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Shala Hruska


It’s a Tuesday and Shala Hruska has one thing on her agenda: sew.

Well, not quite one thing. There’s picking up the kids from preschool, dinner, bedtime, ect., but when she’s in the studio she’s focused on her business, and today that means sewing.

Shala has owned and run her hand-made baby shoe shop, Belle and The Bear, for just over four years. It’s a job that she said she “fell into,” but also one that she’s been intentional about growing in a way that’s true to herself and her customers.

Back up a few years to before Shala started her business and her days were a jumble of diapers, feedings and keeping a close eye on her twin baby girls, Alice and Cora. Life was busy, chaotic and a bit overwhelming, but as Shala started to get the hang of being the mother of twins she came across a problem: baby shoes.

All the shoes on the market were either uncomfortable, unattractive, impractical or just too expensive. So, Shala decided to try making some shoes for herself. She took a pink suede blazer that was a thrift store find, made her own pattern and sewed her first pair of baby moccasins.

Getting the shoes to fit right took some time, but as soon as her girls started wearing the shoes she got comments and questions about where she’d bought them. She realized that she wasn’t the only one who had a problem with baby shoes, and she decided to start selling her shoes on Etsy.

Shala began sewing during nap time, late into the night and anytime she could to get her shop up and running. She didn’t expect it to grow much bigger than Etsy, after all, it was just a fun hobby and a way to make a little extra money on the side, right?

Shala wasn’t a business major and didn’t have any huge aspirations of one day owning a shop. In fact, she laughed about the fact that in college she had a million ideas but no specific major until her senior year in college – and she basically picked whatever major would get her to graduation.

So when her baby shoe business took off she was a little shocked. Sure, she thought her designs were pretty darn cute and she loved the shoes for her own girls, but she was amazed by the support and attention she was suddenly getting from the community. There were some big fans of Belle and The Bear, and some big fans of Shala and that felt good.

Despite the chaos of starting a business and caring for her family, Shala loved the fact that she could have one foot in motherhood and the other in the small business world. She expanded her Etsy site into a full-scale website and in 2015 she opened a brick and mortar shop entirely devoted to kids footwear.

Her shop carried her own designs as well as other brands that she knew of and liked. Having a shop was fun. It gave her an opportunity to interact with her customers, offer shoe fittings and it was a space for her designs to be seen and sold.

But it was also hard. Running a shop added another layer of complexity to her business and family life. Shala’s schedule was fuller and her time at home was in short supply.

After a year of running her shop, Shala decided it was time to close and exclusively sell online and wholesale. It was sad, because it felt like the store had failed in a way, she said.

But Shala didn’t close her store because shoes weren’t selling, she closed it because her brand of shoes were selling better than the other brands she carried. Opening and closing her shop showed her what she really liked about her business and what the community valued as well.

“Our shoes is us. That’s what I love and that’s what other people love,” she said. “I thought my dream was to own a shop, but what I love to do is design and make shoes and to have my own brand versus just my own store.”

Plus, Shala said she gets to spend her Saturdays on the soccer field with her kids instead of in the shop, and that feels good.

It’s not that running a business or even her full-time job as a wife and mother have become any easier, but closing her shop allowed her to run her business on her terms. Shala said that’s one of the things she’s learned over the last four years as a business owner – to trust her gut when it comes to her brand…and her story.

Shala didn’t think her story would involve sewing baby shoes, having twin girls or even living in Lincoln for that matter. To be honest, she didn’t know where her story was going to take her. She didn’t realize how much she’d love being a maker, or how connected she’d be with the maker community in Lincoln. She didn’t even anticipate how much she’d love the differences between her two girls and the life and love they bring to her story.

Shala might say that she just “fell into” running a business, but that’s not really true. Being an owner, a maker, a mother and a wife takes work, it doesn’t just happen. Her story is one that she’s built on her passions and her skills, it’s developed and changed over time, but for now it’s her normal and it’s exactly where she wants to be.

Christopher James


“Well, my mom would say it started when I was 10 or 12 years old,” said Christopher James with a smile. “I made up little business cards and I’d offer to kill bees and wasps with my bare hands.”

Back then his clients were mostly his neighbors, and his job was a way to keep busy during the summer, but it was his start in the business world.

Christopher said he always liked working with his hands, he liked to think outside the box, surprise people and keep busy. Which is probably why he’s been able to keep the door to Porridge Papers open for the past 23 years.

Paper was never on his radar, but it was a hobby that turned into a business that turned into a career. And now, Christopher can’t imagine a day without it.

During college, he studied architecture. His father was an architect and the skill and precision of the craft came easily to Christopher. But what didn’t come easily to him was the rigidity of school.

To pay for college he worked at an art shop where one of the perks of his job was a discount. Christopher would load up on all sorts of art supplies and try them out after work. He tried his hand at painting and sketching, but wasn’t very good at any form of art…until it came to paper making. The process was long, but simple and it allowed him to add in his own creative spin once he mastered the basics.

Soak, blend, strain, press, dry and repeat. This is how paper was made and it didn’t take long before Christopher was hooked.

He started selling paper at the art shop, which led him to craft shows, which eventually led him to dropping out of school, phasing out of work and making paper full time.

A lot of people considered his paper making a hobby job, and Christopher admits that’s probably what it was. But as a single guy with minimal expenses, he could afford to make paper his full-time gig. He found a spot in the Haymarket where he could run a business and live in the same space. It was exactly what he needed, until he realized he was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week and was staring burnout in the face.

He wanted to quit and he needed a break.

It was around this same time that Christopher got married and he and his wife moved to New Mexico where his wife attended graduate school. The move gave Christopher some breathing room. He spent time trying to figure out his next step and he tried a few different jobs but nothing stuck. He eventually started working at a company that had its roots in paper making and he started to feel like himself again.

One day he received a call from a previous client who needed paper for a project. He took on the job and then slowly continued to build his business back up. Christopher said he didn’t realize how much he missed the paper making process and having it back in his life gave him all kinds of new ideas. And as his confidence grew, so did his business.

After nine years in New Mexico, Christopher and his wife decided to move back to Lincoln. They had family nearby, access to good schools and Christopher knew it would be a great community to replant his business.

With fingers crossed, Christopher moved his family to Lincoln. They lived with family, looked for a house and started renovating his new work space. Coming back to Lincoln was the right thing to do, for this family and his business, but it wasn’t without its own set of challenges.

He had to re-educate the community about what Porridge Papers was about, he had to redefine his business for himself and pivot as his business grew and changed.

Christopher said he’s gone from having as many as 12 employees to one or two. He’s had 2.5 million piece projects and others that require a single sheet of paper. He’s added letterpress printing and experimented with offering paper making classes and even selling retail goods, but Christopher said he always comes back to paper.

He likes that Porridge Papers is a custom paper mill, and that’s the way he wants to keep it. Christopher said he does his best work when he has the opportunity to be creative, to give his clients great ideas and really bring out their personality with paper. This means that he’s made paper out of blue jeans, phone books and beer hops, blueberry scented paper and glitter-infused invitations.

He loves getting calls that start with the phrase, ‘This might sound strange, but could you make…’ And his classic response is, ‘We can definitely try.’

While he has 23 years of paper making under his belt, Christopher said so much of his job is about solving problems, winging it, failing, learning from failure and trying something new again. He’s not perfect and he doesn’t claim to be, but he’s also fiercely determined and isn’t willing to give up.

“There are a lot of people who never thought this would go anywhere,” he said. “But I’m still here I’m still making a living, I’m still supporting my family and in my mind that counts a lot.”

Christopher’s story has been about letting his passion write his story. It wasn’t always practical or easy, but it’s what he loved. He figured out how to turn his hobby into a career and a life that he’s proud to call his own.

Natalie Elsberry


Natalie Elsberry always knew she’d work in the wedding industry.

She loved the pretty flowers, the unbridled spirit of joy and just knowing that it was someone’s special, longed-for day.

“I was a weird kid,” she said with a laugh. “I liked all that cliche stuff.”

At first she thought she’d be a wedding planner. She’d be the woman with the ideas, the keeper of the wedding secrets and surprises and she’d do it all with ease and a little wedding-day magic. But that was far from the reality of being an actual wedding planner.

Natalie helped a few of her cousins plan their weddings, and while improvising is her strong suit, the sheer number of details zapped any wedding-day bliss that she hoped to experience.

For a while she thought about opening a wedding reception hall. She had the plans ready to go and had even scoped out a spot for her idea to take shape, but the more she thought about the logistics the less she was convinced her idea would work.

So, she circled back to what she really loved about weddings – flowers.

Now, eight years later, I Bloom. is her wedding industry job. She’s not the wedding planner or the reception hall host, she’s the flower lady and it’s the perfect job for Natalie.

Her days involve getting shipments of flowers delivered to her house, helping clients envision flowers for their weddings, designing bouquets and talking with various local and wholesale flower vendors.

Last year she and her husband moved their family to a bigger house to accommodate her growing business. They needed a bigger basement for production and a 3-car garage to house her industrial-sized flower refrigerator.

This year alone, Natalie and her assistants worked 79 weddings, and next year she expects to do more. It’s crazy, and good and so much more than she expected when she started out.

Flowers have always been part of her life, mostly because they were a major part of her mother’s life. Natalie grew up in a little house with a huge yard where her mother expanded her flower collection a little each year. The running joke is that after all of Natalie’s siblings get married in her parents’ backyard, her mom will convert any leftover green space to flower beds.

Gardening was her mother’s therapy of sorts, it was where she felt most at home and could relax from the pressures of being a mom with seven kids. Natalie said she and her siblings were often out gardening alongside her mother, pulling weeds or just running around outside.

As she got older, Natalie realized school wasn’t her thing. She went to college on and off for a few years at UNL and SCC, taking any flower and business courses that were available to her.

In 2006 she got married in her parents’ flower-filled backyard. She designed the flowers for her own wedding, using a monochromatic palette and filling every inch with romantic bouquets and centerpieces.

For the next few years, Natalie worked various full time jobs while she booked wedding gigs on the side. Her work started to get noticed by more than just friends and family and in 2008 she officially launched I Bloom.

The first year in business, Natalie booked three weddings, the next year she did twelve and the number has only grown from there.

This year was a little rough, she said with a laugh. It wasn’t uncommon to have four weddings scheduled for a single weekend this past June.

But busy isn’t a bad thing, she said. It’s growth and it’s what she always hoped for when she started I Bloom., even if it’s not all what she expected.

She didn’t plan on growing her business to the point where her family needed to move. Or that she’d be on a first-name basis with the delivery men who show up on a weekly basis with shipments of flowers. She also didn’t anticipate the kind of growth that would necessitate juggling being a full-time mom and a business owner.

Her days are full of flowers and excited brides-to-be, but they’re also full of cleaning up kid-inspired messes, keeping her family fed and playing her fair share of dolls with her three girls. Natalie’s office is on the first floor or her house, where her kids can go back and forth between their mom and their toys, but she can still stay on top of emails, meetings and Pinterest inspiration boards.

This is her life, and even in the chaos of growing her business and her family, Natalie said these last few years have felt like her sweet spot.

It feels like she’s right where she’s supposed to be, like her story is finally starting to make sense, it’s more than she bargained for at times, but it’s also a whole lot more than just flowers and weddings.

Brian Podwinski


Brian Podwinski pointed to an old stone wall in the basement of his brewery.

“That wall is probably about 116 years old,” he said, describing the history behind Robber’s Cave, the location of Blue Blood Brewing Company.

Five years ago, Brian could not have imagined standing in the basement of a historic brewery. After all, 10 years ago he was starting a government desk job and nearly 15 years ago he was putting on a Lincoln Police Department uniform for the first time.

“It’s been one crazy ride,” he said with a laugh, and you can tell by his face that he’s not kidding.

There’s a strong sense of pride and a fair share of exhaustion weaved in to Brian’s story. And while it’s not one he would have mapped out himself, it’s one he owns every day.

“Things happen for a reason, right?” he said with a shrug.

In college, Brian was on the path to medical school. He enrolled in biology and chemistry classes, but soon realized the medical field was not his calling. He took an interest in criminal justice and did an internship with the Lincoln Police Department before signing on as an officer in 2000.

Brian loved his job as a police officer. It was a great way to serve his community, and the camaraderie he built with his fellow officers was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. Sure, the job was tough, he said, but he was proud of the work he was doing and thankful for a job he loved.

After just a few years on the force, Brian was badly injured during a training exercise. Over the next year, he had three shoulder surgeries and underwent physical therapy before retiring from the Department.

“Now what?” he thought.

Brian had gone from having a job he loved to questioning his next steps. He was angry, frustrated and confused about what to do next. He ended up working a government desk job for the next few years, buying himself some time to establish a plan.

It was during this season that Brian started experimenting with home brewing. He jokes that his desk job increased his alcohol consumption, but the truth is he was just spending more time making beer than drinking the mainstream brews.

Home brewing involved creativity and a certain amount of science, he said. The process fascinated him and the end result of his work was 110 percent worth the effort. He started to wonder if just maybe brewing beer could be his full-time gig.

After working a desk job, Brian said he loved the thought of running his own business. He also loved the idea of brewing beer every day… for a living. So, over the next year or so he spent his free time working up a business plan and perfecting his brewing methods.

And in December 2011 he opened Blue Blood Brewing Company.

From the start there was a lot of momentum behind the brewery. It had been a while since a local brewing company had opened in Lincoln, and people were anxious to see what Blue Blood had to offer.

His goal was two-fold  – start his own business and keep the ingredients and talent local. He wanted to give back to the community, which sounds cliche, he said, but it was true. Brian said he was tired of hearing the big players in the beer market boast about their local ties, but their actual community impact was minimal.

“I wanted the money to stay in town, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

Currently, Blue Blood employs 70 full-time and part-time employees. That number has jumped significantly over the past few years as Brian has grown his operation and moved to a new taproom and brewing facility located above Lincoln’s historic Robber’s Cave.

It’s a big responsibility to employ that many people, he said, and it’s an even bigger job to serve his employees well. He wants to run Blue Blood with the same kind of camaraderie that he felt when he was part of the police force. Sure, the experiences are vastly different, but at the end of the day, he does his best to make his employees feel like family.

Opening a local brewery seemed like a no-brainer for Brian. It merged his passion and his talent, but it was also risky. He’d never run a business, let alone a brewery, and figuring out how to brew larger batches and manage distribution methods were entirely new territory, but he was convinced he could make it work – and he has.

What’s interesting about Brian’s story is that he used his whole story, not just the good parts, to shape his future. He could have avoided his past as an officer and stayed angry about his injury, but he didn’t. He combined his love of brewing with his devotion to the police force and found a new story, maybe even a better one.

If Brian hadn’t been injured, he’d probably still be a police officer, but he also wouldn’t own and run a brewery. The fact is, there’s no way to judge which path is better, which one would have been easier or which one would have made Brian happier.

It’s just like he said, “Everything happens for a reason, right?”

Peggy Gomez


Peggy Gomez said that Mondays are typically her busiest day at the shop. She does inventory and helps the customers who come in looking for various art supplies.

Running and owning Gomez Art Supply has become her life. It wasn’t what she set out to do, but somehow it’s become her story.

As a kid, Peggy said she was always interested in art. She grew up in Omaha as the daughter of a father with Mexican heritage and a mother with Irish blood. They were supportive of her love for art and encouraged her to pursue it during school. She earned a Bachelors in Fine Arts at UNL and her Master’s in Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota, before returning to Lincoln to teach.

Peggy taught at the University for nearly 10 years, specializing in drawing and printmaking, and while she enjoyed working with the students, she said she knew she didn’t want teaching to be her full-time gig.

She remembers overhearing students talk about how they wished there was a local place to buy art supplies in Lincoln. The big stores were either not helpful or many were located far from campus. Back when Peggy was in school, there were small art shops in town, but they’d since closed, giving her the idea that just maybe she could open an art supply shop.

The idea slowly grew over the years and eventually she quit her job at the University with the hopes of starting her own business.

But in 2002, time stood still for Peggy. Her father passed away, leaving a big void in her life, and causing her to take some time off to figure out her next step.

Her father was the kind of dad everyone hopes they have, she said. He was always showering her and her two sisters with encouraging words, often looking them in the eyes and saying, ‘Did I tell you how much I love you today?’

“In life, if you’re lucky, you get what you need in a family,” Peggy said. “And my dad was the one we were all closest to.”

She still wishes he could have been around when she opened the doors to Gomez Art Supply in the fall of 2003. Her father was a businessman himself, who would have loved to see Peggy settle on a career, she said, but she always knew he was proud of her.

She intentionally named the shop ‘Gomez’ as a tribute to her father. It’s a good name, she said, and he was a good man – she keeps an old picture of him hanging on a wall behind the register in the shop.

Most days, Peggy said, she’s proud of how she’s kept her shop open and thriving for 13 years – and she knows her dad would be proud too. She’s got grit and lots of staying power, she’s not easily swayed and isn’t fussy about the little things.

When a big name art supply shop moved in just blocks from her shop, she thought maybe her days were numbered, but they weren’t. Peggy’s connection and support from the University, along with her integration into the Lincoln small business community have made her and her shop a well-known and loved part of downtown Lincoln.

But there are bad days too, she said. Her heart still sinks when a customer leaves a bad online review or when she overhears people in the shop complain.

It feels personal, she said, and the hardest part is learning how to develop a thick skin. Sure, her business isn’t all of who she is, but there is so much about Peggy that’s tied to her work.

When Peggy isn’t in the shop, she’s running the Tugboat art gallery in collaboration with other local artists. The gallery is a place where artists of all kinds can show their work and engage with the community. She doesn’t financially benefit from this kind of work, she just does it. It’s her way of giving back to Lincoln and supporting something she values.

Being a supportive part of the community was always in her rough sketch of a business plan. It’s something her dad did, and something she knew she wanted to be part of her legacy as well.

Gomez Art Supply is where Peggy saw her hazy future clear up. It’s where her love of art, community and quality converged. It’s a place that bears her family name, and one that she’s proud to own and operate even on the days when it’s stressful and overwhelming.

It isn’t a big art superstore and it never will be. It has hand-drawn murals and signs, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. It’s got character, spunk and it has weathered its fair share of uncertainty, but it’s Peggy’s shop and when she shuts off the lights and locks the door, that’s what matters.

Pepe Fierro


It’s nerve-wracking to open a business, and Pepito ‘Pepe’ Fierro has done it three times.

As the owner of Pepe’s Bistro, Pepe serves up vegan and vegetarian inspired Mexican dishes that feature ingredients from local farmers and vendors. The Bistro is his dream come to life, and he’s taking his third stab at making his concept stick after a few ups and downs over the past few years.

But resilience is in Pepe’s blood. He’s overcome more than just low profits and small customer turnout during his life.

Pepe was raised by a single mom who made the most out of every situation. She made little things, like meal time, an adventure by using leftovers in surprising and delicious new ways, Pepe said. She was extremely innovative and didn’t waste food, mostly because they couldn’t afford to waste.

At the age of 14 he started working in the restaurant business and dropped out of school when he was 17.

As he got older, Pepe stayed in the restaurant business even when he moved to Florida and tried out college. After a few years he dropped out to keep working. Pepe said he had so many ideas, but he never managed to find the right fit. He liked architecture and art, cooking and sustainable living techniques, but there wasn’t one degree that fit his long list of passions.

Eventually, Pepe was on the move again. He jumped in his station wagon and drove until he felt like stopping, which is how he ended up in Lincoln.

He lived out of his car for a few months while he worked and saved money for an apartment. Pepe said he felt out of place being a 37-year-old, homeless waiter, but he liked Lincoln and thought maybe it was where he could really start something of his own.

Over time, Pepe found ways to make Lincoln his home. He dug an old bike out of a dumpster and made friends at a local bike shop who graciously helped him fix up the bike to ride to work. He discovered the farmers market and the abundance of fresh, locally grown produce. And then Pepe started dreaming a little.

He thought to himself, ‘Why don’t more restaurants use this amazing produce? Why couldn’t I open a tiny shop that served fresh, vegetarian Mexican food?’

But Pepe quickly discounted his idea. After all, he was broke and opening a restaurant was definitely not a possibility. However, he started experimenting at home with vegetarian entrees that he could serve his customers, IF his dream ever became a reality.

In the meantime, Pepe kept waiting tables and fishing bike parts out of dumpsters. One day while driving around to garage sales in the Havelock neighborhood, Pepe stumbled across a space that he immediately thought would be perfect for his dreamed-up restaurant. He excitedly started sharing his idea with the woman who currently rented the space and she offered to pitch his idea to the owners.

“Oh no,” Pepe said. “I’m broke! I’m just a waiter! I couldn’t afford to do this.”

Despite all his protesting, the landlord offered Pepe an incredible deal on the space and Pepe couldn’t refuse.

So there he was, a restaurant owner with a million ideas except for where to begin. Pepe quickly furnished his space with mis-matched chairs and tables that he picked up at garage sales and decorated the walls with bike parts and other artwork. Then, he started on the food.

He focused on using seasonal vegetables and simple techniques to deliver fresh, creative entrees to his customers – and it worked. Pepe quickly gained a following of vegetarian and non-vegetarian fans who loved his simple methods and tasty food.

From 2008 to 2012, Pepe’s Bistro was located in Havelock and then he decided to move the business to Indian Village with the hope of reaching more customers. It was a big move and while it offered him more space, the flow of customers slowed down so much that he had to shut his doors in early 2016.

When this happened Pepe said he was a wreck. He’d had his dream, moved his restaurant to grow and then ended up losing what he’d worked for. He’d created a place that valued community, sustainability and championed the local farmers, but suddenly it was gone.

Then, the phone rang.

The owner of Indigo Bridge offered Pepe some space in their coffee shop to serve up food. So over the summer Pepe transformed a 10×10 area of Indigo Bridge into his mini restaurant.

He reopened Pepe’s Bistro on August 1, offering a daily special and his beloved chips, salsa and guacamole.  

Pepe is relieved to be cooking again. He had a big smile on his face as he dished up roasted vegetable tacos and topped them with cabbage and pico de gallo. Despite the many ups and downs in Pepe’s story, he’s thankful for where his story has led him.

He came to Lincoln on a whim, but quickly made the city his home. He made friends, supported local businesses and added his own flair to the restaurant industry.

Pepe’s story is about resilience, asking questions, making things better and never quitting. He’s a man with lots of dreams, one of which is playing out in front of him, and the rest… well, Pepe said he’ll never be done dreaming.

Rebecca Ankenbrand


Like lots of American kids, Rebecca Ankenbrand grew up eating and making her fair share of chocolate chip cookies.

There was just something so warm and comforting about the melted chocolate chips, and Rebecca figured out early on that she was a young chocolate-addict.

These days, Rebecca’s love of chocolate has only intensified. But this time when she reaches for a bag of chocolate, it’s not the store-bought variety – it’s her own concoction.

Over the past few years Rebecca has trained herself in the art of bean-to-bar chocolate making. She buys her own cacao beans, roasts them, grinds the cacao and mixes up her own form of chocolate magic.

As the chocolate maker at Sweet Minou, located inside of Cultiva Labs on 25th and Randolph streets, Rebecca’s days are filled with the noise of grinding beans, spinning bowls of tempered chocolate and the rich aroma of chocolate. 

But Rebecca doesn’t just love the taste of chocolate, she’s fascinated by the wide variety of cacao beans from around the world.

During high school, Rebecca said she transitioned from her beloved milk chocolate to dark chocolate. She started reading articles about the health benefits of dark chocolate, researching how it’s grown and processed and how beans from different countries vary in flavor.

Some cacao beans have an almost fruity taste, and others are more fermented and earthy. While it didn’t take much, if any, training for Rebecca to love chocolate, she has since trained her palette to know where the cacao beans are grown when she tastes chocolate.

Her research opened up a whole new world of chocolate. Soon, she was buying the most unique chocolate wherever she could – online, on family trips or at speciality stores. When her mom asked her what she wanted for Christmas one year, Rebecca sent her to an online chocolate retailer.

Over time chocolate became Rebecca’s hobby instead of just her favorite treat.

In college, Rebecca studied English and French before studying abroad in France. She was shocked to see that every small town she visited in France had its own chocolate shop and chocolate culture. Rebecca took specific side trips to various regions where she could learn more about chocolate making and taste confections from around the world.

When she got back from her trip she worked toward her Master’s degree in French, but also started experimenting with chocolate on the side. She’d bring in treats to her classmates and family members and they all said the same thing – “Learning French is great, but maybe you should make a career out of chocolate…”

She tucked that thought away while she finished her Master’s degree and tried to figure out what she wanted to do next. Rebecca knew she wasn’t interested in teaching and she wasn’t ready to get a PhD, so she decided some kitchen experience might help her with chocolate making.

She started working at Cultiva, chopping and prepping food for its high volume of customers and she really enjoyed the experience. Eventually the owners of Cultiva found out that Rebecca was making chocolate in her spare time and asked her if there was some way they could incorporate her chocolate into the shop. So, in December 2015, Rebecca  and the Cultiva owners officially launched Sweet Minou.

It’s been a great collaboration, Rebecca said, because Cultiva is obsessed with great coffee in the same way that she’s obsessed with chocolate. She said it feels pretty great to call herself a full-time chocolate maker, and her hope is that this is just the beginning.

Rebecca laughed a little when she thought about her high school self being obsessed with buying and tasting chocolate. It seems a little silly, she said, and yet also completely normal.

Rebecca makes chocolate because in some way she feels like that’s what she’s supposed to be doing. It’s her way of supporting ethically sourced materials, creating a unique product and establishing her own chocolate culture in Lincoln, Nebraska.

When she tells people she’s a bean-to-bar chocolate maker they often give her a funny look because it’s not a ‘typical’ job, but that’s yet another thing Rebecca loves about her work.

Her story is about moving toward her passion, learning and taking risks. She has carved out a place for herself in the world of chocolate and she’s determined stay in her sweet spot.

Luann Finke


Luann Finke wanders among the shrubs, flowers, trees and ornamental grasses at her nursery. She stops to take note of a few particularly lush leaves, point out an intricate flower and notice an area of new growth on a young tree.

She and her husband, Rich, have owned and run Finke Gardens and Nursery for almost 30 years. But Finke Gardens is not just a place to buy plants, Luann’s biggest goal is to educate customers and the community.

The best way she teaches others is by example. Luann’s life is focused on sustainability and conscious decision-making. It’s a way of life she came by naturally as a native of Geneva, Nebraska, who grew up in her family’s garden.

“For my family, gardening was a way of life,” she said. “You produced the food that you ate throughout the year.”

She remembers her father and grandfather planting and maintaining their massive garden while her mother worked in the kitchen to cook and can the harvest each year. Between the two jobs, Luann found herself in the garden more than the kitchen as a child and grew to love the subtle, yet intricate details of plant-life.

While she loved gardening, Luann didn’t intend to make it her career. In college, she worked her way through five different majors before discovering horticulture. She didn’t know what type of job it would provide for her, but the subject matter fascinated Luann and soon she was hooked.

As an undergraduate student, Luann was the first employee at the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum and traveled around the state collecting cuttings and seeds from native plants. She was quickly immersed in a culture of shared knowledge and a mission to diversify the availability of native plants throughout the state.

She went on to earn her graduate degree from the University, which is where she met Rich. The two were students in the same department and shared a passion for learning and educating others about plants. They worked on community projects, spoke at the State Fair about plant diversity and helped people understand plants in a way that wasn’t being taught anywhere else. After graduating, Rich and Luann got married and continued their work together.

They were a good team. So, when people started asking Rich and Luann for help with their personal gardens, the plant duo decided it was time to start their own company.

At that point, neither of them had business experience. Luann had worked in the Nebraska Extension office and served as the Education Director for the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, but she’d never run her own business. Despite their lack of experience, Rich and Luann knew their business needed to do two things – offer a great diversity of plants and earn a reputation as an honest business that did things right.

Those are two tenets that have served the Finkes well over the years.

When they started out, Rich and Luann grew all of their own plants at their acreage, just outside of Lincoln. Now, they’ve moved their production to a 7-acre stretch of greenhouses and fields between 66th and 70th streets, just north of ‘O’ Street.

In the “old days” they sent out a paper newsletter to customers and neighbors touting their sales and informing readers about planting and growing tips. Now, this newsletter only comes in digital form.

When they started out, Luann was uncertain about how to promote their new business. Now, she handles all the marketing, speaking and community events that she can to connect with the community.

But what hasn’t changed over the past 30 years is Luann’s passion for sustainability. Even small things like recycling and efficient water usage are key elements of her work that reinforce her values. When a customer asks her for plant suggestions, she’s quick to inquire about their location and soil content, so that she can determine what kind of plant would thrive in their environment. 

But it goes a little deeper than that. Luann’s work isn’t just during business hours, it’s a lifestyle. At home, she and Rich plant a garden and have all sorts of plant experiments growing around their house, and Luann has taken up cooking and canning as a way to keep fresh, local produce in her home during the year.

By all definitions, Luann is an expert at what she does. She’s studied, researched and worked in the field to hone her craft, but unlike some other experts, she’s not afraid to share what she’s learned.

Her story is about using her knowledge to better serve others.

The sharing is what keeps her going. Whether she’s handing out her personal pesto recipe to a customer or teaching a class at the greenhouse, sharing is what Luann does best.

When Luann retires, she dreams of inviting small groups of people out to her acreage to host garden-to-table cooking classes. They’ll learn, taste and experience the joy of being connected to where their food comes from.

But Luann isn’t thinking of retiring anytime soon. She has plenty of work to do, and that’s just the way she likes it.

Buzz Vance


He doesn’t wear a special suit, no gloves or mask. Just jeans, a t-shirt and his baseball hat. He moves slowly but deliberately, he knows what he’s doing. After all, he’s being doing this for 36 years.

‘Buzz’ Vance is a beekeeper.

No, his real name isn’t ‘Buzz,’ but his fitting nickname did come into play before he became a beekeeper.

What started out as a hobby in graduate school has now turned into a part time business that keeps Buzz pretty busy in addition to his regular job.

On Wednesday afternoons during the summer, Buzz is with his bees. He’ll check on the majority of his 50 hives, containing somewhere between 40-50,000 bees each, looking in on the queen bees, honey levels and the overall look of the hives.

He gets almost giddy around the bees, proudly talking about their fierce loyalty to the queen and pointing to the areas of liquid gold they’ve already created in the combs.

Simply put, Buzz loves bees. That’s probably not surprising at this point, but his love of bees actually came from a long-held fascination with bugs.

As a kid, Buzz was that toddler picking up and prodding every bug he could get his hands on. His mother encouraged his interest in bugs by taking him to the local library to check out any book he could about every bug variation.

Remember his nickname? Well before it was ‘Buzz,’ his uncle gave him the nickname ‘Bugs’ because of his unending interest in any and every bug he saw.

In college it seemed only natural that Buzz chose to study entomology at UNL. He went on to earn a Master’s degree, and while in school his friends changed his nickname of ‘Bugs’ to ‘Buzz’ and it just stuck.

During graduate school Buzz started tinkering with his first two bee hives. He was fascinated by how the bees understood their intricate roles and how they created such a delicious byproduct.

But being a beekeeper has never been Buzz’s full-time gig. He was a pastor and has also worked multiple jobs within the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Over the past few years, Buzz has really kicked up his beekeeping. He wanted to see if he was up for the challenge. He said it was kind of like a competition he had with himself to see how much honey he could produce with the bees he had.

At one point he had so much extra honey that he needed to start selling it, and that’s when he got a booth at the farmer’s market. Now, he has a long list of regulars who ask for honey throughout the year – even though he only harvests honey twice during the summer.

It’s a lot to keep up with, but Buzz likes the challenge.

He says he produces somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 gallons of honey each year. It’s a lot of honey, but also a lot of bees… the actual count of bees is probably somewhere in the millions he said.

When asked if he’d been stung a lot, he laughed.

“Oh yeah,” he said, but it doesn’t really bother him. The bees don’t mean anything by it, and they really only get aggressive when they feel threatened.

But Buzz doesn’t just have bees for the honey, he does it to learn. He raises queen bees, maintains his 50 hives and extracts and bottles all of his own honey. It’s not an easy or simple process, but for Buzz, it’s about learning.

“You can never learn everything there is about bees,” he said. “They are complicated and fascinating, and I still learn new things about bees after 36 years.”

If Buzz could go back to school just to study bees, he’d do it. But for now, he’s content tending to his hives and mentoring new beekeepers about the delicate process.

Being outside with his bees is where Buzz comes to life. It’s the place he smiles the most and gets excited about the intricate details of the bees and their work. He’s proud of what he does and the way he’s cultivated a hobby into a business, and it’s what makes his story that much sweeter.

Brooke Mullen


“I love your necklace!”

It’s a phrase that Brooke Mullen hears a lot, and it’s not just about her necklaces. It’s her purses, scarves, rings, bracelets – basically all of her accessories.

Brooke has great style, but she also knows where all of her accessories were made. She knows the names of the artisans, where they live and how they learned their craft.

She knows all of this because Brooke owns Sapahn (pronounced “s-uh-pawn”), a fair-trade and ethically sourced accessory shop that she runs from Lincoln and Thailand.

She and her husband, Matt, have lived in Thailand for the past eight years and Brooke spends about three months in Nebraska every year to visit family and host Sapahn trunk shows.

It seems like a rather odd career choice for someone who spent most of her growing up years in Lincoln, Nebraska, and yet, Brooke said she’s not at all surprised by the kind of work she’s doing.

It’s adventurous and exciting, risky and stressful and it’s 100 percent Brooke.

But Sapahn is not why Brooke and Matt went to Thailand in the first place. Their main goal was to learn.

Matt worked toward his Master’s degree in Human Rights and Brooke worked with local nonprofits. Eventually Brooke also got her Master’s degree and Matt moved on to a PhD, but in the process, Brooke noticed something about Thailand.

The Thai people are exquisite craftsmen. Brooke spent lots of time visiting busy markets, talking with the men and women who made made blankets, scarves and jewelry and then she’d ask them where she could see these items being made.

“In our village,” they’d say.

Much to their surprise, Brooke would eagerly ask them to take her there.

“But it’s 12 hours away,” they’d protest.

“That’s ok,” she’d say. “When can I come with you?”

Brooke had a lot of conversations like this at the market, and they were followed up with long, hot bus rides to small Thai villages.

That’s really where Sapahn started, with Brooke watching in awe as a local artisan intricately created a one-of-a-kind item using a method passed down from generation to generation.

But it was also a little sad, Brooke said. So many of these talented artists couldn’t afford to take their goods to sell at the larger markets in big cities. Brooke was determined to find a better way for these people to display and sell their creations.

Around the same time, Matt and Brooke met Marie Tu. She was a bright, happy girl who worked and took care of her family. She had some education but knew that she needed more to properly provide for her family.

Matt and Brooke offered to help her earn some extra money to put toward her tuition.

Brooke packed up a few suitcases full of purses, scarves and jewelry on their trip back to the United States and hosted a small trunk show, with all the proceeds going toward Marie’s tuition money. She called her trunk sale ‘Sapahn,’ the Thai word for bridge, because she was bridging a gap between people, cultures and communities. She sold out in one night.

They raised $1,000 on that first trip, and much more over the next few years for Marie’s tuition.

But all of this got Brooke thinking – if people loved the items she was bringing back to the States, maybe there was a way to help these Thai artisans and provide people with high-quality goods.

And that’s how Sapahn turned into a business. What started out as a way to earn scholarship money, morphed into a model that now provides 10 Thai communities – involving 500 artists –with a fair return on their handmade goods.

This is what she’s spent the last six years doing, growing Sapahn between Lincoln and Thailand.

In Thailand, Brooke spends time with each of the artisans, collaborating on new designs that she launches every year. She looks for inspiration at local markets, picks out fabrics and plans for the upcoming season.

Back in the U.S., things slow down a little bit. Brooke hosts trunk shows, meets with fellow entrepreneurs and spends a lot of time dreaming about how she wants Sapahn to grow.

It’s all been very organic, but also intentional, Brooke said.

The growth of Sapahn has been slow but steady, and people are really connecting with her mission. And for Brooke, that’s the best part.

She’s not just selling pretty accessories and she’s not just running a business, Sapahn is about exposure. It’s about giving local artists a chance to be heard, a chance to tell their story and a chance for others to get involved.

Brooke loves it when people ask about her jewelry, scarves or purses. It’s an open door to sharing about the people who are behind the items that she wears every day, but it’s also a window into Brooke’s own story.

Brooke has made the story of others her story. She’s leveraged her curiosity and passion in a way that helps others, and she’s asking her customers to do the same.

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