Lucky for us, Conejo Valley is bursting with talented, capable leaders, modeling success in business and emphasizing the importance of serving others. Here, we profile three outstanding entrepreneurs, who share their experiences and advice for living a life full of meaning and joy. While their paths are varied, ranging from a realtor/Rotarian to a chef/entrepreneur and a luxury car sales manager/humanitarian, the underlying importance of being passionate about what you do is key to unlocking the secret of success in each of their journeys.
Richard Million Burke, Jr.
Richard Million Burke, Jr. was born with a “burning desire to serve and make a difference in the world.”
“My parents never let me forget how many advantages I had been given in life, and that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,’” says Burke, whose Jesuit professors’ mission to build “Men for others” fanned the flame of his urge to be a positive force in the world.
Deciding against influencing change through politics because “compromising core values to stay in office was something I wasn’t willing to do,” Burke chose to pursue a path in business that would allow him to “make a difference on my own terms.”
“I’ve always loved transforming problems into tangible solutions. Being in business for myself has allowed me to solve challenges in ways that aligned with my values and make a difference to my customers,” says Burke, Commercial and Fleet Vehicle Manager of Silver Star Mercedes-Benz of Thousand Oaks and past president of BIG Brothers BIG Sisters.
For Burke, passion is integral to success:
“I learned at a young age that following your passion is where the energy to live life to the fullest comes from,” he says.
Fueled by compassion and the desire to make a positive difference, Burke serves on the board of the BIG Brothers BIG Sisters of Ventura County to promote the organization’s mission of mentoring youth in need of direction.
“A lot of people think that giving is just about money. But giving is also about your time and talents,” says Burke. He notes the organization has been matching volunteer mentors with youth for more than 40 years and currently serves some 1,500 Ventura County youth. “Those pairings make all the difference in the world,” he says, adding that “there are hundreds more on our waiting list, longing to have a mentor in their life. The need for male BIGS of color is the greatest. As is the need for volunteers to mentor youth of all genders and ethnicity in the cities of eastern Ventura County. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or what you’re passionate about, we can put your time, talent and treasures to use” (visit BBSVC.org or BBBSA.org for information).
As a mentor, Burke advises people to take risks and follow their dreams. “When you see possibilities, go after them,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for something. Always keep learning,” he adds, and, of course, “Find a way to give back using your time, talent and/or treasures. Doing so keeps you humble and in the end, always gives more back to you.”
Burke continues to find ways to serve, such as through his “Serve One” project, which is designed to partner national and international organizations with youth for a year of post-high school service. “The goal is to connect them with the less fortunate people around the world and equip our future generations with the connections, character, experience and skills they need to take a more productive role in the world.”
When he takes a break from serving others, Burke likes to read, work out and enjoy some red wine. “But mostly I love learning from the smartest people I can convince to let me hang out with them.”
A strong work ethic, a passion for life and a commitment to community service provide a firm foundation for success in business and life for Rotarian and Commercial Real Estate Agent Marc Feigen.
While his early career aspirations included becoming a professional baseball player, his field of dreams evolved in a new direction when family members opened the door to a career in real estate. “I was a rabid Dodgers fan. I wanted to be just like Sandy Koufax,” shares Feigen.
Whatever career choice you make, advises Feigen, “Have a passion for what you do.”
What’s more, remember to “Be mindful of the importance of giving back to your community,” adds Feigen, who walks his talk by helping hundreds of people in need through service projects and fundraising events as a member of the Rotary Club of Thousand Oaks.
Modeling strong business ethics and living a life of integrity, as well as watching his children get through college and enjoy successful careers, are among Feigen’s greatest accomplishments, he says. Looking to the future, Feigen has “no interest in retiring,” but when he’s not working, he plans to spend as much time with family as possible and to travel more, especially to (red) wine country!
“Cooking just sort of fell into my lap,” says Gwithyen Thomas, owner and head chef at Aroha Restaurant.
The New Zealand-born and raised Thomas started out as a dishwasher, working his way up to head chef at a 5-Diamond-rated restaurant by the age of 18. “I wanted to do something that kept me busy,” says Thomas. “Cooking was fun and easy, but it’s not as glamorous as they make it seem,” he laughs. After working as a chef for years, running three kitchens in an elegant 5-Star hotel and winning awards for his culinary creations, Thomas’ entrepreneurial spirit sparked him to realize his longtime dream of opening a restaurant of his own.
“I was sick of working my butt off for someone else’s wallet,” recalls Thomas, and in September 2014, he and his wife, Justine, opened Aroha Restaurant. “Aroha” means “love” in the New Zealand Maori language, and their venture is definitely a labor of love.
Serving up New Zealand-inspired cuisine, Aroha honors the couple’s relationship and family members who helped make their dreams a reality. Thomas credits much of his success in the often-challenging restaurant business to staying true to his roots.
“Make sure you know what you’re doing. Don’t try and be what you’re not; stick to your roots and stick to what you know,” says Thomas, offering advice to other entrepreneurs.
While his successful business ventures (others include importing/exporting and creating sound stages) bring Thomas joy, his most important accomplishment is his family. “Being married and having a beautiful kid” are the best part of Thomas’ life, he says, as he walks around Disneyland carrying his 18-month-old son on his shoulders. Thomas cherishes spending time with his wife and son at Conejo Creek Park, playing and watching the ducks, “free from any distractions.”
With characteristic optimism, Thomas anticipates an even brighter future. “I want this restaurant to keep getting better and better… whatever comes our way, comes our way.”