Up and Coming

Four women put aside their fears, trust their guts and follow their hearts / By Joelle Pearson / Photos by Sadie Barton and Caleb Kerr The word “entrepreneur” is often associated with images of Silicon Valley or with ideas of venture capitalism: oiled hair, a good firm handshake and J.D. Rockefeller. Under all the suit-and-tie imagery linked to entrepreneurial ventures is something more palpable, something that really keeps us from taking the leap to pursue our own endeavors: fear, which leads to overwhelming questions. Is our idea a good one? Can it weather this economy? And what happens if we fail? Austin seems to have sidestepped these popular motifs. The women entrepreneurs profiled here have wild hair and wear running shoes, and their goals have less to do with profit than they do personal fulfillment. They have faced their fears and done it with grace. “Fear, in any real market, is a natural emotion,” wrote economics commentator Barry C. Lynn. “There is a fear of not making a sale, not landing a job, not winning a client. Such a fear is healthy, even constructive. It prods us to polish our wares, refine our skills and to conjure up—every so often—a wonder.”

Tiffany Harelik

Founder and proprietor of The Food Trailer Diaries Productions LLC You could say that food trailers are in her genes. In the early 1900s, a man crossed his native Russia and boarded a steamship bound for America. He docked in Galveston, TX, before walking nearly 300 miles to Hamilton. He didn’t have family in America. He couldn’t speak English. Eventually, he bought a small cart, from which he sold bananas for a penny each. While most consider food trailers a recent phenomenon, Haskell Harelik was among the first Texans to profit from them. That man was Tiffany Harelik’s great-grandfather. One Sunday about 100 years later, the fourth-generation Austinite found herself sitting in a lot, slightly tipsy under a painfully blue February sky. She was a single mother with no savings who worked an office job, and all she wanted that afternoon was to find a food trailer that was open. It was 2010, a few years after trailers like The Mighty Cone and Hey Cupcake! were beginning to garner serious press. Yet, there was no central hub for the burgeoning trend, and thus, Harelik’s trailer-food crawl that day was cut short. She and her friends admitted defeat; they settled for a Tecate 12-pack and some doughnuts instead. Somewhere in that disappointing brunch, Harelik decided to create her blog. At a picnic table alongside Dock & Roll, Harelik takes a calculated bite of the trailer’s specialty, The Maine Event. She chews. She licks her lips and sucks a bit of fluorescent mayo from her thumb and turns it upward. “Good,” she says, nodding. “Nice and chunky.” When it comes to food descriptions, Harelik—and her blog—remain simple. For her, the Trailer Food Diaries began as more of a culture blog than a food blog. She was more interested in why a pedi-cabber would stop cycling to bake bread, or why a real-estate mogul would rather make sandwiches than six figures. The more intertwined Harelik became in their endeavors, the more inspired she was to follow her own dream. So Harelik made a change. “I called my dad one night and I felt like such a loser,” she says, remembering her disposition. She announced she was quitting her office job. “And he said, ‘I think you should. You’ve been in the wrong job for a long time.’ And I just started bawling, you know? ’Cause I finally got someone’s approval. It was what I needed.” By May 2010, Harelik landed a meeting with C3, where she pitched an idea for a festival that would celebrate food-trailer cuisine. By November, the idea had become Gypsy Picnic, and in between, she started a TV series and a magazine playing off the concept. Between our lobster roll and Bahn-Mi sits a glossy soft-cover edition of one of Harelik’s latest projects, The Trailer Food Diaries Cookbook: Austin Edition. Despite its initial rejection from multiple presses, the book has sold more than 3,000 copies and is now carried at Whole Foods, BookPeople and many other locations. The Trailer Food Diaries’ motto is “Serving up the American dream, one plate at a time.” For Harelik, food trailers are a compact microcosm of the American dream, a tiny space where someone can pursue their call to the culinary world without having to gather the crew, resources and finances they would need to start a restaurant. Austin has become the trailer-food capital of the world now, with the number of carts tipping somewhere close to 2,600. But while initially they seem like an easy investment, Harelik will be the first to admit that it takes a dedicated and savvy trailer-food entrepreneur to succeed. The market is competitive, yes, and the stakes are high—even in a supportive community like Austin—but beyond books and festivals and magazines and television and 10,000 dishes tasted, Harelik’s priority is to inspire them to keep pushing forward. “Finding your life’s mission is what’s most important. I ask people all the time what they like to do, and they can’t even answer that,” she says. People, like the Harelik from years ago, are so busy getting by that they lose sight of their passion. “It’s the most important question we can ask when we’re trying to overcome our fears.” Beyond the trailer-food community, Harelik’s friends also see her career move as an inspiration. She laughs, and reminds me of Haskell. “People are always like, ‘Oh my god, you quit your job! What a leap of faith!’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘No, man. He got on a boat. His life was so bad, he was willing to die on a boat.’ Now that’s a leap of faith.” If he could do it, so can she.

Stacy Zoern

CEO of Community Cars Inc. Some companies project growth on spreadsheets. Others do it on something more tangible. Stacy Zoern leads me to her second warehouse, a towering concrete-andsteel space that yawns, darkly vacant. Only a tiny pocket has activity, where skilled metalworkers forge auto parts under a spray of sparks. The sanguinary smell of melting steel and rain fills the place, and the crackle of the blowtorches is punctuated with orders barked in both Hungarian and English. Zoern surveys the scene with pride. In her mind, she doesn’t see emptiness; she can already see the warehouse filled with new employees working in tighter shifts, gloved hands tinkering at stations that are yet to be. The final result of all of this production will be a revolutionary automobile called a Kenguru. It’s a compact electric car designed specifically for people in wheelchairs, which allows users to open doors via remote, enter through a ramp and drive using a joystick or motorcycletype handlebar. They’re a much-needed alternative to the cumbersome modified vans that were once the only option. Zoern, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy and has never walked, once drove one of these vans. One afternoon she banked on a curb, which resulted in a blowout and the destruction of the car’s steering ability. The accident occurred more than 10 years ago, and she hasn’t driven since. Behind Zoern is a motley list of intimidating accomplishments: She published a memoir in her early 20s, she opened an art gallery just “to try it,” she attended law school and began practicing patent litigation before she was 30. It’s not surprising that when she discusses being dependent on others for mobility, her voice becomes tinged with frustration. “Able-bodied people often don’t understand,” she says. “[People with disabilities] don’t have bicycles. We can’t get in taxis. Half the time, busses or bus stops aren’t accessible. You are literally trapped on the street where you live.” One afternoon in the spring of 2010, she was searching the Internet for a solution. She came across a small company in Budapest, Hungary, that manufactured the Kenguru. When she eventually got in touch with the company, the owner, Istvan Kissaroslaki, apologized. They had run out of funding when the economy crashed, he explained, and had ceased production. Four days passed, and Zoern telephoned again. This time, she asked Kissaroslaki if he would become her business partner. If funding was all they needed, she could secure it. The automaker eventually decided to not only partner with Zoern (who has raised more than $1.75 million for the project), but also to relocate the assembly plant to Pflugerville under the new name Community Cars Inc. Zoern weaves between production areas in the main warehouse. Much unlike the other, this area is brimming with activity. At the center, the first three Kengurus sit in various stages of production, their glossy tangerine paint illuminated under the fluorescents. She explains what each of her employees do, but her face keeps breaking into a broad smile when she turns toward the cars. It’s that face mothers make when their children have their first recitals or walk a stage at graduation. In the adjacent storeroom, she gestures to unprimed Kenguru shells that line the walls. Zoern is stockpiling them; right now the demand for the car is so high that she’s having trouble just finding production funds. She has dealers in the UK, Ireland and France, where hundreds of customers are on waitlists. She’s confident that the demand in the U.S. will be high too. It’s simple to drive, effortless to board and costs about a quarter of what modified vans do, or about $20,000. Every day, new people come banging on her door, over-qualified ones who are willing to work for less because they believe in the project. Back in the second empty warehouse, Zoern crosses the concrete floor. Against this backdrop she seems dwarfed. The ceiling is so high, the walls are too wide and suddenly her project seems so expansive that it could swallow her whole. I ask her, “Are you ever afraid it won’t work?” even though we both know it will. “You know, I think this is true for a lot of things in life. But you have no idea what you’re getting in to when you start something,” she says. “And I think if you did, the fear would overwhelm you and stop you. But you have to take things one step at a time. This has been bigger than I ever imagined, but more than anything, it feels meant to be.”

Danielle Pruitt and Sigrid Goerndt

Founders of YogaCity The best pairings are always opposite: salt and caramel, leather and lace, beer and sports. Unconsciously or not, people and things—and even ideas—are always seeking symmetry. When entrepreneurs find their complements, however, the result is wilder than any chili-spiked fruit or curious tactile pairing; it’s two people who can share one ambition. Danielle Pruitt and Sigrid Goerndt are aware of their synchronicity. Pruitt is a waif blonde tucked in to glossy riding boots whose hands gesture in broad circles as she speaks. Goerndt is a strong, salt-and-pepper jeans type who stands with arms casually crossed. Pruitt is partial to meditative yoga, while Goerndt, shaking her head, says she favors a methodical walk. Pruitt visualizes a world where everyone wears their brand and Goerndt re-calculates stitch width. Both wear small gold or silver necklaces with their new company’s logo dangling from them, something that looks like a modern four-leafed clover. Two years ago, Pruitt called Goerndt after spending a summer at a rental cottage in Florida. She’d retreated there to practice Bikram yoga, hoping to jump-start her creative energy through a diligent daily routine. Pruitt owned Studio Image Inc., the design company whose clients include Whole Foods and Starbucks. Additionally, she was running an online store for her product Chalk Ink, a chalk-hued marker that has become a design staple at the aforementioned companies (and now decorates the high walls of their Southside warehouse). But the company stopped designing and marker selling lost its challenge, and there she found herself, flowing between poses, searching for inspiration in Boca Raton. Entrepreneurs have a way of making their life’s joy become their life’s work, so it seemed sensible that Pruitt’s next step was to somehow integrate yoga in to her goals. On the other end of the line, Goerndt, an apparel designer who had spent decades working for Eddie Bauer and Levi Strauss in the Bay Area and Seattle, agreed to help, but only on terms new to Pruitt. “When she asked for my help, I said no,” Goerndt says, laughing. She was ready for more than contract drafting; she wanted to become a partner in the company. Recalling the suggestion, Pruitt leans forward, hand fluttering over her heart like a girl getting asked to junior prom. “‘Really?’ I told her. ‘You’d want to go in to business…with me?’” Pruitt says. Business ventures, she explains, are inherently frightening, no matter how experienced you are. For Pruitt, Goerndt was more than a mind to collaborate with; she was an affirmation incarnate that the idea was a good one. Faith, they both suggest, is the most powerful tool for a startup. Goerndt leads me through their warehouse. Employees poke their heads around corners (two are Goerndt’s sisters) and the walls are scrawled with vibrant Chalk Ink doodles of fruits and phrases. In her office, she and Pruitt begin laying out the 10 items in YogaCity’s line. Goerndt’s fingers flip over seams to trace the careful stitching. She tugs on a sangria-colored top to prove its elasticity. She proudly holds up a soft, gray popover like a hooked marlin at a weigh station, grinning. For two years, she’s been drafting, rejecting, refitting and perfecting the line, using the expertise she gleaned from her years at major corporations. Each piece embodies a bit of the city it’s named for—Chicago, Las Vegas, San Fransisco, Austin, New York—and each is a perfect, pared-down version of yoga essentials. Seams melt in to fabrics and tags won’t touch skin, tops elongate and waistbands adjust. Chefs explain the best food comes from people who love to cook; love transfers from the cook to the dish. The same can be said of Goerndt and Pruitt’s products. Like their products, their work environment is perfectly tailored to their lives. Back in the main office, the pair rattles off ideas for expanding YogaCity. There’s talk of trunk shows, trade shows, collaborations, online quotas and synergy. Goerndt crosses her arms and finishes Pruitt ’s sentences. Their corporate backgrounds have shown them how to execute goals and imbued them with a ruddy confidence. “You don’t want to stop when you’re creating stuff for your business,” Pruitt says. “You don’t have an exit strategy. Your work becomes part of your life because it’s something you enjoy doing.”