Value Added: Lessons from a first job

Thomas Heath
Reporter August 7, 2011

My first real job was as a laborer with a small construction firm in Syracuse, N.Y. I worked my butt off for about $5 an hour. The hours were long. It helped pay for college.

More important, it went a long way toward teaching me how to be an adult and take responsibility. How to show up and earn my paycheck.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

I don’t know where Norm Gelfand, the owner of the construction company, is now. But I owe him.

Chuck Rendelman, co-founder of the FroZenYo yogurt stores that sprinkle the Washington area, is doing a similar thing for a bunch of kids earning their way through college.

He is teaching young adults how to become capitalists and future entrepreneurs, not by writing a check and sending them on internships or study cruises but by giving them a chance to build business skills and make some money while running his expanding chain of yogurt stores.


From left to right are Cindy Hernandez, 21, Omar Hernandez, 18, Patricia Mann, 20 and Cornesha Ward, 21. Young managers at FroZenYo are learning business skills. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“People underestimate these kids,” Rendelman said. “We decided to take a shot and see what they could do. They are ambitious, and they are overlooked as not having the experience. So we are trading that piece for their energy, their focus, their drive and enthusiasm. What we are getting is people who are at their first job, and instead of micromanaging them, it’s more of a mentoring process.”

Sounds like nothing. They work. They sell yogurt. Big deal, right?

I thought that, too, until one day a couple of months ago I started talking to Simone Hill.

Hill is 18, and a recent graduate of Potomac High School in Oxon Hill, where she lives with her mother. She made about $5,000 this summer, which will help pay for Indiana State University, where she will study operations management as a freshman this fall.

In this town, with its insulated economy, many sons and daughters of privilege “intern” at businessess run by family or friends. They volunteer to help the disadvantaged. They tour overseas somewhere to expand their horizons.

Hill is expanding her horizons. She is learning the real world from the ground up. And by necessity. She found the job on Craiglist. She is showing up and slugging it out for about $10 an hour (plus tips) at FroZenYo’s store at Farragut Square.

“I really learned how a business works at the basic level, how to go to work day to day,” said Hill. “I really learn about coming in and seeing things go. Making orders. Handling money.”

In other words, Hill said, she learned that work is, well, work. And you go at it.

When she screwed up an order on strawberries and her boss told her to fix it, she took it in stride.

“I am pretty cool,” Hill said.

Want to know how I handled my first screw-ups on the job?

“Mom!”

The strawberries boss is Cornesha Ward, a 21-year-old business major starting her senior year at Howard University.

Ward, the oldest of three girls who were raised by their mother in Mississippi, runs multiple stores for Rendelman while going to school. She lives near Friendship Heights and takes a 45-minute Metro commute on class days.

She applied for a job with FroZenYo after trying the product at its Friendship Heights store, and after being turned down at a pizza place.

Rendelman asked her one question in her interview: Why should I hire you?

The interview was awful. Ward averted her eyes. She lacked confidence. But her smile evinced some sort of genuineness. And she said she was a hard worker. Rendelman hired her in spite of the interview.

“She didn’t have interview skills because she had never been to an interview and no one taught her,” Rendelman said. “But when she smiled, that was all you needed.”

Ward is so good that she is running FroZenYo’s flagship store on F Street NW while helping open its new Crystal City store this summer. She will earn about $40,000 this year.

“She is no-nonsense, straightforward, extremely fast,” said Emmanuel Gonzalez, Ward’s supervisor and the director of all store operations for FroZenYo. “She is fast at cleaning, has great customer awareness. She makes eye contact with customers who can’t engage.”

Ward, who has a big future at FroZenYo if she wants it, has made some profound discoveries, including the ability to separate her personal feelings from her professional responsibilities, something that prevents many employees from advancing in any job.

She credits Gonzalez, a low-key manager who Rendelman cherry-picked from Starbucks, with helping her learn management.

“One of the stores was having huge variances,” Ward said, referring to the fact that one day the store would bring in healthy revenues and the next little. “He took me aside and was talking to me about a good manager being on top of the cash-handling procedures and that I should always stay on top of my game when it comes to the cash.

“It kind of hurt my feelings because I was a bad manager. Then I realized, don’t take it personal. He is not saying I am a bad manager. He is pointing out that I need to improve on my cash-handling skills.”

Patricia Mann, 20, of Virginia Beach, is a biology major entering her third year at George Washington University.

She found her job on the company’s Facebook site. She likes FroZenYo much more than her previous jobs, which included positions at a jewelry store and a Kmart.

I wanted to know: What is the biggest lesson you have learned at FroZenYo?

“The importance of customer loyalty,” she said. “A lot of people come in because they heard of [FroZenYo] from someone else. So they bring a friend or friend of a friend. That’s the best way to get customers.”

“Some people think business is just about the money,” she said. “But it’s accomplishing something. Successfully creating a business and bringing one to life, and expanding it and employing people . . . it’s a sense of accomplishment.”

Are politicians listening?

Follow me on Twitter at addedvalueth.

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