Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A ‘gift’ for young businesspeople

Wild Gift lends perspective to socially conscious business plans

Express Staff Writer

From left, Spencer Brendel, Margiana Petersen-Rockney, Brooke Laura and Micah Sewell gather for a last relaxing morning in the Idaho mountains before heading home from a 16-day backcountry trek. The trip, sponsored by local organization Wild Gift, was designed to give these four young adults a way to develop and finalize plans for socially conscious businesses. Photo by Willy Cook

The Wild Gift class of 2012 stood in the kitchen of a summer cabin along Baker Creek north of Ketchum on Monday morning, trying to figure out how to get home. The four discussed whether smoke from nearby fires would make it too difficult to fly out of Friedman Memorial Airport and debated the merits of diverting to Twin Falls, sounding almost like any other group of young men and women returning from an incredible backcountry trek.

The difference was that these four has been handpicked for the adventure—and are well on their respective ways to becoming some of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

Wild Gift is a nonprofit organization started in 2002 by Ketchum resident Bob Jonas, the founder of Sun Valley Trekking. Wild Gift’s executive director, Deborah Knapp, said the organization’s mission is to support young people who want to start businesses that will help others—social entrepreneurs, in other words—while using wilderness treks to help focus the goals and ideas of the participants.

“It starts with a profound examination of their core values, their strengths and weaknesses,” Knapp said. “Much of that happens on the trail. [Jonas’] concept was, wilderness is not only a place of solitude and beauty, it’s a place we learn our greatest life lessons.”

This year, four people were chosen for a 16-day trek through the Boulder-White Clouds, a trip meant to strip away distractions and help the budding business owners discover what they really want from their respective organizations. Knapp said that after the hike each day, the four gathered together to share business plans, bounce ideas off of one another and spend time with mentors, usually Wild Gift alumni.

“[Jonas’] concept was, wilderness is not
only a place of solitude and beauty,
it’s a place we learn our greatest life lessons.”
Deborah Knapp
Wild Gift

Micah Sewell, one of this year’s participants and founder of a nonprofit brewing company called Five Valleys Appleworks, said spending more than two weeks in the wilderness was “crucial” to finalizing his project.

“It’s a time when everything else falls away,” he said. “We were talking about each other’s projects all the time.”

He said getting away from distractions gave him time to think about the details of his business plan, how it should be implemented and how his ideas could be improved.

Spencer Brendel, a Sun Valley native and founder of an athletic- and social-causes organization called PlayHard GiveBack, said that between his schoolwork and playing college hockey at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and his bartending job, it can be hard to find the space to really make progress on his organization.

“It can be overwhelming, with this project,” he said. “But the most important thing is clarity. [With Wild Gift], you get two weeks to think about one thing.”

Knapp said Wild Gift also provides grants for the first year of the organizations’ projects, mentoring with alumni and collaboration within the network to provide legal and financial advice as well as other services. The grants are provided through private donations and endowments.

But even with that help, Knapp said, it’s up to these passionate young entrepreneurs to make their projects work.

“We stay actively involved, and then hopefully they take it forward,” she said.

Kate Wutz:

Margiana Petersen-Rockney—“Pasture to Table”

Margiana Petersen-Rockney has already created a 60-person young farmers network and runs a five-acre farm of her own in Massachusetts. However, she said that she wants to do more to help small farmers become economically sustainable.

She said one of the main problems is that small family farms can usually only sell raw products—such as tomatoes or strawberries—because licensing for a certified commercial preparation area to create items such as tomato sauce or jam is too expensive.

Petersen-Rockney’s project, Pasture to Table, will use a modified food truck certified for commercial food preparation. For the first year, the truck will travel to 26 farms in her already existing network to help those farms host dinners made from the farm’s produce, bringing the food preparation space and potential customers to the farm itself. By the second year, farmers will be able to rent the truck for their own use.

Petersen-Rockney said that the farms would need to be family owned, practice sustainable agriculture, have good standing in the community and follow fair labor practices.

“It’s about helping these farms that are already doing the right things realize their potential profits,” she said.


Micah Sewell—“Five Valleys Appleworks”

When the fruit trees are ready for harvest in Micah Sewell’s hometown of Missoula, Mont., few care except for the bears. Most of the trees are neglected, he said, and though Missoula was once the fruit-producing center for the mining towns of Butte and Anaconda, many of the town’s heirloom trees have been forgotten by everyone but the bears that enter the town every fall looking for a snack.

Sewell’s project, Five Valleys Appleworks, will seek to collect fruit from forgotten trees and turn it into hard cider, which will then be sold to investors in the project and possibly through restaurants and grocery stores. In turn, this will reduce the number of bears that have to be killed each year for scavenging from the trees, and will also turn the neglected trees into an asset.

“No one is making hard cider in Missoula,” he said, adding that he will likely split the apples, pears and plums into two separate recipes for the first year. As many of the fruit varieties are rare heirloom species, Sewell said the cider is likely to be unique from anything else sold on the market today.

“This will really be a taste of Missoula,” he said.


Brooke Laura—“Saprinu”

Rockville, Md., native Brooke Laura fell into the nonprofit world in a roundabout way. Three years ago, she took a trip to Nepal to volunteer at an orphanage in Katmandu—and hasn’t lived in the United States since.

“I immediately fell in love with the people,” she said. After volunteering at an orphanage, she went on a trek in the Himalayas and befriended her guide, a former teacher who turned to guiding after being unable to support his family on a teacher’s salary. When Laura returned to the guide’s village with him and met his family, she discovered that lack of access to quality, affordable education was one of the main issues troubling the village elders.

She stayed there, and founded an organization called Saprinu—“to flourish,” in Nepali. The school now has 100 students and eight full-time teachers that not only teach government-approved curriculum, but also art, music, dance, theater and sports.

Laura said she hopes to branch out and start libraries and expand into adult education as well.

“[This village] has become my home,” she said. “My life, working and living in Maryland, my life was in black and white. Now, each day is just bursting with color.”


Spencer Brendel—“PlayHard GiveBack”

Spencer Brendel has always loved sports, but it took travelling to Africa and Asia when he was 13 to open his eyes to his other passion—humanitarian work.

Brendel, a Sun Valley native, traveled with his grandparents to countries where he saw children his own age living very differently than he did.

“I saw kids my age supporting families and drinking filthy water,” he said.

Brendel’s organization is called PlayHard GiveBack, in which he partners with athletes to market and sell an athlete-endorsed trail mix, the proceeds of which go to a social cause of the athlete’s choice. Though the idea is still in development, Brendel said he’s already partnered with local athletes Langely McNeal and Alex Turzian as well as two members of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team to help causes such as bringing healthy food to Detroit schools, clean water in developing countries and even funding fellow Wild Gift classmate Brooke Laura’s organization, Saprinu.

“Athletes in general spend countless hours perfecting themselves and their performance,” Brendel said. “I wanted to harness that dedication.”

Brendel expects to have his product on shelves beginning in 2013. 


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