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Theirs is a story of two madcap pioneers whose plucky sense of adventure led them to move to a city they'd never been; two recent college grads imbued the kind of entrepreneurial spirit and dogged dedication that it takes to build your own start-up, and the wisdom to know when it's time to shut it all down. It's a modern love story with the boy-meets-girl scene set in an Alexandria, Virginia, Best Buy in 2007, where Nathan Hollrith helped Elisabeth Papadopoulos pick out a computer.
"He sold me a laptop," Papadopoulos says, remembering how she slipped Hollrith her phone number while shopping with her parents. "I kept the laptop and I kept him."
Papadopoulos (M.A. production design student), who earned a bachelor's degree in art history at Rice University in Texas, hails from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her family was displaced following Hurricane Katrina and relocated to Washington, D.C. in 2006, where her father worked as a cultural attaché.
Hollrith (M.A., industrial design student) earned a bachelor's degree in history with a minor in philosophy from Florida State University. A self-described "Navy brat" from a family of mechanical engineers, Hollrith is so well traveled, he doesn't readily claim a hometown. "I've been everywhere," he says.
While the story of Papadopoulos and Hollrith is more than just another love story, it remains coated in sweetness; specifically, the sticky-hot sugar syrup and not-so-fluffy business of marshmallows. Gourmet marshmallows to be exact, neatly packaged and crafted in flavors that ranged from basic mint and vanilla to the more complex peanut butter crunch, white chocolate chip macadamia nut and coffee caramel swirl.
"[The marshmallow business] started when we made them for my mom's birthday in 2008. We didn't even know you could make marshmallows from scratch," Papadopoulos explains. "Then, we started experimenting with different flavors, giving them to friends and family. They were really popular, so we decided to start a business."
In 2009, the pair of recent college grads launched Levity, an online boutique marshmallow start-up out of Las Vegas, Nevada. Choosing the location for Nevada's business-friendly laws and glut of cheap retail spaces, the duo leased a commercial kitchen, registered with the Food and Drug Administration, and made sure they were in compliance with the fire marshal: completely by the book and completely on their own.
"It was just the two of us, our four hands. We made every marshmallow, well, he made every marshmallow," Papadopoulos says, gesturing at a coughing Hollrith.
Together, and on a shoestring budget, they ran promotions and packaging, created and designed the Levity website.
"We took all the [promotional] photos ourselves, in our backyard on a Ping-Pong table with a sheet on top of it," Hollrith admits. "It was a complete labor of love."
Their labor, love and design skills paid off. Levity was featured in coolhunting.com, the American Airlines inflight magazine, luxist.com, urbandaddy, and even Martha Stewart Weddings. Two years into the game, they were struggling to keep up with the demand when companies like QVC and Williams Sonoma began asking about the possibility of wholesale production and distribution.
"To be able to do that, we were going to need a factory, which we didn't have," Hollrith says. "We had to stop, take a look at our lives and ask ourselves: 'Do we really want to run a marshmallow factory?'"
The answer was no. What started as a boutique gourmet vision had steamrolled into a full-tilt industrial campaign. While both Papadopoulos and Hollrith appreciated the opportunity to try their hands as small-business owners, they weren't keen on the large-scale model and decided to cease operations in 2011.
"We had no idea what we were doing when we started. It's not like we sat down, had one big cram session and then we were experts," Hollrith says, reflecting on his business acumen. "I don't know if here's a singular takeaway, it all just evolved."
Evolutionary learning and adaptation on the fly are important aspects of most of Hollrith's and Papadopoulos' undertakings. What they had loved most at Levity, and had been moving away from with all the factory talk, was the creative side: establishing a brand and developing a narrative that would drive the business.
"For us, the whole thing was an adventure. I think we're pretty bold," Papadopoulos says.
In pursuit of mutual design ambitions, the couple enrolled at SCAD and moved to Savannah in the spring of 2012. They came with no prior knowledge of the Hostess City; the closest they'd ever been was Zaxby's. By the airport. In Pooler. Eighteen miles outside city limits. They brought along Fritz the schnauzer, who up until that point had belonged to Hollrith's mom. "But he chose us," Hollrith says. "Basically."
"I stole her son and her dog," is all Papadopoulos has to say about that.
Papadopoulos first learned about the Walt Disney Imagineering design competition from a flyer in Crites Hall. The flyer advertised an open seminar; a team of SCAD students who had made it to the competition finals in 2012 gave their presentation. Papadopoulos and Hollrith began conceptualizing their own project shortly thereafter.
Walt Disney Imagineering, the organization that creates all Disney theme parks, resorts and attractions worldwide, has been hosting the ImagiNations design competition for more than two decades as a way to recruit from the higher-education talent pool in the United States.
This year's challenge was to create a unique entertainment experience for a city that lacks a Disney presence. Of the 187 teams entered, only six were chosen to present their projects to Disney executives during an all-expense-paid trip to Imagineering Headquarters in Glendale, California. The trip combined lectures, backstage tours, internship interviews and the competition's awards for cash prizes.
Papadopoulos and Hollrith were driving cross-country when they got the big news. Pulling over in a Wendy's parking lot off Interstate-10, with Fritz in the passenger seat, they dialed into an ImagiNations conference call to learn they had made it to the final round and would be traveling to Imagineering Headquarters Jan. 28-Feb. 1.
"We had approached this project with the mindset that we wanted to design something that was logistically implementable, that made real business sense, that was realistic and tangible, as well as a cool concept," Papadopoulos says.
The concept behind their project, "Touring with Disney: Mickey's London Adventure," is a line of sightseeing bus tours, complete with transit center hub designs to create a family vacation standard in edutainment. Relying heavily on interactive, real-time animation with transparent LCD screens instead of windows, "Touring with Disney" is a historical, narrative-based adventure tour with an animated scavenger hunt component that augments the experience of a traditional bus ride by using the extensive cache of British Disney characters as partial tour guides-from Peter Pan and Wendy Darling, the Cheshire Cat and Alice in Wonderland, to the 101 Dalmatians, Scrooge McDuck and Mary Poppins.
Papadopoulos champions the business ingénue behind bus tours: "It's not glamorous, it's mundane, it's dismissible, it isn't sexy, but … it's something that everybody does."
Working on the project and presentation meant many long hours, late nights and more than a few Taco Bell runs. "It was like having another class," Hollrith admits. "It involved a lot of dedication and enthusiasm on our parts."
Their dedication and enthusiasm translated. At Walt Disney Imagineering, Hollrith and Papadopoulos weren't the only SCAD students who had made it to the final round. Four SCAD Hong Kong students won the grand prize in the 2013 ImagiNations: Hong Kong design competition for their "Mickey's Toontown" concept. Calling themselves "Project Inkwell," the Hong Kong team consists of illustration students Katrina Teh and Alfred Lee, and visual effects students Maggie Chung Yan Kay and Damien Ching. While in California, the Savannah and Hong Kong contingents had a chance to mix, mingle and share their experiences.
"We were a train weaving through Disney Imagineering," Papadopoulos says.
While their "Touring with Disney" project did not ultimately place in the final three, the couple remains unfazed, secure in the knowledge that a large part of the prize has already landed on their résumés and in their portfolios. "We felt like we won just by being there. The experience really was the prize," Hollrith says.
"It was energizing, it was inspiring, it was exhausting … and it's already having a lasting impact," Papadopoulos says. "Some of what we learned has already started to guide how I think about the projects that I'm working on."
For now, Hollrith and Papadopoulos are back in the port city and still catching up on a week's worth of coursework. Both are excited to keep the cycle going, to pass the torch and encourage their fellow students to enter the competition in 2014.
They presented their project Feb. 28, to a closed concept class and may present in an open forum at a later date. Hollrith says he is looking forward to being part of the SCAD/WDI off-campus study abroad course in Orlando, Florida, this spring.
The pair, who will graduate this year, agree they'll go wherever the jobs are.
"Disney has first dibs here, if they want to hire me, I'm all in," Hollrith says.
"Lucky for them, they get first crack," Papadopoulos chimes in. "But seriously, we would be thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with WDI."
The couple is optimistic about their career prospects and primed for any and all adventures and opportunities that come their way after graduation. For these talented students, the future looks more than just bright; it looks distinctly handcrafted, free-market savvy and designer-sweet.