Entrepreneurship Alumni Building Successful Businesses

Published on September 22, 2010

UH Bauer Entrepreneurship Class of 2000 Find Success in Different Industries

Entrepreneurship alumnus Valvert Thompson and his wife Coco run a major manufacturing center in South China.

Jay Pifer applied what he learned at the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship to build the biggest wedding studio in Houston.

Majoring in entrepreneurship can take people in unexpected directions.

The paths of five grads from the Class of 2000 from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston C. T. Bauer College of Business are evidence of that.

For Valvert Thompson, the program was a key stop on a decade-long journey to Guangzhou, a major manufacturing center in South China. There he has built an export and manufacturing business using what he’s learned to build a bridge between U.S. firms and Chinese companies.

“Bauer’s entrepreneurship program has allowed me to think about ‘business building’ in a very systematic way,” Thompson said. “Without that experience I’m certain I wouldn’t be where I am today; without a doubt!”

Jay Pifer never left Houston. For him, the program broadened his horizons in another way. When he started he was a successful wedding photographer. When he left, he had the bank loan to begin building what is now the biggest wedding studio in Houston.

“When I entered the program I was a photographer; I was freelancer. I would have stayed that way if I had not gone through the program,” Pifer said. “I think it opened my eyes to the possibilities.”

Pifer realized he needed to build a brand name that wasn’t based on his abilities as a photographer and also what it took to create and expand a company.

“I was able to secure a business loan based on what I learned from the class and incorporated in 2000,” Pifer said.

Others from the class of 2000 credit the program with helping them to build a company of their own. There’s Tina Zulu, whose firm Zulu Creative does marketing and brand development; Ruven Rivera, whose photography studio, Allure Photography does wedding photography; and Chris Planto, who owns Westminster Mortgage, a mortgage banking company.

During the past decade Bauer College and the entrepreneurship program have also gone through profound change. The $40 million contribution by Charles T. “Ted” Bauer in 2000 spurred rapid growth in the college and attracted other support, including the gift from Houston philanthropists Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff (’53), who are now the namesakes for what was previously called the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

It’s consistently ranked among the best in the country at teaching how to turn a good idea into a money-making enterprise.

For these five students in the class of 2000, the businesses are different, but there are some common threads:

  • These are not overnight successes. Many didn’t start their business until they’d been out of school for five years or more.
  • They continue to evolve. Nearly all of them have a second business line where they’ve seen a chance for growth.
  • And they all credit Bauer’s entrepreneurship program with showing them how to realize their dream of starting a business.

Class of 2000 alumna Tina Zulu and her husband Josh Zulu, also a UH Bauer entrepreneurship grad, run Zulu Creative.

Ruven Rivera founded his business, Allure Photography, in 2002, taking the lessons he learned from WCE to launch the studio.

After graduating from the entrepreneurship program, Chris Planto grew his father’s mortgage business and worked with his wife Amanda to launch Fierce Dance Co. in Spring, TX.

“It teaches you everything you need to know about how to planning, raising funds and building a business,” Zulu said.

But it also took time, experience, and a marriage to another grad of the entrepreneur program, Josh Zulu, before their venture was born in 2006.

After graduating, Rivera used the advertising department at the Houston Chronicle as a jumping off point in more ways than one. While he was there, Rivera was working seven days a week building his wedding photography business.

“It started slow. You have to live doing both — working a corporate job and starting my business on the side,” Rivera said.

Now he’s drawing on his work experience in a different way. He’s begun a company that creates direct mail pieces for clients, drawing on what he learned in his previous marketing job.

The leader in drawing on life experience is Thompson. His story began with a move to China where he taught Chinese and learned the language, with a detour to live a year in Ghana, and then jobs where he served between U.S. companies looking to buy things produced in China and Chinese companies looking to sell here.

His company, East General Limited, markets promotional products, like printed bags and key chains, but he’s still in search of the perfect niche.

In the past year, he’s created a small, but growing business selling packages of the products for class reunions, with plans to expand into other sorts of reunions. It appears to be a solution to a never-ending challenge in business, particularly in China, finding a niche safe from intense price competition, but it’s just getting started.

Their stories interconnect at spots. Pifer had relied on Thompson to help make photo albums. Planto hired Pifer to shoot his wedding.

It’s clear from their stories that the urge to start a business doesn’t stop with one.

Pifer also started an online business serving wedding photographers, studiologic.com, which prints pictures for other photographers, and sells supplies, like photo albums. While he’s up against bigger companies with more financial muscle, he benefits from his experience.

“Our angle in studio logic is the fact we know wedding photography because we have one of the largest studios,” said Pifer, who said Evoke is like an R&D lab. “We know what brides want for sure.”

Planto used what he’s learned in different way – after a couple years working for a struggling online startup business, he joined his father’s mortgage lending business. But in a few years everyone had retired and he was alone with the challenge of turning an inefficient paper-driven operation into a growing business. Now the marketing and process is highly automated, he has two people doing processing and time needed to do all the work on the loan is a fraction of what it had been.

He’s also played a role in a startup that had nothing to do with the family business. Planto worked with his wife, Amanda Planto, and a co-worker at a studio in The Woodlands, Heather Drake, to start Fierce Dance Co. While the studio in a converted warehouse offers classes in many dance styles, they’re known for coaching girls on competitive dance teams.

Spouses often play important roles in these ventures.

Tina Zulu, who calls herself the “Founder and Creative Chieftess” runs the creative and market side of their business with her husband, who handles the accounting and operations.

Pifer’s wife, Sudesna Pifer, a 2001 graduate of the entrepreneur program, runs the Evoke Studio day-to-day while he’s in charge of the online supplies business. Jay Pifer said they don’t have titles, but when it comes to the overall business, he’s the CEO.

And that comes back to another common feature: learning how to satisfy a powerful urge to have their own business.

“I always know I didn’t want to work for anyone other than myself. The experience and expertise I gained through that has been powerful,” Planto said. “Since 2003 I’ve essentially been working for myself.”

By Stephen Rassenfoss