Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in the Fort Worth Report’s series on emerging leaders. To view other installments in our “Profiles in Leadership” series, please click here.

Every morning, David M. M. Taffet gets up at 6:30 a.m., takes a walk and spends time journaling. About 8:30 a.m., he wakes his wife, Christie Zwahlen, with a fresh cup of coffee in bed, where they talk about the morning he’s had and the day ahead.

Taffet, 54, and Zwahlen, 37, unashamedly say they saved each other. It’s easy to observe the devotion and love in their expressions and in how they talk about each other. They often pause to look at each other when speaking, they hold hands and are quick to brag on the other. In some instances, when they notice the other start to talk in a negative way, they interject to talk about how wonderful they are.

Each time they have a cup of coffee, they are reminded of the moment they met in June 2015 in New Orleans. Zwahlen was presenting at a conference there and heard about Addiction Coffeehouse and decided to try it. Once she got there, she realized she did not have her wallet. Taffet, who was the owner and creator of the shop, paid for her coffee.

The two struck up a conversation about their work in social impact. Taffet told Zwahlen his son, Jordan, was studying social work and asked if he could connect the two of them. Taffet and Zwahlen exchanged information and kept talking.

They got together within a month after that and haven’t been separated since. Taffet proudly knows their wedding date down to the minute: 11:11 a.m. Oct. 31, 2018.

The two enjoy working together. They have worked together at Miami University, consult for LevinThor, LLC and started a company called Petal, but the pandemic changed their plans.

The couple created Petal with two aerospace engineers during the pandemic. Their plan was to make different types of trash cans that could be plugged in and used as freezers to eliminate the smell of trash and stop the spread of germs in people’s homes or businesses. The company announced a partnership with Danby Appliances to make its products in September 2020.

However, when the COVID-19 vaccine was in development, the manufacturers for the freezer technology had to put their emphasis on what was needed for the vaccine. The price for Petal was too high, Zwahlen said. In November 2020, the project was paused.

But that led the two to start JukeStrat, a consulting company focused on social impact — helping companies identify, develop and expand opportunities to engage in purpose-driven work that creates lasting change in the world — in corporate and nonprofit entities. The two carried the team from Petal over to JukeStrat because each person had expertise in different interests and worked well together, Zwahlen said.

(Alexis Allison | Fort Worth Report)

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For the company to take on a consulting job, Zwahlen looks for clients committed to having a social impact, and it must be part of their mission. That could mean they’re interested in sustainability or animal welfare.

“We just think it’s really important that every business that exists understands that they have an obligation or responsibility to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, not just produce profits,” she said.

One client JukeStrat worked with is Danby Appliances. Taffet said they interviewed 100 of the company’s 400 employees to establish best practices and what people wanted to happen in their workplace. 

In those interviews, Taffet said JukeStrat found some people who were stopping progress in the company and others who were overlooked and could bring more to the table. Taffet also identified executives who were bringing toxicity into the workplace. Some were willing to and did change. Others were not so willing and were terminated.

Also in that interview process, Taffet said he identified one woman who was a single mother without an education who was working at the lowest rung in the company. Once he met her, he said it didn’t make sense and she should have a top position.

“And it turns out that other people in the company had a similar sentiment, but she had never been asked,” Taffet said. “Through this process we identified this rockstar and convinced the executive management to make her at one of the top-level positions. And now she’s six months into that position and just blowing people away with how well she has done.”

The company consults with clients all over, and Zwahlen hopes they can expand their Fort Worth footprint as the company grows. Another company they work with is the McClendon Center in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit mental health services provider.

McClendon CEO Anthony Boswell, 57, has known Taffet since 1994, when they were both attorneys at Blank Rome in Philadelphia. At first, their relationship was sharing work frustrations but grew to a strong bond that included Boswell attending Taffet’s kids’ bar mitzvahs and Taffet being at the hospital for the birth of Boswell’s child.

Boswell describes Zwahlen as a “powerhouse” who he hired when he ran the Boys & Girls Club of Delaware to manage the statewide science, technology, engineering, art and math — or STEAM — program.   

JukeStrat is helping Boswell’s company transform the workplace culture so people are treated better, he said. After conducting interviews, Boswell said, his company and JukeStrat came up with a plan to address issues in the company, like a culture that didn’t have high expectations and how employees are treated.

JukeStrat is working with the board, revamping the website and social media, and helping Boswell’s company get more grants to help their clients. Those clients are some of the most forgotten, disenfranchised and neglected people, Boswell said. 

“David and Christie come in, and just relish being with my folks,” Boswell said. “My clients dance with them, take great pictures with them, encourage them. Then, on the other side, they go out and try to help me find grants so we can do more programming.”

The two working together means they can bring out the best in each other and are still able to maintain a positive relationship.

At first, Zwahlen was nervous about working with Taffet because she didn’t want any negative energy bleeding into the relationship. Together, the two have been able to create a positive work environment.

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“What I realized through that process was that it wasn’t that I didn’t like work, or that I didn’t want to work with David. Instead, I wanted to keep doing the work that I was doing,” she said. “Once we started doing JukeStrat, and even before when we were doing Petal, I realized this is fun. And work can be fun. And you can work with your partner and have a great time.”

Part of that was developing a healthier relationship with work. As a Korean American and the daughter of an immigrant, Zwahlen said, everything felt like “life or death.”

“You were always on the brink of disaster,” she said. “I always felt pressure, like I have to be the best, I have to work until my hands bleed and that’s the only way that I’m going to make it in life. I was terrified of failure, and I was terrified of risk-taking.”

Taffet had a different relationship with work than his wife. He grew up poor, and he saw work as a way out of poverty and to independence. But his different mindset allowed her to feel as if it was safe to fail and he would still love her, no matter what.

“I never saw it as a burden. I saw it as an opportunity,” Taffet said. “I’ve always felt like I cannot believe I get paid what I get paid to do what I do and it blows my mind because I have such a riot with it.”

Growing up, Taffet dealt with physical and emotional abuse, he said. Even if he brought home a report card with all A-plus except one A-minus, that wasn’t enough for his parents. It had severe effects on his mental health.

“It just always blew my mind. Like, I’m being beaten by these people. I’m being told that we’re poor and that whatever I did wasn’t enough,” he said. “And then I just thought, ‘Enough of this, I’m going to break the pattern.’”

He made a commitment as a father to never be abusive and to resist a negative mindset as an adult. He promised to be more optimistic and not beat himself up over imperfections in his work, he said.

Taffet has two children, Jordan and Lily, who are 28 and 24, from a previous marriage. Zwhalen does not have any biological children, but has a great relationship with Jordan and Lily.

Jordan is a therapist in Minneapolis and he said so much had to align perfectly for his father to meet Zwhalen, including tragedy and bankruptcy, before he could even start the coffee shop she walked into.

“That always stuns me, and I think it’s sort of emblematic of my dad’s approach to life, that he’s been able to track it into experiences that are worthwhile and important,” Jordan said. “They’re a really terrific couple. But it still blows my mind every time I think about it.”

Zwahlen has always been calm, sweet and level-headed with Jordan and his sister, he said, but more eccentric with their father. But what always remains is that she is fiercely loyal.

Jordan looks up to his father and said he could write a whole book about what makes him great. He said JukeStrat is 100% in line with his father’s character and integrity.

He can point to several instances throughout his life where his dad took someone under his wing and gave them advice, money, a place to stay and helped them turn their lives around.

“It’s just something that he does. He’s always sort of been a catalyst for change for other individuals in our lives,” Jordan said. “It’s actually pretty rare to find someone like that who is so consistently trying to foster that kind of change.”

Outside of working together, Taffet and Zwahlen still like to spend time together. They enjoy photography, hanging out at their pool, playing with their pit bull terriers and trying new foods. They always eat dinner together, and they have art dates where they plan some type of photoshoot or other creative activity.

“We have our time alone, but really, we crave being with each other because both of us had come from not the best of relationships,” Taffet said. “We’re in a place where we were measured strictly by what we do. And now we both love each other for our being. That’s such a nice thing, to just be with someone.”

Christie Zwahlen Bio

Birthplace: Long Island, Huntington, NY

Moved to Fort Worth: March 2020 to launch Petal.

Family: Taffet and Zwahlen live with their pitbull babies, Honor and Phoenix. Taffet’s children are Jordan Montana and Lily Sophia. Montana is a 28-year-old social worker who lives in Minneapolis, and Sophia, is a 24-year-old entrepreneur.

Education: B.A. in English from Stony Brook University, M.A. in English from Binghamton University. Graduate Certificate in Asian and Asian American Studies from Binghamton University.

Work experience: Virtually all of Zwahlen’s career has been spent in civic engagement. She has worked at nonprofit organizations, small liberal arts colleges, and state universities, trying to engage people in efforts to advance change for the benefit of people and the planet. Recently, she co-founded JukeStrat, a purpose-driven venture studio and consulting firm, with her husband, David Taffet, and their colleague, Anthony Naglieri.

Volunteer experience: A highlight includes spending two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA working to alleviate poverty in rural Pennsylvania and upstate New York. In addition, she helped to build Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement and served as Director of Miami University’s Office of Community Engagement and Service.

First job: Working in the mailroom at a medical records coding company.

Advice for someone learning to be a leader: “Take risks and make mistakes! It’s the only way to learn and grow as a human being and a leader. You are capable of so much more than you know. Challenge yourself, constantly, and pay close attention to how you respond to failures. Interrogate your response and see if there’s a way you can improve upon it. Don’t spend too much time worrying about what might happen to you if you fail; all you can control is your response to failure.”

Best advice ever received: “Stay present and don’t let your past cloud your experience of today’s reality.”

David Taffet Bio

Birthplace: Landstuhl, Germany, on a U.S. Military Base because his father was a U.S. Air Force Fighter Pilot (F-4) who was Killed in Action in Vietnam a few weeks before his third birthday

Moved to Fort Worth: During the pandemic in March of 2020 to launch Petal with his wife,  Christie. In November of 2021, on Friday the 13th to be exact, they had to put Petal on Pause due to pandemic-related logistical challenges and increased commodity pricing driven by the need to keep vaccines cold.

Family: Same as Zwahlen.

Education: Graduated from Duke University with honors in three years while working and running businesses and from the University of Virginia School of law where he served as the Editor in Chief of the Environmental Law Journal

Work experience: Since graduating from law school, he has been engaged in law, investment banking, private equity, startups, buy-outs, mergers and acquisitions, turn arounds, real estate, innovation, and commercialization. Along the way, he had experience building companies, leading teams, raising capital (almost half a billion dollars in total), and developing cross-sector partnerships for commercial and public gain.

Volunteer experience: He has  extensive involvement in a myriad of not-for-profits, both on the ground and at the board level.

First job: Since he was 8 years old, he has taken on work for pay, but generally in an entrepreneurial way building businesses around each endeavor with other employees. Along the way, he operated a babysitting ring and a significant paper route. His first real job where he was paid as an employee didn’t happen until the summer before his sophomore year of high school. He lived in Osan, Korea, and took a position with a number of non-commissioned military “grunts” digging ditches and splicing cable along an air force runway. He was in my glory. The work was grueling, the sky was scorching, the air show on the active runway was spectacular, and the cable splicing was meticulous. “I loved it!! So much so, that my parents worried that I would choose not to go to college.”

Advice for someone learning to be a leader: “Dealing with difficult/toxic people sometimes requires doing difficult things. We give our children vaccines, which hurt and often cause uncomfortable side effects before they provide prophylactic effects. In the same vein, to help someone shake their toxicity, we often have to jolt them and put them back on their heels. You can’t do that while remaining agreeable. You often have to growl. What they choose to do with the discomfort they experience will either help them rise to the challenge of becoming a better team member or expose their unshakeable toxic nature.”

Best advice ever received: “Never drive forward looking into the rearview mirror. The past does not define you; it only informs you. Optimism and forward momentum have the best shot of ensuring a better day. Keep your eyes glued to the horizon beyond your windshield.”

Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Kristen Barton

Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...

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