Meet the Winners
The top four contenders in our contest take the next step.
After Northwest Airlines filed for bankruptcy last fall, commercial pilot Richard Ahlquist of Woodbury, Minn., worried how he would support his family if his job disappeared. Then he read about the Kiplinger/Dream in You Dream Job Contest and came up with a plan.
Ahlquist, 50, submitted an essay about using his MBA and law-school training to become his own boss and start a business that would provide paralegal services to law firms. "My current dream job of being a pilot for a major U.S. airline is exploding," he wrote. "Controlling and operating my own business would be equivalent to the exhilaration of flying -- or controlling and operating an airplane."
Ahlquist's professional credentials and solid business plan landed him one of three winning slots in our Dream Job Contest out of more than 3,500 entries. Contestants submitted short, online essays describing their dream jobs and the steps they had taken to make them come true -- such as enrolling in classes to develop new skills, launching a sideline business or identifying an untapped market. Contestants were judged on their passion and creativity as well as the soundness of their plan. In February, we chose 25 semifinalists, who submitted videos expanding on their aspirations. We'll introduce you to the winners here, and you'll meet them all again in our November issue, when we report on their progress.
Niche markets. Jean Duane of Centennial, Colo., is a passionate cook who discovered years ago that she cannot tolerate dairy products and gluten. That eliminates most processed foods and restaurant meals from her diet. In her essay, she outlined a plan to create a series of instructional videos and cookbooks on preparing menus without dairy or wheat products. Duane, 48, noted that millions of Americans have to monitor their diets closely because they are lactose-intolerant or suffer from food allergies, heart ailments or gluten intolerance. Her plan scored high on our barometer for creativity and for identifying a niche market.
We also selected Cecilia and Jason Hilkey. Cecilia, 31, envisions building a resource center where she can provide physical therapy to disabled children while Jason, 36, a computer engineer, assists disabled adults in test-driving the latest adaptive technology. Currently, Cecilia and Jason operate their individual businesses from their home in Torrance, Cal., and take turns caring for their two young daughters.
The Hilkeys' passion was obvious, and their video clinched their win. In it they showed two of their clients, including Jaedyn, 3, who was brain-damaged as an infant but has almost fully recovered after three years of physical therapy with Cecilia, who taught her to stand, walk, jump, color and draw.
Another client, 17-year-old Eden, is severely disabled from cerebral palsy. Jason attached a switch to Eden's wheelchair that allows her to operate her computer with just a touch of her knee. With that, she can communicate by e-mail, balance her checkbook, and compose and perform music -- including the soundtrack for the Hilkeys' winning video.
Just the beginning. In April, Ahlquist, Duane and the Hilkeys attended an awards luncheon at Kiplinger's headquarters in Washington, D.C., where they each received $5,000 in cash, plus certificates for $5,000 worth of new Sharp computer equipment that was delivered to their homes. They also began their career-transformation process by meeting with Elizabeth Kanna and Sherri Smith, co-founders of Dream in You.
Over the next three months, Kanna and Smith will work with the winners to assess their skills, analyze the market viability of their business plans, and review their financial and legal needs to create the framework for their new businesses. In addition, Kanna and Smith will pair each winner with a celebrity mentor in their field to provide insight and inspiration.
In Duane's case, for instance, Kanna and Smith thought her plan to sell instructional videos could be improved by streaming her videos over a Web site they would help her design. Visitors to the site would pay a fee to access the videos. That would be more cost-effective than getting bogged down with shipping-and-handling issues, and Duane was thrilled with the idea.
The Dream in You team will work with Duane to create a corporate identity for the "Alternative Cook," including a logo and marketing materials, and will partner her with celebrity chef Paula Deen, host of the Food Network's Paula's Home Cooking show and owner of The Lad & ySons restaurant in Savannah. Kanna and Smith also arranged for Duane to be a guest on Laura McIntosh's syndicated TV cooking show, Bringing It Home, as soon as Duane's Web site is completed.
Duane has already outlined plans for videos on baked goods, breakfast foods, ethnic dishes and desserts, including chocolate. "Unfortunately, people feel as if they have to give up their favorite foods, but that's just not true," she says. "I can show them how to bake a chocolate cake that tastes good without eggs, butter or wheat flour."
The Hilkeys' ultimate goal is to build a resource center for children and adults with disabilities. But the Dream in You team suggested that they put it on hold and focus on expanding their combined business. The most logical route is to work with the public-school districts they already service. Both Kanna and Smith have extensive contacts within the education community and plan to introduce the Hilkeys to their network. They will also solicit corporate donations of specialized equipment that will benefit the Hilkeys' special-needs clients. Mentoring the Hilkeys will be Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and chief executive officer of Sally Ride Science, who will draw on her years of experience using technology in education.
Because the Hilkeys don't have a business background, "it's been a steep learning curve for us," says Cecilia. "We've proven that we can run the business successfully, but the next hurdle is to grow it responsibly -- not too big or too fast -- and meet the needs of the community."
Ahlquist will be paired with celebrity Garrett Sutton, a lawyer and best-selling author of wealth-building books in the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series. Sutton specializes in advising entrepreneurs on creating and building their businesses. Kanna and Smith suggested that Ahlquist consider looking beyond paralegal services and offer a wide array of back-office services to law firms.
Ahlquist confesses that he's never run a business before and has "so many ideas running through my mind." Now he also has "a great opportunity to get expert advice and guidance. I'm still pinching myself."