By early 2009, Kristin Pardue, a University of Minnesota MBA, was a veteran of General Mills, GE and a top strategist to then-CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson at Carlson Cos.
She liked her work. It also was time, she felt after 20 years on the corporate runway, to see if she could fly solo.
“I wanted to take the strategy outside,” recalled Pardue.
In March 2009, she launched Rêve Consulting from her kitchen table.
Pardue had a vision that stemmed from her corporate work helping clients take on internet-based competitors or other market disrupters with innovative responses, digital upgrades and business-model reinvention.
Pardue’s first gig was plotting the strategic refocus of Anoka-Hennepin Technical College. She was paid by the first of what has become dozens of customers, many of whom have come back for more help.
In 2010, Pardue’s husband, Brad von Bank, a corporate warrior whom Pardue had met at GE, left Target.com to become the second employee of Rêve Consulting. Rêve is French for dream. The founders opened a small office on W. Broadway Avenue, the dented-and-scratched main street of the North Side that had been declining since the 1960s.
The couple also were youth volunteers on the North Side. They had a business and training mission.
Rêve, now boasts 13 employee consultants, a growing client list and positive cash flow on revenue approaching $5 million, fueled by double-digit sales growth since Pardue engaged the first client from her kitchen table.
Pardue, 48, and von Bank, 45, in 2010 also started what has become Rêve Academy, a digital training and internship program. It began with six summer interns in a conference room.
Rêve Academy, which the Rêve founders continue to partly fund, has since spun off into a nonprofit adjacent to Rêve Consulting.
It provides paid summer digital internships for 25 low-income Minneapolis high school students and another 25 or so during the school year, overseen by a full-time director and mentored by Rêve Consulting staff and other volunteers.
“We have an amazing Twin Cities business community,” said von Bank. “And we are not producing enough talent in digital design, programming and technology.
“Rêve Academy is accredited and [boasts] the same rigor as any other school. Our students are 90 percent minority students and 80 to 90 percent [are low-income and] qualify for free lunch at their schools. And we pay them to learn and work on projects for which Rêve Academy is paid.”
After three moves to bigger space at 1200 W. Broadway, growing Rêve Consulting and the academy moved a mile east to a refurbished factory at 807 Broadway St. NE. that can comfortably handle 50-plus people.
It’s still inner city and the vision remains the same.
Von Bank, a New Prague native who lived in north Minneapolis after graduating from the University of St. Thomas, also was an apostle of the late Rev. Greg Tolaas. He left a campus ministry job serving mostly middle class-to-affluent students to take a declining parish in a crime-ridden neighborhood on the North Side in 1997.
For six years, Tolaas, who died in 2003 at age 47 from cystic fibrosis and other chronic diseases, reinvigorated the St. Philip’s community with youth and family programs, aided by friends such as von Bank, Pardue, and former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, who grew up in the neighborhood.
Tolaas was dubbed “the Tornado” by friends, even though his body often was spent by afternoon. Crowds at his masses climbed from 30 to 500. Kids showed up every night to assist him at his residence. The Tornado once told friends that he didn’t fear death, but he gave it “the finger” anyway.
In 2002, his body wracked with pain, on dialysis and other treatments, Tolaas told the Star Tribune: “I have no fear of death … I have increasing knowledge — I guess you call that faith — that death is a word that only defines what happens to the body. It is a transition to the bigger, the lovelier, a sense of communion with those who have come before. We’re more infinite than finite.”
The Tornado would be proud of the work that von Bank and Pardue and other mentors do with their interns, as well as the success of the small business they have grown from seed that serves small to large customers.
Rêve Academy for several years has been overseen by a full-time director.
Rêve operates on a fixed-based bid only, in other words a set sum that typically totals tens of thousands of dollars for an engagement that can last weeks to months, until the client is satisfied. The competitors range from national consultancies such as McKinsey and Bain to local digital-design shops.
“We make sure our pricing is viable and that our clients get a good return on investment,” Pardue said. “We have high client retention. We don’t churn and burn. We have a healthy place to work. Our team members are revenue generators and we want them to be challenged and appreciated.”
The business actually has grown larger and faster than Pardue and von Bank anticipated.
They bootstrapped it out of their bank accounts, entirely funding Rêve Academy themselves in the beginning, then created a nonprofit and accepted additional funding from donors to help expand it.
The owners say they pay themselves competitive but modest salaries and reinvest the cash flow in Rêve Consulting and Rêve Academy.
“There’s no time off as an entrepreneur,” von Bank said. “There was some stability in a large corporation. Here, there was some financial sacrifice.
“But we choose our team and our clients. We have choices. That’s why we left the corporate world. That’s what we wanted.”