Odd Job Revisited
By John Wulf ’12
Like countless other Hamilton and Kirkland alumni and alumnae, they’re creative, resourceful and skilled. Unlike their classmates, however, what they actually do in the working world is, well, different. Really different. In 2009, we covered several Hamiltonians whose careers are anything but ordinary. Now we’ve got a few more workplace pioneers we’d like you to meet.
Ryan Serhant ’06
From model to mogul
Ryan Serhant likes to dabble. “Growing up, I played every single sport known to man,” he recalls, “and I was awful at all of them.” On the Hill, Serhant double-majored in theatre and English, took courses in biology and economics, and even tried his hand at pottery. His whole life, he has been willing to try just about anything. Now he’s on track to do just about everything.
Upon graduating, Serhant committed to acting and moved to New York City. After a stint handing out gym membership pamphlets, he landed a role on the soap opera As the World Turns, playing murderous biochemist Evan Walsh. He also performed in a number of Broadway plays and, in his spare time, he modeled. On a whim, Serhant responded to a casting call for a hand-modeling gig with AT&T. Just like that, he was the official “hand” of a worldwide ad campaign. Still in his early 20s, Serhant was ahead of schedule. But curiosity struck again. After a friend urged him to consider real estate, Serhant dropped his acting career and became an agent for NestSeekers International, a brokerage firm specializing in sales and rentals of apartments, homes, condominiums and luxury properties. That was in 2008. By 2012, Real Deal magazine ranked Serhant as the 15th-best broker in NYC — and he was starring in a real estate-reality show.
His Bravo hit Million Dollar Listing follows — with a little dramatic license — three brokers as they compete for clients and properties. Cameras track Serhant everywhere from his office to his apartment, and while the first season showcased Serhant’s competitiveness, it also caricatured his bachelor lifestyle. The lack of privacy occasionally frustrates Serhant, but he has enjoyed the experience. And the exposure. Even though his schedule now stretches from 5 a.m. to midnight, business is better than ever.
Curiosity has pushed Serhant’s career in different directions, but he points out that it doesn’t explain his success: “There are some people are who always going to be scared of taking risks … but if you take calculated risks, and you allow yourself to be open to any and all opportunities, you can be wildly successful.”
Reflecting on his days on the Hill, Serhant confesses to being a bit of a hermit. He spent long nights in the library and never went out that much. “I don’t think anyone knew me,” he sheepishly admits. Seven years later, it’s hard to miss him.
Cynthia Mondesir ’95
Pediatrician on the tundra
Bethel, Alaska, is so cold that its inhabitants need blankets for their car batteries. It’s so far west that “seeing Russia from your house” isn’t a punch line. Even its ZIP Code — 99559 — feels distant. Bethel is different: barren, frigid and isolated. Yet for Dr. Cynthia Mondesir, it’s home.
Mondesir is a pediatrician who, in 2008, started working for the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation after bonding over potluck dinners with hospital staff. Soon she was eating beaver and black bear, and net fishing for five different types of salmon. Mondesir grew up in Haiti and went to high school in Brooklyn, but as she reflects, “Everywhere I’ve gone, there have always been at least one or two people who have become a part of my family.”
She arrived on the Hill wanting to become a doctor. The first in her family to attend college, she was surprised by Hamilton’s academic rigor. When she received a D in organic chemistry from Robin Kinnel, the pre-med advisor, she thought her world had come to an end. But she soon found her footing and excelled; and later, when she applied to medical school after briefly teaching eighth-grade science, Kinnel was the first to write a letter of recommendation.
In Bethel, Mondesir cares for the town’s children and supervises high-risk pregnancies. She is also part of a medical team responsible for the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, which comprises 27,000 people from 48 villages and stretches over 375 miles. She must often examine patients through the eyes of community aides, and since specialists are a plane ride to Seattle away, Cynthia handles more ailments than pediatricians “in the lower 48.”
“I’m not just seeing runny noses and coughs,” she jokes with a hint of pride. “If a child has asthma, I’m the pulmonologist.”
Though she’s a doctor, she isn’t immune to ailments. Less than a year into her residency, Mondesir lost her mother to breast cancer. She wasn’t sure if she could continue working, but the townspeople honored her mother with a local Eskimo tradition. Mondesir’s friends, even the ones who had never met her mother, celebrated her memory with a pair of feasts after her passing.
“Losing my mother was the biggest challenge and the biggest loss for me,” Mondesir recalls. “But I managed to get through it primarily because I was here and with these people.”
Dave Voorhees ’72
Owner, Bop Street Records
To be fair, Dave Voorhees started collecting when he was 8 years old. It was a Fats Domino 45 rpm, and it was the first of many records that Voorhees bought, spun and listened to before he traveled from Seattle to Clinton. But as far as this story is concerned, it’s not the collection that matters. It’s the exchange.
The day he graduated, Voorhees sold his textbooks for 200 vinyl records. When he returned home, he heard about a jukebox distributor who was unloading his collection, so he drove to Angleton, Texas, and bought 3,000 records for $300. “I’ve always loved music,” he reminisces, “but I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated.” Now in his 34th year as a record-store owner, Vorhees appears to have figured it out.
Five miles north of downtown Seattle, Bop Street Records is bookmarked by library ladders that navigate a dizzying display of vinyl edges. Bop Street has two floors, 5,000 square feet and more than 500,000 albums: “We have ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, male and female vocalists, classical and opera, jazz, rap and hip hop, spoken word, bluegrass, folk, country, gospel, blues, metal, kids” — to take the needle off the track, Voorhees has everything. “Hey man, if you want The Sound of Music soundtrack, here it is.”
That’s part of the reason for the store’s success: Voorhees is unpretentious in his love for music. He enjoys talking to fellow audiophiles, but he also loves helping curious customers find the perfect record. He even offers a money-back guarantee on everything in stock. His rationalization: “I don’t want anybody to buy a record that won’t play.”
Over the last few years, many recording artists have returned to vinyl, and musicians such as Questlove, Wilco and Radiohead have poked around Voorhees’ store. The resurgence has made him busier than ever, but Bop Street’s bottom line has always been in good shape. “I never had a period when I wasn’t selling records,” he says.
Nowadays, his CDs and cassette tapes serve as reminders of technological fads that offered only temporary conveniences. Vinyl, in Voorhees’ estimation, will always reign supreme: “It’s a tangible thing, it’s analog, it sounds better … it’s a cool thing to own, you know?”
If you’re ever in Seattle and looking to expand your musical horizons, stop by Bop Street. Voorhees will probably find exactly what you need, even if you weren’t looking for it. “Every day I’m excited about going to work and seeing what’s coming in,” he says. Such are the exchanges that matter.
Selena Coppock ’02
Editor, writer — and stand-up comic
Every morning, Selena Coppock leaves her Brooklyn apartment with a bag for the day. She concedes, “It’s very New York,” but she also recognizes its symbolism. Filled with everything from gym clothes to notepads, Coppock’s bag may as well be Superman’s telephone booth. From the cubicle to the comedy club, she is an editor, writer, stand-up artist and raconteur — all before retreating home across the East River. “There really aren’t enough hours in the day,” she laments.
Raised outside Boston, Coppock grew up on Saturday Night Live. She and her sister (also an actress and comedian) adored Jan Hooks and the earlier women of comedy. At Hamilton, Coppock sang with the Hamiltones, trouped with Yodapez and wrote for The Spectator. Her senior year, she and a friend co-authored a column, “Top 10 Things You Should Do Before Graduating.” The two also stayed true to their list and encountered campus safety officers in the process. “Hamilton was a funny time,” she recalls with a chuckle.
In the decade since, Coppock has carved out two impressive careers. By day, she’s a senior editor for The Princeton Review, helping the company distribute books in the retail market through Random House. By night, she can be found performing stand-up, hosting a comedy show or acting in a play, Stand Up! The Musical.
Coppock describes her comedy as “high energy,” and if you see a show or find her on YouTube, you’ll understand why. Onstage, she yells, gyrates and demos her “rubbery face” — all to heavy laughter. “It took me a while to find my voice,” she says, but now she’s comfortable and confident. She knows how to gauge the character (and sobriety) of the audience, she has learned to use smaller venues to refine her material, and she takes comedy’s pratfalls in stride.
“I have been heckled, I have been yelled at, I have done really well, I have done really badly.… I’ve seen it all. And the beauty is, if you have a bad show, you have another one the next night.”
Coppock’s book, The New Rules for Blondes, will be published in late April. Through a collection of humorous essays, she explores blonde pop culture and shows off her penchant for storytelling. She’ll promote the book with a comedy tour across the country, and when asked about a local stop, Coppock proudly announces she’ll be performing at the next reunion. Pack your own bags, Hamilton alumni. It should be quite the trip.
Jeff Naeem ’09
Co-founder and owner, Junk-a-Haulics
Jeff Naeem remembers his first assignment for Philosophy Professor Bob Simon. As Naeem tells it, Simon told the class, “You’re going to write a college-level paper, and you’re not going to use a single outside source.” On the surface, it was a simple exercise in critical thinking. In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in entrepreneurialism.
Naeem is responsibly impetuous. At Hamilton, he realized he was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so he majored in something he liked — philosophy — and minored in two things that intrigued him —photography and religious studies. Looking ahead, however, Naeem wanted to get into business, so he spent his senior week studying for finance exams. He found a job with Northwestern Mutual, but a year and a half later he felt unfulfilled.
“I wanted to do something a little more creative, a little more inventive,” he recalls. “I wanted to have control of the final product.” Naturally, he decided to quit and start his own business.
At first, Naeem dismissed a friend’s idea to start a junk removal company. But the more he researched the economics of such a venture, the more he understood its potential. The industry was thriving, and there were virtually no barriers to entry. Naeem just needed a van and some good ideas. Soon thereafter, he and his friend were driving a “rolling death trap” and plastering advertisements all over northern New Jersey. Junk-a-Haulics was in business.
For his very first job, Naeem helped three sisters clean out their house. They were, of course, “big deer people,” and they somehow incorporated a coffin into their home aesthetic. Just like that, hours into his first moving experience, Naeem was filling a coffin with taxidermies. He has since moved on to more conventional jobs — the company does 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial — but whether he’s recycling, donating or disposing of materials in an environmentally friendly way, Naeem revels in the simplicity and comfort his company provides: “The customers just point to whatever they want removed, and we take care of the rest.”
Now the sole owner of Junk-a-Haulics, Naeem is looking at expansion. He’s currently working on building a referral network with property managers and real estate owners, and he hopes to extend Junk-a-Haulics into middle New Jersey and even New York City. For the philosophy major turned entrepreneur, such decisions are entirely up to him. It’s his paper to write, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
David Shepard ’62
Classic film preservationist
If you’ve ever seen Buster Keaton perform stunts on a moving train, laughed at Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick or know the name “Nanook,” you’re familiar with the work of David Shepard. For more than 40 years, Shepard has preserved and restored early cinema, pioneering the conversion of silent film to the digital age. As he speaks from his home in northern California, his passion for movies shines through. “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing,” he says.
When Shepard turned 12, he asked his parents for money so he could purchase a second-hand movie projector. In high school, he got out of gym class by filming practices and games for the football team. And at Hamilton, Shepard founded Kinokunst Gesellschaft, a film society he admits he started because he could rent all the movies he hadn’t seen.
After graduating, Shepard became an archivist at the Blackhawk Films library. Soon thereafter, he had an epiphany. “I saw that these movies had no life as long as they were sitting on a shelf in a can,” he recalls. “They only had a life if they were in front of people and moved their emotions or their minds.” When the Blackhawk library folded, Shepard purchased its archiving equipment and started bringing silent films back to life. As soon as he’s finished cleaning a film frame-by-frame, he commissions a musician, or sometimes even a full orchestra, to score the movie. He then sells the product to a distributor.
In addition to his restoration work, Shepard taught film history at USC for 34 years and remains friends with a lot of his students, including Alexander Payne, director of Sideways and The Descendants (for which Payne shared a 2012 Oscar for best adapted screenplay with Nat Faxon ’97). In 1982, David also received an invitation from Robert Wise — director of The Sound of Music and West Side Story — to join a prestigious club. The kid with the second-hand movie projector has been a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences ever since.
In 2011, Shepard received an honorary doctorate from the College of Arts and Media at the University of Colorado Denver. He didn’t know anyone from Colorado, so at first he thought someone was pulling his leg. Professors, however, had been using Shepard’s work for decades, and it turns out, “They just wanted to honor me for my work.” The wizard behind the curtain was worth the attention.