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A Virtual Cup of Coffee with David Howitt '86

David Howitt '86 is an inspiring thought leader and guiding mentor in the world of commerce. He is an accomplished entrepreneur and published author with over twenty years of experience providing business strategy and brand counsel to startups and Fortune 100 companies. Through a unique brand ethos and delivery system, he and Meriwether Group provide strategic vision and support to entrepreneurs, disruptive, authentic, and iconic brands, and provide counsel, operational support, and advisory services for the next wave of innovative consumer-focused companies. It all started in East Grand Rapids.

You can only have one: Rose’s caramel corn, an ice cream cone from Jersey Junction, or a Yesterdog. Which do you choose?
An Ultradog from Yesterdog. In all my travels – many countries, continents – 5 star restaurants, back alley dives – nothing has ever compared to a late night Yesterdog with good friends.

What was your path from East Grand Rapids to where you are now in life?
I graduated from East in 1986 and went on to study at Denison University. I had a great experience at Denison and really felt like my education at East had prepared me well. I majored in Political Science and Philosophy (and got a minor in beer). After Denison, I went to work at a large law firm in Chicago and lived in Lincoln Park. I was considering law school but wanted a year of working and living in a city before returning to academics. From Chicago, I moved to Portland, Oregon where I attended Lewis and Clark Law School. I focused on environment and natural resources law. Moving to Portland was a huge step in my journey. Seeing majestic mountains and rivers and the incredible beauty of the Pacific Ocean really hit home. During law school my then girlfriend and now wife and I started a company called Oregon Chai. We had traveled together in southeast Asia and had really loved traditional chai and when we came back to Portland, we could not find any. Starbucks was just starting to crank and there was a lot of innovation with coffee going on, but tea was still a boring cup of hot water and bag of tea. We started the business in the kitchen of our rented house. We would peddle Oregon Chai around town and little by little it caught on. We focused on the brand – being certified organic and fair trade – having a great culture and focusing on innovation. Over a nine-year period, we grew the company to north of $40 million in revenue before we decided it was time to sell the company. In 2004 we successfully sold the company to a large international food and beverage company. For the last fourteen years, we have been building and running The Meriwether Group, a company that focuses on helping entrepreneurs and founders who are birthing and growing the next generation of great consumer brands. We consult, accelerate, invest and then help with investment banking. We have a team of twelve former operators and we love and are grateful for the work we get to do. I also published a book with Simon and Schuster two years ago called Heed Your Call. I have two children – a daughter Hailey, 15, who is a sophomore in high school and a son Sawyer, 18, who is a freshman at UC Berkeley.

What specific thing did you learn in East that has enabled you to be successful?
The Power of And. The culture, community, tradition, academics and athletics at East helped me to develop how to be a whole brain thinker. How to be social, athletic and academic. I felt like growing up in East pushed me to flex and grow in all three areas.

What were you like in school?
I cringe a little thinking about this one. I feel like I was one of the “popular” kids – maybe a little obnoxious. I was an athlete and did pretty well in school – and tried to have friends from all different groups and interests.

Did you have a favorite teacher or class?
Honestly, I feel so grateful for my education at East. There were so many fantastic teachers and coaches. It is hard to believe it has been over thirty years since I graduated and yet, I still can remember my experience at East vividly. One of my favorite teachers and classes was Latin with Mr. (Gerald) Norman.

If you had to choose one moment in one location to serve as the signature moment of your East school experience, what would it be?
Playing football and any given home game. The fall weather, the school spirit and community tradition. Reeds Lake in the distance, the sound of the marching band.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
What a privilege it was to grow up in such a wonderful, vibrant and excellent community.

Do you stay in touch with many people from East Grand Rapids?
One hundred percent. I am in close touch with about a dozen friends and in touch with another dozen or more. It is amazing how tight my EGR community and group of friends have remained all these years!

What advice do you have for young East alums who are just starting out?
Take advantage of the amazing education, athletics, arts and community you live in. Get outside your box and make sure you dive into extra-curriculars, summer internships, travel and experience all you can. AND use the alumni network to your advantage!!!

Bonus question: What are you glad we didn’t ask you about?
What would you have done differently while at East? (I would have drank less beer and studied a little harder).