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Fastcoworks Created for and commissioned by Principal Financial
Fastcoworks Created for and commissioned by Principal Financial

Lemonade Made

These entrepreneurs took setbacks, tragedies, and risks and turned them into thriving companies.

Lemonade Made

Nancy Hernon

G3 Translate

I lost my mother when I was 25 and a student in Germany at the time, working on my Master’s degree. She was 64 and truly my best friend. I felt cheated and utterly brokenhearted. At the age when you first learn to truly appreciate your parents, mine was cruelly taken away.

While driving home from her funeral, I decided to just keep driving-to New York City, 365 miles away. Rather than return home to an empty house or even to my apartment in Germany only to see my friends’ eyes filled with pity, I decided at that moment to move to NYC to become anonymous. I found an apartment, then a job.

I cried every night my first week of work. But I worked hard and learned many valuable lessons. With each lesson, my resolve to succeed grew. Even though I had no parent left to be proud of me, I wanted so desperately to prove to myself that I could get past the fear and pain of no longer having a mommy or daddy to run to in times of trouble. The more I kept pouring myself into my business, the more it grew. Its success gave me a great feeling of pride.

I never thought I would end up in the translation industry, but my grief led me down a path to entrepreneurship. We are now celebrating our 10th year in business and growing each and every day.

Kiyona Brown

Innovative Health Management Solutions

I worked for a dental office for three months with no pay to show that I wanted this career. Being a single mom of three children, it was hard, but I was determined. Eventually that trial work led to me being hired. I worked for the office for a year before being fired for no reason.

After that, I ended up homeless for about three months, but I never gave up. I started working for another company and was taught how to do billing and coding, which eventually led to me becoming an office manager. I learned everything about how to run a dental office, including electronic health records (EHR).

One day, an opportunity came through that changed my life tremendously. I had found my niche, and this led me to become an entrepreneur of a successful EHR consultancy. The experience I endured helped me to find myself and to help other women with similar experiences guiding them towards finding their passion, profit, and purpose. I have since founded the Tennessee Women’s Chamber of Commerce, creating synergistic relationships between the government, businesses, and the community. "Connect. Protect. Serve." is our mission statement and we do that by connecting to resources, protecting our mission, and serving our community. God was with me every step of the way and helped me to stay focused and not give up.

Brett Frevert

CFO Systems LLC

Is there ever a right time to start a business? How about on my forty-second birthday, when I had four young kids, Christmas season was nearly upon us, and no job? It was October 27, 2004. I was CFO for a small regional real estate firm, in a position just created two years prior. Knowing the company no longer needed a full-time CFO, I had been interviewing for several months but had not yet accepted a new job. That Wednesday morning, two of the owners came into my office, closed the door, and said, "This is one of those conversations we don’t like."

"If you’re not going to like it, I’m not going to. Can we just cut through to the end?" I replied.

We did. My position was eliminated, and being a small company, they felt a month’s severance was generous.

I quickly met with my mentor, who advised me to start my own firm. I went home, crafted a marketing email, distributed to 100 contacts, and informally launched CFO Systems. I had my first client in two weeks, a second client before end of the year, and a third in month four. Eleven years later, we’ve grown to nearly 30 professionals and are celebrating our third year on the Inc. 5000 list.

Joel Stein

Three years ago, my wife accepted an international work assignment and moved our 6-year old daughter and me to São Paulo, Brazil. Billed as a "great adventure," we all embraced the opportunity and moved from San Diego to one of the largest cities in the world.

In the two years we spent there, we visited five countries, met incredible people, ate delicious food (some we’d never heard of), saw the wettest and driest places on earth, and grew closer as a family. Oh, and I also met my current business partner, Yared, and started a company!

Yared and I were neighbors. He had also followed his wife to São Paulo for an assignment. We were both doing some consulting work but had time on our hands. Over many a burger, we became good friends. The more we talked business, specifically hiring and turnover, the more convinced we became that there had to be a better way to recruit and retain people.

We decided to join forces, and was born. We finalized our partnership on Valentine’s Day 2014. It’s more than just a symbolic date-;people, love, and relationships mean a great deal to us. "Love is the killer app," as Tim Sanders says.

While our original idea has morphed, and we fight and scrap to grow our business, I know I found the right partner to embrace the challenge with. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would live in Brazil; nor did I think I would become an entrepreneur. Now, I can’t ever imagine not doing both. All it took was 6,000 miles and a foreign country to bring us together. As they say in Brazil, "tudo bem!" (All is good!)

Randy Neuringer

The Randy Neuringer Company LLC

In my mid-30s, I was director of engineering and operations of a Web hosting company. It was the 1990s, and I was managing a staff of approximately 30, when I got a call at 3:00 a.m. because of a crisis in Chicago.

While we were troubleshooting the issues in that facility, I stumbled upon my college transcript while looking through a stack of papers in my office. It spoke to me. I had majored in math and computer science, launching my career in the latter because it was growing and paying well, but I just didn’t love programming. A decade later, I was managing the "crisis of the day" at 3:00 a.m. I had two small children at home and felt like my third child was my operations responsibilities. I was tired of wearing a beeper at a time when only doctors or drug dealers wore them. I realized I needed a career shift. I reflected on my last five years and realized I had been hired to transform organizations, and a major part of my role was staffing and recruiting. Within six months, I focused more on that and shifted into a role more related to recruiting. Today, I run my recruiting agency and truly enjoy my work.

Karen Nguyen

Inspired Art Wine

It was a Tuesday morning in August 2015 when I had my one-on-one meeting with my boss, the vice president of marketing. Before we delved into status reports, budgets, and project deliverables, she quickly said, "With the PC market predicted to continue to slow down, we need to cut costs and that means eliminating a big part of the marketing and sales group. You will need to inform your team and relocate."

I felt so many emotions, including disappointment and sadness but also relief. I had been working on kick-starting my art studio wine bar since October 2014, but with balancing the demands of a corporate job and travel, it was a real juggling act. The moment I received the news about my team, a fire lit within me to propel forward and launch my new business. I resigned in October 2015 and focused 100 percent on the preparation, construction, and opening of the first premier art studio wine bar in Orange County, California.

During my time heading global loyalty marketing for Western Digital, I saw, lived, and explored various cultures and cuisines. With each country I visited, I discovered the locals really know how to enjoy their food, wine, and art. Drawn to the idea of creating a social environment where women and men could bond over a shared activity while enjoying their favorite beverage and good music, I opened Inspired Art Wine on National Drink Wine Day-;February 18, 2016. Guests can paint, sip their favorite drink, and enjoy music in a relaxed and stress-free environment. Less than two months after the opening, the Orange County Business Journal nominated me for the 22nd Annual Women in Business Awards, which recognize women business leaders who have made an impact on the community.

Rob Kessler

Million Dollar Collar

I was at my perfect Jamaican beach wedding, standing in front of all my guests, my beautiful bride, and our parents-;and my brand new, freshly starched shirt was a wrinkled, sloppy mess. The biggest day of my life and blah! That was it.

I came home and started cutting open dress shirts and working on a solution to wrinkled shirts. I tried all kinds of things to test my theory: cardboard boxes, milk cartons, zip-ties, and even mini-blinds. When I had the basics figured out, I filed for a patent and got to work finalizing the design. It took more than two years and nearly a hundred ruined dress shirts to perfect the material and design. After waiting another six months for the patent to be issued, we were now sitting on the biggest advancement in dress shirts since non-iron.

In our first four months of sales, with virtually no budget, we’ve shipped 8,000 sets of the Million Dollar Collar to 47 states and 40 countries worldwide. It turns out I’m not the only person with this frustration, and with the global acceptance of today’s more casual society, the timing is perfect. Our technology fits into any dress shirt and lasts the life of that shirt, giving us a potential market of 100 million new dress shirts which are sold every year and 400 million more hanging in closets already. The market is gigantic, and our industry-first technology is just getting started.

Leonard Felix

CID Bio-Science, Inc.

While at the memorial following my father’s funeral, I was chatting with some of the people from the old neighborhood whom I hadn’t seen in 15 or more years. One neighbor who was an executive with a large consumer products company asked me about my job, which was a mid-high-level spot at Sharp Electronics. On hearing about my desire to own or lead a company from the top position he said without hesitation, "You’re 40 years old; if you’re going to do something, you should do it now".

It seems obvious now, but there really is only about 40 years of career flexibility, and more importantly, realistic career ambition. When you’re under 20 or older than 60, life priorities are very different. I returned home to Portland with a clear understanding of my life’s timeline and a new sense of urgency relative to my life and career. I was ready to make moves and take risks.

Over the next several months, I studied a number of available business opportunities and began negotiations to buy a small, established electronics manufacturing business. I have since grown that business to triple its initial scale. I have never regretted that decision and will never forget the significance of that casual and chance conversation.