It was 2006 when the pilot episode of “Top Chef” aired.
At the time, the now-overcrowded culinary arts program at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington didn’t exist. The three-story, $40 million culinary arts complex at Los Angeles Mission College in the San Fernando Valley was but a blueprint. Nationwide enrollment at a group of 17 for-profit culinary schools owned by the company Career Education Corp. had yet to explode.
Is there a link between the blazing-hot popularity of food TV – led by “Top Chef” – and the booming market for culinary arts classes? Students and instructors alike say without a doubt.
“It brought a business and industry to light that was pretty much behind the kitchen door,” said Steve Kasmar, chairman of the culinary and baking program at Los Angeles Trade Tech, home to the oldest continuously running culinary arts program in the nation. “They did glorify it. ”
Regardless, in just three years, the annual student load of the culinary curriculum at Los Angeles Mission College has more than doubled, from 250 to 600. And that’s not just because of the fancy new facility, which boasts seven spacious kitchens, each of them equipped with cutting-edge video technology a la the cooking shows. The surge is also happening at Trade Tech in downtown Los Angeles and Harbor College – the two other schools with culinary programs in the Los Angeles Community College District.
Both of those schools have multimillion-dollar kitchen remodels in the pipeline, largely to accommodate the onrush.
“I’m packed with more than 60 kids per class – the cap is supposed to be 25,” said Giovanni Delrosario, who runs the 5-year-old program at Harbor College. “We have 90 more students on the waiting list. It’s phenomenal; I’ve never seen anything like it. ”
Although the stampede for these classes is no doubt largely the product of an intangible trend – the term “gourmet” is becoming so ubiquitous it can even apply to ketchup – the food entertainment craze is a clear contributor. The popularity of TV cooking shows began heating up in the mid-2000s and reached a boiling point in 2012. (Soon after hitting an all-time high, ratings for the Food Network cooled slightly in the fourth quarter of the year.)
“It’s more glamorous now – we look at chefs like rock stars,” said Julie Valenta Kiritani,who recently finished a program at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.
The problem is, the shine of the kitchens on TV seldom matches the grime of the ones in reality. While the culinary schools churn out a torrent of graduates, the job market into which they are released is far from flashy – or lucrative.
Job market limits
In 2010, cooks across the nation earned about $20,000 a year on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food prep workers took home about $19,000 on average. For the kings of the kitchen – chefs and head cooks – yearly pay averaged $40,000, a livable wage, but hardly glamorous. What’s more, the bureau projects that job prospects for chefs and head cooks will contract by 1 percent in the next decade, even as the rest of the economy expands by 14 percent.
“Employment growth will be tempered as many restaurants, in an effort to lower costs, use lower-level cooks to perform the work normally done by chefs and head cooks,” the report concludes. “Workers with a combination of business skills, previous work experience, and creativity will have the best job prospects. ”
Kasmar of Los Angeles Trade Tech conceded that the past couple of years have been an employers’ market.
“They’ve been picking by hand who they want,” he said. “You go work for nothing and they see if they like you. ”
That certainly rings true to employer Ed Kasky, executive director of USC’s University Club that caters to faculty and staff. Kasky recently posted a job online for a sous chef and got 50 applicants.
“I can tell you that 75 percent of the people who applied were severely overqualified to be a sous chef,” he said.
Still, Los Angeles is generally considered one of the foodie capitals of the world, and instructors of the community college programs insist their students are heavily recruited. (None could provide job placement statistics for recent grads, though.)
“When Wolfgang Puck (catering service) wants to do an event for 15,000 people for the Oscars or the Grammys … they actually come and recruit at the school,” Kasmar said.
Delrosario, the instructor at Harbor College, says his graduates have been landing jobs all over the place – and not just in Los Angeles restaurants.
“I can’t crank out enough grads to fulfill all the needs,” he said.
Some of his students have gone to work in the homes of wealthy families on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, for instance.
Even more unique is the partnership Harbor College has forged with a group of restaurants in Australia, whose economy is booming. Since August, at least a dozen of the college’s students have taken jobs Down Under, where starting salaries run as high as $45,000.
One of Delrosario’s students, 23-year-old Minor De Leon of Gardena, even lucked into the Playboy Mansion, where he works as a junior chef making dishes for Hugh Hefner and his playmates.
“When I wake up in morning, I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m on my way to the Playboy Mansion,'” said De Leon, who was drawn to the profession by cooking shows such as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “Emeril Live.” “How many people get to say that every day? ”
Louis Zandalasini, chairman of professional studies at Mission College (and a chef), said it isn’t uncommon for corporate chefs to take home $80,000 to $100,000, though not all students can expect to reach that level. However, students can realistically expect to make $40,000 to $60,000, he said.
“When you’re making that kind of money, you’ve usually been in that particular job as executive chef for 10, 12 or 15 years,” he said.
For the vast majority of entry-level cooks, though, the starting pay ranges from $10 to $12 an hour.
The good news for the tidal wave of chefs-in-training is that Food TV also has had a zeitgeist effect on the consumer. Hence, the explosion of affordable restaurants (and food trucks) offering all manner of cosmopolitan cuisine: French delicacies, premium gelato, spicy seafood dips, wood-grilled this or that, center-of-the-plate desserts.
“There are so many more food and wine festivals, where the food is now the star,” Kiritani said. “It used to be you’d go and see a band play, and that was more exciting than the food. Now it has completely shifted. ”
Kasmar of Los Angeles Trade Tech is thankful for the enrollment boost they’ve inspired. After all, it has fueled future plans for a $36 million renovation to his facility, whose new incarnation is scheduled to open in 2016. But there’s been a downside.
“They glorified what we do, and what we do is really not glorious,” he said. “It’s hard friggin’ work. “
Chet Pipkin is the most famous tech mogul you’ve probably never heard of, even though he came of age in the South Bay, and even though you’ve probably purchased some of his products.
In many ways, the arc of his story is familiar, calling to mind that of better- known tech tycoons. Much like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, Pipkin is a college dropout.
Just as Zuckerberg co-created Facebook in a dorm room, Pipkin, 50, launched his business, Belkin International – now an industry leader in connectivity products – from his parents’ garage in the Hollyglen neighborhood of Hawthorne.
And much as Gates has made philanthropy a full-time obsession, Pipkin now spends a sizable chunk of his working hours on community service projects all over Los Angeles County, from improving squad cars with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to sitting on the board of the YMCA to serving as president of the board at Da Vinci Charter high school in Hawthorne.
Unlike some of his better-known peers, Pipkin, now a resident of Manhattan Beach, grew up in a working-class family. By merely attending – let alone graduating from – Lawndale High School, he surpassed the education level of both parents.
And unlike Gates, Zuckerberg and Jobs, Pipkin majored in history, not computer science or physics. This detail, perhaps more than anything, sheds light on how one of the L.A. area’s most influential tech entrepreneur ticks.
Pipkin, once Belkin’s CEO and now its chairman, jumped headlong into technology in the early 1980s not because he had any formal training in the field, but because he understood that the sands of time are forever shaped by a series of tidal waves. He believed he could see the next one coming.
Always an entrepreneur at heart, Pipkin had contemplated other pursuits as a high schooler, from starting a limo service to opening an ice cream shop to becoming a Santa Claus for hire. But it wasn’t until he started thinking like a historian that he began to see the future.
While working a low-paying job stocking shelves at a wholesale manufacturer of electronic components, Pipkin began pondering other legendary moguls whose fortunes capitalized on sweeping historical movements: Andrew Carnegie’s empire of steel during the railroad boom, for instance, and John D. Rockefeller’s prescience and good timing during the meteoric rise of the oil industry.
“As soon as I started thinking that way, it was overwhelmingly obvious that this PC thing was going to take off,” he said. “I didn’t know about hardware, software, or anything about anything. I just hopped in.”
Now, he likes to say that if you own a personal computer, there’s an 80 to 90 percent chance you’ve got a Belkin product; if you own a smartphone, it’s a 95 percent chance.
Roots in the Depression
Pipkin’s parents both came of age in a hardscrabble place and time: the middle of the country during the height of the Great Depression. His mother was the illegitimate daughter of a farmer in North Dakota. Until her dying day a year ago, she never overcame the shame of the stigma, he said.
His father, who died in 2006, was born in Texas, but as a boy traveled by horse-drawn wagon with his family to Oklahoma, sleeping in abandoned houses along the way.
Both of his parents were among the waves of Americans pushed west by the ravages of drought and economic hardship.
There’s one detail of his family tree that surely piqued Pipkin’s affinity for history: It is widely speculated that his great-aunt, Myra Pipkin, was the basis for Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” according to the Library of Congress. (Click here to listen to her interview with documentarian Charles Todd.)
Pipkin’s father, Chester, was eventually drafted to serve as a machinist in World War II. His mother, Lorraine, became a machine operator in the L.A. area, fulfilling the archetypal role of Rosie the Riveter. They met after the war, working together as machine operators – he was her boss – in the region.
One of four children, Chet Pipkin attended public schools in the Wiseburn School District, the very district that hosts Da Vinci Charter, whose five-member board he now chairs. At Dana Middle School in Hawthorne, he was an average student. For whatever reason, he blossomed academically at Lawndale High.
There, he discovered not only his aptitude for learning, but also his passion for civic engagement, signing up for the YMCA’s youth and government program.
To this day, he is a board member of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, as well as of the California YMCA Model Legislature and Court.
The YMCA is also where he met Jan, his wife of 25 years and the mother of their seven children – six sons and one daughter, whom they adopted as a teen.
Pipkin said his wife has played a crucial role at Belkin since its founding, and she now sits on the company’s board of directors.
“I always got the high-profile stuff,” he said. “She got the heavy-lifting stuff. Really the very unsung hero, if there is a hero in this story.”
After graduating toward the top of his class at Lawndale High, Pipkin began his short stint at UCLA, which lasted all of two quarters. Unable to afford a parking pass, he would toss a bicycle in the back of his Datsun pickup every day, park off campus and pedal in.
But his real education was occurring on Hawthorne Boulevard, which in the early 1980s was dotted with stores that were selling these newfangled things called personal computers and printers. After his epiphany about the Next Big Thing, Pipkin literally began knocking on the doors of these shops in his spare time on evenings and weekends, asking if they needed any help.
“The bigger ones asked me to move along,” he said.
The smaller entrepreneurs allowed him to hang out, asking him to help out with odds and ends, such as unloading a truck.
“On the outside, it sounds really folksy,” he said. “On the inside, it was a really intense, focused strategy to really discern and figure out everything that could be figured out about that market.”
All the while, he observed people. It didn’t take him long to discover a void. Salesmen were eager to push products out the door, customers were confounded as to how to get a printer of this brand to talk to a computer of that. Easy-to-use cables connecting one to the other didn’t exist.
“There were so many different variations and combinations,” he said. “It would have been impossible for the stores to stock all of them.”
Pipkin knew a thing or two about cables. After all, in addition to hanging out at computer shops, he’d been working full time at the wholesaler store, Electro- Sonic, which sold a lot of connectors to the military.
Dining-room table start
Using a cable cutter and a soldering iron, Pipkin – who’d always been a tinkerer – built his first computer cable on his parents’ dining-room table. Purchasing the parts from various vendors, he built 10 or so and brought them to a store.
Impressed, the store owners asked how much he wanted for them. He shrugged his shoulders and said $15 or $20 apiece.
“I probably made about a couple bucks an hour on those,” he said. “But I figured if there was a need, and this was exploding, we would be in fine shape.”
After a week, his mom kicked him out of the dining room and into the garage. His night job began to take priority over his day job, to the irritation of his bosses at Electro-Sonic. They fired him.
“They did the right thing,” he said.
It was 1982, and Pipkin was suddenly at a crossroads: Get another job, return to school or dive full time into his business. Pipkin chose option No. 3.
In the late 1970s, he and Steve Bellow, a friend from Electro-Sonic, had conceived of another business that never went anywhere. Merging their last names, they called it Belkin, but did little more than print out some letterhead. In his new enterprise, for fear of looking too small, Pipkin didn’t want to name the company after himself. He decided to go with Belkin. (Bellow later came to work for Belkin, but as an employee, not a partner.)
In 1983, the company’s first full year, Belkin generated $180,000 in sales. The number skyrocketed year by year: $600,000, $1.8 million, $3million. Today, Belkin International, still a private company, has offices on all continents except Antarctica, employs about 1,500 people and generates $1 billion a year in sales.
An easygoing manner, and a lasting stuttering impediment
Chet Pipkin has a lanky build and a narrow face, with a wisp of sandy-gray hair atop a freckly receding hairline.
For all his drive, his manner is relaxed and approachable. On a recent day at work, he showed up in his usual attire: untucked business- casual shirt, blue jeans.
Since early childhood, he has grappled with a stuttering impediment, and to this day occasionally falters on a word, whose first syllable he will calmly repeat several times before completing it successfully.
The stuttering, he said, used to be difficult, but not so much anymore.
“I’ve got a reputation and a brand now, so I’m not as worried about the first-impression thing,” he said, sitting in his smallish office in Belkin’s new glassy headquarters overlooking a park in Playa Vista.
He never sought speech therapy until he was in his 30s, upon noticing that his 3-year-old son, who’s now 21, also stuttered. They went to see the therapist together. His son no longer stutters, and Pipkin said he, too, learned some tools to keep it at bay, but generally doesn’t like to employ them unless absolutely necessary, as for a public-speaking engagement.
“It doesn’t feel authentic,” he said.
He briefly launched a nonprofit organization for stutterers, but shut it down when it became apparent that other organizations were already doing good work in that domain.
Pipkin, who is big on solving the energy-consumption problem, drives a battery-powered sports car, the $110,000 Tesla Roadster, although he is a little sheepish about the flashiness.
“I made the mistake of taking a test drive,” he said.
Asked if he is a billionaire, Pipkin says no, and declines to quantify his net worth.
His stated discomfort with flashiness and attention seems to jibe with depictions of him by friends and business associates, who generally describe him as intensely focused, but humble.
Sean Williams, who resigned a few weeks ago as a Belkin vice president after working there for 27 years, said he isn’t surprised that press coverage of Pipkin or even Belkin is relatively scant.
“A lot of people in his position would have a PR person or organization getting his name out in the press, getting him speaking engagements, building up a personal brand,” he said. “He could care less about that.”
(The Daily Breeze contacted Pipkin for this story through an administrator at Da Vinci Schools.)
Williams added that he knows about all of Pipkin’s charity work only because other people talk about it.
“He never, ever talks about what he’s doing to give back,” he said. “It is always done completely in the background.”
The only criticism Williams had of Pipkin and Belkin is that the company has never been good at celebrating success.
“You would do something superhuman, like grow the business 80 percent one year, but then he would immediately be talking about what the targets were for next year,” he said. “He is very, very demanding.”
Williams added that Pipkin is “the best person I’ll ever meet.”
For the most part, Pipkin’s 28-year-old company has managed to remain under the radar, with some exceptions. In 2003, Inc. magazine listed the company – then located in Compton – on its Inner City Hall of Fame for an explosive rate of growth. Belkin has made the Los Angeles Business Journal’s Fastest Growing Private Companies list for five years.
The press hasn’t all been good, however.
The company in 2003 was criticized on technology news sites for putting out a line of wireless routers that served spam onto the desktop.
In 2009, Belkin was blasted in the tech blogs after it came out that a marketing executive with the company was paying people to write positive online reviews. Belkin publicly apologized and took down the reviews.
In 2010, the company moved from Compton to Playa Vista. The glassy new headquarters, with its twin four-story buildings, is a testament to the company’s quiet success, and perhaps a reflection of Pipkin’s personality.
Every office is identical in size, regardless of one’s rank, with walls that double as whiteboards for brainstorming.
Engineers might trade ideas and scribble formulas while standing at a pingpong table. The cafeteria is at once fancy and casual. Chandeliers hang over the main table, and the head of the kitchen dons the full chef regalia, tall white hat included. In the middle of the room stands a foosball table.
These days, Belkin has branched out significantly from its origins in cables, producing an assortment of products that includes wireless routers, iPod accessories, laptop cooling pads and iPad cases.
Engineers are laboring on a project pertaining to what Pipkin believes will be the next big thing: energy conservation.
“If you look at population growth on the Earth, it’s a pretty scary statistic,” he said. “But what’s more scary is consumption per person. … There are no ifs, ands or buts: We’re either all going to be dead or are going to find ways to manage our consumption in much better ways.”
The new product, he says, will plug into an outlet and provide an item-by-item breakdown of how much energy each appliance is using – and costing. In a couple of months, Belkin, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy, will pilot the device in 60 Chicago homes.
Risk-taking charity work
Keeping track of Pipkin’s charity work is as dizzying as understanding the full scope of his business.
But much of his work stems from a simple observation about government: Rarely in the public sector is there an incentive to use taxpayer money for thoughtful risk-taking. Much of his philanthropy involves fulfilling this role.
For instance, one of the efforts involved equipping squad cars in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department with automatic license-plate readers.
Through an entity called the Safe Cities Foundation – founded and underwritten by Pipkin, with financial help from Target Corp. and Wells Fargo – enough capital was raised to build prototypes for three cars. It proved a success, and Sheriff Lee Baca asked for 10 more. (Pipkin said Belkin receives no profit from the work.)
“We’re the incubator for these kinds of things,” Pipkin said. “If the idea is no good, we take full responsibility.”
Conversely, if it is good, Pipkin’s foundation backs off, allowing the public entity to take it from there, like a kid removing the training wheels from a bicycle.
Pipkin was approached to join the board at Da Vinci Charter by the school’s principal, Matthew Wunder, a former guidance counselor at Manhattan Beach Middle School, where Pipkin’s children attended.
“Don’t think I wasn’t really, really nervous about it,” Wunder said. “He’s really accessible, but Chet Pipkin is a legend.”
One thing that made the phone call difficult is that Pipkin was already spread pretty thin. In addition to his involvement with the YMCA, he sits on the boards of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Diabetes Camping and Educational Services organization. He also coaches kids soccer.
But Pipkin was receptive.
Role at South Bay school “He made it easy,” Wunder said. “He was infinitely patient and inquisitive.”
Pipkin believes the fatal flaw of the public education system is its rigidity.
“When it’s working, it’s working – many, many schools do it well,” he said. “They don’t need our help.”
But when the dropout rate in the Los Angeles Unified School District is 30 percent, something is amiss, he said.
Pipkin insists that he isn’t one of these people who believes charter schools are the silver bullet, but he does appreciate how they are generally more receptive to experimentation. He claims to have few original ideas about how to improve education, but rather encourages Da Vinci to have the flexibility to try unconventional ideas supported by solid research.
Example: Contrary to popular belief – and intuition – research shows that smaller class sizes really don’t correlate to significantly higher achievement until the head count drops to below 17. However, research shows that achievement tends to decline once the number of student relationships per teacher exceeds 75. At many high schools, teachers have five periods with at least 30 kids, or about 150 relationships.
To get that number down to below the magic 75, Da Vinci has adopted the block schedule, meaning the classes last for an hour and a half rather than
just one hour.
Pipkin said he welcomes debate on whether or not such practices truly benefit kids.
But “if it’s a debate just to keep things from changing, then I lose patience with it.”
With all the earnestness of a multimillionaire who believes he can change the world for the better, he added: “We can do better, we must do better. Otherwise the consequences to society are going to be overwhelming.”
It was 2012, and a group of college buddies from Loyola Marymount University in Westchester had gone their separate ways.
While living it up in Las Vegas, Cameron Killeen noticed friends nursing their hangovers with Pedialyte — a hydration beverage meant for babies with diarrhea.
Brandin Cohen was in Arizona, working as a sales, marketing and branding expert with the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. In the locker room, he noticed players swigging a drink to stay hydrated. He took a closer look: Pedialyte.
When Killeen, Cohen and a third pal, Hayden Fulstone, reconnected, the recent grads swapped their Pedialyte stories and an idea was born. Why not create a drink that not only alleviates hangovers and rehydrates the body, but also spares the consumer the embarrassment of making a run to the baby aisle of a grocery store?
And thus was born the concept for what would come to be called Liquid I.V.
Advertised as “all natural lemon-lime rehydration beverage,” the product comes in two forms: a powder packet and a bottled drink that tastes a little bit like lemonade, a little bit like Gatorade, and a little bit like Emergen-C vitamin powder.
The powder form is billed as the hangover treatment; the liquid form is associated with the hydration, which is meant to appeal not only to athletes, but also military personnel and jet-lagged travelers.
“It started as a hobby,” Cohen said.
Now, it’s their life.
The three 25-year-old entrepreneurs — who graduated in 2010 and have been best friends since meeting in the dorms as freshmen — have put their careers on hold to focus full-time on their venture.
Fulstone quit his job in the marketing department at Gensler, the world’s largest architecture firm. Killeen had just passed the Chartered Financial Analyst exam for which he’d spent four years studying. Cohen was days away from moving to Boston University, where he had been accepted into its MBA program.
“Now we sit in a little room all day long and yell at each other,” Killeen joked.
They work out of an office in West Los Angeles, and store the product in a warehouse and distribution center in Long Beach.
Already, Liquid I.V. is sold at about 50 stores in and around the South Bay — mostly convenience stores and gyms such as El Segundo Athletic Club and Fit On Studios in Manhattan Beach.
Strong sales via the Internet (where eight packets sell for $24.99) and a healthy amount of capital investment have propelled them to the next level. Come mid-January, Liquid I.V. (powder) will be sold at about 150 convenience stores in and around 35 college campuses across the United States, from UCLA and USC in Southern California to Dartmouth in New Hampshire. They will hire three full-time employees.
Liquid I.V.’s initial sales data and online traction have caught the eye of business people in Las Vegas, the very city where the concept was conceived. In March, the trio will meet with representatives of a large hotel chain that — depending on the results of the upcoming launch — might sell the product in mini bars up and down the Las Vegas Strip.
Much of their success to date owes to a clever marketing campaign that befits a group of millennial men with pro-sports connections.
Liquid I.V. is used and marketed by more than 100 professional athletes — including St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha, winner of the 2013 National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Award. The athletes receive the product for free in return for touting its merits on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.
Their nexus to the Major League Baseball circuit was Ryan Wheeler, a Torrance wunderkind and LMU alum who went on to play for the Arizona Diamondbacks before he was traded to his current team, the Colorado Rockies. Wheeler is now a partner in the company. Another enthusiast is famed basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale.
“It’s a great way to get a bigger following,” Fulstone said of the pro-athlete campaign. “Some have 50,000 or 100,000 followers (on Twitter). People see the Tweets and check out the website.”
Much as the pro players pimp the product online, students living near the college campuses where Liquid I.V. will be sold are set to serve as “ambassadors” who’ll spread the word to peers in return for receiving loads of it for free.
The LMU graduates owe some of their success to their alma mater. Last year, they enrolled in a new business incubator class offered by the university. The class, which kicked off in January, required businesses to create and market a prototype.
It was during that class that they, working with an experienced beverage chemist, finished the brew, a specific blend of glucose and electrolytes that the three founders say is clinically proven to rehydrate the body at a rate similar to an I.V.
So far, the track record of the seven start-up ventures that took the first class is pretty good: five are still in business.
One of them, a Web-based car-buying service called Nabthat, launched last week with some fanfare at the L.A. Auto Show.
Another, an ergonomic shovel, brought in $60,000 in seed money from a 40-day campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter — putting the venture in the top 5 percent of successful Kickstarter projects.
Fulstone is careful to say that the beverage isn’t a “cure” for anything.
“When you say cure, it is stating that there is a disease and a hangover isn’t a disease,” he said. “We can only make structure-function claims such as what the drink helps with.”
But the group has gotten doctors to recommend it in lieu of more sugary drinks such as Gatorade.
To say the three friends spend a lot of time together is an understatement. In addition to having been dorm pals and roommates, they each clock in about 80 hours a week at the office.
“When we first came into the office, they told us it was only open from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday,” Killeen said. “We were like, I don’t think we can be here if that’s true. We had special keys made.”
While it’s true young entrepreneurial dreamers have all their lives to start that first business, some believe there’s no time like college — or the years immediately after — to take the plunge. One of those believers is Byron Myers ’01, and he should know.
The 2001 UC Santa Barbara graduate is one of three young founders of a business that began as an innocent idea for a UC Santa Barbara entrepreneurial competition.
Now, the three UC Santa Barbara alums own a company that generates up to $15 million annually, pays a handsome salary and employs 50 people. And here’s the kicker: Myers and the two others — Ali Perry ’03 and Brenton Taylor ’03 — are all still in their 20s.
Called Inogen, the Goleta-based business manufactures a portable oxygen concentrator for lung-disease patients. The suitcase-size oxygen generator is designed for those who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is usually caused by smoking and is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.
Inogen One is a lightweight answer to bulky stationary systems that tether people to their homes and air tanks that need to be refilled every couple hours.
Given their status as a local success story, the Inogen One founders are often invited to speak in classes at UC Santa Barbara. Myers, the company’s 29-year-old director of marketing, likes to encourage students to strike out on their own right out of college.
“You don’t have much to lose — no mortgages to pay or kids to feed,” he told Coastlines. “Now is the time to see if you can make something happen.”
As the trio has shown, you also don’t need a degree in engineering. Myers and financial controller Perry were math and econ majors; technology director Taylor was a biology major.
To date, the company has sold 20,000 units, which fetch between $4,000 and $5,000 apiece. The young entrepreneurs wracked up numerous accolades, including mention in Inc. magazine’s annual “30 Under 30” issue profiling “the coolest young entrepreneurs in America” of 2007.
The success of Inogen One underscores the power of a simple idea, especially one that offers a solution to a common frustration.
It all began when the college friends decided to enter a contest that is now known as the New Venture Competition hosted by UC Santa Barbara’s Technology Management Program, which offers courses about the process of commercializing new technologies.
It was near the holidays, and the contest didn’t get under way until after winter break. The group went home to their respective families and ruminated.
At the time, Perry’s octogenarian grandmother, Mae Stoneman, was suffering from COPD and had just been prescribed an oxygen tank. Stoneman lamented how this could prohibit her from embarking on some of her dearest pursuits, such as attending plays and going on cruises.
At 55 pounds, the device that generated the oxygen for her portable tank was the size of a mini-fridge, and could not be transported. The thought of running out of oxygen outside the house — say, during a traffic jam — was terrifying.
Then came the million-dollar idea: Why not design a portable device that does it all?
With this in mind, the group set about crafting the concept for the competition, which requires a business plan and a good pitch. To say they impressed the judges would be an understatement of the highest order.
Odell and CooperThe judges not only awarded the team first place, they encouraged the students to give it a real go. What’s more, two judges continued to work with the students to help them refine the idea.
Then, one day, during a meeting at a coffee shop, one of the judges, UC Santa Barbara alum Steve Cooper ’68, made an announcement.
“He said, ‘We’re at a point now where I want to invest in your company,’ ” Myers recalls. “That was a surprise. Then it became much more serious.”
Cooper — currently the CEO of Skyler Technologies — became the company’s first chairman. The other judge, Kathy Odell, became the CEO. (The company recently hired a new CEO, Raymond Huggenberger.)
Using Cooper’s $200,000 investment, the company created a prototype. By fall of 2004, the device was ready to roll off the production line. At 10 pounds, the oxygen concentrator — which is designed to last five years — can be carried like a suitcase, complete with a lightweight cart on wheels and a retractable handle. In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration approved its use on commercial airliners.
The first model off the line went directly to Stoneman, who soon after hopped aboard a cruise ship, Myers said. She used the device for three years before dying last year. She was in her late 80s.
Myers, who graduated two years before his younger business partners, acknowledged that the company has felt the sting of the recession. Although he declined to reveal recent revenue figures, the 2007 article in Inc. magazine said the company at the time had 100 employees.
Still, Myers said he is very optimistic about the future, and added that the push now is to go public. He also plans to stay with the company for a long time.
“We’re not looking to just get acquired quickly,” he said.
Meanwhile, despite his success, the San Diego native is still reluctant to purchase a home in Santa Barbara, where median price of a home in late March was $715,000, the highest in California.
“I was never comfortable with the housing prices here,” he said.
So for the foreseeable future, Myers and his partners will continue to work on their business, strive to take it public, speak to students in the Technology Management Program, and pay rent.
A miracle drink to cure hangovers. A cream that brightens the color on tattoos. An ergonomic shovel. A website that cuts the humble car salesman out of the deal.
In addition to dreaming up these inventions, students in Loyola Marymount University’s new business-incubator class created the prototypes.
The lab kicked off in January, and officially wraps up its first-ever semester next week.
“We don’t do much theory, we don’t do much lecturing, we don’t do too much documentation,” said the professor, David Choi. “We just work. ”
LMU’s College of Business Administration has long been home to one of the nation’s premier entrepreneurship programs. A regular presence on the best-of lists of such magazines as BusinessWeek and Princeton Review, the 40-year-old entrepreneurship program has always offered courses that educate students on the basics of launching an enterprise.
What’s different about the incubator lab is that it requires students to not only create a business plan, but also build a prototype and test it in the marketplace.
As a result, the line between classroom project and real-world sales pitch can be a little blurry. But that’s the appeal.
“I get to pursue my business model while pursuing my master’s degree, which is the coolest combination of all,” said Stephen Walden, a 23-year-old MBA student. He is the creator of the ergonomic shovel – an idea that hit him like a shock-wave of back pain while he was shoveling dirt at his parents’ home in San Diego a couple of years ago.
The design has already netted him $12,000 in prize money from a contest at San Diego State University, where he won first place. The idea is simple: equip the shovel with an adjustable central handle that better enables a person to use the appropriate muscles when heaving a load of dirt, snow or whatever payload you please.
Walden is among the students who has gone so far as to pony up thousands of dollars for a patent. For these students, the class is really only the beginning of a journey they hope will rocket them to entrepreneurial stardom.
On Thursday, the class had its culminating event: a mock sales pitch to a group of area business leaders – Choi jokingly refers to them as a panel of “mean old men” – who capped every presentation with a flurry of tough questions.
One presenter, Brandin Cohen, was so unnerved he had to calm his nerves with a nip of courage. Producing a bottle of liquor, he poured himself a shot and gulped it down in front of the group before launching into his spiel with a business partner, Hayden Fulstone.
In truth, the stunt was part of their pitch for a debaucherous business plan: a drink meant to cure hangovers.
“Your last hangover is here,” Cohen announced, while handing out bottles of their product.
Called M2, the rehydrating drink comes in a plastic bottle and tastes a little bit like lemonade, a little bit like Gatorade, and a little bit like Emergen-C vitamin powder.
They developed the brew after a fast-growing trend brought to their attention a void in the market. From coast to coast, they say, hung-over partiers have found an underground remedy in an unlikely product: Pedialyte.
They believe most of these revelers would much prefer to cure their pounding headaches without having to make that embarrassing trip to the baby aisle. Already selling the product on a trial basis is the El Segundo Athletic Club and a cycling center called Fit On Studios in Manhattan Beach. They are presumably selling the product for its rehydration qualities. The entrepreneurs also hope area bars will get on board for the hangover purpose.
The mean old men were intrigued, but skeptical.
If Pedialyte already has the remedy, what’s to stop them from marketing the product that way?
“It’s embarrassing,” Cohen said of having to buy baby food, though he admitted that same question sometimes costs him some sleep.
Another student, Jason Silbeberg, opened his presentation for a website with a photo of Danny Devito portraying a duplicitous car salesman in the 1996 movie “Matilda.” “Let’s talk about the car salesman,” he said. “We want to get rid of them. No more car salesmen, no more haggling. ”
Silbeberg’s product, a website called NabThat, would allow users to shop for new cars in a way similar to how people currently find hotels or flights using priceline.com, where travelers find their deals by naming their price.
Silbeberg has already raised $100,000 for the product and had serious conversations with dealerships in Beverly Hills and elsewhere.
Student Nolan Simons dreamed up the idea for the tattoo cream. Called Revita Ink, it not only revitalizes the skin, but brightens the tattoo, he says. (Fun fact: 23 percent of all adult women in the United States have a tattoo, as do 19 percent of all U.S. men, according to them.) In a slide presentation, he showed photos of a woman sunbathing.
“This is a 30-year-old person, and her skin is looking beautiful,” he said, drawing unintentional chuckles for the implication that 30 is old. “The reds are popping, the greens are popping, the skin is looking young. ”
After the event, one of the “mean old men,” a very nice man named Michael Schoettle, said he enjoyed the event, but hesitated when asked if any of the products seemed viable.
“As an angel investor, I’m much more skeptical about early-stage companies, and so I think they are all very optimistic about the numbers,” said Schoettle, a member of TechCoast Angels. “It’s a much slower ramp-up than they were projecting. But there was energy and there was creativity and the ideas were original. “
But Rivera – who is now 25 – decided to go another route.
Inspired by cooking shows starring celebrity chefs such as Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, Rivera enrolled in a Pasadena school then known as California School of Culinary Arts, now called Le Cordon Bleu.
“I’d always enjoyed cooking, and thought it was kind of like an artistic outlet,” she said. “I wanted to explore it more. ”
She took out a $50,000 loan, which was co-signed by her stepfather, who works as a mechanic. Over the course of the next two years, that debt would balloon to $82,000. Despite the associate of occupational studies degree she’d earned at the college, finding a job that paid more than $10 to $12 an hour proved elusive.
Soon enough, a not-so-congratulatory kind of letter started landing in her stepfather’s mailbox.
“They sent letters saying they are going to put him in jail, because the loan is in his name,” she said.
Rivera is among 1,300 former students who in 2008 sued the for-profit school, claiming it essentially tricked them into paying sky-high tuition – as much as $42,000 for the 21-month associate degree program – by touting misleading job placement statistics.
“We believe the school tried to convince people it made good, sound economic sense to go to that school, and we believe that the school knew it wasn’t true,” said Ray Gallo, one of the two attorneys representing the students at Le Cordon Bleu.
The case against Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena is ongoing, and the school has had some vindication. About a year ago, a judge denied Gallo’s attempt to obtain class-action status, a school spokesman pointed out.
“The decision shows the allegations of some former students should not be considered representative of the experience of all students, the majority of whom we believe are satisfied with their education,” said Mark Spencer, the parent company’s director of corporate communications.
But the suit illustrates how lofty expectations in the culinary arts world often clash with harsh reality.
Gallo lays much of the blame on the table of the TV cooking shows.
“It glamorizes the profession – cooking is a manual job that doesn’t pay well,” he said. “Some people may get to be managers, and, depending on the size of the company, may be highly compensated, but that is not the majority of people who have anything to do with food preparation for a living.”
As for the for-profit school, it has taken a beating in the courts and in the press over the years.
Le Cordon Bleu is actually a limb of Career Education Corp., which runs a nationwide chain of 17 culinary academies whose collective enrollment nearly doubled from 2008 to 2010.
A class-action suit against the same company’s San Francisco location ended in 2011 with a $40 million settlement from the school. (Gallo represented the students in that case, too. ) In that suit, about 8,500 students received reimbursement payments of up to $20,000 each.
And the company’s Portland locale – Western Culinary Institute – was the target of a class-action suit in 2009 that, like the Pasadena case, is ongoing.
In the past couple of years, Career Education Corp.’s culinary programs have dialed it back on tuition, by about 10 percent. (At $37,850, the school’s 21-month associate degree program is still about 10 times as expensive as those offered at the community colleges.)
Meanwhile, enrollment has gravitated back to earth, to 8,500 from a peak two years ago of 13,000.
That’s not to say the school doesn’t have satisfied graduates. One is Julie Valenta Kiritani, a student in her 40s who has long worked in restaurants.
“My knife skills are way, way better than they were,” said Kiritani, who is chasing a dream to open a fast-casual restaurant that would specialize in pancakes and sushi. “I learned about sauces, baking, pastries, buffet service, catering services, and different cuisines from all over the world.”
Spencer, the company spokesman, noted that the quality of the school’s instruction is not in question.
“As with any school, the instruction we provide affords opportunity, but is no guarantee of personal success,” he said.
Rivera maintains that that isn’t the message representatives from the school told her stepfather before he co-signed her loan.
“They said, ‘She can be a personal chef, she can work in a high-end restaurant,’ ” Rivera remembers. “In reality, only the chef gets good pay, and there’s only one chef per corporation. “