February 06, 2018
February 06, 2018
By Kim Goldsmith Kobersmith ’93–Every day, entrepreneurs invest their time, energy, and finances into starting businesses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, nearly one-fourth of these new businesses never make it to their first anniversary.
The ability to conceive, create, launch, and nurture a new venture is a monumental achievement. Thanks in part to their Southwestern Experience, these four alumni have done just that.
From One Dream to the Next
Brantley Freeman ’11, BA in Accounting
Atlet Sports, high performance sports training
In high school, Brantley Freeman ’11 knew what he was going to do in college—play baseball for Texas A&M and earn his accounting degree. He would then either play professional baseball, like his father and brother, or work at the family financial advisory firm.
Freeman’s plan got derailed his senior year of high school, when he went to tryouts for A&M baseball and didn’t make the team. That set-back fueled a change in his personal training techniques. He wanted to improve his pitching; he watched videos of his performance, talked with physics teachers, and developed a targeted, velocity-specific training.
“All my work on improving sports training came about because I panicked, thinking that I wouldn’t go to college and play baseball,” laughs Freeman.
He was recruited to play ball at Southwestern at a time when the baseball team was the third winningest in NCAA history, but he was a reluctant liberal arts student. He remembers his first meetings with his advisor, Professor of Business Mary Grace Neville, where he explained his priorities and exactly what classes he would take. He resisted classes like the History of Art in China so vehemently that she told him later she tried to have him transferred to a different advisor.
Mary Grace became a mentor and the two frequently worked together on projects while he was a student. When he became serious about starting Atlet Sports, she reviewed his business plan and gave feedback. “I grew to be all about Southwestern and the liberal arts experience,” shares Brantley. Of course, meeting his wife, Katie Lee Barker Freeman ’11, during freshman orientation also contributed to his love for the school.
Unfortunately, while in the midst of being scouted to play beyond college, Brantley sustained an injury that took him out of the game. His passion for training, and his own evidence-based, customizable program became his main sports focus. He designed his dream training facility while still a student and admits that Southwestern’s focus on liberal arts contributed to his entrepreneurial vision.
“Southwestern helped me jumpstart the research side of things,” says Brantley. Professor of Physics Mark Bottorff helped research and connect Brantley with other physicists that might contribute to his work. One was Alan Nathan, a professor at the University of Illinois who consults with major league baseball. Through him, Brantley was able to participate in groundbreaking research on the mechanics of the swing.
In 2015, Brantley formed Atlet Sports with his business partners Ryan Mentzel and Blake Webster. Atlet boasts a 24,000 square foot facility, offers high-performance sports training, and counts among its clients a National Football League MVP as well as the fastest pitcher in Major League Baseball. However, Brantley particularly relishes the opportunity to work with high school students. Not only does he know the value of this kind of training for them, he is also able to share his perspective on choosing a college. True to his own time at Southwestern, he encourages them to consider more than just sports, but to look for a school that will provide a rich, broad, all-around experience.
Designing an Ethical Business
Jessica Cragg Dugan ’11, BFA Studio Art
Jessie Dugan, fashion accessories
Alumna Jessie Cragg Dugan’s ’11 internship with Henri Bendel as part of the New York Arts Semester strongly influenced her career. The opportunity to work with the upscale designer of handbags, jewelry, and luxury accessories, led to a position with Tory Burch after graduation—where she designed runway accessories and special projects—as well as an associates program at Parson’s School of Design. Although her dream was to eventually own her own business, she understood that this industry experience would prove invaluable.
But there was one aspect of working with these companies that bothered her. “When I left New York and the big design firms, I was burnt out on the international manufacturing they all utilized. Not only was it a challenge to communicate, it often included some fishy manufacturing processes,” states Jessie.
She knew when she started her own business, she wanted to do it differently. “My involvement in Student Peace Alliance at Southwestern and its emphasis on grassroots community development solidified my obsession with local manufacturing,” says Jessie.
Now back home in Houston, Jessie runs her own accessories company, Jessie Dugan. In the early days of 2016, she made all of the custom-designed pieces herself. When she was featured with a local designer, her business took off and she researched ways to sell pre-designed pieces on-line.
She didn’t waver from her commitment to ethical, local manufacturing. Each piece is now designed by Jessie and 3D printed on-demand. The special high-tech 3D machines print with various metals and create high-quality pieces. Jessie is the only designer she knows of in Texas printing 3D jewelry. Not only is the process a philosophic choice, it is also a financial one: it eliminates the need for expensive jewelry molds, a boon for a startup.
Jessie knows that many of her clients do not share her passion for the social justice aspects of her business, but notes that many of her fellow Pirate clients do. She hopes that through her stand for ethical choices, she will influence her clients to consider the impact of their purchasing choices.
Jessie knew she wanted to be an artist since she was small. But when it came to her college search, she intentionally sought out the kind of liberal arts education Southwestern provides. The global perspective gave her the foundation she needed to create a different, and better, kind of business.
Interdisciplinary Work Enriches the Path
Katherine Tanner Nelson ’13, BA International Studies
Cement Squared, handcrafted cement tiles
The interdisciplinary approach of Southwestern was a perfect educational fit for Katherine Tanner Nelson ’13. She valued the experience of having upper level classes with students from a variety of majors. “We grew as a unit, but brought different things to the table,” reflects Katherine. “The experience enriched my path.”
Katherine saw each new skill and experience as a way to enhance her multifaceted interests. She enjoyed a diversity of classes, like political theory, speech, and art history. Her chosen major, International Studies, was designed to be interdisciplinary, combining foreign language study, politics, global realities, and an in-depth focus on Europe. “I kept having a haunting sense that more and more dots were connecting while I was at Southwestern,” says Katherine.
In 2016, Katherine left a potentially lucrative, but all-consuming career in executive recruiting to launch a startup company. She says, “I see this business venture as a real life interdisciplinary process: business, strategy, international studies, communications, architecture, studio arts, graphic design and throw in a little psychology, history and foreign language.”
Katherine first fell in love with “encaustic” cement tiles as a child while traveling throughout Europe with her mother. They offered beautiful, rich, colorful patterns and were resilient, lasting over 100 years in indoor and outdoor settings. They were handcrafted, using old-world techniques passed from father to son. As an international company, the tiles were created by artist craftsmen for over a century in Mexico and Vietnam. They were authentic, in a world where that was becoming more and more rare.
Katherine vividly remembers sitting at her cubicle desk in Seattle, speaking with her mother on the phone. In the midst of a home remodel, her mother discovered that the studio creating the tiles was no longer in operation; the skilled craftsmen were working as truck drivers and janitors. Katherine immediately decided to reopen the studio, and Cement Squared was born.
In her work, she makes a difference for the artisans, works internationally, and taps into her creativity. Katherine says, “It immediately fed my soul.” She has created a rich path that is worth pursuing, and finds her work inspiring, engaging, challenging, and ultimately rewarding.
Shrinking the Gap
Heather Petty ’13, BS Biology
Xontogeny, medical drug and technology development
While a student at Southwestern, Heather Petty ’13 participated in important medical research. She and a student-led team developed a novel automatic bacteria detector. Hospitals could potentially use the technology to diagnose blood infections in a matter of hours instead of the current 3-7 days, allowing for a targeted treatment plan instead of broad-spectrum antibiotics. It was an intriguing scientific study, but like so many promising research studies the project ultimately died.
“There is a huge gap between scientific research and an actual product. A lot of promising science goes nowhere, because of a lack of business skills and knowledge about commercializing technology,” laments Heather.
This experience propelled Heather to attend Keck Graduate Institute after Southwestern. Her focus was translational medicine, a rapidly growing discipline in biomedical research that aims to expedite the discovery of new diagnostic tools and treatments by using a multi-disciplinary, highly collaborative, “bench-to-bedside” approach.
In other words, it tries to shrink the gap and “translate” good science into new treatments.
Heather is part of a team that launched Xontogeny, a company that partners with scientific entrepreneurs to mentor them through drug and technology development. The goals are to increase the historically low success rate of biotechnology in development and offer a collaborative funding alternative to the traditional venture capital model, keeping the scientist and his or her passionate dedication at the heart of the project. Xontogeny offers mentoring in all aspects, including regulatory requirements, manufacturing, and clinical trials and provides funding to get the companies through development.
Landos Biotherapeutics, Xontogeny’s first portfolio company, is developing a promising treatment that has demonstrated first-in-class high therapeutic potential with fewer side effects than current marketed treatments for the debilitating and chronic Crohn’s disease. Even with the expertise and accelerated approach of the Xontogeny model, Heather expects market approval for the treatment is still several years away.
Thanks to the careful attention of her Southwestern science professors, Heather learned to thoughtfully evaluate research findings, understanding ways they might be skewed or incomplete. “At Xontogeny, I have to make potentially million dollar decisions about research findings, often without publications to review because the opportunities we are evaluating are so proprietary. There is no way I could be doing this right now without the critical discernment I learned as a Southwestern student.”
At Southwestern, Heather discovered she didn’t want to be a doctor, waiting for other people to provide treatments. Instead, she wanted to be on the forefront of healthcare, develop promising new technologies and working to shrink the gap.