I spend most of my days in the Milwaukee Environmental Consortium. Yeah, it’s still the fluorescent-lighted cubeland so many of us try to avoid, but Victory Garden Initiative (where I work) is situated in the middle of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Milwaukee Water Commons, Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and a bunch more—all small groups making a big difference for southeastern Wisconsin’s environmental movement. The MEC houses all of us.
Just imagine a group of like-minded people all working on behalf of something you really, really love. Yeah. The MEC is the best.
Through this wonderful office of earth-loving people, I heard about Beth Handle, owner of Milwaukee Kayak Company. She worked with the county parks, did graphic design and, right before launching Milwaukee Kayak Co., she was marketing manager for outdoor adventure company Laacke and Joy’s for six years. Beth organized kayaking events, worked with community organizations and writers, and got people to experience Milwaukee’s rivers. Like many people, she always thought: Wouldn’t it be cool to open my own little business like this someday? She launched MKC in May 2013 and will start her third season in a month: Friday, May 22!
Her husband, Dan, stopped by during our interview in the spring: “I get a little jealous, and then I go back to work,” he says. “In my cubicle.” I feel ya, Dan.
People with Panache: How did you decide to start—actually start?
Beth Handle: I did some soul searching. I was just looking for good quality of life and what I really, really wanted to do. Ongoing learning is something I’ve always really liked. I wanted to work outdoors, and I wanted to be my own boss.
One of my inspirations for doing what I’m doing—following my dream and believing that this great company will succeed—is my mom. She passed away 4 years ago after a long battle with breast cancer. Being with her through her multiple diagnoses and watching her enjoy every minute of her life was eye-opening for me. It showed me how precious life is and that I can do whatever I want… as long as I work hard at what I want to accomplish.
PWP: So how’d you make it happen?
BH: I have a business degree but wasn’t quite sure what it took to open a business. So I took a business class through Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (Ed. Note: Like Lauren and Steve!) and learned the ins and outs of the law and answers to questions I never knew existed.
PWP: As a woman business owner, do you observe anything you didn’t expect?
BH: People think my dad owns it! Or they think I borrowed a bunch of money from my dad.
PWP: How DID you do it?
BH: I saved money. I knew what I wanted to do for two years, seriously. I didn’t want to take out a loan. I didn’t want the burden of having to pay off a loan in my off season, because the business is seasonal.
So I started small, and I just grew. I doubled my fleet last year and bought nicer equipment.
PWP: That is really cool! I can see that—not wanting the thing you love to turn into a burden. And you can tell you just love it so much from the way you talk to people and the way you patiently help new paddlers.
BH: I do love it. I want them to have a fun and safe experience. We do take the time to talk with everybody—how to get in, tie up, paddle the right way. We go over the whole river map, plan their whole trip out there—it’s a big deal! We’re really lucky to be able to paddle in an urban setting.
PWP: It really is amazing seeing these big, gorgeous buildings from the water! How do people react to interacting with the water more closely than usual?
BH: I want to be an advocate for clean water and getting people on our rivers. The misconception of how the river is so dirty changes because they can see that it’s great to have this river go through Milwaukee. I knew once I got people downtown and on the river it would improve their quality of life, the river and our city. My goal is to have fun and explore Milwaukee in a different way.
Life is so precious, and I’m lucky enough to live my dream of owning my own business, advocating for our rivers, and getting new people on them and in downtown every day. Pretty cool.
[Photos by Alysse.]