Turner Sparks

Turner Sparks Turner Sparks
Turner Sparks, B.S.C. '04

Alumnus Navigates the Stand-Up Comedy Circuit Stateside and Abroad

Who are you? (If you could describe yourself very briefly, one to two sentences)

I am a professional stand-up comedian and podcaster (Lost In America Podcast) based in Brooklyn, New York.  I spent the last 12 years of my life living in Suzhou, China where I founded Mister Softee China and the Kung Fu Komedy Club, China’s first foreign-owned ice cream truck brand and first stand-up comedy club, respectively.  I am now writing a book about my business life in China, touring as a stand-up comedian and speaking publicly about entrepreneurship abroad. 

To what do you owe your entrepreneurial (international, at that!) and stand-up accomplishments so far?

My parents are both small-business owners, as were my grandparents, and as such I was raised to revere the entrepreneurial spirit.  Getting to see my parents start a business and build a business successfully made it seem possible for me to do the same.  Being a stand-up comedian is the ultimate small business as my ability to pay the rent every month relies solely on the jokes I write and my performance.

How did you get involved with Mister Softee, and why did you decide to take it to China? Can you expand a little on what the experience was like?

The Mister Softee China story started in Hecht Residential College in the year 2000.  My next-door neighbor and fast friend in the dorms was Alex Conway, BBA 04, the grandson of the founder of Mister Softee in New Jersey. 

Four years later I moved to Suzhou, China to teach English and Alex approached me about the idea of doing a China-US related business.  I had been working at a school next to a McDonald’s in Suzhou and the McDonald’s would get lines out the door every day with customers specifically buying soft serve ice cream.  At the time there weren’t any other places to get real soft serve, so I suggested the idea to Alex of trying Mister Softee in China and away we went. 

What made you want to stay in China, besides work?

China in the early 2000’s had a gold-rush feel to it for foreign and Chinese entrepreneurs alike.  The government was pumping a ton of money into the economy and infrastructure while going out of their way to welcome foreign business.  China was also pretty unexplored at that time, which meant that anyone who spent more than a few months in the country was considered an expert internationally.  It was the only place I found where a 23-year old with no experience or education in business could raise a bunch of money to build an ice cream truck. 

At that time every nutcase with a dollar and a dream went to China, and I became friends with all of them.  To this day some of my best friends are British, Swedish, Spanish, Australian, Mexican and German entrepreneurs from that time in my life. Some made a fortune and some didn’t, but it was a ton of fun.  Truthfully, the friendships and community were why I stayed. 

In 2013 I met the woman who would later become my wife, so I’ll always be grateful to all those crazy people for making me stay.

What did you picture for your career 10 years ago, and how does it differ from where you stand now?

I have never really had a plan for my life.  Ten years ago we had just opened the first Mister Softee store in China and were preparing to build our first truck.  I was having trouble planning the next ten minutes of my life, so ten years was a long ways away.  I remember thinking that if everything went wrong at least I would have the experience and knowledge gained from opening a business in China, so I kept pretty low expectations.

As for my comedy life, what I am doing today would have been a dream come true.  I didn’t start comedy until late 2009 and my goal was always to perform at least once at the big club in Sacramento where I grew up.  In May I headlined there for the first time, and now I perform regularly at some of the best clubs in the world like New York Comedy Club and Stand Up NY.

How would you describe your time here at UM?

I loved my time and UM and still can’t believe I don’t live in Miami currently.  If I wasn’t doing comedy I would figure out a way to move back.  UM introduced me to lifelong friends and business partners and gave me an alumni community that supports me greatly to this day.  When I was living in China my wife and I were lucky enough to spend one to two nights a year with the UM administration as they toured through our area speaking with prospective students.  I will be back on campus in November when I come to perform stand up in the area and watch our football team beat Notre Dame. 

What do you think alumni will find most interesting about your story?

I would like my story to take the fear out of betting on yourself.  I started a comedy club that is thriving today in Shanghai and a Mister Softee truck business that did really well.  Most importantly, I’m still here, doing fine and using the skills I have learned in both adventures to push me forward in life today.  In my Mister Softee business the worst fears were realized but the experience I had during those 10 years are invaluable and marketable skills today.

How did UM shape your life? How did it prepare you for where you are today?

UM was essential to everything I did after graduating.  Having the degree made it easier for me to take chances in business because I knew I was employable if everything went away.  If Mister Softee failed, or if it turned out I wasn’t as funny as I thought I was, I always had a degree from a top 50 school in the US. 

Beyond the degree, I have friends from UM who still support me in every crazy idea I have and often times work with me on different ventures.  

What are you up to these days?

I’m a full-time comedian (all dates at www.TurnerSparks.com) and host of the Lost In America podcast, available in iTunes and at www.LostInAmericaPod.com. I am also working on a book about my business life in China and entrepreneurship abroad.

Are there any other key facts I should know about? 

I think that’s it.  Should this have been funnier?