Brent Ridge: Seeing Opportunity in the Face of Challenge and Teaching Coby Students to Do the Same

Brent Ridge with Martha and BillCIt was the downturn in the economy around 2008 that set Brent Ridge and his then partner, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, on their path to media stardom, though it was not evident at the time.  Brent, who had left his position as a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City to pursue an MBA from New York University, had begun working to create a new division for Martha Stewart.  The division did not survive the recession, and neither did the ad agency for which Josh had been working.  The couple had purchased their now famous home, the Beekman mansion in Sharon Springs, only the year before, and they headed north to determine how they could keep their house and begin anew.

At the same time, their neighbor, SUNY Cobleskill alum “Farmer John” Hall, was facing the loss of his goat farm.  Their fortuitous partnership—Beekman 1802—began with a note from Farmer John in the Beekman mansion mailbox one day requesting the pair to allow his goats to graze on their land.

While Josh was soon offered a position to work in Manhattan, returning upstate on weekends, Brent spent the week in Sharon Springs collaborating with Farmer John on their new business. Working from the stately home, their first endeavor was to create goat’s milk beauty products with names like “Milk Shake,” which sold in such high-end stores as Anthropology and Henri Bendel.

With their first effort doing well, they reinvested to become a Grade A Dairy, and developed their popular Blaak Cheese.  They also found ways to bring in local artisans by working with them to design products such as linens, napkins, swaddling cloths for babies, as well as hand woven scarves by Rabbit Goody in Sharon Springs.  Their suppliers consisted of 32 different weavers, wood carvers, ceramicists, and blacksmiths, with 80 percent of their income coming from online sales.

It was not long before they ran out of space to store and prepare their inventory for shipping, which meant it was time to explore local warehouse spaces.  Sharon Springs’ expansive Roseboro Hotel was vacant, offering the ideal solution for storing their products.  Up until then, they had not considered opening a “bricks and mortar” store, but a small room in the front of the hotel worked perfectly as a retail space—a country mercantile in which to showcase their wares.

“Small towns are often built around successful businesses that draw in tourists,” Brent said. “That is what we wanted our mercantile to be so people would come from all over the country.”  And it wasn’t long before they did.

To enhance the company’s website, the partners blogged about the farm, recipes and their new life.  Josh had published a couple of books and was ready to submit a proposal for Bucolic Plague, which told the story of their adventures in reinventing themselves.

“The way that book ends, we had lost our jobs in the City, the company had not yet taken off, and we thought we were going to lose the farm,” Brent explains.  “We closed the farm because we could not afford to heat it.  Around that time, The New York Times heard about us and they did an article about the farm.  That’s when things started to turn around”—as one might expect they would with a piece in the Times to get the word out.

The next “lucky” break, which came as a result of their online and media presence, was when someone from the Discovery network came calling after coming across their website.

“We thought it was going to be about doing a blog for them,” Brent explained.  “In the meeting they said, what is happening with you is happening to a lot of people who lost their jobs and are reinventing themselves.”  Rather than a blog, the meeting resulted in a cable television program, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, currently airing on the Cooking Channel.  It did not end there.

“About two years ago when our first cookbook came out, we were on a cookbook tour in Santa Monica,” Brent said.  “A little lady came up and said she was a big fan of the show and so was her neighbor.”  She told him that her neighbor was the president of CBS reality television.

“She was unassuming and we really didn’t believe her,” he added.  They joked with her, “Then why aren’t we on The Amazing Race?”  Two days after they returned to Sharon Springs, the phone rang.  It was CBS calling with the offer to put them into the next Amazing Race competition.   Doing that show meant leaving the Beekman 1802 business in the hands of employees and spending three and a half weeks straight in 2012 racing non-stop. By winning that race, the $1million prize paid off the mortgage so that Josh could leave his job in New York City and they could reinvest in the business (as well as get married). Since that time, Brent says, the business has grown exponentially and they’ve moved their store to its new brick building across and down the street from the location of their first shop.

“We are both very good business people,” he adds.  “Every day people have opportunities that present themselves.  A good business person recognizes opportunities and utilizes them in the best way.”

He decided to go back to teaching, this time sharing his business acumen as an adjunct professor of the principles of marketing at SUNY Cobleskill.

“The reason I decided to do it was because we care deeply about our community and its agrarian history,” Brent said, adding that young people in the local community have not felt there was a way they could start a business and be successful.  “I want to inspire students and make sure they realize there are opportunities here.  If we don’t have young talent in business here, upstate New York will continue on a downward spiral.”

The Beekman Boys have been working with SUNY Cobleskill for several years in conjunction with the Sharon Springs Harvest Festival and in working with the landscaping classes to re-plan the park in that community.  He noted, “People in the local communities don’t necessarily realize what a great resource the College can be.”

The students are charged with creating a marketing plan for their College.  They discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the College and how they would market it.  “It is important for them to get out of SUNY Cobleskill what they want to get out of it, and to have other people have respect for their College,” he noted.  The work that the students will eventually do as an employee or entrepreneur will raise the value of a SUNY Cobleskill education, he reminds them, and they should be coming up with ideas for how to create their own opportunities.

“A lot of students at SUNY Cobleskill will not go on to professional degrees—they will go into the work force,” he said.  “I want them to have the skills to go out—writing and doing public speaking with confidence—and to be able to do that in the real world.”

By inspiring students to invest their energies into accomplishments that allow them to be the enhancement in their own education, Brent is similarly being the change in improving the community in which he lives—by investing his time in his students and helping them to understand how to discover possibilities right where they are.

His personal goal is to see 10 percent of his students remain in the area and start businesses here.  He wants to challenge his students to think of the classroom as a hands-on learning opportunity to apply what they are learning to the outside world.  He encourages them to see the class as an incubator and their classmates as a focus group.

“What I am trying to do in the course is to let the students be their own case study,” Brent explained.  “Many have clear ideas about businesses they want to start or industries they want to go into.  They use them as case studies and by the time they finish the class, they learn how to apply those principles to the business.”

Real life. Real learning. Seeing opportunities where others see challenges.  Sounds like a plan.

–Diane Dobry