rapid service possible is a new technology that connects the fabric printer directly to a computer. Everything is digital.

This isn’t a traditional screen-printing process, where screens have to be burned for each order, which takes some time. The cost of a screen is often placed on the customer, or at least there’s a minimum number of items you have to print. Nor is it an iron-on process, where the image has a separate field from the fabric and a plastic feel.

Their process, according to Richling, is “somewhere between tattooing and airbrushing 
the fabric.”

“The shirt will wear away before the image wears away,” adds Robinson.

This quality is a chief priority for the pair. “We want people to see our shirts and say, ‘Whoa! Cool shirt! Where did you get that?’” 
Richling says.

They’re confident that their level of quality will keep people coming back, especially coupled with their emphasis on customer service.

“We always ask each other when a customer leaves, ‘Did that person leave happy?’” Richling says. “We know that returns and referrals are going to drive the business.”

They’ve already started developing a return clientele, which has fueled their rapid growth. Looking on to the holidays, they do anticipate sometimes getting behind on orders, even with their four-minute print time.

“If we do get backed up, we’ll be able to say, ‘Come back in 45 minutes. Go shopping or go get lunch in the food court, and it will be ready by the time you come back,’” Robinson says.

They are happy to make arrangements for later pick-ups, particularly with larger orders, and they do have shipping options.

Mostly, they’re just really excited. Both are first-time entrepreneurs and have loved creating a new avenue for a beloved tradition. Richling says, “We live in a culture of people that want it now, so we’re going to try to provide for that.”

Zealous Melon

December 7, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With just one look at Zealous Melon’s hip basement headquarters, the fruit theme becomes apparent. The walls and the furniture, like the business’ logo, are bright orange and green. “Our office could pass for a frozen yogurt place,” laughs Käj Jorgensen, one of Zealous Melon’s two founders. That’s exactly the type of fun yet relaxed atmosphere Jorgensen and co-founder Brandon Blakemore want for their technology training and consulting company.

Blakemore and Jorgensen, both Omaha natives, met while working for Apple. Blakemore was a senior at University of Nebraska-Omaha and worked as a trainer, technician, and business specialist. Jorgensen had just graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan and primarily taught consumers (specifically those unfamiliar with Apple technology) how to use computers, iPhones, 
and iPads.

After six years with Apple, they both decided they wanted to start their own business. “We saw needs that weren’t being met,” Blakemore says. “Apple is very good at selling their products, but they’re not good with helping people implement those products into the workplace or their daily lives.”

Blakemore and Jorgensen quit on the same day, even handing in their two weeks notices together. That was when Zealous Melon was born—or, at least, that was when the idea of what would become Zealous Melon was born.

Although they knew what they wanted to do, they struggled with a company name. “Eventually, [my sister] Lauren came up with it using a name generator,” says Blakemore. “The generator suggested ‘Jealous Melon.’ We liked ‘Melon’ because we wanted something with fruit—like Apple—but not ‘Jealous.’ So we switched ‘Jealous’ to ‘Zealous,’ which worked better because we’re passionate about what we do.”

So what exactly does Zealous Melon do? They help people invest in their technology. For example, if a company wants to train its staff in integrating iPads with Windows desktops, Zealous Melon is there. “We started with training,” Jorgensen says. “But as the year went on, we started doing technology consulting, database design, iTunes book publishing, and 
web development.”

With clients like Valley Boys Roofing, KANEKO, 3M, and Joslyn Art Museum, Zealous Melon seems to be climbing quickly from its initial launch in 2012. Its success comes not only from Blakemore and Jorgensen’s aptitude for technology, but their pairing as well.

Blakemore is the business-minded workaholic; Jorgensen, the creative spirit. They mesh well. In fact, they’re not just business partners; they’re roommates, too. “We’re very involved with each other,” Jorgensen says. “You could say we’re ‘office spouses.’ I guess our living arrangement makes us more spousal, too.”

Blakemore laughs, “We both have girlfriends though!”

When it comes to who does what, they both agree that it depends on who is the better fit for the task. “If it has numbers, Brandon does it,” Jorgensen says. “If it’s something written, I do it. But we always run everything by each other.”

That includes office music, which Blakemore says is something Jorgensen can’t work without. “If we’re coding, we’re listening to something loud and angry, like Skrillex. Otherwise, it’s classic rock or something,” he says.

Some days, they work tirelessly from sunup to sundown. Other days, they’ll work on the interior design of their office or make the drive to El Bee’s in Waterloo, one of their favorite lunch destinations. Whatever they’re doing, they do it together.

The pair has great ideas for Zealous Melon’s future. Application development intrigues them, as does helping people with home automation, which their office already uses. (They can control their music, mood lighting, projector, and thermostat from their iPhones, iPads, and 
Apple desktops.)

No matter what Blakemore and Jorgensen’s futures hold, one thing is certain—the fruits of their labor will continue to grow a 
successful business.

Filling Mom’s Shoes

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Daughters become inspired, motivated, and awed by their mothers as they see them dash out the door on a volunteer mission time after time. They often follow in their footsteps.

But as daughters trail mothers down the volunteer road, they’re finding the path has veered. More women in the workplace means a different approach to volunteering. Meetings once scheduled for mornings are now scheduled for noon so volunteers can return to jobs. An e-mail sent at midnight is now more likely to happen.

How volunteers schedule their time has changed. The dedication and sense of responsibility that daughters learn from mothers has not. Here we share four stories about the gift mothers give daughters that keeps on giving —the gift of volunteering.

Gail Yanney & Lisa Roskens

Gail Yanney became an anesthesiologist in the 1960s when few women held careers. At the time, the consensus was that working women didn’t have time to volunteer. (We know better now.) But she soon became one of Omaha’s most active volunteers.

Her volunteering career began while she was a busy student at UNMC College of Medicine. Invited to join Junior League, she asked permission from her department head.

“He said, ‘Physicians need to be part of their community,’” remembers Gail, who is now retired.

Passionate about the environment, she was a teacher naturalist at Fontenelle Forest on her day off. Gail is also a founder of the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

 “I was inspired by my mother, who did things women didn’t do then. If you’re not influenced by your parents, you’re not paying attention.” – Lisa Roskens

With her husband, Michael Yanney, she received the Spirit of Nebraska Award from the Eppley Cancer Center last year.

Gail’s daughter, Lisa Roskens, learned from her mom. “I was inspired by my mother, who did things women didn’t do then. If you’re not influenced by your parents, you’re not paying attention.”

Lisa is chairman of the board, president, and CEO at the Burlington Capital Group, a company founded by her father, who partners with his wife in philanthropy. Volunteering is a family affair at the Roskens’ house where Lisa’s husband, Bill, and their two children join in. They rally around animals and kids and have helped at the Nebraska Humane Society and at Take Flight Farm.

Lisa tries to pass on to Charlie, 13, and Mary, 10, what her mother passed on to her. “We try to instill that sense of giving back as an obligation to being a citizen in a community. I don’t tell them what charities to support, but foster independence.

“Mom said the only thing you get out of life is what you give away.”

Sharon Marvin Griffin & Melissa Marvin

Sharon Marvin Griffin and her daughter, Melissa Marvin, have received many of Omaha’s top honors for volunteering. For Sharon, they have included Arthritis Woman of the Year, Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor, Salvation Army Others Award, and United Way of the Midlands Volunteer of the Year, among others. For Melissa, awards have included the 2010 YWCA Women of Distinction and honors from the Omaha Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Each has been involved in more than 40 charitable activities over a lifetime. Each presently serves on 10 nonprofit boards. Coincidence? Not likely. Melissa has inherited her mother’s zest for volunteering.

“Mom is a professional volunteer,” says Melissa. “No. 1 is the importance of giving back. No. 2 is the importance of how to be a leader, how to work together in teams. I try to emulate that.”

“Mom is a professional volunteer…I try to emulate that.” – Melissa Marvin

Melissa remembers her first volunteer experience at age 7. She and brother Barney, then age 2, delivered Christmas gifts to shut-ins. “We looked on it as an honor,” she says.

The family, including her father, Sam Marvin, who died in 1997, together rang bells for The Salvation Army.

The mother and daughter also have in common busy careers. Sharon, who is married to Dr. William Griffin, has had a 25-year career in real estate at NP Dodge. Melissa is with the Cohen Brown Management Group and is director of Community Engagement for Metropolitan Community College.

Mom has the final word: “The more you give, the more you grow.”

Susan Cutler, Jeanie Jones & Jackie Lund

Susan Cutler has big fans in her daughters.

“I watch all the friends Mom has made and the rewards you get from giving. I have huge shoes to fill,” says Jeanie Jones. “I don’t think she realizes how big those shoes are.”

Those shoes took the first steps to volunteering in her hometown of Council Bluffs, where Susan lived with her husband, Bill Cutler, a funeral director. They moved to Omaha in 1987. “When I started volunteering, I learned so much about my community,” she says.

She volunteered at her children’s schools. “I wanted to meet other parents, learn what was happening,” says Susan, who was a third-grade teacher earlier in her life. She presently is on the board of directors of the Methodist Hospital Foundation and Children’s Hospital Foundation and is co-chairman for Joslyn Art Museum’s 2013 Gala.

“I have huge shoes to fill. I don’t think [Mom] realizes how big those shoes are.” – Jeanie Jones

Her daughters have their own impressive resume of community service.

“I remember Mom was involved in Ak-Sar-Ben when I was in sixth and seventh grades. I had to go to stuff and didn’t like it,” laughs daughter Jackie Lund. The mother of two children is owner of Roots & Wings Boutique in Omaha. But Jackie now goes to “stuff” and enjoys it. She is guild board treasurer of the Omaha Children’s Museum.

“I met some of my best friends through volunteer work,” says daughter Jeanie, who has three children. She serves in leadership positions for such groups as Clarkson Service League, Ak-Sar-Ben, Joslyn Art Museum, and Girls, Inc.

Susan said she didn’t try to influence her daughters. “Your children do what they watch, not what you say.” She continues her devotion to volunteering. “You learn about yourself, as well as about the community. It all comes back to you more than you can ever imagine.”

Sharon McGill & Kyle Robino

Kyle Robino remembers as a child slapping stickers on hundreds of mailings for charities. That was her first exposure to the world of volunteering with her mother, Sharon McGill.

Their family’s tradition of volunteering has been passed down from generation to generation. Sharon inherited the volunteering gene from her mother, who helped establish the Albuquerque Garden Center, and from her grandmother, a strong force in her rural New Mexico community. “I looked back at their lives and learned how they made things better for others,” she says.

Sharon brought along her talents as a ballet dancer when she moved to Omaha in 1968. Not surprisingly, her first volunteer act was helping to build a professional ballet company. A dancer, teacher, board president, and, later, ballet mistress for Ballet Omaha, Sharon took her two daughters along. They attended ballet classes and absorbed the essence of volunteering from watching their mother. She now serves on the Joslyn Castle board.

“I think people who volunteer clearly had mothers who were great role models. My mom was a great role model.” – Kyle Robino

Kyle and her sister, Gwen McGill, who resides in Napa Valley, Calif., are following in their mother’s ballet shoes.

The JDRF is the center of Kyle’s volunteer work. Five years ago, her older daughter, Olivia, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Kyle’s husband, Mike, is board president of the JDRF Heartland Chapter.

“As you get older, you figure out what your passions are and what causes are personal to you,” says Kyle, who owns Old Market Habitat flower shop. “I think people who volunteer clearly had mothers who were great role models,” she says. “My mom was a great role model.”

Kyle is now a role model for a possible fifth generation of volunteers—daughters Olivia, 14, and Ava, 7. These young ladies will have big shoes to fill, too.

Creativity, Ingenuity, and Work Ethic

February 25, 2013 by

The United States is like no other place in the world because of the environment we maintain for providing incentive for those willing to think outside the box. As I travel, talking to individuals who have taken a crazy idea all the way to a profitable venture, I am struck by how few of us even know about what these Americans do.

Here are two examples which you will never see on even The Science Channel:

First, there is a small division of a larger American company that uses patents developed in Star Wars labs to make possible that which was impossible just a few years ago. A small research team has developed the ability to use lasers to destroy incoming missiles, airplanes, or even mortar rounds—instant, accurate, and very powerful lasers to heat and destroy in order to make us safe from these threats. In accomplishing this task, an idea emerged that a spin-off use of this kind of technology would be easy. As they say, tactical to practical.

This small division uses powerful lasers to hammer metal into complex shapes and to stress metals in a manner that extends their useful life fivefold.

What if the U.S. military purchased a fighter which cost $350 million…a fighter that, after a mere 800 hours of flight time, risked having the mounts securing the wings fail and the wings fall off? What if these mounts could easily be made many times stronger, and last many times longer, by hitting them with powerful lasers?

What if a large, multi-national aviation company determined that the aluminum frame for their aircraft would begin to fail after just a decade of use? What if the use of a powerful laser could extend the useful life of these frames fivefold?

What if the U.S. nuclear power facilities learned that the steel reaction chambers were being harmed by the radiation in a manner that failure was likely? What if these steel chambers could be strengthened by hitting the surface with powerful lasers, thus extending the useful life greatly?

These and many more equally fascinating problems are being solved by this small group.

Another example…There’s a unique American metal-working company that is capable of pressing hot alloys into complex shapes using pressures of 5.2 million pounds. The press weighing in at 5,300,000 pounds with three of the heaviest components weighing almost a million pounds each. Aerospace industries so rely on this company for its unique capabilities that they require back-ups for each of the press components to be kept on-site, so that any component failure can be quickly replaced. There is no other press like this in the world.

Wouldn’t you consider these companies something to be heralded by the media? I, for one, find this infinitely more interesting than what fashion some actor prefers.

These two companies, and the hundreds of other unique American companies, cause me to ask, what is so different about the United States that entrepreneurs are willing to risk all to chase their dreams? Profit, of course. The ability to bring a great idea, or capability, to market and be compensated for the passion, perseverance, and hard work it takes to overcome the myriad of obstacles every entrepreneur faces daily.

So, when I hear the Occupy Wall Street types and short-sighted legislators say that the capital gains income tax rate should be the same as ordinary income, I want to scream out that we only need to look at what’s occurring in France now that their long-term investment tax rate is 60 percent. If we remove the profit incentive, we will remove the incentive to innovate, create, and work as hard as it takes to overcome the challenges of a new business venture.

Any views and/or opinions present in “The Know-It-All” columns are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of B2B Omaha Magazine or their parent company and/or their affiliates.

Beads Bind Sibling Duo

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Small, multi-hued, and made of various materials, beads have always been a part of a whole rainbow of cultures. From their origin in North Africa to love beads notoriously worn by hippies of the ’60s to Native American tribes, people have been adorning their bodies with beads for centuries.

Omaha native Adam Michael Langdon, 33, saw a business in beads. His mother, local business owner Laurie Langdon-Gerber, has already made a huge name for herself with her own successful jewelry company, Elisa Ilana. It’s only fitting that two of her children are cruising  down the same creative path.

Along with younger sister Elisa Gerber, 32, Langdon runs Adam Michael Jewelry, as well as Designer Beads and Charms, which are both located on 120th and Blondo streets. The shops carry the popular Troll Beads, Chamilia Jewelry, and an onslaught of other big brands. Their ardent ambition is evident. They have a staff of about 10, and even as the interview is going on, Langdon’s agile hands stay busy setting up Christmas displays while Gerber diligently works on her computer. The brother-sister team works well together, although they will be the first to admit they have their days.

“We can tear each other’s heads off or be high-fiving all day,” Langdon says. “Depends on the day,” Gerber playfully adds.20121205_bs_7045 copy

While their tight, almost inexplicable bond clearly goes beyond just the DNA that ties them together, working side-by-side has been a true test…If that doesn’t tear a relationship apart, then nothing will. With the matriarch of the family also being in the bead and jewelry business, things have the potential to get heated, but the mutual respect they share for one another runs deep.

“We are kind of in competition with her because she sells Pandora [another popular brand of jewelry],” Langdon says. “We pick each other’s brain, and it’s usually over dinner. If there’s any flak to give, it’s all in good fun.”

As a family-owned operation, it’s the small things that set them apart from larger corporations. The staff is ready to help the customer every step of the way, even if it means designing the bracelet or necklace for you. The brother-sister duo is intent on keeping it that way.