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From Stuttering Kid to International Serial Entrepreneur

RPCV Craig Chavis Jr. overcame a severe speech impediment and the loss of his football dreams to find his calling in entrepreneurship — and his Peace Corps service played a crucial role in laying the groundwork.

By Tiffany James

As Holistic Business Coach and Founder of the Solo Creator Club, Craig Chavis Jr. (Peru 2014–16), helps entrepreneurs and creators start and grow profitable businesses. One of the tools he uses to achieve this mission is his book Burdens of a Dream, which not only serves as a wisdom guide for entrepreneurs but also a memoir exploring the life experiences, Peace Corps service, and business ventures that shaped him. And Chavis’ backstory is filled with resilience and determination.

Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, his childhood was marked by frequent moves due to his father’s job. This constant change unknowingly prepared him for the person he would become. As a child, he had a severe speech impediment, which made him the target of bullying. To overcome his stutter, Chavis used the Hooked on Phonics literacy program up until the seventh grade. Having to learn language through audio cassette tapes sparked his love for music, which set him on the path of becoming a teen disc jockey at the age of 15, giving him his first taste of entrepreneurship and control over his economic well-being. While in high school, Chavis played football and his athletic abilities earned him a division-1 scholarship at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. But, during his sophomore year, a neck injury dashed his dreams of securing a professional football career. Chavis considered dropping out of school during that difficult period until his Spanish professor intervened and encouraged him to take a break by studying abroad in Costa Rica. Reluctantly, he filled out the paperwork, unaware that the four-month experience would profoundly impact his outlook on life, fuel his decision to switch his major to entrepreneurship with a double minor in Spanish and international business, and motivate him to start deejaying to pay off the student loans he needed to replace his full athletic scholarship.

 

“Successfully navigating through the country by myself, with all my entrepreneurial skills, really gave me a boost of confidence that I didn’t have or I never knew about myself.”

 

In his interview with NPCA Associate Director of Strategic Communications Tiffany James, Chavis speaks about the impact his Peace Corps service had on his journey as an entrepreneur and the learning opportunities that emerged from some of the roadblocks he faced along the way, advising other RPCV creators and entrepreneurs to “look within” as they navigate their own entrepreneurial paths. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

TJ: After your study abroad in Costa Rica, you made some shifts. Where were you hoping these transitions would take you?

CC: To be honest, I was lost. Before I made that decision [to go to Costa Rica], all my dreams were football. I was undecided or general business — something really vague. And I was floating along, just checking into classes, barely paying attention, because everything was dedicated to sports. Once I lost that, I lost my own identity. So I kind of had to renew myself, and going to Costa Rica was like putting a bomb in my brain and letting it go off. It was kind of like ego death. I came back completely refreshed. I found it very easy to maneuver and navigate in Costa Rica. I was the only person of color on that study abroad trip, and it was really interesting how well I was received there — I fit in. And when I was on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, I disappeared. Successfully navigating through the country by myself, with all my entrepreneurial skills, really gave me a boost of confidence that I didn’t have or I never knew about myself. I looked within and was like: Okay, who am I? What am I all about? I’m this DJ, I’m this entrepreneur. Okay. I didn’t even know there was an entrepreneurship major, because they were phasing it out. After I graduated, they eliminated it.

TJ: So when did you first learn about the Peace Corps?

CC: After I graduated from undergrad, I took my parents advice and got my MBA, which I knocked out in less than a year. I thought I was going to either Wall Street or maybe into venture capital out in Silicon Valley. But I got zero job offers and found myself back home in Ohio deejaying and working at restaurants. One day I overheard a couple talking about how their daughter had just joined the Peace Corps. I had never heard of it. But I did some research, and it sounded very appealing to me because studying abroad and traveling had changed my life. So I filled out the paperwork. In less than six months, I received the invitation to go to Peru to serve as a Community Economic Development Volunteer. But before I even got to Peru, I told myself that I was going to start a business there. After about a year of work in my service, I started teaching entrepreneurship at different universities and high schools in my region. One day a professor told me that he distilled Pisco, which is basically a Peruvian spirit distilled from grapes. So I learned how to distill, and I would give out samples of some of those liquors that we made to a lot of the business owners I was coaching and consulting. I built up a really big following. So much so that after I finished my Peace Corps service, I emigrated back to Peru, legally, and opened up the country’s first foreign-owned craft distillery.

 Craig Chavis Jr. presenting the product launch for Ponciana Licores Artesanales, the Peruvian craft liqueur startup he founded and created.

TJ: What was the name of the distillery?

CC: The name of the distillery was called Ponciana Licores Artesanales. So in English, it’s Ponciana Craft Liquers. And it was a really successful venture. Unfortunately, a year into my business, when I went to extend my lease, the landlord confessed that she didn’t own the property. Her twin sister did. So I had to reluctantly close my business, and I felt like a failure. But I realized that to fail is a first attempt at learning. From there, I would move to Costa Rica, where I ran a travel company for a year. After that experience, I moved to Washington, D.C., leveraging my Peace Corps network, and got a job in project management. But I wasn’t really content working for anybody else. So at that same time, I launched another venture called Visajump, and we were the world’s first visa processing software, leveraged by Blockchain. And after a year, I wound up selling that technology to my co-founder who was Vietnamese. Two weeks later, I got a call that my grandmother had passed away. Since I was in a period of transition, that caused me to move back to Ohio to spend time with family and really heal myself.

TJ: When you say Visajump, you mean the visas that we get to travel to different countries?

CC: Yeah, so what we did was we created software that basically screened passengers’ backgrounds. So the use case was that travel shouldn’t be about where you’re from, it should be about who you are. As westerners, we’re blessed with a very strong passport that allows us to travel to over 180 countries visa free. But if you’re from the Middle East, if you’re from Africa or smaller countries, you don’t have that same passport power. But instead of your travel being restricted upon where you’re from, if you’re a good citizen, if you’re a good global citizen, you have a good track record, and you’re not a threat, you should be able to travel wherever you want. Essentially, we helped the embassies and consulates process more travel visas, which is more money for them, because oftentimes, visas are not free. Also you get more tourism into countries, which will boost their economies. It was a win-win for both sides. The thing is that geopolitics get in the way of everything. One day a country may be perfectly stable. Then, the next day, the government might get overthrown. That happened to Turkey which was one of my first major clients. After three months, the government was overthrown in 2017. And so new government heads, new policies. And that really disrupted the line of business that I had.

TJ: Why did you decide to sell Visajump to your co-founder?

CC: Well she was from Vietnam, and Vietnam has a really great relationship with the U.S. Her family had a lot of political connections. And for me, I was just getting frustrated with running into geopolitics. I knew that other major companies were trying to solve this problem. There was a lot of money being pumped into figuring out a biometric solution to make travel easier for global citizens. But companies that had billions of dollars of backing couldn’t solve this problem. For me, I saw the writing on the wall, and she was the chief technology officer while I was the chief sales officer and CEO. So it just made sense for me to get out before things got more and more difficult with politics in the future. And that’s proven to be the case right now. So it was just a way for me to move on into something different.

TJ: I did want to quickly jump back to your Peace Corps experience. Is there a project or initiative you’re most proud of from your service?

CC: I would say the project that I am most proud of was revamping the Somos Emprendedores Somos Peru entrepreneurship program for Peace Corps Peru. None of the other Peace Corps Volunteers, aside from me, were entrepreneurs. So many people were teaching stuff they didn’t understand. And people weren’t really performing well. Also a lot of the materials were written from the perspective of somebody who had never started a business. So I basically rewrote the entire curriculum, and even added in brand new stuff like public speaking, which is a needed component for anybody who wants to learn how to start a business because they’re going to have to learn how to sell themselves in public. I was so good at Somos that I was asked consistently to go to other Volunteers’ towns and help them launch their Somos program or help them to judge their final business plan competition.

TJ: Tell me about your memoir Burdens of a Dream and the key takeaways you hope people receive after reading it?

CC: So the book was released in March 2020 and is entitled Burdens of a Dream for a reason. Every one of us, we all have dreams of how we want our life to be. The issue is most people aren’t willing to pay the costs or bear the burden of manifesting that dream into reality. There’s a chapter in my book entitled “M.A.G.I.C” — it’s an acronym that stands for “manifesting abstract goals into consciousness.” That’s what manifesting is. That’s what I did with writing the book because the first words are as follows: “This book is dedicated to all those who dare to abandon the status quo, follow the road not taken, and discover the person they’re truly meant to become.” As much as I was writing that to the reader, I was really writing those words to myself because I had been given this calling to share my story, and I was so scared to do so. But I’m thankful that I did because it opened up a treasure trove of blessings that I wouldn’t have received if I would have kept all this information to myself. Even though it’s my memoir, it’s written in a very unique way. [Each chapter] teaches you something, and then it wraps up with an actionable nugget of wisdom. So that’s the subtitle of the book. It’s Burdens of a Dream: 33 Actionable Nuggets of Wisdom for the Creative Entrepreneur. And that wisdom is like practical advice that you can apply to your business or your life.

 

“But, really, the ultimate thing that you can create is the life that you live because your life is a business. And you’re the product of that.”

 

I also flipped the paradigm of what entrepreneurship is. I said an entrepreneur is anyone who takes a calculated risk, to create something out of nothing and share it with the world. Most people think that’s a product or service or a business. But, really, the ultimate thing that you can create is the life that you live because your life is a business. And you’re the product of that. So this book is really transformational and introspective. After I wrote the book, I knew I needed to really take this to the next level. So I wrote a workbook. The workbook actually walks people through the book, chapter by chapter, and helps them to apply those lessons learned to their life. The workbooks has been a big hit, especially in schools because it gives people tangible value. The first question I ask people in the workbook is: Who are you? Ninety-nine percent of people can’t answer that because they don’t know who they are. Therefore, they don’t know why they do what they do. The book and the workbook are really to help people understand who they really are, what they want to get out of life, and qualify them if they’re ready to begin their entrepreneurial journey. [Burdens of a Dream] really took off and wound up selling over 5000 copies, sold on all six continents. It’s in middle schools, high schools, and universities. And the book was really the impetus for me launching my current venture, which is called Creative Craig, LLC. This is where I’m a holistic business coach, where I help creators do the inner and outer work to grow their businesses. Most recently, I launched a spin off called the Solo Creator Club, which is a global community where I teach creators how to sell their expertise.

TJ: What does it mean to be a holistic business coach for creators and how would you describe the ideal client for your coaching?

CC: A holistic business coach is someone who helps you do both the inner and the outer work to start and grow your business. The average business coach just talks about the external stuff — like how do you sell, what is marketing, what is branding, what is operations. But here’s the thing, you can’t get paid your worth if you don’t charge your worth. And you can’t charge your worth until you know your worth. Everything goes back to you. In order to begin, you must look within. And if you don’t overcome those limiting beliefs that are internal, you won’t do what you need to do to get the results you need to get. Because in order to become a profitable entrepreneur, you need to operate as a profitable entrepreneur. But in order to operate as a profitable entrepreneur, you have to first think like a profitable entrepreneur. So in all reality, it’s think, do, become. By me bringing in that deep inner work, this is what separates me from everybody else because most people only touch the surface.

 

Every entrepreneur is a creator, but not every creator is an entrepreneur. So I’m not teaching creators to be more of an expert, I’m teaching them to be a better business owner.”

 

My ideal client is what I call a creator. And a creator is anybody who shares their expertise. The thing I love about the word creator is that it’s inclusive, yet specific, because anybody who’s a creator can address any subject matter. Whether it’s cooking, whether it’s coaching, whether it’s consulting, whether it’s skiing, they just have an expertise which is basically information that people are willing to pay for. The issue is that creators can share their expertise, but most of them don’t have the skill set to sell their expertise. Every entrepreneur is a creator, but not every creator is an entrepreneur. So I’m not teaching creators to be more of an expert, I’m teaching them to be a better business owner. So they have to have three characteristics: they need to be self-motivated, they need to be committed, and they need to be decisive. Self-motivated is pretty self-explanatory. You have to be your own source of inspiration. If you’re constantly needing to go to YouTube to get motivated by somebody else, you’ll never make it — you need to be your own fire. Commitment is the ability to eliminate all other options or obstacles. There’s no Plan A and Plan B. There’s only plan A. You have to be focused. And decisive is self-explanatory. You have to be able to make quick decisions. Because all the money you’ll make or lose in business is predicated on the decisions that you make or do not make. And guess what an indecision is a decision. So you can’t stand still, you always have to be moving.

TJ: What advice or insight do you wish you had when you first embarked on your journey as a Black entrepreneur?

CC: I wouldn’t change anything because I did what I did to get to where I want to go and to where I am. In the beginning, I wish I would have known how segregated the entrepreneurial space is like. People think corporate America is bad. They think there’s racism and prejudice in corporate America. Well take that times 1000 in the entrepreneurial space, because this is where real power is — we’re talking about controlling economies, controlling people’s livelihoods, controlling people’s economic well-being. And the entrepreneurial space is very, very segregated. It’s really hard to run across capital, being a black entrepreneur. You’re mistreated, you’re not heard. And even on the online space, there’s digital segregation because black creators are oftentimes blackballed on these platforms. Knowing that you have to do 10x the effort to get one tenth the recognition because, unfortunately — these are crazy statistics — but the average Black female entrepreneur only makes $30,000 a year. The average Black male entrepreneur makes about $22,000 a year. That’s per the AEO’s [Association for Enterprise Opportunity] Tapestry on the State of Black America, which came out in 2020. Those numbers are horrific. There’s a lot of stuff you’re going to have to deal with, that you didn’t think you’d have to deal with in this space, because it’s really a power game. We live in a capitalistic system, and Black people don’t have access to capital. Therefore, they’re not able to produce the results of people who do have access to capital.

TJ: In what ways, if any, has the Peace Corps community supported your entrepreneurial journey?

CC: There is a small returned Peace Corps chapter out here called CORVA — the Central Ohio Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Association — and I did a book sale with them. That happened right when my book came out, and it was successful. But most of my support has come from people outside the Peace Corps community, because so many people have wanted to do the Peace Corps, they were just too afraid to actually go through with it. So it’s been a great way that I’ve educated and done the Peace Corps’ Third Goal. I’ve personally mentored over 10 Black Peace Corps Volunteers. I got people to apply for the Peace Corps, get into the Peace Corps, and be successful.The Peace Corps is such an important pathway into getting into entrepreneurship because you’re essentially an intrapreneur in the Peace Corps. An entrepreneur is somebody that creates a business without a pre-existing ecosystem, whereas an intrapreneur is somebody who creates a business within a pre-existing ecosystem. So in the Peace Corps, they throw you out into a community, and you have to build something. You learn a lot of invaluable entrepreneurial skill sets as a Peace Corps Volunteer. So anybody who could successfully complete their Peace Corps service has everything they need to become a successful entrepreneur.

TJ: What advice would you share with RPCVs who are beginning to embark on their own entrepreneurial journey?

CC: To begin, look within. All the questions you have about entrepreneurship are already within you. When you figure out what your skills are, figure out your passions, and combine those two things to see if people want what you’re great at doing — what you love doing — you will create a business that doesn’t feel like a business. And it’ll be a thriving business because the most successful entrepreneurs have launched a business at the intersections of their skills, passions, and market demand. But never forget that this is never about you, it’s about your customers. If people don’t want what you have to offer, they’ll never buy from you. So think about it, know the market and what they want, and position yourself to create something that’s extraordinary — something that you also love to do. Entrepreneurship is a journey. It’s not something that you can clock in and clock out of, it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. So you got to be all in.


Tiffany James is Associate Director of Strategic Communications with National Peace Corps Association. Write her here.