Upstart Startups

In the days before bank failures, stock-market tumbles and worldwide economic malaise, a college diploma—especially one from a top university like Vanderbilt—was a one-way ticket to financial security. These days, however, graduates are faced with less-than-certain job prospects.

America’s 50 million Millennials represent the most educated generation ever, but they also have the highest number of underemployed or unemployed.

The alumni featured here have found their way by following their passions. That coincides neatly with a 2010 Pew Research Center survey that found Millennials—defined as 18- to 29-year-olds—to be “confident, upbeat and open to change.”

Here we have a biker, a baker and a businesswoman. There’s an educator changing women’s lives in Africa and two fashion wunderkinds changing the way we dress. They are their own bosses—and they plan to keep it that way.

Fashion-Forward and Fabulous

Timo Weiland takes Manhattan.

timo-weilandTalking to Timo Weiland, BS’06, is like being caught in a swirling eddy of other conversations, cellphone ringtones and clacking computer keys. His energy is abundant and apparent—even from hundreds of miles away.

Weiland always had a notion to work for himself, but instead took a position in investment banking right after leaving Vanderbilt with a degree in human and organizational development. The offer of a promotion at this job, which he didn’t love, spurred him into action.

“I knew that if I took the promotion, I’d be stuck there for another five years,” Weiland says. “I didn’t want to accept it and then throw it away—I’d rather someone else take it.”

Weiland quit the banking job and launched a consulting business, which led to the creation of the eponymous fashion label he co-founded with design partner Alan Eckstein.

The two spent a year defining their vision and their customer. They approached their work with a clear understanding of their intended audience—“our girl” and “our guy.” The hard work paid off, and their first collection—a full line of men’s and women’s ready-to-wear items ranging from trousers and dresses to blazers and blouses—debuted with great success in spring 2010.

“Our reviews were really good, and Barneys bought that first collection,” Weiland says. “We hit our goal and even went over because Barneys placed a bigger order than we had expected. But you can’t pat yourself on the back—you have to get right back to work.”

Aside from the New York-based luxury department store chain, Weiland’s brand also has been found at London-based Harvey Nichols and at upscale shops from Beverly Hills to Tokyo to Hong Kong. In just their second year, sales numbers are climbing, and Weiland continues to solidify his brand.

“The one thing that sets us apart is that we make all our own prints, and they are very distinct,” Weiland says. “We’re known for our colors, and every season we create a new, distinct palette. The colors are combined in some odd, unexpected ways, but ‘our girl’ gets it because she is constantly evolving.”

As a designer, Weiland finds a new muse for every collection—someone who inspires him. His current muse has a direct relation to his alma mater: Gloria Vanderbilt, the great-granddaughter of the original Commodore.

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No Gluten? No Problem

Tasha Ross and Lindsay Beckner fill a baking niche.

Tasha Ross, left, and Lindsay Beckner
Tasha Ross, left, and Lindsay Beckner

Lindsay Beckner’s days begin early. She generally arrives at work between 1 and 3 a.m. to begin baking that day’s supply of goods for FiddleCakes, the bakery and café she owns with fellow Vanderbilt alumna Tasha Ross, MBA’08.

Beckner, BA’04, and Ross were introduced by Germain Böer, professor of accounting and director of the Owen Entrepreneurship Center at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management. He knew that Beckner, who had been a Vanderbilt economics major, was interested in cooking and that Ross was interested in buying a bakery.

“I was excited about looking at a bakery from a business standpoint, looking at doing something that hadn’t been done before,” Ross says. “Lindsay and I met and decided that we wanted to work together. We looked at a couple of bakeries that were for sale, but we walked away and decided to create our own concept.”

FiddleCakes opened its first Nashville location in October 2009, and its second about a year later. It’s part bakery, part café and part coffeehouse, and it fills a welcome void to thousands by providing gluten-free baked goods.

“We bake the gluten-free items first thing in the morning in an oven that’s strictly dedicated to the gluten-free product,” Beckner says. “I sterilize all the bake ware and utensils before and after using them. All the gluten-free items are in a separate case and have extra wrapping. Extras are stored in a separate area of the kitchen as well.”

While Beckner takes the early morning shift, Ross works events at night, promoting the business.

“I love to be involved in the community, and it serves us well,” Ross says. “People just don’t hear about FiddleCakes because they walk through the door. They hear about it through our marketing or because they’ve met me at an event we’ve catered.”

While the two fill very different roles at FiddleCakes, they agree that quality and service are the two most important characteristics for their success.

“If someone comes in and says they need a gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free cake, I can make it,” Beckner says. “And it will taste good.”

“It’s nice for our customers to know that no matter what’s going on in their lives, we’re here with smiles on our faces and some great food,” Ross says. “We’ve had bad days, too, but we know a peanut chocolate chip cookie always helps.”

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Pedal Power

Austin Bauman turns his passion for cycling into a career.

austin-baumanRight after he graduated from Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music in 2006, Austin Bauman took a 5,000-mile bike ride across the country. The ride benefited various children’s hospitals and made a lasting impression.

“That trip changed my perspective on bicycles and made me realize that they can really play a significant role in the world,” Bauman says. “I tried selling real estate for a couple of years, but the economy tanked and I started thinking about doing something else.”

He noticed that the real estate company where he worked was spending $20 every time it had a courier deliver a package. Bauman figured he could do it for $18 and ride his bike instead of driving.

“My boss at the time told me I’d probably be a lot better at the courier business than real estate,” he says.

In 2009, Bauman opened Green Fleet Messengers, a bicycle courier service serving downtown Nashville. Deliveries outside a set five-mile radius are made with the company’s hybrid vehicle.

“When I started out, it was just me and my bicycle, so the startup cost was low,” Bauman says. “I actually financed it with credit cards in the beginning, but I eventually dug myself out of that hole.”

Bauman is proud of the difference his small company is making in Nashville. “When you send a bicycle in place of a car, there’s an environmental impact and a social impact,” Bauman says. “You help ease traffic congestion and pollution, and a bike-able community improves everyone’s quality of life.”

Today Green Fleet has between four and six cyclists making deliveries at any given time. On a busy day, a single cyclist will cover 50 miles in Nashville’s downtown business district. All Green Fleet employees are experienced, committed bike riders—one doesn’t even own a car.

“I’ve never had a problem working hard as long as I loved what I was doing,” Bauman says. “I get so excited when we get a new client that I don’t even think about the dollars and cents.”

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New Life for Genocide Survivors

A class project became Elizabeth Davis’ life work.

When she was a senior majoring in human and organizational development, Elizabeth Davis, BS’06, did an independent study about Rwanda and its struggles after the genocide of 1994, when more than 1 million people were killed in just over three months. Three days after graduation she moved there.

“I was part of an organization called Global Youth Connect, and we were learning about human-rights advocacy in Rwanda,” Davis says. “After two years I realized that I wanted to open my own school and create a model of education to help young women.”

In 2008, Davis started working on her plan. She raised money and garnered government support that resulted in the use of an old school building and 70 acres in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. During the next few months, she hired a staff, put together a curriculum, and selected the first class of students. Davis named the school the Akilah Institute for Women. Akilah means “wisdom” in Swahili.

“There’s an entire generation of Rwandans who were children during the war,” Davis says. “Most of our students are orphans, and many are genocide survivors. We deal with some pretty severe psychological trauma—we have students who have machete scars on their heads.”

Davis’ goal is to empower this generation of young women so they might achieve financial independence.

“I want to give them tangible, market-relevant skills that will help them take care of their families,” she says. “I want them to be able to find good jobs and take advantage of all the economic development happening in East Africa right now.”

Davis has nothing but praise for present-day Rwanda, despite its bloody, unstable recent history. “Today Rwanda has some of the lowest levels of corruption in Africa and some of the highest levels of economic development,” she says. “They’ve made such progress and have created a peaceful society less than 20 years after a tenth of their population was wiped out and their infrastructure completely destroyed.”

Davis says the Rwandan government is committed to lifting its people out of poverty, creating jobs and educating its population. “I find it an incredibly inspiring place to work,” she says. “For a small country to be accomplishing all this is really powerful.”

Last year Davis was presented a Women of Peace Award by the Women’s Peacepower Foundation Inc., which recognizes women and girls involved in grassroots projects to bring peace to the everyday lives of women and their families.

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Bedazzling in Bergdorf Goodman

Danielle Snyder brings affordable fashion jewelry to the masses.

When Danielle Snyder, BS’07, and her sister, Jodie, discovered their father’s medical tool kit at a young age, they also discovered a talent for jewelry making. The art of matching delicate wires and beautiful stones eventually led to DANNIJO, their New York-based jewelry company.

Soon after moving to New York in 2007, Danielle created a small jewelry collection—called a capsule collection—to support LWALA (Living with a Lifelong Ambition), a nonprofit she founded during her senior year at Vanderbilt, where she majored in psychology.

“The idea behind LWALA is to get young people to use their passions and talents to impact change,” Snyder says. “I designed this collection to raise funds for a medical facility in Kenya, and it was a huge success.”

Ultimately, actress Natalie Portman signed on to the nonprofit’s board. In an interview with New York Magazine, Portman mentioned the jewelry as a hot gift, and that was the catalyst for the sisters to jump into the business feet first.

“That’s when Jodie and I decided it was now or never,” Snyder says. “We knew that if we were ever going to have our own company, this was the time to do it. We cold-called Bergdorf Goodman in March 2008, and they became our first account.”

DANNIJO jewelry ranges in price from $100 to $1,000, making it affordable for a wide swath of consumers. Aside from the usual pieces, the company recently introduced a line of iPhone and iPad cases.

“There’s always been really high-end jewelry and really inexpensive jewelry, but we wanted to fill that middle niche,” Snyder says. “With today’s economy, people are more careful with their purchases, and fashion jewelry is a smart way to update a wardrobe.”

Danielle’s jewelry has received many accolades. In 2009 she and her sister were named to Inc. magazine’s “30 Under 30” list of the country’s top young entrepreneurs.

Fashion is notoriously fickle, but Snyder doesn’t let the pressure get to her. “My only concern is to keep creating beautiful jewelry that we—and our friends—would want to wear,” Snyder says. “We just want to be fresh and new and stay excited about the products we’re creating.”

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