When It Pays to Change: How Two High School Kids Earned Seed Funding for Learning How to Refine Their Business

12/23/2013 06:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2014

The high school students turned young entrepreneurs in Startup Summer, NFTE New York Metro's ground-breaking small business incubator (see my article here), are used to pitching their business ideas to anyone and everyone they meet. However, the stakes for last week's Launched Night were raised for three businesses. While most high school students worry about prepping for finals in December, the student entrepreneurs behind these businesses were prepping to ask for thousands of dollars of additional seed capital to grow their ventures.

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Last week's event

The highlight of my night was the presentation from Tallawah, a food services company that manufactures and distributes Jamaican inspired sauces, http://tallawahcatering.com/. Tallawah is patois for "strong." What is unique about this particular business is the story of how Tallawah's two founders, Zurri and Phylicea, both of whom are still in high school, have demonstrated an acute ability to quickly adapt to the market.

Tallawah started as an in-school project when Zurri and Phylicea took a NFTE class and started selling chicken wings at lunch as an alternative to the standard school lunch. After selling out every day, they realized that they were on to something. However, once they joined Startup Summer, they realized that, for their business to grow, they would have to find a different model. They transformed Tallawah into a catering company, but logistical challenges inherent to the industry made them realize that this wasn't the model they were looking for either. From there, they entertained the idea of turning their business into a food truck, but that was quickly discarded as neither co-founder has their driver's license.

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Their eureka moment came during Startup Summer's Advisory Panel presentations in late-August when the panel pointed out that the special sauce to their business was, in fact, their sauce! With this revelation, Phylicia and Zurri quickly abandoned the food truck idea and focused their efforts on bottling and selling their original sauces.

After clearly describing the market opportunity and explaining their plans to manufacture and sell their sauces, the Launched Night investment panel chose to award Tallawah with $3,500 in additional seed funding!

The evolution of Tallawah mirrors many famous entrepreneurial stories. One of my favorite examples is 3M, the multi-national conglomerate that started in 1902 as a mining company. When 3M realized they could not make money mining, they reoriented their focus to bring us two very successful products: scotch tape and the post-it.

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The founders with mentor Sean Leventhal

In the real-world, not all businesses have the resources or the time to experiment with what they bring to market and fail. Fortunately for Tallawah's innovators, NFTE provides them with a safe space for trial and error to transform their business not once but twice from catering to food truck to sauce.

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Thomas Edison famously said that he didn't fail to invent the lightbulb 1,000 times; instead, he simply found 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. That freedom to fail is essential to innovation and entrepreneurship. And that's not wrong. It's everything that's right about being young and being an entrepreneur. Providing that freedom to work it out and figure it out is a core NFTE asset.

Like all ventures, not all of the business ships launched last week will prove seaworthy. And others will be abandoned. But all of them are worth the investment, and I am glad to be a part of an organization like NFTE that fosters these partnerships. With skilled mentors, entrepreneurial education by NFTE, and the motivation and encouragement provided by teachers, parents and peers, Tallawah's amazing sauces are now several steps closer to being on store shelves and part of amazing family meals.

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The Tallawah team at the Black Culinary Alliance's 20th Anniversary Cultural Awareness Salute