2016 GW Gift Guide

Businesses run by GW alumni offer a variety of unique offerings, from bow ties to whimsical gift boxes, DIY gin and hand-crafted wood furniture.

Image: GW Gift Guide
William Atkins/GW Today
November 22, 2016

By Emily Cahn, B.A. 11

It’s a time-honored tradition: the search for the perfect gift, which quickly buckles under the weight of indecision and procrastination and a little browsing for yourself—hey, you’re human—until suddenly, the holidays nigh, you reach for a gift, any gift, and make all sorts of resolutions about next year’s effort. (Season’s screamings!) We’re here to help with this curated selection of gift ideas, each produced by a GW alumni-run business.


Looking for a way to make idle moments count with her newborn son, Kim Votruba-Matook, B.A. ’06, began designing wall prints that would spark educational conversations. The idea led Ms. Votruba-Matook to launch her own company, The Artful Educator, which now sells the prints, notecards, alphabet flashcards and custom placemats and name art. “The goal is to help parents and kids build that habit of having quality conversations,” she says. Each letter is made up of items that begin with that letter, all drawn in a color that starts with the letter, too. The letter “A,” for example, comes in aqua and other “a” colors and is made up of things like alpacas, airplanes and avocados.




The best way to transport home cooks to Thailand is to offer them a taste of the real thing, which is why Watcharee Limanon, LLM ’99, imports the spices and other traditional ingredients that go into her ready-to-eat sauces. “I have had customers call and say, ‘I just wanted to tell you I lived in Thailand for years and your sauces taste like the dishes that I ate while there,’” Ms. Limanon says. The Bangkok-native rediscovered her love of Thai cooking while working in Thailand as an environmental lawyer. She began her culinary training in 2005, studying at Le Cordon Bleu Dusit Culinary School in Bangkok and other cooking schools. In 2014, back in the United States, she launched the Watcharee’s product line, which includes her peanut sauce, pad Thai sauce and green and massaman curry sauces.


Claudine Hellmuth’s whimsical gift boxes—which hold everything from party favors to stocking stuffers to baked goods—come with a twist: You build them. Ms. Hellmuth, B.F.A. ’97, sells the patterns, which are printed and then cut, folded and taped into shape using her simple instructions. Her most popular box is in the shape of a retro oven, which a customer filled with cupcakes and used for a sugar-coated baby gender reveal. “One customer…used them to help her family raise funds to bring their adoptive daughter-to-be home from Ghana,” Ms. Hellmuth says. “I was so touched to think that my little printables could have some small role to play in this family's life.”




Richa Nihalani wants to empower women with the jewelry her company, Fashionest, designs and sells online, from bold statement necklaces to beaded wrap bracelets and chokers. “Our focus is on taking styles that you see on the runway and giving you the confidence to wear them your own way,” says Ms. Nihalani, B.B.A. ’12, who co-founded the business in 2014 with her older brother, Nitesh, a jewelry designer. The site offers a custom line of trendy pieces at more affordable prices (like the $28 Fashionest Label Luxor Cuff, above) as well as jewelry from a handful of bigger brands, including socialite Nicole Richie’s House of Harlow 1960.


They met, classically enough, at a wedding: Emily Landsman’s brother was getting hitched last year when she came face to face with a bow tie, which she was helping a groomsman knot. Ms. Landsman, B.A. ’01, M.P.A. ’11, a seasoned sewing enthusiast, looked over the piece and decided to try to fashion them herself. The first few were a hit on her Etsy site and, ever since, making bow ties—even designing and printing some of the fabric—has become “part of my life,” she says. They come in quirky prints, like bunnies, apples and bikes—even a matzoh bow tie for the dapper Seder-goer. She also does custom jobs, including once swooping in at the last minute with freshly made ties to rescue a panicked bride and groom.




Using timber harvested from an Illinois forest that’s been in the family for generations, David Stine’s custom, hand-crafted furniture celebrates wood’s rambling curves, its grains, its knots and fissures. It clings to the “natural beauty,” he says, from which it was hewn. “It might be along the lines of something you’ve seen before,” Mr. Stine, J.D. ’99, says of his furniture, “but because every piece of wood is different it’s not going to be Ikea.” He found woodworking on the family farm growing up, where he learned craftsmanship from watching his father and grandfather and eventually would spend the winter months restoring antiques. While at GW Law School, he built humidors for Georgetown Tobacco on the side, and the business grew from there. Mr. Stine hung up his pinstripes after a year and took up at an old farmhouse in Dow, Ill., where the business now includes everything from handmade benches and tables to bed frames and bar tops.


A hand gesture can say a lot out on the road. Tyler Fishbone, B.A. ’11, is hoping to spread one of the kinder gestures—the humble wave—and even found a way to automate it with Wiper Wave, an attachment for a car’s rear windshield wiper. “In traffic, we’re surrounded by people constantly, but driving feels like one of the more lonely experiences,” says Mr. Fishbone. “So the Wiper Wave is a tool to break down that wall.” Mr. Fishbone created Wiper Wave during his GW years, attaching a wire hand to his parents’ car. The prototype sparked smiles and then a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 that, with the help of coverage on NPR, funded Wiper Wave’s launch.




Warren Brown, the former federal lawyer-turned pastry paragon, lit up D.C.'s sweet tooth when he opened CakeLove in 2002 on D.C.’s historic U Street. Its popularity spawned other locations, cookbooks and a stint for Mr. Brown as a Food Network star. But since the last storefront closed in December 2015, Mr. Brown, JD ’98, has shifted his focus to selling cakes one bite at a time: single-serve, grab-and-go containers of his famous cake and frosting. “People often said that they really loved the cream cheese frosting, and that’s the thing they wanted to buy,” he says. “So we were looking for a way to package the frosting and provide that to the customer, and we stumbled into the idea of layer cake in a jar.” The pocket-sized, 3.4-oz. jars can be frozen for up to a year or refrigerated for up to a month. See the website for a list of retailers or to buy in bulk.


Husband-and-wife duo Ruta Qureshi, B.B.A. ’85, and Ali Qureshi, B.B.A. ’86, since 2007 have been churning out soaps that look and smell (but probably don’t taste) good enough to eat. The pair, who met at GW, sells up to 50 types of small-batch soaps at any time, from Cranberry Spice and Vitamin E & Lemongrass to a camo-patterned bar made with oils from fir needles and cedar. While they had operated for years from a 25-acre Virginia farm and sold suds at D.C.-area farmers markets, the couple relocated in October and opened Harmony Creek Farms’ first storefront, in Orange Beach, Ala., where they offer demonstrations and classes in addition to their handmade soaps. Harmony Creek Farms is offering free shipping when you use coupon code ALUMNI at checkout.



You could try cocktail-shaker acrobatics or setting drinks aflame, but nothing quite ups your bartending game like making your own spirits. And gin is the place to start. “Whiskey has to sit for a really long time in barrels, so nobody is going to want to age whiskey for six months to six years. You can’t make vodka in your house because it’s like a meth lab; the same thing for rum,” says Sarah Maiellano, B.A. ’07, who launched The Homemade Gin Kit in 2012 with her husband. “Gin is the one thing you can make at home, and it turns out really nicely.” Each kit includes two 375-milliliter glass bottles, a strainer and funnel, and the blend of juniper berries and other botanicals (which lend it a caramel hue) you’ll need to transform a bottle of vodka into gin. Steep them for 36 hours, impress, repeat.

This piece will appear in the upcoming issue of GW Magazine.

Arts & Culture