Destination Career: Entrepreneur serious about making a difference
By Chelsea Nord
Photo by Chelsea Nord
Kim Emshwiller, a 1995 agricultural economics graduate, hangs a sign in her retail store, Prairie's Edge. Emshwiller has started four small businesses in her hometown, Rensselaer, Ind.
"The path you end up taking probably isn't the path you thought you would take."
Kim Emshwiller, a successful entrepreneur and community leader, can say that today. But when she was a student at Purdue University, she thought she was on a narrow course.
Despite growing up on a small dairy farm in Hartford City, Ind., a career in agriculture was the furthest thing from Emshwiller's mind when she started college. She started as a communications major, but quickly decided to change course. To her surprise, she found herself going right back to her roots: agriculture.
"It wasn't until after I was away from agriculture that I realized how strong my connection to it was," Emshwiller said. "I missed ag and I wanted to help the growers."
After earning a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from Purdue in 1995, she worked for Cargill, but said she burned out in the corporate atmosphere. She wasn't sure what to do until a team of local farmers gave her the boost she needed.
She quickly saw a niche in Rensselaer, Ind., her hometown. She created her first business there, Vision Ag, Inc., a production services company.
"I found I have a true entrepreneur spirit," Emshwiller said. "To me, it's like almost never being satisfied. It's awesome to start a business and built it into something successful. Once you've achieved that, you want to do it again."
And she's done it again many times. Emshwiller has started four other businesses since she opened Vision Ag. She said she recognizes that not everyone gets a kick out of the risk that it takes to start a business, but she loves the challenge of creating a new business or concepts and watching them become a success.
"The risk is that it doesn't work out and you lose, but the upside is that it succeeds," Emshwiller said. "I love to see things succeed and that is my reason for moving forward."
Soon after Emshwiller got her feet wet with Vision Ag, one of her employees, Barbara Barten, of Rensselaer, Ind., started talking about how she was getting excess supplies in her office. So Barten casually suggested that Emshwiller try to sell the excess stuff. They went to a trade show and, on a wild hair, decided they wanted to open a store called Prairie's Edge.
"I threw out the idea that we should look at the building across the road, and the next morning Kim showed up with the keys to the building!" Barten said.
Prairie's Edge has become a favorite of both its employees and the citizens of Rensselaer. They call it the "little bit of everything store" as it provides retail items ranging from birdseed, to hunting gear, to soaps and even Under Armour apparel.
Emshwiller is not afraid to take an idea and run with it. There can be a lot of stumbling blocks to starting a business, but she said obstacles shouldn't stop anyone from achieving their dreams. If you suggest an idea, you better be serious.
"Don't tempt me, or things will progress," Emshwiller joked. "Voila! Prairie's Edge!"
Barten is the general manager of Prairie's Edge. Allison Meyers is a sales clerk. They are both very fun, inviting and love their jobs — qualities Emshwiller said she searches for in her employees. That's a reflection of Emshwiller's personality and her vision that successful businesses have happy employees.
"My favorite thing about working at Prairie's Edge is all of the people," Meyers said. "It's a happy place to be and a lot of our customers love to just come in and visit."
For Barten, the fun part of the job is providing products to customers that they can't get anywhere else in their small town.
Along with Vision Ag and Prairie's Edge, Emshwiller also owns AutoWorks repair shop and Blue Monday Soap Company. She started AutoWorks to keep people from losing their jobs after the local Ford dealership closed. She took it upon herself to re-open the shop, which began as a Studebaker dealership and has been in the community for more than 100 years.
Despite her increasing workload, Emshwiller is proud to be a small-business owner. She enjoys having satisfied customers and knowing that she is providing a good way of life for her employees.
"Small businesses are the backbone of America - they are what our economy was built on," Emshwiller is proud to be a small-businesess owner. "Being part of that is exciting. It's exciting to work hard, have the freedom to build a business and to be successful."
Emshwiller feels very fortunate to live the American dream of starting with nothing, and working her way up.
Meyes and Barten also feel very fortunate. "She's a boss who works with her employees," Meyers said. "If she's in here and we're busy, she'll start helping out by ringing up customers, loading feed, anything that needs to be done."
Even with all of the business meetings she has to attend and the lack of sleep she deals with during the busy spring months, Emshwiller still thinks of the little things to make her customers and employees happy.
Emshwiller said she wouldn't ask her employees to do anything she wouldn't do, even if it means wearing a turkey costume.
"One weekend we had a big event," Emshwiller said. "I dressed up as a turkey to draw attention to the store off the street. There was no way someone could pass you without smiling. I thought it was great!"
This genuine passion for her work and her community is one thing that has helped Emshwiller get to where she is today.
Prairie's Edge has many inspirational phrases on the walls. One that employees regard as a kind of store motto also describes Emshwiller's entrepreneurial spirit.
"You really can change the world if you care enough."