Tag: Entrepreneur

Young Professionals Choose Delaware

Not many people are lucky enough to say that where they live has all the ideal factors, but when it comes to the citizens of Delaware, they can proudly boast about a place that is perfect for all aspects of life. Delaware has been experiencing an influx of young professionals who choose to live somewhere they know will provide them with job opportunities along with a welcoming community.

Over the years, while the size of the state has remained the same, the business and residential communities have grown. Residents of Delaware feel connected to each other, and this allows them to make meaningful connections. As interviewee Jason James points out, more people seek out diversity when it comes to their work and home lives. The younger workforce wants to become involved with people unlike themselves—they want to engage with others so that they can learn and become more in tune with their communities.

Because of these reasons, young professionals choose Delaware as it is a state whose diversity is growing each and every year. The range of diversity allows people to pursue a variety of interests, showing that Delaware is truly a place where anyone can come and thrive.

Kyle Gay: Delaware is a place to live, work, and play, for millennials and for people of all ages.

Kyle Barkins: Really easy to meet people here. I think it’s very easy to establish strong relationships. And it’s easy to get things done.

Charles Vincent: If you can’t get ahold of the person, you have somebody who can, and you’re able to just get things done faster. Instead of talking out stuff, we’re able to do stuff.

Nicole Magnusson: I love the community in Delaware. It’s small enough to know your neighbors, but also big enough to explore and learn new things, and find new places to eat, and shop, and have fun.

Jason James: This generation that’s coming up is really interested in living and working in diverse spaces. Research studies support that over and over again, when millennials are asked, what attracts them to being in a certain place, it is diversity. It’s multiple people, multiple people with different backgrounds, and multiple things to get involved in. So this is really an opportune area for millennials to really move into and work in.

Daniel Walker: We’re flexible as a small state, so we’re able to find what interests a person, and really capitalize on that. And I think that’s what makes the networking so great.

Kyle Gay: We chose Wilmington because we knew that this was a great opportunity for us; both in our careers and finance, and in law, and for the family that we wanted to have, and we finally do have now. It’s a great place to raise children. A great opportunity for people and families to be ingrained into the community.

Jennifer Saienni: And you don’t have to wait years to see the difference of what your work is doing. You are able to come to Wilmington, come to Delaware, and make an impact!

Young Professionals Living the Good Life in Delaware

Young professionals like these agree that Delaware is an ideal location for work and life. You can find great fulfillment and success in your career through the ever-growing job market. More businesses are discovering that Delaware is a great state to locate in, and this allows for job opportunities of all kinds.

And work isn’t the only positive Delaware has to boast. From restaurants to shops to parks to beaches, Delaware has everything that makes a home state worthwhile. Residents of the state take advantage of its many amenities while also making meaningful connections with their fellow neighbors. The community of Delaware, in both the business and residential life sense, provides endless support for all those looking to make the First State their home.

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Delaware’s Business Friendly Community Allows Passion to Bloom

Being organized is a skill we all wish to have. For some, it comes easy; but for others, organization is a struggle. Luckily, there exist tools to help anyone keep their life on track. Michelle Askin and Kaylyn Minix founded bloom daily planners by combining their personal interests with their passion for inspiring others. The two met as interns working at Student Media Group during their time at the University of Delaware. Their work revolved around planners, and they were able to bond with one another over this shared interest. Both women took great joy and pride from being organized, and they found they wanted to share this ability with other people.

bloom daily planners was created with the intent to not only help people stay organized, but Askin and Minix wanted to focus on inspiring women to be their best selves. This is where they began, creating products anyone—not just college kids—could use and feel empowered. Ten years later, the company has over 300 different products and 400 shops. Askin and Minix have been able to share their talent and passion with thousands of people, and their messages of empowerment have been able to help women of any age all throughout the country.

ASKIN: I am Michelle Askin, and I am the co-founder of bloom daily planners. bloom is a stationery company and our mission is to inspire and empower women to bloom into the best version of themselves. So we create all kinds of planners, planning pads, all kinds of stationery to walk you through every age and stage of a woman’s life. I was interning at a company called Student Media Group when I was a sophomore at University of Delaware, and I met the co-founder of Bloom, Kaylyn, through that internship. Kaylyn and I obviously loved planners which is what brought us to that internship in the first place.

MINIX: I always had a planner, my brothers would make fun of me going on vacation in Delaware, making my packing lists and to-do lists.

ASKIN: And we had kind of a pet project idea to do a more inspirational, more general line that wasn’t specific to colleges. It took off, and 10 years later, we now have basically a whole other company from that idea.

MINIX: I don’t think that we could’ve ever imagined the amount of growth that we would’ve had.

ASKIN: We went from just one product to now having over 300. We have 10 full-time employees now and a bunch of interns from the University of Delaware. And at least, 400 bookstores and gift shops and we’re selling on Amazon and online. We love being to close to University of Delaware. It’s been a huge asset for us. We hire probably 10 to 15 interns per semester, and then we kind of use that as a talent pool to hire full-time.

MINIX: So it’s nice to just have that hometown kind of spirit within our company.

ASKIN: Delaware is definitely a very business-friendly community. We’re close to a lot of big cities, so you get a lot of people from New York and Philadelphia shopping in Delaware for that tax-free benefit. So it’s just a really business-friendly community feel, and I’m really proud to be from Delaware.

Delaware’s Business Friendly Community

Delaware has been the base for bloom daily planners since the company’s beginning. Askin and Minix met at the University of Delaware and remain near the university, which allows them to use this past connection to hire multiple interns. But the university isn’t the only positive that exists in Delaware. Delaware is known for its acceptance of other businesses. There is a business-friendly community that wants to help companies thrive. Minix says there is a “hometown kind of spirit,” both within bloom and the community of Delaware as a whole. Also, since Delaware is located between large cities, it brings in a significant number of customers, promoting the success and growth of businesses like bloom. Through a community that supports growing businesses, Delaware allows for passions to bloom into a career.

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Sposato Family Vineyards

Sposato Family Vineyards

Sposato Family Vineyards loves Delaware

From the Andes Mountains to Delaware’s Culinary Coast

Sposato Family Vineyards Brings International Cheer to Sussex County and Beyond

Business partners Karen and Tony Sposato could teach a business class on diversifying. For one, they are former educators. For another, the Milton, Delaware, residents don’t allow boundaries – or even a pandemic – to limit their aspirations.

Since 1992, the Sposato name has been linked to Sposato Landscape Co. But in restaurants and wine stores, it’s better associated with Sposato Family Vineyards, which Tony and Karen built from the ground up. “We created it,” she says.

It’s a good story, and one that Karen, who spearheads company marketing, tells well at wine dinners, in-store tastings and on social media. And although their vineyard is located in Argentina, the business is a distinctly Delaware endeavor buoyed by small-town support and linked to the coastal quality of life.

It all started with the lawn-mowing company that Tony began after graduating from Salisbury State University. He needed to make extra cash while looking for a full-time job. But the physical education and health teacher soon found his calling outside the gym.

His Milton-based business snowballed so fast that he left teaching and expanded services to include irrigation, landscape and design. By 2008, the entrepreneur was restless.

“He’d always talked about owning a piece of property or a farm,” Karen recalls. “We could start a nursery and build greenhouses.”

Or, he said, “We could grow grapes.”

It was not a stretch. An Italian American, Tony had grown up with wine on the dinner table. And from a professional point of view, he was well-versed in agriculture.

Given the Sposatos’ landscaping background, they knew that soil and climate influence grapes. They began looking for the perfect property. In 2012, they narrowed their choice to Mendoza Argentina, where 250 acres – and water rights – were still available. The land was “virgin ground,” so they installed a new irrigation system, electric and other improvements.

The property, managed by their Argentine employees, rests in the arid foothills of the Andes Mountains, about 3,000 feet above sea level. “We can almost grow any grape successfully,” Tony says.

Current varietals include malbec, bonarda, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, pinot noir, rosé, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and the Fresh Blend (chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and torrontés). Their wines fall into three categories: Classic, Reserve, Grand Reserve and Sabia Savia, an icon wine, which is the highest tier.

Finding a Footing in Delaware

Making wine is one thing. Selling it is another. When the wine was ready for release, the Sposatos initially promoted it at the beach.

“People know our name here because of the landscaping company – and we have 5,000 clients,” Karen notes. “They’ve seen the name, the trucks, and they know we do incredible work. We know soil. People understand the story of why we started a winery and how we did it.”

The original business offers another advantage: Sposato Landscaping is a regular attendee at industry conferences and tradeshows that offer networking opportunities.

The beach area was an excellent starting point due to its reputation. There are so many acclaimed restaurants in the resorts that the Delaware beaches are known as the “Culinary Coast.” Since so many are relocating here, the dining scene is year-round.

The owners spent hours at wine dinners. If Karen wasn’t doing tastings along the Delaware beaches, she was in her hometown in Harford County, Maryland, which is heavily populated with her family members.

Growing a Business

Sposato Family Vineyards experienced steady growth from 2015 to 2020, Tony says, and the winery has become a tourist attraction as well as a direct sales site. In the United States, the wines are available in Delaware, Maryland, D.C., Florida and upstate New York, where the company has contacts with distributors. The wines also are available in Argentina and Peru and soon will be in Brazil and Columbia.

Karen returned from Argentina last year shortly before businesses shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19. “Thank goodness we had the Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia, which is the harvest celebration,” she says.

Back home, organizers canceled wine dinners. But that didn’t stop Karen’s marketing efforts. The avid runner and former elementary school teacher radiates optimism and a can-do attitude that attracts prospective customers. Behind the broad smile is a steely determination to succeed. So she increased her social media presence, urging consumers to support local restaurants.

“We all needed to come together,” she explains. “We needed to continue to talk about food and wine and how it can keep your spirits high.”

With wine and cocktails available for carryout, she patronized restaurants that carry Sposato and posed for photos. She also become adept at using Zoom for virtual events and organized outdoor wine tastings.

No matter where or when she is marketing Sposato wines, Karen relishes uniting Delaware and Argentina.

“I think it’s fantastic to be able to celebrate two cultures,” she says. “Mendoza and Milton are both tourist destinations.”

When the Sposatos brought their Argentine team to participate in the 2019 Taste of Sposato 5K Run, which benefits Delaware Technical Community College, the visitors also participated in special wine events. One of these introduced Sposato’s rosé, and all of them allowed Karen to show off her hometown.

“You can’t beat the life here – a beautiful state park, amazing wildlife, the sunsets,” she says. “It’s a place where you want to raise your kids. It’s a centrally located, glorious place with a wealth of treasures.”

One of which, of course, is wine by Sposato Family Vineyards.

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Dennis Beach

Visual Artist

Dennis Beach loves Delaware

Dennis Beach

Dennis Beach is a man who balances intention with flow.

A respected visual artist, usually combining sculpture and painting — Beach is influenced by simplicity and essence. “My work involves processes that transform materials, quite often plywood and paint, into objects that combine the beauty and order that I mine from our natural world.”

Even if you don’t may not recognize his name, you’ve likely noticed some of Beach’s work. He has a permanent piece in the Delaware Art Museum called “Drift #19,” a rippling yellow and orange wooden piece that hangs just outside the gift shop. The new Comcast building in Philadelphia is also a permanent home for Beach’s “Curve #10,” a substantial series of wooden parentheses that evokes a tropical forest.

Beach was born in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but moved a lot, with his father working for the government when he was a kid. It’s not hard to see the influence of his time in the Eastern Shore in the wavelike twists often found in his work. Beach later moved to Baltimore for his BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art and created a studio there. “I didn’t realize until I was about 30 that I was capable of doing things artistically and wanted to do things artistically,” Beach says. “I rented a two-car garage where I set up a studio. I think that’s the key for a large number of artists, having a space of their own to work in,” Beach said.

It was at an art show in Baltimore in 2002 where Beach met Delaware artist Toni Vandegrift. The two hit it off and Beach ended up moving to Delaware. “Sometimes you just have to listen to the signs. I kept my Baltimore job for the first sixth months, just taking Amtrak back and forth. I was doing metal and woodworking in a fabrication shop in Baltimore called Gutierrez Studios, which is still there.” Beach considers his time there to have been an integral part of his education.

The move to Delaware created a clear path forward for Beach. After arriving, he found studio space at dramatically more affordable rates than the larger cities. He received his MFA from the University of Delaware in 2005, and quickly thereafter began to craft a style that would become the seed for the work he is doing today.

Early on, Beach was influenced by the work of Anna Truitt, a minimalist artist who combined wood-working with painting in a very elemental way. “My early sculptures were clearly influenced by Anna. She also lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for some time. Originally I was drawn to the artwork, and then I realized there was a connection. Sometimes I think that maybe everything I do is an Ann Truitt sculpture or some variation.”

In developing his own organic and balanced style, Beach was intentional. “If you keep working, and are true to yourself, ‘you’ will come out.” By building upon each piece and questioning how it could be done better, he has refined his style into something that uniquely combines beauty and order. “I am often accused of using a lot of math, but I don’t. The repetition makes it look more formulaic. A lot of my work is just a series of circles. It’s not really a lot of math.”

Recently Beach has been working on some projects out of NextFab (a popular maker’s space) in Wilmington, using techniques he learned taking an Adobe Illustrator course at Delaware College of Art and Design.

The balance of running a studio and working on multiple projects at once had its challenges. Beach finds that sometimes the work dictates itself as it evolves and shifts as it’s being created. He tries to create a daily routine for each day, “Ideas often come to me in the shower. I am not a morning person so I typically get into the studio around 11 a.m. and then work until nine or so. But nothing comes with directions.”

Beach has expanded his Newport-based studio twice since taking it over. “I have a number of assistants who help with what we do here. We call this artwork but the stress can often be on the ‘work’ part of that. There is lots of sanding, shaping and cutting. There are a lot of bases and shapes that can often require having to make 120 [versions] of something. That is where having assistants is very helpful.”

Music has always been an important influence and can always be heard in his studio. For fun, Beach likes to enjoy live concerts in Wilmington, usually at the Queen, 1984, or Oddity Bar.

“Music is also an influence, it’s important to all humans. Live music in particular. What I am striving for in my artwork is a feeling, not just a visual appearance. It was something I would get at a live concert — that collection of sound, lights, emotion affecting you in different ways. I strive to create visual excitement that can be calm or kinetic. But obviously less immediate.”

Recently Beach has been using techniques he learned taking an Adobe Illustrator course at Delaware College of Art and Design. “These techniques are a fairly recent addition for me, specifically the laser and the shopbot to help create my art. But it has really helped my process.”

Looking forward, Beach hopes to attract new collectors and have even more permanent installations. He has more projects in his mind than time to complete them.

“I don’t see artist’s block happening to me in my lifetime. I will die with things that I want to do.”

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Stephanie Eldridge

CEO, Code Differently

Stephanie Eldridge loves Delaware

Stephanie Eldridge

Just two years ago, CEO Stephanie Eldridge and CIO Tariq Hook launched the learning center Code Differently, and their impact since cannot be overstated. Delaware Prosperity Partnership caught up with Eldridge remotely as she and their team are driving their business remotely with no loss in impact.

Code Differently aims to increase diversity and technology directly into the workplace. Students are primarily in college as computer science or engineering majors. The makeup of Code Differently’s classes are 98% black and latino, and within that 40% female. Women represent 25% of the technology base, but black females represent only 3% and hispanic females 1%.

“Diversity and inclusion have not only been a part of our mission from the beginning, it’s frankly been a part of our lives,” Eldridge says. Eldridge grew up in Aliquippa, a small town in Western Pennsylvania that she describes as “a tech desert.” Aliquippa is a blue-collar town that was once booming with steel mills. Once the steel mills declined, the economy declined and the educational system started breaking down. Her time in Aliquippa became the foundation that motivated her into creating a different possibility.

Eldridge attended Morgan State University, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU), who at the time were graduating the most black engineers in the nation. “Both Tariq and I worked as engineers in the industry in Delaware. I was at JP Morgan Chase at the Delaware Tech Center and Tariq was at Zip Code Wilmington.”

Eldridge arrived in Delaware based on geographic convenience. “My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, was living in Philadelphia and I was working in the Baltimore/D.C. area, and we decided Delaware was the perfect mid-point.”

Code Differently is now on the Wilmington Riverfront, in the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce building’s Emerging Enterprise Center. “The great thing about Wilmington is, if you need to catch a train, you are right there downtown. You can be in Philly, Baltimore, D.C. and New York faster than you could drive.”

In Code Differently’s 2020 cohort, there are 43 students, of which ten are from Delaware State University. “Our intention was to have all 43 students here in Delaware for the summer to see all of the great things about Wilmington and Delaware itself.” Unfortunately COVID made this impossible.

Seven of the 23 Code Differently’s students from last year ended up relocating to Delaware after recognizing the opportunities and resources here. “We are great creators of technology here in Delaware, but we’re also great importers of technology.”

Seven of the 23 Code Differently’s students from last year ended up relocating to Delaware after recognizing the opportunities and resources here. “We are great creators of technology here in Delaware, but we’re also great importers of technology.”

Eldridge is reminded constantly about the benefits Delaware has provided for their business. “I don’t know another location where you are one person, one degree of separation, away from any need. When we look outside of our windows we see the backdrop of the companies that we serve most,” Eldridge says. “When I look to the left, I see JP Morgan Chase and Capital One building that helps support our HBCU program, HBCU CSC, who also support our high school students. It is really helpful that the decision makers from these companies are actually located in Delaware.”

The most powerful piece of Code Differently is their network. “We are able to provide people who are already in HBCU industry, and that network has increased tenfold over the last year. So you have this family of corporations willing to help guide each student in ways that were not traditionally available.”

The amount of small businesses that are downtown has also been a win-win. “It gives us a vision for where people started and where they can go, the importance of supporting people in your network.”

Why ‘Differently’? Having been challenged in fitting people into boxes where they may not fit, Code Different decided to build programs that remove these barriers. 80% of the people in Code Differently programs are working 30 hours or more each week while they are in college. The consequences of that are often lower GPAs and less access to the technology needed to excel in those classes.

“Imagine you are a computer science major, COVID hits and you are at home, and now you have no access to the computer lab in your university. We try to remove those barriers. We provide a stipend so they don’t have to work, we provide them with equipment and internet access, and we focus on their professional development,” Eldridge says. The majority of students at Code Differently are first-generation college students. Most of them “come from families that don’t have the life experience for coaching on how to operate in corporate America.”

Code Differently looks are themselves holistically within the tech field. “We don’t want to be all things to all people. If there are programs already out there that we could partner with, we do.”

For example, Code Differently partnered with the New Castle County Summer Youth Program. They came up with the idea that, instead of just having the students work in the brick and mortar location, they could create a software development shop that could teach high school students how to create websites and mobile apps as a work-based learning experience.

“There are very few internships and apprenticeship opportunities for high school students in tech. So right now we have 40 students working with us, virtually now, from 12-5 p.m. every day. And we are able to work with our partner companies — the JP Morgan Chases, Barclaycards, and CSCs we have in our network provide real projects for our kids so they are getting real work experience. And by bringing in real engineers and developers to talk to the students, real relationships and experiences are occurring organically at the high school level.”

In addition to corporate partnerships, the Department of Labor, New Castle County school districts and Rodel Foundation are contributors to this effort. “It’s a great example of a private/public partnership that benefits the future career choices and development of teens.”  

The results speak for themselves, and Code Differently has begun shifting the statistics that go back to the beginning of technology. “Out of the last group of high school students that have since graduated, every one of them are going on to high learning and 80% going into computer science or IT. And this becomes a pipeline for colleges that we partner with, like Delaware State University, who are now providing us with mentors in our program.”

When asked what single change she would like to see in the Delaware School system, Eldridge does not hesitate. “Embed technology in any subject that is taught in a school district. If you want to be an investment banker, you need to know how to write scripts to analyze data; if you want to open a restaurant, having an understanding of what goes into your ordering app or reservation system especially in situations like the one we are in, is essential.”

“Technology should be embedded into everyday life. It is an accessory to everything we do. If COVID has taught us anything, it is that the way we continue to run society is through technology.”

Eldridge believes the biggest misconception about technology is that it is too hard. Anything with great reward takes some work. A lot of people feel defeated when they hear the word coding, so sometimes we don’t use it. “Come help us build a game using technology.”

“In the black community, the biggest misconception is ‘I can’t do it’ which has its reasons. There are not enough people in the industry that look like Tariq and me, to give them the confidence that they could possibly do it.”

Using Delaware, its location, resources and community as a springboard, Code Differently is changing the face of technology with velocity and passion. The mantra she likes to share about Delaware is, ‘We get things done here.’”

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Markevis Gideon – Bringing Technology to Delaware’s Communities

A successful business is not always measured by how much money you make. For Markevis Gideon, founder of NERDiT NOW, success comes from helping others. Growing up in an underserved community, Gideon’s only opportunity with technology came when a teacher gave him a laptop. That singular moment sparked a passion, and Gideon spent hours disassembling and reassembling the computer, finding his niche in technology. Years later, after some time spent away, Gideon returned to his hometown, and he was shocked to see that the technological divide between his community and other areas of the world had remained the same. Gideon wanted to give to others what his teacher gave to him: a chance to engage with technology despite the circumstances.

Starting in his apartment and eventually transferring to a traveling hub located in the back of an ambulance, Gideon formed a team that repaired computers, phones, and tablets for a community that might not have access to the latest technology. NERDiT NOW was Gideon’s way of helping those who, like himself, wanted an opportunity to learn and engage with the world around them through modern technology. From there, the business grew, and NERDiT NOW went on Shark Tank, securing a partnership and beginning the next step of business: creating kiosks in these communities that teach individuals how their technology works and what they can do to succeed in their own entrepreneurial aspirations.

Birth of a Technology Business for Markevis Gideon

“So my name’s Markevis Gideon, founder of NERDiT NOW where we purchase, repair and resell computers, phones and tablets.

When I was 12 years old, I grew up in an underserved community, it was one teacher who saw something in me and donated a laptop.

I had begun to take it apart, put it together, take it apart and put it together. Then, after that, I kinda went away for a while and lived in China for five years. But when I came back, I saw that the communities I grew up in were still undeserved, and there was this big technological divide.

So when I am living in my apartment, I’m like, “You know what? Let’s just start an IT company, to start raising money to now donate computers back into the community.”

So we knew we wanted to make a new way to actually expand out of this apartment. So we started with this ambulance. It was looked at to be a way for us to not have to get a store front and to be out into the community where we can repair things.

So being on “Shark Tank,” was an awesome, surreal experience. It was something that we never thought was necessarily within our grasp. But the cool thing that came from “Shark Tank” is that we got a new partner.

He’s actually helped us build out our prototype. We’re looking to push about 10 kiosks out there. And with each kiosk, we wanna make sure that we’re also going back into these underserved communities and training individuals to not only learn the tech skills, but to potentially also figure out how to become entrepreneurs through our franchise model through our business.

When I moved back from China, I wasn’t sure exactly where I wanted to go. But, again, I saw the communities here and how they needed the support and want to make sure that I go ahead and pay it forward.

And the support around is just awesome. It’s a great business community. It’s very small, it’s very intimate, and it makes it so much more relatable, and I can go to other business owners, and they offer to help.

Like, “Hey, Markevis, try this or try that,” and it’s not like they want anything in return. They’re just thoroughly interested in making me succeed. So I truly appreciate being here from Delaware and look forward to seeing more entrepreneurs come.” –Markevis Gideon

The Perfect Place to Start a Business

When Gideon decided to start NERDiT NOW in his own community, he was thinking philanthropically. He wanted to give back to his town and help people, like his younger self, who would benefit from technological assistance. What Gideon was not prepared for, however, was how supportive the community would be in return. Delaware proves time and time again to be the perfect place to start a business. Not only is this due to the statistical, and financial evidence that doing business in Delaware is cost-effective, but the other entrepreneurs that make up a genuine community where new organizations can thrive. “They’re just thoroughly interested in making me succeed,” Gideon says about his fellow business owners.

There exists a desire in the intimate, growing business communities of Delaware to assist new entrepreneurs in reaching success. Not only does Gideon feel this type of support from others, but he looks to pay it forward through his work in the community, proving yet again that business in Delaware is unlike anywhere else.

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Stephen Sye

CEO, Futures First Gaming

Stephen Sye loves Delaware

Stephen Sye

Gaming Their Way to Prosperity

Futures First Gaming looks to create Esports industry pipeline in Delaware

If Stephen Sye, CEO of Futures First Gaming, has his way, his company will have planted the seed that germinates the entire Delmarva region Esports industry. Esports, or electronic sports, is a style of competitive sports played through the medium of video games – particularly multiplayer games played by professionals as individuals or part of a team.

“We’re a STEM.org Accredited™ Esports and educational organization focused on growing and cultivating the Esports community and industry in the region,” said Sye. “With the exception of the University of Delaware, the state itself has only a small underground scene right now as it relates to gaming culture – especially in comparison to other places like Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York City.”

The organization, which launched in February, is taking several approaches to its mission simultaneously. Futures First Gaming’s business model rests on four pillars, said Sye. The first is to advocate growth in the state’s existing Esports industry; the second is personally host competitive and recreational events to create opportunities for involvement; the third is to hold educational programs focusing on workforce development and the fourth pillar is to work with schools and universities to launch their own Esports teams to engage in tournaments.

Though their goals are ambitious, Sye believes now, more than ever, is the time for this effort. Gaming has long suffered from a perception problem – but that’s on the cusp of changing in a big way, he says.

“For a long time a good portion of the population has felt that playing video games is a waste of time, but this industry is growing by leaps and bounds and the opportunities for lucrative careers and entrepreneurship are growing every year,” said Sye. “Look at it this way; there was a League of Legends Championship in 2018 that had more than 200 million viewers tune in. That was more viewership than the Super Bowl, NBA finals and Major League baseball game seven had that year combined. There are gaming events in this space that are selling out venues like the Staples Center in 12 minutes.”

Perhaps a function of changing tastes, it’s been long predicted that Esports will supplant traditional sports in popularity. Sye says that ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the time window this was expected to happen has shortened.

“Viewership of Esports was already expected to eclipse that of traditional sports by 2022 – but now with COVID limiting audiences and introducing a lot of unknowns in terms of schedule, Esports has a huge advantage,” he said. “Esports is projected to be a $300 billion global industry by 2025. That’s huge. And, it comes with an enormous amount of opportunity and career pathways.”

Gaming Camp

Hoping to nurture the next generation’s desire to enter the Esports industry, Sye says the company held its inaugural Futures First Camp this past summer.

“Looking at the landscape, 83% of black teens game, but only about 9% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professionals are black.”

“It was a virtual summer camp this year, but it was 100 hours total,” said Sye. “Our Futures First Program focuses on Esports, coding, gaming, and entrepreneurship. Over four weeks, our team worked with students from 8th to 12th grade for five hours per day. Two hours were devoted to coding and game design – with the help of our partners Coderrific Academy and Code Differently. Then there’s one-hour for entrepreneurship where we cover things like starting a business, marketing, promoting, starting a website, Esport monetization and live streaming. Then the last two hours is basically gameplay. Gamers worked on communication, teamwork, strategy, and gaming skills development.”

There were 10 graduating students in the first class over the summer. Sye says it was a great proof of concept. The class’s final project was evidence of that.

“Over the last two weeks, the campers were tasked with a hands-on collaborative project to produce and host their own online Esports event,” he said. “They hosted a Brawlhalla tournament. They ended up having great participation and the event was flawless – it was an awesome learning experience.”

Futures First Gaming will be bringing the program back next summer and will shoot for an even larger class, but Sye hopes to push the program as a regular course in local high and middle schools to expose students to the available career paths.

“We’ll really be able to educate students on the possibilities if we can meet them where they are – we have commitment from two Delaware school districts pending funding and have had conversations about our program with Departments of Education in several states,” he said.

Equal Opportunity

Although not an exclusive organization, a fundamental goal of Futures First Gaming is to help expose minority students to the prospect of a career in the gaming industry, notes Sye.

“Looking at the landscape, 83% of black teens game, but only about 9% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professionals are black,” said Sye. “We really want to change that. We feel that the discrepancy exists because of lack of awareness and opportunity. Our program works to correct this by reaching out to students through their interest in gaming, but teaching them about the business side in the process. That way they can imagine a future where they make a living doing what they love. In our concept of STEM, E stands for entrepreneurship.”

To support this goal, Futures First Gaming has started to reach out to HBCUs (Historically black colleges and universities) to assist them in launching their own competitive Esports teams. Sye is a strong believer that the opportunities in the Esports industry will continue to proliferate and offer opportunity to people of all kinds of backgrounds and interests.

“There really is a spiderweb of careers cropping up to support gaming,” he said. “For example, last year’s Fortnite world cup winner, a 16-year-old named Kyle Giersdorf, won $3 million. He’s a millionaire now. He’s going to need an Esports specific attorney. There are gaming company’s that want to create game characters with his likeness and image, so he needs to negotiate that. He’ll need an accountant. He’ll even need a personal trainer to work on stamina and hand-eye coordination. The web of opportunity keeps spreading. When students come to us, we can work on where their interests lie and steer them toward a great career opportunity.”

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Drexel Davison

Owner, Bad Hair Day? Salon

Lewis Drexel Davison loves Delaware

Lewis Drexel Davison

Lewis “Drexel” Davison, owner of Rehoboth’s renowned salon/spa and hot spot Bad Hair Day? has been through many emotional extremes throughout the history of his business, which is now entering its 28th year. For example, after 10 weeks of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, he was eager to reopen.

“We were excited to be moving back to 30 percent of our fire marshal capacity,” he says. “And we have really taken a lot of precautions. I can’t put myself in jeopardy — I take care of my 83-year old mom.”

Davison’s roots — “I am really a waiter at heart,” he says — brought him indirectly to his current career. He began waiting tables and catering in New York City, and then ended up helping create a restaurant in Kent Island, Maryland, called Sunsets on the Bay. There he met two hair stylists from Annapolis who encouraged him that his personality was perfect for the hair styling business. 

“I was initially excited about it, but after finishing hairdresser school decided it was not for me,” he recalls. “So I moved back home to my favorite place in Delaware, the most gay-friendly place in Delaware, which is Rehoboth.”

While waiting tables at a Rehoboth restaurant, Davison was given a unique opportunity when the building next door became available. “There was another waiter there who had a hair license,” he says. “And the owner said, ‘Why don’t you two open a salon there for the summer?’”

The partners branded themselves on the look of the place, with vibrantly painted walls and flowers lifted from the gardens of strangers and parks.

“We were originally going to call it Metamorphosis, but I never could remember that name and I still can’t spell it today,” Davison says. “I had a hat that I liked to wear that said ‘Bad Hair Day,’ so at the end of it all I said, ‘Let’s call it Bad Hair Day, with a question mark at the end.’”

“I love that it’s a small state and that it’s the first state. I love that it’s a community, small enough that we can know each other.”

The name was easy to remember, made people laugh, and Davison’s parents hated it. “They said, ‘Why would you use a negative name for your business?’ But it ended up being a great name.”

Bad Hair Day? had a rocky start. When Davison’s business partner quickly realized he was doing much better as a waiter than by doing $25 haircuts all day, he decided to leave. Significant money losses associated with the building’s ownership complicated things further. But Davison took over the business and ran with it.

“I was fueled by anger and determined to succeed to show them that I could make it work,” he says. “And that’s really the energy that has motivated me these last 27 years.”

Those early challenges prepared Davison for the day-to-day challenges of running a salon, which now has over 75 employees.

“It fuels me to move through the challenging times, like now,” he says. “‘Tubthumping’ (by Chumbawamba) has always been my theme song — ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again.’”

Early in the business, Davison worked nights at the Cultured Pearl to pay bills.

“It was especially challenging in the winter,” he recalls. “Sometimes I would have one client a day, and I would make her wear a coat because I couldn’t afford to turn on the heat.”

In his time in Rehoboth, Davison has experienced much of the city’s dramatic growth.

“There were a lot of us who are still here — Sam Calagione (of Dogfish Head) used to wait tables at Arena’s,” Davison says. “We both started our businesses in the same year. We were all lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

Davison credits Joyce Felton, owner of Blue Moon and a number of other restaurants, with putting the gay community on the map in Rehoboth.

“The Moon was always the center of gay life here,” he says. “The ‘straights’ loved a good meal and what the gays had created here in general in Rehoboth. It was very shabby chic, and the gays were a big part of that.”

Davison says recently elected Mayor Paul Kuhns supports both the business and the gay communities in Rehoboth.

“We have a really good, progressive guy in there,” Davison says. “He’s smart.”

Bad Hair Day? has engaged in several memorable Delaware partnerships over the last 27 years — such as always having Dolle’s Salt Water Taffy in the shop, color-coordinated with each season. Other standout partnerships are those Davison has with Dogfish Head and Surf Bagel. 

“Early on, I would make body scrubs and masks out of the Aprihop beer ingredients,” he says. “And you could always have a Dogfish beer poured over your head as a shampoo bowl. We also serve beer in the shop, but we don’t call it ‘beer.’ We say, ‘Would you like a Dogfish?’”

Surf Bagel’s coffee and bagels are served at the salon when it is safe to serve food there. Bad Hair Day? also has begun a collaboration with Surf Bagel and the new Sussex County Consortium School, which aims to open satellite businesses attached to the schools to give students actual business experiences.

“We were set to open a little salon next to Surf Bagel (at the Consortium), when along came COVID,” Davison says.

The connection with Delaware has always been palpable for Davison.

“It’s home, first and foremost,” he says. “It’s accessible — you can find yourself at a red light next to the governor. I love that it’s a small state and that it’s the first state. I love that it’s a community, small enough that we can know each other.” 

On top of such connections being possible in such a small state, Davison loves that each of the state’s three counties has its own flavor.

“New Castle County has corporate and banking, but it also has the richness and splendor of the du Ponts who were such awesome stewards of their wealth,” he says. “Kent County has a richness of colonialism, the John Dickinson Mansion and the signing of the Constitution and The Green and the maypole dancing. Sussex County is like the little beach resort Riviera of the state, with its own culture and influx from all of the surrounding cities beyond Delaware. Throw in the cultural experiences we’ve had here, which we’ve always had in the north of the state, but now we also have in the Biggs Museum in Dover and the Freeman Stage in Selbyville.”

Bad Hair Day? moved to an immense new building in Rehoboth in 2016, with 16 stations almost always booked. The moment the full COVID-19 lockdown on salons was lifted, Drexel’s phone began to explode.

“The first text I got was from Mariah Calagione,” he says, “and then they just kept coming.”

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Michele Xiques-Arnold

Owner, First State Dance

Michele Xiques-Arnold loves Delaware

Michele Xiques-Arnold

A CNN “Great Big Story” film crew is set up inside the First State Dance Academy in Milford, Delaware. Michele Xiques-Arnold, once a professional dancer herself, marvels at the cameras rotating throughout the space she took over almost 20 years ago and the places it has taken both herself and her students. 

For Xiques-Arnold it all started as a child falling in love with ballet in South Carolina and finding out her father, who was in the Air Force at the time, had been transferred to Dover, Delaware. Her mother hunted around and discovered the Marion Tracy Dance studio, a connection that would unknowingly set the rest of her life in motion.

“I started training at Marion Tracy in Dover when I was 12,” she recalls. “Then it was on to North Carolina School of the Arts, Joffrey Ballet School in New York City and then my first professional work came in Pittsburgh at Civic Light Opera.” 

She found herself working with Meredith Baxter (from the TV show “Family Ties”) and aiming toward a Broadway career. “I soon found that I would make it through the dance auditions, but once I sang, they were like, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’” Following her struggle to make it on Broadway, Xiques-Arnold then did a season at the Shea Theater for Empire State Ballet in Buffalo and was later offered a contract to dance with the Atlanta Ballet.

An ankle injury brought Xiques-Arnold back home to Delaware in 2001. A string of occupations ranging from firefighter to EMT to nursing student pushed her further and further away from the magic that had driven her since childhood. 

Out of the blue, friend Maria Fry, who also danced at Marion Tracy Dance Studio, made an offer that would change her life. Fry was running a studio in Milford called A Dance Class and offered to hand it over to Xiques-Arnold, even though she had no business experience at all and was afraid to fail at something Fry had worked so hard to create. But Fry offered to mentor Xiques-Arnold for a year as well as help teach and First State Dance Academy was born.

“Next year will be my 20th year in business.” Xiques-Arnold estimates there have been around 1800 students who have spun through her studio at that time. “The opportunities we have made for the kids, and their parents— some of the kids have taken their parents to places they would never have gone, out of the country for performances or on tours. Often these are people who don’t like to leave their state or home, who have to go outside of their comfort zone to support their kids. And they were able to share something they would have never have.”

When asked about the challenge of going from dancer to instructor, Xiques-Arnold is clear. “When you are directing, and not on the other end anymore, it’s hard not to miss it. It’s almost like a drug, a healthy drug being on the stage, doing something you’ve strived for. It takes years to get over, the performance high and the rollover coaster of it. But I am really happy to have done it, and to have kids who I can work with to produce what is in my mind on a stage.”

“It’s my dream to have access to a performance arts center in or near Milford that has all that is required to put on a proper ballet.”

“Next year will be my 20th year in business,” Xiques-Arnold notes, estimating there have been around 1,800 students who have spun through her studio in the last two decades. “The opportunities we have made for the kids and their parents — some of the kids have taken their parents to places they would never have gone, out of the country for performances or on tours. Often these are people who don’t like to leave their state or home, who have to go outside of their comfort zone to support their kids. And they were able to share something they never would have.” 

When asked about the challenge of going from dancer to instructor, Xiques-Arnold is clear.

“When you are directing, and not on the other end anymore, it’s hard not to miss it,” she says. “It’s almost like a drug, a healthy drug, being on the stage, doing something you’ve strived for. It takes years to get over, the performance high and the rollercoaster of it. But I am really happy to have done it and to have kids who I can work with to produce what is in my mind on a stage.”

Xiques-Arnold has many student highlights, but one of the most memorable is Anna Edmondson.

“I saw something in her and let her parents know she might want to consider going somewhere year-round,” Xiques-Arnold recalls. “She was that rare combination of the right body type for ballet and had boundless passion. Sure enough, she was accepted into the Kirov Academy of Ballet in D.C., where she studied for four years and then ended up at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was the only American at the time, and she came from Delaware!”

Another student of Xiques-Arnold’s, Jayna Ledford, is featured in the CNN “Great Big Story” documentary (https://youtu.be/fD_3lUpCTM0) recently filmed at the studio. Ledford is a transgender woman who was at Kirov Academy before coming out as female and came back to train with Xiques-Arnold afterward.

“It’s created some amazing conversations,” Xiques-Arnold says. “This a public dance school, and it’s open for anyone and everyone.” 

The business challenges of running a dance studio have pushed Xiques-Arnold to innovate. She’s currently working on Wizarding World of Ballet — the first ballet built around a Harry Potter theme. This is part of a series of ballets that she has coined as Cinemaballet (https://www.facebook.com/cinemaballet/).

“I wanted to create something with a hook outside of ballet to entice people to check out a show,” she says. “I started with ‘Twilight,’ which was a huge success. Then ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘Annie the Ballet,’ ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘Duke Ellington’s Jazz Nutcracker’ at the Schwartz Center in Dover.

“I am always working on the business, right up until I go to sleep.”

Xiques-Arnold says the largest challenges are production costs and having to rely so much on volunteers, both things that having a proper venue locally would fix.

“It’s my dream to have access to a performance arts center in or near Milford that has all that is required to put on a proper ballet,” she says. “It would be a bigger draw for us. Something with professional lighting, sound, dressing rooms and location support.”

“It’s actually a real opportunity for a growing state, and I think it would be embraced. It would also mean is more professionals coming out of Delaware, more Delaware students getting scholarships and opportunities that they would not have otherwise. And that’s just for what we do. Imagine the ability to bring in larger music acts, comedians, etc. to the area. It would be a great draw for whatever town is able to have the vision.”

Xiques-Arnold was Delaware Division of the Arts (DDOA) Individual Artist Fellowship winner as an Emerging Artist in 2014. She recently received a 2020 DDOA Fellowship, this time as an Established Professional.

“There have been so many challenges, and you can take that in a number of directions,” she says. “I like to think it has driven me to make this better and reinvent.”

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