Caryl and Larry Abdo host dinners for Carlson students or recent grads with entrepreneurial aspirations who are married or in a long-term relationship.

Romance, research and a reunion

Entrepreneurs share secrets to success in business and love

By Kevyn Burger

A gratis gourmet meal at a romantic inn. It hardly sounds like the setting that could drive a wife to tears, but that’s what happened to Mona Fraki on a pivotal night in 2009.

“I cried all the way home,” she recalls of the aftermath of the dinner that she and her husband Paul Neyers shared at the historic Nicollet Island Inn. “That night I realized we were going to have to do this.”

“This” was pursuing Paul’s dream of owning a vineyard and winery; Mona traces the beginning of her buy-in to the message that she heard at the dinner.

The couple attended the very first of what has come to be known as the Abdo Dinner Conversation Series, offered to young couples through the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

Caryl and Larry Abdo, who met studying business at the U in the 1960’s, have now hosted biennial dinners for the Carlson students for seven years. Serial entrepreneurs who have launched and operated a series of ventures while raising their family, the Abdos began the get-togethers as a novel way to give back to their alma mater. (Read more about the Abdo Dinner Conversation Series here.)

“We know something about managing two passions: your business life and your love life,” says Larry, who has been married to the woman he calls “my girlfriend” for more than four decades. “We can tell them the side of life they don’t learn in business school. If you’re not happy in your relationship, business success doesn’t mean a thing.”

Over exquisite food and wine, the couples get frank advice and hear firsthand about the risks and rewards as the Abdos have lived it.

“You have to have a double balance sheet, for your relationship and your business,” Larry says, with a zealot’s emphasis. “Investing in your love will have the greatest ROI.”

“Put as much energy into each other as you do your work,” Caryl adds. “Celebrate every win together. It’s so important to have fun.”

Since beginning the dinners, the Abdos calculate that they have treated 300 attendees (each accompanied by a plus one) to an evening at their historic inn. Looking at the numbers got the couple — and their contacts at the Carlson school — curious about the value of the series.

“We had anecdotal evidence, the hand written notes that couples sent to Larry and Caryl after the dinner, and their stories about couples that stopped to thank them in a chance meeting on the street, but we’re the school known for data and analytics. We wanted to test the impact beyond that,” says Tonia Weber, development officer at the Carlson School.

A team at Carlson’s Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship developed and sent out a survey to get anonymous feedback from the dinner alumni. Results showed that a high number of the respondents found long-term value in the evenings.

The electronic poll also gave individuals a chance to add their comments to the queries.

“We got thoughtful and candid information to our open ended questions,” Weber says. “For example, one person said, ‘This helped my spouse understand that being an entrepreneur is a driver and not a passing itch.’”

The survey also got a high number of affirmative responses to an inquiry about whether the participants in the previous dinners would be interested in attending a second event. Earlier this summer, the Abdos staged their first ‘reunion’ dinner, bringing back some of the couples that had attended the event as students to share stories about their maturing business and personal successes.

“When we came to the dinner, I asked Caryl how to do it all when you’re managing two careers and raising a family,” recalls Genna Porter, whose husband Justin got his MBA at Carlson in 2011. “She said, you can’t. Hire help. And that’s what we do now.”

Another tenet that the Abdos stress is that entrepreneurs will only be happy when pursuing their dream, and a spouse who isn’t on board with the uncertainty that accompanies that can create unbearable tension that can sink the relationship.

It was that message that drove Mona Fraki to tears all those years ago.

Her husband, then a Carlson MBA student, had been cultivating his startup vision. He imagined growing grapes in his own vineyard, bottling wine commercially and selling the craft product.

“Paul was passionate about the vineyard and sitting at the dinner, I suddenly saw that if he didn’t give it his all, it would kill him or our marriage wouldn’t survive,” Fraki says.

The couple went on to purchase farmland near New Ulm and in 2010 began Doppeleichen Vineyards; the name translates to ‘twin oaks’ in a nod to the heritage of the area.

Paul calls himself a “stubborn German,” and his never-say-die constitution has served him well. The vineyard has survived more than its share of startup hassles: a flood, a stampede by a herd of deer and regulatory roadblocks in getting licensed to produce and sell alcohol.

“I thought I would have a job for the regular paycheck and the insurance, pension and stability,” says Mona, who has a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

Instead, she shoulders much of the day-to-day responsibility of the winery — taking and filling orders, managing the tasting room — and her initial reluctance about the project has given way to enthusiasm. Paul augments his vineyard duties with a full time job selling software to banks.  

Last year, Doppeleichen Vineyards produced 200 cases of wine, moving the couple ever closer to the day when Paul can join his wife working full time in their venture.     

They are living out some of the messages and advice that they heard from the Abdos.

“We reflect on it from time to time. We needed to hear from people who were passionate,” Paul says. “We’re putting everything we have into this and we’re building our future together.”

For the Abdos, the goal of the dinners remains the same.

“We want there to be more romance because of this,” Larry says.