Cornerstones: Alumni share their experiences with obstacles and finding the path forward

Brad Marshall ’97 and Heather Sandford ’97- Small-business owners

Brad Marshall and Heather Sanford with a pig
Heather Sandford and Brad Marshall are the proprietors of The Piggery, a farm-to-table butcher shop located in Ithaca.

We moved back to the Ithaca area 12 years ago and started homesteading and raising animals and food for ourselves, while having other jobs as well. We had the idea that there wasn’t much fresh meat available at the local level—just a lot of frozen cuts. We began selling to consumers at farmers’ markets and small-scale butchers, through a CSA, and even ran a small restaurant. Eventually we hit our biggest obstacle: getting access to markets. The meat industry has really small margins, so you need larger volumes to overcome that. We looked at many options to make the margins work, keeping in mind that we wanted a long-term, stable business to keep the two of us employed. Ultimately we realized we needed to expand to a larger retail space and sell wholesale. This required a major renovation to become a certified USDA processing plant, which requires daily federal inspections, just as a giant company like Tyson Foods would. We needed a $1 million investment, a bit of a scary number for us. To overcome it, we opted to push harder and faster than we wanted to, seeking private funding and working with the bank and a couple of economic development agencies. We are really thankful, though, because now grocery stores from here to Maine are giving people access to our products, including nitrate-free deli meats, cured meats and house-made charcuterie, which is kind of unique.

Michael Van Valkenburgh ’73  - Landscape architect

Michael Van Valkenburgh
Michael Van Valkenburgh is the president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

In the design of landscapes, creativity is nourished by obstacles. Without them the designer is tempted to repeat old strategies. So I appreciate how all landscapes I take on have a host of new obstacles: budget limitations, unique site conditions, quirky client preferences, disagreements among public constituents, unavailability or impracticality of materials, and so on. Every time I design anything from a small garden to a large public space, my goal is to make a unique landscape that poetically “sings” to the imagination while attending to the needs, complexities, and intended uses of the site. Large projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) or relocating the mouth of a river in Toronto present a huge range of challenges. BBP addresses 300 years of site history on a dynamic harbor edge, along with the often-clashing goals of diverse users. Projects as small as Bailey Plaza on the Cornell campus have their own set of difficulties. I always maintain optimism about finding solutions. As designers and Americans we are conditioned to believe that tasks of overwhelming complexity are accomplished by solving component challenges one by one. Sometimes in the design process I run into insurmountable obstacles that make continued progress on the path I have been taking impossible. I have to consider whether a design element is really essential, what else might work, or whether to abandon an idea and not be crestfallen about it. The poetry of a design comes ultimately from what the reality of the site tells the designer’s imagination; what endures and what is let go.

Eric Rothstein, M.S. ’95 - Hydrologist

Eric Rothstein
Eric Rothstein is a hydrologist with eDesign Dynamics, working on ecosystem restoration and water resources management. He is also a co-founder of the non-profit Big Future Group.

In school there’s often a focus on technical challenges. In the work place, when I’m technically stumped, problems are typically resolved by bringing in more staff to look at things from a new perspective. But you don’t get a lot experience in school dealing with government bureaucracy and stakeholders with competing interests. When I am the most stumped is when I am standing in front of a large group of people with competing interests. At that point, it’s important to keep perspective on the big picture, the overriding project objectives, and maximizing what can be accomplished. Paradoxically, as I get older, I’ve become more radical in my ideology while becoming more pragmatic in my work. The ideology gives you conviction and the sense of purpose—why you do what you do—otherwise your heart is broken on a daily basis. The pragmatic side allows you to remain engaged, because if you go strictly on ideology, you risk not being involved in challenging projects at all. Being involved is better than being left out of the discussion. You have to focus not just on getting what you want but rather on how to maximize what you can accomplish. It’s important to keep this larger perspective. My grander perspective is that friends and family are the most important things in life…and at work, my goal is to have the greatest positive impact on environmental issues.

Wallin ’88 - CEO

Smoke Wallin
Smoke Wallin is the CEO of Taliera - Celebrating Iconic Brands, a brand creator, incubator and strategy firm, and CEO of Beach Whiskey.

I have worked with a lot of new brands, created brands and helped a lot of startups. The startup world is all about solving obstacles—you want to do something that doesn’t seem possible, can feel overwhelming, but being stuck is only a temporary stage. It’s about having a frame of mind that gives you the time to talk to the right people, and it’s about knowing there’s always a way around it when the timing is right. I like to think of startups as a big jigsaw puzzle: Every missing piece can be an obstacle, and if you don’t solve it you can’t finish the picture. For my recent project—Beach Whiskey™—one of our biggest obstacles was packaging. We wanted to put our whiskey into a bottle that looks AND feels like sea glass, but that simply did not exist. All the glass companies have spent generations making glass perfect, while what we wanted was imperfection. I had to scour the world for producers who could make it, at scale for commercial production, while retaining the glass’ interesting characteristics. It seemed insurmountable as we searched in countries from Europe to Asia to the Americas. I had to give myself space and time to find the resources to think until we found the right supplier. The final result is all the better knowing what it took to get there. When you run into a big roadblock, remember, it will pass if you stick to it and keep trying. Persistence wins every time.

Marisa Sergi ’15 - Enologist

Marisa Sergi
Marisa Sergi is a new product enologist with E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, Calif., as well as the proprietor of Redhead Wine.

One of my biggest challenges as a student entrepreneur was time management in balancing classes, the work created from those classes, the many distractions of living in an apartment with three other roommates, keeping up with social media and still finding time to work on my brand, called Redhead Wine. Using social media was part of my success as well as the influence of the many amazing, brilliant students and professors at Cornell University. Many of my peers and the faculty members believed in me, so through networking I was able to pool their talent, which inspired and helped me with projects. Without that support I couldn’t have done it as proficiently. I continue to focus on accomplishing small victories, which seem to lead to the bigger ones. I re-evaluate and set new goals depending on the direction and path that life brings. Now a full-time employee at E. & J. Gallo, I have handed over the Redhead label to L’uva Bella Winery to grow into a brand of wine that I hope to see distributed nationally.