Changemakers is a column about the power of small. For tips and story ideas, or to let us know about an accelerator or competition, email Skyler Rossi, [email protected]
Michele “Shellie” Perrie worked the rental desk and led tours at Indian Head, Maryland-based Atlantic Kayak for four years. When the previous owner decided to sell the business, she and her husband, Joe, jumped at the opportunity to purchase the beloved kayak business.
Shellie has always been interested in water life— she was a fisheries biologist, but left that career behind years ago to homeschool the couple’s kids. While owning the business is much more work, it’s work that she loves. And now, instead of earning an hourly wage, she gets to work for herself.
When the couple took ownership, Shellie knew the ins and outs of helping kayakers explore the Potomac River — such as the tour of Mallows Bay, which guides kayakers over a fleet of 100 sunken ships that were built for World War I. They never sailed, were turned over for salvage and eventually abandoned in the bay off the Potomac River.
What she didn’t know yet was the “back of house,” like sales and marketing. They’ve spent the last year figuring it out.
“What we decided to do was run the property exactly like it had been run for the previous few years,” said Joe, who spent most of his career as a warehouse manager. “Then we would learn enough about the business side to make some educated decisions in a year.” They’ve brought in about $100,000 in gross revenue this season, he said.
Soon, the couple hopes to expand the company’s tours to new locations in what they’re calling “pop up tours” at different bodies of water around the Washington, D.C. region.
Judy Lathrop, a lawyer with a passion for kayaking, opened Atlantic Kayak in 1985 in Alexandria, Virginia. She owned the rental and tour company until 2018, when Kimberly DeMarr purchased the company from her and moved it to where it’s located now in Indian Head. The Perries took ownership earlier this year from DeMarr.
Renting from Atlanitc, local kayakers spend a few hours on Mattawoman Creek nearby or take a tour of Mallows Bay. After the Washingtonian highlighted Atlantic Kayak in an article about the Potomac River last year, the company gained more national attention. Joe said people who book tours and rent kayaks from out of town often say they read about the tours in the article.
The inlets and creeks along the Potomac River, leading to the Cheasapeak Bay are havens the Perries love to share with others. “It’s like stepping back in time,” he said.
“There’s a lot of history at Mallows Bay, and it really extends from pre-Revolutionary War to the present,” he said. “When you can actually go visit a place that can represent that history, it’s like going to a museum.”
Traffic in 2020 was slower than usual because of the pandemic, Joe said. But things have picked up during the current season, which runs from May until November, so far, they’ve had 50% more customers than last year.
“People were saying to us, hey, it is so great that you guys are here, you’re open — we’ve been stuck in our apartments all winter, we’re dying to get outside,” Joe said.
On the weekends, which typically are the busiest, the Perries and their team of 10 lead two tours per day, with up to 20 people each. Typically, about 25 people rent kayaks on the busiest days. Tours range from $25 for an hour to $85 for a few.
Currently, renters can only go on the Mattawoman Creek or Mallows Bay. Next season, the Perries hope to expand to up to six different locations for their “pop-up tours” and see which ones fare well for future seasons. They’ve have been in talks with Charles County to get their kayakers out on Chapel Point on the Port Tobacco River, he said.
“That’s how we really plan on growing our business — by offering more activity to the paddle enthusiasts,” he said.
Q&A: Is London Better For Women Entrepreneurs?
I spoke with London Founder Institute Director Mercedes Bankson on Sept. 10 about London’s ecosystem and supporting women in entrepreneurship. Investments in women likely won’t spark from the U.S. she said. Instead, it will be countries with more government initiatives.
The Founder Institute is an idea-stage incubator with programs in nearly 200 cities. Bankson, who grew up in the U.S., is the program’s London director. She’s also the founder of FunderStar, an equity crowdfunding firm that focuses on successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo companies.
Responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness
What have you found are the key ways to support women founders in a way that actually makes them successful?
I think they’re successful because they took in mentorship really well. To be an entrepreneur, you need to be receptive to other people’s ideas, which also means being receptive to people critiquing your business or your product, and being receptive to your customers. So I think in a sense, women are really good listeners. They’re not afraid to pivot. There is such a thing as being too in love with your idea or loving your business too much that you can’t see through how to change it. And, you know, the particular cohort that graduated before the pandemic, life really changed within an 18 month period so rapidly, and it was the women who took on those changes. I think there’s some resiliency that women have, that’s just really natural, that allows them to become great business people, and to take in feedback and to move forward.
Sometimes I just think you just have to jump in. Don’t be afraid to learn something new. Like we don’t need to know everything. And you have natural curiosity and a thirst for learning that you’re going to be able to go into like different roles or be able to create your own company, you just have to believe in yourself. And I think that’s the number one issue that actually I kind of face within Founder’s Institute is like we have women that join and that it’s their lack of confidence that holds them down. And, you know, I can try my best to give them a boost. But you know, ultimately they do the work. And they see the results. That is the biggest factor of confidence.
You’ve noted a report that said that London has a better startup ecosystem than Silicon Valley. What about its ecosystem makes it so successful?
I think the government has been instrumental for startups in the UK. And the UK, I think, just in general is really great for small businesses. Internet shopping has taken over, Amazon has come around, but British people still love to buy local. They still love to buy from people that they know.
There’s so many initiatives from a government level, that we have entrepreneurs always tapping into, where they’re coming to us and saying, Oh, well, Mayor Khan has put out this initiative and my company actually helps solve that problem.
On the flip side, we have people who are really well read, and they create a company to solve this problem that London has. It’s kind of beautiful that people care. Like, they’re not necessarily in it for the money. So when they compare, like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and British entrepreneurs, you find that the British cohort is all about, how do I help and solve problems in my area, or the world. And there’s lots of grants and funding that help with that. Whereas I think, in Silicon Valley, we have some really big ideas, but it’s just very different.
Is the ecosystem welcoming to women?
in British society, there’s still like this idea of a class system, like you have to do all the things within a certain level of your job, and then you get to this rank, and then you’re there for a couple years, and then you’re allowed to go to the next step.
We have people who join the Founder Institute, because they hit this corporate barrier. And oftentimes, it’s because they feel like they’re a minority, or maybe they feel like it’s gender based. But then they come to FI with an amazing idea. They make it work. Then they make much more money than they ever made for the corporation. A lot of our cohorts have over 50% women. I think if you’re just naturally open, and you’re truly open, then people will come and seek you out.
Do you think that we’re working towards a place where the investment industry will be more equitable towards women? Do you think we’ll ever get there?
Absolutely. For the past 100 years, essentially, VCs have been run by white men, who are a little bit older. That landscape is changing. There’s other funds that are all about fem-tech. There’s other people that only want to invest in women, are only investing in minorities, some of them only want to invest in very specific niches.
But when you look at where the changes will happen, it won’t be in the United States. It’s internationally. That’s because those markets haven’t been as developed as the United States. There’s lots of initiatives out there, like Singapore, their government has created initiatives for VCs, and absolutely, women are going to take part of that. And who are they going to fund? Probably people like themselves.
Schmidt Futures: $4 Million For Education Innovation
Barriers for learning in the U.S., from literacy disparities, to cost of science research learning to the quality of K-12 assessment were only enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each week this month, Schmidt Futures has virtually hosted panels on some of the barriers created by COVID-19 for the industry and some innovation that exists at the Futures Forum on Learning. Hear from industry experts, such as Nafeesa Owens, the senior policy advisor for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Luis von Ahn, the CEO and co-founder of Duolingo, on Sept. 21 and Sept. 28 about helping students catch up and building platforms that improve as more people use them.
The firm will also host a competition, called the Learning Engineering Tools Competitions to spur development in edtech. There are more than $4 million in prizes for winning proposals. Apply by Oct.1.