Tom Mitchell, Proto BuildBar

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Tom Mitchell combines his apprentice PGA golf pro skills with his knowledge of industrial engineering technology and his experience in manufacturing to lead the innovation and maker mindset at the Proto BuildBar. I asked Tom how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

In the beginning…

Although Tom Mitchell started playing golf when he was two years old, it was not his first love. “I just always took stuff apart and put it back together and made things”.

When Tom was about eight years old, his parents started a manufacturing company, Mitchell Golf Equipment Company, making tools to build and customize golf clubs. The company sold their tools to a niche market of golf pro shops who used them to customize a club’s loft and lie angles to improve a golfer’s swing. Tom worked at the company after school and on weekends, doing things like “deburring metal and cutting it and running machines”.

Where did Tom focus his attention in high school?

Tom lit up when he described the industrial engineering technology program he entered in his junior year at Centerville High School which included:

  • Welding
  • Light forging
  • Casting
  • Manual machining
  • Operating CAD (Computer Aided Design) to produce objects with CNC (Computer Numerical Control) lathes
  • Using PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers which are the basis of robots and automation)
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CNC machine control panel

When the CNC machine was new, Tom was eager to demonstrate that 3-D machining was possible despite the teacher’s skepticism. “I always take things apart, so I’m taking apart the code to see what is happening here”. By manipulating the G code which controlled the machine, Tom successfully used a piece of lexan (hard, clear plastic) to make a soccer ball. Point proved.

What did Tom do after high school?

The track for the industrial engineering technology program was two years each in high school, Sinclair College and University of Dayton. During his first semester at Sinclair, Tom vehemently disagreed with his industrial design professor’s approach to a project. He left. “Not the right choice when you look back on it, but I wouldn’t probably be where I am now if I would’ve finished college”.

Tom found a job doing landscaping, “the really manual laborer side of landscaping – planting trees, cutting trees down, taking out stumps” and quickly recognized “I wasn’t going to do that for the rest of my life”. He also realized that he might take over his parents’ company at some point and he “needed to know the industry…start working at golf courses…learn my customer base”.

In order to understand the business of golf, Tom enrolled in the PGA Professional Golf Management Apprentice Program. The PGA apprenticeship is a multi-year program designed to teach the apprentice “how to run a golf course and teach people how to play and hopefully better the game”. The PGA requires the apprentice to:

  • Complete three levels of coursework and pass the qualifying tests for each level
  • Pass a playing ability test
  • Work full-time at a PGA recognized golf course
  • Complete the program within eight years

The apprenticeship curriculum includes:

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  • Business planning
  • Customer relations and human resources
  • Inventory management
  • Teaching/Club performance
  • Tournament operations
  • Golf car fleet management

In order to maximize his time, Tom moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina. His first job in the bag drop area was at Shipyard Golf Club, a 27-hole resort course,. “I was the guy that stood outside where you pull up the car. I would help you get your bags out, put them on the cart. When you finished your round, I would clean them up and put them back out there and help you load them in your car… bottom of the rung”.

After a year and a half, Tom moved to Moss Creek Golf Club, a 36-hole private resort club where he worked the bag drop and in the pro shop.

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Tom takes a tee shot on the 12th hole at Augusta National Golf Club

While he was at Shipyard and Moss Creek, Tom studied for his apprenticeship tests and practiced his golf game in order to pass the playing ability test. As a PGA apprentice, he could play free at any of the courses whenever a slot was available, so long as he tipped the bag drop guys.

Did Tom stay in South Carolina?

After three years, Tom returned to Dayton and got a job as the second assistant pro at Sycamore Creek Country Club. He worked in the pro shop selling merchandise, running junior golfing clinics and teaching the kids.

After a year, Tom’s parents needed help, so he left Sycamore and joined the company. As a result, he lost his apprentice status before he could complete the PGA program. Tom felt, however, he’d achieved his goal to learn the industry.

During high school, Tom had worked in many divisions of the company and he stepped in easily. Since the company’s pressing issue was meeting production and shipping deadlines, Tom tackled shipping/receiving and inventory management first. After that, he moved to operations, then general management of sales and, finally, assumed the CEO role. “I could do anything there. I could build any of the machines. I could make any of the stuff. I could sell it to anybody”.

What challenges did Tom face?

The biggest challenge was getting sufficient parts to fulfill orders. Before Tom left to go to South Carolina, the company machined all the parts in-house. While Tom was gone, management slowly pushed all the machining to external sources. By the time Tom returned, the company was struggling to fulfill orders. “We were too small to have all of our stuff outside, but we were too big for some of those shops to keep up with our stuff”.

An additional challenge was that Tom and his parents disagreed on the problem and the solution. Tom worried that the delays in completing orders was driving the company down. Tom made a difficult decision. “I finally knew that I needed to go, because I needed to make it easier for them to do something with the business and not go bankrupt…They’re not going to make the right decisions if they’re still thinking about me, trying to protect me”.

What did Tom do next?

Tom liked the interactive design projects created by Real Art Design Group and thought, “I’d love to be a part of making some of these things”. Through friends, he knew Chris Wire, the President and Creative Director of Real Art. When he discovered they had an opening for an account executive, he applied.

use T side & front cropChris told him, “we’re kind of looking for someone in the advertising field already, but I want to talk to you about something else”. They met at Proto BuildBar in downtown Dayton. Tom loved the concept, but he was startled when Chris asked, “What do you think about running it?”

What is Proto BuildBar?

use T bar crop Proto BuildBar is a “creative experience center featuring hands-on technology experimentation with 3D printing, electronics kits, and micro-computing in a full service café environment.” (Proto BuildBar – FacebookDesigned to be accessible to individuals of all ages and experience levels, the café features computer monitors with access to multiple CAD designs, 3-D printers, basic electronics and micro-controllers, coffee drinks, cocktails, wine and beer.

The goal of Proto BuildBar is “to spread innovation” by increasing people’s comfort level with this kind of technology. “We try to make 3-D printing and electronics and that whole making stuff mindset accessible…make it fun…provide those ah-ha moments for people”.

 The Proto BuildBar staff welcomes new customers. First they show people the games built in-house:

  • Guinness Book of World Records largest claw game
  • War of Currents arcade game, otherwise known as The Game That Hertz, which physically electrocutes players in certain situations
  • Tesla vs Edison racing game

Next the staff demonstrates “the sorts of things they can make, go to the computers and find something they want to print…we’re just here to educate…here to have a good time…here to make people excited”.

In addition to enabling customers to make things, Proto BuildBar offers experiences for a variety of groups, such as: 

  • Corporate team-building courses
  • Summer maker workshops for ages 7-18, including robotics, video game creation, 3D printing & electronics
  • Couples soldering night
  • Fundraising events for organizations
  • Meeting space
Circuit board soldering

The staff is ready to provide guidance throughout the creation and printing process. Tom recommends using Tinkercad to create 3-D shapes and models. Since the app is browser based, a person can create a design at home and print it on a 3-D printer at Proto BuildBar.

What does Tom do at Proto BuildBar?

Tom says, “I think the biggest challenge is… conveying what it is in a manner that will get them to come in and be confident and experience it…I’m doing as much community outreach as possible”. He teaches workshops, demonstrates coding and robotics using simple programmable drawing robots at area schools and speaks to college classes about entrepreneurship. Tom also works with companies and organizations to develop team building workshops, professional development sessions, and charitable events.

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Tom’s observations:

  • Tom’s most important words are “curiosity” and “fearless”
    • Curiosity – “always be curious; always ask those what ifs…always draw in more information”
    • Fearless –”you can be curious all you want to, but if you’re not going to put any of that stuff into practice, because you’re too scared of failure, then you’re not getting the benefit”. You can learn to be fearless by being “willing to try something without the fear of failure…and you learn that by failing”
  • “I always tell everyone to go to college”. From his experience, leaving college “was a really difficult path”
  • In order to innovate, try “thinking differently; not thinking about the way we’ve always done it…what if we did this?”
  • “Most people are used to just buying something that fixes a problem they have…we want to try to show those people that maybe they can make a solution to that problem and maybe it will be different than all the other solutions…maybe it will be something super cool and super innovative that maybe changes the world”.
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Proto BuildBar
534 E. First Street
Dayton, OH 45402

Simon Ward: Owner & Technician, A-Dayton Automotive

W Simon useHow do philosophy and ice hockey lead to a career as an automotive services shop owner and technician? Simon Ward has blended skills learned in both areas with his lifelong interest in auto racing. I asked Simon how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

In the beginning…

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Simon with Lyn St. James, Indy racecar driver, 1985

Growing up in Oakwood, Ohio, Simon Ward’s father exposed him to auto racing at an early age. “My dad took me to the race track for the first time when I was two weeks old…a Formula One race in Detroit”.

His grandfather liked to fix things, including cars, and often Simon helped.

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Simon with his Dad’s racecar

Later his father got into amateur racing with Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). “I was right there learning the pits, torqueing tires, learning how to make adjustments, change tire pressures, stuff like that”.

Cars weren’t Simon’s only interest. He played in the band and spent a lot of time traveling with his club ice hockey team.

How did philosophy enter Simon’s life?

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Boulder, Colorado

After graduating from high school, Simon enrolled at the University of Colorado as an open major. “I actually didn’t know what I wanted to be”. After taking some courses, philosophy and psychology made sense to him. “At 18 years old, philosophy was a great thing to think about”.

As a result of his years playing ice hockey, Simon got a job at an ice rink, driving and maintaining the Zamboni. He also became a referee and managed the referees. “Long days, high energy, taking it as it comes, being a referee, managing all those people…I learned a lot like that”.


 After graduation, Simon got a desk job. He lasted three months. “Driving to work watching the sun rise, driving home watching the sun set, sitting in a cubicle all day long, just wasn’t for me”.

 Did Simon stay in Colorado?
Since Simon hated his job, he decided to return to Dayton. Using his contacts in Dayton, he found a job with a landscaping company, driving and maintaining the mowers. “That’s where I started learning how to turn wrenches”.

Simon also enrolled at Sinclair College, Dayton, Ohio, in the Automotive Technology program. “My motivation was that I wanted to go racing”. Sinclair gave him the opportunity to begin building his racecar.

Simon wasn’t sure where he wanted to go, but he kept earning his automotive certifications until “I realized, wait a minute, this might be a little more of a financial opportunity than landscaping, might have a better chance of a career path”.

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Brake disc repair

With that in mind, Simon left landscaping and got a job at Preferred Fleet Services (PFS), a subcontractor maintaining trucks for the US Post Office. “That’s where I turned into a mechanic”.

What did Simon do when he finished at Sinclair?
“I got my master’s certification with National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) (ASE Certified Master Technician)…I had the top score in the country, so I won the Technician of the Future Award … a big stepping stone”.

Although he’d learned a lot at PFS, the work felt like the “same truck over and over again – because it’s the Post Office”. Simon switched to John Pierce Auto Care, Fairborn, Ohio, as the lead technician diagnosing drivability issues. The job expanded his experience exponentially. “I had the fundamentals and this gave me the opportunity – all makes, all models…they gave me the hard stuff, the stuff that no one else could figure out, the stuff that no one else wanted to figure out…is it an engine issue, transmission issue, brake issue, electrical, is it mechanical, and make a diagnosis and go from there… I started realizing maybe I could do this a little deeper”.

Drivability diagnosis made Simon appreciate his background in philosophy, particularly logic systems. “These are logical beasts that we deal with: if A, then B. You have to follow logical paths to diagnose these things and I’ve found that training is invaluable in this industry”.

Simon also finished building his racecar and started racing with SCCA, mostly at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Nelson Ledges Road Course.

Simon racing his Mustang at Mid-Ohio

“It costs a lot to go racing. There’s two ways to do it: either you pay someone to do it or you do it yourself. I didn’t have the money to pay someone, so I learned how to do it myself…My racecar was not the most expensive investment. You have to get there, stay there, have all the tools there, service the car there, have all the spare parts, have all the infrastructure to support anyone who comes with you, so there’s a lot of investment that goes into that…it’s an educational opportunity to see how much it takes to get from this idea to actually driving down the track”.

In addition Simon began doing side work in his garage. “That’s when the business idea started really getting flowing”.

How did Simon move from working for someone else to opening his own shop?
Through SCCA Simon met the owner of a shop that supported multiple amateur drivers. After several conversations, the owner asked Simon to take over the company. It was an attractive idea. Simon began to review the opportunity, hiring a lawyer and accountant for the due diligence.

Simon continued to work at John Pierce Auto Care and do side jobs on cars in his garage. One day he contacted the owner of A-Dayton Transmission about a transmission issue. use W sign2That contact lead to more conversations. As Simon was reviewing the racecar shop opportunity, he began to think, “What if this doesn’t work out, what if I did something else?” Consequently, Simon directed his due diligence team to analyze a possible purchase of A-Dayton, too.

Both the owner of the racecar business and the owner of A-Dayton called Simon on the same day and said, “Let’s do this, make this happen”. Simon chose the racecar opportunity.

He spent the next nine months traveling with the owner to racetracks “to work on cars and deal with really experienced drivers… that have the expendable income to race these fun cars”. Every weekend the two of them would go to a racetrack to support three drivers who were “paying between $8,000-$10,000 a weekend to show up and have that car ready to go”.

After nine months, Simon recognized that the racecar business wasn’t what he wanted. He’d had professional conversations with the owner of A-Dayton during that period, but nothing more. Shortly after the racecar opportunity faded, the owner of A-Dayton “contacted me back and said I’m interested, I’ve dropped my price”. Simon thought, “Now he’s serious”.

In order to structure the deal, Simon relied on his lawyer, accountant and others with broader business background. “I understood the business side of it to a certain extent, I understood cars very well. Find money – it was time for me to reach other people who knew a lot more about that than I did”. In 2014 Simon finalized his purchase of A-Dayton Automotive & Transmission Services.use-w-front-door.jpg

Has Simon’s experience with A-Dayton Automotive met his expectations?
In Simon’s original business plan, he expected:

  • He would run the office while he worked on cars
  • The services did not include transmission work

Those expectations quickly changed. He learned it was tough to run the office and work on cars at the same time. “I originally thought I was going to be out here, answer the phones, go back to work on cars. No… I was the only person here for the first two weeks…and I didn’t get anything done. The phone would ring, I would answer it, run back into the shop, turn a few wrenches, run back, answer the phone, order some parts”. Now he helps his technicians diagnose drivability issues and relies on their expertise to do the work.

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A-Dayton Automotive office

Although A-Dayton had dealt solely with “American made automatic transmissions”, Simon’s business plan was “from day one we were a full service shop” with no transmission work.

Three weeks after the purchase, the prior A-Dayton owner asked to return. “He wanted to make sure that I learned the customers, learned the business”. Simon hired him on a part-time basis to work on transmissions for the first year. The prior owner’s presence “brought all the fleet service he had coming to him, all the contacts that he had out there, the other shops that would recommend work to him – that brought that all back into play and really helped build the business for that first initial year”.

In addition to teaching Simon the business, Simon also learned about transmissions – “how to build them, how they fail, how to diagnose them and I also learned that a lot of people don’t like them, including a lot of other shops, so we get a lot of work from other shops…Transmissions paid the bills for the first year”.

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A-Dayton Automotive bay

The prior owner bowed out after a year. Now Simon is running the business with two technicians and himself. Although it hasn’t always been smooth, Simon has learned from his mistakes and transitioned from being a technician to being a business owner.

Simon’s observations:

  • This business has similarities to refereeing ice hockey games. You have to “see what’s going on, keep your eyes open, see everything that’s happening”
  • “It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of stress, it’s a lot of responsibility. These guys got to get paid, they have families and everything else that has to ride on this stuff, too, the investors have to get paid, you have to pay the debt and you have to pay everything else and at the end maybe I’d like to make a little money, too”
  • Since a lot of trial and error goes into the first three years, a good support structure of family and friends is very important
  • “It’s not the industry it used to be”. Automotive technicians have to have computer literacy, logic skills, and problem solving ability. “You’re not just the greasy dirty guy under the car…I spend a lot more time at the computer instead of under the car”
  • Dealing with customers has exceeded his expectations. “I’ve always been hiding under the hood or driving the Zamboni…I really enjoy being up here and actually interacting with all the people…it’s probably been the most enjoyable aspect of it for me”
  • “I like the challenge…I like the hard stuff, give me a car that people can’t figure out. When we solve the problem, it’s a mutual happiness in the shop”.
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A-Dayton Automotive
1676 Woodman Drive
Dayton, Ohio 45432
(937) 253-9934

Susan Harrison: Software Engineer and Nutrition Coach

PT Susan croppedWhat if you’re really good at your job and it should be your dream job, but it doesn’t capture your interest. If you’re not sure what would excite you, how do you decide your next steps? Susan Harrison is wrestling with those questions. I asked Susan how she is crafting her career. The highlights of her story follow.

In the beginning…

As valedictorian of her graduating class at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, Susan Harrison said, “I was good at school”, but she wasn’t sure what should be next.

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Entrance to the University of Dayton

Susan enrolled at the University of Dayton with a hazy idea of her future. The options she knew were doctor, lawyer or teacher. Since she liked science and math, she began as a pre-med major. That didn’t last long. “Chemistry sucks and premed is almost all chemistry”.

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University of Dayton campus

Susan’s high school boyfriend, Jason Harrison, asked, “What classes that you took did you like? What did you enjoy doing?” She told him that she liked physics and math. Since his brother was studying electrical engineering, Jason suggested it. Susan reviewed the curriculum and thought, “Oh, this looks perfect”.

“Electrical engineering had a lot of problem solving to it, where you took these basic circuit classes where they laid out a circuit and you figured out what it needed to work or how the current ran. It was just the way it worked was interesting in terms of a problem solving thing for me”.

Using her contacts, Susan found co-op internships at GM and Heapy Engineering. Her “dad worked with signal processing at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and knew guys who spun off to start company, so I got a job with them”.

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Electrical engineering soldering equipment

The company built signal processing hardware for the federal government to decode signals intercepted from satellites. “I actually learned how to design and build hardware. I spent a ton of time actually soldering parts on boards …I actually kind of miss that part of it”.

What did Susan do after graduating from college?

Susan and Jason had maintained their relationship through college and eventually married. After Jason graduated from The Ohio State University, he planned to move to Washington, D.C. to work for the CIA.

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United States Capitol Building, Washington, DC

Susan’s Dayton employer used their contacts in the DC area to help her find a job with TMA, providing technology services to the United States government.

At first Susan designed signal processing hardware, but within six months, the company trained her to write software code.

Within two years, Susan was bored. That “felt wrong because I had a top-secret security clearance, I was getting to travel…I just had access to really interesting things and the work should have been really interesting”. Although elements of the job were interesting, “the process of what I had to do day-to-day never really grabbed me…I still can’t articulate why…I was so young I didn’t know what to do with that…so I kind of tried to make myself like it”.

Although she was unhappy, Susan couldn’t see her options. “Everyone I met was doing some version of what I was doing, so it still didn’t broaden my knowledge about what was out there”. Nonetheless, she stayed with TMA for five years.

What did Susan do next?

By then Susan’s stepfather, Jack, was nearing the end of his battle with cancer. Since neither Susan nor Jason liked their jobs, they decided to quit and move back to Ohio to be with family.

By chance, Susan’s mother, Diane, met Tim Nealon. Nealon was working with Dayton Public Schools and the University of Dayton to design the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) to prepare first-generation urban students to go to college. Diane introduced first Jason and then Susan to Nealon. DECA hired them as founding teachers, and they moved to Dayton.

How did Susan make the transition from being a software engineer to a teacher?

Susan had considered switching from software engineering to social work, so she liked the idea of helping urban students. DECA smoothed the transition by:

  • Paying the tuition for the Masters in Education program at the University of Dayton
  • Scheduling Susan and Jason to help with the program during its first year
  • Moving them to teaching after they had their Masters

During the first three weeks of school, however, one of the math teachers left and DECA tapped Susan to take over his classes. She got her emergency teaching certification and negotiated a reduced load in the Masters program.

Dayton Early College Academy High School

Before school started, Susan and Jason visited all their students at home to meet their families and begin to involve them in the school. Throughout the school year, they worked “late into the evenings…doing stuff on weekends, doing stuff with the kids outside of school”.

Teaching at DECA was the “hardest two years of my life…I’m an introvert…I had some strengths in the relationship building with the kids, but I wasn’t a good teacher…and my personality type was working against me”. After two years, Susan and Jason left.

When Susan realized teaching wasn’t right for her, what did she do?

Susan and Jason were in Dayton for Jack’s last year and the hard year afterwards. Then they said, “We’re 30, we’re free in terms of what we want to do, let’s just do it”. They moved to New York City so Jason could to pursue screenwriting and acting.

New York City

Susan assumed she’d easily find another software engineering job, but discovered that her prior jobs had been specific to the intelligence world, which didn’t exist in New York. Additionally, without an Ivy League background, she couldn’t get past the application. Eventually, she found a job at an online Wall Street trading company on the support desk.

That was the only job Susan ever held that was solely for the paycheck. She realized she valued positions that supported either people or the interests of the United States. After four months, she left Wall Street for a technology job with the New York City Department of Education, managing the Salesforce online database.

In Susan’s first year, twenty experimental schools used the Salesforce database to track attendance, report cards, and discipline records. Susan built it out and traveled to schools to train, pull data, and troubleshoot. The job was fascinating, but she chaffed under her boss.

After two and a half years, Susan left the school system and contracted independently with Exponent Partners, which worked with the New York City schools and nonprofit organizations as a partner of the Salesforce Foundation.

Did Susan stay with Exponent Partners?

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Los Angeles

As a consultant to Exponent Partners, Susan worked from home, making her position portable. After four years in New York City, she stayed with Exponent Partners when she and Jason moved to Los Angeles and then back to Washington, DC.

When they returned to Washington, DC, Susan did leave Exponent Partners for two years, because she was frustrated. The company was growing very quickly, and everything seemed disorganized. When her mentor from her first DC job offered her a job with his new company, working with the FBI, she accepted.

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FBI Headquarters, Washington, DC

Susan was doing software engineering work in the FBI headquarters. One of her most interesting projects was designing a software threat prioritization system for cities. At first the work intrigued Susan, but again she grew bored quickly. After two years, she called Exponent Partners and returned to her prior job as an independent contractor.

Exponent Partners appears to have been a steady factor in Susan’s life. Was anything else bubbling up?  

While they lived in LA, Susan started an online business with her sisters. Building on her interest in genealogy, they created Style My Tree to design modern-looking family trees. Susan discovered that, although she loved working for herself, working with family was challenging.

During their time in New York and LA, Jason had worked as a personal trainer. In DC Susan and Jason started Present Tense Fitness as an online platform for Jason to offer wellness, nutrition, and lifestyle coaching anywhere.

After four years in DC, Susan and Jason made a fast decision to move back to Dayton to assist with Jason’s parents. They asked themselves, “Are we the people who come home and help or are we the people who just ignore it and have to come home for stuff that’s awful?”

How did Susan’s life change in Dayton?

Susan was able to continue with Exponent Partners without missing a beat. As Jason considered his options, Susan said, “Do what you know”. Since he had experience working as a personal trainer, he adapted Present Tense Fitness to engage clients for 1:1 training.

Jason rented space in two different gyms to train clients, but quickly found he was spending too much time traveling between sessions. Susan and Jason understood the advice, “Don’t open your own space until you have to”, but that time had arrived. They opened Present Tense Fitness in downtown Dayton’s Oregon District.

How has involvement in Present Tense Fitness influenced Susan’s direction? PT 1

For years Susan has “been searching for what it is I wanted to do, and all I could come up with is that I want to do something that is my own and not somebody else’s”.

Currently, Susan continues to work for Exponent Partners and also uses her skill at “taking technical stuff and making it understandable to people” as a Precision Nutrition coach. She and Jason are developing their vision for the Present Tense Daily Brief, a daily wellness guide Jason writes and emails to subscribers, by asking, “What’s your ideal day? What do you want to be doing when you’re 50 all day?” They are using their answers to “try to see what that long-term picture looks like and then work back from there. What do we have to do today to make sure we get there”?

Susan’s Observations:

  • “Do what you already know and what you like to do; don’t chase what’s currently in vogue”
  • “Your business doesn’t have to appeal to everybody”
  • “Get the people who are your champions”
  • “Don’t be afraid to make people mad. I’d rather have people have a strong feeling about us, because … there’s also the people who are going to have an equally strong like of us and those are the people who end up building your business”.
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Present Tense Fitness
222 E. 6th Street, Dayton, OH 45402
(202) 603-0926



Luke Dennis: Development Director, WYSO 91.3FM

L Dennis Headshot2Do you love music and theater, and want to work in that world, but aren’t sure of your route? Luke Dennis started there and followed a winding path to his career at WYSO 91.3FM. I asked Luke how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

In the beginning…

As Luke Dennis was growing up in Wilmington, Ohio, his parents adopted a hands-off approach, allowing him to set his own course. He liked music. Starting in 6th grade, he played euphonium in the band and bass guitar in the jazz band and various rock bands. Currently, he plays in a local band, Lord Kimbo, with his best friend from elementary school, Mike Bisig.

Luke was in charge of his college search and visits. He visited just one school, Kenyon College, liked it, and applied early decision. After Kenyon accepted him, they sent him his financial aid package. In Luke’s hotheaded eighteen-year-old opinion, it was insufficient. Without consulting his parents, he told Kenyon, “I’m going to withdraw unless you increase my financial aid. They said, “Just do it”. “I dropped out of Kenyon before I even started and I had nowhere to go to college”. A friend’s stepfather knew the Dean of Admissions at Wittenberg University and suggested Luke visit. Within eight days, Luke was enrolled and attending orientation for new students. “One of many happy accidents I’ve had”.

“Without any reflection,” Luke declared a double major in music and theatre at Wittenberg. He quickly found mentors in each department and “it ended up being a great fit. I could act and direct in the theatre program and I ended up doing a vocal performance emphasis in the music department, which has helped me at WYSO”.

What path did Luke take after Wittenberg?

After graduating from Wittenberg, “I thought I might like to direct plays at a college”. To pursue that goal, Luke enrolled at Tufts University in Boston in a dual M.A./ Ph.D. program in theater history, literature and theory. “I didn’t do any research or think about it”.

Luke & Sally

Luke had met his wife, Sally, in the Wittenberg Theatre program. Boston sounded good to her, too, so she moved with him and found a job teaching at Cambridge Montessori School.

While Luke studied at Tufts, he also worked three jobs, “so I wasn’t putting a lot of focus on my studies”. His jobs included:

  • Box office at the American Repertory Theater
  • Improv theater in Boston’s North End running the lighting and sound
  • Reading Room at The Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library – a public facing position working with researchers who were “researching cool interesting stuff”
  • Tufts graduate fellow – “I got paid to teach acting to undergraduates” which was “real validation of why I went to graduate school”

Although graduate school “felt like the right path for me… I couldn’t force myself to sit down and write”. “I liked going to class; I liked reading the plays a lot. But I certainly was not interested in publishing papers or going to conferences or writing a dissertation”.

Consequently, after three years at Tufts, Luke dropped out of the Ph.D. program and accepted a full-time position in the Reading Room at the Harvard Theatre Collection doing the same thing he’d been doing on a part-time basis. “I liked the ways that the past could inform the present”.

During that time, Luke and his wife also started a theater company, “actively producing about three shows a year at the Boston Center for the Arts with a focus on new plays. So I was in that world and that’s why the Theatre Collection interested me”.

Did Luke stay with the Harvard Theatre Collection?

After a year, Luke decided he needed more money. Knowing that he wanted to work with theater productions in Boston, he found a job as the Director of Education and Outreach for the Boston Lyric Opera. Opera had been Luke’s focus as graduate student, “so I just applied and basically talked my way into the job”.

opera singer
Opera Singer

The Boston Lyric Opera Company is a big company, with four main stage productions a year at the Schubert Theater, and a summer season of public performances on Boston Commons. “It was a fun job. I got to travel with their touring children’s opera”.

Three years later, Luke’s boss retired and the company wanted Luke to take on a much larger role. Luke and Sally had just had their first child, which changed things. “We felt very isolated having an infant – none of our friends had kids yet”. Luke and Sally decided, “We should raise our children around family”.

What did Luke and Sally do?

Victoria 1
Victoria Theater, Dayton, Ohio

Three months after their daughter was born, Luke and Sally moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. Luke took a job as Education and Outreach Director at the Victoria Theater Association in Dayton.

The job wasn’t a good fit for Luke, however, so he only lasted for one and a half years. It did serve as a “stepping stone to become the Director of Muse Machine”.

How did Luke like Muse Machine?

Started in 1982, Muse Machine is an arts education program that works with Dayton area schools to connect students and teachers to the performing and visual arts.

Due to education’s increased emphasis on testing, arts education had changed since the Muse Machine began. Schools no longer had room in their schedules for arts appreciation programming. “I was there as a real driver of change, not just an administrator, but a creative program person – moving toward more of a residency model where artists are in the school for a prolonged period doing in depth curriculum based stuff with students”.

The funding landscape for nonprofits in the Dayton area had also changed. Major corporate supporters like NCR and Mead Corporation had drastically decreased their support as they reduced their presence in the region. Consequently, Luke had to sell the new program approach to the schools at the same time that he was reinventing the organization’s funding model.

Luke stayed for four years with Muse Machine. “I enjoyed it, but it took a toll on my family life. I did not have a good work/life balance and was letting it bleed into my personal life”. Work pressures made him want to “go back to a time when things were different”.

What did Luke do to relieve the pressure?

Boston skyline

Luke learned that the Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection had died suddenly. Remembering how much he had liked working there, he applied and persuaded his wife to move back to Boston. “I won’t have to work as much. I’ll make more money and our kids can grow up in the richness of the culture”.

“I thought it was going to be great, but it was terrible”.

Why was the job as Curator of The Harvard Theatre Collection terrible?

As the Curator, Luke was responsible for

  • Building the collection
  • Managing the funds and the purchases of materials
  • Discovering auctions of rare items around the world
  • Preparing materials on requested theater subjects for student use in the Reading Room

“The job was fun. I traveled a lot”. But Luke’s wife, Sally, was deeply unhappy. They had left “a very supportive network of close friends with kids the ages of our kids” and didn’t find anything similar in Boston. Consequently, Luke left Harvard after six months.

That sounds drastic! What happened next?

Luke called Neenah Ellis, General Manager of WYSO 91.3FM, and told her, “I’m desperate to move back. I need a job, so if you hear of any opening, will you let me know”.

Luke and Neenah for March 2016 predrive letter
Luke & Neenah Ellis

In another happy accident, Neenah told him WYSO was searching for a Development Director. He applied for the  job, interviewed, got the job, resigned from Harvard, and moved back to Yellow Springs – all within 40 days.

WYSO 93.1FM is a public radio station, based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which airs 24/7. Operated by Antioch College since 1958, WYSO is the only NPR News station in the Miami Valley. In addition to NPR programming, WYSO delivers:

  • local and state news
  • public affairs programming and news specials
  • Public Radio International
  • American Public Media
  • PRX
  • BBC (British Broadcasting Service)
  • the work of independent radio producers

Did Luke find happiness at WYSO?

“WYSO is a good fit”. Although his title is Development Director, he’s not just focused on dollars, because “programming drives fundraising”. 

DPL Giant Check
WYSO receiving support from the DPL Foundation

He said, “I get to be creatively involved” as long as it relates to the mission. “I’m really more of community, outreach, partnerships AND fundraising. I get to go to all the meetings. I get to meet with funders, meet with producers. I got to help launch the area youth program”.

“WYSO is such a nexus of so many interests and ideas; it’s like a place of ideas and collaboration. In a theater company or opera company, we were hitting… barriers to participation such as the high expense of a ticket. I love that WYSO is free”.

WYSO 91.3FM memorabilia

WYSO offers “so much programming: storytelling, news, journalism, programs that celebrate young people with youth radio. Those are some of the things that have made me want to go to work”. That’s obviously a big draw, because Luke is celebrating his five-year anniversary.

In describing the work culture at WYSO, Luke quoted Mother Theresa, “I can do things you cannot; you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things”. He has found that sort of collaboration at WYSO. 

WYSO out and about in the community

“Everybody works from their strength and does their part”.

 Luke’s observations:

  • Keeping searching. “If you want to be part of making something in the arts, there’s a place for you”
  • Find a positive environment and be positive yourself. “If you’re going to work in an industry where you work long hours and don’t get paid a lot, you should be surrounded by people who are just as dedicated as you are and glean just as much satisfaction”
  • Decide: “What do you like? What drives you? What are you excited about?”
  • Recognize your strengths. For a long time, Luke thought he didn’t have the right skill set, that he needed a project management background or MBA. Today his perspective is different. “What you’re good at is not a liability. It might be a liability in one setting, but it’s a gift and it’s a talent in another setting, so just get yourself in the right context, because everybody has their thing that they’re good at. Don’t just take the job because you can get it and then suffer with it, because it’s not actually utilizing your talents. Just find the thing that’s utilizing your talents”
  • “I like to experiment to see what will happen – that’s the story of my career”.

WYSO logo2

Cathy Dean: Founder/Owner iheart cleaning

Cathy2Perhaps you’ve worked in a management position for several years. You’re good at it, you work hard, and you’re a valued employee. Then one day you wake up and say, “This cannot be my life”. What do you do next? Cathy Dean has been there. I asked her how she crafted her career. The highlights of her story follow.

In the beginning…

Cathy Dean has always enjoyed working with people as part of a team. At Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, “I was in the band. I wouldn’t say that I was good at it, but I enjoyed the social aspects of being in the band”.

During high school, she assumed she might be a teacher, but when she enrolled at Wright State University, she decided she wanted to work in Human Resources (HR). “I love the interactions with people”.

Cathy planned to enter Wright State’s College of Business to focus on HR after finishing her general education requirements, but the College of Business had a GPA requirement. She shocked herself by falling short. “I also had a boyfriend. During that time of my life I don’t think I was as focused on school as I should’ve been”.

How did Cathy regroup?

Cathy took a semester off and then transferred to Sinclair Community College to study Business Management. While at Sinclair, she also worked almost full-time as a teller at Citizen’s Federal Bank. “I’ve always been super focused on working. I like to be busy, I can’t really have a lot of idle time”.

She grew to like working at the bank, recognized the connection to business and management, and thought she might make it her career path. “Those years were a time when I was all over the place, but I was still really determined to finish, couldn’t just walk away and not finish school”. She got her Associate’s degree and intended to continue working at Citizens Federal, but Fifth Third Bank acquired Citizens Federal and there were too many changes.

What did Cathy do? Did she stay?

Cathy moved on to National City Mortgage Company as a customer service representative. Although she loves people, “being on the phone wasn’t necessarily my dream job”. Nevertheless, she stayed in that job for a year and a half, because “It was good for me. I was so young and in this big world of business people”.

After she had her foot in the door at National City Mortgage, she transitioned to the real estate tax department and hit her stride. She became a “team lead” and then a manager.

What did she like about working at National City Mortgage?

Early in her career as a manager, senior management decided would be more profitable to do the bulk of the real estate tax processing internally rather than sending it out to vendors. Cathy joined a team of managers tasked with building the new system. “It was a huge project that was fun and challenging. We were creating a team of people within our department – finding the right people to fit the positions”. She discovered she enjoyed the project. “It was fun seeing something grow from such a little seedling to this huge unit of 100 people”.

NCM managers

Meeting to problem solve

Each manager was responsible for a different piece of the system, and they worked closely to coordinate functions and troubleshoot problems. “Because it was such a new team and everything was moving so quickly, the managers were in it together. It was fun to work together towards something and see it come to fruition”.

In the process, Cathy gained the “bulk of my true management experience”. She was able to exercise a lot of flexibility and autonomy to make decisions for her unit. Her personal challenge was learning the soft skills of being a manager and leader. She learned how to handle disciplinary circumstances, understand different work styles, and guide her staff.

During this time, Cathy also had a small business on the side, selling candles at festivals. Although the business didn’t last, she acquired an accountant and some experience as an entrepreneur.

It sounds like Cathy enjoyed the work at National City Mortgage. Did she stay?

Over the years, the team of managers fit the pieces of the new real estate tax processing system together until it worked like a well-oiled machine. Then the real estate bubble crashed in 2008. To lower coasts, National City Mortgage explored outsourcing the process, eventually sending the bulk of the work to India. “That was like a punch to the gut, because our amazing team that we created started to dwindle and people were let go – a big life lesson for me”.

Cathy spent three weeks in India training their replacements. When she returned, work didn’t feel the same and Cathy began to consider other options.

Cathy decided being a realtor “would be fun and interesting to help people purchase homes”. After getting her license on the weekends, she left National City Mortgage. That was a scary move, because she had been there for 11 years, “my whole young adult life”.

She became a realtor at the height of the Great Recession and lasted for three months. She had to make cold calls to recruit potential clients, and quickly realized, “I am not good at this and I don’t have any money”.

Her next job was in an Allstate insurance office. A coworker inspired Cathy to go back to school. “I’d built this great career for myself at the mortgage company, but I only had an Associate’s degree which wasn’t going to help me get some of the jobs I wanted.” Today you “have to have a bachelor’s degree like you have to have a high school diploma”.

Cathy took out student loans and enrolled at Indiana Wesleyan online to pursue HR management. Working full-time at the insurance agency and going to school was hard. “I don’t even remember those points of my life”.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in two years, Cathy started looking for a job in HR, but immediately ran into roadblocks. Employers thought she had too much management experience for an entry-level job, but, since she lacked HR experience, they didn’t think she fit their HR jobs.

Assurant Springfield OH
Assurant Springfield, OH

Needing to earn money,  Cathy found a job at Assurant Specialty Property in Springfield, Ohio, working with the mortgage, tax, and insurance industries for four years.

Cathy worked for over 20 years in the financial services sector. Why did she leave to start a cleaning business?

In 2015, Cathy turned 40 and said, “This cannot be my life”. She was “tired of being under the finger of someone else with very minimal control”.

Time to start cleaning!

Fed up with corporate constraints, Cathy told her husband, “I’m just going to clean”. She thought she could “make decent money at a good physical job, build my own hours and be my own boss.”

What steps did Cathy take to start iheart cleaning?

Cathy thought she would clean on her own, until she met her good friend, Mandy, for coffee to talk and get some advice. Unexpectedly, Mandy offered to help. Cathy thought, “Cool, that seemed better!”

Cathy loved having Mandy to discuss the business with, because figuring out “how to even clean seemed way more complicated than I actually realized.” Their first steps included:

  • Building pricing – at first they underpriced everything
  • Developing a systematic approach to attack jobs
  • Obtaining general liability insurance
  • Becoming bonded
  • Figuring out marketing

In the beginning, Cathy and Mandy had no clue how to price a job or attack it, so they learned by trial and error. Their first customer told them she was a “bit of a hoarder and hadn’t cleaned in a while”. They gave her an estimate based on the time they thought the job would take, but quickly discovered they had seriously underestimated. It took three of them two and a half days to clean the kitchen, one bedroom and a bathroom. “Now we know not to give an estimate on the time a job will take”.

BNI2Soon after launching her business, Cathy accepted her accountant’s invitation to join a chapter of BNIBNI is a worldwide business-networking group of individuals from many different professions, which meets weekly, to discuss business strategies and challenges, and share advice.

When she was just working from home, Cathy didn’t know how to get the word out. Once she announced the launch of iheart cleaning to her BNI group, however, the floodgates opened and business skyrocketed. “Everybody’s a friend of a friend of a friend.”

Cathy is glad Mandy has been with her from the start. “Our strengths really balance each other. You have to be educated. I have Corian countertops, but there’s granite and marble and all of these different stones and all of these different types of care”.  Mandy taught her about the different types of surfaces, so they can clean without causing damage.

stove b4 and after
Before and after

Other resources Cathy’s used:

  • “We have a flooring person in our BNI group and he has really educated me. Now I can look at a floor and say, ‘oh, that’s marble’”
  • Blogs and podcasts about cleaning techniques and business practices
  • Facebook group focused on cleaning; “I can see mistakes that people make across the country and I know I’m not alone”
Toilet b4 and after
Before and After

Cathy’s dream is “to have people in place so we can focus on things that we need to do to grow the business”. She believes a social media presence is important and would love to write a blog on cleaning and organizing.

Currently Cathy and Mandy “spend 24/7 wading through all of the logistics of having a business, doing the work and hiring people”. Although the business is much bigger than Cathy’s original idea, needing six of them to do the cleaning, she says, “It’s fun to watch it grow”.

Cathy’s observations:

  • Join a networking group so you can meet people who can be your sales force
  • Do your research
  • Find what works best for you; sometimes your don’t know until you make a mistake
  • Be transparent with your customers; tell them immediately about any issue before they bring it to your attention
  • Be resourceful in finding good employees; that’s the most challenging part of the business.


Mike Bisig: Founder/owner of Mike’s Bike Park, musician and educator

MikeWhat if the activities you love don’t seem to fit into a coherent career path? Mike Bisig loves jumping his bike over hills and speeding around curves. But he loves music even more. He has adapted his career path, weaving music and cycling into his life. I asked Mike how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

In the beginning…

Since his childhood in Wilmington, Ohio, music has been Mike Bisig’s passion; both playing music and helping others learn how to play. His instrument of choice is the saxophone, although he’s an expert in most woodwinds, and also plays guitar. He reached such a high level of proficiency on the saxophone in high school that he was able to earn money by giving lessons.

His other passion emerged later. As a kid, Mike rode his BMX bikeKids on BMX everywhere with his friends, but didn’t become serious about cycling until after college. He had no idea it would lead to Mike’s Bike Park. He laughed when he said his “high school counselor would not have picked this as a career path”.

At Wright State University, Mike embraced his passion for teaching music by majoring in music education and used his love of performing to forge long-term friendships.

Mike graduated from WSU with a degree in music education. What was next?

Mike wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, so he taught private lessons to approximately 40 students and worked at Absolute Music in Fairborn. There he quickly realized that he enjoyed sales.

Mike believes that “life is a series of connections you make with people”. At Absolute Music, he got to know the regular customers, including the band director for Greenon Local School District. That acquaintance led to a part-time job with the Greenon high school band and then a full-time position teaching music.

While working with the Greenon band, he continued to teach private lessons, as well as completed a Master’s degree in music education.

After several years, Mike reached a decision point: whether to settle down at Greenon or explore his options. He decided to leave the teaching field entirely and move to join a college friend in Honolulu for a year.

Greenon, Ohio to Hawaii is a huge leap! What did Mike do there?

Mike is a big believer in planning, so he started saving his money a year before he walked away from the Greenon job.

Waikik Beach Honolulu, Hawaii

Mike rapidly discovered he didn’t want a car, because parking in Honolulu is “insane”. His friends biked everywhere, so Mike did, too. At first traveling by bike was terrible, because “Hawaii is uphill all the time”. He was young, however, so it didn’t take long before he adapted.

Since some of the most beautiful areas in Hawaii aren’t accessible by car, so Mike quickly got hooked on mountain biking. He discovered:

  • Cycling enthusiasts are super nice regardless of skill level
  • Biking’s physical demands are fun
  • Spectacular scenery is just a ride away

Honolulu is an expensive place, however, so Mike quickly ran through his money. The local bike shop, Island Triathlon & Bike, needed a salesman, so Mike got a job.

Island Triathlon & Bike used professional cyclists as salesmen; Mike was their first casual rider. The pros, focused on performance, related best to other pros, whereas Mike reached out to everyone. In the process, he discovered he was good at selling bikes and equipment to the casual rider. Mike stayed, became the manager of the shop, and learned more about sales in the process.

Mike was having a great time in Hawaii. Did he stay longer than a year?

Mike stayed true to his plan and left Hawaii at the end of that year. Back in Ohio, he traveled for a year between Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati, working with secondary school bands. He hated all that driving.

But once again, Mike’s connections paid off. A friend in Hawaii called to ask him to come back to Hawaii to run it a new high-end bike shop, Momentum Multisport.

Diamondhead 1
Diamond Head, Oahu Island, Hawii

Mike returned to Hawaii. Since Mike was involved in all the promotional activities, he got a hands-on education in PR basics. But he didn’t have to learn how to how to make promotions lively. From his years of playing music, he knew that innately.

Mike continued to love mountain biking,

Triathlete in training

but he also got interested in road biking. Momentum Sports provided training and support for triathlon cyclists. As the shop’s representative, Mike trained groups of triathletes, and led group rides. His “love of the bike grew and grew”.

Hawaii was wonderful, but family issues tugged at Mike. He was traveling back to Ohio every six or seven weeks, and, after a year, he decided to move back to Ohio.

When he returned to Ohio, did Mike chose teaching again or stay with bike sales?

Mike returned to his old job at Absolute Music, but this time he traveled to various school districts to serve their music needs. In that capacity, he reconnected with an old friend in the Beavercreek City School system. Since Mike had his Masters degree and was up-to-date with his licensure, he could easily to return to education. Beavercreek had a huge band program with a ready-made studio for teaching lessons, and Mike started teaching lessons.

After a year, he gained a teaching position in the band program, which led to his current position as the Assistant Director of Bands.

Mike said working with a high school band is a special type of teaching. Managing a band is like “running Fortune 500 Company on a teacher’s pay and with not a lot of resources”. The job requires skills in budgeting, short- and long-range planning, communication, and personnel management, as well as teaching. And it demands a lot of time.

Mike said playing music is always his first love. He said he’d be okay of he broke his leg, but would be devastated if he broke a finger. It’s so important that he also has found time to play in four local bands:

Now that Mike’s involved with music again, what happened to cycling?

Bike trail2
Mountain biking in Ohio

Despite the lack of mountains, there’s plenty of off-road biking in Ohio, but the weather makes trail riding tough. After it rains, mountain bikers have to stay off the trails for at least two days so they don’t tear it up. Unlike Hawaii, it rains frequently in Ohio. Mike noted that his fellow cyclists often talked about the thousands of riders in Dayton area who need an indoor park.

Finally about two years ago, Mike had heard enough. “I’m just going to be the guy. I’m not a pro rider, but I have sales experience, understand how to manage money, understand how to manage the business, and can bridge the gaps between all the riders who come in to use the facility”.

Mike envisioned Mike’s Bike Park, an indoor bike park with jumps, ramps and curves to challenge the most skilled mountain bikers and BMX riders while entertaining more casual riders.

Dayton’s never had an indoor bike park before. How does a music teacher make a bike park happen here?

Developing Mike’s Bike Park has been a challenge. Mike has devoted hours to researching, developing a business plan, and designing the experience.

Much of Mike’s research has included talking to others more experienced in the business. He traveled frequently to existing indoor bike parks, such as:

In addition, the Entrepreneurs Center in Dayton reviewed his business plan.

Once Mike had his business plan, his next steps were:

  • Find an appropriate building that wouldn’t bust his budget
    • Purchased an empty 70,000 sq. ft. factory building at 1300 E. First Street in Dayton
  • Secure funding
    • Convinced a bank to approve a loan by asking interested cyclists for money and initiating a Gofundme campaign
  • Obtain all the necessary permits from the City of Dayton
    • Passed a variety of soil and environmental tests and secured the necessary zoning variance from the City of Dayton despite being “a square peg, trying to fit in a round hole”
  • Renovate the building to make it useable

Mike’s next challenge: locate the right person to build the bike ramps, so they would be durable and exciting. Bryan Swinford, Links and Kinks Bike in Fairborn, helped Mike find Craig Billingsley, an international ramp builder based in Columbus. Check out photos and videos of Craig’s work.

Craig has technical ramp building skill, and the vision to design ramp’s function and place in the flow.

Craig at work on the jumps

Mike said, “Every rider who has tested the park has been blown away by how rideable it is and how fun it is, regardless of the rider’s level. The complete novice doesn’t notice why the angles of the ramps work well, but pro riders can tell when and why the angles work”.

Farco truck
One of the many truckloads of wood needed to build the features of Mike’s Bike Park

Mike wants the park to be for everyone, regardless of skill level. All riders will be required to wear a helmet, ride with the flow of traffic and obey the rules. Cameras posted throughout will provide constant monitoring, viewable on the big screen TVs in the lounge. All the staff members will have to be certified in CPR, know First Aid, and fully understand the park rules and concept.

Currently mountain bikers ask when they can buy a pass, and kids on BMX bikes wonder, “When can I have a place to ride where I won’t get in trouble?” The answer is: very soon.

Mike’s Observations:

  • Start planning as early as you can; “the best time to start planning is yesterday and the second best time is today”
  • Flexibility is important; “things are going to go your way and things are going to not go your way”
  • Don’t burn any bridges; “you meet people at one stage and then they come back into your life to help you”
  • Plan for the unknown; Mike included an “I don’t know what” fund in his budget
  • Planning is vital; Mike tells his kids “don’t be a 70% person” who puts 70% in and doesn’t know how to finish and fizzles out


Kathy Anderson: Owner, My Pilates Studio

-12Is your Zumba class the best part of your day? Do you daydream about leaving your job and working for yourself? Do you pay close attention to the latest developments in physical fitness?

Kathy Anderson merged her love of dance and exercise, her business background, and her desire to be her own boss to found My Pilates Studio. I asked Kathy how she crafted her career. The highlights of her story follow.

How did Kathy wend her way from high school dancer to successful business owner?

Kathy was groomed to be a perfectionist from the day she was born. The third of four children, Kathy was conceived to bring her family out of grieving after one of her older sisters died of polio. She was expected to be perfect. Kathy tried hard to be the best at everything she did, but she felt like nothing she ever did was good enough. Her solution was always to work harder. Her outlet was dance, ballet and jazz, and she relished performing with her high school drill team.

After high school, she spent a few years in New York City modeling, but she had always dreamed of becoming a Kilgore Rangerette. So after a few years in New York, she enrolled at Kilgore College in Texas and became a Rangerette, a precision dance team. The Rangerettes, known for their high kicks (they have to hit their hats) and jump splits, travel across the United States and internationally. She told me her years with the Rangerettes were “wonderful”.

Two years passes quickly. What did Kathy do after she graduated?

After graduating from Kilgore, Kathy got a job in retail, selling clothing. Her real interest was working with dance and drill teams and she fell into a pattern of quitting whatever job she had to spend the summer teaching at dance camps. Her parents told her she wasn’t on a viable career path and pushed her to get a more stable job. “You should be a teacher”, they said.

Shrugging off that suggestion, Kathy became an account executive for a cosmetic company and then, the first female account executive for WING radio. Those jobs didn’t last long, however, because Kathy kept running headlong into a problem – her own self-confessed issue with authority. She said she frequently feels like she knows better and has better ideas, which makes her impatient with employers. “I have never been a good employee”, she admitted.

How did Kathy handle her dislike of working for others?

Brainstorming with a friend, Kathy developed the idea to create a clearinghouse for people looking for rental property. She opened American Homeowners and Renters Association with a database of rental properties similar to the MLS (Multiple Listing Service), and a research department that located unoccupied units. Users could enter the type of rental housing they were looking for, the price range, and the area, and get a printout of available options. Kathy offered the services free to landlords. Her clients were families, corporations, and appraisers seeking rental housing for rent or for sale.

During the seven years Kathy managed American Homeowners and Renters Association, she got her real estate license and began selling houses for Heritage Realtors. In the beginning, Heritage wanted her to bring the clearinghouse with her, because it was a great feeder for finding first-time homebuyers. Kathy decided to sell the business instead. She kept all the information about her clients, however, so she could explore if they were interested in buying instead of renting. That approach worked; in her first month, she sold 14 houses.

Kathy and her husband met when they were both with Heritage. Her husband eventually left Heritage to start his own realty company. Kathy left, too, ran his business and worked with homebuyers until their first child was born. At that point, Kathy cut back so she wouldn’t have to work evenings. She continued to manage the business and assumed the task of training new buyer agents.

Kathy was successful in real estate. How did Pilates enter the picture?

When Kathy stopped teaching summer dance camps, she no longer had the time for or access to dance programs, and she stopped dancing. She still wanted to exercise, however. She did aerobics and weight lifting, but she hated weight lifting. Eventually she got hurt lifting weights that were too heavy. Thinking it would help to rehabilitate her injury, she took a Pilates class and loved it.

Pilates class on the Reformers at My Pilates Studio

Kathy explained that Pilates emphasizes alignment, breathing, concentration and developing a strong core – the muscles of the abdomen, low back, and hips. The choreographed exercises move the muscles concentrically and eccentrically, improving strength and flexibility. Although Pilates emphasizes the muscles of the core, the program works the whole body, stabilizing the action of the joints overall. Pilates can be done on an exercise mat or using specific equipment such as the Reformer (which sounds scary, but is actually a lot of fun), Chair or Barrel.

Kathy wasn’t content just to show up at a Pilates class; to satisfy her need for perfection, she had to understand the principles and be the best student. To feed that drive, she began more intensive Pilates training. The more she did Pilates, the more she loved it. As she learned the principles, understood their effect on the body, and mastered the movements, she decided she wanted to become a Pilates teacher. To do that, she needed to get certified, which meant taking hundreds of hours of theoretical and practical, hands-on training.

In order to get the best training, Kathy researched numerous programs, finally settling on Stott Pilates. Stott appealed to her, because the program is based on research in sports medicine, physical therapy and exercise science. According to Kathy, it is the most rigorous Pilates certification program – the “Harvard of certification”.

Did anything change when Kathy shifted her focus to Pilates?

Kathy had been running her husband’s real estate business for 15 years. Shifting her focus to Pilates was a big challenge, because her husband didn’t like the change. Kathy knew, however, that Pilates was important piece of her puzzle; it fit. Ultimately, she decided that she wanted to own a Pilates studio. Her mother agreed. “You have got to stop chasing your dreams and start living them.”

Grudgingly, her husband went along with the plan at first. Rather than rent a space, they decided to build the best studio possible. They found a piece of ground, worked with an architect and built the studio.


My Pilates Studio, 8100 Miller Farm Lane, Dayton, OH 45458

Isn’t there more to opening a Pilates studio than just the building?

Wherever Kathy went, she took Pilates classes and talked to the studio owners, instructors and receptionists, observing and asking about the best ways to manage clients and instructors. By the time Kathy was developing her own studio, she had a good idea of what she wanted and how it should look.

Equipment at My Pilates Studio

Prior to opening My Pilates Studio, she taught in another studio and worked with a number of instructors there. In addition, when she was taking classes for her certification, she met more Pilates practitioners, further building her Pilates network. One of her biggest concerns about opening her place was attracting qualified instructors, but her contacts in her network enabled her to find qualified instructors.

Based on her research, Kathy set high standards for her studio. She wanted My Pilates Studio to have the same customer service approach as the Ritz Carlton, the attitude of “It’s my pleasure”. With that goal in mind, Kathy directed the entire client experience from the greeting by the receptionist, to the workout with an instructor, and the cleanliness of the facilities.

To ensure a good client experience, she also established requirements for her teachers. They must

  • Become trained in Stott Pilates, including theoretical coursework, hands-on coursework, class observations, and a final exam
  • Understand the principles and purpose of Pilates
  • Apprentice with an experienced instructor
  • Complete six hours of continuing education each year
  • Provide their own liability insurance in addition to the liability insurance that Kathy maintains for the business
Pilates class on the Reformers at My Pilates Studio

Did Kathy have any surprises when she opened My Pilates Studio? What has she learned?

Kathy said she discovered that “people are people are people”, with the same problems and issues regardless of the business. She has found, however, that the customer’s goal impacts the nature of the interaction. People engaged in buying or selling real estate are much more anxious about money and the transaction, which colors their outlook. As Kathy said, “People are at a Pilates studio because they want to work out, feel better and, generally speaking, they’re happy to be there.”

To Kathy’s surprise, the biggest challenge is not dealing with the clients, but managing the business and the personnel. Kathy has a number of instructors, which necessitates supervising the quality of their teaching, care of the equipment, and status of continuing education credits. Her instructors tease her about being slightly OCD, but she realizes that attention to detail is crucial, because the clients have other choices.

In addition, Kathy has learned that being an entrepreneur often means working seven days a week. “You go home and take the business with you.” From a financial perspective, running My Pilates Studio doesn’t provide Kathy the same financial stability as working in real estate. She said, “It’s a challenge, because it’s a low profit business”, exacerbated by the fact that her building makes the overhead higher than the typical Pilates studio. Nonetheless, she said, “But I love what I’m doing.”

Many Pilates studios require their instructors to do their own marketing to recruit clients. Kathy has taken on that task, promoting the business through the My Pilates Studio website, social media, such as the My Pilates Studio Facebook page, ads in the local Pennysaver, donations of coupons to charitable silent auctions, and health fairs. She noted that word of mouth is actually the most productive method.

Pilates plank on the Reformer at My Pilates Studio

Kathy’s observations

  • Recognize your personality type; operating as an entrepreneur is “way more work, but I like it that way”
  • Ask questions everywhere you go and research, research, research
  • Meet challenges by asking, “How can I?” instead of saying, “I can’t”
  • Remember “for the first 40 years of your life, you get the body you were born with; for the next 40 years, you get the body you deserve”
  • Pay attention to the four building blocks of a healthy lifestyle:
    • Exercise – Strengthening, Flexibility and Cardio (aerobic)
    • Nutrition
    • Sleep
    • Mental outlook
  • Find a fitness activity you enjoy; “exercise is only as good as you showing up”

Bill Evans: Baker and House of Bread Executive Director

Bill Evans 2

Do you flourish in the kitchen – mixing dough, baking cookies, and decorating cakes? Have you wondered if you could do it for a career? Bill Evans has been feeding people his entire career, first as an owner/baker and then as executive director of the House of Bread. I asked Bill how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

Dough rollerMy conversation with Bill Evans started at 7:00am at Evans Bakery in Dayton four days before St. Patrick’s Day. Bill and his daughter, Jennifer, were hard at work. The dough rolling machine rumbled, oven timers rang, and the wide cookie dough lifter clacked against the cutting table. Completely dressed in bakers white, Bill talked while he prepared the cut out shamrock cookies.

How did Bill go from a schoolboy in Bordentown, New Jersey to a bakery owner in Dayton, Ohio?

When Bill was growing up in Bordentown, New Jersey, his father was a baker and his older brother was a baker, but he wanted nothing to do with baking. He made his first acquaintance  with the business as a boy. He decided that, unlike his brothers and sisters, he wanted to go to the Catholic high school. His father said, “Well son, that’s what I want you to do, too, so you better get you a job.” So Bill cut grass and swept the floor in the bakery where his dad was chief baker.

When Bill graduated from high school, he wanted to go to college. His father said, “Well, I want that, too, son. You better get you a job.” Bill knew he couldn’t mow enough grass to pay college tuition, so he looked around. The employment options in Bordentown were limited, however. Bill knew he didn’t want to work in the Ocean Spray factory, so he applied for a job at the Royal Bakery in Trenton, New Jersey.

Management at the bakery assumed that Bill had been baking all his life and hired him. Bill’s father gave him a crash course in baking and Bill went to work. It didn’t take long for the folks at Royal Bakery to realize that Bill was a complete rookie. But he was smart and trainable, so they kept him.

Did Bill ever go to college?

Once Bill had earned enough money to pay the tuition, he quit his job and enrolled at Miami University. Unfortunately, he ran out of money after the first year and returned to Bordentown. After another year working at the Royal Bakery, Bill boarded a bus for the University of Dayton, where he knew a lot of kids from New Jersey.

Bill had never been to Dayton before and knew nothing about the city, but he knew his first task was to find a job. He got off the bus on Brown Street outside the South Park Bakery, which had a “Help Wanted” sign posted in the window. He set his suitcase down on the ground and walked in to ask for a job.

The old baker groused about hiring him, but finally agreed to test Bill for a week. The old guy grumbled at him all week, but at the end of the day on Friday, he said, “See you tomorrow”. So Bill knew he had a job. Bill’s Monday – Friday hours were 2:30am – 6:00am, which gave him time for classes the rest of the day. Saturday was an eight-hour day, and Bill looked forward to resting on Sunday. But when he clocked out that first Saturday, the old baker said, “See you tomorrow, kid.” Bill swallowed hard, knowing that meant he had no days off, but he needed the money. So he stayed.

Bill worked those hours seven days a week and went to classes until his senior year. Then he asked the old baker for a nickel raise. Without hesitation, the old guy said, “Kid, good luck to you. There’s the door.”

Bill was majoring in Social Work, so he used his new free time to get an internship with Juvenile Court. He graduated from the University of Dayton with a strong foundation in social work, insight into the juvenile justice system, hard-earned experience in the bakery business, and no idea of what came next.

So Bill got a college degree. Then what?

When Bill’s internship boss asked him what he was going to do after graduation, Bill said he was going to take the first job he could find anywhere in the world. In response, his boss offered him a full-time job in the Juvenile Court. So he stayed right in Dayton. He graduated on a Saturday and went to work the following Monday

What propelled Bill back into the bakery business?

Bill got married and rapidly discovered there was no money in social work. So he worked at another bakery on the side and kept his ears open for opportunities. In 1969 after eighteen months in Juvenile Court, Bill heard that the Schattschneiders were ready to retire and wanted to sell their bakery. Bill didn’t know them, but he went over to talk to them. As he said, “they kind of liked each other”. The Schattschneiders wanted $5,000 for the down payment, but Bill didn’t have that kind of money. Fortunately, he and his wife, Rosemary, were able to borrow it from her parents.

Bill signed the contract for the purchase of the bakery from the Schattschneiders on a Friday and he opened Evans Bakery the following Monday morning. When I asked him how he learned to manage a bakery, he shrugged, “I kind of have that baking gene, and I never found it to be much of a mystery.”

Evans Bakery, 700 Troy Street, Dayton, Ohio

Is the bakery business really that simple?

I watched Bill and his daughter, Jennifer, quickly pushing the brick of dough through the rolling machine, cutting the cookies, and spreading them out on the deep layer of green sugar that coated the cookie sheets. I concluded running a bakery may not be a mystery, but it’s demanding work. And like any business, the owner must plan ahead, track money and details and manage staff.

Did Bill head for the links when retirement beckoned?

After running the bakery for 35 years – from 1969 to 2004 – Bill was ready to sell the bakery and retire. He emerged from retirement almost immediately, however. The Board of Trustees of the House of Bread knew him through his volunteer work at St. Vincent DePaul Dayton. The House of Bread Executive Director was retiring, so the Board asked Bill to fill the position. Happy to have a new challenge, Bill agreed, despite the fact that he had no experience running a nonprofit organization. House of Bread, 9 Orth Avenue, Dayton, Ohio, provides a hot, nutritious lunch to anyone in need.

Bill expected to spend a month working with the retiring Executive Director, Jean Taylor to learn on the job. They met at Meadowbrook Country Club to plan, or so Bill thought. On arriving, Jean directed Bill to move five giant boxes from her car to his. Then, after four hours of instruction, she left. “The shortest training on record!”

How did Bill translate his bakery skills to being an Executive Director?

Bill applied his planning skills honed by running the bakery. Before Bill started at the House of Bread, the Board of Trustees had raised $100,000 as seed money to build a new facility. Unforeseen engineering work required to stabilize the ground, however, quickly ate that fund. So Bill started with no money to fund construction. Working with the Board, Bill found a way to complete the $549,000 project. When Bill left the House of Bread in 2014, their debt was paid down and now the organization is completely debt-free.

Raising the money to operate a small nonprofit is generally the job of the Executive Director. Bill was used to selling baked goods for profit, so running a business by asking for money it was new. Generally nonprofits cover expenses by raising money in two ways – asking for donations and writing grants. Although he wrote some successful grants, Bill said he didn’t like writing them. He was, however, “really really good at asking people for money” even though he didn’t enjoy that, either. His persistence and thick skin made it work. If the person gave Bill money, he would say, “I love you!” If they turned him down, he would say, “I love you.”

Given that Bill had never run a nonprofit before, I asked if anyone gave him good advice. He immediately mentioned Peter Benkendorf and The Collaboratory. Bill was always curious to learn what others were doing and The Collaboratory was a good source of information.

Retirement beckoned again. But did Bill really retire?

Bill said he had a good ten-year run at the House of Bread. As much as he liked doing it, he said, “Sometimes there just comes a time. It’s very exhausting to minister to the poor, the needy and the hungry.” So he stepped away.

Did Bill settle into a rocking chair this time?

Seven years after Bill sold the bakery, it was available again. Fed up with their jobs in Detroit, Bill’s daughter, Jennifer, and her partner, Matthew Tepper, decided to return to Dayton and reopen the bakery. On December 17, 2012, they opened Evans Bakery as a full-service bakery, Monday through Saturday. So Bill came out of retirement to work for Jennifer on a part-time basis.Racks and counter

As Bill sprinkled flour and then ran a brick of cookie dough backwards and forwards through the rolling machine, he told me he enjoys the work. Then he lifted the flattened dough and said, “But this is the last time I come out of retirement!”

Bill’s observations…

  • Master basic math – bakers must be able to multiply beyond 10 x 10, figure percentages, and make change easily and rapidly
  • Ask for help, regardless of whether you’re looking for a job, raising money or seeking business advice
  • Be curious about what other people are doing to succeed
Bakery retail
Open Monday – Saturday, 6am – 3pm

Dan Foley, Montgomery County Commissioner (Ohio)

Commissioner Dan Foley

Are you fascinated by the news? Perhaps you enjoy discussing local, state, national and international affairs. Maybe you’ve considered running for elected office, but wonder how to get started.

Dan Foley used to stand in your shoes, but now he’s an experienced public official. He’s been elected twice as Montgomery County Clerk of Courts and three times to be a Montgomery County Commissioner. His current term expires in 2019. I asked Dan how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow. If you want to read more, go to the long version.

How did Dan get his start?

Dan learned about public service early. His father, Patrick J. Foley, was a Trustee of Madison Township, now Trotwood, Ohio, and then a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge. When Dan was little, he helped him with elections, whether he wanted to or not.

In classes at Bowling Green State University, Dan recognized his interest in public policy. As the president of the campus Democrats during his senior year, he started building relationships around Ohio.

When Dan returned to Dayton, Ohio, after graduation, he wasn’t 100% sure of his path. He spent a year as a VISTA volunteer in a MetroParks community garden program, Grow with Your Neighbors. Through that program, he met U.S. Representative Tony Hall and became his staff assistant in the Dayton office. Working for Congressman Hall was like getting a Ph.D. in government. He met a lot of people, learned about constituents’ problems, and soaked up stories about what was happening in Congress.

After a stint as the head of Operation Food Share, a nonprofit partnership to feed the hungry, Dan knew that he needed a bigger paycheck so he could start a family.

Dayton, Ohio

How did Dan feed his growing family?

Dan had built a lot of relationships in the Dayton area, so he let people know he was looking for a job. A friend referred him to an opening as the Montgomery County Assistant County Treasurer. Dan landed the job and spent the next six years in that position.

What happened when Dan got itchy for a new challenge?

After six years as the Assistant County Treasurer, Dan tried to get elected to the Ohio legislature, but he didn’t make it through the Democratic Party process.

Then he got creative. Embracing his Irish heritage, Dan and his wife decided to explore living in Ireland. Knowing he needed a job first, Dan hired a head hunter and flew to Ireland for interviews.

As Dan was about to board the plane, Mark Owens, the Democratic Party chair, called to ask if he’d be interested in running for the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts. Dan said, “I’m about to get on a plane to Ireland and if I get a job there, no. But if I don’t get a job, yes.” Finding a job in Ireland as a noncitizen was virtually impossible, so Dan came home and entered his first race for Montgomery County Clerk of Courts.

Did he win?

Dan’s his years of cultivating relationships and his knowledge of Montgomery County processes helped to put him across the finish line. He was first elected as the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts in 2000 and reelected in 2004.

What does the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts do anyway?

The Montgomery County Clerk of Courts is a multi-faceted organization composed of 120+ employees serving

  • Common Pleas Court, General Division
  • Domestic Relations Court
  • County Municipal Courts
  • Second District Court of Appeals
  • Auto Title Division
Dayton – Montgomery County Courts Building

What did Dan do during his six years as the Clerk of Courts?

Dan accomplished several things:

  • Managed a system of 120+ employees
  • Ensured the administration of the criminal justice system across Montgomery County
  • Spearheaded development of JusticeWeb

 What’s important about JusticeWeb?

JusticeWeb is a data system, which makes court and arrest information from area courts available to all levels of the justice system. Dan started working with ten court systems in Montgomery County. Since then JusticeWeb has grown into a regional data system used by 12 Ohio counties, enabling police and probation officers, judges, jail officials, and Children Services staff members to use real-time information about offenders instead of spending hours on the phone. Now they can easily

  • Manage the County’s jail population
  • Learn if a foster parent is a risk to their foster children
  • Determine if a domestic violence offender is escalating abuse

Creating JusticeWeb was a major feat. Handling turf conscious court systems, and managing the integration of separate computer systems required an ability to bring people together to solve hard issues. Dan approached the project with curiosity, asking how participants might use all the data and how best to bring it together. Starting with curiosity developed buy-in and lots of listening cemented it.

“Foley won the respect of myriad people in the trenches who credit him with taking on a devilish project that required not just turf-conscious people, but also computer systems, to talk to each other. They saw stick-to-it energy and passion.” (Dayton Daily News, November 3, 2006)

Sounds like Dan turned the backwater Clerk of Courts job into a dynamic position. What else was he doing?

At the same time, Dan began working on his Masters degree in race relations at Wright State University. Taking one class at a time, he completed it after eight years. Dan highlighted the impact of the material, which exposed him to African-American history and experience.

After six years, Dan was ready to face new challenges. What was next?

In 2006 Dan ran for County Commissioner. He wanted to focus on job creation, and he believed he brought important strengths to the position – his abilities to

  • Bring people together to solve problems as demonstrated by his leadership in developing JusticeWeb
  • Work effectively with the Montgomery County budget

Running for County Commissioner required raising money. “Not fun, but necessary.” He emphasized that it takes discipline. “You have to sit down and literally keep dialing. And keep dialing.” And successful fundraising requires a network of relationships. “The more relationships you build over time, the more people have a stake in supporting your work – particularly if those relationships were formed around shared beliefs, attitudes and projects that helped the community.”

Dan won that election, as well as subsequent elections in 2010 and 2014.

What did Dan do as a County Commissioner?

When Dan began his first term, the economy was going downhill. First NCR moved its headquarters to Atlanta, then the full impact of the Great Recession hit. Dayton lost major manufacturers like General Motors and Delphi. Unemployment climbed and the rate of housing foreclosures skyrocketed. Dan felt like he was “bringing in the bad weather”.

Dan and his fellow Commissioners, Debbie Lieberman and Judy Dodge, had to make tough decisions to downsize County government, finding 20 different ways to say “no”.

Did he do anything beside say “no”?

Among the many issues that Dan has dealt with as a Commissioner, economic development has always been on his mind. When he first took office, he knew that Montgomery County needed to “figure out a way to have more eggs in more baskets” so the economy wouldn’t rely so heavily on a few employers. After the County identified four major strategies for economic development, Dan went to work.

Dan collaborated with a team from the County, the City of Dayton, the State of Ohio, Clayton and Brookville, to persuade Caterpillar Logistics and Payless Shoe Source to locate distribution centers in the Dayton area. Dan enjoyed working with the group to present the proposals and then bring them into reality.

Caterpillar 2
Caterpillar Logistics, Clayton, Ohio

Dan is excited about the collaboration between Montgomery County, the City of Dayton, the Dayton Development Coalition, and the Municipality of Haifa, Israel, which launched the Dayton Region-Israel Trade Alliance (DRITA) office to promote business development activities between Israeli and Dayton area technology-based companies and organizations. Dan said it is beginning to show results as companies like Projects Unlimited, Woolpert, and Woosh Water LLC start projects.

Dan is also gratified to see recent economic development initiatives that haven’t included governmental assistance. He said it makes him “realize that the economy is starting to take on its own strength”.

Is being a County Commissioner all sunshine and roses?

When he became a County Commissioner, Dan already had a strong belief in the effectiveness of regional collaboration to make services more effective and efficient, including a passion to try a metropolitan form of government like Louisville, Kentucky in Montgomery County. In 2014 he assembled a group of community leaders to build a model of a possible consolidation of Montgomery County and the City of Dayton. The result was Dayton Together, proposed in July 2015.

By late 2015, however, Dayton Together had foundered on strong opposition from the Mayor and City Commission of Dayton, Dan’s fellow County Commissioners, and the NAACP, among others. Discouraged, the group withdrew the proposal in May 2016.

Dan remains a proponent of metropolitan government, believing consolidation can boost the economy, increase cost efficiencies and address population loss. The Wright State University School of Public Policy is cataloging the model, so the work is not lost.

Does he have any other dreams for Montgomery County?

Dan would like to develop a regional economic development system using data mining and analysis to

  • target companies that fit the area
  • link prospective companies to partner with existing area companies
  • solve companies’ workforce needs by connecting people who are ready and able to work with jobs
Dayton Fountains2.1
Five Rivers MetroParks – Riverscape

What’s around the corner?

Dan said he doesn’t have to decide about the next election for a while. “For me right now I’m pretty darned happy doing what I’m doing. This job feels like it’s a good fit.” His has seen that focusing on doing a good job can result in unexpected opportunities. Reflecting back, he said “I didn’t know I was going to get here and, oh my gosh, I can’t believe that I was trying to get a job in Ireland and I ended up being the Clerk of Courts.”

But what if your father isn’t a local elected official and you want to get into government? What do you do?

Dan recommends that if you want to serve in public office, you should:

  1. Build relationships around shared beliefs, attitudes and projects that help the community
  2. Listen, listen, listen
  3. Cultivate an active sense of curiosity
  4. Engage a variety of different people in conversation
  5. Remember: “Government can play a decent role in people’s lives. If you’re in this line of work you ought to believe that it has some value.”




Commissioner Dan Foley

Rodney Veal: Independent choreographer, interdisciplinary artist, TV host and educator

Rodney Veal

So you want to be a dancer or an artist!

When you told your family, did you hear, “How will you pay the rent? Get a real job, a real career.”

Rodney Veal has proved that you can support yourself, pay the rent and enjoy life while practicing the art you love. Rodney is an independent choreographer, interdisciplinary artist, TV show host, and adjunct faculty for Stivers School of the Performing Arts, Sinclair Community College and the University of Dayton.

I asked Rodney how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow. If you want to read more, go to the long version

How does a kid from rural Jefferson Township, Ohio make a career in the creative arts?

When Rodney Veal was growing up, he knew several things:

  • He relished the hours he spent drawing, painting, and making sculptures from a variety of materials
  • He was curious about many things and loved reading, particularly history, politics, government and science fiction
  • He was going to college

Rodney went to Eastern Michigan University intending to major in Visual Arts. He quickly learned that college is different than high school. Early in his first semester, one of his professors doled out nasty, harsh critiques, quickly taking the joy out of making art. So Rodney called his mother to tell her he was going to change majors. His mother said, “Oh no. You need to finish what you started.” But she offered an alternative, saying, “You can get an additional degree.”

Rodney knew he enjoyed reading about government and politics, so he opened the course catalog and found Political Science. He did a double major in Visual Art and Political Science, which took more classes. Five years later, he graduated.

But when did he learn dance?

Rodney took his first dance class at EMU to fulfill his physical education requirement and discovered he had an aptitude for ballet and modern dance. He happily took dance classes for the rest of his time in college, performing in front of audiences and choreographing works throughout college. Making a career in dance never occurred to him.

In his final semester at EMU, Rodney discovered it’s a bad idea to wait to the end to take your math requirement. Rodney passed – barely. He graduated from EMU with a strong foundation in the visual arts, knowledge of political systems, a love of dance, and no idea of what came next.

Okay, he got a college degree. Now what?

Rodney returned to his old summer job at the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). They placed him in mechanical parts distribution and he hated it. He stopped dancing, stopped making art and gained a lot of weight eating the ever-present donuts.

When you’re Rodney and you’re unhappy, what do you do?

Learn more! Rodney started taking dance classes at Sinclair Community College in the evenings. From there, he went to classes offered by the Dayton Ballet. He caught the eye of Barbara Pontecorvo, because he had “musical ability, ‘turn out’ and was a guy”. She invited him to dance with the Dayton Ballet II, so long as he lost weight and took every class they offered.

How did Rodney support himself as a dancer?

For two years, Rodney worked for ODOT during the day and danced at night. In 1992 Pontecorvo retired from the Dayton Ballet and founded Gem City Ballet, taking Rodney with her. When the stress of balancing work at ODOT with dancing wore him down, Rodney left for a series of jobs at Books & Co, the Neon Movies, and as a legal runner for Altick & Corwin, L.P.A. In addition, he acted in a variety of commercials to earn extra income.

Finally! Dance pays the rent!

Over the years, Rodney met a lot of people within the Dayton dance community. That network paved the way to an offer of a job as an adjunct teacher of dance at Stivers School of the Performing Arts, a public arts magnet school for Grades 7 through 12 in Dayton, Ohio. Teaching and choreographing dance at Stivers led to an invitation to teach dance at Sinclair Community College. After years of juggling dance with other work, Rodney was finally able to make a living as a dancer and dance teacher.

Then Rodney’s work world shifted. How did he cope?

In 2008, Sinclair changed its policy, requiring all adjuncts to have a master’s degree. Rodney recognized it was time to take the next step – pursue a Master’s in Fine Art (MFA). He had worked on projects with graduates of the MFA program at The Ohio State and liked the way they thought, so he applied.

But his college GPA, negatively impacted by that low math grade, almost killed his MFA hopes. The borderline status of his GPA increased the pressure to nail his audition and interview. He succeeded, however, and began three years of intense work and little sleep.

Driving daily between Dayton and Columbus, Rodney continued to teach at Stivers and Sinclair, while carrying a full course load at OSU. Stivers and Sinclair paid his rent and living expenses, and student loans paid for his MFA.

Did the MFA program change him?

Rodney started the MFA program at OSU focused on choreography, but quickly opened his mind to interdisciplinary dance creation. His professors encouraged him to connect dance with digital and media technology, using his skills in visual arts.

His MFA challenge: Go bigger; think deeper!

Throughout his time in the MFA, professors pushed Rodney to expand his ideas as he connected dance with other media. That push led to:

Summer 2009: Artist in Residence with the Blue Sky Dayton Project at the University of Dayton.

Project: create a multi-faceted, large scope performance art installation piece in collaboration with a creative team of high school students.

Result:  “To Me You’re a Work of Art”. Rodney and his team created  a world bt combining raw space in a building in downtown Dayton with dance, film, sod, and paint. As part of the piece, he got people to perform who had never danced before.

To Me You’re a Work of Art Performance
To Me You’re a Work of Art

2009 – Second Year: studied with William Forsythe, internationally renowned for combining traditional classical ballet with other disciplines.

Class with William Forsythe

Impact: Forsythe exposed him to the techniques needed to combine digital technology with dance.

Impact: Forsythe used a particular methodology for creating choreography, so Rodney developed a shorthand to capture the choreography process.

2010 – Third Year: MFA Thesis Exhibition

Project: “The Persistence of Memory”. Rodney combined traditional dance choreography with a giant paper sculpture suspended by cables, and video monitors projecting images from his past.Large View of Installation

Rodney Performance
The Persistence of Memory Performance

So Rodney got his MFA, and…?

Using all his experience from his MFA, Rodney has crafted a career of

  • Teaching dance at Stivers, Sinclair and the University of Dayton
  • Creating art – installation pieces and choreography
  • Performing as TV host and TEDX Dayton presenter

Wait! How did Rodney become a TV host?

In 2013 Rodney gave a TEDX Dayton presentation, moving through shadows, a video of dancers from Stivers Dance Ensemble performing his choreography to music by an Australian composer played by a French musician. Because ThinkTV filmed TEDX Dayton, Rodney reconnected with Richard Nordstrom, Chief Videographer. They met previously when Rodney acted in commercials while dancing with Dayton Ballet II and Gem City Ballet. Consequently, Nordstrom knew Rodney was comfortable on camera and could read from a teleprompter. So when ThinkTV started searching for a host for The Art Show, Lynnette Carlino, Producer at ThinkTV, called Rodney to invite him to audition and he made the cut.

The Art Show host

Now in its third year, The Art Show is an Ohio Valley Regional Emmy© Award winning weekly series on ThinkTV WPTD Channel 16. Rodney introduces profiles of artists in visual art, music, dance, and theater from southwestern Ohio and across the United States.

 Installation exhibitions:

Since 2010, Rodney has created a major installation each year. Rodney’s installation artworks combine video, 2-D images, sculptural pieces, music and performance inside a designated space to create an experience. Examples include

  • Reveal: Five Zones of Beauty, Springfield Museum of Art (2011)
Reveal: Five Zones of Beauty
  • Mythologies, Blue Sky Dayton (2012)
  • 2, 3, 4 – collaboration across the 2nd, 3rd and 4th dimensions between Rodney Veal (choreographer), Katherine Mann (visual artist), and Shaw Pong Liu (composer and violinist) (2012)
234 Performance

 What Rodney has learned…

  • Risk failure – when you fail, you’ll still be able to breathe and go on to the next thing
  • Remember failure isn’t personal – so many factors contribute to a result that it’s impossible to assign blame
  • Barter with your skills to get materials within your budget
  • Define your terms of engagement broadly – art is about the search for answers, not about accolades or stellar reviews
  • Pay attention – the questions you ask may control the answers you find
  • Take a deep breath – only your art peers will see the flaws in your work; the public is looking for answers
  • Make art that matters to you

Rodney recommends if you want to make money with your art, build your resume

  • Show and sell your work in curated galleries
  • Apply for curated shows in museums
  • Create and promote your digital presence

Want to learn more about Rodney?

2012 interview with Philip Titlebaum, Dayton Most
2013 TEDX Dayton moving through shadows
2014 interview with Meredith Moss, Dayton Daily News
2015 interview with Amelia Robinson,

Rodney’s Bio:

Rodney is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University with a B.S in Political Science and Visual Arts and The Ohio State University with an MFA in Choreography. He earned several Montgomery County Arts and Cultural District grants and fellowships. In addition, he received the 2016 OhioDance Award for outstanding contributions to the art form of dance in the state at the Ohio Dance Festival and several of his works have been performed as part of the Ohio Dance Festival. He was one of five artists chosen nationwide to participate in the Blue Sky Dayton Project Artist in Residency Program held in collaboration with the University of Dayton. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Ohio Dance as Vice President, as chair of the Blue Sky Project, and on the boards of Involvement Advocacy, HomeFull, Musica, the advisory board of WYSO and the Friends of Levitt Pavilions Dayton.