Chris Aberle, a 2006 graduate of New Saint Andrews College, is a local businessman who has remained closely involved in the life of the community and worked to get several new businesses off the ground, including the popular new restaurant Humble Burger and the tech startup ConsignCloud. We caught up with him to ask about his life since graduation and about the variety of ways he's used his liberal arts education, both as a businessman and as a member of the community:
NSA: Did you pursue graduate studies after graduation?
C.A.: No. The things that most interest me, small business and skilled trades, offer a lot of “learn as you go” opportunities. I’ve considered going to graduate school a few times, but when I’ve sought advice about it — when I was thinking about an MBA, for instance — it’s never been clear that it was much worth it in my case.
NSA: What work did you pursue after graduation?
C.A.: I was an intern in the real estate and mortgage industries the summer prior to my senior year, so I found work soon after graduation as a loan officer. It was a mixed bag for me. Loan officers often have a remarkable opportunity to educate and genuinely help their clients, and independent brokers get to work on tricky loan situations that are really engaging. I was rotten at the business side though, and as the recession worsened it was abundantly clear I should try something new. I moved over to Emsi roughly two years after graduating, and after a few more years of trying various roles there, finally settled on Product Management, which I think will be a long-term career for me. I left Emsi early this year for ConsignCloud, where product management is one of the roles I’ll be filling.
NSA: Tell us about the businesses you've helped start.
C.A.: Early in 2012 Austin Storm and I started a coworking space, Brick and Mortar, which we ran for a few years to support freelancers and small businesses in town. It was super impulsive, we were thoroughly terrible at it, and it ultimately failed, but I learned a lot and consider it money well spent. I’ve dabbled a bit in freelance web development. Humble Burger is a project I’ve worked on with Nate and Hannah Wolff for a few years now, and it has grown from a small Farmer’s Market stand into a for-reals restaurant with a permanent location.
My primary focus is now over at ConsignCloud, another of Austin Storm’s ventures, which makes software for consignment stores. The consignment industry is more complicated — and I think, more interesting — than traditional retail, but has been slow to adopt new technology. Big retailers are very smart these days, and it’s exciting to think we can adapt some of their methods to the consignment model and really do something great for our customers.
NSA: Do you work with other students or alumni of the College?
C.A.: Because I stayed in Moscow after graduation, a lot of my scheming has naturally happened with NSA graduates. Every person involved in ConsignCloud attended NSA, which was a thing that occurred to us only recently. We really just set out to involve talented and motivated people, and, lo and behold, it turns out NSA graduates are a natural fit.
All of the owners of Humble Burger are former NSA students and we employ a few current NSA students there as well. The goals there are different, because we're much more focused on our immediate neighbors and the many ways we can serve them through food, but the fact that we all find the making of a hamburger a profoundly moral act has a lot to do with our time at NSA.
NSA: Please tell us a little about your life outside of work—family, hobbies, church involvement, etc.
C.A.: I’m married to Abby (graduated 2010) and we have a 5 year-old son, Owen. We really enjoy food and have a lot of interest in hobbies adjacent to food — gardening, coffee roasting, preservation and fermentation, that sort of thing. I’m a big fan of traditional menswear, especially shoes. The closest I’ve ever come to postgraduate education is a place in Budapest that teaches a two-month course on shoemaking. It’s still on my bucket list.
We’ve led small groups at church for a number of years and we’ve spent enough time in choir that we probably qualify as “choir people.” I’m pretty sure that doesn’t require additional explanation.
NSA: In what ways did the Christian liberal arts education at NSA prepare you for what you do now—both at work and in other spheres of life?
C.A.: NSA places a lot of emphasis on the idea of the student as autodidact, which is great preparation for a relatively fluid vocation like mine. One of my favorite voices in the startup world, Paul Graham, says that before you’ll have a good business idea you need to be at the very edge of something. The edge metaphor is common when people talk about innovation and change: complexity science studies “the edge of chaos,” economics “the margins,” popular business literature “the cutting edge.” Getting to the edge of a thing usually requires teaching yourself there, processing the world as I’m going to go learn this rather than I need to be taught this. After being clobbered by the Septivium, which trains you in both breadth and depth, many modern pursuits start to look rather like finger painting. I can think of a lot of NSA students, and students of the classics in general, who are at the edges of their interests doing rad things.
Perhaps uniquely among liberal arts colleges, NSA impresses upon its students the idea that because we know the creator God of the universe, we should be able to crush pretty much anything. We learned about the common tools of war: sword and stratagem. But we also learned about the tools of Jericho: shofar and conga line. Of course, once you start walking around thinking that you could be crushing it you’re not far off from knowing that you should be out there crushing it, and it’s this more universal view of the Dominion Mandate that I’ve found most helpful since graduating.
NSA: What advice would you give to our current students or prospective students who have an interest in business or technology?
C.A.: To those who have interest in technology, I’d say they should learn how to write code. Programming languages have a lot of similarities with other human languages, and after translating the Aeneid you can pretty much eat any programming language like a pancake. Even if it’s not a long-term vocation, engineering experience is increasingly valued in professions that have historically tended to emphasize softer, managerial skill sets.
If you’re interested in business, start collecting stories. There are so many great companies out there experimenting and openly writing about what they learn; so many startups blowing up and flaming out in very public ways. These stories become patterns, like Proverbs for Business, that you’ll need someday when puzzling through your own novel situations. You should start creating your own stories too, but I’ll leave it at that to avoid turning this into a tearaway calendar of inspirational quotes.
NSA: What goals do you have for the future, in terms of either business or personal life or both?
C.A.: I’ve come to believe that the church needs more small businesses. Small businesses have such an incredible capacity for ministry. We’ve seen employment-based ministry make a real difference in Moscow recently, and family-owned businesses have more freedom to invest their increase in the concerns of the church. I’d love to see a day where business ownership is more common — even normative! — and so I’m pursuing projects that help me get better at the startup phase in particular. I want my kids to grow up thinking business ownership is as likely, as accessible, as a job with a paycheck. I’d love to reach the point where I can start, and even give away, a business or two every year.