Alumni Forum Recap
From poverty to business professional: Bluffton graduate shares story of success
During a Forum presentation on campus, successful entrepreneur and 2005 Bluffton graduate Aaron Williams chose not spread the clichéd advice often given to students of “follow your dreams” or “do what you love.” Instead, Williams told students, “Do what works. Sometimes you got to love what you do, but you may not always do what you love.”
Williams’ matter-of-fact approach to business is shaped by his life experiences. Raised by drug addicted parents and removed from their care at 14, Williams started working at nine years old so he could feed himself.
“I had a pretty rough childhood, but we didn’t call it rough back then,” said Williams. “It’s just how we grew up. It was just Tuesday.”
Williams started doing what he called “little hustles” such as washing car windows or taking out trash for a pizza and $5 as his family moved from Lima, Ohio, to Houston, Texas, and many places in between.
Experienced in the side hustle, Williams was introduced to leadership skills and formal business practices at Bluffton.
“The biggest thing I took away from Bluffton is what college should be for everybody,” said Williams. “I was able to practice the skills I was learning. College gave me space to learn concepts in a way that failure didn’t mean homelessness or failure didn’t mean you weren’t going to eat. Instead failure meant go back and try again.”
With no concept of the FAFSA form or parents to guide him, Williams worked multiple jobs on top of being highly involved on campus. Having nowhere else to go during the summers, Williams lived on campus and worked various jobs including farming with Dr. Phillip Kingsley, the late professor of psychology.
“It was like farming in the 1820s because Phil would not buy any modern tools. Nothing was motorized,” Williams laughed. “I made sure to get the best grades possible after that because I thought ‘I’ve got to hustle my way out of this.’”
Using the skills learned in class, Williams started a business with two fellow Bluffton students during their junior year called NWFLOW. The technology and liquidation company was born out of the dot com bust of the early 2000s. Realizing that a lot of small factories were going out of business in northwest Ohio, the business partners bought or consigned items such as the remaining inventory, shelving and fixtures and resold them on places like eBay.
The NWFLOW team also developed a business to ease the college move-in process after watching parents and students struggle to move items in and out of the residence halls.
“We got a good lease on some storage units in Findlay and we moved stuff, labeled it and stored it over the summers,” explained Williams.
The team kept the business going for about a year after graduation but their lives took them in different directions. Williams worked several jobs and eventually landed on transportation and commodities brokering.
“Working at the brokerage house for three years, that was like a lifetime” said Williams. “It’s super high stress. You’re dealing with people’s lives and their businesses.”
However, taking that experience along with the skills acquired over his lifetime, Williams bought a fledgling moving business in Cincinnati and has expanded and diversified it into a thriving national company with offices in three cities and customers ranging from Macy’s to Amazon.
As founder of Unbound Holdings and chief executive officer of EkoMovers, Williams is energized by growing the business. He’s also cognizant of the impact the business has on his community and employees.
“We’re creating jobs where you can graduate from high school, maybe college didn’t work out for you, but you can still make $40-50,000 a year and support your family well,” said Williams. “That’s something we’re really proud of.”
He shared tips for future entrepreneurs such as “execution is more important than ideas” because ideas must be implemented to succeed and ethical practices should be established immediately.
Williams also spoke of giving back as a core value of a sustainable business. For example, EkoMovers has organized an annual, large-scale tree planting event for the last five years.
He also shared some entrepreneurial advice for all majors.
“You should always think of yourself as an entrepreneur, no matter what you are doing,” said Williams. “You need to take ownership of whatever you are doing and put out your best work. You are responsible for the outcomes that you want.”
The biggest thing I took away from Bluffton is what college should be for everybody. I was able to practice the skills I was learning. College gave me space to learn concepts in a way that failure didn’t mean homelessness or failure didn’t mean you weren’t going to eat. Instead failure meant go back and try again.”