Taking root: How three alumni grew into entrepreneurs
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”— Chinese proverb
By Rick Vacek
GCU Today Magazine
Imagine three trees.
One was planted years ago and is flourishing. The second has had two years to blossom and already is reaching for the sky. The third is still a sapling but is starting to sprout.
Such are the roots of three entrepreneurial businesses being run by Grand Canyon University alumni.
Dr. Shica Little, who got her teaching doctoral degree in 2013, has dedicated her life to inquisitiveness and discovery. But the new product she’s marketing across the country, Dr. Shica’s Incredi-Whip, resulted from her decades of dedication to drinking coffee.
Kyle Dubay, a 2011 graduate in graphic design, woke up in his Detroit home one morning and, rather than coffee, reached for an idea: Woodward Throwbacks, which collects discarded wood and turns it into collectibles.
Daniel Black, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in entrepreneurial studies, and his wife, Tiffany, finished second last year in the Canyon Challenge, GCU’s annual startup business competition for students and staff. They’re using that experience to turn their concept, Prayer Packages, into a company that stands apart in the Christian gifts industry.
All three are proof that, if you do the proper pruning, money does grow on trees. Let’s see what’s out there in the forest of business adventures.
Little loves coffee. Wait — like a bad brew, that’s not strong enough. “My love for coffee is insane,” she said. “I’d skip all of my meals for an entire day or walk 10 miles for a cup of my favorite joe.”
Trouble was, she also used to love filling it with sugar, creamer and whipped cream, which made her favorite drink a calorie catastrophe. Her 2-3 cups a day turned her passion into pounds but also gave her an idea. Not only did she need to lighten her body, she needed to lighten her coffee — because she certainly wasn’t going to give it up.
Little, 41, starting running, eliminated processed foods and changed her eating habits to lose 40 pounds in five months. But she also invented Incredi-Whip, which she’s marketing as a healthy alternative.
“I changed everything and made a business out of it,” she said.
That business already is going nationwide, and she’s perfectly situated to make it thrive. Little lives in Pasadena, Calif., far from her native Easley, S.C., but right around the corner from the place she always dreamed she’d reach from the time she was a child, when one of her teachers told her, “With that bright smile, you should be in Hollywood. What are you doing here?”
Acting with enthusiasm has never been a challenge for Little, who has taught in elementary school, middle school and at GCU, opened her own real estate brokerage and started her own clothing line. She even did actual acting — she was in a national television commercial for Proactiv skin care products.
“I’m not one of those dreamers who says, ‘I wish I could do that,’ and lets someone else create it,” she said. “I’m super-motivated. I don’t let opportunities slip away.”
Making woodworking work
How did Dubay get his inspiration? Maybe it was heaven-sent. “I wish I could come up with a better answer, but I really don’t know,” he said. “I just woke up one day and thought, ‘This is viable.’”
The 27-year-old former GCU soccer player was in the banking industry after graduation and quickly learned that sitting at a desk wasn’t his goal. He had noticed scores of illegal dumping sites around the city and saw an opportunity to practice social entrepreneurship — although it’s more challenging when the materials he needs are covered by snow.
“The company hasn’t been around for too many winters, so we’re still figuring that out,” he said. “We store wood for the winter. I haven’t had to get out my shovel yet to dig for wood.”
Dubay and his girlfriend, Bo Shepherd, run the business together and both own houses in Detroit, which is on the rebound from its 2013 bankruptcy, according to a report last fall by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Much of Woodward Throwbacks’ sales are made from its website and in stores around the country, but Dubay hasn’t lost sight of his local market.
“There’s a great hope, from downtown to the city limits, that things are getting better here. There wasn’t much hope before,” said Dubay, who grew up two hours north in Saginaw, Mich. “And the private sector has had a huge impact.”
Bigger scale after Canyon Challenge
A startup has to start somewhere, and the Blacks found out how much there was to learn when they entered the Canyon Challenge less than a year after they launched Prayer Packages.
“The Canyon Challenge helped us a lot,” he said. “We were able to shoot around a lot of ideas. For anyone at GCU starting out, I would definitely recommend starting with that.”
It’s a full-time venture for Tiffany, who left her marketing job after seven years to see it through. Daniel works on Prayer Packages part-time while focusing on a consulting role he said he got “by the grace of God” with Pure Flix Entertainment, a Christian film-production company based in Scottsdale.
“We’re taking a leap of faith,” she said. “Sometimes, people let money restrict them from moving forward. You have to do it boldly and believe it has God behind it.”
Daniel said, “You’re never going to know what to do right off the bat. There isn’t a book to tell you how to be successful.”
You simply have to keep growing. Just like a tree.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected]