Elissa Brown ’09 and Robyn Goldman Fisher ’01 are each making a living making ice cream—one in a seemingly unusual place and the other with a seemingly unusual technique.
Brown first started making ice cream when she was a middle school science teacher in North Carolina. “The experiments I was doing in my kitchen were a practical application of everything I was teaching my students, from controlled experiments and learning from mistakes to taking detailed notes and making observations,” she says.
Making ice cream became a way for Brown to connect to the place she lived and the people who lived there. “I used to make so much ice cream that I began hosting tastings to get rid of it,” she says. “People would crowd into my living room every month and sample whatever seasonal flavors I had concocted.” She realized the gatherings were a way to build community. “People who didn’t know each other were bonding over something that at its essence is just a way to bring happiness.”
Today, Brown lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where she founded Wild Scoops, which blends fresh, locally-sourced and often unusual ingredients—including spruce tips, salmonberries and birch syrup—with ice cream. Brown moved to Alaska to join her fiancé after she’d spent a year studying experiential education in Norway. “I believe there is a way to combine my love for teaching with my love for ice cream,” she says. “I hope to figure that out in Anchorage.”
After two years of renting kitchen space and selling small batches of ice cream at farmers’ markets and pop-up events, Brown moved into a commercial test kitchen of her own. In the beginning of the summer she opened the doors of a small downtown scoop shop.
Fisher is the founder of Smitten, based in San Francisco. While earning her MBA at Stanford, she developed a business plan for a churn-to-order ice cream business that eliminated what she calls “unpronouncables”–preservatives, stabilizers and emulsifiers—and would “use technology to correct for industrialization.”
“I looked into the science behind ice crystal formation and learned that, despite the marketing power of terms like ‘slow churned,’ the opposite is actually true,” Fisher says. “The faster you churn ice cream, the better the texture can be.” Her plan called for a machine that used liquid nitrogen to churn each scoop to order, making fresh ice cream in less than two minutes.
After finishing business school, Fisher joined a design firm and then the FBI, as a special agent. But her business plan kept calling to her. Despite its lack of certainty—Fisher had done some initial prototyping and tested existing mixers only to discover that freezing ice cream with liquid nitrogen was harder than it sounded—she decided to take the risk.
“I was 29 years old, and I knew this was probably the only time in my life, as a completely independent woman, I could take such an enormous risk, and so I just went for it,” she says.
Over the next two years, she put her life savings into building the prototype machine. “I teamed up with a retired engineer and we built a prototype of our ice cream machine, which we named Brrr.”
When her prototype was complete—and while the recession was in full swing—Fisher bungee-corded it to a Radio Flyer wagon, reconfigured a motorcycle battery to power the machine and began selling ice cream on the streets of San Francisco. In time, she developed a local following and, in 2011, opened the first local Smitten store. She now owns and operates eight stores, with two more opening “very soon” in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Both Brown and Fisher say that they wouldn’t have had the entrepreneurial skills to launch their businesses if they hadn’t gone to Williams. “My education prepared me to wear the many hats of an entrepreneur, where there’s always a lot to learn outside of my ‘discipline,’” says Brown.
Says Fisher, “Serving joy for my job? It’s pretty darn cool (pun intended). So, no complaints.”