TCE002: Jerry Dennis, the Writing Conscious Entreprenuer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJerry Dennis has been professionally writing books and essays about the places where nature and human culture meet since 1986. His essays and short fiction have appeared in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, Orion, American Way, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Michigan Quarterly Review.

Last year, Jerry teamed with artist Glenn Wolff and his wife Gail  to form Big Maple Press, publishing special editions of their books exclusively for independent bookstores.

This talk was from January 2015  Fulfillament. in Traverse City, MI
Fulfillament is a storytelling event where five local business community members take the stage and tell how they found fulfillment in their journey- thier inside story.  Each storyteller issues a challenge for the audience to do something to find fulfillment in their own lives. Audience members individually accept a challenge and make connections with others to take action. This event awards a $500 grant to an audience member with a good idea that needs some help to get it moving.

Here is Jerry’s story…..

When I think about big leaps, I think first about a night thirty years ago, on Eleventh Street, here in Traverse City, in the kitchen of that house. My wife Gail was there and our great friend Craig Date. Our son Aaron was there, he was seven years old and Nick was there, but he was still in his mom’s belly. We were faced with one of the big, big turning points in our lives and we were talking about it seriously and with great intensity.

It wasn’t the first big leap we’d taken. Ten years earlier Gail and I took one when, at age twenty and twenty-one, we decided to get married. We knew we were very young. We knew it was a big risk but we did it anyway. We couldn’t bear to be apart, we knew we had to do it. A year later, we did it again. We quit our jobs, sold our cars and bought an old Ford van and made it into a camper and took off across the country and lived on the road for six months.

It was somewhere out west, and we can never really be sure about that, it was either Idaho or Utah, we had a conversation. I admitted to Gail that my dream was to be a writer. Notice that I didn’t tell her before we got married! I hadn’t told anyone. It was something I had kept to myself all my life. I had wanted it since I was a very young child. I was always bewitched by books and I always wanted to write books, but I didn’t know how.

I had been going to college, at that point, when we got married, off and on, trying my best to be respectable. Trying to study biology and landscape architecture, which were both fields I was interested in, but I wasn’t doing well in them in school. The only classes I did well in were English. I kept dropping out of college and working and thinking about and trying to figure out what I was going to do.

That day, in the van, out west, we decided it’s time to get serious about this. Let’s figure out a way to do it. We decided when we got back to Michigan, we’d move to Marquette and go to college again and study English. That’s what we did. We moved to Marquette in January of a very tough winter, 1977, and set out to do this. It was in Marquette that we reunited with Craig Date whom we met a year earlier in Traverse City. He was dating a friend of ours, but we hadn’t seen him since then. He happened to be there, as well. We became instant friends and we ended up moving into the same house together, the three of us, with two other friends and had amazing great times.

Craig was a musician and a singer and songwriter. He was studying social work, but his heart was in music. Soon enough, he got all of us into music, as well. He convinced me to become a mandolin player. Somehow he got his hands on an old mandolin and gave it to me and challenged me to learn it. We started playing music together and it became a big part of all our lives, all through our twenties.

A few years later, we all end up back in Traverse City. By this time, Craig and I had become among the best of friends. He was probably my best male friend of my life. I don’t think I’ll ever come close to it. One of the things that we had done in Marquette was talk about our dreams and what we wanted to do. Craig joined me in wanting to write a book. One of the things that we loved to do was canoe and fish and camp and we did a lot of it in Marquette. We did a lot of it in the Traverse City area, as well. We discovered that nobody had every written a book about canoeing Michigan rivers, a guidebook, a paddling guide of canoeing and kayaking so we set out to do it.

All we really had going for us was energy and audacity. We convinced a publisher that we were a freelanced duo, a writer and photographer. Craig had not only never taken photography, he had never owned a camera. I had written a couple of articles for local publications here in Traverse City and that was it. We just talked our way into getting a contract. The publisher wrote us back a great letter. It said that everyone on the staff at Free Publications was impressed with our proposal and excited to move forward and that they wanted to publish this book. It was two years later, after we had finished the book, that we met the publisher and we admitted that we had conned him, that we had not had any of the qualifications we claimed. He said, “Well, that’s okay. I conned you, too because when I said ‘my staff’, I meant me.” We became great friends.

I started writing for magazines. College had taught me a lot about the tools of writing but it taught me nothing about how to make a living as a writer. If you dared, in the English department of any of the three schools that I ended up going to, if you dared to mention to anyone that you wanted to be a writer, you were met with scorn or ridicule. College professors would roll their eyes and say, “No, nobody can make a living as a writer. You have to be a teacher.” Which, even at my young age, smacked a little of suspicious motivation. I started to think, “Well, I’m going to have to do this on my own. I’m going to have to figure it out.”

For five years after college, while we researched and wrote the canoeing guide, and while Craig was working on his photography because he did become a serious photographer because of our experience, I learned everything I could about how to make a living as a writer. A big turning point came when Traverse magazine gave me an assignment to write an essay in praise of the Boardman River. That lit a light bulb for me because not only was it fun to write as opposed to much of the work that I had been doing, which seemed like drudgery, it inspired me. It inspired me to want to do more. I got responses from readers. I got letters, somebody I didn’t know on the street in downtown Traverse City recognized me from that article and yelled across the street that he liked it. And I got a check for sixty dollars. That was encouraging and very, very interesting so I set out to do more of that.

That night, this all comes back to the night of the big leap, Craig … and I remember it just like it was yesterday. It was thirty years ago and we were ridiculously young, barely thirty, and I admitted to Gail and Craig that I was starting to get worried. Here we were, thirty years old, no money, one child to support and another in the oven and would I ever be able to make a living as a writer? Because that had been always what I wanted, not just to dabble, but to throw myself into it fully and wholeheartedly. I said what I really want to do is quit my job.

At that point, for five years, I had been working as a carpenter which was an ideal job for a young writer because you come home at the end of the day tired physically but not mentally. You’ve got some juice left. I said, “What can I do? I should keep working because we need the paycheck? But I want to throw myself into it.” Craig said, “Do it! Take the leap. Quit your job, tomorrow.” I was like, “Wow!” And I looked at Gail and her eyes, I remember her eyes were really bright and I said, “What do you think?” And she said, “I think you should do it because it’s going to be really hard in three months when the next baby is born. Do it.”

And I did. I went the next day and I told my employer, Paul Mauer that I was leaving. Now Paul had been training me to be a Crew Chief. He put a lot of effort into turning me into a passively good carpenter, that was about all, but he recognized that I had commitment and was a hard worker and that I could lead a crew. He was upset. He spun on his heel and he walked away from me. I didn’t blame him a bit because I knew how much he had invested in me. Later, he came back and he apologized. He said, “That was wrong of me. I should not have done that. I know how much you want to write.” because I had confided all of this to him, all along the full time that I worked with him.

He said, “What can I do to help?” I said, “You’ve done enough. No need to worry about that at all.” He said, “How are you set for money?” I said, “Well, we’re good.” He goes, “Don’t lie to me! How are you set for money?” I said, “Well, we don’t have any, but that’s okay. I’m going to make it work!” He said, “Here’s what I want to do. I want to give you a thousand dollars a month for six months. At the end of that time, if you want to, you can come back, your job is waiting for you. If not, if you’re making it, great. Just pay me back whenever you can, a little at a time.”

That’s exactly what happened. It took six months for the cash flow to start coming in from articles and book royalties and then I was able to start paying him off. That first year I only earned six thousand plus his six thousand, which was about what we needed to break even in those days. The next year, I doubled my income. Year after that, I doubled my income again.

Amazing things kept happening. I met Glenn Wolff, the artist from Traverse City who had been living in New York for years and had made a really big name for himself, already, with his work for the New York Times and Sports Afield and Village Voice and Wall Street Journal, especially the Times. He illustrated the Times, every Sunday, there was a great Glenn Wolff illustration that I always looked forward to. We met, we hit it off, we came up with a series of books that we wanted to do together. He knew an agent, we met the agent, the agent loved the idea. The agent got us a contract with a major New York publisher and I started writing for the New York Times. Everything went beautifully and swimmingly all because of that night in Traverse City, at the kitchen table, with Craig Date.

Five lessons have come really clear to me through all of this time. One is you need to identify what you want to do. For me, I wanted to be a writer, but that wasn’t enough. I had to identify that I wanted to write essays and other non-fiction, primarily about things I cared deeply about.

Two, learn everything you can about it. The thing about a leap, is that it isn’t a blind leap. It took me five years of practice and before that, six years of college to learn how to be a writer and to even learn the way I wanted to write. Learn everything you can about that field, whatever it is, that you’re going to.

Third, don’t go alone. Join up with people. Tell people your dreams, share it with them. Join groups of people doing similar things to you, writers groups, anything that you can where you can join forces with people and collaborate, if not literally, figuratively, so that you’re working together, so that you’re not always alone. Most of the great things that have happened in my career have been through my collaborations with other people.

I got to look at my cheat sheet. I forgot, was that three or four?

That was three. Four is be professional. Whatever you’re in, learn the basic professional approaches. Also, of course, being part of a professional is being good to people, being respectful and treating them well and fulfilling your promises and meeting your deadlines.

Fifth is working hard. It takes a lot of work. When I work with young writers and I start to express how much work it is to write a good sentence, nine out of ten of them just start to drift away. It is hard, hard work. A lot of people like the idea of being a writer, not many are really willing to work hard at it.

My challenge to you … Perfectly timed! My challenge is to carve out a space and a time for yourself to do what you want to do. A space, in the case of a writer or an artist, is a little corner office or a studio or if you’re working with your hands, a workshop. Some place that is yours for the duration, that is always there ready for you. More importantly, and harder, is time. Find a time that works for you that you go to that place religiously and work. For many people, it’s early morning before work. For me, it was evenings after dinner and after the kids were in bed, but for many people I know, many writers, early morning. That means you have to sacrifice something and probably television. It means going to bed at nine thirty and getting up at five thirty so you can work for two hours before you go to your day job. That will make all the difference.

TCE 003: My Story, The Conscious Entreprenuer

chels_webConscious:  “Aware of and responding to one’s surroundings; awake.”

Wikepedia defines Conscious businesses as “those seeking awareness of the effects of their actions and implementing practices that benefit both human beings and the environment.”

Conscious Capitalism states “Conscious businesses will help evolve our world so that billions of people can flourish, leading lives infused with passion, purpose, love and creativity; a world of freedom, harmony, prosperity and compassion.”

My definition is simple : Good-for-the world. If what you are creating in the world is good for the environment and its people on all levels- you are a conscious entrepreneur.

Why is this my focus?
Since college, it has been my goal to use graphic design as a tool to make the world a better place. My father, husband, aunts and uncles, friends and every client i have ever had is a Conscious Entrepreneur (CE). To every CE, I am their mirror, their peer, audience, designer, consultant, experience and passions. I have seen every type of business, what works, what does not, where to connect and grow, and how each one of them is fulfilled by what they do. I believe anyone can use what they are good at for good, no matter what your focus is. Because I have been designing and consulting for Conscious Entrepreneurs for close to 15 years, I have much to offer in the future success of my clients now through coaching and consulting. I am conscious entrepreneur. It is who I am, how I make decisions, how I live my everyday.

So i thought i should tell you a little bit about my story- why i do what i do and how i got here…

I was a very artistic kid, always creating and playing in the woods, beaches and rivers so unique to my northern michigan home. In my teens, I spent a few months every summer up in Canada at a outdoors camp, and I paddled with a small group of girls hundreds of miles across the canadian wilderness with everything we needed to survive in our backpacks and canoes. Being in such untouched wilderness I really saw the impact  we made on the land- and it made on us. I do believe this is where i fell in love with the environment, and had a strong conviction to protect it.

As an art student living in cooperative housing at the University of Michigan, that environmentalism really grew, and I was learning so much about social causes like fair trade and human rights.  At one point I realized that I could combine my passion for environmental and social justice with my creativity and love for art and design by being a graphic designer for good. I believe strongly that design had big role in making change in the world through raising awareness, building bridges, and educating the public through visual communication. I could make the companies that were doing good, look good and compete against the very large and well designed starbucks of the world.

I was focused. So what does a conscious kid do after college? Move to San Francisco of course! With one suitcase, a portfolio and a dream to be a green graphic designer, I found a hostel to crash at until i figured out what i was doing.  I found a local green magazine above the golden gate bridge, took the three hours and 5 buses to get there, marched in and told them why their work inspired me and what my mission was and why they needed me- and i was hired!

Within a  year, I realized I had bigger dreams of working with many companies and organizations making a difference in the world. So I put together a website, used green america’s green pages to email anyone doing anything remotely close to what I wanted to do. I got a lot of responses, but ended up partnering with Jerry Stifelman in 2005 from North Carolina who had an amazing talent for writing, creative direction, and passion for good and I had design, photography, illustration and shared that passion to do good through design.

We called ourselves The Change, working virtually with companies all over the world from fair trade, organic, addiction treatment, clean energy, campaigns against slavery… you name it. Many of our clients were fair trade, and I wanted to experience it firsthand and share the stories and photos with the rest of the world.  So my first fair trade delegation was to East Timor in 2006. This was a country who had just gained their freedom in 99 after so many decades of occupation, and was still figuring out what their culture was, how to farm their own trees- Yet they were still so filled with joy and purpose and love- because of family and community. We are all the same- no matter where we are from, all with a desire to work and sleep and love and be loved.  I met a strong woman named Maria on that trip in Dili…  She had survived through years of slavery and war. She knew a little bit of english, and as i sat there drawing maps for the kids to show them where they lived, where i lived, and where my family lived, she turned to me and said “why would you live so far from your family?” In that moment I realized that even though my San Francisco home was one of the most beautiful places in the world with everything there to please me, my heart was back in northern Michigan- a place that brought me great joy.

So I chose Traverse City to put down roots, and invest my heart in this community and my family… And keep doing the good work with the Change and traveling the world. I walked in the woods every morning, and get everywhere by foot or bike.

In 2011 I broke off on my own to open C.bay design with a similar mission- “good-for-the-world creative services” but working much closer and one on one with my clients- inviting them to be part of the creative team so we could partner in making their vision a reality. I loved the connections I made with every one of these conscious entrepreneurs, and how I could see our creative partnership fulfilling and inspiring them.

Today I live downtown with my creative and conscious entrepreneur husband Aaron, our two awesome cats midori and alegria, and Ive transferred my experiences now to be “The Conscious Entrepreneur”- coaching and consulting for entrepreneurs with a passion for good-for-the-world ideas and businesses aligned with their values, strengths… I want to see people come alive and make a difference in the world. Over the years of this design work, i recognize that all environmental and social justice is about people, and about living life more fully.

Ill leave you with a few quotes that continue to inspire me every day ….

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

Be the change you want to see in the world.” –  Mahatma Gandhi

“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” – Alice Walker 


dadscuba2Mike Wills is a long term resident of Traverse City, MI. He has started Scuba North, Sail North, Sail Plan, The Harbor Boat Shop, Black Mountain Yacht Club, Traverse Area Community Sailing, The Discovery Center, and helped create in town developments : Uptown, River’s Edge, Fairway Hills, etc and more

Chelsea: All right, this is my first attempt at an audio blog for The Conscious Entrepreneur.

One person who has driven me to be an entrepreneur, to find my own path by example has been my own father who I see as “the water entrepreneur.” I’m with him here today in my studio and would love to hear his story.

Mike, from what I know, you went to school UofM with an architecture degree, and when you left, you opened up a scuba diving shop in Northern Michigan. What drove you to do that?

Mike: Actually it started long before that. It started with as a child doing the usual things to make money. I cut grass, shoveled snow, delivered newspapers, all those usual things but then when I was at scout camp, I was interested camping equipment so I found out that you can buy wholesale if you had a sales tax license. I got a sales tax license and bought camping equipment at wholesale and sold some to my friends.

Chelsea: At what age was that?

mike:coleMike: 16. Then I went but I was involved in water all my life. I was in the swim team as a kid, life guard, swimming instructor at camp, scuba diving, snorkeling during the summer. When I went to UofM, I had the opportunity to take a diving class at college and did that. We ended up buying our diving equipment from the local supplier who sold out of his home and he, when I went there to buy a mask and fins, said that he was going to be leaving town and I said, “Would you sell you business? And he said, ‘Yes.” And so I bought it and I was selling diving equipment from my apartment in Ann Harbor for at least 2 years, maybe 3 before I decided to move to Traverse City. Of course water has been my passion and I already had a dive shop, this just made it official.

Chelsea: How did you know that this was the leap you were going to take? What drove you to love water so much and give up everything you studied and go for it?

Mike: My love of the water and love of diving. I had already been selling equipment, the most exciting things was to be able to teach other people as an instructor and into get a boat and go ship wreck hunting and ultimately a [inaudible 00:03:16] and sonar and a dive shop and chasing your passion.

Chelsea: About how many people would you say looking back did you pass on that love for water to through sailing, through scuba diving, through jumping on a bus down to Florida to get in the water? Is it pretty huge?

Mike: Probably. I operated Scuba North from 71 to 1980. I’ll bet we taught in the neighborhood of 100 people a year and then took dozens of diving, sailing trips to the Bahamas. But when I sold that, we became Sail North, we’d already been in the sailing business for several years. As a division of Scuba North, it kind of continued teaching sailing lessons. We had a sailing rental fleet in the beach, small boats as well as a charter fleet, big boats up to 36 feet.  Then I found the Traverse Area Community Sailing, which is a non-profit organization that teaches youth and adults to sail and we teach on the average 350 students per summer and have for 20 years; last year was our 20th anniversary.

Chelsea: Now it sounds to me like you are definitely just built to be an entrepreneur that you don’t even think about it, it just happened.  You have influenced a lot of people because of it, including myself.  What would you tell other people who have that dream or love of something, but might put too many fears in front of them or think that it can’t happen?

Mike: Well if you start young you are naïve. That’s my first advice. You are not scared when you are young, you are invincible. With no fear you leap. As you get older, you develop more fears I suppose.  If you are passionate and you are willing to dive in with everything you’ve got, you’ll learn what it takes to be the best at whatever it is you are doing.

Chelsea:  What does water mean to you now?

Mike: Water still runs through my veins and just about everything I’ve done in my life has something to do with water. My current project is a river front town home development on the Boardman River downtown. All of my business dealings really have had something to do with water and all of my passions have to do with water. Fly fishing, canoeing, scuba diving, sailing… And my daughters. Water was so much a part of my life that my 3 daughters each inherited middle names having to do with water. Lindsey Sea, Chelsea Bay, Alison Brook. I guess that says something right there.

Chelsea: Thanks for giving me your time and I love, love, love hearing your story. I learn a little bit more about you everyday.

ELLEN FRED, The Tree Fighting Conscious Entrepreneur

“I went to law school later in life after I had spent many years following my heart – traveling, volunteering on organic farms, saving ancient redwoods, and founding nonprofit organizations. When I finally decided to go back to school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – land conservation law – and I sought out a law school that offered classes in that area. I was then hired by my law professor to work with him after school. When you follow your heart – rather than just a paycheck or something to pass the time –things seem to fall in place more easily. I think people who love what they do exude a certain confidence that helps open doors.” – Ellen Fred, Conservation Partners and Elf
January 2015 Fulfillament speaker, Traverse City Michigan

I met Ellen a few years back when she was just starting Elf. I have found that everything she does is surrounded by trees- be it children play places or conservation law and redwoods- trees are at her core. The best part of her talk is where she starts weeping as she remembers how these beautiful ancient trees were going to be cut down, and then one minute later states ” I decided I had to do something about these trees…. so I started chaining myself to things…”

Ellen is an inspiration- it’s worth the 10 minutes!!

Learn more about Fulfillament here:


D&BFULFILLAMENT GRANT WINNERS: Dena AuCoin and Brian Berger of Cedar, MI!
THE IMPACTFUL, GOOD IDEA: A program designed to help educate business owners to effectively hire, train, and retain adults with special needs. The program goal is to help improve the self-worth of adults with special needs and their ability to be a contributing member of their community. With this program, businesses will be able to successfully employ this population by identifying individual strengths & applying them within a specific employment environment.
DENA & BRIAN: Both special needs teachers, and have spent years as impassioned advocates for this population.
$500 GRANT: they will use to create pilot materials for the skill matching program

Dena and Brian will also receive some pro bono time from Fulfillament organizers The Conscious Entrepreneur and Thrive to help develop their idea and put it into action!

Fulfillament is a storytelling event that took place in Traverse City on January 15, 2015.  Five storytellers from the Grand Traverse business community took the stage to tell how they found fulfillment in their journey- the inside story.  Each storyteller issued a challenge for the audience to do something to find fulfillment.  At the end of the night, audience members individually selected a challenge, and connections were made to hold one another accountable to that.  Audience members submitted and application for a $500 grant for good idea that needs some help to get it moving.  


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