Robin Holmes, B.S. '12, is a trendsetter—but until very recently she didn’t know it. In the span of only a couple of years, she’s gone from being the model University of Baltimore student—older, working, raising a family, and meeting the goals of her education on her terms—to winning a door-opening business prize at the University.
Now, she's an independent businesswoman making the most out of a red-hot fad in the food industry: freshly made, intricately decorated donuts. Plus, she's showing others who are following her that when it comes to realizing a lifelong dream, what it takes is a genuine passion and a good work ethic. (Money helps, of course. But more on that later.) In 2017, being authentic about who you are and what you want out of life is refreshing, eye-opening—it's real.
But Holmes wasn't aware of any of that: She's one of the most sincere, self-effacing people you'll ever meet. If she appears to be calculating in her rapidly growing success as an entrepreneur, it's only because she is smart and determined to stay that way. It's one of the reasons she loves UB, because this campus sees her not only for what she can be, but for what she is.
Holmes's story begins with her mother. The simplest way to put it is that she was raised to always want to work. Her mother, who went by the nickname Deddle (pronounced "Deedle"), served for many years as a cook in an area nursing home. Holmes says she watched her mother dedicate her life to her job, rarely taking a sick day, never complaining.
"She would always say to me, 'Those people gotta get fed,'" Holmes recalls.
The daughter took the mother's values and embraced them, wholeheartedly. It seemed like the right way to live—dignity begets dignity, and so on.
But one day, when Holmes was in school, her mother became seriously ill. She had cancer. The end was sudden. Holmes only had a few minutes with her before she died.
That day hurt: It was too soon. But what made it nearly unbearable, and pushed Holmes forward with a new sense of determination, was how little gratitude her mother's workplace showed in response to her passing.
"I vowed to myself, I would never, and my children would never, work someplace where they just didn't care about you," Holmes said.
So there's one trend: Holmes is absolutely determined to be self-employed, working for herself and her family. According to the National Women's Business Council, there are nearly 10 million women-owned businesses in the United States—an increase of more than 2 million companies just since 2007. Women-owned businesses are now generating more than a trillion dollars in the U.S. economy, and that activity is on the rise.
"Robin is part of a huge increase in the number of women entrepreneurs," says Henry Mortimer, director of UB's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. "It's an amazing story, and we think it's only beginning."
Here's another trend that Holmes is a big part of: It doesn’t take a whole lot of money to get a business rolling. No matter what you're selling, you need a solid business plan and a source for capital. But depending on what you're getting into, it doesn't take gazillions. Holmes started her donut business, called Deddle's Donuts, with what's known in the entrepreneurship world as "seed funding."
Having returned to UB to pursue a master's degree, Holmes decided to enter the fall 2016 Leonard and Phyllis Attman Business Prize Competition, a chance for students and recent alumni to present their start-up business ideas to a panel of expert judges in pursuit of cash prizes, including a $2,500 grand prize. Holmes showed off her nascent donut business, which she was starting out of a food truck she bought with her own money.
"I want Deddle's to be mobile. But there's a lot more to it than that," she says.
The night of the event, Holmes served up her hot and fresh mini donuts. She talked about her other menu items, including fried chicken and freshly squeezed lemonade. Her pitch wowed the crowd, and the judges—Leonard and Phyllis Attman, their daughter Wende Levitas, vice president for Attman Properties, and their granddaughter, Rebecca Steller, director of marketing and advertising for A&G Management Co., plus Ted Goloboski, B.S. '75, and Beverly A. Cooper, board chairwomen of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum—were wowed. She won the grand prize.
What she did next is even trendier: She decided to take the Attman prize money and purchase a free-standing donut making machine—an aluminum contraption with enough moving parts to keep a NASA engineer busy for days—so she could leave the food truck behind when necessary. Now, she can serve her donuts at corporate events, weddings, farmers markets and parties, without focusing so much on the larger-scale operation that the food truck represents.
What's so trendy about that? Holmes decided she wanted to know everything there is to know about this highly specialized machine. She set up a meeting with the manufacturer, Lil' Orbits of Champlin, Minn., to get an inside look at how the equipment ticks, and how to create the perfect formula for a consistently great donut.
"I had to learn," she says, "so I went to the source."
How many entrepreneurs do that? In her own way, Holmes is part of the "artisanal" movement that has swept across the small-business world in the 2010s. But instead of crafting small-batch beers or high-end razors, she's creating those fine, fine donuts.
These days, Holmes is consumed with taking Deddle's to the next phase. She has a second truck now, and is building up a brand for the company.
"Her Instagram is just stunningly cool," Mortimer says.
He and others in the center and the Merrick School of Business are mentoring Holmes, supporting her as she strengthens her business model and grows the company's capabilities. She has minority-business status with the State of Maryland, and she is working on a marketing plan. Still, it's a family thing. Holmes's kids and others help out on a regular basis, and she still believes that her presence at an event can make the difference.
"I like donuts because they're so versatile," she says. "But you have to get them right—they have to be just perfect. To me, that means hot and fresh."
At the 2017 Attman competition on Nov. 14, Holmes returned to UB to talk about what she has achieved since winning the prize. Yes, the donut machine was with her. She shared her experiences with students, alumni and UB supporters, and invited them to sample her product, served up the way she knows it's best.
"When I get worried or tired, when it gets rough, I tell myself: 'Remember why you started. Remember mom.' I just keep going," she says.
That part's not trendy. But it is Robin Holmes.