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Corporate Cruisin'

[whitespace] Alissa Andress, Nathan Gebhard, Mike Mariner Three girls, an RV and the Real World of business, Silicon Valley style

By Jim Rendon

LIKE A LOT OF HALF-BAKED summer plans involving a van, a few friends and a month or two on the road, this one came out of a late-night talk. Sitting in a hot tub after surfing all day, three Pepperdine students decided to rent an RV and spend the summer traveling across America and back.

But rather than packing up the skateboards and instruments for a shoestring bar-band tour, or heading out to the Rockies for a month of backpacking and beer drinking, these three early-twentysomethings planned a trip Mom and Dad could get downright excited about, a road trip that would make Jack Kerouac roll over in his grave and stay that way.

Alissa Andress, 23, Nathan Gebhard, 23, and Mike Mariner, 22, decided to tour the country talking to corporate CEOs, sports figures and even a politician or two. Their quest? To learn all the little things they never teach in business school, the real deal--the secret of success.

"The three of us have a strong entrepreneurial sense," Gebhard says. "This is about self-education, what you can learn outside of school."

Andrews is a little more succinct. "We're nerds."

Parked on a side street in Palo Alto, the RV looks like a rolling billboard. Monster.com's open-mouthed dragon is plastered across the side of the RV. Smaller logos for companies like Mind Spring, Kodak, Compaq and management guru "tompeters!" are sprinkled across the back.

The three students managed to pull in enough funding from all of these sources to cover their expenses, including their website (roadtrip.
monster.com). And they say they have been negotiating a book deal based on their coast-to-coast CEO tour. With any luck, they'll have something to write about.

These three business undergraduates, who this morning are ribbing each other about who has gone longer without a shower, and exactly whose fault it was that their tire blew out, have chatted with Jack Kemp (Bob Dole's 1996 running mate), Tommy Lasorda, Paul Steiger (managing editor of the Wall Street Journal) and many others. They stayed at Tom Peters' Vermont home and had pizza at Linus Torvalds' house. They've met with about 70 corporate types in total since they left Southern California this spring.

But they've also had their share of perplexed silences over the phone as well. Though they got a meeting with a vice president at Microsoft, Apple gave them the cold shoulder. A lot of companies were just unresponsive. "They either got what we were doing and got excited, or not," Mariner says.

"It's all about getting the secretary interested," Andress confides.

Silicon Valley, they say, has got them the most excited of all the places they've been so far. While meetings have been hard to come by--phone calls degenerating into emails that soon trail off into nothing--the energy is unbelievable. "It's alive here. You can feel it. It's like the hum of being on a factory floor," Gebhard says. And perhaps best of all for kids in an RV, parking is ample.

After a few wrong turns on Palo Alto's narrow tree-lined streets, the three file into a sprawling white industrial building in Menlo Park near East Palo Alto. Opportunities Industrialization Center West Inc., a nonprofit job training and day-care center run by Sharon Williams, is very different from the kind of corporate power centers the three have visited to date.

Williams shows them room after room of adults trying to get a better job, learn a new skill or perhaps pick up their first job-related skill. The organization teaches everything from how to clean up hazardous materials to word processing, graphic design and printing, computer repair and sales. People labor over computers, putting together résumés and cold calling companies to check for openings. Each phone has a mirror in front of it so the person remembers to smile while talking.

In the day-care center, children squirt each other with water and zip around in pedal-powered plastic trucks. In the kitchen, people learning to cook are preparing French cuisine.

"This place is all about the keys to motivating people. They have it down pat," Andress says, peeking through the window at an English-as-a-second-language class.

"This place is so cool," Gebhard says, walking past the pictures of the smiling people who have landed jobs. "This work is so important."

Williams is energetic and passionate in her approach. She tells them about the importance of humility and following your heart. Andress listens intently, scribbling notes into her notebook, quiet for the first time all day. After all, the trio came on this long journey to learn the lessons that weren't taught in college, and today's slice of the business world is different from anything else they've found.

And god knows, Jack Kerouac could use the rest.

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From the August 5-11, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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