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Cover Story

Building a Foundation

 

As he talked about the foundation he created with some of the proceeds from the sale of Pride Stations and Stores — the business he started more than 40 years ago — and the many difficult societal problems it will address, Bob Bolduc summoned an often-paraphrased quote from John F. Kennedy.

It went this way:

“The great French Marshal Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and wouldn’t reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshal replied, ‘in that case, there is no time to lose — plant it this afternoon!’”

Bolduc recalled the story to drive home the point that the country, and Kennedy’s administration, faced some stubborn, deep-rooted problems, and because they would take a long time to resolve, no time should be wasted in addressing them.

Bolduc, the hugely successful entrepreneur also known for his high level of involvement in the community, and especially Springfield, struck those same tones while talking about the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation, launched earlier this year, and its broad mission.

“Helping youth and families achieve sustainability is the ultimate goal, and that’s not going to happen overnight,” he told BusinessWest. “It starts with the youth, and it’s going to take time to get them from pre-kindergarten into a career. So we’re looking at a long-range plan.

“And along the way, a lot of things have to be done right,” he went on. “So it’s absolutely a long-term, major project.”

Even before Bolduc launched the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation, back when he was planting the seeds and talking in broad strokes about its mission and how it would be carried out, he stressed repeatedly that this endeavor was not about writing checks — although it would undoubtedly write some.

“Helping youth and families achieve sustainability is the ultimate goal, and that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Instead, it was about creating a foundation that would be — and he would use these three words early and often — a convener, a facilitator, and a catalyst.

Shannon Mumblo, who became executive director of the foundation — and its first employee — just a few months ago, agreed.

She said the foundation’s mission statement — “to work within under-resourced communities, create alliances, and find solutions in all aspects necessary to help youth and families achieve sustainability” — speaks to the work it will carry out and how it will go about this work.

Indeed, as they talked about the new foundation and how it will go about its work, both Bolduc and Mumblo noted there are many other foundations, individual agencies, and major institutions already doing good work in this region. The goal moving forward is not to duplicate such work, but build on it, forge new alliances, and create more momentum with the many issues involved with creating sustainability.

And the foundation has already launched several new initiatives, everything from a Trauma Institute — born from the knowledge that trauma is one of the lead social determinants of health and a key contributor to many challenges facing youth and families — to an ‘Inspirational Speaker Series’ at which students will learn about career opportunities in various fields.

The Trauma Institute, which will provide training and consultative services to area agencies and nonprofits serving youth and families, is an early example of those at the new foundation listening to others and responding to identified needs.

Shannon Mumblo

Shannon Mumblo says the Hope for Youth and Families Foundation will, through its Trauma Institute, put a focus on providing trauma-informed services and training.

“We’re not here to replicate anything that’s already being done — we’re here to add value, and to meet needs where they arise,” Mumblo said. “We heard there was a need for something like this, and it has been very well-received within the community.”

For this issue, one that includes its annual Giving Guide, BusinessWest talked with the team at the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation about its broad mission and the long, challenging, and rewarding work that lies ahead.

 

Listening and Learning

There’s a box of tissues on the conference-room table at the foundation’s new office in Springfield.

It was added several months ago, and it’s now a permanent feature, said Bolduc, adding that many of the topics discussed — and stories heard — at the table have prompted those assembled to reach for the tissue box.

This process of listening is a big part of the early work being done at the foundation, said those we spoke with, adding that all those involved are still in the process of learning, identifying issues and ways in which the foundation can become involved, and then developing strategies for this involvement.

Summing it up, Bolduc and Mumblo called it the “Sustainability Challenge,” noting that it has both foundational building blocks — funding, alliances both local and national, data collection, and tracking of progress are just some of them — and a number of initiatives and programs ranging from foster care and supportive housing to summer camps, mentoring and tutoring programs, and scholarships.

The foundation’s work on the Sustainability Challenge is still very much in its infancy stage, said Bolduc, adding that, while he has been talking about his new foundation for the better part of a year now, the sale of the Pride chain was quite complicated, and it took several months to “unravel a lot of complicated issues,” as he put it.

Mumblo, the foundation’s first employee, did not come on board until July, he said, adding that this hire was an important initial step.

For Mumblo, the offer from Bolduc to lead the foundation, extended about a year ago, came somewhat out of the blue. When Bolduc called, she was serving as executive director of Christina’s House in Springfield, a nonprofit focused on providing transitional housing for women and their children, work that earned her status as one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2021. And she was quite happy in that work.

“I thought Christina’s House was going to the place where I retired eventually,” she said, adding she asked for time to think about this opportunity, and was given it. Her career plans changed when she learned more about the new foundation and the initial roadmap for how it would carry out its mission.

“Bob’s vision and values in the world really aligned with mine,” she noted. “And the bottom line for me was that it was not about handing out checks; it was about doing work — not just talking, but being immersed in the community and listening to what the community really needed and then building the foundation around that need. That’s what brought me here.”

She’s now leading a foundation that has that broad mission statement — and was inspired by all that Bolduc saw, heard, and learned about area communities and specific neighborhoods, and the many kinds of challenges they are facing.

“Because, over my career, I’ve had stores in all the different neighborhoods, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the populations in these neighborhoods, and I saw the need in the inner cities to help youth and families,” he explained. “When our family decided to start a foundation, we made that our mission — to work with youth and families in the inner cities.

“We had to define the problem and set goals,” he went on, adding that this work is in many ways being shaped by some interviews with 15-year-old girls conducted several years ago.

“When sustainability becomes the goal, we then need to look at what we have to do to make this happen. And we found that we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work — in all the ways.”

“We asked them what they wanted to do when they grew up,” he recalled. “And when the question came, ‘do you think you’ll go to college?’ every one of them said, categorically, ‘no, I could never go to college.’

“That became one of the points in our mission, and that is to help youth to be sustainable and find a job,” he went on. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be college, but to have a better life, be sustainable, stay in the city — which is a great city — and to ultimately give back, like we want to do.”

Sustainability is the identified goal, or mission. Attaining it is, of course, a challenge, and it has been for decades, he continued, referencing JFK’s famous quote and the need to plant the tree and get started.

“When sustainability becomes the goal, we then need to look at what we have to do to make this happen,” Bolduc told BusinessWest. “And we found that we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work — in all the ways.”

 

Addressing Needs

This ‘getting to work’ has taken many forms thus far, but much of it has involved meeting with the many agencies working on issues involving sustainability, listening to what they have to say, and thinking about ways to partner with them.

“Over the past few months, we’ve been meeting with every agency and nonprofit that fits into this plan — and we have a few more to go,” Bolduc said. “And we’re finding great people and great programs already in place; unfortunately, we’re finding some silos, and lots of problems. But those problems … we’re calling those opportunities to improve.”

And while listening and learning, those at the foundation have already launched several new initiatives aimed at addressing the needs conveyed to them.

One of these steps is creation of the Trauma Institute, which has its own mission statement — “to provide trauma-informed and responsive support services to youth and families and those who work with them in under-resourced communities.”

And it carries out that mission in many ways, including training and consultation focused on serving youth and families and those who work with them in under-resourced communities, partnerships, and policy and advocacy.

“We’re focused on helping to create pathways to graduation and then on to careers or college. We’re starting young and getting students involved in their education, wanting to go to school, and wanting to further their education or career goals.”

“There is a lot of work being done in mental health, specifically in trauma, but there are gaps because the need is so great and there aren’t enough resources to meet the need in the community,” said Mumblo, noting that she became well aware of these needs and gaps while leading Christina’s House and convinced Bolduc that work to address trauma needed to be a primary focal point of the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation.

“In my previous work with mothers and their children, I came to understand that their trauma is great, and it has many levels and many layers,” she explained. “You can teach life skills and provide a lot of education to help move someone from a point of homelessness or near-homelessness into independent living and stability and success. But until you really reach the root of the issue — which, for me, I saw time and time again, was the trauma that they had experienced and the severing of trust on so many levels and inability to feel loved — until that work really began to happen, the process to change had started, but there was only so much change that was going to happen until you peeled away the layers of that trauma, built that trust, and provided a loving and safe environment.”

Elaborating, she said the need for trauma-informed support and services extends to individuals in the community, obviously, but also to those working in the agencies that provide such services.

“There are many organizations who are serving youth and families in this area and doing a tremendous amount of work,” she said. “But the vicarious trauma that comes from that as providers is great, and a lot of times we’re not great at taking care of ourselves.”

Overall, the foundation’s work with trauma is in its early, formative stages, said Mumblo, adding this is true of other initiatives as well, including the Inspired Speaker Series, which kicked off recently with an event at Springfield Symphony Hall, where students from several area high schools had the opportunity to hear about careers in the military.

Future gatherings, and there will be many of them, will focus on different career paths, said Mumblo, including STEM, healthcare, law and government, law enforcement, and business. The broad goal is to introduce students to careers, inform them of what it takes to forge a career in these fields, and help put them on a path that will take them where they want to go.

There are several initiatives, most all of them still in the formative stages, that fall into this broad realm, said Alison Schoen, director of Administration for the foundation, listing mentoring and tutoring services, as well as after-school and summer programs, as other examples.

“We’re focused on helping to create pathways to graduation and then on to careers or college,” she said. “We’re starting young and getting students involved in their education, wanting to go to school, and wanting to further their education or career goals. We’re working with local organizations that already have established mentoring and tutoring programs and helping to create ties that will bind them and enable them to learn from one another.”

This is just one example, said Bolduc, of those guiding principles he mentioned for this foundation — to be a convener, a facilitator, and a catalyst for positive change.

 

Bottom Line

Such change, as noted earlier, will not come quickly or easily.

That’s why, like that gardener mentioned at the top, those at the Hope for Youth and Families Foundation aren’t wasting any time planting that tree — or, in this case, trees.

The problems related to sustainability are deep-rooted, and addressing them will involve time, patience, persistence, imagination, and more.

Bolduc had those qualities in mind when he began the next chapter of what has been a remarkable career in business and in giving back to the community.

He knew that they would be needed to build a foundation — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

And All That Jazz

Kenny Lumpkin

Kenny Lumpkin doesn’t like to use that word ‘club’ when it comes to his establishment on Worthington Street, Dewey’s Jazz Lounge. He prefers ‘restaurant, bar, and music venue,’ which really says it all. Those are his passions — in life and now in business. A year after opening, he’s off to a solid start and now looking to make an even greater impact on Springfield’s dining and entertainment scene.

Kenny Lumpkin is the true definition of serial entrepreneur.

Since as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be in business for himself — and he’s put his name and talents behind many different types of ventures.

One was called Room by Room, an app he developed with a friend that he described as “applying Uber to the cleaning industry — an on-demand way to get your house cleaned.” He eventually sold that venture, took the capital, and segued into real estate, flipping houses, and wholesaling. And while doing that, he also got into consulting, specifically with businesses in the hospitality sector looking for help with marketing, and later, biotech and pharmaceutical consulting, working for a few different firms.

But his real passions — yes, we need the plural here — are music, food, and beverage.

And he and business partner Mark Markarian have brought them all together in an intriguing new venture in the heart of Springfield’s entertainment district, or what many are now calling the Dining District.

“I said to her ‘give me the landlord’s number,’ because this fit the vision; I saw the mezzanine, I saw the elevated stage … I saw some incredible potential.”

It’s called Dewey’s Lounge, with that name chosen to honor Lumpkin’s cousin Dwight ‘Dewey’ Jarrett, who passed away in 2014. It’s been called a club by many, but Lumpkin doesn’t necessarily like that term attached to his establishment. He prefers ‘restaurant, bar, and music venue,’ with ‘restaurant coming first for a reason.

Opened almost a year ago, Dewey’s was obviously conceived and launched before and then during the pandemic, although Lumpkin admits that he’s been working on bringing this concept from the drawing board to reality for many years now. And since it is a product of the pandemic, the business plan for Dewey’s has been revised … well, Lumpkin doesn’t know how many times.

“Maybe 15 or 20 times — I’ve lost track,” he said, adding that many things have changed since the original plans were put down, including (and especially) the location.

Indeed, the original site was on Main Street, the former JT’s tavern. Lumpkin and Markarian had signed a letter of intent and were primed to get started when COVID arrived in March of 2020. The partners quickly put those plans on the shelf for what would be more than a year, but in many respects, the pandemic was somewhat of a blessing.

“I look back on it now, and while it was frustrating in the moment, it was extremely beneficial,” he recalled. “It allowed us to really dig deeper, develop the plan in more detail, and look at other locations.”

But what really hasn’t changed is the broad concept and the desire — make that the mission — to make this all happen in Springfield, where Lumpkin was born and spent his early years.

And over its first 11 or so months in operation, Dewey’s is off to what Lumpkin called a solid start that has been better than expected, especially while dealing with COVID, two different surges, mask mandates, and the corresponding changes in attitude about going out and being in a crowded place.

Deweys Bar

Dewey’s was conceived as a place where food, beverage, and music would come together in a powerful way.

“We’ve seen two dips and two spikes,” he explained, adding that he and Markarian understood the risks of moving ahead with their venture when they eventually did — December of 2020 — but decided these were risks worth taking. “There was really no good time to do it. We took that risk, and, in looking at the cycle of it, understood that we were going to come out of this eventually.”

The goal moving forward is to continue to build on the solid foundation that has been created, he told BusinessWest, while also advancing plans for another new business in the downtown — a sports bar on Dwight Street (more on that later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Lumpkin about a host of topics — Dewey’s, the joys (and perils) of entrepreneurship, downtown Springfield and its comeback from COVID, and much more.

 

Sound Investment

Lumpkin told BusinessWest that the chosen location for Dewey’s came about more or less by accident.

As he tells the story, he was helping his sister prepare for the grand opening of her venture, called Ethnic Study, a co-working space and café in a property on Worthington Street, in late summer of 2020, when she asked him to move some paint and other materials to the other side of the divided first floor.

What he found on the other side was what was left (not much, as he recalled) of the former Fat Cat lounge, which had closed years earlier.

As he looked around, Lumpkin concluded that he had found what he was looking for. Sort of.

“I have always said that music, food, and drinks are the one thing that can really unite anybody and everybody. That was my hypothesis before we opened, and seeing it come to fruition has been quite amazing.”

It wasn’t what he could see that intrigued him — although that, too. But rather, it was what he could imagine. And that was the restaurant, bar, and music venue that he had always dreamed of.

“I said to her ‘give me the landlord’s number,’ because this fit the vision; I saw the mezzanine, I saw the elevated stage … I saw some incredible potential,” he said, adding that he signed a lease late that fall and commenced transforming the location in December.

Dewey’s has attracted entertainers

Since it opened, Dewey’s has attracted entertainers from across the region — and across the country.

There was a good deal of work to be done, including the replacement of the bar and moving it from the center of the first floor to one side, new shelving, a new bar and seating on that mezzanine level, and more, and it was completed over the next six months or so, with Dewey’s opening in June 2021.

Before getting more into this intriguing addition to the downtown Springfield landscape and how it came about, we first need to explain how Lumpkin made his way back to the City of Homes and made his dream reality.

We pick up the story at Emmanuel College in Boston, where Lumpkin was studying business management, with a focus on marketing, and working as a barback at a local restaurant. Later, he worked as a server at Joe’s American Bar & Grill on Newbury Street, and then as a server and bartender at the Envoy Hotel in Boston’s Seaport.

While working these jobs, he developed that Room by Room app mentioned earlier, then segued into real estate, and then into various forms of consulting. The money was good and the work was rewarding in many ways.

“But … I wasn’t passionate about it,” Lumpkin recalled. “And what I realized I was passionate about was people, and music — I’m really passionate about music. I love to eat, and I love a good cocktail.

“And that’s where this business idea began to develop, because I really do enjoy connecting with people,” he went on. “And I’ve been the friend who said, ‘everyone come to my house — I’ll cook, let’s drink, let’s hang out all night.’”

So he set out to create a business where he would be the host and people could eat and drink, and also listen to live music.

As noted earlier, the plans for what would become Dewey’s started jelling months before anyone had ever heard the word COVID, and would certainly be impacted by the pandemic in many respects. But while there have been some ups and downs that have coincided with surges and subsequent drops in cases, the venture has come together as things were originally envisioned.

Before and after photographs

Before and after photographs show the dramatic transformation of the former Fat Cat lounge into Dewey’s.

He acknowledged that being a business owner, especially in the hospitality industry, is difficult, and that’s without a global pandemic being thrown in for good measure. But he enjoys the challenges, and even used the word “fun” when talking about how to plan and execute during COVID.

“We would all prefer boring,” he explained. “But challenges like the ones we’ve seen keep you intrigued, keep you interested, and keep you creative. And if you get to the core of what an entrepreneur is, it’s someone who is creative, who can find new ways to problem-solve, and find ways to increase volume or throw out new dishes or cocktails; it keeps it fresh and it keeps it new.”

 

Achievements of Note

It helps to have something new, different, and intriguing, and Dewey’s has those ingredients.

Specifically, this is an appealing mix of food, signature drinks, and music, a combination that has had many guests thinking they’re somewhere other than downtown Springfield when they walk in the door, said Lumpkin, adding that this was the idea when he conceptualized Dewey’s.

And, as noted, he emphasizes that it is a restaurant first, with offerings ranging from Cajun shrimp pasta to baked mac & cheese to fried catfish and grits.

But craft cocktails are an important part of the mix — figuratively but also quite literally — as well, he said, adding that Dewey’s is considered the only craft cocktail bar in downtown Springfield.

“All of our syrups, all of our juices — all of the ingredients that go into our drinks — we make in-house,” he explained. “Everything but the spirit is house; we probably squeeze a couple thousand limes a week.”

The signature cocktails vary with the month and the season, he said, adding that current, spring offerings include ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ a mix of whiskey, iced tea, lemonade, and peach syrup; ‘Louis’ Lemonade,’ which features gin, lemon juice, and lavender simple syrup; and ‘Billie’s Holliday,’ featuring vodka, limoncello, and house-made grenadine, topped with prosecco.

As for the music, when asked how and where he finds performers, Lumpkin said that, in many cases, they find him — because they’re looking for intriguing new places to play.

“You’d be surprised by all the talent that’s here in Western Mass. and Connecticut, and Boston as well,” he told BusinessWest. “The most consistent bookings we receive are within a 100-mile radius; however, we’ve had bands come in from New Orleans, Georgia, D.C., Sacramento … we’ve had bands come in from across the country, but the majority are local.”

Dewey’s is currently booked through July, and it boasts live music five nights a week, he said, adding that each night has a different theme, with vocalists or “a vocal-like instrument” on Wednesdays, with a “throw-back R&B” on Thursday. Friday night is more of a “funky, groovy night,” as he put it, with Saturday devoted to straight-up jazz and Sunday and its brunch reserved for classical or a “more groovy type of band.”

It is the combination of all of the above that has enabled Dewey’s to get off to a good start and attract visitors from across this region and well beyond it, said Lumpkin, noting that he carefully tracks such information and notes that through aggressive, targeted marketing and people simply Googling ‘live music,’ or ‘craft cocktails,’ Dewey’s has drawn patrons from Vermont, New York, and many from Connecticut, New Hampshire and the Boston area, in addition to communities across this area.

Dewey’s a destination.

The combination of food, drink, and music has made Dewey’s a destination.

“I have always said that music, food, and drinks are the one thing that can really unite anybody and everybody,” he noted. “That was my hypothesis before we opened, and seeing it come to fruition has been quite amazing.”

Elaborating, he said Dewey’s has been able to attract a clientele that is diverse in every sense of that word, which is unusual in hospitality — and especially in this region.

“We’re in a community where you don’t really see all demographics in one establishment simultaneously,” he explained. “What surprised me … actually, it didn’t surprise me, because I expected it, and what has made me really happy is to see the eclectic group of people that Dewey’s has attracted.

“You see a range of age, gender, nationality, and ethnicity here every single night,” he went on. “People come in and say ‘I don’t think I’m in Springfield; this has a bigger-city vibe, because you’re seeing so much diversity in one room.’”

Moving forward, Lumpkin wants to build on this momentum, obviously, while also embarking on another venture, that sports bar on Dwight Street.

He is targeting a late-summer opening for that facility, and believes there is ample room in the marketplace for such a facility and also ample motivation for him to fill what he sees as an unmet need.

“There’s no sports bar in the area, and any restaurateur understands that sports bars also produce the best margins when it comes to this industry,” he explained, adding that, overall, he is a firm believer in amassing an abundance of hospitality options and, while doing so, creating a true destination in a city or, in this case, a dining district.

“It sounds crazy to say, but there’s almost no such thing as competition in this industry,” he told BusinessWest. “Patrons don’t go to one establishment; they typically at least go to two. They’ll say ‘let’s grab a drink here, a bite here, and dessert here’ or ‘a bite here, a drink there, and let’s get catch a show.’ People get to two or three places a night, and so the pie grows.”

 

Just Desserts

As he talked with BusinessWest, Lumpkin noted that plans are coming into place for what promises to be an exciting one-year anniversary for Dewey’s.

Indeed, he has a star-studded entertainment lineup coming together, with musicians from New Orleans, Boston, New York, California, and this area as well, signed up to perform.

“It’s going to be quite the party,” he said, adding that there is much to celebrate — with this new venue and what is transpiring along Worthington and elsewhere downtown.

It’s taken a few years, but Lumpkin’s dream has become reality in Springfield. It’s a place where his passions come together under one roof, and where a diverse mix of clients has come together as well.

It hasn’t all gone as planned, but in most all respects, it has gone better than planned.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Portrait of the Artist

 

When he was in college and developing his skills as a photographer, Lenny Underwood recalls being told to ‘get a real job.’ He thought he already had one, and eventually built a successful business. A decade or so later, he created another one, Upscale Socks, which is turning heads with its products while also helping to bring attention to everything from breast cancer to mental-health issues. These days, while growing his two ventures, Underwood is also passing on what he’s learned and doing important work to encourage entrepreneurship, especially among young people.

 

MAKING QUICK WORK OF IT.

That was the puzzle Lenny Underwood had to solve when he advanced to the bonus round of an episode of Wheel of Fortune that aired in May 2018 — three years after he first auditioned to be on the popular show.

With the few letters that had been revealed — Underwood doesn’t remember which ones they were (he could choose three consonants and a vowel) — he wasn’t able to come up with the phrase. But he noted that he wasn’t familiar with it and had never used it himself, so he was at a real disadvantage. (He also failed to solve another puzzle — WKRP IN CINCINNATI — claiming he’s too young to recall the late-’70s sitcom.)

But, overall, his appearance — he and a good friend competed together — was a success on many levels. He did win a trip to Guatemala for advancing to the bonus round, along with some press — both before the show and after it — and some fond memories from the experience, which came at a point in his life (the audition part, anyway) when he had much more time and inclination for such escapades.

“We did a lot of things like that — we were interested in adventures,” he told BusinessWest. “Things like skydiving, being audience members for TV shows, meeting celebrities, going to book signings … things that were interesting. We would say, ‘let’s audition for this,’ or ‘maybe The Amazing Race,’ things I could add to the arsenal of things that I enjoy doing.

“I’ve been in business for 17 years, nine full-time, but I guess, for whatever reason, socks are more provocative or sexy or interesting.”

“But that was before Upscale Socks,” he went on, referring to what would be described as his latest entrepreneurial venture. It is, as that name indicates, a sock venture, but one with some distinctive artistic and philanthropic flares to it.

Indeed, since launching his line, he has designed sock patterns that do everything from identifying many of Springfield’s many ‘firsts’ — basketball and the monkey wrench are on that list — to drawing attention to breast cancer and mental-health issues. His latest design — he’s planning a press conference to announce it — is what he calls a ‘Massachusetts sock,’ complete with many symbols of the state, including mountains, cranberries, the mayflower, and art connoting higher education.

There is far less time now for things like Wheel of Fortune as Underwood continues to adjust the business plan for both his sock venture and his photography studio, another artistic enterprise he launched 17 years ago, one that suffered greatly during the pandemic, as all such businesses did, but has bounced back in 2021 as the world returns to normal — in most respects.

Meanwhile, there are other matters competing for hours in the day, he noted, listing a growing number of mentoring initiatives with young entrepreneurs, including many aspiring photographers; involvement with Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll Holyoke (he recently judged a final competition among participants in its latest accelerator cohort), and other agencies working with entrepreneurs; and teaching assignments within the broad spectrum of business and entrepreneurship. He’s also writing a children’s book on entrepreneurship.

He used to get a few requests for such work years ago, but the number grew quickly and profoundly after he got into the sock business.

“I’ve been in business for 17 years, nine full-time, but I guess, for whatever reason, socks are more provocative or sexy or interesting,” he said with a laugh and a shrug of his shoulders, adding that his calendar is getting even busier as photo assignments come back and requests to partner on initiatives involving his socks arrive with greater frequency.

Lenny Underwood, seen here talking with a UMass Amherst student

Lenny Underwood, seen here talking with a UMass Amherst student at a pitch contest he judged, has become a mentor to many aspiring entrepreneurs.

Overall, this is an intriguing success story already — on many levels. Equally intriguing is where all this could go, especially Upscale Socks. At the moment, it is mostly a regional phenomenon, although the socks are sold online and in outlets in other parts of the country. But Underwood is looking to go next level.

“I’m hoping to attend some conventions and trade shows so I can get in more stores throughout other parts of the country,” he said. “I’ve done pretty well organically; a number of stores have reached out to me — they discover me on social media and they reach out because they’re interested — but I know that, if I want to expand into larger markets and places I’ve never heard of, I need to get in more stores and make more connections.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Underwood — about socks, photography, entrepreneurship, mentorship, that full calendar of his, and how it’s all become an adventure unto itself.

 

Dream Weaver

By now, most people know the story; Underwood has told it many, many times.

Upscale Socks is a dream come true. Quite literally.

He said it was probably seven years ago that he had a dream that he started a company making and selling socks. He said he usually doesn’t remember his dreams, and he didn’t recall all of this one. Just the main theme.

“It was really vague,” he recalled. “I just remember being the owner of this business and selling socks; the dream wasn’t to have a store, but just to have them available in stores and online as well. And that was it.”

He ran the concept by the friend who auditioned with him for Wheel of Fortune, and they agreed it was an idea with merit and potential. But there was a lot of learning to do and hurdles to clear.

“Many have a purpose behind them, and others are more artistic or wacky or funky, as some people call them.”

“I knew nothing about retail,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t do anything for maybe a year but toy with the idea and do some light searching on social media. Nothing really materialized.”

Eventually, he connected with Paul Silva, then-director of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), who steered him to SPARK (now EforAll) in Holyoke. Mentors at that agency helped take the concept from the fuzzy dream stage to reality, he told BusinessWest, by compelling him to ask the hard questions, conduct customer discovery, and work to determine if there was a real market for the product.

“They held me accountable to look for manufacturing, so I researched probably 30 around the world,” he recalled. “They gave me more insight on numbers and data to work with; it was very helpful.”

The venture started slowly, but it has taken off. The socks, now seen on the feet of a number of area business and civic leaders, have become a fashion statement — but, as noted earlier, perhaps the real key to success has been that these socks often have a purpose well beyond comfort and fashion.

“Many have a purpose behind them, and others are more artistic or wacky or funky, as some people call them,” he noted, adding that many of his socks are attached to causes.

As an example, Underwood held up a pink sock designed to bring attention to breast cancer and Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October). He’s also working on one focused on AIDS awareness. Another initiative, undertaken in conjunction with the Mental Health Assoc., was the creation of socks designed to bring awareness to mental-health issues during Mental Health Awareness Month in May and help remove the stigmas attached to seeking help for mental illness.

“They’re very purposeful,” he said of his socks, adding that his relationships with area nonprofits and organizations, elected officials, and visitors’ bureaus bring many benefits. They create awareness for his products, but they also put a face — or a sock, to be more precise — on many of the issues of the day.

Lenny Underwood says Upscale Socks now has more than 75 designs, and many of them have a “purpose.”

Lenny Underwood says Upscale Socks now has more than 75 designs, and many of them have a “purpose.”

Overall, he has more than 75 current styles, and the number continues to grow, as with that Massachusetts sock. There are seasonal socks, for Halloween and Christmas, for example, and products for children — with matching styles for their parents.

“I hope to grow that collection in the future,” he told BusinessWest. “When I first started the children’s collection in 2016, I didn’t do as much field work to really discover what children like and dislike, so they’re not as colorful and fun as the adult socks; that’s a line I really want to grow, and I think there’s a lot of potential there.”

At present, he said he’s selling perhaps as many as 15,000 pairs a year through his website, the stores he’s in, and the many partnership efforts he’s made with nonprofits and other agencies.

When asked what that number could be someday, Underwood said the sky’s the limit — “as long as I remain authentic to what I’m offering,” he added, noting that the business plan is being continuously revised, and he’s working to create new partnerships and new avenues for visibility and growth.

 

Getting His Foot in the Door

While his businesses keep him busy — too busy to fly out to California on a moment’s notice to tape an episode of Wheel of Fortune, for example — Underwood says he tries to make time to do the occasional book signing and meet those who have forged successful careers in everything from entertainment to fashion design to literature.

“I still try to break away on a weekday if I can,” he said. “I like art, and I gain inspiration from hearing their stories — their life and how they were able to attain success and grow their business.”

Lenny Underwood, seen here donating 200 pairs of his socks to Square One

Lenny Underwood, seen here donating 200 pairs of his socks to Square One, has long made philanthropy and working with area nonprofits to help advance their causes part of his business plan.

As an example, he mentioned meeting Ruth Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer who grew up in Springfield. “I gave her a pair of my socks, and we talked about business and designs,” he recalled. “Those are really good networking opportunities — and learning experiences.”

While listening to and learning from others, Underwood is passing on what he’s learned to others as a mentor, teacher, and advisor.

He told BusinessWest he’s been doing much more of this work in recent years, especially within the minority community and with groups like VVM and EforAll. He said it’s been a mission of sorts to not only talk about entrepreneurship and all that comes with choosing that route, but encouraging it as a career option as well.

“It’s a cool experience to share my experience and offer some advice on how to obtain success with whatever they’re looking to do,” he said, adding that, over this past summer, he was one of several invited to teach business to middle- and high-school students in Springfield. He’s also been part of programs at the college level, at Springfield College, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, and other schools.

He finds it rewarding on many levels to pass on what he knows and to try and inspire others to get started with their own ventures or get over the hump and to the proverbial next level, just as he is doing in many ways.

And then, there’s the children’s book. He’s still finalizing a title, but the work is essentially done.

“It’s about teaching children how to become entrepreneurs at a young age,” he explained. “There will be key words throughout the book and definitions, so when they hear the word ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘branding’ or ‘prototype,’ they’ll be familiar with that language, and they’ll have the confidence, hopefully, to embark on something.”

Imparting such lessons is important, he said, noting that he didn’t have that kind of encouragement when he was younger.

“When I was a child, I tried a lemonade stand and tried to sell things like Blow Pops and water balloons in the summer months, but I didn’t think that was a business, and it wasn’t instilled in me to start a business,” he recalled. “Even in college, when I was doing photography, I was told, ‘get a real job — that’s just something you do for fun; that’s not something you can do as a career.’”

 

Developing Story

If Underwood had solved that puzzle in the bonus round of Wheel of Fortune, he would have won a pair of Mini Coopers. Looking back, he can say with hindsight that he’s not sure what he would have done with them — probably sell them.

It’s a moot point because, as he said at the top, he wasn’t familiar with the phrase in question and certainly couldn’t nail it with the few letters at his disposal.

As for the ongoing puzzle of entrepreneurship that he’s currently trying to solve … it’s equally difficult in some respects, but he has a better handle on the answer. And it has nothing to do with making quick work of anything. Instead, it’s about handling myriad challenges, pivoting when necessary, and, in the case of socks, having designs on success — in every respect. u

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

She’s Retired … but Not from Her Role as a Difference Maker

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Dianne Fuller Doherty has her own working definition of ‘entrepreneur.’

“Someone who’s resourceful,” said the now … well, let’s call it semi-retired director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office, before elaborating in some detail.

“Successful entrepreneurs are willing to ask for help; many people, particularly young people, think they have to have all the answers themselves,” she explained. “They don’t, and they need to develop the willingness to seek help and not be ashamed to ask. It is amazing how many people have struggled with that.”

For more than 20 years, it was the MSBDC — and quite often Fuller Doherty herself — that entrepreneurs, including BusinessWest founder John Gormally, would turn to for such help and guidance with everything from financing a venture to marketing a product, to simply deciding if a concept had legs. Often, it didn’t, and she would help them come to that important conclusion.

It was immensely rewarding work — and it still is.

Indeed, even though she officially retired from the MSBDC in 2016, Fuller Doherty remains quite active — with everything from mentoring young entrepreneurs, and especially women, to serving on the boards at Valley Venture Mentors, Tech Foundry, and Western New England University, where she sits on the committee now searching for a successor to long-time president Anthony Caprio.

Fuller Doherty — who bylined a piece for the New York Times in 2010, one in a series of pieces spotlighting people working past, or well past, what would be considered retirement age — has always believed in keeping the calendar full, and today, four years after retiring and also losing her husband, Paul Doherty, to cancer, she does so with everything from yoga and Pilates to consulting and mentoring.

“My feeling is that, as long as I’m doing something of value, why not continue doing it?’ she asked rhetorically in the piece she wrote for the Times. And those words ring true as she continues to do a number of things of value.

Especially in her role as a mentor and, yes, a role model to entrepreneurs, including a number of women who have been steered in her direction, continuing work to build the region’s economy through the development and maturation of small businesses.

“I love helping people, and I learn more from any job than I’ve ever given to people,” she told BusinessWest. “And that’s definitely true with mentoring; you learn about new industries, jobs, and approaches. I learn so much from my clients and mentees.”

Throughout her life and her career, Fuller Doherty has been a strong advocate for women — she was one of the founders of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — and “ensuring they have full and equal share in economic, social, cultural, and political decision making,” as she put it. There is still some work to do, but overall, she believes great strides have been made.

And she feels the same about the region itself.

“We have a lot going for us here — there is quality of life, great colleges and universities, and wonderful communities in which to raise families,” she said. “It’s a great story, and we need to be telling it.”

For all that she has done — and all she continues to do — she’s a true Difference Maker.

Role Modeling

By now, most people know at least some of the Dianne Fuller Doherty story.

Born in upstate New York, she went to Mount Holyoke College, where she earned a degree in philsophy. She lived for a year in Boston after graduating and, while there, met third-year Harvard Law School student Paul Doherty and fell in love.

Paul contemplated heading west to Chicago and work in investments, but ultimately chose the law firm in Springfield where his father and grandfather both worked. And that’s where our story unfolds.

Dianne Fuller Doherty (second from left) and the other founders of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., as well as its founding executive director, Kristi Nelson, were honored at an event in March 2019 at the Tower Square Hotel. Seen here are, from left, Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund, Fuller Doherty, founder Martha Richards, Nelson, Mimi Goldberg (accepting for the third founder, the late Sally Livingston), and Haydee Lamberty-Rodrigues, board chair of the WFMA.

Doherty admits to not knowing much about Springfield beyond its train station and the Student Prince restaurant, where her parents would take her to dinner while she was in college, but she quickly went about learning more. And by the ’90s, she was becoming a force in everything from business to helping women break through the glass ceiling.

Over the years, she became involved with institutions ranging from the Springfield Regional Chamber to the YMCA; from the World Affairs Council to Glenmeadow; from Bay Path University to the National Conference for Community and Justice.

When her four daughters were in their teens, Doherty, seeking to be a role model for them, first earned an MBA at Western New England College (20 years after she graduated from Mount Holyoke) and then went about looking for work — and maybe a career.

She started in Springfield City Hall working as a volunteer with the grants manager. “I wanted some experience, and I’d taken a grants course; I liked writing, and I liked to raise money,” she said, adding that all these talents would come into play later.

From there, she took a job with a marketing agency in Hartford, working primarily in business development.

“I didn’t know much about business development, but I could pretend pretty well,” she joked, adding that she enjoyed the work and, inspired to go into business for herself, partnered with Marsha Tzoumas and created a marketing firm that took their last names. The venture did well, eventually growing to 16 employees and a deep portfolio of clients, but it couldn’t survive the recession of the early ’90s.

“It was fun on the way up and hard when the economy changed and no one was spending any money on marketing,” she recalled, adding that she went on to work for Springfield Mayor Bob Markel before winning the job leading the regional office of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center.

Her intention was to stay for a few years “until I figured out what I really wanted to do.” She stayed nearly a quarter-century because she quickly discovered this was, indeed, what she really wanted to do.

“It was such a fun job, and I got to know so many people up and down the Valley, because I was in Northampton one day a week and Amherst one day a week,” she recalled. “I really got to know the region.”

She used all kinds of adjectives to describe her work with entrepreneurs, including ‘rewarding,’ ‘fulfilling,’ ‘exciting,’ and also ‘challenging’ — that last one because entrepreneurs don’t need someone telling them what they want to hear. They want, or should want, what amounts to tough love.

This 2010 New York Times article makes it clear Dianne Fuller Doherty plans to do things — including retirement — on her own schedule and in her own way.

“You have to be encouraging — you never want to say anything negative, but you also want to be honest and realistic,” he said. “The best advice I give to people is to ask enough questions so that they can come to the right conclusion on whether this is the right time, or the right place, or the right financial backing to go forward.

“You let them come to the decision about whether it’s a ‘no,’” she went on. “And if it’s a ‘yes,’ then you just try to be as encouraging as possible and let them know that there are going to be highs and lows in any business, and the challenges will come. But the rewards will come also.”

Thinking Big

Overall, Fuller Doherty said she believes the growth and evolution of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem — which she is now an integral part of — is one of the better economic-development stories unfolding in the region.

She told BusinessWest that, while MGM Springfield has been a solid addition to the landscape, and the eds and meds sectors remain pillars of the economy, the development of small businesses — with the hope that they that will bring jobs and perhaps grow into larger ventures — is the best economic-development strategy moving forward.

“When you think about MassMutual, it started with one man in a little building at 101 State St.,” she noted. “We don’t know what the next new thing or the next new business sector might be — it might be something not even known to us yet — but the key is to support and mentor people with ideas and help them turn those ideas into businesses and jobs.”

But there are many other good stories, she went on, listing everything from revitalization of Springfield’s downtown to new businesses emerging from the science labs at UMass Amherst and other area schools; from the growing strength of the area’s higher-education sector to this region emerging as a solid, affordable alternative to Greater Boston.

It’s a message that needs to be delivered — both to other markets in the Northeast and perhaps beyond, and in this market as well, she said, adding that a good deal of work remains to be done when it comes to building pride within the region.

“When I had my agency, my mantra was ‘marketing starts in the toes of the bus boy in the kitchen,’ and I truly believe that,” she said. “If you get him excited about what he’s doing serving people, he’s enthusiastic about not only his job but the region, and he shares that with other people, and they get excited; there’s a ripple effect. It’s the same with people living and working in this area.”

But perhaps the story she’s most intrigued by, and most proud of, is how the scene has changed for women over the decades.

For evidence, she points to the number of area colleges now led by women; in addition to the women’s schools, Springfield College, Holyoke Community College, Greenfield Community College, and Berkshire Community College all have a woman in the president’s office. And also to the number of businesses and nonprofits, as well as many new business ventures, being led by women.

‘When you look at the number of women leaders in this valley … it wasn’t this way 20 or 30 years ago; there’s been a real concentration of effort to promote women,” she explained. “Between women college presidents, not-for-profit CEOs, and for-profit CEOs, this is a very different place.”

Bottom Line

Fuller Doherty has had a lot to do with this region becoming that different place.

Over the years, she’s been a business owner, trusted consultant, mentor, role model, advocate for women, and cheerleader of sorts for the Pioneer Valley. And with most all of those titles, we can and do still use the present tense, which is a good thing for this region.

The headline placed over that aforementioned New York Times article from a decade ago read, “When She’s Ready to Retire, She’ll Know It.” Fuller Doherty may have retired from the MSBDC, but she hasn’t retired from being active in this region or from motivating and helping others to fulfill their specific dreams.

In short, she hasn’t retired from being a Difference Maker.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Taking Hold

More than 30 years ago, Paul DiGrigoli made it a goal to put his name on a line of hair-care products. It took nearly three decades to realize that dream, but ultimately it took more than time. It required him to step back from his business — or ‘away from the chair,’ as he put it — and attain the time and flexibility to fully flex his entrepreneurial muscles. There’s a lesson here, and he imparts it upon the many audiences who hear his motivational and hair-industry-focused speeches.

Paul DiGrigoli couldn’t put his hands on it easily, but he knew he had the news clipping somewhere.

It’s a saved copy of a Daily Hampshire Gazette story on his salon in Easthampton, one of many news items he’s saved over the years. He doesn’t recall the exact date, but knows it’s from the late ’80s. The content he remembers most vividly — and references most often — are his remarks about someday having a product line with his name on it.

That someday turned out to be roughly three decades later, as DiGrigoli unveiled a full slate of products — everything from shampoo and conditioner to something that will reduce the time it takes to blow-dry hair (more on later) — about a year ago. The name on the bottle is Paul Jõseph, chosen because Joseph, his middle name, is much easier to pronounce than DiGrigoli.

And while that timeline certainly isn’t what he had in mind when he talked with the Gazette business writer back when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, there’s a reason why it took so long for the dream to become reality.

Actually, several of them.

They include everything from the immense amount of competition in this vast market segment and the difficulty of breaking in, to the vast amounts of research and trial and error that go into creating such products, to the challenge of simply getting products into salons. And perhaps the biggest reason is the time it takes to do all that and how DiGrigoli needed to get out from behind the chair, as he put it, and work on his business, not necessarily in it.

“Entrepreneurship is not an easy thing, and I think that, at the end of the day, you try to get to the point where the business can run without you,” he explained. “When you can do that, it’s a game changer because, for most people, they’re not running their business; their business is running them.

“Entrepreneurship is not an easy thing, and I think that, at the end of the day, you try to get to the point where the business can run without you.”

“I came to the realization that, in order to grow my business exponentially, I had to step away,” he went on, adding that he’s still very much involved in the many aspects of his company, but he doesn’t micromanage and does spend considerable time and energy grooming leaders to run these operations.

This has left him free of many of the day-to-day details and ‘distractions,’ as he called them, and with the time to travel the country speaking, write a book for those within the industry titled Booked Solid — the Ultimate Guide to Getting and Keeping Customers, grow and diversify his business with initiatives such as the new product line, and even take on some real-estate initatitives, such as a building he and some partners renovated on Capital Drive — it now boasts several tenants and will likely become the eventual home of his school and salon.

These are all lessons DiGrigoli tries to impart upon the audiences he speaks to on a frequent basis. These are most often cosmetology students and professionals already in the business. Many are where he was a few decades ago and generally have what it takes to get where he is now.

What they need to know is how to make that transition from being a stylist to being an entrepreneur, he went on, adding that he has plenty of guidance and advice for them on this subject.

“By stepping away, and by sitting still, I have been able to organize my thinking,” he explained. “When you organize your thinking, that’s pretty profound because you’re allowed to make the bigger decisions involving your company, not the smaller decisions; when you’re wrapped up in the day-to-day operations, you’re caught up.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with DiGrigoli about his new product line, but mostly about the ongoing journey that brought him to the day when he could put ‘Paul Jõseph’ on a bottle of conditioner, and the lessons this story offers — for people not only in cosmetology, but in every line of business.

Hair Apparent

DiGrigoli’s small office at his salon and school on Riverdale Street is crowded with photographs — there’s shots of him with Vidal Sassoon and John Paul Deloria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell, for example, as well awards from various local and national organizations, a few slogans in frames, and news clippings (but not the one mentioned earlier from the Gazette).

Paul DiGrigoli says it took many years of research, trial and error, and “tweaking” to bring his lineup of hair-care products to the marketplace.

There’s also a simple map of the 50 states, with the vast majority of them colored over with a blue highlighter. Those colored-in states are those that DiGrigoli has traveled to for his many speaking engagements, and when looking at it while talking with BusinessWest, he discovered he was a little behind in his work.

Indeed, Montana, still white on this map, needs to be crossed off the list, he said, adding that there are just a few states, mostly in the Midwest — Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming — that he has still to visit.

That map, especially when absorbed in concert with all that other memorabilia, provides solid evidence of just how far DiGrigoli has come in his life and his career, which now spans nearly 45 years. It’s a story he shares with those in his audiences, and one that most in this market know by now.

It’s about an aspiring stylist and entrepreneur who was once living at the YMCA of Greater Springfield while enrolled in cosmetology classes at Springfield Technical Community College. Like most who break into this profession, he started out working for someone else before putting his own name over the door. And the name has been put on not just the salon, but also a cosmetology school that has grown steadily over the years.

And now, as noted, it adorns a wide array of products now available at his salon and many others in this region and outside of it.

The line, all with the Paul Jõseph name on the bottles, includes Stacked, a volumizing shampoo and also a volumizing conditioner; Lock It In, a color-protecting shampoo and color-protecting conditioner; Real Clear, a clarifying shampoo; Intensity, a ‘leave-in treatment’; Upgrade, a quick-blow-dry spray; and Elevate, a color-protecting hairspray.

Bringing each product to the shelves was a lengthy, challenging exercise, he told BusinessWest, noting that the marketplace is flooded with similar products, and for his to succeed, they had to be different and represent some form of improvement over what was already on the shelves.

As a result, he would often hear conflicting advice from customers and friends alike.

“What started it was my clients, who would say things like, ‘Paul, maybe you should think about your own product line,’” he recalled. “But there were other people who were telling me I was crazy to want to do that because of all the products that were already out there.”

Ultimately, there was more than enough motivation to persevere, he said, summoning numbers that he knows by heart and rattles off pretty much every time he speaks publicly to get his message across.

“Last year, consumers spent $46 billion — that’s with a ‘b’ — on hair care and cosmetics,” he said. “Women spent $12.5 billion on color alone.”

But bringing the Paul Jõseph line to the shelves was a lengthy and challenging process that began with customers voicing needs and requests for solutions, and continued with years of R&D, product refinement, and, finally, getting something ready for public consumption.

“Last year, consumers spent $46 billion — that’s with a ‘b’ — on hair care and cosmetics. Women spent $12.5 billion on color alone.”

He used the Upgrade product to get these points across.

As noted, it usually began with customer input. “People would say, ‘you should come up with a product that actually blow-dries my hair quicker, because I have two kids and I have to get them to school and have to get to work myself, and I don’t have time to do my hair, but my hair’s important to me,’” he recalled, adding that he took these marching orders and went to work creating something he believes is unique in the marketplace.

Upgrade has a vegetable protein in it, and it actually pushes the water out of the cuticle of the hair, he explained, adding that the product enables the user to reduce blow-drying time by a full 30%.

It came about through considerable work with a chemist he hired, and thorough testing of the product in two intriguing laboratories — his school and his salon.

“I would give it to all my students and my clients,” he explained. “And we would have feedback sheets and would get comments like ‘the fragrance is too strong,’ or ‘the fragrance isn’t strong enough,’ or ‘it’s making my hair too dry.’ We got all this information back, and I would go to my chemist and say, ‘these are my concerns; this is what we’re finding,’ and we’d tweak it.”

Head Counts

It was this way with all the products in the lineup, he went on, adding that it took more than three years to finally get Upgrade on the shelves. His portfolio of products — he’s always looking to add new ones — is now in 42 salons across the country (many owned by people who attend his speaking engagements).

The goal for the first full year was to be in closer to 100 salons, he said, adding that he is still quite pleased with the results and knows those numbers will grow steadily in the years to come.

Paul DiGrigoli’s branded hair-care line is a dream 30 years in the making.

“Slow and steady wins the race; this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he told BusinessWest, summoning one of the many time-worn axioms about business, entrepreneurship, and life that he imparts upon his audiences and business writers alike.

“If you love what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he said, borrowing another one he uses frequently. They may sound like clichés, he acknowledged, but they are words to live by and run a business by.

And this is the one of the many messages he leaves with his audiences during talks that are motivational in nature and generally positive in tone. Indeed, DiGrigoli will almost certainly remind his audiences of the hair industry’s long-term security and how, while they can buy shoes, books, and golf clubs on the Internet, they can’t purchase a haircut there.

“No matter how big the information age gets or the social-media platform gets, no one’s ever going to take our jobs,” he told BusinessWest, paraphrasing what he tells those at gatherings like the one he spoke at a few weeks ago in Baltimore. “No one’s going to walk down the street and say, ‘where’d you get your hair cut?’ and hear ‘I got it on Facebook.’ That’s never going to happen. We still have to touch people to cut their hair, and that’s never going to change.”

But his talks are also loaded with hard talk about how salon owners — and those in other lines of work as well — need to step out from behind the chair, figuratively if not literally, to get the business to the next level.

Elaborating, he said that, while most all of those he addresses are ready and willing to become more entrepreneurial, as he did, many are just not able because they’re still doing too much work in their business.

“It’s not that they don’t have the knowledge or have the experience — they’re just physically exhausted, period,” he explained. “They’re trying to be all things to all people, and that’s impossible.”

He knows this from experience, and to get his point across, he summoned an anecdote that many of his younger audiences might not relate to directly — but they get the point.

“It was like watching The Ed Sullivan Show,” he said, referencing the variety show from a half-century ago. “I was the guy with the plates — the guy spinning a whole bunch of plates at one time. He had five plates going at one time … he’d go over here trying to spin one plate, and then over there to keep another plate spinning, and when that one got wobbly, he’d go over there and get it spinning again.

“That was me,” he went on. “Until I learned to step back and take a snapshot of my business, knowing that I had the things, or skills, I really enjoyed doing, and other things I didn’t want to do because I wasn’t good at them. Once I found that out, it was a game changer.”

Other salon owners — and those in every other business sector — can change their game by taking a similar step back, he said, adding that the keys are having a team behind you and the passion to turn dreams into reality.

Making Do

When asked what’s next for him and what would have to be called his portfolio of businesses, DiGrigoli listed a number of goals and ambitions, from the very specific — writing a another book (this one for the public, not just salon owners) — to the very broad — making Paul Jõseph a “household name,” as he put it.

But his overriding ambition is to continue helping those in his industry — the 1.7 million stylists in this country, by his count — with everything from filling their scheduling books with appointments to diversifying their business operations.

Mostly, though, he’s focused on helping them becoming more entrepreneurial and able to work on their business, and not necessarily in it.

Yes, that’s another cliché, but it’s an important one, and he’s become a role model for how to take on that assignment — as that news clipping from 30 years ago, and all that have come since — will attest.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Features

The Spirit Moved Him

Paul Kozub stands in front of picture of his new distillery in Poland.

Paul Kozub stands in front of picture of his new distillery in Poland.

Almost from the day he started V-One Vodka, Paul Kozub has been dreaming about, and planning for, the day when he’d make his product himself, at a distillery he owned in Poland, the birthplace of his ancestors — and vodka itself. Now, that day is here, and Kozub believes this huge investment will enable him to scale up his venture on a dramatic level.

Paul Kozub says the hardest part about the whole thing was keeping it a secret.

And that’s saying something, because there were many hard parts to his ambitious plans to building his own distillery to produce the Vodka label, V-One, that he brought the marketplace nearly a decade ago.

There was the process of finding a location in Poland, birthplace of both his ancestors and vodka itself, or so the story goes, as well as designing a facility and getting it built. And none of that could happen unless he sold enough shares of his company to raise the needed capital — but not so many shares that he would lose majority ownership of the venture.

But the keeping-it-all-a-secret part? That was quite necessary because, if word ever got out to those who had been producing his vodka since he launched his label that he was going into that end of the business himself, then they would stop producing it for him posthaste and leave him scrambling to not only fill orders but find someone else to make it in the interim.

So Kozub went to great lengths to keep his search and then his building project a secret. And, as he said, it wasn’t easy.

“My family and friends knew, but I had to really keep things quiet otherwise,” he explained at a short press conference on Feb. 26 to announce the purchase and expansion of a distillery in Kamien, Poland, about two hours southeast of Warsaw. “Every time I went to Poland, I wouldn’t post it on Facebook, because my suppliers are friends of mine and they’d see that I’m there [Kamien] and not coming to see them, so they’d know something was going on.”

As noted, he said this at a press conference, which means this huge development for the company is no longer a secret. Kozub told those friends who were producing his product (the operative word there is ‘were’) about it a few weeks ago, and he said they quite happy for him. At the Feb. 26 press conference, he told several media outlets, supporters, clients such as MGM Springfield, area bars and restaurants, and more.

The distillery in Kanien, Poland has a long history, and V-One Vodka will be writing an intriguing new chapter.

The distillery in Kanien, Poland has a long history, and V-One Vodka will be writing an intriguing new chapter.

It was an emotional announcement and an intriguing new chapter in the V-One story, which started back in 2003, when Kozub started distilling in his home in Hadley after using a $6,000 inheritance from his “Polish moonshining grandfather” to buy some equipment. There have been a number of milestones along the way, from the creation of his signature bottle to expansion into different markets; from the addition of several new flavors to Kozub’s being named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2016 (in recognition of all of the above).

The distillery, which he describes as a “multi-million-dollar investment,” without being more specific, represents the next milestone and one Kozub believes will greatly accelerate growth of the company.

“This will allow us to produce 400 times more vodka than we produce today; we will be looking to not only expand as a national brand, but as an international brand,” he explained. “This represents the next stage of the company — and a very exciting stage.”

Elaborating, he said he doesn’t have a firm timetable, obviously, but expects to expand outside of New England and down the East Coast in the years to come, and will then look to expand globally.

For now, though, he’s focused on getting the first bottle off the line in Kamien, something that should happen on or around April 1.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at everything that has brought Kozub to that moment and at what will likely happen next.

Proof Positive

As he announced his expansion into Poland — a return to his family’s roots, if you will — Kozub did so with a type of high-tech slideshow. Only it started with a few low-tech pictures that captured some of those milestones described earlier.

One was of his first house in Hadley, a small Cape that he moved into just a few days after his Polish grandfather died, and another captured its basement, where he first started making vodka, or “moonshine,” as he called it. A third zoomed in on the special plumbing that enabled cold water to run through the still, a development that made everything that’s happened since possible.

Other pictures captured his first V-One bottle and his first van, which he purchased soon after going into business. He would load it with 100 cases of V-One and deliver it to clients across the region himself.

The addition built onto the distillery brings all aspects of the business together in one place — from production to bottling to warehousing.

The addition built onto the distillery brings all aspects of the business together in one place — from production to bottling to warehousing.

Yes, that’s a lot of firsts. But to take the venture forward in a meaningful way, Kozub said he needed to control production of his vodka with his own distillery. He said he’s known this almost from the beginning, but the costs of such a facility have been imposing and, until recently, prohibitive.

But knowing he needed to take this step, he raised capital by taking on additional investors as part of a process that really began a few years ago. Subsequent steps included scouting locations and kicking the tires on existing distilleries available for acquisition.

With that explanation, his show shifted to video captured by his phone as he traveled through the community he eventually chose to be home to his distillery.

“There’s thousands and thousands of acres of fruit trees here … it reminds me a lot of Hadley,” he said as the car transporting him moved down a rural road. “As soon as I saw this, I knew it was the place I wanted to call home.”

Home, meaning the actual distillery itself, has been around for more than 133 years, and thus it has some history, said Kozub, noting that, during World War II, the Nazis took it over and produced different kinds of spirits.

The next chapter in its history involves a sizable expansion necessary for producing V-One in the quantities that Kozub is envisioning for the years and perhaps decades to come. Indeed, the facility will include, in addition to the distilling equipment, laboratory space (mostly for R&D and new product development), a bottling area, and warehouse space.

Thus, when asked what this ambitious move does for the company, Kozub said quickly, “it makes everything better.” Elaborating, he said that, almost from the beginning, he has understood the critical need to have more control over every aspect of the V-One operation, especially production.

“I wanted to be in control of production — I’ve had a number of production nightmares over the past 15 years,” he explained. “Literally, we’ll be planting our own grain, our own spelt, harvesting it, and processing it. We like to say that, from farm to glass, we’ll be in control of each process, and that’s the trend today.”

Beyond control, Kozub said this expansion into Poland and the opening of his own distillery allows him to accelerate the process of growing the V-One label and taking it into new markets — in this country and then eventually abroad.

“I really never wanted to make rum or tequila or gin, but I have at least two dozen other vodka products I’d like to make someday,” he told those assembled at V-One world headquarters (a converted church) on Route 9 in Hadley. “And this allows us to be really innovative with doing some of that stuff; when someone else is making your vodka, you’re limited to their schedule and their timeframe.”

Moving forward, Kozub said that, while he did a sell an interest in the company — something he could do only after its raising its value over the past decade through new products and a wider reach market-wise — he is still the overwhelming majority owner, and still one who is quite hands-on and involved in all aspects of the business. That said, he still plans to spend the vast majority of his time in this country, and probably visit Poland about as much as he does now — maybe once a quarter.

While leaving actual production in the hands of a manager in Poland, Kozub will focus on the proverbial big picture and, more specifically, territorial expansion for V-One and a scaling up of the operation.

And having his own distillery, as he said, will certainly help in this regard.

“People comment to me all the time … ‘you’re a 13-and-a-half-year-old business; how come you haven’t gotten out of the New England market?’” he told BusinessWest. “I’ve had some serious production problems and packaging issues that have worried me about getting into Florida or Texas or California, three of the biggest vodka markets. This [distillery] will really allow us to scale up and tackle those challenges.”

Expanding within the U.S. and then overseas markets will obviously require more capital, he added, and he plans to sell additional shares in the business within the next year.

Bottom Line

As he continued his slideshow presentation before the press and his supporters, Kozub placed a map of Poland on the screen to show exactly where his distillery will be located.

He did so to offer a point of reference, offer up a short lesson on Polish geography, and also show where his ancestors are from — a small town not far Krakow. But he also did it to be a touch poetic.
“This really helps put on us on the map,” he said of the distillery, using that phrase to say a great deal.

This venture is now on the map, literally, and its product will be on — meaning available to — a much larger chunk of the map in the years to come because of what this facility will enable the company to do.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

This Is a Laughing Matter

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman will soon open what they believe is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Pam Victor is official president and founder of Happier Valley Comedy, but she prefers the title ‘head of happiness.’ It’s effective, and she likes it, and as the founder, she said picking her title is one of the rewards of her job. The far bigger reward, though, is changing people’s lives — just as hers was changed — through improvisation.

Pam Victor refers to it affectionately as simply ‘the experiment,’ or, more formally, the ‘can-I-make-a-living-doing-what-I-love experiment.’

It was undertaken back in the summer of 2014, and the premise was pretty simple. Victor was going to see if she could make $16,000 a year — the poverty level for a family of two back then — through a business based on improvisation.

She was confident — well, sort of — that she would meet or surpass that threshold, but at the start, she was already thinking about the great blog post she would have if she didn’t.

“‘An artist can’t even break the poverty line,’ or something like that, is what I would have written,” Victor recalled, adding that she never had to submit that blog post, because she greatly exceeded her goal by teaching improvisation and using it to help professionals and others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure,” which we’ll hear more about later.

Today, that nonprofit business Victor started, called Happier Valley Comedy, continues to grow while carrying out a simple mission — “to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world).”

It does this through three business divisions:

• Classes in improvisation. Victor started with one, and there are now eight a week, and there’s a waiting list for some of them;

• Comedy shows, such as the one on June 9 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, featuring the Ha-Has, the comedy group Victor started; and

• Personal and professional growth through use of improvisation, what the company calls its ‘Through Laughter’ program. Victor and her team visit companies, groups, and professional organizations and undertake exercises — usually highly interactive in nature — designed to help bolster everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

It’s not what many people think of when they hear ‘improv’ — people taking to the podium and talking off the cuff (stand-up comedy) or even some of those other things people might conjure up; “we don’t cluck like chickens, and we don’t do ‘trust falls,’” said Victor. People do stand in circles, sometimes, and they do take part in exercises together.

Many of them are designed to address self-confidence and what has come to be known as the ‘impostor syndrome,’ said Victor, adding that this afflicts everyone, not just women, although they often seem especially vulnerable to it.

“I see it in my female colleagues, and I see it stop us from manifesting our successes because we talk ourselves out of success before we even have a chance to get into the ring,” she explained, referring specifically to the voice inside everyone that creates doubt and thoughts of inadequacy.

Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations

With its Through Laughter program, Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations and undertakes exercises designed to boost everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

“The improv exercises help us step into the unknown and step into possibilities,” she went on. “It’s a muscle that we can strengthen, and every time we do it, we strengthen that muscle.”

Meghan Lynch, a principal with the marketing group Six Point Creative, has become a big believer in improv. She was first introduced to it when Victor did a presentation at a women’s leadership group, and Lynch then arranged to have Happier Valley come to her company. There have been several workshops, and as employees are added, Lynch schedules what are known as ‘improv workout sessions.’ Six Point even hires Happier Valley to do improv sessions as the company onboards new clients “to start the relationship off with some momentum,” as she put it.

All three divisions of this business — and the venture as a whole — are set to be taken to a much higher level with the opening of what Victor is sure is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Currently, it has another name — the “dirty vanilla box.” That’s how Victor and business partner Scott Braidman, who takes the twin titles general manager and artistic director, refer to the 1,300-square-foot space being built out at the Mill Valley Commons on Route 9 in Hadley.

There, in a retail center that Victor and Braidman have nicknamed the ‘Play Plaza’ — there’s also a tavern, an Irish dance center, a kung fu studio, and an outfit that grows coral at that location — the partners are outfitting space into classrooms and a performing area with 70 seats.

“This is the answer to a dream, really,” said Braidman as he walked within the space, noting that this will be the first improv club in Massachusetts outside of Boston, and it will enable him to meet a long-time goal of doing essentially what Victor has been doing — making improv a career.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Victor and Braidman about their venture, which is, indeed, a laughing matter — and also a very unique enterprise that is changing businesses, and changing lives, through improvisation.

Getting into the Act

As one might expect, Victor, who takes the title ‘head of happiness,’ uses humor early and often to communicate her points.

Consider this response to the question about why she believes her improvisation classes have caught on to the point where there is that waiting list.

“It’s cheaper than therapy,” she deadpanned, adding quickly that, in many ways, that’s not a joke. Her classes — $22 to $25 for each of eight classes — are much, much cheaper than therapy. And from what she’s gathered, they are just as effective, as we’ll see.

Three years or so later with those classes and the other divisions within Happier Valley Comedy, the experiment is more or less ancient history. The matters at hand now are building out that dirty vanilla box and substantially updating the business plan to reflect everything this facility can do for this nonprofit venture.

Before looking ahead, though, to tell this story right, we first need to look back — about 15 years or so, to be exact.

That’s when the clouds parted, as Victor put it in a piece she wrote about her venture for Innovate 413, and “the Great Goddess of Improv locked me in a fierce tractor beam with songs of love and connection.”

Happier Valley logo

Thus began what can be called a career in improv. But things developed very slowly after that.

Victor took one leap of faith, as she called it, when she founded an improv troupe that played mostly in libraries as fundraisers. And she took another one in 2012 when she summoned the courage to spend five weeks in Chicago studying at the mecca of longform improv, the iO Theater.

She took a third leap, perhaps the biggest, a few years later, when, after the son she had homeschooled for 10 years went off to college, she waged that aforementioned experiment.

“I tried everything,” Victor said when recalling the early days and her efforts to promote improv and its many benefits. “Classes, writing about it, doing corporate-training workshops, speeches — anything I could do, I tried. And sure enough, it worked out.”

By that, she meant that after six months, not a year, she had passed that $16,000 threshold and, more importantly, had gained the confidence to launch a business, officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that would be called Happier Valley Comedy.

“It was one of those experiences where not thinking about the impossibility of it was quite advantageous,” said Victor, using more humor as she put into perspective the experience of launching a business based on improv in a region that was essentially an improv desert. “Ignorance is power in some ways.”

In the beginning, she started with one set of classes — titled “The Zen of Improv” — and doubts about just how many there could eventually be.

“I thought I had run out of the number of people who were interested in taking improvisation in the Pioneer Valley — those 12 people,” she said, adding that some of those original students signed up for more, and, to her surprise, there were many more people willing to take seats than she imagined.

Why? Maybe because it is cheaper than therapy, she told BusinessWest, adding that few of her students actually want to perform improv. They sign up because the sessions are fun and they give participants a chance to experience what Victor calls “the true meaning of community.”

“People seem to find that the classes have a great deal of impact outside of the classroom as well,” she explained. “People regularly tell me that improv has changed their life, and that’s a good feeling. It’s a fantastic community of people, and you get to make a whole bunch of new friends, which is rare as an adult.

“Improv is a team sport,” she went on. “We’re seeking joy, we’re seeking ease, and we’re also seeking how to make our scene partners look good; people learn how to be of service to each other and to the moment, so there’s a lot of mindfulness to it as well.”

As Victor and her team would discover, these improv classes were not only popular and effective, but demographically unique within the improv world in that they were and still are dominated by middle-aged professional women and not the younger men that are the norm.

“We’re the unicorn of improv, or Wonder Woman’s island,” said Victor, adding that she’s not really sure why her classes take on this demographic shape, but she’s clearly proud and quite happy that she doesn’t have the problem most other improv groups have — attracting women.

She would, however, like to attract more men … but that’s another story.

Grin and Bear It

As for the Through Laughter division of the company, it has also enjoyed steady growth, said Victor, adding that Happier Valley Comedy uses improv within that broad realm of personal and professional development to improve people’s lives at home and in the workplace.

And this aspect of her business takes on a number of forms, she said, citing, as just one example, an interactive presentation she’s done with groups such as the Women Business Owners Alliance called “Meet Your Evil Eye Meanie: How the Voice of Unhelpful Judgment Is Getting in Your Way.”

It uses improv exercises and humorous stories to help women identify and disempower their fear-based internal critical voice in order for them better manifest their professional dreams.

“As my comedy hero Tina Fey says, ‘confidence is 10% hard work and 90% delusion,” she noted. “The primary focus of my job is to help people quiet their voices of unhelpful judgment and get to the ‘delusion’ that leads to success.”

And with that, she again referenced the ‘impostor syndrome.’ In her efforts to help people address it, Victor has actually put a name to the problem, or at least to the voice inside people that causes all the trouble.

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy — and arguably a lot more fun.

“We call him ‘Calvin’ — that’s a random name; that’s the voice inside our head that is our evil critic. It’s the voice that’s constantly in our head conjugating ‘to suck’ — as in ‘I suck at this,’ or ‘you suck at this’ — it’s that super-judgmental voice,” she said, referring to things people say to themselves, out loud or under their breath.

“I teach people that voice is a liar,” she went on. “And by naming it, that helps to disempower it a little bit or make it a little more manageable, because that voice is never going to go away — that’s human nature; that’s who we are. But we can use some techniques for quieting it.”

These are improv exercises, she went on, adding that they are designed to address that impostor syndrome and the accompanying fears and doubts and be that team sport she described earlier.

She’s putting together another presentation, a workshop she’s titled “F*ck Your Fear and Trust Your Truth,” a name that speaks volumes about what she wants attendees to do — not just that day, but for the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.

This is a part of a subcategory within the Through Laughter division devoted to personal growth and female empowerment, she explained, adding that this workshop is being designed to help women use the skills associated with improv to enable them to quiet their judgmental voices and their inner critic so they amplify their truth and speak their mind.

“This will hopefully help women on all fronts, from their personal life to their professional life,” she noted. “Women in leadership roles can hopefully get better at speaking up for themselves and being heard, even women eyeing political positions — they’re calling this ‘the Year of the Woman.’”

Lynch told BusinessWest that the use of improv has been beneficial to Six Point on many levels. It has given employees there a common vocabulary, she said, including the now-common use of the word ‘triangles.’

Explaining it is quite complicated, said both Lynch and Victor, but a triangle essentially describes a relationship between a group of people, especially employees. There are several triangles within a company, and the actions of a specific employee could impact several such relationships. The goal of triangle-related exercises is to make individuals understand how their movements impact such relationships.

“We’ll often start conversations now with ‘let me tell you about my triangles — these are the pressures I’m experiencing — you tell me about yours, and how do we work together to solve this problem?’” said Lynch. “And it’s been a game changer in terms of creating trust and open communication around those, and that’s just one example of adopting that vocabulary into our day-to-day lives in a way that improves communication.”

Both Victor and Braidman believe Happier Valley will be able to introduce more people to the notion of triangles — and many easier-to-comprehend concepts as well — as they build out that vanilla box into an improv club.

The two had been looking for a site for some time, said Braidman, adding that the nonprofit got a huge boost from the most recent Valley Gives program — $26,000, to be exact — that made creation of this new facility possible.

The location is centrally located, he went on — halfway between Amherst and Northampton and on busy Route 9 — and the space is large enough and flexible enough to host classes, performances, workshops, and more.

If all goes according to plan, he said, classes should start there in late June, and Happier Valley comedy shows will commence in August.

Passion Play

Victor told BusinessWest that Braidman will often give her some good-natured grief about her unofficial titles at Happier Valley Comedy and those assigned to other people as well. ‘Head of happiness’ is just one of hers. “Laugh leader’ is another used on occasion, and there are still others that come into play.

“I have my own business, so I get to make up my own titles,” she explained, adding that this is just one of the perks that comes from conducting that experiment, succeeding with it, and, indeed, making a business doing something she loves.

The bigger perk is changing lives, just as hers was changed, through improvisation.

It’s a reward that takes her well above the poverty line, in every way you can imagine.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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