‘Entrepreneurialism is in Trinity’s DNA’
By Mary Howard
Illustrations by Peter Strain
You’ve heard of some of Trinity’s more well-known and most successful alumni entrepreneurs, including Thomas Chappell ’66, H’06, P’89, ’92, ’97, ’06, Trinity trustee and founder of Tom’s of Maine and Ramblers Way; Danny Meyer ’80, P’20, Trinity trustee and founder of Union Square Hospitality Group and Shake Shack, among other restaurants and firms; and Liz Elting ’87, Trinity trustee, co-founder of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, and co-founder of TransPerfect, the world’s largest language solutions company. And, of course, there’s Eric Fossum ’79, Trinity trustee and inventor of the CMOS chip that revolutionized cell-phone cameras, and Jamie “Bear” McDonald IDP’00, founder of Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ and other Hartford-area restaurants.
Other alumni entrepreneurs may not be as familiar, but there are plenty out there. And that makes sense: a recent survey of graduating seniors conducted by Trinity’s Analytics and Strategic Initiatives Center shows that Trinity students are more likely than their peers to work in start-ups and small businesses after graduation. We also know through word of mouth that it’s common—and has been for some time—for alumni to support one another’s ventures.
“Trinity has had a long history of producing graduates who have ‘it’—that unique combination of I.Q. and E.Q. [emotional intelligence]—that allows them to succeed in entrepreneurial endeavors,” says President Joanne Berger-Sweeney. “So many of them possess strong relational skills, including being able to work well with others and to utilize networks, which is vital when you’re an entrepreneur. I also see the same qualities in today’s students, who are determined to achieve great things. It seems that entrepreneurialism is in Trinity’s DNA.”
Amy McCooe ’93 found the college to be a place of optimism. “There is a message in the Trinity culture that if you want to change something, you can,” remembers McCooe, co-founder and CEO of Level Up Village (LUV)—a “socially conscious for-profit” that connects American students in grades K through 9 with students from around the world through online courses in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM).
“We would stay up late talking about how we could make a difference,” McCooe says. There were afternoons on the quad when Kirk Peters, then Trinity’s associate dean of students, set up a microphone and asked students to talk about how they were contributing to society. “It was incredibly empowering that the administration was interested in what we had to say.”
McCooe earned an M.B.A. from The University of Texas at Austin and had a career in finance and start-ups before leaving the corporate world to start a family. But she continued to feed her entrepreneurial spirit by creating an after-school program at her children’s elementary school, cultivating and sourcing STEAM-based enrichment opportunities for students.
Today LUV provides one-to-one connections for students all over the world. “We’re teaching children the skills they’ll need for the jobs of the future,” says McCooe, who is passionate about creating global citizens in an ever-shrinking world. “If you’re not excited about your work, what’s the point?”
Passion is an absolute necessity for an entrepreneur, says Tara O’Connor Foley ’07, founder and CEO of Follain, a retailer of ethical and safe cosmetics and beauty products. “You just don’t go down that road unless you are absolutely crazy about your idea.”
When Foley learned about the toxins in everyday health and beauty products, she “pulled the emergency brake” on her life. “The cosmetics industry is one of the most unregulated industries in the United States,” she says. She sold her car and emptied her savings to start Follain. Husband James Foley ’07 helped her open her first small storefront in Boston, and the business now has two stores in Boston and one on Nantucket. There’s also a thriving online component, www.follain.com, and the company has plans to add stores in Bethesda, Maryland; Seattle; New York; and Dallas.
“Trinity seems to cultivate a unique level of emotional intelligence. Everyone I met could hold their own in a strong conversation,” she says. Foley majored in public policy and was set on a career in law. But her college experience, both inside and outside the classroom, challenged her to push boundaries and to “think outside the box.” Though a move from law to beauty might seem incongruous, Foley—who holds an M.B.A. from Babson College—insists it’s not. “This is a public policy issue,” she says.
It was the “depth of the academics at Trinity” that helped Louise Albin ’76 forge her own path. Owner of Café Louise, a restaurant and catering business with locations in West Hartford and Newington, Connecticut, Albin knew the corporate life wasn’t for her. “I’ve always liked creative freedom in my work,” she says.
Courses in philosophy and women’s literature were among those that showed her different ways to approach a situation. And a semester student teaching to earn her secondary education certificate bolstered her self-esteem. But the French literature major turned down a teaching job to put her cooking skills—honed during a study-abroad program in France—to good use. For more than 25 years, she’s been at the helm of Café Louise. “And I still get that excited feeling before an event,” she says.
Charlie Buffum ’82, owner and president of Cottrell Brewing in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, was in his 30s, working long hours and traveling to Canada every week for his job as a management consultant. “I had a wife and two young kids, and I was never home,” he says.
After Trinity, he earned an M.B.A. from the London Business School, where he developed a passion for ales and learned the craft of beer making. He brewed beer as a hobby and started having conversations with his wife in the ’90s about “ditching the corporate towel” to open a brewery. “But I had cold feet,” he says.
One night, after flying home late, he found a Nike T-shirt on his pillow. “Just Do It” was printed on the front. “It was a sign from my wife,” he says. In 1997, the couple opened the doors to their brewery, located on the site where Buffum’s great-great-grandfather, C.B. Cottrell, began building printing presses in 1855, hence the brewery’s name.
Known for its flagship brew, Old Yankee Ale, called the “best amber ale” in Beer Lover’s New England, Cottrell Brewing has been going strong through slow, controlled growth and a focus on customer service, says Buffum. He acknowledges, though, that it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “You’ll hit hurdles, but if you have passion, you can get through them,” he says.
Buffum learned to voice his opinions at Trinity, where he majored in economics. “The small classrooms and the way professors engaged you helped me feel more comfortable.” That comes in handy in the beer business, he says. With wholesalers, retailers, and his devoted customers, communication and attention to service are Buffum’s priorities.
It’s clear that Trinity Trustee and biochemistry major Richard Wagner ’83 also knows that it takes more than an understanding of an academic area to succeed. “Being an entrepreneur is not the same as being a biochemist,” says Wagner, founder, president, and CEO of X-Chem, Inc., a biotechnology company that specializes in small-molecule drug discovery. “I need to know about human resources and accounting as well.” He also is founder and on the board of two X-Chem spin-offs: X-Rx, Inc., which develops therapeutics in fibrosis and cancer, and Xios, Inc., which focuses on immuno-oncology.
Wagner says he draws on lessons learned in classes as diverse as art history, economics, and religious studies. He’s also grateful for his relationship with Henry A. DePhillips Jr., Vernon K. Krieble Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus. “He was very supportive, especially during my senior year, when he pushed me to pursue graduate studies.” Wagner earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Brown University and completed postdoctoral study in molecular and cell biology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Listed as one of Forbes magazine’s 2017 “30 Under 30,” Colin Touhey ’10 is co-founder and CEO of Pvilion, a Brooklyn-based manufacturer of flexible photovoltaic solar structures and products. Think awnings that provide LED lighting and jackets made from solar-powered fabric that can power your iPhone, he says. He’s also an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
An engineering major at Trinity, Touhey says the college’s close-knit Engineering Department helped give him the confidence to take risks. “The small size of the department and the flexibility of the course work allowed me to pursue my passions,” he says.
Shortly after graduation, Touhey was designing products for a solar energy firm, but the company wasn’t implementing his designs. So, with two partners from his former employer and a bunch of unused technology ideas, he launched Pvilion in 2011. He quickly learned that failure was part of the process. “If you’re not failing every day, you’re doing something wrong. It’s not that you fail but what you do with it,” he says. At the time, Touhey was 22. “In retrospect, it was completely ridiculous that I thought I could pull it off.” But within a few months, the business was cash positive.
That kind of “irrational, unfounded confidence” is necessary in entrepreneurship, says Hal Ebbott ’10. In 2014, Ebbott and Touhey partnered with a neurologist to launch Foray Design, a company that designs and produces tools for people with physical limitations. Discouraged by the clunky design of the classic walker, they created Spring, an ergonomically designed walker that is intuitive to use. “A walker should have the same quality of design as your iPhone,” says Ebbott, who majored in public policy.
Ebbott and Touhey met on Trinity’s crew team and became close friends. Ebbott credits their success as business partners to their ability to disagree without taking it personally. “We will yell about something, but only in the context of that one point,” says Ebbott. “It’s just business.”
Ebbott is grateful for the support he and Touhey have received from Trinity alumni. Advice from Eric Rosow ’86, CEO of Diameter Health in Farmington, Connecticut, was incredibly valuable, says Ebbott. “His generosity of time and his experience in the medical space was critical during our development.”
Like Ebbott and Touhey, Christian Allen ’00 and Adam Goldkamp ’00 are trying to make the world a little better. They are the backbone of GetHuman, a company that gives consumers tools—including maps of phone systems, shortcuts, and tricks—to speed up and improve customer service.
“We looked to fix a pain point that affects millions of people every day. When you’re waiting on hold, you’re not happy,” says Allen, a computer science major and GetHuman’s CEO. Allen did web development in London and Africa before joining serial entrepreneur Paul English at travel search engine Kayak.com as a software architect. He and English co-founded GetHuman in 2013. Allen says he’s grateful for Trinity’s small and tight-knit Computer Science Department that allowed him to do a “wild senior project. I designed an online version of the college’s bookstore,” he says. “Back in 1999–2000, selling stuff online was still a radical idea.”
Goldkamp, GetHuman’s director of operations, majored in economics at Trinity and had a career in finance, with a stop at Babson for an M.B.A. But jobs were going away in the finance industry, and “there was more growth in start-ups,” he says. He connected with Allen to develop GetHuman and hasn’t looked back. “It’s hard to imagine not doing this work,” he says.
At Trinity, Goldkamp explored classes including “Business and Entrepreneurial History” and “Money and Banking.” “It was the perfect preparation, he says. “With a little guidance and research, all the tools you need as an entrepreneur are at Trinity.”
Joe Catrino, the college’s director of career development, would agree. He says students often take advantage of programs offered by the Center for Student Success and Career Development, noting a well-attended alumni panel discussion in April 2018 that focused on innovation, entrepreneurship, and start-ups. The evening featured brothers Nate Kelly ’10 and Will Kelly ’11, co-founders of Kelly’s Four Plus Granola; Julia McInnis ’11, co-founder of Lancealot Tech; and Bradd Kern ’04, founder of natural skin-care products company Sea Bottle.
“I find Trinity students to be eager and enthusiastic, ready to put their name on something,” Catrino says. “They see the value of a liberal arts education, and the fact that we are in Hartford allows them to try new things. They’re passionate, excited, and energized about the possibility of being able to go into business on their own.”
We asked three highly successful Trinity entrepreneurs—Liz Elting ’87, founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation and co-founder and former co-CEO of TransPerfect; Rhoden Monrose ’09, founder and CEO of CariClub; and Owen Tripp ’01, co-founder and CEO of Grand Rounds and co-founder of Reputation.com—for their insight on what it takes to make it with an innovative start-up. Here’s what they had to say:
What is your number one piece of advice?
LE: Honestly? Just do it. Chase after your dreams, do what scares you. Starting a business is always going to be risky, but you should take risks while you’re young. Use this time to try new things, to create something, to go after your wildest ideas and dreams. When you’re young, you have the time, energy, and faith so vital to starting a business; you still feel like you can conquer the world (and you should), which means you’ll have the necessary drive.
RM: Know the value of perseverance. I can’t tell you how many times people have said no to me in different ways throughout the life of CariClub. Don’t let those rejections get you down; instead, treat them as a challenge and use them as fuel to power you through and to prove your value.
OT: Don’t be afraid to tackle really hard problems. Industries like health care and education need entrepreneurs who will challenge the status quo to do truly meaningful work and make an impact. Health care is ripe for innovation, and there are many opportunities to make a difference while building a durable business. But be aware that there is more responsibility to be ethical, to secure data, and to take care of people as you would take care of your mom—that’s really different from the tech world today where the mindset of “move fast and break stuff” is thrown out as if it’s a virtue. In health care, that’s not so cool.
What is something you know now that you wish you’d known before you started on your path?
LE: Hire an attorney and contractually establish expectations, responsibilities, and conflict resolution terms. The agreement should address roles, decision making, dispute resolution, death, disability, a buy/sell provision, and an exit strategy. That may seem premature before you even have a company, but it’s crucial when you’re starting out if you’re working with a business partner. You need clear lines of roles and responsibilities to handle disagreements down the road. When you’re idealistic and working with friends, it’s so easy to overlook details like this, but it will save you many headaches in the long run.
RM: Honestly, there are a great many things that I wish I knew, but many of them are things that could only be learned through the time-tested method of baptism by fire. No matter how similar, each start-up experience will be different, and it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have all the answers. The key is to always stay focused on the vision, be thoughtful about who you surround yourself with, and never stop having fun!
OT: I think a lot of health care entrepreneurs have tried to apply the techniques that work in rapidly scaling consumer tech and acquiring users to health care. And they failed. People do not want to spend more time engaging in their health care. Health care is not fun. I’ve learned along the way that all people really want is accessible, reliable, and trustworthy care for their family.
How did Trinity help you on your way?
LE: Trinity was an absolutely fantastic place to get my undergraduate education. I was able to major in a subject dear to my heart—modern languages, make lifelong friendships with my classmates, and grow treasured one-on-one relationships with my professors. I gained invaluable mentorship opportunities that really helped guide me toward the future I wanted to create for myself. Trinity was the start of so much for me; I went on to found, build, and run TransPerfect, the world’s largest language solutions company, and ultimately the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, because my education fostered and encouraged my ambition. I carried that ambition forward to where I am today.
RM: For starters, I built my very first company while I was a student at Trinity, and I was even able to create an economics independent study around the idea so I was able to get academic credit (and yes, I did get an A). The company was called TrinSnacks. It was like Seamless [an online food-ordering service] except we were the only vendor selling Coke products (Trinity sold only Pepsi products at the time). Beyond that, Trinity alumni have been invaluable mentors, advisers, board members, and investors. They’re far and away the most reliable and receptive group to whom I continue to reach out well after graduating. I am grateful for the generosity and support of all those I’ve connected with along the way.
OT: I started thinking about managing teams and organizations while at Trinity. It was a huge opportunity to manage The Tripod’s business team—from everything to ad sales to thinking about ways our community could better integrate into Hartford more broadly.