Vermonter of the Month: Julia Birnn Fields

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Julia Birnn Fields speaking with Attorney General T.J. Donovan at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Julia Birnn Fields speaking with Attorney General T.J. Donovan at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont

Julia Birnn Fields, 4th-generation owner of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont and our April Vermonter of the Month, didn’t always know she would take over the family business. She felt called to service when her father and uncle considered retirement.

Now, almost ten years later, it’s clear that she and her husband Mel found the right path: Her love for what she does shines through in her words.

Perhaps most inspiring, she has prioritized helping her employees grow. Why? She says, “Our employees are the heartbeat of our company and we would not exist without them.”

Birnn Chocolates hire many new Americans. Because English is a second language for those employees, they started offering English lessons during the work day. It all started because they “noticed that some of the most veteran employees for whom English was a second language weren’t being promoted as quickly as native English speakers.” Now, they work with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to continue the lessons indefinitely.

Julia Birnn Fields exemplifies a connection to family, community, diversity and investing in employees. We’re proud to honor her as our April Vermonter of the Month.

Tell us a little about yourself (What is your official title? What has been your career path? How did you get to where you are?):

I am President and 4th-generation owner of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont.  My degree is in Elementary Education, so the family business was not my chosen career path early on.  After I graduated from college I taught skiing at Sugarbush Resort, gave tours and repped events for Magic Hat, worked summers for Appalachian Landscaping, and managed a seasonal restaurant.  Each of those jobs taught me great life lessons on how to deal with people both internally and externally in a wide variety of businesses.  Four years after graduation, when I was skiing 100+ days in the winter and caretaking a private island on Lake Champlain, my dad asked me what my plan was.  I was a bit taken aback, as I thought I was living a pretty darn good life, but from my father’s eyes it didn’t seem like it was my forever path.  My dad and uncle co-owned the family chocolate business, and they were beginning to think about retirement.  My uncle doesn’t have kids and I’m an only child so their plan was quite simple: if I wasn’t interested they were going to sell.  I honestly had never even considered working for my family; it was always my dad and uncle’s thing.  However, the thought of them selling the multigenerational business didn’t sit right with me, and I wanted to at least explore the option before it was gone.

In 2010 my partner, Mel, and I made the life-altering decision to try the family business on for size and agreed to work for a year to see if it was a good fit for us.  We knew we wanted to work together, whatever we did so this seemed like a logical option.  Now, nine years later we are still here.  Year one flew by, along with year two.  We started in production, learning each job from the best, seasoned employees.  I worked in the business in high school, so I did have some basic knowledge, but we still took the time to learn each position. We felt this step vitally important to truly understanding the business as a whole.  Our roles evolved organically. We’d see an area that needed improvement and then help implement things to make people’s jobs easier.  In doing so we not only gained respect from our coworkers, but also helped the company become more efficient.  Year three we began talking about the future.  It was clear we were quite happy in the business and were ready to talk seriously about succession.  It took a couple of years to come up with a plan that felt really solid for all four parties involved.  Mel and I became the 4th-generation owners in 2016 and simultaneously my dad and uncle retired.  It was quite a big step but we all felt it was the right move for the company, our employees, and the bright future ahead.  We’re now expecting a baby next month, the first of the 5th-generation!

What sets Birnn Chocolates of Vermont apart from other truffle makers? What’s your mission or motto?

We exclusively make chocolate truffles, no other products.  We also only sell in bulk to the wholesale market and do not have a retail store of our own.  Our number one focus is our wholesale customers and therefore our focus is on customer service and ensuring that our customers are getting what they need in a timely manner.  We ship the same day that orders are placed, which is pretty unique in our business.  We also ship year-round and cover the cost of extra insulation and ice packs during the warmer months.  We’re family owned and operated so when you call you always get a person and we’re always willing to listen to customer requests and make a sincere effort to accommodate them.  We are extremely efficient in what we do which helps tremendously with producing a high-quality product for a very competitive price.

Our mission: Above and Beyond – Every Day, Every Way, Everyone.

Our motto: We make truffles, for people who sell truffles, to people who love truffles.

What inspired you to offer English classes to your New American employees?

Mel and I noticed that some of the most veteran employees for whom English was a second language weren’t being promoted as quickly as native English speakers.

How did you promote the opportunity to your employees? How did you ensure that these classes were utilized?

We originally tried offering English classes before and after work and no one signed up.  We were discouraged but understood why.  We then met with the Vermont Department of Economic Development and received a grant for English lessons during the work day.  The grant paid for half of the expense of hiring a teacher and paying our employees to attend the classes.  Once the grant was completed, we wanted to continue offering this benefit to our English Language Learning employees so we made arrangements with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to continue the lessons.  We’ve offered English lessons for two years now and plan to continue them indefinitely.

What impact did offering these classes have on your business?

With just two hours a week (plus some voluntary homework) we’ve seen a significant increase in confidence and English usage in the workplace. This also creates a more inclusive environment for others that don’t speak another language.  Previously there were a few different languages being spoken and it could feel isolating to some when a group of people spoke freely next to them in a language they did not understand.  We’ve really tried to get everyone involved with our efforts and have asked our native English speakers to help others with their vocabulary and pronunciation.  We’ve worked hard to create a safe and trusting space where people feel comfortable asking for help and guidance with the English language. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. 

Would you recommend this to other small businesses? What advice do you have for other small businesses looking to create organizational change or empower their employees?

We feel that empowering our employees is the single most important thing that we can do.  Not only does it tell them that we’re invested in their well-being, it’s very rewarding watching them learn and grow in an environment we’ve helped to cultivate.  We also hope that this will carry over to interactions with communities outside of the workplace, and to further that aim, we’ve encouraged a curriculum that isn’t solely based on chocolate or manufacturing vocabulary.  We would most certainly encourage any and all businesses to develop their own programs.  The rewards are priceless.  Our employees are the heartbeat of our company and we would not exist without them.

Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Julia Birnn Fields speaking with Attorney General T.J. Donovan at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Julia Birnn Fields speaking with Attorney General T.J. Donovan at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont
Birnn Made in Vermont

Vermonter of the Month: Monique Priestley

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Monique Priestly at The Space On Main in Bradford, VT

Driven by her “love for community in every sense of the word,” our March Vermonter of the Month, Monique Priestley, founded The Space On Main in 2017 as a nonprofit community-based coworking, maker, conference, event, and gallery space in the heart of rural Bradford, Vermont.

Monique grew up on a back road in Piermont, New Hampshire, just over the river from Bradford. From a young age, her parents fostered a love of the arts, learning, hard work, and volunteerism. Monique says that as far back as she can remember, her mom always volunteered in the community and brought her and her sister along to help. In her view, the community was always there to help them in return. Because of this, Monique believes there is strength, energy, and hope in community.

As a teen, Monique moved across the Connecticut River to Bradford. She went on to graduate from Northern Vermont University – Lyndon and then the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program. After completing graduate school in Seattle, Monique returned to Bradford and bought a house. Since then she has served on numerous boards, committees, and commissions, and was recently recognized as the Cohase Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year.

Today, Monique continues to demonstrate her dedication to community by founding The Space as a way of fostering entrepreneurship, collaboration, creativity, and innovation in the Vermont/New Hampshire Cohase Region. We recently had the pleasure of touring The Space and learning more about the work Monique is doing and what drives her passion for community:

How did you come to understand the need in your community for a space like this? What made you start this program in a rural place like Bradford, Vermont?

I am involved in quite a few local community groups and nonprofits. Before working on The Space On Main (also referred to as The Space), there weren’t many meetings that happened without someone asking, “How do we engage the young professionals here?” I was always the youngest person in any room (often by a few decades) so this question was often directed at me. At the same time, several of Bradford’s most beloved businesses had closed or moved and there was palpable desperation in the air. I started wondering whether I should move back to Seattle (I went to grad school at University of Washington and work remotely for a company there).

At one particularly hard meeting, a mentor and friend of mine asked me to share an idea I had only told a handful of people. I wanted to create a space where people could gather to work, create, teach, and learn side-by-side. I knew there were people who wanted to engage with the community but did not really need or know how to. I wanted to bring them together.

That meeting turned into an instant buzz of ideas. I went home, sent out an online survey to gauge community interest, and got 85 responses that weekend. That was a lot for rural Vermont. I started meeting with those people one-on-one in their homes, in coffee shops, in their studios, at their offices – figuring out exact needs, desires, prices, challenges, vibe, etc.

What is something that has been a welcome discovery? What is something that has been a challenge?

I am inspired every single day by the people who reach out to find out more about The Space, but more importantly, they reach out to find out how they can become an active member of their communities. They just need someone to listen to their story, to their ideas, and to help talk through the questions that are holding them back. It energizes me, it helps awaken something in them, and it makes me appreciate humanity.

In terms of challenges, the whole process has been one big series of challenges. I did not know the first thing about most of the tasks I needed to complete. Luckily, I have always been a lover of problem-solving, unquenchably curious, resourceful, and stubborn.

What has been the community response?

Honestly, mixed. There are people who understood what The Space was from the beginning and have been amazing – and who really made the entire thing possible by providing guidance, funding, and support. There are people who come in, sit down, and talk through what The Space can mean for them. There are the people who do not understand The Space – or really even the spark that happens when people from diverse backgrounds interact with each other. Then there are the people who just have not heard of it yet. The first few keep me going. The latter few present opportunities to practice marketing and storytelling skills.

You’ve said that about 2,300 people have been to The Space on Main since it opened. Are you drawing just from Bradford or surrounding areas? How do you get the word out?

We are definitely drawing from Bradford and the surrounding areas. We have regular members and attendees from up to 45 minutes away on both sides of the Connecticut River. We have had quite a few people stop in that are visiting family or friends. We have requests from people who want to be members while their kids attend local summer camps. We have had a few people become members for a few days at a time while they scope out housing in the Upper Valley. And our Event Space and Conference Room are being booked all the time by local nonprofits and businesses that need a place to hold meetings, classes, and retreats.

We have mostly focused on social media, Vital Communities listservs, and Google. Features on television networks, in Seven Days, and in local papers have really helped. Word of mouth is the biggest driver. We plan to put more of a focus on print advertising.

What are some lessons you’ve learned about starting a small business? Do you have any advice for other Vermonters starting this?

Have patience, appreciation for timing, and listen to everyone and everything. There have been so many moments when I just could not get through to resources that I was advised to pursue. That was frustrating at first, but then I realized that opportunities to connect were presented to me later, in drastically better circumstances. At this point, it happens so much that it is entertaining to see how someone, or something will end up circling back around.

I think my advice would be to be open to any and all ideas and connections. I say yes, to a lot of things that seem pretty random – a person I should talk to, an idea someone wants to brainstorm, an event someone wants to go to, an article I need to read, but I never walk away from anything without having learned something from it. Those lessons increase my awareness for later discoveries and connections.

You are located right on Main Street in downtown Bradford. Are you working on bringing any other new businesses like yours to the downtown? Any long-term goals for The Space?

The cool thing about The Space and being personally engaged is that people reach out all the time with business or community ideas they need help with. As I connect with various people and organizations, it broadens the resources I can help point others towards.

Along with growing membership and rentals to sustain the nonprofit, our goal right now is to develop and fund programming that can provide support and opportunities to remote workers, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and community members. We are also working on funding for equipment that will expand the types of programming that can be offered. We have ideas for using the third floor of the building and have been asked about potential satellites, both of which are longer term goals.

For right now, we are pretty excited for the number of people we have been able to serve in the first five months and cannot wait to see how The Space adapts and evolves over the coming year.

TJ Donovan with Monique Priestly at The Space On Main

Vermonters of the Month: Court Diversion Program Volunteers

Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Anne Conway, Lamoille County Chamber of Commerce Volunteer of the Year

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

We are honoring, as our February Vermonters of the Month, the 271 volunteers who generously give their time to Vermont’s Court Diversion programs. This year, Vermont Court Diversion programs celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Court Diversionis a restorative alternative to the traditional criminal justice system for individuals charged with a crime. After police issue a citation for violating the law, the state’s attorney decides whether to refer the person out of the court system to the community-based Court Diversion program. Volunteers are a critical component of this program’s success. They meet as a restorative panel to hear the needs of victims, learn the underlying factors in the individual’s life that contributed to the crime, and create an opportunity for the individual to take responsibility for their actions, repair harm to victims, and rebuild connections to their community.

 We had the pleasure of speaking with two amazing volunteers, Anne Conway of Lamoille Restorative Center and Linda Brown of Windsor County Court Diversion,  about their experiences with Court Diversion and to learn about what drives their passion for volunteerism.

Anne Conway

Born in Hardwick, raised in Morrisville, transplanted to Boston—Anne Conway returned to Morrisville after 28 years away from her home state of Vermont. Anne has been actively volunteering in different capacities for nine years and was honored in February as Lamoille County Chamber of Commerce’s Volunteer of the Year.

Court Diversion follows a restorative justice model: what does restorative justice mean to you?

I’ve seen people who’ve made unwise decisions and hurt others, as well as themselves, take responsibility for what they did and then repair that harm. To me, that is restorative justice.

How has court diversion/restorative justice impacted your community?

Ultimately, it helps to make our community safer. I have personally witnessed individuals who have valued this second chance provided by Diversion and moved forward in their life on a positive path.

Can you share a story of a memorable panel meeting or related-experience that has had a lasting impact on you?

I remember one participant who had allowed alcohol to become foremost in their life – this led to an arrest, an unpleasant divorce, divided custody of children, and the destruction of their career.  One part of the person’s agreement was to write a letter of ‘apology’ to their family. When the participant returned for the second visit, they read a very sincere and touching letter of apology, regret and resolve. In addition, the person had found a part-time job and was in recovery. As a panel member, I valued seeing the positive results of our program.

Reflecting on your experience as a volunteer, have you observed a change in the program over the course of your experience? 

I have seen more creative ways for an offender to correct the harm they did and improve their view of themselves and the community in which they live.

What impact, if any, has being a Court Diversion volunteer had on your life?

The most satisfying aspect of my panel participation is that I am reminded that we are all in ‘this’ together and that we can make a difference in the lives of others.

Linda Brown

Like Anne, Linda Brown was born and raised in Vermont but left the state as a young adult to pursue a career in New York City. Linda returned to her hometown of Springfield after 30+ years away to care for her mother. Since then, she has been volunteering with the Court Diversion program for more than 15 years.

Can you share a story of a memorable panel meeting or related-experience that has had a lasting impact on you?

Panel meetings are all very interesting, but the thing that had the most lasting impact on me was a dynamic class given to us volunteers called “Bridges Out of Poverty.” It helped me to understand many of the people who come to Diversion and increased my level of compassion for them. I truly believe we must have compassion to work well with people.

Court Diversion follows a restorative justice model: what does restorative justice mean to you?

Restorative justice means to me that a client admits his or her mistake and does something, such as repaying victims or writing an apology letter, to make things right as best they can. I believe all these actions can imprint in a person’s brain and reduce recidivism. And, it certainly helps reduce the backlog of cases in the State of Vermont’s court systems.

Reflecting on your experience as a volunteer, have you observed a change in the program over the course of your experience? 

The most notable change in Court Diversion for me was when participants started to stay in the room while we discussed the restorative agreement. When I first started to volunteer, after we had met with the person, they would step out while we developed a preliminary plan. At first, I did not like this new way. However, I now feel that the participant is more apt to complete the contract that he or she was involved in making.

What impact, if any, has being a Court Diversion volunteer had on your life?

My advice to others looking to make an impact in their community is to volunteer!

Are you interested in becoming a Court Diversion program volunteer? Contact your nearest program to learn more.

Vermonter of the Month: Kim Souza

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Our January Vermonter of the Month is Kim Souza, founder and co-owner of Revolution, a consignment and thrift shop in White River Junction.

Business owner, select board member, community activist, and all-around dedicated neighbor, Kim Souza started Revolution in White River Junction, Vermont 17 years ago. Kim was makes running a small business in rural Vermont look easy. Kim’s creativity in expanding her business, perseverance, and commitment to the wider Hartford community is why she is our January Vermonter of the Month.

Through Kim’s community engagement, her business has become a cornerstone of the downtown life of White River Junction. Community members often drink a cappuccino at the small counter at the back of the store while consigning clothes or stop in just to say hello over a cup of coffee. Revolution regularly hosts neighborhood events including their First Friday parking lot parties and community fashion shows. See what Kim had to say in our interview with her below:

How did you end up in Vermont and what made you stay?

Born in Rhode Island, and raised in Canaan, New Hampshire, I developed ‘Vermont envy’ in my teenage years.  Having grown up in rural New Hampshire, I embarked on the classic early 20s cross country adventure, only to be offered the most promising professional opportunities right back here in the Upper Valley.

What have you learned from your work as a small business owner? Has it changed your perspective on your community?

I’ve definitely learned that operating a small business is more about maintaining a wonderful quality of life than it is about financial security.  My previous career path had been satisfying and fiscally sustainable, but something was missing.  In that experience, I was selling my time in exchange for a sense of security for my family.  What I was lacking was precious time with my new child and a sense of joy in my day-to-day movements. In the small business world, eventually, I was able to coordinate a schedule that allowed me to spend more time with my son and to connect, face to face, with the charming White River Junction community.

After 16 years, I still love coming to work every day!  That is my personal success.

What made you start a small business in White River Junction Vermont?

I returned to New Hampshire from Los Angeles with two job offers and chose one that I enjoyed for 12 years.  I worked with a fledgling educational travel company as an administrative assistant in a company of two employees; myself and the owner.  Ultimately, I learned every aspect of that small business, from bookkeeping and marketing, to sales and program development as we grew the company together.  I considered my experience there to be the equivalent of an MBA when I left the position of Senior Vice President in 2002 to pursue something more suited to my creative social strengths.

With the guidance of a friend and business mentor, I brainstormed several potential career paths and settled on the idea of a ‘hip vintage thrift boutique’ in the style of my favorite shops in Montreal and New York City.  I was negotiating a very expensive lease in Hanover, New Hampshire, when my mentor suggested that I take a look at White River Junction.  I thought he was nuts but trusted his instincts and spent some time in the downtown of 2002 when things were still pretty ‘gritty.’

Briggs Ltd Department Store closed after 50 years of retail operation in April of 2002, and I opened Revolution that June in that location– across the street from one of the two White River Junction strip clubs!  With my first business plan complete, I was convinced that what I would save on rent, I could spend on marketing and become a destination location.

The strip clubs have since closed, and after many years of ‘one-step-forward-two-steps-backward’ development, our village has grown at a healthy pace with attention to keeping our ideals at the center of our goals.

I have never regretted the decision to open my small business in White River Junction!

We love your “White River Junction- It’s Not So Bad” T shirts. What is the story behind this?

A lot of organic idea sharing happens around the espresso counter at Revolution.  I’m pretty sure it was one of the stream of consciousness taglines that friend and local developer, Matt Bucy coined.  Another one of my favorites of his is “White River Junction… Coming Soon!”.  The ‘…Not So Bad’ tagline just kind of caught on.  One common thread among the downtown White River Junction community members is that we like to do things because they feel good and we try not to take ourselves too seriously.  I think the tagline sums up that sentiment.

What impact has your store had on your community?

One surface impact that Revolution has on the community is simply our willingness to hang in there.  The store was notfinancially sustainable in the early years, and I planned to close in 2006.  Again, I felt as though my experience had served as a supplement to my ‘education’ and looked forward to my next move.  I was fortunate to have been offered some decent positions as a result of working multiple part-time jobs while attempting to raise my son and keep my business afloat. I had options.

And then… A local family approached me and asked, “What would it really take to keep Revolution open?”  This was pretty remarkable considering that this was simply a funky little used clothing store in the middle of a defunct railroad town.  After many cups of coffee and various spreadsheets and projections, we came up with a figure.  The figure was substantial and, I asked, “why don’t you just buy my business from me instead of investing in one with a partner (me) who brings only debt to the table?”  My (now) business partner noted that she didn’t want to run the store and that she didn’t want to own one unless I was the one operating it. She recognized my entrepreneurial enthusiasm and my willingness to step up to the challenge of evolving a little consignment shop into something special.

On a similar note, I said that if they were expecting some great financial return on their investment, we should probably skip the endeavor, but if they were interested in investing in a genuine sense of community, then we could do great things together!  They opted for the latter and we have strengthened the community in many ways since.

Over the years, it’s been fascinating to watch the changes in the Town of Hartford.  My willingness to stay anchored on the corner of North Main Street has inspired others to consider dipping their entrepreneurial toe into the White River Junction commercial waters.  I recently did an informal count of over two dozen woman-run businesses, just in the downtown White River Junction area.  To me, that’s amazing!

It’s true what they say…. Artists will go where the rent is cheap. The artists make the landscape more interesting and attractive.  Then, the developers come in, build and gentrify, and then the artists can no longer afford to live there.  I’d like to think that Hartford values its arts community and recognizes that keeping our village centers affordable and accessible is a priority in economic development.

Being on a first name basis with at least five of the developers in our area is something worth noting.  They are accountable to their community because they live here, and they too appreciate this quality of life.

What are some of your goals for the coming year in terms of your work in the community?

I’m always interested in healthy and equitable economic development.  We are fortunate in the Town of Hartford to include five distinct villages which complement each other in terms of their residential/rural character and connectedness to industrial and commercial areas throughout the Upper Valley.  In 2019-20, I’ll be focused mainly on infrastructure improvements within the downtown White River Junction area in order to attract more independent businesses and accessible affordable housing.  We’re implementing plans and funding for improved distribution of water, wastewater and sewer in the downtown area, and funding preliminary engineering studies for increased parking capacity.

I will continue to seek input from our most vulnerable community members and be sure that their wellbeing is considered each time decisions are made in the context of our municipal accomplishments.

My immediate goal as a business owner is to increase our exceptional team of employees to allow me to spend more time working with grassroots organizers and take advantage of educational opportunities to become a better citizen.

What are ways small businesses can be better supported by state government?

Capital, capital, capital!  I’m not sure if state government has the answers but bridging the gap between folks with resources and folks with the ‘fire in the belly’ kind of spirit that it takes to really cultivate a culture of Vermont business is something that I think could be less rare.  Sure, there are venture capitalists and networking opportunities, but somehow I envision a platform through which investors (such as the family who reached out to me) and entrepreneurs could engage and form relationships that are mutually beneficial, even if not financially lucrative.  Community Investors, so to speak.  Idealism is both my strength and my weakness!

What advice do you have for others looking to start a small business?

Start a small business only IF IT’S SOMETHING THAT YOU LOVE DOING.  In my business, it’s not about pop culture or fashion trends.  I couldn’t care less about those things.  For me, it’s about inviting people in to my beautiful space to drink tea, try on clothes, and make genuine connections.  I feel very lucky to be here.

Revolution business card

Kim Souza with TJ Donovan at Revolution

Revolution's exterior sign

 

Vermonters of the Month: Matt Kehaya and Steve Gagner

TJ Donovan, Matt Kehaya, and Steve Gagner at 14th Star Brewing CompanyThis is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Through the “power of great beer” Matt Kehaya and Steve Gagner, our December Vermonters of the Month, are proving that “a company can create positive outcomes in our community and show other businesses that there is a tangible benefit to serving others before serving the bottom line.” When Matt and Steve founded their company 14th Star Brewing Co. in 2011, they knew that they wanted their beer to be “brewed with a mission” which is why these Vermont-natives and Army veterans founded the business on the principles of “improving our communities and inspiring others to put their neighbors first.”

The business plan for 14th Star was drawn up on the back of a notebook while Matt and Steve were deployed together in Afghanistan. When they returned home, they decided to take the leap from homebrewers to entrepreneurs with the mission of continuing to serve others. Since opening 14th Star in 2011, the St. Albans-based business has grown to 24 employees and distributes their beer in 5 states. In keeping with their mission, the business gives back to organizations like Purple Hearts Reunited, the Josh Pallotta Fund, Make-A-Wish Vermont, Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, and Martha’s Kitchen, while also hosting community events at their Taproom.

With 20(+) years of service, Matt (20 years) and Steve (23 years), attribute much of their success as business owners to skills they learned from the Army. Leadership, strategic planning, safety, mentorship and teamwork are all skills that they have applied directly to entrepreneurship. Now, Matt and Steve (along with partner Zac Fike) have made it their mission to share this knowledge with other veterans. Their latest venture, Danger Close, is a whiskey-distillery that teaches other veterans to draw on skills they learned through service to start their own businesses.

We visited Matt and Steve at 14th Star’s Brewery and Taproom in St. Albans to learn more about the inspiring work they’re doing.

Brewed with a Mission logo on t-shirt

 

Tell us a little about yourselves (What are your official titles? What have been your career paths? How did you get to where you are?) 

(Matt): I’m from Burlington, Vermont and currently live in Swanton. I am married with two wonderful boys. I am a platoon sergeant in the Vermont Army National Guard’s Mountain Infantry Battalion and have served in the Army for 20 years. I have two deployments (Iraq and Afghanistan – both with Steve) and we founded 14th Star Brewing together in 2011. Steve and I met in late 2000 and we knew early on that we wanted to continue to find ways to work together. After our 2010 deployment to Afghanistan, Steve and I decided to put the brewery business plan we wrote overseas into action. We never envisioned the brewery to grow as big and as fast as we did, but we find that our military experiences have helped us grow the business.

(Steve): I am originally from Highgate, Vermont and live in St. Albans with my wife and two children. I am the executive officer for the Army’s Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont. I have served in the Army for almost 23 years. I think our time in the Army, and the Vermont Army National Guard in particular, has helped us as entrepreneurs. As full-time guardsmen, we assist the traditional guard leaders who work the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” schedule in completing their goals and training objectives. Since we aren’t at the brewery full time, we use the very same tactics in leading the organization: We have a talented team of full-time staff and leaders at the brewery and simply provide them guidance and direction and let their natural talents shine.

What inspires your work with the Army, 14th Star Brewing, and in the community?

The desire to serve others and our community not only led us to joining the military, but to continue that service through our business. We believe that leaders should show others what right looks like and inspire them to “Follow Me.” We look for those very same characteristics in our employees and partners because we know that our efforts as a company can create positive outcomes in our community and show other businesses that there is a tangible benefit to serving others before serving the bottom line.

What sets 14th Star Brewing apart from other brewers? What’s its mission?

Well, we can start with amazing beer! But seriously, there is some fantastic beer being made throughout Vermont. We think the thing that sets us apart is that we have a reason for doing what we do—beer happens to be the product we create. This translates directly to our motto of “Brewed with a Mission.” This means that we work to improve the lives of our nation’s veterans and our local communities through the power of great beer.

You give to so many organizations, is there a cause or organization that you are most proud to support?

We are proud of all of our efforts in working with organizations dedicated to doing good and helping others. From the very beginning, we have been a supporter of Purple Hearts Reunited and their mission of return lost or stolen purple hearts and medals of valor to veterans and their families. We also have a very deep connection with the Josh Pallotta Fund, founded by Valeria Pallotta, the mother of a Soldier who deployed to Afghanistan in our Brigade and who took his own life after struggling with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. Outside of the veteran organizations, however, we are pursuing projects like Vermont’s first “The House That Beer Built.” Working with the Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity and gathering support from other Vermont Craft Brewers, we’re working to fund the building of a home for families in need – simply through the power of great beer. Helping these organizations certainly keeps us busy, but it is the kind of work that the brewery was founded on: Improving our communities and inspiring others to put their neighbors first.

What advice do you have for other businesses looking to impact their community?

It’s not as daunting as you think it is. The return on investment in terms of goodwill and community engagement you’ll receive from your efforts, no matter how big or small, is infectious and you’ll find that it eventually makes its way into your financials. The important part is not the size of your efforts or contributions, but the fact that you’re engaged. “Many hands make light work” and if every business were involved in the improvement of the community as a responsible corporate citizen, our little corner of the world would be a far better place!

 

Matt Kehaya, Steve Gagner, and TJ Donovan at 14th Star Brewing Company brewery14th Star Brewing Company glass with logoSteve Gagner speaking with TJ Donovan14th Star Brewing Company taproom and brewery sign