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Starting life on her own at the tender of age of 17, Jennifer Nay was goal oriented and driven. A college education was at the top of her list. But the question was – how?
With no money, but lots of dreams stretched out before her, Jennifer wasn’t going to let anything get in her way. She knew it would take hard work, and as her story will show, it did. Working four jobs to pay her way through college, Jennifer graduated from Radford University with a degree in finance.
She did everything with tenacity and a no-quit attitude. Some people call that grit, day in and day out stamina, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. To be sure, Jennifer has grit. Lots of it. Working hard every day to turn her dreams into reality wasn’t an option, it was a mission.
While Jennifer’s journey didn’t begin with some innate risk-taking entrepreneurial disposition, she has always possessed one of the qualities found in successful people: the perseverance to figure things out. And figure it out she did! So much so, that she would one-day be rewarded beyond her wildest imagination for the goal-oriented determination that kept her from running away from challenges and instead running towards them.
Following graduation from Radford, Jennifer set her sights on becoming a stockbroker. However, she soon learned that Richmond, Virginia was a very difficult place for a young woman to break into the industry. So, as is the story of her life, she just had to figure it out. Here the answer came to her one afternoon in the library where a copy of the New York Times caught her eye.
She saw a broker’s position advertised and quickly applied. Remarkably, in Jennifer’s mind, she was invited to interview, which led to her next figure it out challenge. “How am I even going to get to New York City?”
Jennifer didn’t have the finances to travel to New York. Working her way through Radford had been a struggle to make ends meet. So, she got creative. Jennifer did some research and learned that the Finance Club was taking a trip to tour the New York Stock Exchange, and that club members traveled for free. So, she joined the club and made her way to NYC.
While the other students toured the stock exchange, Jennifer snuck away and landed her first job. She’d figured it out again.
Now living in Queens, in a room she’d rented sight unseen, Jennifer began a career of cold calling prospective clients from the proverbial boiler room. But after a year in the big city, the Southern girl in Jennifer was ready to return to tree-lined streets and grassy green fields. So, she used her hard-fought and well-earned successes in New York to land a position with a firm in Richmond, Virginia. She did what it took to break-in. Once settled, she decided to try out a new strategy. She would teach classes to women about investing, not make impersonal cold calls. Teaching was her authentic way of attracting new clients.
In the you can’t make this stuff up category, Jennifer’s personal approach to business led to a life altering event that you only see in a cheesy movie or fairytale. “I was teaching a class to women about investment strategies on a Saturday morning, and I noticed one of my slightly older pupils smiling sweetly at me. I wasn’t sure if she was admiring my red suit, or maybe she had been generationally deprived of learning about such things as P/E ratios and dollar cost averaging,” Jennifer laughed, “It turned out to be neither.” That sweet smiling student, who is now Jennifer’s mother-in-law, wanted Jennifer to meet her son so he could “open an account.” And yes, the story ends as you might expect, Jennifer married the sweet lady’s son, and her new client, Auburn University alumnus, Marc Nay.
“We connected on so many levels, but we really enjoyed talking about business,” she said. “Evenings were spent strategizing how to grow my business while formulating plans for Marc to grow his. He had a vision for a veterinary hospital in the suburbs of Richmond. We believed that area would prosper and would need a business like that.” Excited to work as a couple, their joint entrepreneurial journey began.
With the money Jennifer was fortunate to have made in the late 90s bull market, the sale of her broker client book, and a signature of guarantee on the bank note from Marc’s father, they were on their way. Thinking big and smart, they built two commercial buildings. The veterinary hospital was set up in one building and the other was rented out to help cover their mortgage payments.
Jennifer’s business acumen helped bring Marc’s vision to life, and it didn’t take long for them to realize that she should run the day-to-day operations of the hospital. While neither Jennifer or Marc are risk averse, the viability of their business venture required them to protect and grow their large investment. And that wise thinking paid unexpected dividends.
In their tenth year of business together, the world was rocked by a significant economic downturn. They and many other businesses struggled. Marc and Jennifer faced a loss of income from both rental properties and a two-doctor day practice that was slowing down. As they brainstormed about this new challenge, Marc was increasingly struck by how the emergency veterinary world had created monopolies that were hurting his clients financially. “We’re figure it out people,” Jennifer said, “We knew we had to adapt. Our strategic choices were straightforward: we either shrink or expand.”
But shrink is not the mindset of true entrepreneurs. They persevere, they revel in adversity, they problem solve. So, Jennifer and Marc set their sights on expansion and by the end of that very day, they had written a business plan that would grow their two doctor, small animal day practice into a 24/7 Emergency and Critical Care/day practice hybrid.
“It was wild, we saw the need, we wrote the plan, and we were in the bank the next week. One month later, I was on television telling the Richmond community, ‘you now have a new option for emergency veterinary care,’” Jennifer said.
“We hired thirty additional employees, purchased additional equipment, marketed our new hospital, and cultivated referral relationships with local veterinarians. We took our idea from concept to grand opening in 90-days. We also decided to upfit our other commercial space and rent it to a veterinary surgical group. Working symbiotically, we ended up creating a complete veterinary campus,” she said.
Their new business model has since changed the veterinary landscape in the Richmond area. In fact, it was so successful that it drew interest from organizations searching to buy private practices. Marc and Jennifer had turned a major problem into a lucrative opportunity. They prospered by building bigger when others were contracting. The offers from investors were validation of their passion, purpose, and grit. They sold the practice and then the veterinary campus. They now dreamed of the wonderful world of early retirement–but not for long.
Choosing to sell their practice and investment properties to retire in Auburn, Alabama, was an easy decision for the Nays. But Jennifer soon found that the one thing she didn’t do well was “bored.” She was born to set goals and then strive to achieve them. She wanted to expand her business knowledge. So, in 2020, the newly retired entrepreneur set out to earn her MBA from the Harbert College of Business.
Having married into the Auburn family, she’d fallen in love with all things orange & blue. “Auburn just meant so much to me and the Creed mirrored my own values,” she said. It was natural then that she decided to pursue her next great adventure at the university she had come to love.
Feeling privileged to not have to work four jobs at a time, Jennifer took full advantage of every new Auburn experience. One new interest came during her MBA orientation when a representative from the New Venture Accelerator (NVA) shared information about an upcoming business idea pitch competition called Tiger Cage.
“I immediately reached out to Lou Bifano, Director of the NVA, to introduce myself and to share my interest in being a part of it,” she said. “I offered to judge the competition and was subsequently invited to meet with Lou and two of his Entrepreneurs-In-Residence.”
Jennifer met with the group and shared her experiences. “Lou likes to say he threw a net over me,” Jennifer laughs, “but initially, I had a bit of imposter syndrome and wasn’t sure I had what they needed.” Lou hired Jennifer first as an intern, and then upon earning her MBA, promoted her to become the NVA’s first female Entrepreneur-In-Residence.
“The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve realized that I have exactly what these young entrepreneurs need,” she said, “The experiences I’ve gained from the many years when I was figuring it out by myself, putting myself through college, starting my career, starting our businesses are invaluable. I have first-hand insights and learnings that I can now share with people who are interested in starting a business of their own. I can advise them every step of the way.”
“Looking back, it would have been priceless to have a seasoned business professional and entrepreneur who understood what I was facing and who could have mentored me,” Jennifer said, “To be on the other side today, to be a coach to both student and faculty entrepreneurs is such a thrill for me. It is a great privilege of my life.”
The NVA is an exciting place to work. “It’s always abuzz. These young people are so great to work with. When I find an emerging entrepreneur who has a fire in their belly that I can identify with and when they match that fire with a work ethic that aligns with mine, I get fully invested in their business as if it was my own. It is so much fun – especially, during the Halloween Pitch and Tiger Cage competitions,” Jennifer said.
To be sure, there is never a dull moment at the NVA or in the Nay home. They’re either giving back to student and faculty entrepreneurs or continuing to explore new ventures of their own.
Retirement…while nice in concept, is just not part of their DNA. They’re business builders.
In fact, one of their new ventures is all about building. It’s a construction company. As it turns out, Marc, doesn’t do “bored” well either. He just can’t sit still when he encounters a challenge that he knows he can overcome. Case in point, their need of a boat dock matched against a local contractors’ high prices and two-year waiting list to have one built didn’t sit well with Marc and Jennifer.
Jennifer and Marc don’t accept no, they never have. They just figure it out. So, instead of accepting delays and high prices, Marc hired a craftsman to work with him as he built his own dock. From there, Marc and Jennifer were on to their next adventure.
They took their business management experience, joined forces with the gifted craftsman, and founded Blue Creek Construction. Figuring it out is what they do. It’s who they are. And they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Research also shows that women-owned companies generate higher revenues than those owned by men. Women are more effective leaders, are better at creating jobs, and create 2-times more for each dollar of investment than men. I guess it’s fair to say we need even more female entrepreneurs in the world!”
Jennifer also encourages alumni and business leaders to get engaged as well. Become a judge for Tiger Cage. Serve as a mentor, consultant, or a guest speaker at one of the many workshops the NVA offers to the community at large. It is so fulfilling to make a difference in someone’s life.
In recognition of Women’s Entrepreneurship Week, Jennifer encourages students, especially female students, to get involved with the New Venture Accelerator. “Recent data shows that 41% of all entrepreneurs are women”, said Nay.
It’s been said that “The mark of an extraordinary woman is not how she rises above the rest. It’s how she reaches back to raise up others.” Sound like anyone you know?