2017 Babson Rising Stars: Part 2
Babson’s 2017 Celebrating Achievements in Entrepreneurial Thought and Action® (CAETA) event in April named four undergraduate and graduate alumni as Rising Star honorees. The first two alumni were Jamie Kent ’09 and Abby Speicher Carroll MBA’15.
The final Rising Star nominees were Karim El-Gamal MBA’11, and Michael Kasseris MBA’11, who founded Rail Trail Flatbread Company and New City Microcreamery in Hudson, MA. They were interviewed onstage by Dr. Candida Brush, Babson’s Vice Provost of Global Entrepreneurial Leadership.
Dr. Brush: What was your inspiration for the Rail Trail Flatbread Company?
Karim: There were several levels. Firstly, since our youth we have loved pizza and cooking. These are things that drove me to Babson to learn entrepreneurship. After finishing our undergraduate business degrees, we both tried working for corporate companies. This wasn’t the right fit for us because we are inspired by hospitality, cooking, and hands-on experiences. That was the second level. And the third level is more related to the flatbread company. Michael’s father owned pizzerias so he grew up around this environment. We had a lot of respect for what pizza was but wanted to be more creative. After speaking with the Hudson community, we learned there was a real need for something local and family-oriented, which led our business plan to become what it is.
Dr. Brush: You’ve started two businesses. What did you learn in your first business that you were able to apply to your second business?
Michael: It ended up being almost three main lessons. We opened Rail Trail in 2012, which was a project right out of school, and then we opened New City about a year and a half later. The October after we had opened New City, we opened a speakeasy bar, called Less Than Greater Than, hidden inside the ice cream shop. We learned a lot of lessons and certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way. It helped us get better and get smarter. If I had to specifically think of a few lessons, a big one is our approach toward design and understanding what our customers really like. When I say design, I mean not only what the shop looks like but also how we design all of the processes in our business. Transparency is a big part of that. When we opened Rail Trail, we wanted to have an open kitchen and share what we were doing with our guests. That followed through to New City. It’s an open kitchen concept, everything is scratch-made in our place, and people get to really enjoy that experience. And I think through that process we’ve learned to listen to our instincts, trust our team, and watch the signs. Some things are there because they’re supposed to be and we have gotten good at leaning in towards each other. We have a great group, and we have a better idea of what our culture means and what it means to find people that match that culture. We try to look for that before we look for technical skills.
Dr. Brush: You mentioned that you are in Hudson, Massachusetts, and when we were talking earlier you mentioned that there were lots of deserted buildings. When you started Rail Trail, you changed the economic landscape. As social innovators, what kind of lessons do you think other people could learn from your experience?
Karim: We use the analogy of an urban community garden. It could be a dirt lot or an abandoned construction site, and it can look really neglected. Someone, maybe a gardener, may get the idea to cultivate the land, and they can recruit other people to help make it a great space. We didn’t set out to go change Hudson, but we did see value in the place. And when one person pays attention and sees value in a place, others start to see value in it, too. So we reached out to many different members of the community. We opened lines of communication. We attended meetings with the Hudson Business Association, with the townspeople. We were sitting with police officers and people from the post office. So people should know that they really have to get in there and open up that communication. You really have to go in and be a part of the community. Michael and I moved to Hudson. We were investing there and put everything on the line. When we shared our vision with members of the community that also valued Hudson and they shared their vision with us, it was quick to find the areas that were aligned. And I think that credit got us to where we are.
Dr. Brush: What’s next for you two?
Michael: As some of my classmates know, I started a business right out of the MBA program working in microfinance. I was really focused on social innovation. In reality, we look at our hospitality business and it feels like more. It feels like a real family and a real community. If you’ve been to downtown Hudson or you come to one of our shops, you walk in and immediately feel the energy. It’s a testament to all the effort that people put in. We opened up three businesses in three years, which was a lot of work. Our instinct was to open another and another, but this past year we were on the 31st week of a 32-week process that we started a while ago. We have tried to adopt some open-book principles. Open book is a three-step process where you educate the people in your organization about finance and how your business runs. The second step is actually opening your books and becoming fully transparent to your team. The third step is to incentivize them through their performance and give some real equity to your team. We took a step toward working toward real incentive goals for our team and building an open-book plan for us. We’re really excited about that. I started off opening a business to help people in far-off lands, and being a social innovator there, but seeing the social innovation that’s happening in our community has really opened our eyes to what good a company can be to a community. The future for us is definitely involved in open-book processes and seeing how that changes our hospitality industry.
After the interview, President Kerry Healey, Jamie Kent, and Abby Speicher Carroll joined Karim, Michael, and Dr. Brush onstage. President Healey concluded the ceremony by announcing that the collective achievements of 2017 Rising Stars are incredible and that Babson is pleased to honor each of them for the many ways they are impacting the marketplace and our world.
We are so proud of each accomplishment put forth by the 2017 Rising Star honorees and look forward to following their future successes!