CSUEB alumni drink up success in beverage industries
BY KIM GIRARD
A passion for California wine, a love for crafting small batches of tasty beer, and a desire to sell water in biodegradable bottles to pay for clean water projects in poor countries drive the careers of three entrepreneurial CSUEB alumni.
Shakira Niazi started Salvare La Vita Water in 2010 after some post mortgage market-crash soul searching — and a concern about the lack of clean water in developing countries like Haiti and her native Afghanistan. East Bay native Michael Peasley makes small craft ales, porters, and India pale ales at the Pleasanton Main Street Brewery, where he started brewing beer after graduation — and returned to work as brewer two years ago after stints at Gordon Biersch and Pyramid. Dennis Cakebread is Cakebread Cellars’ head of marketing and sales, a family business that has thrived since his father first started making wines in Napa during the 1970s.
Clean water for life
Shakira Niazi ’93 has designed a simple business model that saves lives: Her nonprofit, called Salvare La Vita, bottles premium water in the U.S. Her water sales pay for wells that provide clean water in poor countries.
It’s an interesting path for Niazi, a native of Afghanistan, who until recently focused on living the American dream as a mortgage broker in San Ramon. But when the mortgage industry collapsed in 2007, the misery of home foreclosures and job loss around her made her rethink her priorities. “Emotionally it drew me back to the purpose of life,” she says.
Early last year, she saw a news segment about World Water Day, an initiative that grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. That set Niazi on a new path.
She started reading the statistics about how the lack of clean water contributes to illness and death in poor countries. (UNICEF estimates that dirty drinking water kills more then 1.5 million people each year).
Niazi, who grew up in Afghanistan yet still had access to clean tap water, was particularly concerned about women and children who struggle daily to find clean water.
“So many people around the world don’t have the basic human right of clean water that we take for granted,” Niazi says. “It’s a woman’s issue because the burden of household chores is on women, and they wake up in the morning and walk three to six miles just for water.”
The oldest of four children, Niazi fled Afghanistan for Pakistan in 1983 with her uncle and his wife following a yearslong invasion of Soviets troops of her homeland that started in 1979. (Her father awaited possible trial and execution for political reasons at the time but eventually escaped, she says.)
Niazai made it to Germany and then New York, later settling with family in the San Francisco East Bay. She worked through high school and earned a business degree at Cal State East Bay, where her love of math and numbers blossomed. After graduating, Niazai worked in banking for years until starting her new venture.
At Salvare La Vita, which means “saves lives” in Italian, Niazi only works in countries where 50 percent of the population or less have access to clean water. She has partnered with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to date in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.
Here’s how her model works: For every 31 bottles of water sold, Niazi provides one person with clean well water for up to 20 years. She bases the total cost of a project on the average well size and how many people that well water will serve. She pays for the projects in advance, figuring out how much a well will cost and then selling enough water to pay for the project.
So far, she’s sold approximately 10,000 bottles at more than 40 northern California locations. The water comes from a spring in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the bottles, which are completely recyclable and biodegradable, are made in the U.S., she says. Her goal is to keep the entire business in the U.S. and limit the distance between the bottling and water delivery locations to under 200 miles.
Niaza says clean water has quickly become her calling.
“This hit home for me,” she says. “This connects me to my roots and why I am here.”
The Craft and The Keg
Michael Peasley’s love of beer brewing began 20 years ago as he stirred pots of porter on a stove at his girlfriend’s house.
“There wasn’t a lot of craft beer available,” says Peasley ’09 (who is now married to that girlfriend). “You almost had to make it yourself, if you wanted dark beers.”
Peasley soon discovered that he was good at both the science and the creativity of brewing. “I entered some competitions, and the judges liked it and said they’d be willing to pay for it.” That led to a year of formal brewing training at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Peasley’s first brewing job during the 1990s was at the Pleasanton Main Street Brewery in Pleasanton. With that experience on his resume, he went on to work at larger breweries such as Gordon Biersch and Berkeley-based Pyramid Breweries, where he helped open two pubs in Walnut Creek and Sacramento over six years.
Two years ago, he returned to the Pleasanton Main Street Brewery, where he and owner Matt Billings craft the beer together.
The pub offers six beers on tap, including a pale ale, an India pale ale (IPA), a porter, and a strawberry blonde. He rotates seasonal brews including lighter summer ales and bigger style IPAs in winter. As a small brewer, he makes about four to five batches of beer a month, or about 80 kegs.
Peasley says the brewery caters to local families and beer aficionados with tastings and appearances at the local farmers’ markets. “Our regulars are our best marketing source,” Peasley says, noting the locals aren’t shy about sharing feedback on a new beer. “They will tell you if they don’t like it, and if (a type of beer) varies, they notice.”
A CSUEB business major, Peasley says the entrepreneurship classes he took were “phenomenally helpful” to him. When assigned to create a product in class, he built a business plan for a brewery. Beer isn’t just fun, he says, it’s a business. “A lot of brewing is getting people to know and drink your beer,” he says. “You can have the best beer in the world, but if nobody knows it’s good, you will be out of business.”
While many brewers are nomadic, moving around the country to work, Peasley, who lives in Livermore and grew up in the East Bay, says he is here to stay.
Next up? An idea for a winter ale he’s been kicking around for three months. “That’s probably the most fun part of my job,” he says, adding that this one, to be called the Cogitator, will be a mix of Imperial stout with porter and Belgian qualities.
Dennis Cakebread’s father Jack started Cakebread Cellars 38 years ago as a hobby, buying a ranch in Rutherford from friends. By 1973, the Napa Valley vineyard had produced its first vintage, 157 cases of chardonnay.
Over the years, Dennis Cakebread, who concluded three years of study at CSUEB in 1973, had always helped out in the Napa-based wine cellar, with the grape picking crews in the fields, and with winery sales.
In 1986, after a career in banking, Cakebread headed home full time, joining his brother, Bruce Cakebread, who runs Cakebread Cellars’ wine production as president and chief operating officer.
As head of sales, Dennis works on changing laws to open new states like Massachusetts and New Jersey to direct-to-consumer wine shipping. He’s also in charge of the cellar’s wine clubs and books wine tasting events and pairing dinners all over the country, spending about 10 weeks a year on the road.
Since they don’t do a lot of traditional advertising, Cakebread’s wine sales largely rely on word of mouth among their long-time customers and a group of so-called ambassadors, wine club members who get the word out about new vintages or special wines.
Best known for its chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, Cakebread Cellars has 13 vineyard sites and ships its wines to 39 states. As of 2005, the family winery, which still adheres to more traditional production methods, was bottling 175,000 cases annually — neither a boutique winery nor a mega-producer.
During the 1970s, Cakebread attended California State University, East Bay (then Hayward) as a general studies undergrad, transferring to Berkeley, where he graduated. He returned to CSUEB in 1975 to work on a master’s degree in business, but decided to become a CPA and continue working at an accounting firm instead of earning a degree.
After 10 years as a CPA, he went to work in the banking business at the Federal Home Loan Bank as a consultant, helping the bank navigate the savings and loan bailout. But Cakebread says he knew his industry was troubled, and the family winery was growing. “My dad said: You have to come back and help us,” he recalls.
Cakebread says his classes at CSUEB, particularly a statistics class, help him understand the business’s manufacturing process even today. “Going to grad school really helped me focus,” he says. “I probably use what I learned there more than anything else,” in his approach to business.
Cakebread notes that Napa Valley, a destination for so many wine lovers, makes less then 4 percent of all of the wine made in California.
“It’s a tiny amount of what’s made,” he says. “But everyone knows Napa because it’s kind of like the garden of Eden.