Three successful businesspeople — a 17-restaurant veteran of Manhattan and the Hamptons, a freshly minted counselor bold enough to hang her shingle in a saturated market and a tech innovator who wears his failures like merit badges — shared their business stories with an audience of 60 at Western Connecticut State University recently. Interest was readily evident during the interactive segment, when students and businesspeople peppered the panel with questions that outlasted the event’s designated two hours.
A person searching for commonalities among the panelists could have ticked off traits like civility and tenacity. Beyond that, their varied paths to success illuminated the wildly far-flung opportunities that await those with the giddyup to be entrepreneurs.
Participants Manny Carreras, Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez and David Reunert were invited to share their stories by WCSU Ancell School of Business associate professor Pauline Assenza.
The event marked the fourth such gathering Assenza has organized across the last four semesters and was titled “Passion, Purpose & Problem-Solving: The Entrepreneur’s Journey.” Besides teaching, she is responsible for the school’s small-business entrepreneurial studies. Yet for all that entrepreneurialism, she acknowledged the word itself can be off-putting. “It can be hard to deal with,” she said. “But it’s all about new initiatives. It begins with an idea.”
Dean David Martin of the Ancell School of Business began the evening by acknowledging his age and the power of entrepreneurship in the same anecdote. “Google, Microsoft, Apple,” he said, citing companies that grew from visionary ideas. “They were not even a twinkle in someone’s eye when I was born.”
Assenza said, “We do not limit our outreach to the business school; anyone can be an entrepreneur. That is my basic message. Everyone can start a new venture.”
Reunert titled his remarks “Creatively connecting small business risk-taking as a serial entrepreneur.” His companies include Danbury-based Colupon, “a free new smartphone app for the best, exclusive local deals.” He is CEO and co-founder of location-based tech company National Galactic, which incorporates Colupon and several other tech ventures.
Reunert said that in California’s tech world failures are common, but they carry less stigma than in the east. He said West Coast investors invest in tech teams first, with the product a secondary consideration. “They want to see something in you,” he said. “The West Coast loves people who’ve failed. Some will invest three or four times with the same guy.” Alternately, he said West Coast entrepreneurs “hate to talk to investors. The East Coast is better at this.” He has raised $1.1 million from friends and family for his ventures.
Hopkins-Alvarez, with a WCSU Master of Science in counseling, was feted with a gift by the WCSU Alumni Association’s Tom Crucitti, interim director of alumni relations, for giving back to the school via her participation in the event. Her Ridgefield business attracts clients from the Northeast and Canada, largely based on initial phone calls with her. “I can’t not do this,” she said of her profession. “Even before I was doing it I was doing it.”
The Ridgefield area was already crowded with counseling offices, but Hopkins-Alvarez did her homework across an entire year and settled there. “Move toward things that make you afraid every day,” she said. “You will become more resilient and more articulate.
“Another tool is to self-generate and repair when things are not going well,” she said. Also in her behavioral kit: “Be able to pivot, to manage your own rigidity.” And: “Put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to get your butt kicked.”
Carreras preached patience. He has opened 17 restaurants and bars in New York and seven years ago set his sights on downtown Danbury. Since then, he has assembled four properties, something of a “critical mass” that he said is required for entertainment success.
“In taking the temperature of Danbury, I noticed a huge void,” he said. “It was a generally accepted practice to separate you from your money without appreciating you as a customer.”
Carreras’ plans ran into a moratorium on nightclubs that he said was counterproductive: preventing new blood from coming in while protecting lesser establishments from competition. “I was offered a variance, but I said that was not enough,” he said. “We need a critical mass.” He called Danbury “a very immature market for bars, restaurants and entertainment in general,” but he also praised city leaders for reversing course on the moratorium.
“When I told people I was looking at Danbury, I heard, ‘Brace yourself,’” he said. “I heard, ‘They’ll stall you out.’ I found the opposite to be true.” He said he has all city and state approvals for a bar/restaurant/gaming facility, with the gaming handling horse, dog and jai alai action via outside contract. He offered no potential opening date, but said his original 8,200-square-foot plan is now at 21,000 square feet. “Alone we’re filling four units,” he said. “We’re a long way toward that critical mass.”