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.

Barriers to Public Records Thwart Civic Engagement

Broadcast on Vermont Public Radio 

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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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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 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.

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

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.

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.

The Bestwick Boys

Broadcast on Only A Game, from NPR and WBUR Boston

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Dick Bestwick (left) helped coach the 1964 Westminster College football team to an undefeated season. Decades later, his coaching philosophy still resonates. (Courtesy of Westminster College)

“When I was a teenager, my dad gave me an engraved silver bracelet from his days at Westminster College, a tiny Division III liberal arts school in Western Pennsylvania. I wore the bracelet for years — it’s made to stretch over any size hand. It’s engraved with Dad’s name: ‘Herb Niles: Co-Captain 1965 Titans.

“Growing up, this was one of the key things I knew about my dad’s life before he became my dad: He didn’t just play college football. He was co-captain of his college football team …” 

* * *

This spring and summer, I had the honor of interviewing not only my father, but also one of his former teammates and their college football coach, Dick Bestwick, about the lasting bonds from their undefeated season in 1964. This is their story.

Buckle up your chinstraps and get ready for the za-zu-zaz.

// Listen here and read the full story

Foreign Investors Hang in Immigration Limbo Following Jay Peak EB-5 Fraud Charges

Broadcast on Vermont Public Radio 

I met him outside, in a garden in the Washington, D.C., area, after Vermont Public Radio agreed to grant him anonymity.

“I don’t want to mention my name because I’m — let’s say, a former politically exposed person,” he says. “And one of the reasons why I was looking for EB-5 was political persecution in my home country.”

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

He is one of many foreign investors in Jay Peak’s EB-5 developments now scrambling in the wake of charges that the resort orchestrated a massive securities fraud with their money. But it’s more than just money riding on the outcome for some.

This individual is a former high-ranking official in what used to be the Soviet Union. His children, like those of many other investors, were attending college in the U.S.

But, perhaps unlike some other investors, this one needed to leave his home country for his family’s safety.

And EB-5 could provide it: In the federal program, foreigners invest a half-million dollars in an American business. If 10 jobs are created within two years, conditional visas for the investors and their families turn into green cards — permanent U.S. residency.

It’s a scheme Jay Peak began using in 2006 to bankroll $350 million worth of developments at the resort and at the newly acquired Burke Mountain ski area. Other projects in Newport were promised, too.

The Russian investor visited Jay. He never met resort owner Ariel Quiros, but his impression of president Bill Stenger was good.

“He was rather open, answering let’s say difficult questions, for example what happens if you pass away, what’s going with the project? So, we had really a long discussion, maybe an hour and a half,” he says.

And the business case was simple math — reasonable and attractive, the investor says. In late 2010, he went for it. He visited Jay again and saw the construction. He got updates and, slowly, started to earn back his investment.

“So in my view it was a really big surprise when I got the news that there was a massive fraud,” he says.

Surprised, in a way, but not shocked.

“It’s not the first time I was cheated.”

// Listen here and read the full story. 

Authorities Dig Into The Dealings Of The Men Behind Jay Peak Resort

Broadcast on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” 

It was a grand plan. Jay Peak was a modest ski area transformed to a year-round destination. Now the resort would lead the biggest private investment Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom had ever seen – about a half billion dollars to revive the region’s rural economy with tourist developments, plus manufacturing from windows to airplanes to biotech.

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
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

Now the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and state regulators say Jay Peak’s EB-5 scheme was a fraud. Stenger and resort owner Ariel Quiros face 62 civil charges of misleading investors and misusing more than $200 million of their money, including $50 million for Quiros’s personal benefit. Stenger has denied wrongdoing to local press. Neither could be reached for comment. The two are locked out of their resorts, which will stay open under an appointed receiver. Quiros says assets are frozen. Criminal charges may follow.

// Listen here and read the full story