meet beth: milwaukee river adventurer

Beth Handle at MKC

“Once you get someone on the river, they just stop thinking about whatever they were worrying about,” Beth says.

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 and Charlie People with Panache

MKC’s weekly guided paddles also are their mandatory staff meetings. Her work perks include being able to have Baby Charlie around in the afternoons. So sweet!

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.

Beth and MKC Paddler

One of Beth’s favorite compliments she’s received: “I noticed all of your kayakers are holding their paddles the right way!”

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?

Beth - MKC

MKC started with just Beth, her dad and a couple volunteers… now Beth has three paid staffers!

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.]

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Turn Your Dreams into Actions

People with Panache

Our first PWP business card! We can’t wait for our new ones to be ready very soon!

Alysse: On Tuesday night, an HDMI cord almost ruined my plans. (And I’m still not entirely sure what an HDMI cord is, but anyway…)

Eight friends were coming over to watch The Empowerment Project, and I didn’t have quite the right technology going on… so we crammed onto my two couches, put my laptop on a kitchen chair, passed around some popcorn and my favorite apple-Brie cheese deliciousness and watched The Empowerment Project! WAY more special than using a TV, right?

Kate: About 90 miles south, a few nights later, I gathered a bunch of friends and a couple bottles of vino and nuzzled up (probably a little less close together) for The Empowerment Project. We teared up at the pilot’s story, laughed at the mathematician, and had one of those nights where you talk so much that all of a sudden it’s 11:30, and you feel like you’ve only gotten started. Continue reading

Wake Up Call

“Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it. Doing what you’re afraid of, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks like that—that is what life is.” There’s more to this Amy Poehler quote here, but this is exactly what we’ve been talking about all day!

Quote: She believed she could, so she did.We have been interviewing and talking and getting all out of our comfort zones (more on that later) for a couple months now to bring People with Panache back to you.

(Okay, okay, since September.)

But, contrary to all we’ve learned from interviewing 84 people across the Midwest since we launched in 2013, we were waiting for the “right” time. We wanted to have our new business cards ready, our new website design totally perfect, new photos, and all these things—that we are still working on—but we could. NOT. wait to come back! Continue reading

meet jessy: sustainability champion in milwaukee

Jessy Servi,

“Integration is important to career success—when your work becomes a living breathing extension of yourself,” Jessy says. “I want my work in the world and my family to be an extension of who I am.”

Jessy Servi and I started our conversation talking about fearlessness. We talked about a thought I heard recently from Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous international artist and domestic critic: He took risks not because he wasn’t afraid, but because he was actually more afraid of what would happen if he didn’t. He had to act. Have you ever had this experience? This feeling? Continue reading

meet katherine: chicago architect, designer and systems thinker

Katherine and Orlin, People with Panache

On why she chose the name Latent Design: “It’s truly from the definition of it. Latent and latency means making something invisible visible, and we use design as a tool to do that.” Katherine and Orlin in front of the project wall at Katherine’s studio.

In early 2010, Katherine Darnstadt got laid off. The economy dipped (drastically), and in one 6-month period she also got married, got licensed as an architect, and got pregnant. “I was broke, barefoot and pregnant, but as a licensed architect, I had hit my one huge professional milestone,” Katherine says. “I was finally legally, legitimately an architect, but I had no job to practice architecture in. And our field is notoriously not very kind to women or people with families.”

Katherine wasn’t about to let any of that stop her. She now owns Latent Design, an architecture firm in Chicago where she does so much more than design buildings. She designs communities. Continue reading

update: it’s the great milwaukee victory garden blitz!

Alysse says this year's best record so far is 15 gardens built by one team on Monday morning. "So far on Tuesday when we start we’ll have installed over 207—that's a little behind, but we’ll catch up. We’re doing over 500 beds, and still have to fill most of them with soil. We started with 40 garden beds in one day in 2009 and are now up to 500 in two weeks." Here are Gretchen and Alysse on either side of the Wisconsin senator and representative.

Alysse says this year’s best record so far is 15 gardens built by one team on Monday morning. “So far on Tuesday when we start we’ll have installed over 207—that’s a little behind, but we’ll catch up. We’re doing over 500 beds and still have to fill most of them with soil. We started with 40 garden beds in one day in 2009 and are now up to 500 in two weeks.” Here are Gretchen and Alysse on either side of the Wisconsin senator and state representative.

“We believe growing our own food will create a more sustainable, community-based, socially just food system than what we’re currently offered.” —Alysse Gear

The Blitz has begun! This week was the start of Victory Garden Initiative’s Great Milwaukee Victory Garden Blitz. The team has planned for months and gathered tons of volunteers to help install 500 garden beds in yards, schools and businesses across the county. Continue reading

update: congrats to “the empowerment project”!

The Empowerment Project on People With Panache

Kate on the left, Alysse on the right, our favorite documentary in the middle! “The Empowerment Project” is for everyone, and we can’t wait to hear about its travels, empowering people all over the world.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled interview to bring you an update on “The Empowerment Project!”

On Sunday night, we went to the cozy Music Box Theater in Chicago for the third screening ever of “The Empowerment Project.” Fancy, huh? We hope you remember it from our interview with Sarah (and many, many Facebook posts). “The Empowerment Project” is a documentary following a film crew of five women as they hop in a minivan and travel across the country to meet ordinary women doing extraordinary things. Continue reading

meet jillian: milwaukee biker biz lady and more

Jillian at the Moxie booth

Michelle, the Bellas’ program manager, says, “It’s very empowering to be a woman and to be cycling and sort of making a niche for ourselves in a very male-dominated sport.” Jillian cuts in—“A male-dominated world, too!” Here, Jillian poses with Moxie gear.

“I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” says Jillian Imilkowski, 41. How many of us feel that way, at age 20, 40, 60?

Jillian has had a colorful, really cool career path (including AmeriCorps, helping run Turner Hall, a popular local venue, and more!), and today’s chapter of her story begins rather recently: She did wine sales for 10 years, but then the company closed in December 2013. “I’ve been fun-employed for the past 4 months, and I am happier than I have been in a long time.” Jillian now spends her time nurturing the Bella Donnas, a biking group she created in 2007 that exists to empower women—among other jobs. “I like the flexibility of doing what I want to do. I’m not making nearly as much money as I used to, but it’s ok.”

People with Panache: Happiness is so worth it! Who are the Bella Donnas?

Jillian Imilkowski: The Bella Donnas formed because there was nothing like us around. Continue reading

meet elyse, kamille and nickclette: actors in milwaukee (part 3)

Meet the Rep interns!

Elyse and I bonded over crying… and it was hilarious. She hadn’t cried for seven years before acting school, and now she’s the best insta-crier ever. Me too, except I never took a seven-year break. Oops…

“In Native American tradition, people live their day for the sun,” says Elyse Edelman. “It’s born in the morning and dies at night, so you enjoy it as much as possible. I’m living my day for the sun.” We ended last week talking about Elyse’s wake-up routine (which finally made me rethink the hit-snooze-until-I’m-late rut I’ve been in). It really is so refreshing, along with so much Elyse, Kamille Dawkins and Nickclette Izuegbu had to say.

People with Panache: How did you get over that fear that often comes with following your dreams?

Elyse Edelman: I had a teacher once who told me you don’t have to have your whole life planned out. You don’t even have to have a certain trajectory in your head. Just make the most interesting choice. Continue reading