Features

Voices in the Wilderness

Jennifer Chong ’10 • Jay Kumar ’88 • Therese Ojibway ’78 • Ann Armbrecht ’84 • Charles Baron ’05
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Jennifer Chong ’10
Minimalist Luxe
Econ major cuts an unusual path in the leather goods market.

When Chong’s boyfriend, Roman Khan, needed a laptop bag for work, they figured it would be a quick, easy purchase. But as Chong puts it, everything they saw was poorly made, too expensive or covered with logos. “If you’re the kind of person who’s looking for something that will last a long time, it’s really hard to find,” she says. “Or you’re looking at things that are way overpriced just because of the brand name.” 

That’s when Chong decided to design a bag herself, a personal project that soon turned into Linjer, a line of leather goods and accessories that she and Khan launched in 2014. The name means “lines” in Norwegian, a reference to its minimalist aesthetic. Building a reputation for quality mostly by word of mouth, the company generated $1 million in sales in its first 14 months. Chong says their bags are made at the same factories as some high-end brands but without the luxury markup, adding that customers are attracted to Linjer’s craftsmanship, premium materials and refined look. In fact, there’s a waitlist for its $489 soft briefcase. “It has something of a cult following online,” she says. 

Worried that traditional investors might pressure them to cut corners to boost revenue, Chong and Khan turned to crowdfunding to get Linjer off the ground. Their first campaign on Indiegogo raised $50,000 in 48 hours. “There were strangers from all around the world giving us money because they believed in what we were doing,” says Chong. Since then, they’ve run three more successful campaigns, including a $1 million effort last year that helped launch a collection of watches, which run about $250. Business Insider recently predicted Linjer is “poised to become the industry’s next breakout watch brand.” Chong notes that crowdfunding not only raises capital, it’s also an economical way to promote the company and conduct market research. “Through the campaigns we learned so much about what styles or colors are popular,” she says. “This way, we can avoid sinking too much into inventory that might not move.” 

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto, Chong worked as a management consultant for clients in the United States, Russia and the Middle East for two years following graduation. She quit her job in 2013 and joined Khan in Bangkok, where he was working for an e-commerce firm. Chong planned to start a shoe company, but switched to bags after the response to Khan’s briefcase revealed an untapped niche. After a failed partnership with a Chinese factory, Chong and Khan changed to manufacturers in Italy, prompting them to move to Florence to better oversee production. “We had to build all new relationships from scratch,” she says. 

Right now, Chong has plans to expand Linjer’s offerings with a line of lower-priced canvas bags and more watch styles later this year [view images of her designs here]. She’d also like to go beyond selling online and get the brand into select retail stores worldwide. Hiring employees is a priority, too—until recently, she and Khan were the only ones. “You work so hard and it can be nerve wracking at times,” says Chong of being an entrepreneur. “But the reward has always been really, really worth it.”  —Heather Salerno

 

Jay Kumar ’88
Fish Head

Most people think fishing is all lures and lakes—friends sitting on the bank of a river, bobbers floating aimlessly. “They think it’s luck, which everyone who really fishes knows isn’t true,” says Kumar, who runs BassBlaster, a twice-weekly email blast he started in 2012. Kumar grew up in a family steeped in higher education—his father taught biochemistry at Rutgers and his mother had a Ph.D. in education—but he came to Dartmouth with another goal: to fish. He changed his major sophomore year from premed to psychology when he realized his organic chemistry labs would cut into his fishing time. After stints in journalism, consulting and freelancing (Kumar published Dark Woods—a novel billed as “Jaws of the woods”—in 2004), he focused on his passion: bass fishing. He launched BassFan.com, a website dedicated to professional bass fishing, and created BassFan World Rankings. “It took 18 months before BassFan made any money,” says Kumar, who brought in funding from advertising and sponsorships. “I second-mortgaged my house to build the content management system and the front end.”

Timing was everything: Soon after Kumar launched BassFan.com, ESPN bought Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (which Kumar calls “the fishing organization—period”) and the media surrounding the sport took off. In the early 2000s the website grew into OutdoorsFan Media, then the world’s largest group of websites (five), covering competitive outdoor sports and encompassing a membership program, two tournaments and an annual magazine. Kumar sold the company in 2006. Today he runs consulting firm Sasquatch Media and BassBlaster, an often-humorous sendup of recent tournaments, tips and headlines such as “Mega Melons of the Week!” And although the self-proclaimed “fish head” plumbs the depths of the water around his New Jersey home, a perk of the job is the opportunity to fish around the country. “I’ve been spoiled—I get to go to the places where they have really big bass,” he says. “My favorite fishing spots are in Florida and Texas and the Great Lakes.”  —Abigail Drachman-Jones ’03

 

Therese Ojibway ’78
Fairy Architect

One day about five years ago, Ojibway was hiking near her New Jersey home when a tree’s hollow caught her eye. Growing up in Minnesota with 10 siblings, Ojibway had left tiny notes and bits of food in nooks for fairies and delighted in stories about “little houses, little things, little people,” she says.

“Back in the deep recesses of my memory were these memories of fairy houses,” Ojibway says. “So when I saw this, I started thinking, ‘If someone lived out here in the woods, what sort of things would they have?’ ”

Ojibway had been exploring the South Mountain Reservation for two decades, since her son, Clinton, was 3 and newly diagnosed with autism. On her travels around the state as a provider of early intervention services to children with autism, Ojibway began collecting bits of organic material she fashioned into delicate fairy furniture and homes—fan-shaped fungi for couch cushions, a few twigs glued into a tiny ladder.

With Clinton, now 26 and an avid hiker, as Ojibway’s trail assistant, the houses proliferated. Soon, the “South Mountain Fairy Trail,” as Ojibway dubbed it on the anonymous Facebook page she created, was attracting attention from locals and then from The New York Times and other publications [view a slideshow of the Fairy Trail on the Times website]. Publicity stoked more interest. Fairy tourists now mob the trail, with many children wearing fairy wings and contributing their own homes.

At the trailhead Ojibway has fashioned a welcome station with a tiny, fairy-sized bench and a sign reminding builders to keep materials all-natural: “Fairies Like: Acorns, pine cones, shells, flowers and pretty stones. Not plastic.” It is written with a wood burning tool, she says, “so it looks like it was done by the fairies.”  —Kaitlin Bell Barnett ’05

 

Ann Armbrecht ’84
Herbal Essence

Plenty of Americans shop organic and trace where their food comes from, but far fewer people apply these same standards to medicine. “Herbal medicine is way out in left field, because it’s scarier,” says Armbrecht, an anthropologist and Fulbright scholar from Vermont. Last spring she launched the Sustainable Herbs Project, a multimedia website that educates the herb world about the importance of quality, profiles growers around the world and tracks plants through the supply chain. The project grew out of Numen: The Nature of Plants, a film Armbrecht made with her husband, Terrence Youk. She launched the project with help from grants and $65,000 she made from a Kickstarter campaign.

“I was really interested in the deeper disconnect between the values of herbal medicine and the production processes for manufacturing the products that most herbalists are using,” she says. “The U.S. herb industry is known for buying the cheapest herbs, which are also the lowest-quality herbs. Quality means not just the efficacy of the herb but also how the land is cared for and how the people are cared for. The plants are only as good as the steps along the way. If they’re dried poorly or harvested at the wrong time, they’re not going to be as potent as if people are really paying attention.”

Armbrecht, who grew up in West Virginia, earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard and studied the impact of a conservation area on a remote community in Nepal. “It was about a relationship with a living entity, something that’s alive that we have a respect and care for, not just take from.” Returning to the United States a year and a half later, she was reeling from the adjustment to mainstream American culture. A friend invited her to an herbal conference, and she was hooked. “I thought, ‘Oh! I’ll be an herbalist!’ What struck me about herbal medicine is that it is a set of beliefs and practices that are going to save the world.” —Abigail Drachman-Jones ’03

 

Charles Baron ’05
Farm Smart

Baron is a cofounder of Farmers Business Network (FBN), one of the fastest growing companies in one of the most cutting-edge fields in Silicon Valley: “agtech.” His entrance into agriculture, however, was more traditional. “I got in the old-fashioned way: I married into Nebraska,” says Baron, who met his future wife, Ashley, while at Dartmouth. 

A few years after graduating with a history degree, Baron worked harvesting crops on his future brother-in-law’s farm in the Cornhusker State—and became fascinated by the challenges that face American farmers. “No other major industry of such fundamental importance to society as food is so completely dependent on small family businesses,” he says. “And few other small businesses are so much at the mercy of global factors beyond their control, from weather to Big Ag to global commodities markets.”

Baron now helps farmers level the playing field through big data. His technology platform enables members, who pay about $500 for an annual subscription, to share information and buy farm supplies online. It aggregates data from farmers so they can determine everything from the best seeds to plant to how much pesticides to use to when they should plant and harvest crops. As more big agriculture companies such as Bayer and Monsanto consolidate, Baron says, farmers need to network to stay competitive.

Clearly, farmers agree: In just two years FBN has grown to support more than 12 million acres of farmland—a combined acreage larger than Maryland—in more than 30 states. It’s not only caught the attention of farmers, but investors, including Google and Campbell’s Soup. But Baron says FBN is just scratching the surface. “We’ve grown incredibly quickly,” he says, “because the entire farm system needs to be reinvented.”  —Keith Chapman, Adv’12

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