Motorcycle Tour Of Vermont Takes Investors To Local Entrepreneurs

Originally broadcast on Vermont Public Radio.

A group of investors has been traveling Vermont on motorcycles this week to get pitched by local entrepreneurs with varying approaches who are looking for money and advice.

Six new and aspiring businesses made their case to a group of motorcycle-riding investors and entrepreneurs at Green Mountain Harley-Davidson in Essex Junction Monday morning as part of the fourth annual “Road Pitch” tour of Vermont. (Photo courtesy of Road Pitch.)

Entrepreneurs like Prince Awhaitey, whose fledgling fresh juice business, Healthy Kingdom, is about promoting good nutrition and healthy living. But, as Awhaitey told an audience Monday morning in the showroom of Green Mountain Harley-Davidson in Essex Junction​, it’s actually people’s bad habits that gave him the idea for the juice he calls Rise & Shine.

“I really started making this for my friends in college as a hangover remedy,” he says to a laugh. “And being that the zinc in the mung beans is good for the reproductive system, my uncles and the men in my family love it, and that’s the reason I called it Rise & Shine.”

It takes the audience a beat to catch the joke, but he gets another laugh.

“So it’s not only a hangover remedy, it’s an aphrodisiac. You drink it, you’ll find out,” he tells them.

Awhaitey is like many entrepreneurs who respond to the needs of the people close to them — he discovered he could help and wanted to do more of it. After graduating from college in Virginia with a degree in nutrition, he returned to Vermont to help his mother run the Mawuhi African Market in Burlington’s Old North End. He wanted to chip in with more than just labor.

“I wanted to have something convenient for people to have access to, to give them the nourishment that they need,” Awhaitey says.

That “something” is his home hangover remedy, of course — reformulated to be marketable for more than just recovering from a binge. Less than a year into his business, Awhaitey’s juice is the African Market’s second best-selling drink.

Offstage, Awhaitey says that’s what he’s most proud of: “The fact that it tastes good, and the fact that people love it.”

All week, more than 60 investors, entrepreneurs and business innovators are making 10 stops in 10 counties in just five days to hear local business pitches.

Awhaitey and 46 other local entrepreneurs are telling their stories this week for the fourth annual “Road Pitch.” It’s an invitation-only motorcycle tour of Vermont’s entrepreneurial spirit, organized by FreshTracks Capital, a venture capital firm based in Shelburne.

All week, more than 60 investors, entrepreneurs and business innovators are making 10 stops in 10 counties in just five days to hear local business pitches.

Awhaity, for example, is looking for mentorship and a little seed money to help him grow Healthy Kingdom into online sales and eventually to open his own retail locations.

And his process is one way that businesses are borne: People come up with a solution to their own problems, or their friends’ or family’s problems. They see that it works and scale up from there.

Josh Kenyon, a recent graduate of Champlain College, took another path. He’s the Road Pitch intern this year, and he was one of three businesses pitching at the Grand Isle Lake House Monday afternoon.

After his pitch, on the porch of the Lake House, Kenyon recounts how he came up with the idea for his business.

“At Champlain, I took an entrepreneurship class where the whole concept is to come up with a business plan on your own,” Kenyon says.

Meanwhile the riders inside tally scores from the pitch session to determine the “winning” business. The prize is $500, a Vermont Teddy Bear dressed up like a biker and the chance to pitch again at a bigger event this fall.

Road Pitch riders gather for a venture capital pitch session in a Lowell barn. (Photo courtesy of Road Pitch.)

Kenyon is looking for help to create Modular Fitness Solutions, a company that will retrofit shipping containers as fitness rooms. His target market is small and medium-sized rural businesses.

“Right now if you want to go to a gym and exercise and work out, you have to actually go to a gym,” he explains. “And so, my solution was … what can I do differently to disrupt that market? And so I was able to say, what if I put a gym inside of one of these shipping containers … and leased it to businesses so that they had an on-site facility without having to build a facility on-site.”

Kenyon started out wanting to be an entrepreneur. He carefully observed the market he was interested in, and found what he believes is an opportunity to create something new.

Kenyon and Awhaitey didn’t end up winning their respective pitch sessions. The Grand Isle pitch winner was a company called Sustainability Benefits, and it comes from an entirely different approach.

Andy Vota, left, president of Sustainability Benefits, poses with the prize teddy bear presented to him by FreshTracks Capital co-founder Cairn Cross, right, the “father” of Road Pitch. (Photo courtesy of Road Pitch.)

Sustainability Benefits is a spin-off of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, and it administers an employee benefit program that helps workers buy sustainability products, like electric cars, solar panels, bicycles or even local food.

It’s a third approach — a business coming up with a business idea.

On the Lake House porch, as the riders rev up for the next leg of their trip, Sustainability Benefits president Andy Vota explains why he thinks this genesis is cool.

“We’re taking something from this 30-year-old nonprofit that’s been around for a long time and done a lot of interesting things and had a really big impact,” Vota says. “And [we’re] taking this small piece of it, that we said, ‘Gosh, this is something that we can boil down, distill into a really scalable product that can have a great impact, and it can be a great business.’ And so we’re really excited about the opportunity to do that.”

Cairn Cross, a co-founder of FreshTracks Capital and the “father” of Road Pitch, says he thinks the diversity of these businesses’ origin stories is ideal.

“We have to make the process of entrepreneurship accessible to a hugely diverse group of people,” Cross says. “The way we build a stronger society, the way we build a better America and all that, is through entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship for all, not just for one type of person or person who’s had this particular training or skill set or whatever.”

“We have to make the process of entrepreneurship accessible to a hugely diverse group of people,” — Cairn Cross, FreshTracks Capital co-founder

Cross emphasizes this as one of the reasons that although the ride-along is invitation-only, the pitch sessions themselves are open to the public. He wants to pull back the veil on what it means to start a business, of any size. He wants Road Pitch to help people find their place in Vermont’s economy — by creating that place themselves.

It’s a lesson Peter Silverman and Max Robbins have taken to heart. The two are about to enter their senior year at the University of Vermont, and they’ve created a startup called Majorwise.

“We launched an innovative platform that connects local businesses with students for flexible projects and paid internships,” Silverman says in his pitch. “With our pilot program, we had 200 businesses on board. And this wasn’t just a free trial where people were posting jobs. This was 200 paying clients for our services.”

After their pitch at the Essex Junction session, Silverman was pessimistic about how they did, but Robbins was upbeat.

“I felt good about it. Our worst pitch was definitely Road Pitch of last year; it was pretty shaky. But this came together. I think it was good,” Robbins says.

Robbins was right: They took home the teddy bear Monday morning — a victory that exemplifies the impact Cross imagines Road Pitch having. Silverman and Robbins didn’t win their pitch session last year, but they took to heart the feedback they got from riders. They tweaked their business model, pitched at other events and kept pilot-testing.

“And then we were like, ‘man, this is extremely difficult for a business that wouldn’t even make like, $20,000,'” Silverman says. “So then we’re like, ‘all right, what have we done, what was the core? We found people jobs, we built some cool tech. Let’s do that, and like try to make it more profitable this time.'”

Same mission, they say. Better results.

Three riders race a thunderstorm on their way from Grand Isle to Jay Peak as part of the fourth annual Road Pitch tour of Vermont. (Photo © Hilary Niles.)

Presidential Conflicts of Interest

This ongoing project is published by the Sunlight Foundation.  

I have been working since May 2017 with the DC-based Sunlight Foundation to track all of Pres. Donald Trump and his family’s potential conflicts of interest. It’s a systematic research project with a data-driven approach to catalogue and maintain a structured inventory of every instance where the presidential family’s personal and business interests may conflict with their obligations in public service — esp. Pres. Trump himself, and his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both of whom have taken senior advisor roles in the White House.

This document-driven research is funded in part by support from the Lodestar Foundation. As we build out the database, the project also will include reporting based on the data it contains.

Visit the project’s home page, jump straight to the database, or check out my related writing.

Donning the Boss Hat

Originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Quill, the bimonthly magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists 

Autonomy is part of the appeal of freelancing. As independent journalists, we work with editors as our clients, not our supervisors. We choose our projects and set our own schedules. We may or may not work in our pajamas, or from a lawn chair in the backyard. We’re our own bosses.

But sometimes, that means bossing yourself around.

The joy of working on what you want, when you want to doesn’t always translate into getting done what needs doing; autonomy can also be a pitfall. Successful freelancing, as much as it offers freedom, requires self-discipline.

And sometimes, self-discipline requires a Jedi mind trick — a particularly artful maneuver when you must play both the tricked and the trickster.

As freelancers, we try to take on only work we like. But even great projects often involve tedious phases. Other assignments may serve merely as stepping stones or financial necessities more than they fuel our passions. And aside from reporting, there’s networking, negotiating, public appearances, accounting. Even if you love running your own business, that doesn’t mean you’ll always feel like doing what work requires of you.

This is when I put on the “boss hat” — my term for the ruse I employ to get out of my own skin and into the mindset of a business owner.

Technically, I do play both roles: I am both the sole shareholder and the sole employee of my business. As an employee, I earn a salary. As the shareholder, I may get a bonus if my employee performs well throughout the year. I set up this legal and financial arrangement on the advice of my accountant, and I’ve noticed it facilitates the Jedi mind trick rather well, too.

But you don’t need to engineer a complete internal bureaucracy in order to don the boss hat. Here are a few techniques from my own experience, as well as members of SPJ’s online Freelance Community:

Develop company policies: Rebecca Weber, a full-time freelance writer and writing coach based in South Africa, says she channels most business and marketing decisions through a paradigm of “company policies.” With her business hat on, she instituted certain rules, which now she just has to follow, rather than reconsider perennial issues every time they arise.

“For example, as a norm I ask for more money on the first assignment,” Weber says. “I’m not naturally inclined to negotiation, so knowing ahead of time that I’m going to ask means that I can skip the stage of deciding if I should ask or not. These policies increase my income AND eliminate a lot of stress around money.”

Sign out of social media: This is one of my techniques for keeping procrastination at bay — especially for Facebook, which I find to be the strongest vortex.

I use a password manager and make a point not to learn my password for Facebook. I log out every time I close the website, and therefore have to jump through a couple hoops every time I want to log back in. Even when I choose to engage with that platform in the course of my workday, the added steps make it a more deliberate diversion.  

Pre-set your schedule: This was Hazel Becker’s strategy when she began freelancing full-time after 29 years as a staff reporter and editor. Now semi-retired and chair of SPJ’s Freelance Community, Becker says she would start every workday reading up on her beats, then scouring websites for gigs. She aimed to to send at least one query every day. She spent most Fridays taking care of business, marketing and learning new technology.

The routine came easy, she says. “In those days I had to use the Jedi mind tricks to get in my workout every day. Now that’s my day-starting routine, and actually looking for gigs is what I have to convince myself to do.”

Becker’s role reversal is instructive. As you explore and deepen your sense of yourself as your own boss, remember to be a good one, and also to stick up for yourself as an employee. Consider negotiating a late start time, or a long lunch break for exercise, for example.

Because no matter who the boss is, a happy, healthy employee makes for good business.

You Can, Sometimes, Get What You Want

Originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of Quill, the bimonthly magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists 

“Unless you know exactly what you want, you’re sure not to get it.”

I could attempt to diagram that sentence. Instead, I’ll explain how this nugget of advice became a cornerstone of my freelance business — and how it can help yours, too.

The sentence stuck with me for years after meeting a friend of my in-laws one Christmas Eve. Bill is a self-made millionaire — twice so actually, having lost everything around mid-life and rebounding. I know Bill as intense and charming and generous — with gifts as well as wisdom. In telling me his story, he shared the secret of his success.

I could have applied for a full-time job this spring. Instead, I settled into my own new office.

Perhaps the awkwardness of the sentence syntax is part of why it stuck with me. But more so, the advice simply resonated. It articulated in a new way something I had long admired in others and tried to cultivate in my own life: Self-direction. A sense of agency. Firm rooting. Clear goals.

The sentence echoed in my mind years later as I reluctantly realized that my staff reporting position wasn’t satisfying crucial elements of my drive for journalism. I kept returning to that sentence as I grappled with the question: If this job isn’t what I want, what do I want instead?

“Unless you know exactly what you want, you’re sure not to get it.”

I knew I wanted to get it. I just didn’t know what “it” was. But I’m a journalist, a storyteller. We find and choose details that illustrate and symbolize the deeper concepts we report on. So, I got to work.

I journaled. I talked things through with my husband, family, close friends and professional mentors. I compared options (various jobs and freelancing potential), breaking down the good/bad/ugly elements of each. I assessed my resources and strengths alongside anything working against me. Finally, I ignored what “it” might look like and focused instead on the values underlying my sense of success.

Only when I found those roots did I start to imagine the shapes they may take. Going back to the options I had researched, I checked off whether they got me any closer to the “it” I was after.

I’m now in my third year of full-time freelancing. Not every client and project satisfies all five of the criteria I landed on. But, my combined portfolio of work advances them all. There’s still more success to strive for, but I see evidence and feel in my heart that I’m on the right path. It’s amazing, and I wish this sense of satisfaction for you, too.

No matter where you are in your freelance business — successful and loving it, thinking of striking out solo, or somewhere in between — here are some resources I’ve found helpful in any stage. These may help you formulate a vision, bring it to the next level with an action plan, tap the collective wisdom of the SPJ Freelance Community, or simply find the camaraderie we often miss not working from a newsroom:

  • “Lean” business planning is a pared back approach in which you can invest as much or as little time as you’d like. The Internet is riddled with advice on this. I’ve found Tim Berry’s template at www.leanplan.com helpful.

  • A 12-month cashflow lays out the big picture of your financial cycles. SCORE offers a great template at www.score.org/resource/12-month-cash-flow-statement. I’ve added fields to mine to help schedule my editorial calendar around my cashflow needs.

  • On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism is an online book written by SPJ freelance members over the years. It covers everything from introductory issues and business considerations to finances, marketing and other tools. (Note: Access is free, but only available to SPJ members.)

  • SPJ’s Freelance Community is also a phenomenal brain trust. Our Facebook group is 550+ strong, and we host occasional old-school, online chats about a variety of issues. Please join us and chime in!

And if you’re looking for clarity about what you’re after, here are some prompts to help you get started. These may not yield quick answers, so give yourself as much time and mental space as possible to work through them, even if that means returning to them time and again until you’ve arrived at a response that feels complete.

  • If money were no object, how would you want to spend your time?

  • If you could live anywhere, where would you want to be?

  • Where are you “at” with work now — whether freelance or other employment? List specifically what you like about it and what you don’t.

  • How much money do you actually need? How much do you really want?

  • If you were to diversify your offerings — perhaps by working in different mediums — what would be the perfect blend?

  • If you could focus on only one project, what would it be?

  • Who’s your ideal client, and what’s so perfect about them?

This Bread & Puppet poster has served as my motto and guiding star for more than 20 years.

The clarity and support I’ve found from those resources and reflections has helped me stay firmly rooted in my freelance business plan. I’ve even turned down work when money was tight — because some “opportunities” are actually distractions in disguise, and if they lead you too far astray, it can be hard to get back on track. Knock on wood: I’ve found that keeping my focus, to the greatest extent feasible, usually pays off.

I got to see Bill again last Christmas Eve. He beamed when I told him that his single sentence had helped me so much. He knew exactly what I was referring to, and even completed the sentence in unison with me as I recited it back to him. It turns out, that’s one of the first lessons he instills in anyone he mentors.

He then told me the second: Knowing exactly what you want doesn’t mean you’re always going to get it! Be prepared for disappointments. Just return to the drawing board when you meet them, and keep going after your goals.

And I’ll add: What you want may change over time. Return often to those prompts and planning resources to re-evaluate the needs and desires that comprise your path’s foundation. Also, don’t assume that just because something is working, something else couldn’t work better.

As freelancers, we enjoy unique latitude to chart our own course. Give your work the respect it deserves by staying actively engaged with your business. The more you do so, the more likely it will achieve true success — as a reflection of you.

Freelancing Through Upheaval

The following post first appeared in the March/April 2017 edition of Quill, the bi-monthly magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. 

Upheaval, by definition, uproots. Practices and institutions that that once felt secure suddenly seem flimsy. Even if you didn’t like them to begin with, you may find yourself wishing for them again, for the familiarity. Upheaval, by its nature, isolates.

When in doubt: flowers. I try to keep a fresh bouquet in my office year-round. It elevates the mood of what can otherwise be a lonely room. (photo © Hilary Niles)

Independent journalists work in a constant state of upheaval: We work without roots, often alone. Rewards abound for the risks we take. Yet freelancing through the current upheaval amid Pres. Donald Trump’s transition to the White House has thrown many for a loop.

Cara Strickland, a Spokane-based freelancer and former restaurant critic, writes mostly about food, drink and faith. For now. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to look back on during this time,” Strickland says. “I want to take time to write things that matter, to me as well as to the world.”

Strickland is in good company considering a shift in her mission. Trump’s election brought Hazel Becker out of retirement. For a few years, she’d taken only hourly editing clients. Now, Becker is back to freelance reporting, largely as a show of solidarity. “I have great respect for journalists who are persevering in the face of difficulties getting the information and access they need to do their jobs,” Becker says. “I want to stand with them as a professional journalist doing what we do in the best way we can, working under strict ethical standards that I have adhered to throughout my career.”

But beyond such existential dilemmas, despite snipes that undermine the press and aside from problematic access to government, freelance journalists in times of upheaval face our own logistical challenges by virtue of our location outside a newsroom.

A few of these challenges are outlined below, crowdsourced from two online freelance groups. They’re presented with solutions synthesized from the freelancers themselves; my experience; insights from freelance journalist and writing coach Rebecca Weber; and advice from Raymond Joseph, a veteran reporter from South Africa since 1974, who recently joined Weber for a webcast interview about “Freelancing in the era of Trump.”

1. Editors’ inboxes have morphed into black holes through which only the highest-profile, heaviest-hitting, urgently breaking scoops survive.

With much at stake and news flying furiously, editors are struggling to keep up, too. As always, follow up on your pitches, and consider editors’ needs. Most are not likely to assign high-profile political stories to freelancers, Ray Joseph cautions. That’s especially true for contractors an editor has not worked with before. Plus, newsroom resources may have been re-arranged to handle the current onslaught.

So, pivot. Instead of breaking news, illuminate the implications of pending policy changes. Explain what it means that federal uncertainty is leaving states and businesses in limbo. Hit the streets and work social media to find human stories — then tell them from the bottom up, Joseph advises. This reporting is harder for newsrooms to devote their resources to, when top-down news is so consuming. Fill that gap.

2. There’s no market for light features.

This may be true, particularly for certain outlets or specific beats. But anticipate “Trump fatigue” and pitch accordingly — whether it’s a fresh angle on current events, or an unrelated story to offer momentary escape or rejuvenation.

3. I’ve never done this type of reporting before.

As Cara Strickland says, the current political and social upheaval feels like everyone’s beat right now. “I’ve read amazing pieces lately from people who I know as food or relationships or faith writers,” she says.

This may work for certain topics or in essay form, but be cautious of wading casually into political or policy reporting. If you decide to branch out in this direction, do so systematically: Read widely, source carefully and contextualize fully to avoid getting played and inadvertently misleading your audience. Then when it comes to pitching, be picky. You want to work with reputable editors you trust — not those who are learning the beat alongside you.

Ray Joseph also offers logistical advice for American reporters who may be unfamiliar with reporting through upheaval. First: hone your verification skills. “Don’t rush in to be first,” he says. “No one’s going to remember who was first … but they’ll remember that you were wrong.” Joseph recommends FirstDraftNews.com as a repository of training resources.

He also suggests anticipating your editor’s concerns about verification by demonstrating rigor in your submission. Embed links to source materials; include footnotes to say how you know what you know; be open with your editor about your sourcing and reporting process. Such protocols may be familiar to investigative reporters, but in this era of skepticism amid alternative facts and fake news, they should be adopted by all.

4. Reporting through upheaval is stressful.

Responses to my inquiry show that upheaval’s toll on freelancers is multifaceted. Ubiquitous uncertainty complicates many business considerations (about health insurance, where to live) and throws a wrench in our pitching routines. For those in the thick of presidential and policy reporting, the heightened stress and emotional impact of many stories can be severely draining.

Self-care to stay strong for the long-haul becomes essential. Look for inspiration in great reporting from turbulent times throughout history and around the world. This includes communities close to you whose longstanding challenges you may only just be learning to recognize.

Also, carefully tend to the business side of your reporting. There’s no sense adding financial woes to an already stressful situation.

Most important: Resist isolation. SPJ’s Freelance Community is one of several vibrant online forums where independent journalists around the world share resources, celebrate successes and help each other through tricky situations.

Freelancing is lonely enough. Don’t try it alone.

 

Barriers to Public Records Thwart Civic Engagement

Broadcast on Vermont Public Radio 

* * *

Laura Ziegler filed her first public records request because she wanted to weigh in on a proposed rule change about how and when psychiatric patients could be forcibly medicated.

File photo by Hilary A. Niles ©

Since that first request 18 years ago, anything Ziegler may have learned hasn’t necessarily made accessing public records easier. Through her work as a citizen activist for patients’ rights — especially psychiatric patients and prisoners — Ziegler says she continually gets the run-around: Agencies redacting records that historically have been public. Delaying responses to her requests. Even respondents saying records don’t exist, when she knows they do.

// Listen here and read the full story.

Ongoing Investigation of EB-5 Fraud Charges at Jay Peak

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April 13, 2017
Meet the London Car Dealer Who Broke the Jay Peak EB-5 Fraud Case
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Sept. 7, 2016

The Situation

The plan was grand: Half a billion dollars of private money invested in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the state’s most rural — and most economically challenged — region. Four-season destination resorts, year-round manufacturing jobs, an international airport, a veritable “Renaissance” to revive the economy on the shores of Lake Memphremagog, which spans the Canadian border.

This black cat slipped beneath a chain link fence that cordons off the city block razed for a development that never came. © Hilary A. Niles

Some of those projects did get built: Jay Peak Resort, formerly a sleepy ski area with renowned slopes, now also boasts an indoor water park, golf course, hockey arena, hotels, penthouse suites and condominiums galore. Burke Mountain Resort likewise got its first hotel, and an on-site conference center.

But in Newport, Vt., the Canadian border town, an empty hole the size of a city block gapes where commercial buildings and apartments were razed to make room for the Renaissance project that isn’t to be. At the state-owned airport, an extended runway awaits international flights that can’t land without U.S. Customs operations in the new terminal that’s not built. Those manufacturing projects? Never begun.

And roughly 700 immigrant investors from 74 countries, who collectively poured about $350 million into the master vision, are yet unpaid. Some have received the green cards offered in exchange for their investments, through the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor program. Others’ immigration status hovers in limbo, while federal and state lawsuits play out against Jay Peak owner Ariel Quiros and longtime resort president Bill Stenger.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Vermont’s financial regulators allege the two men perpetrated a “massive” securities fraud in which they illegally pooled and misappropriated investor money for years. Quiros, they charge, also leveraged the funds through unauthorized loans, which he then used to help amass his own personal fortune.

Also implicated in the saga: state officials, from governors to department heads to employees charged with overseeing the state’s EB-5 program since 1997.

The coverage

Bill Stenger surveys construction developments at Jay Peak Resort. © Hilary A. Niles

Did Quiros really do it? Did Stenger know and help? Should or could the state have prevented the alleged fraud, or stopped it sooner? If this happened at Jay Peak — and in Vermont, where the state government itself oversees EB-5 developments — what’s occurring in places with less accountability?

My ongoing investigation, in partnership with Vermont Public Radio, tells the unfolding tale of Jay Peak, of the hundreds of immigrant investors who trusted its leaders with their money, and of the state officials who kept giving their developments green lights — until announcing in April 2016 sweeping fraud charges against them.

My EB-5 coverage has also aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered:

in The Montreal Gazette and Boston Globe:

and prior to the charges, on the Vermont-based nonprofit news website VTDigger.org as a staff reporter:

I have also been featured on radio and television news programs (VPR, Vermont PBS, CBC) to discuss the ongoing situation and my reporting on it.

The Semantics and Economics of ‘Natural’ Food

Broadcast on The Food Chain, BBC World Service
Follow-up business feature on BBC News website

Meet the cows going natural

What is “natural” food, and is it better for us? For their half-hour radio documentary exploring the language of food labeling, The Food Chain commissioned me to bring in an American perspective.

Hormone-free feeder cattle from Cream Hill Stock Farm in Shoreham, Vt., are sold mostly to local packers who market the meat as “natural.” (© photo by Hilary Niles)

In this sound-rich segment, voices from a Vermont cattle farm, a livestock specialist and a grocery store shopper tell a story of the farm finances, food policy and consumer assumptions driving demand for nebulously defined “natural” food.

// Listen to the full episode here. 

US farmers go ‘natural’ for profits

Thirty-five years ago, a professor moved to a historic farm on 600 acres of rolling hills overlooking the sparkling Lake Champlain in Vermont.

His family built the largest beef cattle feedlot (a place where cattle are fattened for slaughter) in the northeast United States — a crowning achievement in its time.

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Wallace Greenwalt switched to “natural” farming when he took over operations at Cream Hill Stock Farm in Shoreham, Vt.

Months before he died at the age of 59, Paul Saenger passed that farm on to the son of one of his former college students.

Today, 29-year-old Wallace Greenwalt is also finding success on Cream Hill by running the farm his own way, in line with changing consumer demand.

Where Paul Saenger had raised about 1,000 head of cattle and used artificial growth hormones to do it, now Wallace raises just 600 cattle, free of hormones and antibiotics.

// Read the full story here.

Head out on the highway, looking for investments

Published in The Boston Globe

By Hilary A. Niles
GLOBE CORRESPONDENT

Don’t think “Shark Tank.” Compared to that venture capital reality TV show, Road Pitch is more like a “dolphin tank,” says Debby Pearson, co-owner of Green Mountain Harley Davidson in Essex Junction, Vt. Road Pitch is friendly and takes its time.

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Liz Holtz, of Liz Lovely gluten-free cookies, pitches riders at the Vermont Granite Museum in Barre on Aug. 3. Holtz won for delivering this venue’s best pitch. She will go on to compete at a pitch-off in October for $4,000 in prize money and a year’s worth of mentorship from the Road Pitch Riders. (Photo by Hilary Niles.)

Pearson is one of about 45 entrepreneurs and investors who, for five days this August, are touring the state on motorcycles to get pitched by about 50 local startups. Now in its third year, Road Pitch is the brain child of Cairn Cross, cofounder and managing partner of Vermont-based venture capital firm Fresh Tracks Capital.

While financial investment is the ultimate goal of the trip for his business, Cross says it’s only one way Road Pitch fosters Vermont’s “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” Another is through feedback. Even if that means gently directing business owners back to the drawing board.

Rider and engineer Jeff Finkelstein says his peers on the trip try to be helpful, not aggressive. “You don’t want to dissuade someone from their passion. But on the other hand, you hate to have someone venture down a path that you think may be fruitless,” Finkelstein said.

The riders are brewers, solar innovators, educators, financial planners, software developers. Their collective net worth likely exceeds total wages in many of the cities and towns where they’ll stop: $112 million (Randolph), $27 million (Hyde Park), $2 million (Lowell). Some are looking to invest. Most offer suggestions. All come along to enjoy a good ride. One day, one of them may cut a check or join a company’s team of advisers.

Most Road Pitch events are followed by casual downtime, where pitchers and riders can mingle and network. (Photo by Hilary Niles)
Most Road Pitch events are followed by casual downtime, where pitchers and riders can mingle and network. Here, college students Max Robbins and Peter Silverman chat with a rider after their pitch at the Grand Isle County Courthouse. (Photo by Hilary Niles)

In the meantime, incremental progress and ripple effects signal to Cross that Road Pitch is working.

In Bennington, local organizer Brian McKenna said just the event of Road Pitch rolling into town has given his community something to prepare for, and that in itself creates meaningful traction.

McKenna and other volunteers helped aspiring entrepreneurs from the Bennington area hone their ideas, then chose five teams to pitch the riders Tuesday morning. He said one of the biggest success stories from the day was a company named Pool Shark H20, which developed a digital log book for companies to track pool maintenance. McKenna said owner Scott Trafton, like a lot of locals with potentially scalable businesses, came in knowing a lot about their respective fields, but not much about the business of business.

“Business models, pricing, client acquisition — these are things that a regular Joe who’s just trying to start a business doesn’t anticipate having to answer from a potential investor,” McKenna said. Using the same same feedback form riders would use during the pitch sessions, McKenna gave them a road map. And drawing on each other’s experiences (because some locals are seasoned) the group grew together. McKenna said in the course of one month, Trafton’s pitch underwent the kind of transformation Bennington needs more of.

That’s exactly the evolution Cross hopes to catalyze. After all, the more business acumen permeates the state, the more investment opportunities Road Pitch eventually will surface.

Vermont Received Indication Of Alleged EB-5 Fraud In 2014

Broadcast on Vermont Public Radio

vacant white warehouse on a wooded lot, with blue skies above
The proposed site of AnC Bio in Newport, Vt., remains vacant. The US Securities and Exchange Commission says the bio-tech project has been “rampant with fraud” from the start. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Vermont Public Radio has found that, despite ongoing investigations, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration in 2015 allowed Jay Peak Resort to resume marketing securities to fund offshoot developments AnC Bio and Q Burke Mountain in northern Vermont.

The move that returned Jay Peak owner Ariel Quiros and president Bill Stenger to the international market came months after investors sent concerns of securities violations to the state. The men now face state and federal fraud charges, which they deny. The resorts remain open under federal receivership.

Officials say the decision was a “calculated risk” that included solid protections — for investors and the contractors halfway into constructing a $98 million hotel.

// Listen here and read the full story, plus related documents. 

// Listen to my appearance on the statewide talk radio program Vermont Edition to discuss the investigation.