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Aisha’s Adventures: A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

July 10, 2014 1 comment

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up story to lift you out of the self=pity blues or doldrums then you’d be hard-pressed to top the story of Aisha Okudi, an Omaha woman who has not let anything stop her, including homelessness, from pursuing her entrepreneurial missionary purpose and dream.  This is my new cover story about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I did a previous story about Aisha and her path of inspiration and transformation which you can find on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Aisha’s Adventures:  A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

Her Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of beauty products serves African missions dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.

Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she’s remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she’s come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at HyVee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane’s Health Market and select salons. She’s working to get in Whole Foods.

She’s humble about her success because she’s following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.

The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.

She says she’s tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.” In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.

 

Cover Photo

Aisha, left end, middle row, in Africa and displays of her products

She visited Ghana in 2012. She’s returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she’ll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.

“I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me.”

She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.

It’s a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.

“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.'”
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.

“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”

The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.

“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”

 

 

 

 

 

She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.

“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money.”

In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.

In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.

“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.

That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says. She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”

To her relief the judge didn’t give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious, it wasn’t a game. I enrolled in school.”

Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” Okudi’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.

Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.

She’s learned to forgive, but she’s only human. “Even though I’ve grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”

Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.

“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.'”

Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.

“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that’s where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”

She even speaks some native dialects.

She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.

“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”

Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.

Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It’s naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it.”

Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.

She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too.”

 

 

After trying mechanized mass manufacturing, she’s back to hand mass manufacturing her products
Mass production of the New Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC Body Lotion!! Do you have yours?
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Aisha at a store display opening

Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She’s in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.

She says besides her line being “bomb diggity,” retailers and customers alike respond to “the mission purpose behind it,” adding, “It’s purposeful, its meaningful, there’s life to my company.”

Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production’s unfolded in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. “My business is simple, it doesn’t really need a big plant or office.”

Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.

Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”

“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”

She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence “things work in mysterious ways – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi’s opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .

“Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done.”

Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. “I asked God, “What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?’ I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.” Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn’t work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.

“It kept me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”

 

 

It’s why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn’t have right now.

“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.

“God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there’s preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I’ve been through I’ve actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward.”

For the past year she’s earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.

Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:

“To persevere, period. I don’t care what your situation is you’ve got to keep going. The world doesn’t stop, time doesn’t stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ The fight is not easy, the fight ain’t no joke, it’s a war, it’s a battle. You’ve got to put full armor on and fight. God don’t have punks in his army.

“You’ve got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to.”

She’s aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.

“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, ‘If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now, he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”

 

Photo: Team Sha Luminous heading to Lincoln to knock out the HyVees there :-)!! Wish us luck and throw some prayers out there too! Thanks.
Aisha drives far and wide slinging her shea butter line

 

 

She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?'” She acknowledges she couldn’t transform without help.

“When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I’ve learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who’ve already been there and done it. I’ve seen what not to do and what to do. I’ve learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it’s not about what I know it’s about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me.”

In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University’s Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.

“I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs.”

She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.

After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.

“I’ve gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don’t want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I’ll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I’ve been following I’ll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company.”

 

 

Photo: Happy Birthday󾔑 Esha I love you enjoy your day!!!!󾦈󾠣󾆕󾠨󾓕󾁀
Her younger sister put together this montage of Aisha for her birthday

 

 

She’s determined to complete her mission.

“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.

“I haven’t been at a standstill. I’ve come a long way and I continue to grow. I’m still transforming, I’m still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in.”
She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.

“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”

This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.

For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.

 

One of Aisha’s many different looks

Couple gives plumbing a sexy new turn

May 23, 2014 1 comment

Big Birge Plumbing in Omaha proves anything can be made sexy, even that grimy blue collar labor dedicated to cleaning clogged drains, sewers, pipes, and valves and keeping sinks, baths, toilets, washers, water heaters, and the like working right.  The couple behind the company, Brad and Lallenia Birge, are having a lot of fun with a marketing campaign that plays off their good looks and a whole 1950s-era theme riffing Hollywood movie, television sitcoms, pinups, and  pulp novels.  It’s one part naughty and two parts nice and all around cleverly executed.  Read and see for yourself in my Omaha B2B Magazine story below.

 

 

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Couple gives plumbing a sexy new turn

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha B2B Magazine
Plumbing has never looked like this.

An Omaha couple is turning heads with online teasers for their Big Birge Plumbing Company and gaining new customers in the process. Brad and Lallenia Birge lend their killer smiles and buff, model good looks to Pop Art-style ads that emphasize primary colors, tongue-in-cheek graphics and sex appeal dynamics.

The company logo features an illustration of Brad’s flexed arm, adorned in a rolled up red and black flannel shirt to expose a bulging bicep. His burly hand grips a red wrench. In a profile pose they stand back to back. He’s dressed in the iconic working man’s garb of THAT shirt, blue jeans and work boots, an oversized wrench dangling from one hand. Lallenia’s attired in a blouse, shorts and heels as she holds a plunger. In some shots she wears a red and white polka dot dress and in others a tight fitting white sweater with a blue or red skirt. In still more poses she clutches a giant wrench or a frying pan in an oven-gloved hand. Her expressions range from mock distress to amour.

In these fanciful turns he’s the strong, dependable man and she’s the woman in need of rescue. The retro campaign echoes vintage television situation comedies, Technicolor romantic movies, comic strips, pulp novels and pinup glossies. It’s Betty Page exotica meets Doris Day-Rock Hudson fantasy meets Li’l Abner-Daisy Mae shtick.

Completing this throwback homage is the tagline: “Honesty, quality, American craftsmanship. Old-fashioned values reborn.” The alter-ego personas are exaggerations of the couple’s real selves but the expressed values are how they live and do business.

“We take it very seriously,” says Brad. “We stay true to what we say we are. I can’t stand bad service. The way you treat somebody is everything. It’s totally how you present yourself. On any job I do I try to make it a positive experience for clients.

“We do have a lot of repeat customers and there’s a reason why – we treat people right. We give people good a price and good service. Our clients become our friends.”

He’s a master licensed plumber with years in the trades. She’s a personal fitness trainer who’s opted to devote more time to their son Wyatt and to the business. Her entrepreneurial skills have proven invaluable. She conceives the marketing herself and executes it with help from his mother and photographer Justin Barnes.

 

 

“She’s turned out to be a really big part of the company,” Brad says of Lallenia. “Without her backing me and giving me feedback and throwing ideas out and putting it into play the business wouldn’t be where it is today. As far as our image, it’s all her.”

Lallenia, who enjoys finding frilly props and playing adult dress-up, says it’s all about finding creative ways to make Big Birge stand out.

“When you see other plumbing ads it’s all guys. I was like, ‘We need a woman’s touch here.’ It’s just fun for us to do our own thing right now and to be ourselves. People think we shell out big bucks for our marketing, but we don’t. As long as we can do it ourselves, we’re going to continue doing it.”

The couple says their business website, bigbirgeplumbing.com, garners high traffic and positive feedback. The same is true for their Facebook page and for YouTube videos they’ve made. Their eye-catching promos extend to T-shirts, yard signs and company vehicles.

Coming soon is Lallenia’s own website, “The Plumber’s Wife.”

“It’s about wives helping their husbands as entrepreneurs,” she says. “I am a plumber’s wife and I’m darn proud of it. I want to keep us strong.”

Call Big Birge for an appointment at 402-575-0102.

 

To code or not to code: New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers


I am so not a techie.  That doesn’t preclude me from writing an occasional piece about a tech-based venture.  And in that spirit is an Omaha Magazine story I did on a new bootcamp for aspiring web designers called Omaha Code School and its co-founder, Sumeet Jain, who has taken as its model a similar school in his native Calif. he taught at.  He’s very much a part of a growing young entrepreneurial and creative class in Omaha that’s adding a new dynamism to the scene here.

 

 

Cover Photo

Omaha Magazine

 

To code or not to code
New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine
Entrepreneurial techie Sumeet Jain is poised to fill a gap in the metro’s dot com scene through a for-profit startup he founded last fall with his cousin Rahul Gupta. The pair’s Omaha Code School aims to provide aspiring web developers an immersive bootcamp experience and employers entry-level-capable programmers.

The Calif. natives are partners in their own web development company, Big Wheel Brigade. Gupta rode the dot com wave before coming to Omaha and at his urging Jain followed suit. Since forming the school Gupta’s moved to San Francisco but Jain’s remained in Omaha to run their new educational endeavor in Midtown Crossing.

Thirteen students began the school’s inaugural “intensive” 12-week course Feb. 24. Jain, the lead instructor, promises the May graduates will leave with a hireable skill set for jobs paying an 80K median salary.

The OCS curriculum structure is based on a bootcamp model popular across the country and one Jain’s familiar with after teaching a web development course for General Assembly on the west coast. He says he was skeptical students could go from novices to job-ready in three months until he helped facilitate that happen. The experience convinced him to try it in Omaha, where he says “a frequent complaint of companies is that there’s not enough talent – not enough developers and not enough qualified developers,” adding, “I thought we should have something like this in Omaha, so I came back, put the pieces together and we launched in November.”

It’s an opportunity for Jain to combine his two loves – web development and teaching. He ensures students are trained in relevant, real world programming languages and techniques most colleges and universities ignore.

Interested students must complete an online application that includes a timed coding challenge. While no prior programming experience is required, students must demonstrate an aptitude for the field, namely logic and problem solving.

“The course is for beginners but this isn’t for hobbyists,” says Jain, a self-taught web developer. “This is a class for people who are looking for a career trajectory change and that comes not just at a cost (tuition is $6,000) but with great personal investment and effort. We want to ensure the highest possible caliber of student.”

Jain says it’s no accident the school’s website and application process emphasizes the intensive curriculum, which features individual and collaborative work on real live projects every day.

“It’s really hard to sit and program for 12 hours a day,” he says. “It’s just mentally draining. Keeping that pace up for 12 weeks is a sprint students need to get through. We do our part to hedge against that weariness by holding events that let them let loose and bond and have a break.”

There are field trips to tech-based local companies and guest speakers presenting on special topics. OCS holds a job fair staffed by representatives from companies in its Supporting Employers program.

“We want our students when they graduate to have connections,” Jain says. “Such a big part of any industry is to know people.”

A mentorship program makes area experts available.

“Another commonly cited problem in Omaha is a diffracted membership model,” he says. “If somebody wants to get help there’s no single great place for them to go or no list of people to consult. We’re really excited our mentorship program will create a conduit for people to get help.”

Mentors range from non-tech to tech-savvy wonks. A yoga instructor conducts twice-weekly sessions to help students de-stress and find balance. A corporate recruiter offers job search insights. Web designers school students in collaboration. Software developers troubleshoot problems students confront writing programs.

Jain’s encouraged by the supporting companies on board and he’s proud that membership fees go toward scholarships for underrepresented minorities in what is a white male-dominated field. Each of the three women in the course received a $2,500 scholarship.

He’s also satisfied by the buzz the school’s produced.

“Support has come in a variety of different ways, most fundamentally in the form of curiosity. People want to know about us, they want to know what we’re teaching, they want to know when our next class will be offered (late summer). The interest is there, we won’t have any trouble filling our second class. I’m very confident about that.”

Jain says he’s also confident that “within six months to a year every one of our students who wants a job should be able to get one. That’s going to speak volumes because these students all took a risk on me.
If our students aren’t succeeding there’s really no reason for somebody to trust us again.”

Follow the bootcamp at omahacodeschool.com.

 

 

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

January 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Patique Collins has got it going on.  She is a high achieving African American woman with an alluring combination of physical besuty, spiritual enlightenment, business savvy, and passion for her life’s calling.  The Omaha, Neb. fitness trainer loves empowering people to positively chnage their lives.  In the short time between leaving a successful corporate career to starting her own buisness, she’s expertly branded her Right Fit company to grow its client base and to garner media attention.  I discovered her through her heady, consistent use of Facebook as a social media marketing platform that gets her name and face and brand out there, not just through the usual promotional methods but through inspiring before and after pictorials and testimonials that demonstrate the difference that Right Fit workouts make and through affirmations she writes and shares to offer encouraging  life lessons.  My profile of Patique is for Omaha Magazine.

 

 

Photo: Excited and Humbled! Right Fit is featured in "Omaha Magazine" ... "Best of Omaha 2014" edition story by Leo Adam Biga! 2014 will bring some new changes, new strategies and new options for you ...Change is Good, GOD is Good and I am thankful!! #Thank YOU

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In 2011 Patique Collins left a two-decade corporate career to open a fitness gym. Two-and-a-half years later her Right Fit at 11067 West Maple Rd. jumps with clients.

Under her watchful eye and upbeat instruction, members do various aerobic and anaerobic exercises, kickboxing and Zumba included, all to pulsating music, sometimes supplied by DJ Mista Soul. She helps clients tone their bodies and build cardio, strength and flexibility.

The sculpted Omaha native is a longtime fitness convert. Nine years ago she added weight training to her running regimen and got serious about nutrition. She’d seen too many loved ones suffer health problems from poor diet and little exercise. The raw vegan describes her own workouts as “intense” and “extreme.”

She pushes clients hard.

“I really want to help every single person that comes in reach their maximum potential, and that is a big responsibility,” she says. “if you don’t give up on you, I won’t. I will do whatever I can to help you earn your goals if you’re ready to.”

 

 

 

 

She’s known to show up at your job if you skip class.

“There’s accountability here at Right Fit. I’m very passionate about my clients.”

She believes the relationships she builds with clients keeps them coming back.

“People will tend to stay if you develop a relationship and work towards results.”

Her gym. like her Facebook page, is filled with affirmations about following dreams. being persistent and never quitting.

“I think positivity is a part of my DNA.”

She keeps things fun with theme workouts, sometimes dressing as a superhero.

A huge influence in her life was her late maternal grandmother, Faye Jackson, who raised her after Collins and her siblings were thrown into the foster care system. “My grandmother told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and made me believe it.” Collins went on to attain multiple college degrees.

Motivated to help others, she made human resources her career. She and her then-husband Anthony Collins formed the Nothing But Foundation to assist at-risk youth. While working as a SilverStone Group senior consultant and as Human Resources Recruitment Administrator for the Omaha Public Schools she began “testing the waters” as a trainer conducting weekend fitness boot camps..

 

 

 

 

Stepping out from the corporate arena to open her own gym took a leap of faith for this now divorced mother of two small children..

“This is a lot of work. I am truly a one-woman show. Sometimes that can be challenging.

She’s proud to be a successful female African-American small business owner and humbled by awards she’s received for her business and community achievements.

Right Fit is her living but she works hard maintaining the right balance. Family and faith are er top priorities.

This former model, who’s emceed events and trained celebrities (Usher and LL Cool J), wants to franchise her business, produce workout videos and be a mind-body fitness national presenter.

She believes opportunities continue coming her way because of her genuine spirit.

“There’s some things you can’t fake and being authentic is one of them. I’m doing what I want to do, I think it’s my ministry. Everybody has their gifts, and this is mine.

I’m able to influence people not just physically but mentally.”

MindMixer: Rethinking the Town Hall Meeting

August 28, 2013 Leave a comment

MindMixer is more than a great name, it has a great concept and utility behind it too.  Entreprereurial partners Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim have combined their urban planning and tech savvy skill sets to an online platform that is rethinking the town hall meeting.  My B2B Omaha Magazine story about the duo and their innovative Omaha-based business follows.

 

 

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MindMixer founders Nathan Preheim (left) and Nick Bowden

Rethinking the Town Hall Meeting

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Urban planners turned entrepreneurs Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim never got used to the slim turnouts that town hall meetings drew for civic projects under review. It bothered them that so few people weighed in on decisions affecting so many.

Preheim, 39, and Bowden, 29, also didn’t feel comfortable cast in the roles of experts who knew what was in the best interests of citizens. They felt too many good ideas went unheard in the process.

The way the Omaha natives saw it, a new approach was needed to better engage people in civic discourse and therefore help build stronger communities. “Lucky for us, urban planning is really stodgy,” says Preheim. “Technology has not really infiltrated the inherent processes within the field, so there was a great opportunity for us to integrate technology into public participation. That’s where we kind of came up with the solution to a very common problem—how do you get more people engaged and interested in talking about community betterment?

Town halls had been and still are the primary vehicle by which cities solicit feedback. They’re hundreds of years old, and they really haven’t changed much at all. We saw an opportunity to enliven the conversation by inverting that model and empowering people to be a part of that change.”

The business partners developed a startup technology company called MindMixer (see related story on page 33) whose online platform offers a virtual front porch for ideas and opinions to be shared, noticed, and acted upon.

 

 

Nathan Preheim

Nathan Preheim

 

 

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating,” says co-founder and CEO Bowden. “Our founding premise is that technology can break that barrier of convenience and open up a bigger world of potential inputs.”

Co-founder and COO Preheim says, “There’s probably something I could learn from you; there’s probably something you could learn from me. We’re way smarter together than we are individually. I think some of that same mantra and guiding force influences what we’re trying to do here.”

“Our purpose is to build a stronger community by involving people in things that matter,” says Bowden. If the response from investors, clients, and everyday citizens is any indication, these visionaries have found a powerful engine to connect everyday people with local government bodies, schools, hospitals, and organizations of all kinds.

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating.” – Nick Bowden

Launched in 2011, MindMixer, which offices at the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, has more than 400 clients and expects to reach 1,000 by year’s end. As of July, MindMixer had raised $6.2 million in venture capital, much of it from local investors, to develop its tool. The company’s roster of 30 employees is also expected to grow.

By digitizing the town hall, MindMixer facilitates discussions and debates for projects large and small, from rebranding the entire San Francisco public transit system to a crosswalk put in outside Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park.

Whatever the idea, whether it relates to recreation or education or health care or some other quality of life issue, people now have a 24/7 avenue to have a say in it.

Preheim notes, “We think we’re the first company that’s trying to pull this off—to unify all those different communities and allow you to sort of contribute to each of them from a single place. It’s providing opportunities for people to give back or reinvest or make a contribution. We’re a funnel, we’re a vehicle, we’re kind of giving voice to people who may not have had that before. It’s empowering, it’s uplifting.

“We are part of something, call it a new movement if you will, that’s enabling better transparency and decision-making by stakeholders who are sort of tapping into the collective wisdom of their constituents. We’re kind of in the meaningful change business. That’s exciting stuff.”

 

 

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Nick Bowden

 

 

Validation that they’re onto something big, Preheim says, also comes in the large “number of citizen-submitted ideas that have actually been carried forward and implemented” nationwide and the sheer participation happening on sponsored MindMixer sites.

“Last year, we engaged over 800,000 participants, and those 800,000 participants submitted over 38,000 ideas,” says Preheim. “Those are empowering statistics, these are encouraging numbers.” He projects two million-plus participants to submit upwards of 100,000 ideas in 2013.

Sometimes, projects respond to urgent human needs. For example, MindMixer-supported sites which assisted citizens organizing to fight back flood waters in Fargo, N.D., as well as those rebuilding neighborhoods in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The startup’s success earned it 2013 Innovator of the Year honors from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Technology Company of the Year recognition from the AIM Institute. Forbes magazine named Bowden an “up and comer.”

With the growth and attention come pressures to relocate, but Bowden and Preheim are determined to prove a tech company can make it big in Omaha. They believe there’s enough talented, smart people locally to lead the paradigm shift the company’s helping lead. MindMixer’s big aspiration is restoring the fabric of community by being the front porch of the internet, where people discuss things that matter and get involved in making positive change happen.

To see this story and other stories in this issue of Omaha B2B Magazine visit its website at: http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/

David Brown’s Omaha: Chamber Leader Focused on Making the City Shine

July 2, 2013 1 comment

Chamber of Commerce professionals are paid to say positive things about the communities they promote and that’s not to say they don’t believe the gilded words they profess but in the case of Omaha Chamber of Commerce president David Brown you really do get the sense he means what he says, lock, stock, and barrell.  My story about him for B2B Omaha Magazine is repurposed here.

 

 

Cover Photo

B2B Omaha Magazine - Omaha, NE

 

 

David Brown’s Omaha: Chamber Leader Focused on Making the City Shine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in B2B Omaha Magazine

 

David Brown did his fair share of moving around before settling here in 2003 to become president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Before assuming that post the Detroit native worked in his home state of Michigan, then in Indiana, before spending a solid decade in South Carolina.

Brown’s always stayed longer than the norm for chamber professionals because he also does economic development and that means putting down serious roots.

“Economic development is really my first love. The part I’ve grown to love the most is what do you do to improve the community so that it’s more attractive to companies and individuals to stay here or to come here. When you do chamber work, which traditionally does not include economic development, you don’t put down as many roots as you do if you’re doing economic development, where you’re selling dirt and really learning about the community. Clients have to see you’re knowledgeable and committed.”

After 10 years down South he and wife Maggie looked to get the youngest of their two sons settled in school. Moving to the middle of the country held great appeal.

“We wanted to get into a more positive public education environment for Elijah, who was getting ready to go into middle school. We wanted to get back to the Midwest where our roots were,” says Brown. “Fortunately the Omaha position was open and I threw my hat in the ring and I was fortunate to get the job.

“This is my 10th year. We’ve been here about as long as we’ve been anywhere.

This is home.”

His devotion to Omaha is such that he’s influenced extended family members to make this their home. He enjoys working with people who share his passion for enhancing Omaha..

“There has been a collection of leadership here that seems to have in the back of their mind, How do we improve this place?You’ve got this intentional effort to try and improve the place married with the unbelievable generosity of the philanthropists here and the corporate support for making this a better place. You see remarkable amenities created not to bring tourists to Omaha but to enhance the quality of life for the people who already live here. The fact they’ve had a tourist appeal as well is just chocolate on the Sunday.”

Add it all up, he says, “and that gives us a competitive advantage over other places where that kind of development and quality discussion doesn’t happen as consistently. We’ve got people who have been able to sit down and say what is it we need to be a better place and then they’ve gone about the process of getting it done. It’s fascinating to see how quickly some of this stuff has occurred, like the riverfront redevelopment. There was a frenetic pace almost that took place in the ’90s that continued into the 2000s.”

For Brown, there’s nothing better than seeing projects like the CenturyLink Center or Midtown Crossing take shape.

“I guess what really trips my trigger is that I can point to things I’ve been involved in that have made it a better place and given people jobs. I like making a difference, that’s really what it comes down to. It’s very rewarding at the end of the year to sit back and say, ‘What did we do this year?’ and know we made a measurable, demonstrable difference in the community we live in. Not just me, but the team we function with from our volunteers to our members to our staff.”

Omaha business and civic leaders value Brown’s efforts.

Mutual of Omaha CEO Dan Neary says, “Dave has worked diligently to shape the business environment from tax policy, incentives and employment training to create an attractive place for businesses to locate. He has promoted the Grow Omaha (GO!) campaign to promote the values of Omaha on a national level.”

“He’s always focused on the end result. He’s a good mediator when he needs to be but he’s also a good salesman for what we need to do. He interacts easily with all kinds of people and groups,” says HDR senior vice president of corporate relations Rex Fisher. “He’s very passionate about what he does and he’s a very consistent person.”

MECA president/CEO Roger Dixon says, “He’s got s professional approach to things, he’s very level-headed, he’s a consensus-builder. I’ve never been in a community where the Chamber is as influential as ours is here and it takes a dynamic individual to lead that. He understands the moving parts in our community and works around them.”

Brown will be guiding the new Prosper Omaha campaign that seeks to brand the city as never before. Omaha’s aspirational spirit resonates with him and the work of the Chamber.

“Omaha’s always been a business town and the business community here plays a big role in making things happen. We’ve been fortunate as an organization that the business community has looked to the Chamber to accomplish some pretty significant things and so over time we pick up some additional responsibilities. So we find ourselves in things a lot of chambers don’t find themselves involved in.”

The Young Professionals Association is an example.

“We have this dynamic young professionals organization that’s involved in virtually every major community activity you can think of. The management and leadership of that process has been a whole new learning experience for us. There’s 5,000 young professionals who at some point or another have plugged into this process of making Omaha a better place.

“We’re mentoring and engaging young professionals so they can be leaders in the future. It’s become part of our leadership agenda.”

In terms of projects, he says, the Chamber is “getting deeper and deeper into things the community needs. When (then-Chamber board chair) Dick Bell said in 2004 the Chamber’s going to be involved making sure every Omahan has an opportunity to succeed and every area in Omaha has an opportunity to grow that got us in the community development business. We’re going to help Midtown grow, were going to help NoDo grow, we’re going to help North Omaha grow, we’re going to help South Omaha grow. That changed the way we think about economic development and the activities we’re engaged in in doing community development.”

He says he likes that the Chamber not only “provides services to our members to grow their businesses but we’re also a catalytic organization.” He adds, “That means we’re sometimes change agents. Sometimes we lead. Virtually always we’re conveners. We convene a wide diversity of people that can help solve problems.  Advocacy is always a part of the agenda.”

A graduate of Dartmouth, where he played football and baseball, Brown is a natural people person and team player.

“I really like people,” he says.

He says lessons he learned playing team sports “are all things I use every day with our team here at the Chamber and with the teams we build within the community,” adding, “The Chamber rarely does things ourselves, we always partner with people and collaborate with others to get things accomplished, and that’s a different kind of team but a team nonetheless.”

He also likes getting things done.

“I like change, it’s something I really embrace. If i don’t see change happening I’m wondering if I’m doing my job. I like to come up with new ideas and trust my team to tell me which ones are good and which ones are bad and then see ideas come to fruition. In the end it doesn’t matter to me who gets the credit for stuff as long as we get stuff done. That’s the way the Chamber operates and in large measure it’s the way Omaha operates and I think that’s one of the things that makes us unique.”

Away from the office he enjoys golf, hunting, landscaping and reading. His wife is often by his side.

“She’s my best friend and we do everything together. She’s been my partner in this whole career process. She’s a great saleswoman. She’s done the trade show and conference thing with me. She knows the spiel. She can pitch just like I can. She’s great with volunteers and board members.”

Keep up to date with Brown and the Chamber at http://www.omahachamber.org.

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

April 28, 2013 1 comment

Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it.  Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues.  Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven.  My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine.  You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds.  I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.

 

 

Encounter Magazine - Omaha, NE

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Encounter Magazine

 

 

Sam Mercer

 

 

The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.

This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.

In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.

On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.

When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.

Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”

Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”

“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.

“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”

A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.

Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.

By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.

“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.

It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.

“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”

 

 

 

 

More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.

Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.

“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market.  He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.

“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”

Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.

Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”

“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.

Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.

Bob Hoig’s Unintended Entree into Journalism is Six Decades Strong Now

January 25, 2013 2 comments

I can’t speak for my colleagues but for this journalist anyway it’s fun to write about other journalists, particularly if the person has enjoyed a rich career in the field we share.  The subject of this New Horizons profile, Bob Hoig, has definitely seen a thing or two in a 56 year career that progressed from copy boy to reporter to editor to publisher.  He’s best known today as publisher of the Midlands Business Journal but he had some intriguing newspapering adventures before he launched that publication in 1975.  I’ve had the pleasure of profiling many fascinating folks in the field, including Don Chapman, Warren Francke, Bill Ramsey, Howard Rosenberg, John Hlavacek, Rudy Smith, Don Doll, and Howard Silber.  You can fnd my stories about them on this blog.  I now add Bob Hoig to the list.

 

 

Bob Hoig

 

 

Bob Hoig’s Unintended Entree into Journalism is Six Decades Strong Now

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Midlands Business Journal publisher Bob Hoig has often wondered how his life might have turned out had his curiosity not gotten the better of him one fateful day in 1957.

He was a young man recently arrived in New York City after years pining to go there, He was born in rural Kansas and grew up in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, Colorado but he sensed he was meant for bigger things.

“I just had wanted to be there. It was a city that always intrigued me. It had a mystique. I fancied myself a poet at the time. My reading preferences in literature have always tended toward writers who had a lot to say about New York City. That would include F. Scott Fitzgerald. John O’Hara, who was a real favorite of mine, and Ernest Hemingway.”

Hoig actually met the iconic Hemingway in an old German bar in New York.

Rich in words but poor in dollars, Hoig’s Big Apple sojourn was beginning to seem more folly than destiny. Then something happened that changed the course of his life.

“I was out of work, I didn’t have a lot of money, and I was walking down 42nd Street, just past 3rd Avenue, towards 2nd and the East River and the United Nations Building, when my peripheral vision caught the lobby of a building. Inside the lobby was a giant globe of the Earth, roughly 8 or 10 feet high, revolving around. I was just interested, so I walked in. I didn’t know what was going on there.

“There were a lot of brass gauges like you might think of as nautical or aeronautical. There was a guard by the elevator and I said, ‘What building is this? and he said, ‘Why, it’s the New York Daily News.’ Well, I needed a job and so I just asked, ‘Are they hiring?’ He said, ‘It beats me, why don’t you go up and talk to personnel?’ So I did that and the next thing I knew I’d been hired, with no particular qualifications, as a copy boy.”

That mere chance encounter turned into a career 56 years old and counting. He was a reporter for the Miami News, the UPI and the Omaha World-Herald and the managing editor of the Omaha Sun Newspapers and the Douglas County Gazette before founding the MBJ. He still can’t get over how his life in the Fourth Estate began in such an off-handed way.

“I had very little college, one year at the University of Colorado before I dropped out and I had no particular reference to journalism at all.”

He briefly worked in accounting. He’d sold shoes in the basement of Ben Simon department store. But he was restless for something more adventurous. Then he struck out for New York. He was nearly flat broke when he got on with the big city newspaper despite a lick of experience. He was 24, clueless about the world he was about to enter, but soon found himself in a “rich stew” of people and places that spurred him on.

All these years later he recalls the job of Daily News copy boy “a supreme experience,” adding, “The main thing that made it a great experience is that it offered many avenues toward advancing in he trade of journalism.” Being in the newspaper game in New York put one right in the mix of things in the most exciting metropolis in the world. And if one showed a spark of initiative and promise, as he did, opportunities availed themselves.

“That set me up for everything that came after. I was ambitious and ambitious people in New York are always rewarded. I was just ready to do anything. I guess I displayed a little bit of panache in the way I approached things and I was soon made assistant head copy boy. I know that’s not much of a title but it opened doors. It meant I handed out the other copy boys’ assignments, which gave me the pick of the best for myself. That included going to to Yankee Stadium and sitting in the press box just above the dugout when legends like Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were trouping out to the plate and back.

“It was not totally glorious because after two innings I had to take the photographer’s film and get out of the stadium, race to the subway and rush the photos back to the Daily News office in time to make the Bulldog edition.”

His entree to the Who’s-Who of New York sports figures didn’t end there.

“That experience had parallels in every sport,” he says. “I was on the sidelines for the New York Giant games on Sunday when Kyle Rote, Roosevelt Grier, Frank Gifford and other legends of Giant football were playing. I got to charge up and down the sidelines with the photographer (until the end of the first quarter when Hoig had to high-tail it back to the office with the film). I got to go to the races at Belmont. Once again, that same drill – after the Daily Double I had to rush the film back to the office.”

It was a fertile training ground, especially for anyone with aspirations.

Hoig says, “That was a great way to get into it and build up a little bit of knowledge and sophistication to life in Manhattan. The main way it helped breaking into the     newspaper business as a writer was that I got to work on Sunday features. What it amounted to was working with some of the legends of New York city journalism and having the benefit of them critiquing my work and being a little bit patient with me. They weren’t totally patient with the copy boys if they showed no spunk but if you did they would work with you. And I got to have bylines in the paper as a result.”

For a journalist, getting a byline is like your name appearing on a theater marquee. It’s your chance to puff out your chest and bask in the spotlight. Hoig took full advantage.

“There was a lot of glory in that kind of byline, for this reason: the stories appeared in the zoned editions of the Sunday edition and for instance my work would appear in the Manhattan Bronx section but there was also a Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, so forth. And the good thing about that was those sections wrapped around the whole newspaper, so on Sunday if you were lucky enough to get a front page byline in the Manhattan Bronx section there your name was staring up from every New York newsstand. So you can bet that any girlfriend I was wining and dining at the time I made sure we walked past that Sunday stand and I’d say, ‘Oh look…'”

The ethos of the times found Hoig following the newspaper pack to the bars, where drinking and swapping stories through the night was routine.

He positively subscribes to the sentiment that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. “Yeah, it’s true because it tees you up. For one thing you’re used to some of the more dire circumstances. A lot of them required you to have your wits about you and to sort of be as much as actor as a reporter.”

Working at the News offered other advantages, too.

“The News was a totally Irish dominated newspaper. it was quite a place to be in my day by the way because some of the absolute legends of the New York scene were actually there then. For instance, Ed Sullivan still had a desk. He was just breaking into television. He’d been a columnist for years. If I had a tip I would try to feed it to his column. Paul Gallico was not only a top sports editor he was famous around the desk for getting knocked out by Jack Dempsey. He was also a great short story writer who won the O’Henry Award. Harry Nichols was a big-time city editor. A tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He was a legend.”

Hoig also got his feet wet in live TV.

“The News not long before had started a television station, WPIX, which was also in the building, and I got the chance to write the most basic kind of copy for the news scripts – death, weather, anything very routine. That opened the door to some other sophistications that the average kid working in Grand Island or Kearney wouldn’t find at the introductory level.”

He was only in New York about two years when he left for Neb., where he had family. He’d spent time visiting relatives in the state as a youth. “The Hoigs got out here about 1895 around Beatrice and Wymore. My dad had deep roots with the old Cooper Foundation theaters. I returned to Lincoln, Neb. on the advice of one of the ‘lobster’ city editors of the New York Daily News. That’s the editor who comes on at midnight and works until 8 in the morning. He became a friend of mine.”

Hoig was itching to do crime reporting but as a copy boy it would have taken him longer than he cared to wait before he got his opportunity to cover that beat.

“My friend felt I had enough talent that I needed to get out and get right into the mainstream of what i was interested in, which was crime writing. Now you could go that route with the Daily News but they rarely if ever hired from the outside and you had to work up from a copy boy through junior assistant and that kind of thing, and the waiting period could be fantastic. For instance, Jimmy Cannon, who’s a legend in sportswriting, was a copy boy for seven years on the Daily News. The man who at the time was the travel editor had been a copy boy for 13 years.

“There were all kinds of names in New York City who had followed that route. This editor thought I would benefit by getting out and getting a job. It worked out that I did get a chance to work in Lincoln covering police and fire in the period when Charles Starkweather had been brought to trial and was being executed. At the time it was the Lincoln Journal-Star, but I worked for the Journal, which was the afternoon paper.”

Hoig wound up in Omaha, first on the United Press International desk and then as an Omaha World-Herald newsroom staffer, but not by way of Lincoln as you might expect, rather by way of Miami and Chicago of all places. His wanderlust called again.

“That was kind of a circuitous route,” he notes. “After I cut my teeth on police reporting, doing a lot of it in Lincoln, I felt the same lure to Miami that I did to New York. I went to Miami and after being rejected at the Miami Herald by the then-assistant managing editor, Harold “Al” Neuharth, who went on found USA Today, I wound up working for in my opinion the greatest newspaper in all of Florida and the South at the time as a young crime reporter, the old Miami News. It was a real blood and guts paper. It was edited again by a legend in newspapering down there.

“It was a great place to be and right off the bat they assigned me to the sheriff’s office and so many good stories would come out of there.”

Organized crime was well entrenched in the city, as was rampant police corruption, and one assignment required him to “go up to a known Mafia family head and ask, ‘How do you feel about your son being shot-gunned to death?’ When you’re in a crazy situation like that you gotta just quick think and get out. “

He enjoyed being in the thick of the action of a cosmopolitan city built on tourism and graft. It was a vital place and time where the news never quit.

“I had a chance to really move along there,” says Hoig. “I cultivated a friend who was probably my closest colleague on the Miami News. He was an old-timer who had worked on the war desk during World War II in New York for United Press. I loved the job at the Miami News but I didn’t like Florida and neither did my then-wife, and at that time she was my new wife. We didn’t like the heat, so we decided to go north.

“When Bill Tucker, this friend of mine, heard we were going north he said, ‘Well, I hate to see you leave but as long as you’re going I’ll give you a reference to the man who’s the division news manager for United Press International in Chicago. I interviewed with him, I was hired and I had (incidentally) some Neb. roots but they just happened to send me to Omaha. That’s how I wound up in Omaha.”

UPI was still a player among wire services in the 1960s.

“We were totally rivals with the Associated Press. We had more radio and TV clients in Neb. than AP did. AP was ahead of us in newspapers. But we shared all the biggies, like we were both in the World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal-Star, and their editors played that very cleverly because they would pit us against each other in a competitive way.”

His highlight with UPI came with a bit of newspaper bravado.

“I was sitting in the United Press Bureau one night in the mid-‘60s when a report came in about a shooting in Big Springs. An armed robber had come in the bank, lined up four people on the floor and shot them. Three of them died and one of them survived. So this gunman was on the loose and nobody knows who it was.

‘We got a tip authorities were searching for a Kansas farm boy, Duane Earl Pope. We found out his father had been cruel to him. Duane had recently graduated from McPherson College, where he was a football star. I thought, Who could issue an appeal I could write that would lead Duane to surrender. His father? No. His coach? Maybe. His college president? Yeah. When Pope finally was captured they learned he’d heard that appeal in a hotel room in Las Vegas. He made arrangements to fly back and surrender to the FBI in Kansas City, That was the biggest coup I ever staged and I think there is a classic role in journalism for that sort of thing.”

 

 

Duane Earl Pope in custody after turning himself into authorities

 

 

He left the Omaha Bureau of UPI after roughly seven years to join the World-Herald. He explains, “I had what seemed like a much better offer at that time from the World-Herald to become a crime and corruption reporter. That was 1969.

“The biggest story I covered up to that point was a banking scandal in Sheldon, Iowa. A spinster named Bernice Geiger was the trusted bookkeeper for the local bank owned by her aging parents and she had embezzled $2 million. So I went up there and every day just as I was getting ready to leave something major developed in the story. All of a sudden reporters from Time, Newsweek, the New York papers and all over the country came flooding in to cover this story.

“It had so many angles that you could write a book about it. It had such human interest, including a possible love angle. A young con man came in and there was suspicion that he helped her spend the money. It turned out she blew the money on the Chicago Commodities Exchange, which is a weird place for a spinster to blow money.”

In 1971 he was the Herald’s nominee for a Pulitzer Prize for a series he did about serial sexualpaths that led to a state law being changed to tighten lax security procedures at the then-Nebraska State Hospital. To get the story Hoig says he “went down to Lincoln and asked a lot of questions.” He explains, “That story was precipitated by a particularly bad actor who was an inmate down there. Staff just let inmates like him wander the grounds. There was no particular supervision and this guy every now and then would just wander off and do his thing. What got him caught is he wandered off to Omaha, where he raped a couple women, and so that set in motion the Herald’s interest in it.”

He remained with the Herald until 1972.

His path to launching the Midlands Business Journal actually began at the end of a brief turn he took as editor of the Douglas County Gazette. “By that time I’d had my fill of crime and corruption and looking under every rock to expose something sinister or wrong or some crime,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

When a Herald column mentioned he was leaving the Gazette, he recalls, “that morning my phone was ringing at a quarter to eight and it was the owner of Rapid Printing, the late Zane Randall, saying, ‘If you’re out of work, come and talk to me.’ So I did and he hired me as general manager of a bunch of suburban shoppers he either owned or printed. I talked Zane into letting me take a shot at founding a business newspaper with somewhat of a unique concept.”

Few people thought the business journal could work.

“This came in the face of many prophecies of doom from people like Jim Ivey at the Herald, so it wasn’t an assured thing. But what I wanted to do was produce a product that would localize and bring close to the community stories of businesses and with a particular angle of success stories. I’ve always been a good salesman and I think I’m a good enough writer and editor that I had the two components you need to start a successful paper, and that’s why I thought it would be successful.

“It was something nobody was doing at the time and that’s what I staked my guess it could be successful on. Zane was backing me in a sense. He didn’t put any money into it but he printed the paper for us and he let us use his composing room and typesetting and so forth. So it was a relatively painless way to try something that worked.”

Hoig and Randall drew up a contract to be half-and-half partners of MBJ at the start but as time went on the enigmatic Randall wanted out.

“Zane was the kind of guy who would just take a chance on anything and he backed newspapers and mailing operations that failed. He had a lot of failures out there with little probes into different aspects of journalism. Of course, he sold (Rapid) out to the Herald for a reputed seven or eight million bucks, so when he scored he scored big. His inclination to back anything is what helped me out in the long run.

“But we were about a year into the MBJ when several relatives he had working for him told him to get out of it.’ I tried to point out to him that we were in the process of being successful and for our humble niche in the community we were being very successful. The ad sales were almost good enough to meet the goals and the subscription sales were renewing at a fantastic 90 percent rate. That usually doesn’t happen.

“Based on all that I said to him, ‘Look ahead one more year and this thing is going to be doing really well.’ I couldn’t talk him out of it, and he said, ‘No, we’re closing it down. I said, ‘Well, how about you name a figure and if I can possibly meet it I’ll sign a note and pay it off? and that’s the way that one went.”

 

 

 

 

Thirty-eight years later MBJ is still going strong. He attributes its enduring success to his ‘nose for news,” his business sense and his numbers crunching ability.

“I can spot stories or I can cook them up.”

“I know accounting and I keep the books and so every day I know what my cash position is to the penny. Every month I reconcile the bank statements and I do my general ledger entries. I’ve never graduated from that routine and that’s one way to keep your hands on your business and know what’s going on.”

Meeting unforgettable characters and public figures has also come with the territory. A bigger-than-life politico he had occasion to know was the late South Omaha kingpin Gene Mahoney. Hoig recalls a memorable encounter.

“I was walking on South 13th Street when Mahoney in this old beater of a car pulls up and says, ‘Where you going?’ ‘Back to work,’ and he said, ‘Hop in.’ So I got in and asked, ‘Where we going?’ and he said, ‘We’re going on the Polish sausage run.’ He had his car loaded with Polish sausage and other things and good old politician Mahoney was swinging by everybody in South Omaha that he’d found out was either sick or laid off or injured. He was just a master politician that way.

“He was such a powerbroker. I think I’m the last guy to know how great he was. As a powerbroker, maybe not as an individual. He had some sides to him that I don’t think I’d recommend. But as a guy who just controlled everything…”

Once, when Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO president Terry Moore launched into a favorite theme about Mahoney being “all washed up” Hoig set the record straight. “I said, Terry, think about it, where is Mahoney right now? His best friend has just been elected to the U.S. Senate, Ed Zorinsky. His handpicked apparatchik is in the legislature, Bernice Labedz. She’s keeping him totally informed about everything. He’s got a job that has more perks and power than any job in the state as Games and Parks commissioner. He can airplane people out to any lodge, so as a position to collect IOUs you can’t beat that. Plus, he’s got a say in a certain amount of projects that get built.”

Hoig, who closely follows politics and doesn’t exactly pull punches when critiquing politicians, admired Mahoney’s savvy when it came to patronage and influence.

“As a former legislator and someone who’d been across political parties – he switched back and forth from Democrat to Republican to Democrat again – he could talk to anyone. He was a master at doling out favors. He’d get together with Peter Kiewit and Walter Scott on what were their desires and what needed to be done and all of a sudden things got built.”

Hoig has anecdotes about all the big names he’s met, including corporate tycoons Peter Kiewit and V.J. Skutt, then presidential candidate Richard Nixon, then-vice president Lyndon Johnson, not to mention Neb. politicians whose wrath he’s earned. His life is as full as any of theirs though. He toiled for others the first third of his career before striking out on his own and becoming a successful entrepreneur. Besides MBJ he publishes the Lincoln Business Journal and the Omaha Book of Lists. MBJ was the Chamber’s 2002 Golden Spike Award honoree. He’s been recognized by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce (2004) and the Omaha Kiwanis Club (2006) as Entrepreneur of the Year.

“As a unit success our biggest success is our 40 Under 40 program with the Chamber. That, of course, isn’t a paper but it’s a yearly program we started in 2002 during the depths of another bubble recession and it made it’s way through. It’s forged on identifying and honoring 40 professional businessmen and women under the age of 40.”

He’s also the father of three adult children. Long divorced, he’s well into his second marriage with an old friend, Martha, who’s every bit as bit as active as he is. He’s a veteran tennis player and swimmer. He used to ski. Since taking up skiing late in life Martha’s become quite the devotee and continues to enjoy the sport despite some mishaps on the slopes. She’s also an artist with her own downtown studio. Bob says her streaks of “daring-do” and whimsy have led her to stand on her head atop the Olympic Tower in New York and to ride a motorcycle with him. She’s also his faithful flying companion. He only took up flying a decade ago but it’s his main hobby today.

He’s not conceding anything to age as he continues coming to the office every day and living it up away from the office. He says he enjoys “keeping everything in balance now,’”adding, “I like the idea of having the balance. The work, the great relationship with my wife, the flying and the writing – I’m really starting to ramp up my own fiction writing.”

At 80, he still plays tennis and swims. He only gave up skiing three years ago. He works out a few days a week at the gym.

His boundless curiosity invariably leads him to some new passion he takes up with vigor and once he hit upon flying it’s become his main fascination and outlet.

 

 

Hoig pilots a Cessna very much like this one

 

 

“Almost every decade of my life I’ve turned a corner into something that fascinates me,” he says. “When I was 68 my son and I were in my den playing flight simulator and I was like, ‘This is really interesting and fun, I think I’ll take a (flying) lesson.’ So I went out to get a lesson and just from the first landing of feeling like a big bird, sailing slowly, slowly, now a little faster, and then, whoosh. It just captivated me and that’s all I could think about for a year other than my work.”

He got his private pilot’s license in 2000 and purchased his own Cessna SkyLane in 2003. He earned his instrument rating in 2005. He’s logged 1,700 hours in the air.

He’s proud of his blue and white Cessna he personally selected from the plant. “It’s a beauty. It’s a good one for traveling and my wife and I travel a lot. Any vacation, we fly. That has really kept my spirits and kept me thinking.”

He and Martha love seeing the sights.

“We do travel an awful lot. The most routine trip we make is every year we fly the plane to New York and go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. That’s in late August-early September. Of late we’ve taken to flying into New England or to upstate New York. In 2011 I flew it up to a place called Plattsburgh, New York just across the lake from Burlington, Vermont. It’s way up there. That was good.

“A couple times a year we fly it up to a place called Rosemary Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Three years ago I flew it all the way down into the Florida Keys, beyond Key Largo. I’ve flown it a lot to my hometown of Colorado Springs.”

He has the chops to fly into airports large and small.

“I really made it my business to learn GPS and that has helped us fly into big airports and feel comfortable doing it in rain, in clouds, and so on.”

Between changeable weather systems and heavy air traffic, he says, “You have to keep your wits about you.”

Sometimes he and Martha just light out on a whim.

“We’ve gotten up on a Saturday morning with no idea of what we’re going to do that day and one of us will say, ‘Hey, it’s a nice day, why don’t we go to Kansas City?, so you jump in the plane and you’re in Kansas City for lunch.”

The couple also travel to Europe with great regularity. They never do tours. Instead they simply “follow the wind,” he says.

Martha, who is a breast cancer survivor, has also been a key cog in his publishing empire as vice-president in charge of marketing. His sister Cindy is vice-president of advertising. And his daughter Andrea once worked for him as well before branching off on her own. Much to his surprise and delight Andrea’s followed his footsteps. She began working for him as a photographer and in 1996 she purchased a fledgling publication he started, Metro Monthly, and she’s since transformed it into Metro Magazine, whose niche is covering the area’s philanthropic scene.

Seeing her blossom into a peer entrepreneur and publisher, he says, gives him “great satisfaction,” adding, “She’s done a terrific job with the magazine that I told her in the beginning, ‘Just forget it, it won’t go,’ so she proved me wrong on that.”

 

 

Hoig with his daughter Andrea holding their Faces on the Barroom Floor caricatures

 

 

It’s sometimes hard for him to reconcile the rebellious girl who worked for him with the mature woman who is a colleague today.

“When she was a teenager we just didn’t mix at all. We didn’t get along. In the course of maybe working around me a little bit and getting into journalism it turns out of my three children she’s more like the apple that fell closest to the tree. She seems to have an instinctive ability in journalism for some of the things I think are very important. She’s unusually good at detail. She gets along very well with people and unlike me she has a very kind heart. She just empathizes with everybody and for the niche that she’s in that’s really the way to be anyway, but she is like that.”

They’re very different people though. “She is liberal where I’m conservative,” he says. “She doesn’t even read my editorials.” But his admiration for her is complete. “I’m very proud of what she’s accomplished, She’s come so far from where I thought.”

Last fall father and daughter were honored as Faces on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.

Over time he’s learned some lessons from her, too, such as giving up control.

“I was the typical entrepreneur in feeling that if I didn’t do it it couldn’t be done right. Everything really important I felt I had to do myself. It’s hard enough to grow a really      small business like ours without giving it total attention and I probably lost a lot of good people over the years by not turning enough over to them. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at delegating responsibility. I’ve started to turn more over to our editor and to our advertising director and that’s been good.”

As he’s taken more time out for himself, his wife, his family and his passions, he’s found his later years to be the best of his life. He’s far from retired though.

“There’s a saying I heard long ago that work ennobles a person and I find this work very ennobling because it keeps me alive, it keeps me involved and it keeps me thinking. It also keeps people employed.”

The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson

January 1, 2013 1 comment

Jeffrey Owen Hanson is one of those unexpected and inspirational success stories I run into from time to time.  This young artist and social entrepreneur has found his niche as a pop art painter in spite of or perhaps because of his low vision and he’s using the sell of his much coveted work to support charitable causes.  The following profile I did on hin for an upcoming issue of Omaha Fashion Week explores how he came to discover his artistic gift and to make it the vehicle for philanthropy and details how he’s come to hand-paint dresses showcased at Omaha Fashion Week.

Old Windsor Garden by Jeffrey Owen Hanson

 

 

The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Omaha Fashion Magazine

 

The unexpected artist

Self-taught artist Jeffrey Owen Hanson likes saying “I see through Swiss cheese” to explain the visual impairment an optic nerve tumor left him and the unique way it gives him of apprehending the world. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments destroyed the tumor and curbed any further vision loss. The tumor, along with some learning disabilities, are the result of a genetic disorder he’s lived with since birth called Neurofibromatosis.

None of it’s impeded his remarkable ascent as an artist and social entrepreneur. His highly collectible abstract renderings, including hand-painted dresses, are sought after by celebrities and raise major monies for charitable causes close to his heart. At 19 he’s on pace to reach his goal of raising $1 million in charitable proceeds by age 20.

He’s even grateful for his limited visual perception because it’s led him to use color and texture in original ways that make his vibrant, tactile art singularly his own. Indeed, before his vision got really bad he’d never shown the slightest inclination for art.

“I painted on rocks and I did dot art and that type of thing” as a child, he says.He did the kinds of crafts and arts things that kids always do but really his art wasn’t anything special,” his mother Julie Hanson confirmed. At her suggestion he began painting notecards for something he and his friends could do when he had visitors over while recovering from treatments, What began as a routine diversion soon evolved into a serious artistic and philanthropic outlet. His early watercolors on notecards were sold from a lemonade stand next to his mom’s homebred goodies in the driveway of the family’s suburban home. Within a few years he’d gravitated to acrylics on canvas sold in galleries and auctions, the works commanding five figure prices apiece. Commissions for his work now flood in every week from around the nation, even around the world.

It’s why his parents have come to call their only child “the accidental artist.”

The fact he’s turned an impairment into a gift and made his art a platform for helping others is why his work and story have touched people from all walks of life and well beyond his Overland Park, Kansas home. The Hanson magic has even reached Omaha, where his first line of hand-painted dresses debuted during the grand finale of last August’s Omaha Fashion Week. He’ll have a new line for the OFW Spring show and another in the August showcase.

The standing ovation he received in Omaha for artwork adorning dresses designed by Caine Westergard added to his growing recognition. He’s been named Young Entrepreneur of the Year, he’s been profiled in the Huffington Post, he’s met everyone from Warren Buffett to Elton John. He’s the subject of a YouTube video and a new book authored by his father, Dr. Hal Hanson, entitled “Lessons from Clod.” Clod is the name Jeffrey gave his tumor. Among the lessons he learned from that old nemesis he eventually embraced as a friend is that it’s better to focus on what you can do than on what you can’t do.

Seven years since clod’s disappearance he’s sold hundreds of paintings, enjoyed solo exhibitions, and seen his work purchased by the rich and famous at live charity auctions.

None of this was supposed to have happened.

Seeing past blindness

His father, an emergency room physician at Ransom Memorial Hospital in Ottawa, Kansas, simply calls what’s transpired “amazing,” adding, “We call Jeff the accident artist because no one was intending art being anything more than a childhood hobby. What started out as kid art just sort of evolved. He’s a person that’s totally naive to art, totally untrained, didn’t go to art school, and yet he’s become an in-demand artist with a whole career in front of him.”

Julie Hanson says right from the start of Jeff painting the notecards he showed an aptitude the other kids didn’t. “Jeff’s notecards were fabulous and this consistently kept happening.”

The mystery of how he could go from no apparent artistic ability and without any formal training to exceptional ability and the admiration of professionals may never be fully answered though the family has some theories. Much of his approach to art seems intuitive rather than drawn from any obvious influence, though his impressionistic landscapes are often inspired by places he’s visited.

“There’s no talent in our family for art to start with,” Jeff says by way of eliminating the possibility of some inherited art gene from his immediate lineage.

Where does he think his talent comes from then? “I don’t know,” he says. “I just think I have a good eye for color.” And texture. “Almost all of my paintings have really thick modeling paste spread all over it to give it texture.” He often incorporates wire, rope and other materials into his work, even making woven canvases, to add layers of depth and form. Always though his work exudes the most iridescent tones. “The colors I like to use are bright colors, like lime green, pink, purple. Bright happy colors.” The buoyant colors are a direct reflection of his joyful personality.

Could his visual impairment somehow give him a heightened appreciation for color as a way of compensating for other deficits? “Maybe, I don’t know, possibly,” he says. “Well. I mean I don’t know what I cant see. I see through Swiss cheese. My vision has holes.”

 

 

Jeffrey Owen Hanson

 

 

In preparing the book about their son and his unexpected journey in art his parents pressed Jeff about his methodology and discovered things that shed light on how and why he creates what he does.

“We started talking to Jeff about, ‘Well, how did you decide to paint that? Why did you put those two colors together?’ We asked him, ‘What are your rules here?” And we came up with a dozen things that he does that aren’t even at a conscious level for him,” says Hal Hanson. “He doesn’t sit and think about it, but when we tried to pin him down he would say things like, ‘Well, I have low vision so I don’t like to put two light colors next to each other. I have to put a dark color next to a light color because it’s high contrast and I can see the border. And I don’t like things that are flat. I like things that are chunky because I can see the texture when the light catches it.’ So he likes things that are really high contrast, high texture and with big, bold loud colors.

“He doesn’t like any piece of art that has a million little things going on all over it.

It’s gotta have big expanses of calm with nothing going on because it’s hard for him to see a million little things. His eye doesn’t know where to go. So it turns out a lot of  what he does is guided by his low vision. Where we once thought his art is popular despite of his low vision, it’s popular because of his low vision. His vision is peculiar enough or impaired enough that it kind of forces him into a certain style. It has sort of guided him in a direction of, ‘Well, here’s what works for me,'”

Then there’s the possibility other guidance is at work, too,

“Don’t you think this is a gift from God?” Julie asks Jeff at one point during the interview. “Yeah,” he answers matter-of-factly.

How else to explain Jeff creating paintings that captivate so many?

Art as career and mission

It took a long time for his mother and father to realize his paintings appealed to far more than just their parental pride. When others began responding to his art they at first thought people were simply being kind or sympathetic to his overcoming challenges to raise funds for NF research. But as his art kept getting more and more attention and interest, they realized something bigger was at work.

“We saw this going on but none of the three of us ever intended this to go anywhere,” says Hal. “For the longest time I thought what they really wanted was a piece of the story. That they’d heard about this kid who had low vision who was painting and giving the paintings to charity auctions. That they weren’t really interested in the art, they just wanted a piece of the story.

“I didn’t consider the possibility that people liked his art for its own sake until we found out people were buying it and they didn’t even know the story, they didn’t know he had low vision and gave the money to charity. That was sort of a revelation to us that, ‘Oh my God, people actually like the art.’ His fans, his clients kept telling us, ‘This isn’t just kid art.’ What we thought was something you would put on your refrigerator with a magnet turned into things selling at an auction for $10,000 and $15,000.”

Artist Rachel Mindrup of Omaha responds to both Jeff’s story and his art. She’s made him a subject  in a series of portraits she’s painting of people with  Neurofibromatosis who, she says, “are changing the world.” She says he’s a deserving subject for the series she calls The Many Faces of NF “because he’s done so much for NF and for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.”

Like many others, she finds Hanson to be an inspiration.

“Not only has he overcome many limitations he’s going way beyond expectations,” Mindrup says. “It’s cool when an idea like his art philanthropy takes on a life of its own and goodness begets goodness. If you have a good heart and you’re doing things to help other people that seems to grow exponentially.”

As she’s gotten to know Jeff she’s come to admire his “strong work ethic,” adding,

“He’s a working, living artist. He gets up and works every day. He does what any artist should be doing. I find him to be really inspiring, I really do. Here’s a kid who had this disability and instead of woe-is-me he’s doing something positive.”

Even if he didn’t have a heart-tugging story, she says, his art’s good enough to stand on its own.

“His artwork is a treasure in and of itself regardless of his genetic code. Who cares if he has NF or not? It’s like the paintings speak for themselves. They’ve got vivid colors and juicy brush strokes, they’re tactile, they’ve visually pleasing. Anybody who looks at the paintings, regardless if they know Jeff’s story or not, will find them engaging and interesting and will react to them, enjoy them. Without even knowing his biography, they work, they’re wonderful.”

Interior designer Emily Dugger of Omaha treasures the two Hanson paintings hanging in her home, including a custom piece she and her husband commissioned him to make using colors they selected. “We love them both,” she says of his works. “He’s very talented and he’s just extremely sweet. I’m very drawn to his story and his life and his passion.”

Before the Hansons knew it, the accidental artist selling his wares from a lemonade stand morphed into a full-fledged art enterprise. Jeff’s parents recently worked with a professional to devise a strategic plan for finding ever new revenue streams for Jeff’s art in order to sustain his career and his philanthropy.

“It was never intended to be a career at all, it kept snowballing to the point that we realized one day, ‘I guess we have an art business,’ and here we are,” says Hal Hanson.

“The whole world is moving so fast that if you want to continue to have a career in art and be successful you’d better be entrepreneurial and philanthropic,” Julie Hanson explains. “Theres all kinds of things we keep simmering in the business. We’re trying to let this be his career and be very successful at it while also giving to the world.”

 

 

Hanson with designer Caine Westergard at Omaha Fashion Week

 

 

Hanson’s new frontier: Hand-painted dresses 

Fashion art wasn’t something the Hansons conceived Jeff doing until a consultant identified it as a viable option.

“Fashion certainly was in that plan,” says Julie. “There was no intent of doing it quite so soon, however Omaha Fashion Week caught wind of Jeff and producer Brook Hudson said, ‘What if he would try hand painting dresses?’ And we talked with them about it. because that was exactly what we wanted to do. Jeff was invited to be in the grand finale. The door of opportunity opened and when it opens, Jeff…” “Run and go do it,” he says to finish his mother’s thought. 

The next order of business was finding a designer whose dresses he could hand paint. It just so happened that Jeff’s cousin Heather has a friend at Iowa State University studying apparel design, Caine Westergard. Working on a tight schedule mere weeks from the OFW show’s start, Westergard and the Hansons collaborated on three dresses.

“I went ahead and started sketching and used some patterns I had,” says Westergard. “They sent me some paintings they thought would be interesting on some garments and let me have free reign of all the designing aspects of taking which paintings I liked and completely designing the dresses as to what I would think would complement their design. Then I mailed my dresses to the Hansons and they went ahead and painted them.”

“She came up w three blank slates, three blank canvasses if you will for Jeff to apply three different hand-painted styles on these dresses,” says Julie Hanson. “And there’s no secret, we have to help Jeff with that kind of thing a lot. Imagine being given one hand-made original dress and fresh paint is going to go onto it, and guess what, you can’t mess it up, and Jeff’s visually impaired, so we help Jeff with that a lot.”

Westergard appreciates how “extremely textured” Jeff’s work is. “Until you actually see it in person you don’t realize how many different levels and pieces there are

and what is actually beneath the paint and built up. They truly are works of art.”

Inspired by some his impressionistic landscapes, she created three dresses. For “The Grasse”s she imagined “standing out in an open field or prairie” and being caressed by the wind and the colors of the grass. “I really wanted that dress to be long and flowy. I wanted it to have a kind of wave as it walked down the runway with high-low skirt.”

“For “The Poppy” dress I cued off its vibrant color to create a more elegant feel. I wanted to make more of a ball gown of that dress. For “The Water Reservation” or “On the Water Rez” there’s so many different blocks and colors. It’s very bright and flowy. I just chose a very simple black satin with a peek-a-boo skirt. When you look at the garment you can see a little bit of the painting but not until the model walks and the peek-a-boo skirt opens can you actually see the painting on the skirt.”

She couldn’t be sure how Jeff’s art would work with her dresses until the hand-painting was complete.

“The first time I saw the dresses totally finished with my work and their work was the day of the fashion show. It was a little nerve wracking. I had complete faith in them but hand-painting a dress you only have one shot at it. It wasn’t like we had time for me to design another dress or for them to re-hand paint it. But they really turned out to be three really unique pieces that I’m definitely proud of and I know they’re really excited about.”

The audience roared its approval, too. “Seeing that our work was really impacting people was really neat.”

 

 

Hanson with models who strutted the Omaha Fashion Week runway in the Westergard dresses he hand-painted

 

 

Refilling the bank of dreams

Hal Hanson never anticipated it would come to this. His son walking down the runway hand-in-hand with a promising young designer, surrounded by gorgeous models wearing hand-painted Hanson originals, lapping up the adoring cheers and applause of onlookers.

“I’m speechless,” Hanson says. “As a father, your kid is born and you have this dream bank. You look at your baby for the first time and you think, ‘OK, you’re going to be the quarterback of the football team’ or whatever and then events start occurring that start chipping away at your dreams. And you realize, ‘I guess we’re not going to do that,’ and before you know it he can’t drive a bicycle or roller-skate or see stars in the sky and you keep making withdrawals from your dream bank to the point you don’t’ have any more dreams.

“And that’s where I got pretty rock bottom. I was like, ‘I don’t see anything he can do between his learning problems and his vision problems.’ And then for him to start making and selling art, are you kidding me? Till the day you’re on this runway and people are liking these dresses. It’s just miraculous. My dream bank is bulging with deposits now. It was depleted five years ago, so it’s a huge turnaround.

“It’s turned into something amazing.”

Keep up with Jeff’s burgeoning career at http://jeffreyowenhanson.com.

The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon

December 27, 2012 7 comments

 

Hair designer Troy Davis of Omaha was amazingly forthcoming and transparent in a recent interview he did with me for this Encounter Magazine profle I wrote about him.  As a fellow 12-stepper I know something of what he speaks.  I know the courage and conviction it requires to be this honest about the hurt and the healing.  His words and his story are bound to help someone else.

 

 

 

 

Cover Photo

 

The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

 

Leading Omaha hair dresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor and longtime business partner, Fringes founder Carol Cole, has sold her interest in the location, he has a new partner and a new focus on managing costs. The result is record profitability.

“Fringes of the Old Market is the busiest and healthiest it’s ever been,” says Davis, who’s made Fringes an Omaha Fashion Week fixture.

“Troy and Fringes have been a very important part of Omaha Fashion Week, as they style many of our veteran designers and constantly impress with their ability to interpret the latest hair and makeup trends on our runway,” says OFW producer Brook Hudson.

Davis is glad to share in the success. He’s lately seen members of the Fringes team represent well in a recent competition and awards show. Never content to stay put, his Clear Salon Services business is a new generation, grassroots distributorship for independent hair care brands.

These professional triumphs have been happening as Davis addresses personal problems that “came to a head” last August but that have their roots in the past. Growing up in Blair, Neb., he began drinking and using drugs to mask the sexual identity issues he confronted as a gay teen in an environment devoid of alternative lifestyles.

“I felt so completely isolated. I lived in fear so badly that I hid it with drinking and weed,” he says.

A healthier form of self-expression he excelled in, speech and drama, seemed a likely direction to pursue out of high school. But first he moved to Omaha to experience the diversity he craved back home. He briefly attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, even landing the lead in the school’s fall production, before dropping out to attend beauty school in Omaha.

From their first meeting Davis and Cole knew they’d found a new best friend they could grow in their chosen field alongside. She says she immediately responded to his “passion and energy and drive,” adding, “Troy Davis has definitely made me a better person and stylist and leader.”

Within four years he’d proven to be such a trusted asset that Cole partnered with him in opening the Old Market shop.

“He earned that,” she says. “He just really wanted to be downtown. His heart was there. I finally said, ‘Look, if you want to be a partner, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to step it up and find a location.’ And he did. I have to give him a lot of credit because he put a lot of grunt work into it to get it started.”

The rest is history, as Fringes became a presence in the Old Market for its ultra-contemporary, urban styles and high-end hair care and beauty services. Cole let him run things there so she could concentrate on the West Dodge site.

For Davis, Cole’s been more than just a business partner.

“Carol and I are so close. We just absolutely click,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, very professional business woman. There’s not a lot of partnerships that make it. In a lot of ways our relationship is like a marriage, only platonic. I think it’s healthier or better than most marriages I know of. We are able to communicate in a way that most people are not. We can say anything to each other and even if it’s something that ends up hurting each other, we know that’s not our intention. Usually it’s one of us misunderstanding something and we’re always able to go back and clean it up.”

Davis has moved fast in the industry. While still in his 20s he became one of 10 international creative team members for Rusk, a role that saw him flown all over the world to teach other hair dressers the use of the international distributor’s products. He worked in the Omaha salon during the week and jetted around on weekends.

It gave him the stage, the lights, the theatrics he felt called to. It also meant lots of money and partying.

All the while, his addictions progressed.

 

 

 

Encounter Magazine - Omaha, NE

 

 

 

He was prepping for the always stressful Omaha Fashion Week last summer when he and his life partner split for good. Amidst the breakup, the all-nighters, running his businesses, and leading an online advocacy campaign for a Fringes team that showed well in the national Battle of the Strands competition, Davis crashed.

“By the time I hit bottom I was drinking every day and drinking to black out three days a week and, you know, it just had to end. I finally realized I am an alcoholic. It was a real wake up call.”

He’s now actively working a 12-step program.

“It’s definitely helped me get sober. I definitely thank my Higher Power for the strength I’ve had to get where I am today.”

He’s not shy sharing his ups and downs.

“I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned in my treatment. In order to achieve something you need support in your life and there is a connection through Facebook with family and friends that I think is very useful. I see it as an opportunity to share with them what I’m going through and the choices I’m making for myself.”

He calls his 12-step group “a new addition to my family,” adding, “They’re great people.” Like many addicts he’s replaced his former addictions for a couple new, blessedly benign ones – Twitter and tattoos.

As his recovery’s progressed he’s grown in other ways, too, including taking charge of his Fringes store’s finances.

“It’s absolutely the best thing that could have happened for this business. It’s given me a whole new level of accountability. I see things more clearly and because of that we’ve broken through a plateau we were never able to get past.”

He credits new business partner Sarah Pithan, a former assistant, for helping increase business by more than $4,000 a week. He also credits the “amazing team” he and Pithan have cultivated, including Omar Rodriguez, Kristina Lee and Teresa Chaffin, for taking Fringes and Clear Salon Services to new levels.

Visit http://www.fringessalon.com.

 

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