It was a good crowd of more than 50 people of all political stripes and walks of life (Supervisor Nate Beason; Nevada City and Grass Valley electeds such as Robert Bergman, Duane Strawser and Jan Arbuckle; NCERC Executive Director Jon Blinder; plus some business people). Nevada City Winery CEO Wyn Spiller was the host, but she also enjoyed the speakers and was a good representative from business.
Our son brought his new book along — a biography of Milton Hershey — so it was fitting to hear from local entrepreneurs. He listened for a while, then read his book while people mingled.
The speakers were Michael Funk, chair and co-founder of United Natural Foods; and David Wood, founder of Ensemble Designs. This also was a fundraiser for Sierra Commons (Ensemble donated $25K of the $100K that Sierra Commons is seeking to raise). Michael also contributes to Sierra Commons.
At the gathering, Sierra Commons ED Robert Trent disclosed that the group was doing well and could wind up leasing space at the Nevada City Vet’s Hall, larger quarters compared with its space at the Stonehouse Building.
I saw some irony in transitioning to the “spark” of entrepreneurship from the “Divine Spark” that was feeding the homeless in the Vet’s Hall (and led to some unruly behavior that upset some of the neighbors). In fact, it’s all interrelated. Incubating companies and creating jobs can help us deal with the homeless issue.
United Natural Foods, which he helped launch out of our county as Mountain Peoples Warehouse in the mid-’70s, is now a multi-billion-dollar Fortune 500 giant. If you had an IPO share of UNFI at $13.50 and held onto it, it’s now worth about $130, he noted.
More important, Michael was a visionary: He saw the natural food trend coming ahead of giants such as Whole Foods, and he lives right in our own backyard. This trend is huge, and can’t be underestimated. (“Organic, what your great grandmother used to call food,” is how I joke about it to our son). And unlike the internet, with is a dubious business model in some segments, organic food is a moneymaker.
I’ve interviewed Michael for our magazine, but I was glad to hear him speak about his experiences as an entrepreneur. He was relaxed and easy going. He also pointed out the value of nonpartisan collaboration (not “Republicans or Democrats”) when it comes to economic development — a regular theme here.
The No. 1 ingredient of success for any entrepreneur is passion, more than the desire to make money, Michael reminded us. He joked about wearing purple sneakers at the IPO roads shows for UNFI and how his mom questioned whether her “ponytailed” child could be successful selling organic food (until he bought her a home at Lake Tahoe).
Though Michael had no formal business education, it’s clear he has learned the ropes of management (building a team, for example); managing rapid growth, and my favorite: the pitfalls of hiring your friends.
David Wood, the founder and president of Ensemble Designs, also spoke. I’ve met David several times. Ensemble Designs is not far from our house in Nevada City (I like to point it out to visitors when I drive them around on a tour), and it epitomizes the success of our “cottage industry” video TV business — originated at Grass Valley Group.
David likes to point out his Iowa roots. I mention this to our nephew, who is the QB at Iowa State this year, and is a student (not just an athlete) and sometimes teased about his “laid-back Cali” connections. David has his own “Cali” connection: He has lived in Nevada City for more than 25 years, so he’s nearly a native Californian.
David started Ensemble Designs, which sells equipment to the television broadcast industry, in 1989.
He spoke about the value of education and training in incubating companies. His company has grown to more than 50 people, and he also spoke about the value of team building. I was glad to see kudos extended to Cindy Zuelsdorf, Ensemble’s marketing czar and employee #1, who also was present.
We’re also fond of the company’s cookbook. It’s an innovative marketing initiative: promoting their in-house kitchen where “customers share a meal,” akin to the famous Google kitchen. Last year, I ran into David at a cooking demonstrations at Tess’ Kitchen to promote the cookbook. He’s a well-rounded guy.
Ensemble’s gracious $25K donation is going to fund a new business school at Sierra Commons.
Writing about the politics in our county can be depressing: Still a lot of high-pitched rhetoric. But I was excited to attend this gathering.
Kudos to Sierra Commons for organizing it: A reminder that our county has world-class entrepreneurs who can help spark some needed innovation and economic diversification in our county.
In the future, I hope we can organize an ongoing speaker series like this. The informal get-together was uplifting, and a good learning experience for our son (and all of us attending).
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