From Actuary to Entrepreneur
Jennifer Graham '00 Math & Business Majors
"From being actuary to making stuffed animals, my career path has been a bit strange, but it’s given me lots of experience and expertise in areas that not a lot of people have."
"I liked being an actuary...
"...the pay was great, I got to do a lot of math and analysis all day, and it was a pretty prestigious job. (But) I had this need to use my creative side, which I wasn’t using a whole lot."
"I'm a serial entrepreneur."
"I don’t really have the desire to work for the ‘man’ anymore. I like building companies and then moving on to the next exciting venture. I have a million ideas, so who knows what my next one will be."
CES: Tell us about Cuddle Clones.
JG: Cuddle Clones makes soft and adorable plush versions of people’s pets.
I had the idea for the business a long time ago and it only began to get closer to reality when I got my MBA and our Entrepreneurship team took the idea to several business plan competitions. We won some funding for the business, so when we graduated, we decided to pursue the business in the real world.
We are taking orders, but only about 1 per week, and without any advertising. We’re currently raising money to open up our own manufacturing facility to scale the business.
CES: What are your duties and responsibilities as Chief Cloning Officer at Cuddle Clones?
JG: I run the day-to-day operations and deal with all of our customers and am also the Chief Financial Officer, so I do the bookkeeping and have other financial responsibilities.
We have a part-time CEO who is working on the manufacturing side of things and a Chief Marketing Officer who is in charge of marketing, public relations and our social media presence; however, he has an outside full-time job as well.
CES: What is a typical day like?
JG: When starting a business, your days are pretty diverse and can change at any moment.
This week, the majority of the efforts surrounded our private placement memorandum (PPM) and meetings and follow up with our website development company. We are currently in the middle of raising a round of capital for our business and are finalizing the documents for potential investors (e.g. the PPM). We are also a couple of weeks away from launching our main e-commerce website, which we are really excited about.
Outside of Cuddle Clones, I work each day on the stuff that pays the bills—since I don’t currently take a salary from Cuddle Clones, I do financial consulting on the side for various companies in the Louisville area, including startups and venture capital firms.
CES: What do you most enjoy about your work? Least enjoy?
JG: I enjoy the flexibility of my life and can really do whatever I want each day. I love being an entrepreneur! I also love seeing the progress the company has made.
I least enjoy the ambiguity that comes with starting a business. I would love to get to the stage where we have steady sales and we have to think of new ways to market the product. However, we’re a long way from that point and still have issues with trying to scale. This has been the biggest source of anxiety—but each day, we get closer to making it happen.
JG: From being actuary to making stuffed animals, my career path has been a bit strange, but it’s given me lots of experience and expertise in areas that not a lot of people have.
CES: What was your first job after college?
JG: At Puget Sound, I double-majored in math and the Business Leadership Program (BLP) and my first job out of college was as a pension actuary in Chicago. I found out about actuarial science while at Puget Sound and decided to pursue that career.
Becoming an actuary is a pretty rigorous process but I finally got through all of the required exams in 2006. I liked being an actuary—the pay was great, I got to do a lot of math and analysis all day, and it was a pretty prestigious job.
CES: What prompted the change in careers from being an actuary to becoming an entrepreneur?
JG: Ultimately, I had this need to use my creative side, which I wasn't using a whole lot.
I branched out for a while into stock compensation consulting and had a small business with a former colleague. We had a good couple of years but also made a few bad business decisions along the way. After we wrapped that up, I decided to get my MBA.
I started out at Kellogg at Northwestern and then my circumstances changed and I ended up at the Entrepreneurship MBA program at the University of Louisville. I liked their focus on starting a business, and the business plan competitions helped tremendously in my ability to present to large (and tough) groups of people.
In the MBA program, they emphasized that you should start a business in the areas that you have the most expertise, or what they call ‘fit.’
In my case, that would have led me to start something in the financial world, like my own actuarial firm or financial consulting firm. While this sounded reasonable, I just couldn't get the thought out of my head that I wanted to create something—a product of some sort. I had this desire to build a brand. I didn't really have any ‘fit’ in making stuffed animals but I jumped in anyway and the learning curve has been pretty significant. Financial and spreadsheet skills will get you pretty far in any line of work because you have the ability to think about situations very analytically. It’s also been very helpful in paying the bills while I try to get my own company off the ground.
CES: Where does your career path lead from here?
JG: I believe that I am what people call a ‘serial entrepreneur.’
I don’t really have the desire to work for the ‘man’ anymore. But I don’t think I would be happy running Cuddle Clones for 40 years—I like building companies and then moving on to the next exciting venture.
If I can get Cuddle Clones to a good place, I think the best thing for me to do is hand it over to someone who can run with it, and then move on to the next idea. I have a million ideas, so who knows what my next one will be.
JG: More about entrepreneurship! I would love to see Puget Sound offer more in terms of this (maybe they do now) and get involved in some of the business plan competitions. I’m sure there are some around the Pacific Northwest. It’s such great exposure for the student teams and you learn to present your business plan to investors.
Note from CES: Opportunities have increased for Puget Sound students to learn about entrepreneurship, meet entrepreneurs, and participate in entrepreneurial activities through the Tacoma Entrepreneur Network (TEN) College Edition, launched in 2011.
CES: How did early jobs and experiences influence your career development?
JG: The jobs I had during Puget Sound varied, from working at the concession stands to off-campus actuarial internships.
I had one actuarial internship in Seattle between my sophomore and junior year and then went to New York City for my second actuarial internship between my junior and senior year.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of my internships. After I graduated, I had nine job offers from Seattle to New York and it was all directly related to the fact that I already had two summers of experience.
It didn't hurt that I had already picked my career as an actuary while still in undergrad. For all the students out there that don’t know what they want to do, I would try to get internships that are completely different from one summer to the next—marketing one year, finance or operations the next year.
CES: What advice do you have for students considering a career in entrepreneurship?
JG: Try to get involved with a startup while still at Puget Sound. Some of the best startups need people but can’t afford to pay them, so if you can swing it, try an unpaid internship.
In addition, Seattle and/or Tacoma should have angel investment groups, venture capital/private equity groups, and other entrepreneurial groups that meet at least monthly.
In Louisville, we have a monthly luncheon called Venture Club where investors and entrepreneurs mingle. There are always a couple of five-minute presentations where people present their ideas and ask for funding.
At least once a week I hear about some happy hour for entrepreneurs—we are a pretty tight-knit group and that’s only in Louisville—I would guess Seattle’s group of entrepreneurs would be significantly larger.
CES: How can recent graduates overcome a lack of professional experience?
JG: Companies know that you don’t have tons of experience coming out of undergrad. You can overcome that by being curious and by learning as much as you can from whatever organization you land at, whether good or bad.
In an interview, ask a lot of questions—what do you get to work on? Is there a chance you can do a rotation through the different functional areas of the business (e.g. marketing, operations, finance)? How can you challenge yourself?
My other advice is if you haven’t picked an area of focus, try finance—many of the startups I work with don’t have a clue when it comes to finance—if you can be a strong finance person and/or know how to build spreadsheets and financial models, you would definitely be valuable to a startup.