Asking individuals to name their favorite entrepreneurs is like asking them to name their favorite foods. The lists they produce will be eclectic, whether they be pastalike universals (Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos) or snack-cake-ish guilty pleasures (Suzanne Somers, Simon Cowell) or the indispensable mechanics, carpenters, and assisted-living proprietors who are the business equivalents of beloved local dishes.
Asking Inc.'s editorial staff members to name their favorite entrepreneurs produced a similarly eclectic product. We then eschewed the usual suspects -- universally acclaimed founders of iconic companies running from Apple to Zappos. Instead, we selected entrepreneurs who feel like discoveries and whose innovations or achievements excite us personally. Many of these people are on a social mission -- to, for example, bring electricity to off-the-grid families on a Navajo reservation (Dave Melton of Sacred Power) or to aim a slingshot at Big Agriculture by raising grass-fed beef (Chuck Lacy of Rotokawa Cattle Company). Others are technology innovators. Franklin Chang Diaz's dreams have cosmic sweep: His plasma rocket may make it possible to someday visit Mars. Ge Wang's dreams are sweet absurdities: His Ocarina app transforms an iPhone into a flute.
A few of our choices, such as Bobby Flam -- who fights injustice while frying up the most succulent shrimp in Miami -- are barely known outside their neighborhoods. Will Ferrell, you've probably heard of. But were you aware that his start-up, Funny or Die, is wresting control of comedy from the Hollywood behemoths that made him rich?
We appreciate these entrepreneurs for making our lives healthier, saner, richer, or just more fun. They won't all become household names. But in the households in which they are known, their names will be spoken with affection.
"What's big?" asks Chuck Lacy, surveying the breakfast menu at a café in Burlington, Vermont. Standing 6 foot 8 and sporting a full gray beard, a tattered beige barn coat, and a well-worn Red Sox cap, Lacy is an outsize presence wherever he goes. A former president of Ben & Jerry's, Lacy, 54, helped drive the ice cream maker's 1,000 percent growth during his eight-year tenure there in the late '80s and early '90s -- and created the template for the for-profit business with a social mission, a then-radical notion. Read More
"Anthony is not the guy who gets up at the front of the boardroom and waves his hands around and yells, 'This is the future!' " says a member of the board at Roku, Anthony Wood's latest company. "He just goes out and does it." Read More
Forget, for a second, that Jessica Mah is an anomaly.
Forget that as a 20-year-old female CEO who is also an accomplished software engineer and who just raised more than $1 million, she is, in the words of the investor Paul Graham, "so statistically unusual that there may not be any other CEOs like her working today." Read More
Life is tough on the Navajo Indian reservation. The average per capita income is $7,269, according to the U.S. Census, leaving 43 percent of the population in poverty. An even more staggering statistic: Nearly 18,000 homes on the reservation, which straddles Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, lack electricity. Read More
Horst Rechelbacher launched the hair care company Aveda in 1978 and, over the next 19 years, turned the industry on its ear. Suddenly, everyone was talking organics and exotics and aromatherapy. That was the Aveda effect. Read More
Ben Berkowitz has sold T-shirts proclaiming, "New Haven: It's better than your town." He founded a local business association and helped organize an annual scavenger hunt to familiarize residents with the Connecticut city's less-celebrated landmarks. So when he spotted some graffiti in his neighborhood, his civic pride kicked in. He sought to notify the proper local agency to resolve the issue, but there wasn't a system in place to do so. Read More
Bobby Flam is a James Beard Award winner forced by the economy to plaster local high schools with coupons for $5 shrimp specials. The concierge at South Beach's swank Delano Hotel sends celebrities his way. The homeless drift in on their own. Read More
Hollywood needs more people like Will Ferrell, Chris Henchy, and Adam McKay.
We say this not because we enjoy Eastbound and Down, the bender of a sitcom they produce for HBO, and The Other Guys, the buddy comedy that Henchy, 46, and McKay, 42, wrote and in which Ferrell, 43, starred. We say it because the three men could have easily spent the past few years focusing exclusively on extracting money from their existing franchises. (Step Brothers 2, anyone?) Instead, they have chosen to do work on something risky, ambitious, and, at least in Hollywood, entirely strange: a start-up. Read More
Local Motors may be the most joyful durables manufacturer in history. Lots of companies make fun products. But Jay Rogers has designed a business process that's a hoot from ideation and design through sourcing, fabrication, and marketing. If Saturn had delivered as much entertainment as this little car company, it might still be around. Read More
Amy Norquist was a rising star of the environmental nonprofit world, having toiled at half a dozen nonprofits, each with the word earth in its name, and having become, in 2003, deputy director at the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries in New York. Read More
Thirteen women, mostly in their 20s, are shaking their hips and pumping their arms on a Monday evening in a Brooklyn, New York, loft. They are sweating and smiling. Pop music is pumping. This is Zumba. Read More
Even before he traveled into space as a NASA astronaut a record-tying seven times, Franklin Chang Diaz, 60, had already made a perilous and impressive journey. In 1968, at 18, Chang Diaz, unable to speak English, left his native Costa Rica and came to the United States with $50 in his pocket -- and a dream of becoming an astronaut. After a year of high school, he landed a scholarship to college; he went on to earn his doctorate in plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; then a 25-year stint at NASA followed. His research into propulsion systems for rocket engines eventually formed the basis of his company, Ad Astra Rocket Company, and Chang Diaz hopes it will lead to yet his greatest journey yet -- a manned space flight to Mars. Read More
Many big companies sell to the teen demographic, but most are blissfully unaware of what exactly resonates with their target market. Tina Wells, 30, founder and CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, delivers the truth straight from a small army of 9,000 kids, teens, and young adults, whom she anoints as buzzSpotters. That's good for Wells's clients (which include Procter & Gamble, American Eagle, Sony Music, and the like) but perhaps even better for these young people, who now know that they can change the way a company addresses them. "I used to think, Who am I to have an opinion that matters?" says Meghan Mahony, a buzzSpotter who last year joined Buzz Marketing Group as a part-time employee. "It's really cool that my opinion is something these companies care about." Read More
Lynn Jurich has been called a financial genius in an energy-genius costume, and nowhere is her monetary acumen more evident than in her approach to risk. When she married a colleague at an investment firm, the couple agreed to take a portfolio approach to building their future. One of them would land a steady job. The other would go for broke by starting a company. "We both wanted to do the entrepreneur thing, so it was a race as to who would find the better idea first," says Jurich, 31. "I won." Read More
For four days each spring, about 1,500 of the world's deepest thinkers gather in Long Beach, California, for the annual TED Conference, at which they discuss the ideas and technologies that will change the world. It's where game changers such as the compact disc and Macintosh computer received some of their earliest demos. And it may be the only place in the world in which names like Bill Gates, Nathan Myhrvold, Sarah Silverman, and David Byrne somehow fit naturally on the same speaking lineup. Read More
Larry O'Toole understands that when customers are difficult, it's often because they are going through something really hard. So the employees of his moving company learn not only how to pack trucks but also how to unpack the contents of the human heart. "You don't know what kind of stress someone is dealing with," says O'Toole, an Irish immigrant who is imposing of stature and soft of speech. "Diagnosed with a terrible illness. Death in the family. Divorce. You have to be able to read your customer. You see what they need, and you give it to them." Read More
Nothing against iFart. Or FarmVille. Or any of the thousands of popular games currently offered as apps for the iPhone, Android, and Facebook. But let's be honest: Most of these apps are dumb. Read More
Robbie Vitrano has trouble defining what he does for a living, but look almost anywhere in his hometown of New Orleans, and you will find his footprint.
It's there at the Icehouse, a 12,000-square-foot, $1.5 million commercial real estate development in the once-flooded Seventh Ward. The building is owned by and serves as the headquarters for Trumpet, Vitrano's branding agency. The development boasts an 80 percent occupancy rate; its 10 tenants include start-ups, nonprofits, and small companies that all share Vitrano's passion for serving New Orleans. Read More