Vanderbilt Business

On Their Own Time

Faculty demonstrate unexpected talents that bring new meaning to work-life balance

by Joan Brasher | Photo Essay, Spring 2013 | Comments | Print Print |

Just because you’re a business professor doesn’t mean you have to be all business, all the time, and Owen faculty are no exception. Among them are a champion trick water-skier, charcutier, screenwriter, barkeep (and builder) and owner of a multimillion-dollar company. They shine in the classroom—why not out of it? Meet five professors who are doing just that.

Going Green

Bob_Whaley

Fifteen years ago, Bob Whaley and his wife, Sondra, MBA’82, visited Ireland and fell in love with the people, food, countryside and culture. Over the years, they have returned numerous times to visit, but going back just wasn’t enough. So they decided to bring a bit of Ireland to Tennessee.

“When you go into the Irish pubs, the people are so friendly and charming—they talk to you like they’ve known you forever,” says Whaley, the Valere Blair Potter Professor of Finance and professor of management. “We wanted to create that kind of atmosphere for ourselves and our friends, and so we did.”

Whaley, who is also co-director of the Financial Markets Research Center, used his carpentry experience and the help of his college-age son to transform his home’s entire lower level, including the garage, into a 1,500- square-foot Irish pub dubbed Whaley Tavern. Just like the ones in the Emerald Isle, this watering hole has Irish brews like Guinness and Smithwick’s on tap, game tables and dartboards to keep patrons occupied, and Irish flags adorning dark wood paneled walls.

The Whaleys entertain year around, but they go all out on St. Patrick’s Day. Around 100 or so fellow Hibernophiles crowd the place to feast on Guinness stew and shepherd pie, shoot pool and sing shanties over a pint (or two). While he won’t name-drop, Whaley says more than a few popular singer-songwriters have been known to stop by and perform (signed guitars on the walls are proof).

With all this talk of Ireland, one has to wonder if Whaley has some Irish blood in his veins.

“I did some searching and I think my parents’ lineage is English, not Irish,” he says. “I found a Jerusalem Whaley—I’m not sure I’m a descendent, but you never know. I may have to go over there and do some digging.”

Different Strokes

Jennifer Escalas isn’t an enthusiastic swimmer, but that hasn’t stopped the associate professor of marketing from launching and running what has become a $3 million-a-year swimwear company.

She is married to swimmer Rafael Escalas, who competed in the 1980 and 1984 Olympic games for his home country of Spain. The two met during their undergraduate years at University of California, Los Angeles, where she was studying Spanish and he was an engineering major competing on the university swim team.

“When we started dating, his swim schedule was just something I put up with,” Escalas says. “I didn’t realize how much dedication it took.”

After they married and moved to North Carolina and she entered the Ph.D. program at Duke University, they decided it was time to start their own company. He quit his engineering job and together they launched Agon Sport, a competitive swimwear company. He set up the factory in Spain and she took on the marketing and the books.

“We didn’t have a stash of money,” she says. “We maxed out credit cards and took out a second mortgage to get the business off the ground.”

The gamble paid off. In 2012, they created custom swimsuits for more than 1,800 swim teams—including their 16-year-old daughter Elena’s high school team. “Nike doesn’t create custom suits, so we fill a really important niche,” she says.

In the classroom, Escalas often uses examples of challenges encountered in her business and that has given her credibility with her students, she says.

“I don’t just write articles about how to run a successful, profitable business, I am actually doing that,” she says. “I think my students are far more impressed with that than my Ph.D.”

Writing the past

By day, her world is black and white—debits and credits, columns in a spreadsheet, numbers in a row. But by night Debra Jeter’s world is sepia-toned and dreamlike, as she weaves words into short stories, screenplays and novels that draw on her life as a child in rural Kentucky.

“I’m happier when I’m writing,” says the associate professor of accounting. “I’m more productive if I’m preparing for class or interacting with my students if I’ve got a project going. It makes my whole day go better.”

A recent project brought her talents to the national stage. The prestigious Sundance Film Festival chose Jess + Moss, an art-house film she helped pen and executive produce with her son Clay, as an official selection. It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age story about two cousins spending the summer at their grandmother’s house for the last time.

“We shot Jess + Moss in a very short time period at my grandmother’s abandoned farmhouse in Lynn Grove, Ky.,” Jeter says. “It was shot on aged film stock to give it that grainy quality—grainy the way my memories are of spending all my summers there.”

The film was well received by critics, which she attributes to Clay, a former child actor, who directed.

“It was unbelievable for us at Sundance, seeing people lined up to see our film—for the first time it was real,” Jeter says.

Jeter juggles numerous writing projects, including a script for a TV pilot about a real estate office in a small Southern town that is based on the lives of her father and sister.

“Their stories could fill several books,” she says. “I just don’t think I’ll ever run out of stories to tell.”

The Art of the Meal

Craig Lewis has a secret identity. Students and fellow Owen faculty know him as the Madison S. Wigginton Chair of Management and a finance professor. His colleagues at the Security Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C., know him as the SEC’s chief economist. And his family knows him as husband and father. But many don’t know he is also a charcutier—a curer of meats—a process he has mastered to create his own private-label sausages, pancetta, lardo, salami and coppa.

It all started after a particularly delicious meal at Nashville’s F. Scott’s restaurant in 2005.

“They served a nice duck prosciutto and I thought it was interesting,” he says. “I am an amateur chef, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ Then I found this book called Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, and it just went from there.”

To dry cure meat, he starts with a piece of farm-fresh pork, which he rubs with a special combination of curing salts over a period of weeks. Then the meat is wrapped in cheesecloth and hung to dry in a cool, humidity-controlled curing chamber for several months.

“Our house in Nashville doesn’t have a basement, so at one point I bought a large dorm fridge, and rigged it up with a thermostat like microbrewers use,” he says. “I also wanted to be able to monitor it during the day so I put it in my office at Owen.”

There is no curing chamber in his office at the SEC, but Lewis admits to the occasional pork shoulder hanging in his coat closet in his D.C. home. When he returns to Nashville after his two-year appointment and leave, he looks forward to sharing his gastronomic skills with his colleagues and students once again.

“I enjoy getting my smaller classes together at the end of the semester for a nice meal,” he says. “Culinary experiences are such a wonderful way to bring people together.”

A Need for Speed

Growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, Miguel Palacios never set out to be a competitive water-skier. But Columbia’s warm, year-round climate makes water activities popular. One summer, 7-year-old Miguel went with his father to a nearby sports club and signed up for a water-skiing lesson. Before long, he was skimming across the water at electrifying speeds and performing gravity-defying jumps, spins and flips.

“It is the most awesome feeling in the world—and it’s only a little bit dangerous,” says the assistant professor of finance with a grin, later explaining that it raises adrenaline without danger.

Palacios quickly rose in the sport and earned a spot on Colombia’s national water-skiing team. He continued to ski when he could while earning three degrees—a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia; an MBA from the Darden Business School at University of Virginia; and a master’s in economics and Ph.D. in finance from the University of California, Berkeley.

Competitive water-skiing requires very specific man-made lakes on which to perform and practice, so it’s not convenient to train just anywhere. But even with a full course load at UC Berkeley, he managed to pull off a third-place ranking in the West Coast men’s division for trick skiing.

“I like speed,” admits Palacios, who is also an instrument-rated pilot. “It’s so different from what I try to achieve in my academic life, which takes a lot of focus and patience. When I ski, I can let go of everything that’s on my mind.”

Palacios, who came to Owen in 2009, says he doesn’t get out on the water as often as he would like. But when he does, it’s at a competition-ready lake in nearby Manchester, Tenn.

“For me it’s just pure fun,” he says, “but water-skiing is also a good lesson for life. When you try, you may fall, but if you want to learn, you have to get back up and try again.”

photo credit: John Russell. Debra Jeter image by Daniel Dubois and shot on location at Nashville's Belcourt Theatre. Miguel Palacios image courtesy of Miguel Palacios.

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