Where are the entrepreneurs?

Everyone knows that starting a new business is tough in any economy. But what about in today's very challenging economic conditions? The American entrepreneurial spirit is the engine that drives the American economy, but can that spirit also be the thing that turns the American economy around? Here are some profiles of University of Phoenix graduates and faculty who are also successful entrepreneurs.

Jonathan Nowling, MBA, graduated from the University of Phoenix School of Business in 2006. An entrepreneur from California, Nowling translated his love of California wine country in the Napa and Sonoma valleys into a business - but not by starting a vineyard or opening a gift shop. Instead, Nowling is in the lavender business.

"I was originally planning to open a high-end gift shop," Nowling says. "But as I was driving through California wine country touring vineyards and tasting wines, I kept noticing how the vineyard owners planted lavender and mustard in between the rows of grapevines. When I asked why, they told me that the lavender and mustard flowers helped attract bees that would pollinate the grapevines. Then I asked what happened to the lavender and mustard, and all the winery owners told me that they just threw it away."

Nowling smelled a business opportunity - literally. "I know that a lot of people like lavender and products made from it. After looking around, I found a lavender farmer who wanted to sell her farm. I couldn't afford to buy her farm, so I bought her recipes for lavender products instead."

Nowling's company, Rock Hill Lavender (founded in 2005), manufactures, sells and distributes handmade lavender products, ranging from lotions and candles to sachets and even products for cooking and pets. "Our customers like that our products have a handmade touch," says Nowling. Rock Hill Lavender sells its products online and at trade shows, and also has wholesale deals with a number of sales outlets. "Our wholesale business is doing well," Nowling says. "We just signed a deal that will get our products into hotel gift shops across the United States."

While Rock Hill Lavender is doing well, the current economy has presented some challenges. "We did $400,000 in annual revenue in 2008, but we only did about half that in 2010," Nowling says. Despite these challenges, Nowling remains optimistic about the company, which in rosier economic times had as many as nine employees, but is now mostly family-run. "Our Web-based sales have grown 300% every year since we launched the Web portion of the business, and the hotel deal we just signed will bring in a lot of new sales in 2011."

Another entrepreneur who saw an unusual business opportunity is Melanie Benson Strick, MA, who holds a master's degree in Organizational Management from University of Phoenix. Before launching her own business, Strick spent several years working in the corporate world for Motorola.

Even during her corporate days, Strick's entrepreneurial streak showed through. "I was always very entrepreneurial within Motorola and seemed to get put on random, quirky projects requiring us to mobilize a team to solve a problem within a very short window of time," she says. Ironically, it was this - combined with a workshop she attended as part of her corporate duties - that led to her current business.

"I did a personal development course in 1997 which led me to understand I had a purpose to inspire others," Strick says. "I had no idea what to do with that until our management team went through a Stephen Covey workshop and they started 'coaching' us. I then started researching the field of coaching and saw a great correlation between the project-management and team-building skills that I loved being translated into something I was more passionate about - life goals."

Shortly thereafter, Strick founded her company, Success Connections, which specializes in coaching small business owners and entrepreneurs. "Our typical client is a coach, consultant, author, speaker or other visionary entrepreneur who is stuck in neutral trying to figure out how to get his business making six figures or more," she says. "We help them identify the right mindset to lead their businesses to success as well as help them build a team, pick the right business model, set up systems and access resources to grow rapidly."

One thing that Strick tells all her clients is that when it comes to being an entrepreneur, passion is key. "Build a business based on your 'big why,' something that you are very passionate about," she says. "It's challenging to sustain success on the 'bad days' when you build a business just to make money. The more passion you have, the more impact you will make."

Richard Trottier is adjunct faculty at the University of Phoenix West Florida Campus, teaching such courses as Philosophy/Ethics, American History, and Critical Thinking, and he has an academic background in Political Thought. When he's not teaching University of Phoenix students, Trottier runs Sundial Partners, a private bank and brokerage aimed at middle-market entrepreneurs.

Trottier is an expert in middle-market businesses, and he has also published a book on the subject ("Middle Market Strategies: How Private Companies Use the Markets to Create Value"; Wiley, 2009). Trottier describes Sundial Partners this way: "We help sell middle market companies with a certain set of strengths and weaknesses up to the next biggest fish."

Trottier explains that one of the biggest challenges facing small businesses these days is a lack of financing. "The banks are simply not lending to the mom-and-pop businesses right now," he says. "The banks are really caught in a cross-pressure between bad loans and tighter regulations." While Sundial Partners does not engage in traditional lending, "we help our clients arrange financing for their purchases," Trottier says.

According to Trottier, another problem small businesses face are growth-related challenges. "Growth is the real issue, regardless of whether banks are lending to small businesses or not," he says. "It's very difficult for businesses of any size to grow to the next level organically, which is why you see larger companies buying smaller companies. The flip side is, some businesses don't want to grow. Many of our clients are happy with the revenue they're generating and instead seek our assistance in managing that."

Still, Trottier emphasizes that the biggest issue currently affecting our economy is the lack of entrepreneurs. "I think we are in serious trouble in the United States because the business start rate is too low right now," he says. "We need more intellectual capital to start businesses. Too many people think you need money to start a business, but what you really need are ideas."

One entrepreneur who launched a successful consulting business based on a single idea is Tim Porter O'Grady, who earned his Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from University of Phoenix. A registered nurse who also holds multiple other doctoral degrees (in science and health care management), O'Grady based his consulting business, Tim Porter O'Grady Associates Inc., on something he discovered while working as a nurse. "My defining moment came about 25 years ago when I was working as a nurse in a hospital," he says. "I worked in a surgical suite and saw lots of surgeons not washing their hands between patients, which is an infection risk. When I raised the issue with my supervisor, I was told that it was not a nurse's place to question what surgeons did. It was a very autocratic, paternalistic culture. That really bothered me, since it was putting patients at risk."

O'Grady eventually channeled this concern into his work as a hospital administrator, where he helped shape the concept of shared governance in health care. Under shared governance, all stakeholders have an equal say in health care delivery, making it more patient-focused instead of top-down and autocratic. O'Grady's company provides consulting services to hospitals and health care systems that are looking to restructure their health care delivery processes to better incorporate shared governance.

While the economic downturn has hurt some businesses, O'Grady has found it to be a huge benefit. "The current economic situation, along with health care reform, are driving hospitals to find ways to be more efficient and effective, and shared governance is a good way to do that," he says. "Our business has gone way up over the past two years; our work is endless." Indeed, his company has serviced clients throughout the United States as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and throughout the European Union.

While starting your own business is always risky, the rewards can be great. And the American economy may very well depend on it. As Jonathan Nowling says, "I really wish more people had the entrepreneurial spirit. The only way America is going to come back economically is for more people to take the risk and start up their own businesses." -Jill Elaine Hughes, University of Phoenix Writer Network