Success Story: Wanita Niehaus

WanitaHeadShotDazzling on the dance floor, a whiz at writing, Wanita Niehaus is an innovator in the marketing and communications field, and now also in her own life. An accomplished journalist and cable professional working for Scripps Networks Interactive for many years, Wanita started her own consulting company in the Washington, D.C. area, and is enjoying following her life’s true passions towards fulfillment.

Oana Harrison: Do you feel that you are successful?

Wanita Niehaus: Yes, in many ways I do. I’m successful at being human but I want to be an extraordinary human. That doesn’t mean being rich or leaving a legacy but having awareness, compassion, and living life as life as fully as possible. In that sense, I feel very successful.

OH: Tell me about your path in life so far. 

WN: I grew up in rural Indiana, in a town of 69 people. My chores included milking goats, and planting and harvesting the garden. It was very much an outdoors and country childhood. People read the newspaper, since most didn’t have a TV. We had three TV stations until I was 17, so I did grow up with television. One day we took a trip to the local newspaper and that’s when I discovered that there was a job where you could get paid to meet people, ask them questions, and then write. What’s better than meeting new people every day, and meeting more new people the next day? So, some time around age 7, I chose my career: I wanted to become a journalist and I started down that path. I went to the university for journalism and got my first job at a newspaper in Washington, D.C. I spent the rest of my life figuring out who and where I wanted to be. That led me to Washington, D.C., where I met my house mates, and experienced night-shift work. Work eventually brought me to Knoxville, where I joined the marketing team at Scripps, I found new friends, I joined a salsa dance team, and I volunteered at the opera. In 2013, I made my way back to D.C., and two years ago, I started my own full-service brand management company.

OH: And D.C. is also where you found your big love?

WN: Yes. So, that’s another one of those life lessons that came to me in the last few years. When I was working a lot and I was focused on my career, meeting a lot of people, and collecting experiences, one of the things I wasn’t doing was investing into a partner relationship. I spent most of my time traveling and doing things with lots of people, racking up frequent flyer miles. In 2013, while I was in Washington, D.C., my company was downsizing. I was told was that if I wanted to continue to have career success, I would have to move back to Knoxville. At that time, I was beginning to really appreciate my life in D.C., my friends, and recognizing how much richer I wanted my personal relationships to be. I realized that I was using work as a barrier. Traveling for work was getting in the way of seeing my niece, committing to birthday parties, and so on. I took the gamble that maybe I didn’t need to continue working in that job and I found something else to do. During the last couple of years, I have been my on my own, doing consulting, which gave me the opportunity to spend time with my family. In that space, I was able to meet a man who is amazing and we recently got engaged. And I’m pretty sure that there was no space for him before that, when I was living for my career.

OH: How did you meet your fiancé?

WN: The funny thing is that, up until a couple of years ago, there was no space in his life for a relationship due to his career either. So the timing was right. We happened to meet each other when we were both focusing on relationships that made us happy. Eduardo and I met while we were both volunteering at the D.C. Bachata Congress. He was volunteering helping with the administration part of things, while I was laying dance floor. I overheard him volunteer to write a press release for a salsa event that was happening the next day. I asked him if he knew how to do that. He said: “no, I think I’ll Google it.” So I said “maybe I should help you.” We sat down, he gave me all the information, I made a list of all the local TV people. I told him to call them and I told him what to say. Meanwhile, I wrote the press release and made an announcement on Twitter. He followed directions really well, we worked together for two hours and put together a press conference for the next day. Then I didn’t see him for a while. We had a post mortem on the conference and he was so appreciative; he told everyone how I had saved his skin and that I should have never been laying floor. He was so cute and so grateful, such sweet qualities. We worked together on some of the issues from the post mortem and after a month and half it was apparent that there was something more there. We thought about how our relationship would affect the organizations where we worked and the people around us – and we didn’t care!

WanitaEduardoRunPhotoWe started dating and after a few months we started training for a marathon. He’s the type of person that shows up and does it. Like with the press release – “I can figure this out.” I said: “no, we really need to train for this,” so we trained for 20 weeks and that’s where we really bonded. I can honestly say that six years ago I was not in that spot. My fiance ran 15 half marathons and one marathon last year; I ran 7 half marathons and one full one last year. It’s not something I could have done if I were still defining my success only as my career.

OH: When you’re thinking of success, what are you thinking about?

WN: Freedom to choose what to do with my time. That’s a measure of success that I didn’t think about when I was younger but came to really appreciate as my focus shifted towards meaningful relationships. As an independent consultant, I’ve had some hungry months – and I haven’t been hungry since I was in my twenties…. I wasn’t super financially successful right off the bat but I still felt very successful because I could choose what I was doing. Buying a fancy bag didn’t matter as much as choosing how to spend my time in the middle of the week. Success to me means freedom, feeling free to design my life: if I need to spend some time with a friend in the hospital, I can take my time and I am there wholeheartedly, instead of saying “I’m sorry but I have to be somewhere else” or thinking that I have a conference call in ten minutes. Being able to be fully present, that’s a marker of success that I’m super-pleased to have found; and it is a part of my quest of being superhuman.

OH: Right now, what do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your life?

WN: Learning how to be a fiancée. We recently took a relationship course and came to the realization that we both have a lot of experience at being single. We are good singles! – we are very successful singles. And we would love to be really successful partners. We are at the beginning of our journey to a successful partnership. One day, I hope we would be able to teach a course on designing partnerships. That’s an area that’s fun to be in and there’s a lot of small wins. It’s exciting. If I think about “adulting,” when I first moved to Washington and started paying rent, taking the metro – every day was a small win in “adulting.” I got a little better at being an adult every day, a little more successful at being responsible. I feel the same way now, as an engaged woman. Every day I’m making progress.

OH: Sounds like you might need a blog about that!

WN: Maybe. We actually had a salon on Valentine’s Day at our house. We invited all of our single friends and we wanted to celebrate singlehood. Eduardo and I have been single a long time and we wanted to talk about what’s going on with relationships and share our story. Neither of us had been in a relationship successfully before. If we get it right, we definitely want to help other people to get it right too.

OH: What is the most important contributor to your success?

WN: I would say my willingness to learn and, more recently, my willingness to be wrong. When I was younger, I had the desire to be right at all cost but I came to realize that that level of righteousness didn’t support my real goal which was to be connected to other people and to make a difference. If I can let go of being right all the time, I can be a better listener, I can be a more empathetic, a more compassionate, and a less judgmental human being.

The first thing I applied to anything where I’ve been successful is curiosity and the willingness to learn – and, more recently, willingness to let go.

OH: That’s a tough one lesson to learn….

WN: Yeah, practice, practice, practice!

It’s funny that letting go is not an easy thing. And it’s all kinds of letting go: of the ego, of how things are supposed to be, of some notion I had when I was younger of how the world was supposed to be. It’s been a very interesting journey.

OH: What are some lessons you’d like to share with others, something you wish you had known earlier?

WN: I could make the assumption that with most people there was a 50-50 chance of getting a “yes” when asking them for help or directions, or whatever. However, I discovered that the world was more supportive of positive actions than I previously thought. Had I known that before, I would have asked for help sooner. When I was younger, I wanted to do things on my own, to prove that I could do it all by myself but somewhere I realized that I could get more done when I collaborated with others. So the sooner you say “I want to do x, y, z but I don’t know how,” people will start coming out of the woodwork to help you. Probably the biggest lesson I learned was that getting out of my own head, saying what I want and what I need help with produces far better results than just trying for the “look I did this all by myself!” I used to think that the world valued someone accomplishing things on their own but what the world really values is that the job is done.

OH: What hurdles have you overcome on your journey to success?

WN: Myself for one – I’m pretty sure that I’m the one that gets in my own way most of the time. Probably another lesson I share with other people is to take mentors and advice early and always with gratitude, even if you don’t follow all the advice. I wouldn’t have gotten very far without showing interest, taking a mentor, and following up with them. I had some people in my life for 15 years. I might have gone to class one time with them and I kept in touch. I thought: “here is a person who knows more than me,” so I’ll graciously listened. Once I developed that habit, life got so much easier. In the past, I really thought I would get fired if I didn’t do all the work all the time all by myself. And I learned that that was myth most of the time.

Another big hurdle I overcame: I had an assumption that people didn’t want me to succeed and didn’t want to help me because I was young, because I was a woman, because I was from Indiana, because whatever…. Once you are inside a supportive group, things are different; you see that they want you to succeed and you want them to succeed. How nice that is! Once I adopted that philosophy, I got over that hurdle. I didn’t just assume that just because someone was an older white male that they didn’t want me to succeed. Once I decided that that person wasn’t the enemy to my success, then I started to get allies out of that. I even got support to start dating. When I was at Scripps and working too much, I told my boss I wasn’t dating because I couldn’t handle it with my busy schedule. She said, “O.K., then let me help you.” So then I only had myself to get out of the way…. I ended up going on 42 first dates in 2011 and 2 second dates, where I met a lot of wonderful guys, plus I got to really check what I was saying that I wanted against what I actually really wanted. I got the message really clear that I had the support not only of my friends but of my boss. They all wanted to help me meet somebody – I met cousins, and the guy from church who liked to swing dance. It was funny.

So, learning to accept help from others and learning to get out of my own way were the two main hurdles I had to overcome.

OH: What’s next for you, now that you are in the sweet spot?

WN: I have this wonderful amazing partner and we are in creative mode. At one time last year, we worked together and designed something which was a lot of fun. I could see where we could continue our collaboration, and give it more structure. I can see a good future in that collaboration.

OH: I’m curious to see where that takes you!

WN: Meanwhile, I’m still figuring out what else I want to do. When I was little, I really thought I was a poet; writing and teaching others how to do it gives me joy and I want to explore that further, perhaps in a new format…. Or maybe I’ll become a stock broker, who knows?

OH: That might be a bit stressful…

WN: Yeah, but at this point in my life, I’m up for learning something new and I’m definitely up for being in a great relationship.

Follow Wanita on Twitter: @wanitaniehaus.

 

Success Story: Keith McDaniel

Keith McDaniel2 v4It is no secret that Keith McDaniel started and successfully organized the Secret City Film Festival in Oak Ridge for a number of years. He brought to light an important piece of American history: The Clinton 12. He brought his passion for film to Knoxville via the Knoxville Film Festival. Now, Keith is sharing his film and production knowledge with students at Carson-Newman, his alma mater, while serving as a marketing professional within the school’s University Relations.

 

 


Oana Harrison: Do you feel like you are successful, that you found your calling? What was your path to success?
Keith McDaniel: Success is an interesting term…. There are several types of success: financial, professional, and personal or family life – often time, they don’t all happen simultaneously.

For me, family is the most important thing. I have two teenage sons: one is in college and one is still in high school – great boys. My wife and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. If you asked if my family life was successful, I would definitely say “yes.” Family life always has its challenges but we’ve been together and plan on staying together through thick and thin.

Health is also very important. I have struggled with my weight my entire life. I thinned out a little bit in college and then I gained weight again, and have been heavy for the last 40 years. Back in February of last year, I knew I had gained too much weight – I felt awful, I was getting older, my body was just not cooperating. Keith McDaniel2 v5I weighed 292 pounds, the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life. Also, my wife had a heart-to-heart discussion with me about being around for the kids, she was concerned – and justifiably so. I knew it was time to do something about it, so I went on a low-carb diet. Later on, I added walking to my diet. In November, two days before my 59th birthday I did a 5K walk in Oak Ridge – my first (and maybe the last road race I’m in) but it was kind of a big deal. I just passed the one-year anniversary since beginning my weight-loss voyage and, I weigh below 200 pounds for the first time in 40 years! How did I do it? Well, I counted every carb, I wrote down everything I ate – I knew that was what it would take for me to succeed at this. I had to be accountable. Today, I went clothes-shopping for smaller sizes and that was a great feeling – a real personal success so far. And I couldn’t have done with without the encouragement and support from my family and my Facebook friends.

My professional life has taken many different directions over the past 35 years. I graduated from Carson-Newman with a degree in communications and I have worked in the field most of my career. I spent a decade in the newspaper business, first as a reporter and editor, and eventually in graphic design. In the mid-80s, when Mac computers became popular, I started doing design and I really loved it. About twenty years ago, I was working for a company doing video production when my boss came to me and asked me to make a documentary about the county in which we both grew up. I didn’t know anything about making a documentary but, as a huge fan of Ken Burns’ (an American filmmaker, known for his style of using archival footage and photographs in documentary films), the project sounded interesting. I worked on it for about a year and created my first historical documentary. We had a big premiere and released the documentary on VHS tape (this was before the age of DVDs). Recently, a friend of mine found the original VHS tape on eBay. I asked him: “how much did you pay for it?” He said “99 cents.” “Well, somebody got ripped off!,” I told him. The documentary wasn’t very good but I fell in love with the process of making documentary films, and especially historical documentaries.

I was almost 40, we were expecting our first child, and we had just bought a new house, when I came home and I told my wife: “Honey, I’ve decided that I want to be a documentary filmmaker.” She was fine with that because she’s an artist too. We met in the theater and she understood my bent for creativity. So I decided to pursue documentary filmmaking while I was working a real job, in production.

Over the past twenty years I’ve done a number of historical documentaries, most of them focused on East Tennessee. But probably the film that received the most notoriety is a film I did eleven years ago called The Clinton 12. This was in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the integration of Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee. That story had never been told well before and it was an important part of American history, an important civil rights story in the United States. I was really fortunate to be able to produce that documentary, and doubly and triply fortunate enough to get James Earl Jones to narrate it. That instantly gave it credibility.

The Clinton 12 won a number of awards: best documentary, audience favorite, and probably the one that’s dearest to me is the Nashville Public Television Human Spirit Award. That really put it on the radar for PBS. So by the end of 2007, we got national distribution. We aired on about 80 percent of PBS stations for a number of years. I would say that The Clinton 12 was a success. We didn’t make a lot of money from it but a lot of people saw it and heard that story, and it made for an interesting ten to fifteen years.

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People.com

A nice side note to that story – because the story is still being told today – is that last January, I got a message saying the Disney Channel was coming to Clinton to the museum to do a short piece about The Clinton 12. A young Disney actor by the name of Cameron Boyce happens to be the grandson of Joan Allen Boyce, one of the original Clinton 12. The whole family came to Tennessee so that the grandchildren could connect with their family history.

 

OH: How did the Oak Ridge Film Festival come about?

KM: One afternoon, in 2003, I was sitting in the back yard with my wife and I told her: “I think I’m going to start a film festival. I’m going to call it The Secret City Film Festival and have it in Oak Ridge.” I didn’t know anything about organizing a film festival but I figured it couldn’t be too hard. Little did I know… So, I started the annual Secret City Film Festival in 2004. After The Clinton 12 came out in 2006, I realized that the story needed to be told on a national scale and started thinking about how I could make that happen.   Over the next 15 months or so, I screened the documentary at over 45 film festivals and I attended probably close to 40 of them, so I was gone what seemed like every weekend for an entire year. To me, that was my film festival school because I got to see big festivals and small ones, I saw how they operated, what worked and didn’t work, what filmmakers liked or didn’t, so that was an important part of The Secret City Film Festival’s success.

I continued with the film festival in Oak Ridge for eight years but one of the challenges was location: there wasn’t really a movie theater where I could host it. I had friends who worked at Regal Cinemas in Knoxville, so I asked them what they thought about me moving the film festival to Knoxville. They were very enthusiastic. Once it moved to Knoxville, it quickly boomed because it attracted many attendees from Knoxville and Maryville. It also caught the attention of some folks at Dogwood Arts. They approached me wanting to add a film component to what they did. Regal told them don’t do it – it’s a pain and you’ll lose money but if you’re bound to do it, call Keith McDaniel because he’s done it for several years and he knows what he’s doing. Lisa Duncan was the Executive Director at the time and we spent about six months getting to know each other, then we came up with a three-year agreement for equal partnership – it was a good partnership. We re-branded the festival as The Knoxville Film Festival. The Dogwood Arts team was able to get sponsors that I had never been able to get before. The first weekend we had about 3,000 guests, screened a lot of films – it was kind of a big deal. At the end of three years, when the contract was up, Lisa went on to start her own marketing company, so Dogwood Arts got a new executive director. We decided to continue the relationship but we did it year-to-year. Last year was probably the most successful year in terms of revenue, profit, and participants. It was absolutely fantastic. When it was over, much to my surprise, Dogwood Arts decided to bow out as my partner. Right now, I’m planning the 14th year of the film festival, which will be the 5th year of the Knoxville Film Festival, on my own.

I really was trying to decide if I wanted to continue with the festival, also knowing I was up for the current job at Carson-Newman. I’ve been working as a freelancer for the past 11 years, so I have been able to commit all the time that I need to the film festival but I didn’t know how a full time job would affect things. I brought in my inner circle of friends from the film community to ask for their opinion: “Do we want to do this or just say ‘it’s been a great ride’ and call it a day?” One of them was sitting in a corner and he spoke up: “Keith, we gotta have the film festival! Even if we cut it down to two days and take it back to the church we have to have it!” Before I moved it to Knoxville, it was in an old church that used to be a movie theater. We never made much money on the film festival, but I never did it for money – I did it to encourage young filmmakers, people who had that artistic bent for film making, and to give them an opportunity once a year to get together and celebrate with the film community in East Tennessee. Even if it cost me money at some point to put together, from the standpoint of what I accomplished over time – bringing the film community closer together, giving artists an opportunity to show their work, to meet their peers and have their work seen – the film festival was a success. And I’ll continue with it for as long as I can.

OH: Out of all you did so far, what do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your work?
KM: I tell people that I still have a lot of years left in me but I’m not a spring chicken anymore. Once you’re getting close to 60 – I’m not there yet but getting close – you start thinking about what you have accomplished, what is going to be your legacy. I think that first and foremost it’s my children but on a professional level, The Clinton 12 is it. And the film festival, as a contribution to our community. I’m very proud of that. The role that I’ve taken – and I enjoy this a lot – is that of a facilitator. In college, I had a professor who was a mentor to me. Even though he was a talented guy, the thing that he did best was to give others an opportunity to shine. So, like him, what gives me the most satisfaction now is letting others shine, even more so than making films does; providing opportunities for other people to do their best work, to be creative, to shine is so rewarding. I did that with the film festival and that’s also the reason I love teaching film classes at Carson-Newman. These are young people who are just starting out and I want to share my knowledge that I accumulated over thirty years, but I also want to give them opportunities that they haven’t had before, to learn something and be creative, to make an impact.

OH: What was the most important contributor to your success – or was there more than one?
KM: You know, I think probably that when I was a kid, my mom and dad told me “son, you can do anything you put your mind to,” and I believed them. Their encouragement was always there. My wife has always been supportive and so are my kids. I think probably the most important thing is the continued support I had over the years to pursue my dreams. There have been people in my life who asked “when are you going to get a real job” but the encouragement offset that. The second most important thing was knowing that I was doing something good for someone else, that I was facilitating someone else’s success.

OH: On the flip side, what are some hurdles you overcame in pursuing your dreams?
KM: It’s hard to make a living doing what we do. It has always had its challenges and I’ve never made a lot of money. There have been times when I wished I’d done something else that was more stable, more secure. Pursuing my passion for film has been challenging – it first gave me gray hair, and then it made it fall out but I haven’t seen it as a hurdle. My attitude has always been: I might not know anything about this but I can learn. That allowed me to explore and accomplish things that I’ve never thought possible.

OH: What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way or things you wished you’d known before venturing out?
KM: I had to make some smart decisions along the way. One of them was to wait to get married. I was a month shy of my 35th birthday before I got married. I think I was too young and too immature earlier to be able to settle down. If I were giving people advice today I would say give yourself a chance to discover who you really are before you make a life-commitment to another person. I think that’s important.

Everything that happens, happens for a reason – and sometimes that reason is a result of you making poor choices. However, you can learn something from everything that happens. That’s the key: learn both from your mistakes, and from your successes.

Not everyone is going to like you or what you do. When The Clinton 12 came out, I got a negative review in one publication. They didn’t like the movie, they didn’t like the narrator, – it’s Earl Jones, how can you not like him? – they didn’t like the music – I had an original score created for it. I decided that I was going to look at it analytically – did the writer have a point? If they did, I can learn from that and it will make me a better filmmaker. If they didn’t, then I wouldn’t let it bother me. They say never read the reviews or the comments on Facebook but I say that if you can learn from them, then you’re better off.

OH: What’s next for you? New goals, projects?
KM: I am enjoying my new job at Carson-Newman, my alma mater. It’s nice to be back. I’ll be doing some video production, as well as some writing, and teaching a documentary film making course this fall – I’m looking forward to all that. We just opened submissions for the 2017 Film Festival and that will be taking place in September – so, I have six months of preparation for it. My plate is pretty full but I’m enjoying myself. All is well, and I hope that it continues for many years to come. Sometimes a smooth road is a good road to be on.

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Success Story: Joe Kyte

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Joe Kyte found his inspiration in the topiary characters adorning Disney World. A character himself, he left his six-figure job to pursue his dreams and built a profitable business while playing with wire and turf. His works are now putting smiles on clients’ faces worldwide and are guaranteed to keep Topiary Joe smiling too.

 

 

 


Oana Harrison: Do you feel like you are successful, that you found your calling? What was your path to success?

Joe Kyte: This is a second career for me. I worked in horticulture as a sales manager. As a part of my job, I worked with a Danish firm called GRODAN, introducing hydroponics to the US and Canada. We did some field trials at Disney World, in Florida and set up an exhibit that’s still at Epcot today. I was fascinated by the all the character topiaries they had there. I took some pictures and asked about how they were making them – and then I thought to myself: “That looks fun and I can do that.”  It took a few thousand pieces until I was happy with my work but I finally did it. That was twenty-four years ago. Unfortunately, my wife didn’t like me quitting my six-figures job and bending wires for a living. Everything happened within three months: I quit my job, I opened a nursery in Homestead, hurricane Andrew hit two weeks after that, and then hurricane Helen happened – my wife divorced me. It was a tumultuous time and I learned to love Ramen noodles for a few years. But it taught me a lot about perseverance and being frugal. My whole shop is an AC welder, a table vise, and that’s it.unnamed-1

Today, the business is going great and we are keeping busy – no more Ramen noodles. This week, we had orders go to Florida and Columbus, Ohio; last week it was Italy – a container full of topiaries for Princess Cruise Lines.

OH: What made you move to Tennessee?

JK: I’m originally from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Eleven years ago, I was living in Murphy, North Carolina and I was traveling often to Tellico Plains to go fishing – it’s a beautiful area and it was half way between North Carolina and Oak Ridge. The Cherohala Highway and a river stocked-full of trout brought me back home to Tennessee.

OH: What are some lessons you have learned along the way/what do you know now that you wished you knew back when? What do you wish you’d known before you started your own business?

JK: I wish I would have had more financial backing because it could have helped me get a faster start. I started my business and I kept on building it up by religiously making something every day, building up inventory, and getting better at what I did. I knew it was going to be an arduous journey but I wanted to be able to do what I loved and to create.

OH: What do you think was the most important contributor to your success?

JK: The desire to not be poor… it was quite a motivator. Beyond that, I wanted to enjoy my work and make things – I did what inspired me. And how else would I have been able to enjoy my other hobby, fixing old cars? – 248 so far…

OH: What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of what you do?

JK: I really love to create and see kids smile. Now I also have big kids as customers. I have a couple of customers – Jack and Sally – who wants “A Nightmare Before Christmas” for their yard. Every day is something different – and I thrive on doing something different all the time. That makes me happy.

OH: What was your most fun project?

JK: One of the most fun projects I worked on was building sculptures for sixteen different Sandals Resorts. I got to live in Jamaica for three months and I really liked that!

It’s between that and the seven weeks I spent in Ireland building a herd of thirteen

elephants. That was an extremely fun time. The bull elephant went to Prince Charles. I got to go to a party in London and met Prince Charles and Camilla – I got to step on his foot… The party was a fundraiser for ElephantFamily.org, a non-profit organization on a mission to save animals from extinction, and it was hosted at the Petersham house, a beautiful 400-year-old estate on the Thames river. I sat down next to Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and listened to Mick Jagger’s brother play zydeco until 2 o’clock in the morning. I got to sit down and talk with Annie Lennox and met Ravi Shankar and his daughter – yeah, it was a great party.

 

OH: Looking back now, twenty-some years later, would you do it all again?

JK: Absolutely! It’s fun being creative and free. I enjoy traveling the world for my work – and having my work pay for it. I get to have adventures, I get to teach – it’s great.

OH: What’s next for you?

JK: We are building animals two by two for Noah’s Ark in Kentucky: giraffes, lions, elephants, and camels. At the same time, I have a request to build copulating teddy bears for a hotel in Times Square, New York, to place along the walkway leading to the rooftop restaurant… oh, yeah, my work is a lot of fun.

But seriously, I love making others smile and I love being creative. It doesn’t take long for another project to come along. And now you can see us in action on the live feed on our website topiaryjoe.com.

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OH: What advice would you give to someone else who wanted to go pursue a different than conventional path?

JK: Learn to love Ramen noodles… and just follow your dream. Be happy.

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Success Story: Kelly Fletcher

Creativity is one of her strong suits and she has used it to create her own reality. Kelly Fletcher is a free spirit and wanted to have a fulfilling personal life as a single mother while having a great professional life at the same time. Ten years ago, she opened her own PR and Marketing firm Kelly Fletcher PR and never looked back. Now she is sharing the lessons she learned with other women in a desire to motivate and inspire them to define their own success.

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Oana Harrison: Do you feel like you are successful, that you found your calling? What was your path to success?

Kelly Fletcher: Gosh, I don’t even know where to start… The funny thing about success is that it’s so elusive. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be where I am today, have this much in revenue, have these clients, and have these many employees I would have said “Absolutely, that’s success! That exceeds my wildest dreams.” But when you get there, when you live it day-by-day, you don’t just say “this is it.” Success becomes an elusive thing because it’s never enough – and I’m not talking about money – you can never have enough business, you always continue to grow and feed your business.

Success for me is first figuring out what I want for it to look like. I guess there’s no real definition for it. You have to define your own. I’m really hard on myself so while to an outsider it might look like I’m very successful, I may think that I’m only marginally successful because I know I can always do better. Those are the demons I live with – it’s a part of being an overachiever. I started this business as a means to an end. It wasn’t a driving passion that I had to start a company. I just wanted out of the corporate environment. I’m very grateful to my then full-time job because it provided me with contacts that generated several clients, allowing me to kick-start my business. When I made the leap, I had three clients with one-year contracts so I had a good launching point.

I’m a creative spirit, so I hate having to live by someone else’s rules and schedules. I wanted to be judged on the quantity and quality of my work not on my sitting in a chair from 8 to 5 or going to meaningless meetings. Starting my own business wasn’t about money or even about being super passionate about what I did every day but it was about having the latitude to make your own timetable. I wanted to have the flexibility to take the time I needed as a single mom to raise my only child. I wanted to be able to have Spring Break off, to stay at home with my kid when he was sick and not to feel guilty about it or ask for permission. For me it’s been about creating my own reality and a set of rules I live by that are my own – it’s about having autonomy.

It’s a lot of pressure and there have been many times when I’ve thought this was too much, and I wanted to give up. Your mind will tell you: “you should really go back to getting a job” because in some ways having a regular job is easier – no risk, you know what to expect, you generally know how success is measured, you go do your job and then you leave. You don’t have to take it home with you and live it every day. The trade-off for creating your own reality is that sometimes it’s really hard and there’s nobody there to push you. You have to have a lot of self-motivation and will power to keep getting up every day even when you’re beaten down, even when past due accounts receivable are looming and you’re struggling to make payroll. When you have your own business, there’s always something.

OH: What do you wish you’d known before you started your own business? What advice would you give to others venturing out on their own?

KF: I’m actually glad that I didn’t know more than I did at the time. If I had known then what I know now, how hard it was, if I had understood the risk I took, maybe I would have been too intimidated to try it. So I think that there are times when naiveté is a plus when it comes to entrepreneurship. Just jump in and do it.

I wish I would have gotten my financials in order sooner. For the first few years, I was operating by the principle that “if we have money in the bank that’s great and if we don’t, we don’t.” Then, I hired a business coach and I’d say that that’s a huge reason why I’ve been able to be successful. We more than doubled in size as a result, experiencing a 20% year-over-year growth over the past five years, which is significant in our industry. I wish I would have known to seek outside counsel sooner. There are coaches out there that can help, whether that’s through Knoxville Entrepreneurial Center, my business coach Kevin Kragenbrink, or the Propel Program through the Chamber of Commerce – there are lots of resources that I could have tapped into but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

You have to be willing to learn and understand that you don’t get to do only what you’re passionate about all the time. You have to focus on the business aspect of things if you want to run a profitable business. I love to create, write, and pitch stories but I’m not always doing that. I hate numbers but I have to run my business by the numbers, otherwise I’m not going to be successful. You also have to have your processes in place and hire good people. It took a while but with the help of my business coach, we have built solid processes, we have a plan, we have talented people working here. I’m not that much in the trenches anymore, which frees up my time to do higher level business activities like work on strategy or mentor others.

OH: What do you think was the most important contributor to your success?

KF: This is going to sound ridiculous but I think it’s my background in performing arts. I went to school on a vocal performance scholarship and all through my twenties, I was a working singer. I lived in New York and I did theatre and opera. When you’re in the performing arts industry, as a singer, your instrument is your body. When you go on auditions and you get rejected over and over or you get criticized, it gives you a lot of strength and perspective on how to approach things in the business world. You’re not gonna win them all and you can’t take things personally; business is business. That training of getting knocked down so many times and having to keep getting back up was actually the perfect training for me as an entrepreneur.

OH: What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your life – business or otherwise?

KF: Personally, you know my life for the past 18 years always revolved around my “little child” who’s now graduating from high school. I’m very proud to have been a single mom raising a son and having him see that women are equals, that we are forces to be reckoned with. He grew up with a strong, independent woman and he’s seen my ups and downs as a business owner. He’s lived it. So it’s fulfilling to me to know that he now aspires to have his own business and he’ll also be selective about who he’ll choose as a mate because he’s gonna want someone who has her stuff together, you know.

Professionally, I think I’ve grown so much by being a business owner, learning how to handle situations, how to lead people, how to motivate them, and build a team, how to create a culture of accountability. We call each other out on not living our values or our culture: transparency, respect, accountability, service and quality. We try to live that culture, so if somebody is not living up to it, we address our cultural failures privately and work on getting back on track. I feel fulfilled for being able to create and maintain a strong and positive culture for professionals. I am happy to be surrounded by co-workers who want to be here and by clients who treat us well. We don’t work 60-hour weeks, we have a good life-work balance. To be able to create that kind of opportunity for others, to give people jobs that they like and find rewarding – that is very fulfilling!

OH: Not everybody gets dealt the same cards. You have to work with whatever or around whatever life hands you. What hurdles do you feel like you were able to overcome in your journey to success?

KF: I think people have a lot of misconceptions about me. They find out that I was a singer and former Miss North Carolina and they think that I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I actually grew up with divorced parents. My dad was a teacher, my mom was a bank teller. If it weren’t for my grandparents, we wouldn’t have been able to do very much at all. I owe my dance and voice lessons to my grandparents. They paid for my prom dress. We weren’t poor – well, the funny thing is that we were probably kind of poor but we didn’t know it; it’s just the way things were. We were latch-key kids: I came back from school, got off the bus then kept my brother and sister until my parents came home. I was the babysitter, I knew how to clean the house, how to do laundry. It isn’t like we went hungry but there were plenty of times when there wasn’t much in the refrigerator until my mom got paid. So I grew up with having enough but just enough to make me “hungry” for more, to make me want to push myself to succeed.

Other than my dad, I was the first one in my family to go to college and I went to school on almost a full scholarship. My parents didn’t pay for my college; I paid for it through scholarships and my Miss North Carolina money. I’ve overcome plenty of hurdles – as lower middle class, we weren’t always pushed to do or want more. I wanted to go the North Carolina School of the Arts. “Oh, but that’s so far away,” my family said. It was an hour and half away… I grew up in a really country family, so even my accent has been a hurdle. Money has been a hurdle, self-esteem has been a hurdle, even my education – I have a degree in music and I’m running a business. All of those hurdles motivated me even more to be successful than if I had grown up having everything from the start. Nobody gave me a dime – I made it work. As a woman especially I’m really proud of that. I didn’t get money out of my divorce. I’ve made it all happen on my own.

OH: What’s next for you?

KF: I am thinking about starting another company that can make money for me while I sleep because if you are in professional services, you live and die by billable hours. I think about what that would be, what would I do differently, and how I could apply the lessons I learned from my current business.

I’m also considering teaching as a business coach or motivational speaker. One of my bigger passions in life is helping advance women in business, so if I can figure out a way to weave that into whatever I’m doing even more, that would be great. I do have something to bring to the table due to my experience, so I’d love to help.

I thought about writing a motivational book about my journey and the lessons I learned. I’ll tell you a funny story. In our kitchen, we had this chalkboard. I taught my son what a quarter was and then we used to write down our quarterly goals. One time I wrote on the board “get a place at the beach” as one of my goals. Shortly thereafter, one of my friends called and said: “oh, I am so excited for you that you are getting a beach house.” I figured that my son had told them about our goals. Of course, at the time I was barely paying my bills… But the lesson was that if it’s on the goal list, it’s going to happen, right? So now I just need to put this on the list: “take a summer off, go to the beach, and write.” Sometimes I forget that I could totally do that!

I don’t know – I’m really at a transitional point in my life now. I’m a bit too young to retire but my son is off to college, so I have all these possibilities available to me. I thought about moving to New York and opening an office there – I love that city and I would love to live there again. So far, I have created my reality but it has been revolving around my child. Now I am free to pursue whatever I want and I love a challenge – so it’s time to recreate my own reality.

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Success Story: Bobbie Dunn

If you “Google” the name Bobbie Dunn, you will see a top listing for Bobbie Dunn the comedic actor responsible for generating laughs in several Laurel and Hardy comedies and another listing for an award-winning interior designer. This is one of those serendipitous things since the Bobbie Dunn I interviewed – the owner of Alpha Omega Hair Design in downtown Knoxville – confessed that she both liked to make people laugh and would have loved to be an interior designer. But her true calling is cutting hair, and being around people is her forte. Her clients often become her friends and she is glad to count Pat Summitt among those special people. Read about Bobbie’s journey from a small town in Appalachia to finding success as a Knoxville entrepreneur.



Oana Harrison: Do you feel that you found your calling? Can there be more than one? What was your path?

Bobbie Dunn: I grew up in the Appalachian region of West Virginia, a very poor section of the country. I grew up tough. We didn’t have a bathroom in the house until I was in the 8th grade. I grew up on a farm and I worked out the fields like the boys did; well, I was a little more protected than the boys were because I was my granddaddy’s baby girl. But I put up hay, I shucked corn, I dug potatoes, I did everything that had to be done. And I knew right then that that wasn’t the life I wanted to live. I had a very strict stepfather. I was pretty popular in high school but I wasn’t allowed to date, I couldn’t do many of the things that the normal kids did, I couldn’t stay out later, I couldn’t go to the ball games, I couldn’t do any of that. And I resented it. So, I started out rough and when I turned 18 I decided I was going to run off, get married and get away from all that. I married a guy who was two years older than me. He was in his last year of college and I worked in a sewing factory to pay for his tuition. Then we moved to the town where he went to college and I worked in a place like a Burger King – it was called the Burger Boy Food-O-Rama. It was miserable and then I turned out pregnant. I got pregnant three months after I got married, then I got fired because I got pregnant because I was anemic and I kept passing out. The manager was afraid that I was going to pass out, lose the baby and sue him. Back then, they could fire you for being pregnant.

OH: Is that when you moved to Tennessee?

BD: When my husband finished college, he became an engineer and we moved to Tennessee. He went to work with TVA. We moved here in June and gave birth in July. I was going to pretty much stay at home and raise the baby. However, a manager position opening came up for our apartment complex. They went through three managers over six months… I was nineteen but I figured I’d apply. The manager told me I was too young, so I told him, “well, you don’t have anybody now and you don’t seem to have a problem getting rid of employees. What have you got to lose?” He scratched his head and said: “Well, you have a point.” So, I managed the apartment complex we lived in for two years and I saved enough money to put towards buying a house. When I turned in my notice, the manager said I was the best manager he’d ever had.

OH: After you finally became a proud homeowner, what was your next step?

BD: When we moved into the new house, I was going to stay at home, be a good little wife and a good mother… and I was bored out of my board!… I went to work for Kelly Girls, a temp agency. I would work here two days then three days there, and then take some time off. It was just a fly-by-night operation, there were no guarantees. But I had some of the most interesting jobs that you can imagine working for them. That was fun.

OH: What are some of the more interesting gigs you had through Kelly Girls?

BD: I did the survey in the neighborhood to bring cable to Knoxville. Got dog-bit during that event by a yappy poodle – that was hysterical. Also, way before GPS existed, I rode around town with a guy from Toledo, Ohio and showed him where different places were in the area for him to go ask for donations to start St. Jude’s Hospital. I look back on that now and think – wow! At the time, we didn’t know what St. Jude’s was but now, I think, I had a hand in that! It makes me proud.

Those were the two most interesting jobs I had. The others were working in a bank or an office; switchboard operator, filing, odds and ends jobs.

OH: How did you get into the hair industry?

BD: My marriage started falling apart and I got a divorce. I didn’t have a job but I had made so many contacts through the Kelly Girls that it wasn’t hard for me to find another job. I worked for an insurance company for a while but I hated it…I absolutely hated it. Being confined to a desk and typing… I wasn’t good at it. It wasn’t my thing. I hated getting up in the morning and going to that job. I would take the “girls” into the restroom on our lunch break and cut their hair. One day one of the guys who was working in the building reached and grabbed my arm. And I thought “uh-oh, I’m in trouble.” He said “listen, you are wasting your talent. You need to go to school, get a license, and cut hair.” “I can’t afford it,” I said. He said “You can’t afford not to. The guy who runs the barber school lives across the street from me. I’ll put in a good word for you.” So, I called and made an appointment to talk to the guy.

But I still had to come up with the money for the program. When I was 24, I had broken a vertebra and the doctor told me I had to get off my butt and onto my feet. He also told me that he would help me get a rehabilitation loan. I went back to him to ask about it: “I decided what I want to do. I want to be a barber.” He laughed at me. I said: “Do I not look like a barber?” He said, “Frankly, no you don’t.” But he signed me up and I went to school. My daughter was 8 years old at the time and I thought we were going to starve to death. We lived on about $230/month and, while the loan paid for my school, I had to stretch the $230 a loooong way. But we did it.

OH: How was barber school?

BD: It was a 9-month stint. The first day I walked in the school I thought “I do not belong here.” I didn’t fit in. I had been in barber school all but three months and the guy who owned the barber school also owned a hair styling salon told me “I want you to come work for me when you graduate.” So, I knew I had a job getting out, which is something that most people had to struggle to get. I have been blessed because I have been able to either talk my way into a job or a job landed in my lap. I was blessed with that and I’ve never looked back. Of course, it takes a while to build a business and one of the first things we learned in school was that only one in ten people make it in the hair industry. It’s a tough business to stay in and I’ve been in it since 1998. That is where I find myself successful: is being able to stay in it.

OH: How did owning your own business come about from that?

BD: I stayed in the first shop where I went to work for two years before it burned down. After that, the guy across the street called me to go work for him. I worked there for 18 years while my daughter grew up and went to high school. I knew I wanted to move on and do my own thing, so in 2000 I took the leap to open my own shop. I started out on a budget, very small, and I’ve been at it ever since.

OH: How was the transition from working for someone else to having your own business, hiring and managing people, and all that it entails?

BD: That wasn’t fun – laughed Bobbie. That was the hard part because not everybody has your work ethic. You have to go through a few to get to the ones that have the same work ethic and the same goals as you. You can find out probably in the first month. When I hire someone, I give them a three-month trial period and see whether they are going to make it or not.

It’s very difficult to find those people who are hungry; you gotta be hungry. The kids coming out of school today are very entitled and they think that everything ought to fall in their lap. It doesn’t work that way. You gotta work for it. They don’t seem to have the fortitude to go out there and beat the streets to get the clientele like I had to when I started.

OH: What would you say that the most important contributor to your overall success was?

BD: Determination and a sense of humor.

OH: What are some lessons you learned along the way or some advice you’d like to give to others?

BD: There are always going to be setbacks but you can’t let them keep you down. You gotta get back up and keep punching. It’s not about what someone’s going to hand you; it’s about what you’re going to work for.

OH: What do you feel like the most fulfilling aspect of your life is – business or otherwise?

BD: For me, it’s the friendships I make through my job; people don’t just become my customers, they become my friends. And it’s not a client-stylist relationship as much as it is family and I love that closeness. I’ll tell you a little story. I went to a hair show one time and they had a psychologist going to a class. He told us: “You have more influence on people than I do. You have a license to touch people and this creates a bond between you. You’re in their space, so people have to trust you.” He told us about a client who he had been counseling for a year. She had a crush on a guy whom she had met over happy hour in a bar. She wanted to go out with him. The doctor advised her to ask him out instead of waiting for his move. He finally talked her into doing it, she was all excited about it, and he couldn’t wait for the next time he saw her and find out how it went. She came into his office, he asked her how it went. She told him she didn’t ask. Why not? – he asked surprised. We had already talked about it, you decided how you were going to do it and all. What happened? Well, I went and got my hair done after I talked to you, she confessed, and my hairdresser thought it was the dumbest thing I could do, so I didn’t do it. So, you see, you have more influence over people than me…,” the psychologist concluded. I thought it was hysterical – confessed Bobbie.

OH: Speaking of receiving advice… Everybody needs to have a support system around them – some more than others. How did you fare?

BD: When you’re 300 miles away from home it’s hard to have a support system. I was quite honestly here alone, with my daughter – she was all I had family-wise. But I had made some very good friends and I still have them today. They have been my biggest support system.

OH: What kept you going?

BD: Laughing – I didn’t want to starve to death…

OH: You had your business for almost seventeen years. What’s next?

BD: Well, I’m 65, retirement should be next… Really, I don’t want to retire. My recent and new back injury (I fractured a vertebra – again – moving furniture by myself…) made me realize even more that I can’t sit and look at four walls. Most people can go through their entire lives without fracturing a vertebra – and I’ve done it twice! But I intend to stay up and running.

I’m a people-person, I like to be around people, I love people! I actually like being behind the chair working on somebody. So, I might want to cut back a little but I’m afraid that if I stop cutting hair, I would have no more incentive to get out of bed. I have to have a reason to get up and get out of the house – and I need to be around people because they make my world go around.

OH: What words of wisdom do you have for others?

BD: You are exactly right that success for one person may not be the same for another. I think you’re successful as long as you are doing something that makes you happy. That to me is the key to success – being happy. Because like I told you, I was miserable at my first job, I hated it. It was not my calling. I was 27-28 when I found mine and I never looked back. I never wanted to do something else. I think that the only other thing that I would have been interested in would have been interior design – not that I’m that good at it but I just like furniture. But I don’t think that I would have had that much fun because I wouldn’t have been around that many people. And for me, it’s that social interaction that makes me happy. I’m kind of an entertainer sometimes when I’m dealing with people. I like to make them laugh, make their day a little better.

When I worked at the insurance company, I hated it. I was terrible at typing and I don’t know why they kept me. But I found something enjoyable in it – I cut hair during my breaks… That did my heart good and it led to something better, something that I wanted to do. So, find the good in a bad situation. Stick with it and don’t give up on your dreams!

Success Story: Larsen Jay

Many have written about Larsen Jay and his now nationally-present charity Random Acts of Flowers. However, as it often happens with success, we only see the tip of the iceberg – the end-result, the success – but are not privy to the rest of the story. What happens before success is achieved and how does one get to it? I sat down one afternoon and asked Larsen about his paths and passions, understanding more about the man behind so many great production projects and great initiatives benefiting the Knoxville community.


About Larsen Jay:

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Larsen Jay – Random Acts of Flowers

While recovering in the hospital from a nearly-fatal accident in 2007, Larsen noticed how many of his fellow patients did not have visitors or flowers, two mood-boosters providing much-needed support to patients on the way to recovery. He re-purposed the flowers that had brought him joy and delivered them to some of his fellow patients. And the idea of Random Act of Flowers was born. Based in Knoxville, TN, the charity aims to improve the emotional health and well-being of individuals in health care facilities by delivering recycled flowers, encouragement and personal moments of kindness. Since its 2008 inception, the organization has grown into a nation-wide initiative.


Oana Harrison: How does one find one’s calling and is there more than one?

Larsen Jay: That’s a hard question. I’m on my third career, calling or path, about to enter my fourth.

OH: How do you know which path to choose?

LJ: I don’t know how you determine what your path is but it’s a gut feeling. I’ve been in a half a dozen situations in my life when I just knew I was forcing it and it wasn’t right. I was beating my head against the wall but I didn’t want to quit, I was stubborn. Then I’ve been in several instances where my gut told me I was right, and I was passionate about it – those are two very distinct feelings. I would equate it a lot to a marriage – when you know, you know. To me calling is circumstantial to where you are in life; you have to trust knowing that it’s right and dive full force into it. I’ve jumped off the cliff three-four times with half a parachute and figured half way down if it was the right thing to do. You just have to go for it.

OH: Tell me about the different paths you’ve been on so far.

LJ: I grew up passionate about the theater and the scenic design world. Although I grew up in Syracuse, New York, I spent a lot of time in Tennessee. My grandfather was a carpenter and a volunteer with the Little Theatre in Chattanooga, Tennessee, so as a kid, I came to Tennessee often, and spent time in the theater world. I always loved being around that environment, and in high school, I designed and built all the sets for live theater. I loved that it was part carpentry and part art – and I really found a passion in it. That’s what led me to the University of Tennessee and Clarence Brown Theatre. I put everything I had in my Toyota and drove a thousand miles down south, to Knoxville. I really wanted to do visual design, production design with the thought that I would go one day to New York and design the next big stage production. I worked at the Bijou Theatre through college. It was during college when I got the bug to do film production and that’s when I found my second real passion.

After I graduated with a theater degree from the University of Tennessee, I moved to Dallas. My aunt worked for a company called Lyrick Studios which produced kids’ programming like Barnie, Veggie Tales, and Wishbone. They were about to do the first Barnie movie and since I had a couple of film credits from working in Knoxville, I thought I would get to work on it. I was disappointed when I didn’t. I didn’t have enough experience – they looked at me like “yeah, whatever, kid.” So I was stuck in Dallas without much of a plan. I remember my aunt threw a book in my lap. It was the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals – like the membership club for production people. “Well, you’re here,” she said “figure it out.” Inside the book cover it said “we are a non-profit organization,” so I called them and said “look, you’re non-profit, which means you probably need volunteers. I give you a week of my time if you tell me how to get into the film industry.” They said yes. I went from running and managing staff at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville to taking out trash, bringing in lunch, licking envelopes – doing the grunt work in Dallas. I worked my butt off for a week and the Executive Director said “hey, you have skills, I’ll give you a recommendation.” I interviewed and I got my first PA (production assistant) job in a feature film, a Sony movie – Universal Soldier: The Return.

It was a grind house – there were 30-some production assistants who started and three of us who finished. We worked 13-hour days, 6-days a week, for 6 months straight. It was awful. From there I really got the bug to do film and I wanted to work in production behind the scenes. Everyone said I had to go to L.A. I threw everything that I had in my truck again and moved to L.A. I worked my butt off for 6 months trying to get a job; I was basically broke and about to turn around and leave when I landed my first job at Universal: Erin Brockovich.

I loved the work I was doing but I didn’t love L.A. – the rat race, the traffic. It didn’t have that community feel I liked and I really wanted more quality of life than just career. I came back to Knoxville for a visit with some college friends. That’s when I met the folks are RIVR Media and they were looking for producers. And that’s how I switched from movies to TV production. Six months into the gig, I met Adrian. She was a reporter for WATE Channel 6 for the morning news and I was the second resident of the Sterchi building downtown, which in 2002-2003 downtown was like a ghost town. She interviewed me on the morning news about being a “new downtown resident” and we were engaged six months later.

After several years of TV production, I sort of jumped off the cliff again, when Adrian and I started our own production company, the DoubleJay Creative. That was a whole different thing for me, going from being a producer, sometimes director, sometimes writer – being behind the scenes – to running a business in addition to all that. That’s really when I started to get more involved with the community. We worked and lived downtown for a while, so we got more involved with philanthropy and community projects, served on the Board of the Bijou Theatre, the Joy of Music School, the Symphony, and got involved with non-profits trying to revitalize downtown Knoxville.

I was the guy who brought the ice skating rink back to Market Square – most people don’t realize that. I was fortunate to be a part of the group that started Movies on Market Square, which is now run by the Knox Co. library. Soon thereafter, my good friend Scott Schimmel, co-owner of Bliss and Bliss Home said to me: “Hey, you grew up in New York, you play hockey, right? Then you must know something about ice rinks. You know that fourteen years ago the city used to have a dinky ice rink. I wonder if we could bring it back.” And that was the genesis. I started a non-profit called Center City Events, which is still going on now with other people. The idea was to create events in the inner city to bring people into the center of the city. The ice rink was the first project. Adrian and I ended up funding most of it personally for the first few years to get it up and running. Then we started the East Tennessee Chili Cook-off (which is now with Second Harvest Food Bank) and we did the Daddy-Daughter Dance (which we gave to the Girl Scouts). These bigger events brought in a lot of people into downtown, especially during the holidays. During the recession of 2008 a lot of sponsorships dried up and we had a hard time keeping the organization going. We’d accomplished a lot and done what we needed to do to bring people downtown, so we decided to give the ice rink to the City of Knoxville to keep it alive – and the other events were given to other organizations. It’s been exciting to see them all continue to do well.

Meanwhile, our production business was going very well. We did everything but cable television; we did visual story-telling all over the country: documentaries, tributes, trade show videos, commercials, internal communications, a lot of colleges and corporate material. At its peak, we had 20-some people working for us and crews all over the world. We worked hard at it and it was good.

OH: Sounds perfect.

LJ: It was. Then 2007 happened. Ironically enough, that year I had been helicopter skiing in British Columbia and then I spent a month in Nepal on a documentary scouting trip, I hiked all over – and came back unscathed from all the stuff that should have broken me. Then, on July 29, 2007 I had my accident. I had a workshop on the north side of town – my “guy oasis:” cars and junk. Adrian was out of town. On an early Sunday morning, the roof was leaking. I decided to fix it, so I went up and down the ladder, and the sixteenth time for some reason, coming off the top of the ladder, the ladder collapsed from underneath me. I fell face down onto concrete about a story and a half. I broke my left arm, my left wrist, right wrist, right elbow, right femur, my nose, had ten skull fractures – I really shouldn’t be here… I’m on borrowed shelf-life time; I know that every day when I wake up. I was in ICU for a couple of days, another ten days in level one trauma, another ten in rehab, and about three and a half months in a wheel chair, 12 surgeries and counting putting me back together. And that’s when the fourth career came about in the shape of Random Acts of Flowers.

OH: How did you make that happen?

LJ: It was the right thing to do, it felt great to help other people and to honor the fact that I was still around. It got to a point when I was spending more time on the Random Acts of Flowers non-profit than on my business. I remember people in the company wondering “are we running a production company or a charity?” It just was sort of the perfect storm when over a period of six months to a year Adrian and I had our first child, I was building up Random Acts of Flowers and transitioning Center City Events away. Ultimately, Brandon Ward who was one of our senior producers came to me to discuss owning his own production company. It was the right time for his career and for me, so I sold the business to him. They re-branded it into the Frame Theory and continue to run it successfully today. It was the right thing to do, it felt right to go all-in to the Random Acts of Flowers.

About the same time, I also went back to business school for an executive MBA degree, which was interesting, after being thirteen years out of undergrad. You learn to learn again and it helped me gain the skills necessary to scale Random Acts of Flowers nationally.

OH: So how was business school?

LJ: Business school was great. It was hard – it was the hardest workload year in my life because the executive program is condensed into one super-year. That year, 2011, we had our second child, so I had a newborn at home, we moved, we sold the production company, and I went to school – all in the same one year, so it was insane. I liked that though, because you can do anything for a year and I wanted to go all in. Going through the program really helped me. It helped take what I used to think was business-decision making and turn it into critical thinking: really analyzing, weighing and measuring before deciding, making better and well-informed decisions. It honed in some skills in the finance area and improved others. It ultimately was a crash-course in taking business practices and turning them into business solutions. Because I went for the Executive MBA, I had Random Acts of Flowers as my main school project, allowing me to graduate not only with a degree but with a plan on how to scale the organization nationally. That year almost killed me but it was also awesome, and I walked out of there with a huge amount of skills and a new network of people. I go back to talk to the MBA classes each year and I try to support the business school and give back to the program.

OH: How did the plan translate into action?

LJ: I have been all in, focused on growing Random Acts of Flowers, and now we just opened our fifth branch in October in Indianapolis. We are now in five states. We actually opened six locations but the one in Greenville, TN didn’t have enough resources to support itself. It ran for about 15 months and served about 6,000 people, though, and it generated a group of volunteers that continue the mission with a local club, which is what’s important. I was very proud of that branch. It helped us learn more about the expansion model.

OH: What’s next for you?

LJ: My next chapter is focused on service to others. I had my mid-life crisis at age 31 with the accident –  because I should be dead, you know. I wake up every day with a different perspective, and I’m far more humble and focused on people instead of stuff, I’m far more focused on community and what I can do to be helpful. I sort of go into everything with the attitude “how can I be more helpful?” and I didn’t have that ten years ago. Most people don’t until they are retired but I just got a jump-start.

OH: It’s easy for people to just see the end-result and not the work that goes into creating your success. So what are some of the lessons you learned along the way?

LJ: I think that the biggest thing for me is, from the minute I left home to come to Tennessee and at every stage of my life since, there are a hundred thousand people who will tell you “no” or “it can’t happen,” or they just can’t see it. For some reason it’s really easy for people to discourage someone else’s idea and it happened to me at every stage of my life. So the biggest lesson for me was that if it were easy, anybody would do it. Most people will tell you “no” because they have a fear of doing it themselves. Most people are risk-adverse. I’m not. I’m O.K. jumping off the cliff with half a parachute and figuring things on my way down because I don’t really mind falling on my face – no pun intended. I guess I don’t worry too much how we get there. If you are doing what’s right, if you are doing it for the right reasons, you’ll figure it out on the way. But you have to stand up and say “yes, I’m going to do this.”

OH: I think fear of failure is a huge factor for people.

LJ: Oh, I got rid of that a long time ago…. If it fails, fine, try again or go do something else.

OH: What other ingredient is vital to success?

LJ: Another lesson I learned was that you’re the only one who’s going to work harder to see your dream through. You can’t look around the room for that. You have to be the one who gets to work first and leaves work last. I don’t have it in me to do anything half-way so anyone who’s ever accomplished anything it was because they were committed to it. Be honest, tell people that you don’t know when you don’t know, if you fall on your face, just focus on fixing it, on finding the solution, and move on. But you have to work on the solution not just complain about the problems.

OH: How do you deal with naysayers, especially when you have so many things going on? How do you stay focused on your work and how much “no” can you take?

LJ: That’s a hard question. I don’t know. I think it’s part of people’s DNA, your work ethic. There are some people who can drive through negativity but it’s hard, it’s not easy. There are times when I’m thinking it’s all going to fall apart, there are times when I’ve done stuff and the organization was almost broke so you worry how you’re going to keep the lights on. But you learn to rest, not quit. You learn to solve it one piece at a time. At age 31, when the accident happened, I gained a different perspective, you know. You have great clarity when you know you’re on borrowed time. It drives me bonkers to sit around. I feel like I ought to be doing something.

OH: Should one play by the rules in order to be successful?

LJ: By the law yes but not necessarily by the life rules – I think that good people in the world are attracted to other good people with a passion to do something. In non-profit, people give to people first and then to the cause. They believe in me and I believe in the mission. I answer their questions and concerns and they give to me, they trust me to follow through. If you are truly passionate about something and you call someone up to say I want to open, say, a hot dog stand, and ask them to tell you what you know about business so you can make the dream happen, someone will help you. If you are all in, people will jump on board. If you are wishy-washy…who invests into a half-assed passion?

As an example, the very first place where we expanded Random Acts of Flowers was Tampa, FL. I wasn’t thinking about that location and didn’t know anyone there. A group of people who were very passionate about the idea, professionally stalked me. They called me every week and said “we are bringing this to Tampa, we have resources lined up, will you do it?” I was thinking more about expanding closer to Knoxville. But they hounded me and they were passionate about it. I told them they could come visit and sure enough, they showed up. So you have to be willing to work for your idea – there is a fine line between being a pain and being memorable. If you can be somewhere along that line, people will see that you are really passionate; they’ll say “they’re not giving up, so we’d better talk to them.”

OH: What if you have too many ideas – how do you choose what to pursue?

LJ: Get rid of all the half-baked ideas – put them aside. Ask yourself what is the single best thing I can get accomplished in the shortest amount of time and focus on that one. Adrian, actually, has a great system. If she touches a piece of paper (or folder), she must do something about it, finish whatever task is needed before picking up the next one. I think that that’s one of the main things I learned that you have chapters in your life, and you need to be willing to turn the page, to say I’m done with that chapter, this is what I’m focused on right now. Who cares what I didn’t do ten years ago, or six months ago? This is what’s most important now. I’ve even done that with friendships. I don’t fault people for not maintaining good friendships. It takes a lot of work. I may not be a part of their chapter right now and that’s okay. If they come back around, I’ll be pleasant and catch up but I don’t angst that someone didn’t call me. You have to let it go.

OH: What if people stole your idea?

LJ: I’m flattered. Do you know how many people have stolen the Random Acts of Flowers idea? There’s a dozen other organizations do exactly the same thing. Guess what? We put a page on our website and invited them to connect with other resources in the community; I spend time with those people who want to open the same type of business and help them out, give them advice. Someone stole your idea? Fine, go be better than them. There’s hardly any idea that someone else hasn’t already have. If you have the best idea for a product, seriously, most likely someone else is already doing it. Be first at it, be better at it, and then go do something else. Do the best you can with what you’re passionate about. There are so many things you can do – go do!

OH: What has been the most fulfilling endeavor for you so far?

LJ: The most fulfilling thing for me is service to other people. When your entire motivation is to be helpful to someone else, it’s an easy compass. I find great passion in that. I’m very fortunate: we had great careers, we are very fortunate and just making money is not my motivation. I work at a non-profit. I find great passion in helping others and solving problems – and be the most helpful in whatever it is. When you want nothing and you want to do for others, it’s easy to stay motivated.

OH: How do you balance hard work and family life?

LJ: You just include your family in what you do. And know what your priorities are. I have three basic priorities: my wife and marriage, my kids, and my community. Well, and there’s also me; so there are four parts to this equation. The reality is that, at any given point, someone in that equation loses. You can only pick two or three at a time, so it will depend on the situation which three I pick. If my wife needs me, I’m there. Who needs me most at the time? I’m last in the lineup, so that suffers sometimes too. But you have to know what your priorities are and when to say no. There are times when I walked out of meetings for my family. Time is short, and I’m on borrowed time. It’s a balancing act, no doubt.

OH: So what’s the next chapter for you?

LJ: I’m taking my focus on service and community and helping others. I’m hoping to serve in a civic capacity and will be running for County Commission in the next election cycle. I believe in servant leadership and hope that I can bring my leadership skills and experience to the community in a new way. Certainly, this is a whole new chapter and I am jumping off the cliff again; I know some of it, I’ll work hard to learn as much as possible, and the rest I’ll figure out on the way down.


©2017 Oana Harrison; Photos provided by Larsen Jay.