Chef and the Professor: Entrepreneurship with Vivian Howard and Lewis Sheats

NC State graduate Vivian Howard‘s empire includes 4 restaurants – Chef and the Farmer in Kinston NC, Benny’s Big Time in Wilmington NC, Handy & Hot in Charleston SC, and the new Lenoir, also in Charleston SC. She’s the author of two acclaimed books, This Will Make It Taste Good and Deep Run Roots. Her TV show, A Chef’s Life, was a huge hit and an inside look into her family life. She has risen to become a celebrity chef and entrepreneur, but her passion and roots come from storytelling.

Lewis Sheats is the Assistant Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship & Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Clinic at NC State’s Poole College of Management, where budding entrepreneurs have an opportunity to truly live the “think and do” spirit of NC State.

Transcript

Jenny Hammond: Hello, and welcome back. I’m very excited about today’s podcast because we get to talk about two of my favorite things: entrepreneurship and food. And at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to talk about food? But seriously, we do have a great show lined up today. Our first guest, Lewis Sheats, is no stranger to the entrepreneurship initiatives here at NC State and Poole College.

He’s the assistant vice provost for entrepreneurship and the executive director for the Entrepreneurship Clinic. The Entrepreneurship Clinic, or E-Clinic for short, exposes students to experiential learning, embeds them in the entrepreneurship community, and provides the resources needed to execute their own ideas.

As the faculty member here in Poole college, he is devoted to preparing the next generation of entrepreneurs. And I would be remiss if I did not mention that Lewis was a true champion and helping getting this podcast up and running. So, thank you Lewis, for being here.

Lewis Sheats: Thank you, Jenny.

Jenny Hammond: And he might’ve been the one that talked me into being the host, so we won’t mention that.

Lewis Sheats: I’ll take credit for that.

Jenny Hammond: Our next guest, Vivian Howard, is a household name in this neck of the woods. Acclaimed chef, best-selling author, and multiple award-winning television host and producer. Vivian is, at heart, a storyteller, whose chief inspirations come from the world of food and her rural roots in North Carolina.

All right, Louis, let’s start with you. As mentioned in your intro among your many roles and responsibilities, one of them is the director of the entrepreneurship clinic. For those that are not familiar with this, do you mind providing us the 30,000-foot view of what it is and why it is such an asset to have your own the college?

Lewis Sheats: Sure thing, thanks Jenny. The clinic is essentially the hospital teaching model applied to entrepreneurship education. So, if you think about that hospital teaching model being let’s take a student and put them beside a doctor or a nurse and then operate on a patient, what we did was replaced the doctor or nurse with an entrepreneur and then replaced the patient with a real company.

And in doing that, we create this experiential learning component of our program, where students break out of their college bubble, get to see real opportunities, problems, needs, and then develop solutions. And in turn also help our partner that comes to the clinic, through this process.  It’s a unique way to teach a practical way of entrepreneurial thinking, and then let students apply it.

Jenny Hammond: And living the think and do spirit, right. 

Vivian Howard: Truly.

Lewis Sheats: Every day.

Jenny Hammond: So, Vivian, when I was prepping for this podcast, I dug into your bio a little bit, and I did not realize that you graduated from NC State with an English language degree. So, I’m curious, after that you then went on to culinary school. What inspired you to make such a pivot?

Vivian Howard: You know, when I first went to NC state, I thought I was going to be a communications major. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I loved Storytelling. I’d always been kind of told that I was a good writer in school. Like that’s what, you know, people said I was good at, so I wanted to do that. So, when I got there, I decided, okay, I should be an English major. I already know how to communicate. Then I moved to New York actually in hopes of working in media. I had an internship during college at CBS Sunday morning, and I mistakenly assumed that that might translate into an actual job.

So, I found myself in New York, working in advertising. I worked at Gray Worldwide on the Pantene account, I can see your locks and see that you might be familiar with the product, but then I was just really unhappy and started waiting tables because that’s what I’d done all through college. And just by chance, like the restaurant that I started working in was, the concept was Southern food via Africa. And this was in 2001, which is, you know, now is something that we talk about, but at that time it was not on the tip of anybody’s tongue. And so, it was way ahead of its time. And the chef was like an amazing storyteller, his name is Scott Barton, he’s now a PhD at NYU in food studies. And so, I, he told us all these stories about the food and why he was making this and the origins of this. And I was just like enraptured by like that brand, that type of storytelling. 

And I thought, okay, maybe I can translate something about this into a career in food writing. So, I started working in the kitchen there as a means to just get closer to it all. And then I fell in love with kitchen work and like the comradery in the kitchen and making things with my hands. And so that’s how that very odd pivot happened, but I never like lost sight of like wanting to, I mean, the thing I loved about cooking really was the way that food tells a story. And so that’s what I pursued all throughout my career and the many meanderings it has taken.

Jenny Hammond: Louis quick question. I assume you see all sorts of ideas come through the E-Clinic. How do you help students help themselves define the right path of an idea?

Lewis Sheats: Yeah. I always see a ton of ideas. I’ve, I’ve actually been teaching at state for 19 years now.  A little secret is students actually do not come up with good ideas for the most part.  But.  It’s not really unexpected because if you think about the experiences they’ve had, that’s where the ideas are generated, and their length of experience is pretty short. And it’s also, like I mentioned earlier, inside this college bubble. So, their ideas typically revolve around problems college students have, which might be laundry services in a dorm room, or paying a bar tab with an app, or a t-shirt company.  And there’s nothing really wrong with any of those ideas, but it’s really hard to create 40 new laundry services every semester, right? There’s no uniqueness there. And then multiply that by how many college campuses there are. And it just continues to stack on top of that. 

So, we really want to focus on how do we create an environment to better their experience and create an opportunity to recognize concepts that could turn into a real company or business. And it goes back to what I mentioned earlier, would that clinical model of bursting them out of the college bubble, embed them in the ecosystem, and let them see what problems are opportunities other companies are dressing. Then what we end up doing is accelerating their life outside of college, right? You go back to Vivian’s point of her experience of, with the chef, hearing the stories and, you know, building that love for storytelling and food and making those connections. What we’re trying to do is, how do we create that experience for them while they’re still here at NC State versus, you know, four or five, six years down the road?

So that’s really, our first approach is let’s get them outside of the traditional college bubble to recognize the idea. And then how do we nurture that within the students?  The other misconception oftentimes is that when we talk about entrepreneurship, that we’re talking about launching new companies, we really are focused on launching new people, new students. I’m focused on the development of the student, not the development of the concept as much. That’ll come, we just want them to be ready for when it comes. And that’s how we focus our entrepreneurship teachings at state.

Jenny Hammond: I have a follow-up question, but I’m going to hold on that because I want to ask Vivian a couple of questions. One, I mentioned to you before we started recording that I did just finish your second cookbook, actually crammed it last weekend. They’re so beautiful.  They do read like a book, they’re just really stunning. But I’m going to be honest, when I read them, I felt like the books were more aligned with guides of your life and how food has played a role in some of the biggest decisions of your life and versus it being a true cookbook. And, you know, it invites people in to see the different perspectives of being a chef, but also being an entrepreneur and what that looks like.

I thought the second book was, the vulnerability right out the gate about how the pandemic has impacted you and your family and, you know, kind of stripping things back and looking at what really is important to you moving forward. But was that always the intent when you wrote these cookbooks or did that just kind of come out organically as you started to kind of put your ideas and concepts together?

Vivian Howard: I would say both. As I explained to you earlier, what really drew me to the kitchen initially were, you know, The stories behind the food. And so, when I had the opportunity to write a cookbook, you know, somebody who’s always wanted to be a writer. I have this opportunity to write a cookbook.

I naturally brought the stories to it. You know, Deep Run Roots was really a love letter to Eastern North Carolina and our food traditions. And so, applying, you know, stories to food in that way was really easy because I’ve had a whole lifetime eating here in Eastern North Carolina to do that. You know, I’ve read a lot of reviews and talked to a lot of people and have figured out like, what they’re interested in are the stories, like or just like, for me, when I read a cookbook, I read a cookbook because I want to know more about the person who wrote it or about the place that it represents. And I always read the head notes and all the other material and rarely ever cooked from other people’s cookbooks. So, I don’t think that I could tolerate just writing a basic cookbook because I think we can get any of the recipes we want online right now.  And so, I think people are interested in more and, and that’s the part that I really enjoy.

Jenny Hammond: Well, and kind of similar Lewis, most people don’t know us. Lewis, you’re an entrepreneur yourself.  And so, I think it’s unique that you are working with all these young entrepreneurs, budding entrepreneurs. And you are able to literally give them an example because you’ve lived it yourself. How much of that do you bring into the classroom and build into the curriculum and do you, or do you even reveal that to students?

Lewis Sheats: One of the unique things about NC State and how we teach entrepreneurship is this marriage of practical learning and theoretical learning. I’m an accidental academic. But, you know, by no means am a traditional professor, but I think that that is part of what the value is that we’ve delivered to the students.

We take that traditional theoretical component and then we show how it actually works in the real world.  I got into teaching because of building a company and having an opportunity to come into the classroom and fell in love with being in front of the students and living through this ideation component over and over and over again 

I love being in that space and I love the value that it comes to that comes from the students going through that space. Using the practical components, again, back to my earlier point, is really focused on developing that student to understand what are we talking about in the classroom and then how did they use it when it’s right.

And that might be while we still have them as a student enrolled in NC State, but it also might be seven years down the road. And that connection, hopefully if we do our job right, is always there. And we can always bring that cycle back into our teachings.

Jenny Hammond: So, Vivian and both of your books and your recently wrapped show, A Chef’s Life, you show a lot of vulnerability.  you bring people in to show how risk and fear are real components of being an entrepreneur. I think many people assume when you start your own business it’s pretty glamorous. What would you say to that?

Vivian Howard: Well, I would say I don’t think that anyone who’s ever started a business would call it glamorous. You can call it a lot of things, but anything worth doing, there are really difficult parts to doing it.  I kind of accidentally showed vulnerability in the first season of A Chef’s Life because I just didn’t think anybody was ever going to see it.  And also, the director is a childhood friend of mine. Honestly, lots of times when it looked like I was talking to the camera, I was talking around the camera at her and when people did see it, the thing that they responded to was this just total vulnerability, like I fail all the time on camera. 

You can tell it’s real. My husband and I are, you know, fighting, not fighting like on, you know, The Kardashians, but like, you know, we’re running a business together. You can tell that the tension is real. And I could see after the first season of the show that people really responded to that, and that empowered me to just be even more myself, and to share both the failures and the successes. And I think that’s a very powerful thing, because I think we want to see ourselves and the people that we’re watching. We’re all vulnerable.

Jenny Hammond: And Lewis isn’t there some statistic out there that I don’t know, half of businesses that are started fail? I mean, you know, keeping people mindful of the reality of what, what this world is when they step into it.

Lewis Sheats: Yeah, it’s actually much higher than that, that traditionally fail, but it’s a matter of what are we measuring when we say fail? Right? So, from an academic standpoint, we look at that as a true learning opportunity. And again, trying to shift that back into the, when a student is a student and the risk is less, right.

If Vivian and I went out and started a company today, we have a lot more to lose today than we did when we were 22, for example. And how do we create that environment where they feel comfortable, they have that confidence. But they’ve also identified the right opportunity to take that leap. And then if it doesn’t succeed in traditional terms, maybe financial or a sustainable business, that at least they’re learning from that.

So, when they launched the second time, they’re going to be even better. I mean, take Vivian’s pathway, you know, everything she’s done, she’s increasingly building upon what she did before to make it even better. The show, the books, the restaurants, they’re all building on the successes and the failures of her past experiences. And that’s what we’re trying to create for our students as well.

Vivian Howard:  For me, there are a lot of little failures along the way to get to where you think you want to be. And early in my career they felt like failures, but I have since learned that I’ve gotten more out of all the little failures, then I have the awards or the successes. So, I think there are really important part of any entrepreneur’s journey.

Lewis Sheats: Vivian, this goes to your storytelling background, right? Like we don’t all, we don’t want to talk about all the rosy stuff. You got to talk about sort of the bumps and the bruises along the way to make the connections and so it seems worth it.

And when we’re talking about students, I totally think when we, when I first started teaching and programs still do this total disservice to students by sort of putting entrepreneurship in this long line of how awesome it is and how great you’re going to be in that. That is true, but it is so hard to get to that point that you put students in a position of not being in reality and we’re not really preparing them for what it really takes to take this path and the pain points that come with it. But when you get through that, or as you’re going through that, the rewards are unlimited, and the joy that you can have through that is worth it, but we don’t want to overlook the pain that it takes and the work. 

It’s not a nine to five job. There’s no time clock. I’m positive Vivian doesn’t have a time clock. She’s working 24/7 because she can’t separate. She can’t take it off because that is what entrepreneurship is. If you take that path and fall in love with it, you won’t notice the difference, but you also need to recognize that it exists. 

Jenny Hammond: We had a guest a couple of weeks ago by the name of Cindy Eckhardt. She’s local, but she’s, Sprout Pharmaceuticals. She had the female Viagra. Yeah. Very successful, yes. And she was on the show and we were asking her just some, you know, qualities or skills that she felt were necessary to be successful as an entrepreneurship. And she mentioned, curiosity is one grit as another. What would you say would be a couple that are just essential to being successful, but also to overcome some of these smaller fails, which we’re talking about, that make you want to continue to push through?

Vivian Howard: From my perspective, I never would have become an entrepreneur. I never would have opened a restaurant in rural Eastern North Carolina like I did if I were not naive to a certain degree. You can’t anticipate the pain and the challenge and the uphill struggle too much because it might get in the way of you doing it. So that’s what I mean by naive, you know?  

Also, I think to be a really successful entrepreneur, you really need to know what you want to do. You’ve got to have something that like, if I don’t do this, I’m going to explode inside.  Because it is all consuming, it becomes your life. And what Louis just said really resonated with me.

Like, you don’t know where your work ends and your life begins because it’s all the same. And I don’t mind that, you know, this whole, pandemic has been odd for me because I’m in one place. And my work, in some cases, has been taken away from me and that’s a big part of who I am.

And so, it’s like, what do I, who am I? So, I think really knowing what you want to do and feeling like you’re the only person that can do this thing, is a starting place to be an entrepreneur.

Jenny Hammond: And that’s a great segue to this next question I have for you, Vivian. how do you determine what your next venture is going to be? Do you base it off of passion, a gut feeling, or what will yield the most return? What’s that decision process like for you?

Vivian Howard: I’m very much a gut person, much to the dismay of all my loved ones. But also, it’s my gut, but it’s all rooted in things that I’ve learned along the way, you know, like I, as a restauranteur with a public profile, I’ve learned a lot during the pandemic about, you know, wow. I really have got to look at what I’m doing and figure out how I can feed more people without their butts being in the seats of my actual brick and mortar restaurant.

So, I am pursuing ways to do that. And one, my gut is saying, this is it, this is it, this is it. But that’s all very much informed by the experience that I’ve had. You know, I wish that I thought in terms of like, how much will this investment bring, but I’ve always thought like, it doesn’t matter because I have to do it and then I’ll figure it out that part later, not necessarily that part but like. My gut is so strong that I think that it, precedes all the other practical things that I should be thinking about in the beginning of a project.

Lewis Sheats: I mean, that’s a great approach, and Vivian, we all use the term gut and that pull and that urge. A lot of that in that is driven by our experiences. Right? The reason Vivian has a good gut in terms of moving forward on a particular project is because whether she probably recognize it, generalizing entrepreneurship, whether they are an entrepreneur truly recognizes all the data points that they’re collecting over time, and then translating that into an opportunity. I’ll talk about, you know, just follow your gut all the time. I get it. But it’s really based on all these data points that we’ve lived through.

And then that’s, what’s building our decision-making, and forward that long to a student that their time hasn’t been around enough to build enough experiences, create gut, that’s when we can step into place and use our own experience to help, or teach them how to collect those data points through their life to recognize, right? When is the right time to leap or jump forward and launch that opportunity?

Jenny Hammond: So, Lewis we, we’ve worked together on, you know, recent rankings and content for entrepreneurship, but it’s truly taken off at NC State, and the E-Clinic is a great example of that. How do you see NC state continuing to grow this initiative moving forward?

Lewis Sheats: It’s an interesting question because people talk about how much entrepreneurship has grown at NC State and some of that’s true, but we’ve always been really good at entrepreneurship. It is built into the DNA of NC State, this think and do mentality. It just happens to be a really good marketing component of it as well.

But you go back to the founding of NC State, it was still this, you know, roll up your sleeves, get stuff done. And then today we’re still sort of living that mantra. It’s just, now that we, we tell our story better. Thanks to you, Jenny, we tell our story a lot better than we ever did before, which makes it more recognizable outside of our campus, but we’re also taking an approach to reach across campus.

So now we have students from all disciplines in the clinic, for example, we’re purposely building, programs and processes for students to be more successful. And we’re creating this connection where it doesn’t just end when they graduate. And like, I believe, and I try this every day that any student has ever gone through our classes knows that they’re always a student and they can always come back and I’ve got a ton of examples of that happening. So, I know it works for most of them. 

And that’s a big thing when it comes to entrepreneurship is that Vivian definitely pro can attest to this, like entrepreneurship can be really lonely, especially in those early days. And we don’t want our students to be in that space all by themselves. We want them to know that there’s other mentors, professors, other, students that went through the program with them or alumna, like Vivian, that we’re here to support, right. We’re going to be there. And all of that is what makes entrepreneurship so cool. And so good at NC State is that all of those pieces are now working together, in a, methodical method of developing really good entrepreneurial minded students.

Jenny Hammond: And Vivian, I have to ask you’re, well, you’re not as busy right now, but you are very busy, juggling the restaurant and potentially future cookbooks. You’ve got children.  What’s the next big thing for you? What are you, what are you looking at for the next 12 to 18 months?

Vivian Howard: Well, I have been working on this restaurant project in Charleston for two years now. And we are going to open in April, April 14th. So that’s like directly in front of me. I, used my at-home time during the pandemic to think about ways that I could flex my muscles more as a storyteller and write more. And I have, I’m going to be writing a column for Garden and Gun moving forward and that first one will be in the June- July issue. And I am pursuing a blue ocean idea within food service, if you will. I just learned the word blue ocean. So, I’m using it because we’re on the entrepreneurial podcast.

 And pursuing that thing that I mentioned a few minutes ago was like, how can I feed more people?  Use the, credibility that I’ve built over the years in a restaurant setting and with my books and with TV, how can I use that credibility to achieve what I mentioned, which is serving more people without having them be in my restaurant.  And so that’s, I’m working on that and I think we’re really close to being somewhere that I’m excited about, and more later.

Lewis Sheats: Vivian, like you definitely have a great personal brand and you’ve been able to leverage that in lots of your new ventures. You know, in the classroom, we’re really focused on developing that individual student, and that comes with that personal brand. Developing the grit of the student, the storytelling, being able to articulate to the right people. What they stand for is important to us. How do you rank the importance of the personal brand and what did you do to develop it?

Vivian Howard: Well, like everything that I’ve done, it’s kind of been by accident. You know, I having a TV show that you know, was about my family and my, you know, where I lived and my work, people were able to form very concrete ideas about who I was by watching that TV show. So, from then on out, it’s really just about being who you say you are, and also, feeling really comfortable with, knowing what you stand for, knowing who you are. And always, kind of, I hate to say this, but being true to that, you know, there’ve been a lot of opportunities that have come my way, and one of them recently was like for a soft drink that is doing a new flavor.

And, you know, boy, I would really love to get paid from that soft drink company. But people, when they see that they’re going to say, wow, Vivian is really not, you know, who she used to be. And so really making sense of what it is you want to stand for and stand for it and be willing to say no to things even, you know, on a small scale, even in social situations because you are the same out in the world with your brand, as you are with a group of three people.

And then also, I mean, this is probably more than you want to know, but like with me, you know, I think constantly as you evolve as a human, being able to let your brand evolve with you. You know, I was really proud of A Chef Life, really proud of Deep Run Roots, I’m really proud of being a rural Southern person, but I did feel as if the show and the book that I wrote, you know, cast this very monochromatic image of me that was inherently my brand, you know, everywhere I went, they had like Mason jars with flowers in it, or, you know, Like I was, you know, this country girl, and that’s really not like who I am right now.

And so, my second book was really an opportunity to start to reshape who people think I am like there’s more to it than just the girl with cowboy boots on sitting on a picnic table with holding a bunch of collards.  So being comfortable, over time, evolving your brand, as you have evolved as a human being, because people can smell and sincerity from a million miles away.

It’s like I said, to be a successful entrepreneur, you really need to know what it is you want to do and feel as if you’re the only one who can do that particular thing. And your brand has to back that up because you have to know who you are, and be in every setting who you appear to be when branded.

Lewis Sheats: Yeah, I think that’s great. And the important takeaway for me there is like we will evolve over time. Right. And hopefully in a better method, right. But you can always be authentic, and if you carry that throughout, then you don’t have to worry about what that brand means. Right. You will be authentic around it; it’ll have some meaning. 

Jenny Hammond: Okay, well, this is the last question I have for both of you.  We talk a lot about think and do, and so much of entrepreneurship is the ideation component, but some would argue and say that the plan is just as important. What do you two thinks?

Vivian Howard: I mean, I think you can’t separate one from the other.  The ideation for me is always the most fun part, you know, figuring out what this can be and how it can like live in the world. But I’ve launched businesses before that the lack of a cohesive streamlined plan has been the death of it.

That’s the lesson that I learned that I’ll apply to, you know, all projects moving forward.  You need a strong idea to have a strong plan and you need a strong plan to articulate the idea.

Lewis Sheats: Yeah, I agree with Vivian.  The piece that’s typically missing is the act part, right? So, the ideation is fun and lots of people live in the ideation phase. We, you know, drink a couple beers, we can all come up with really cool ideas that we’re going to build a business around.  A lot of people just let it die there. And then some people will actually go through the planning process. What I recommend is like, don’t get stuck in the writing the plan, like the planning is important, but don’t just get stuck in the writing, get to the action part, like test your idea, you know, get to the launch because if you don’t do that, it’s just talk. Right. And that’s the think part, we need the do part if we’re really going to do the entrepreneurial pathway.

Jenny Hammond: So, I lied. I have one more question. but this is a fun one. if you were to go back to your 21-year-old self and you know what you know now, and if you wish you could say something to your 21 old self about where you are now, what would you tell her and what would you tell him?

Vivian Howard: I would say calm the hell down, just patience, you know? Also, I would tell my 21-year-old self, like, you know, make the most out of every professional opportunity you have. You don’t know where it’s going to take you, but you know, I think almost any job we find ourselves in, you can find something inside that job that speaks to the thing that makes your heart sing.

 And you know, that’s what I did with cooking, like I didn’t come to cooking because I had an amazing palette or anything like that. I came to cooking because I love the storytelling aspect of it, and I cooked for a long, long time professionally also like harnessing the love of storytelling by doing that. And I think that made me a more successful cook and then opened up other opportunities. So, it may not be the, you know, the dream opportunity right out of the gate, but I bet there’s something in it that can get you closer to your goal.

Lewis Sheats: I would say, one doesn’t blink and get ready for an awesome ride because the next 20 plus years is fantastic and just find meaning I talk to students about this. It’s hard for me to think about me being 21, but I deal with a lot of 21-year-old. And if they leave with this notion of finding meaning, I think we accomplished something, something really cools at NC State.

Jenny Hammond: Thank you guys, thank you both for your time today. Vivian, good luck with the restaurant launch, but to add that one to my list I’ve been to all of them. This will be the first one that I haven’t been to. So, I have to, once COVID decides to leave, exit stage, we’ll be down. But yes, thank you so much for your time. And it’s always, we love having alumni back too. So, thank you for making some room for us. And Lewis, you’re great as always.

Full Episode Transcript

The Poole Podcast is hosted by Jenny Hammond, and is a production of Earfluence.

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