It was Tuesday, June 4th, and the top young entrepreneurs in New York City were competing in the semi-finals of NFTE's Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge (YEC). The event, hosted by NFTE's global partner Ernst & Young, featured 24 budding entrepreneurs seeking to advance to the YEC Finals to be held the following week. With a first place prize of $1,500 in seed capital and a spot in NFTE's National YEC on the line, the stakes couldn't have been higher. Which students would advance to the finals? I knew the competition would be tough, but it was even tougher than I had imagined.
Students were divided into four rooms, each room featuring six student businesses. Students had only 8.5 minutes to pitch their business ideas to distinguished judging panels that boasted senior leaders from companies such as MasterCard Worldwide, NYSE Euronext, and SAP. To advance to the finals, a student would have to "win their room," besting five other worthy competitors. Eagerly, I exited the elevator and decided to start in Conference Room H.
My heart beat in excitement as I watched each presenter. Their mastery of business concepts and understanding of their market opportunities amazed me. After seeing thousands of business plans and reflecting on the field of entrepreneurship over the past 32 years, I knew what to look for. If the Economics of One Unit is good, I know the young person is on the right track. In each case they nailed it. The variety of businesses illustrated the Hayekian view that each human being has unique knowledge of their time, place, and products. This particular room saw students present ideas for a dance studio, a skateboard manufacturing company, and a non-profit organization for the physically challenged.
In between presentations, I had an in-depth conversation with a young woman named Arlien Luciano whose company, Urban Turbans, designs chic turbans. I also chatted with Shantel Robinson whose company, Simple Beauty, creates specialty oils for women with textured hair. I proceeded to tell Shantel the story of the NFTE legend, Jasmine Lawrence, whose hair care products were nationally distributed by Wal-Mart and whose story was profiled in the documentary Ten9Eight. And, I also met Clarence Tennell, a teacher at the Business of Sports School, who had five students competing in the semi-finals.
Two companies in particular had an effect on me. The dance company, Diamond Dance Tutorials, founded by Tayzah Peeples, brought back my own fear of dancing, an impediment that I did not overcome until I was 45 years old. If only I knew of a company like Tayzah's when I was a kid! But, the highlight of the whole evening came as I was leaving and bumped into Raynel Bardales and Donavin Lebron, owners of the skateboard company Portal Skateboards, which designs and sells skateboards for $150 each. Although they had not made it to the finals, their love for their product and passion for their company was incredibly inspiring!
When Donavin pointed out his girlfriend who held a skateboard in her hand, I was flooded with memories of a 1965 television show where a young hero led a band of barefoot skateboarders. The show ends with a heart-stopping competition, and, while the hero loses to an up-and-coming skateboarder, his girlfriend remains loyal. I was 12 years old at the time, and it made a deep impression on me -- I've always wanted to see it again. I mentioned the program to Raynel and Donavin, and they offered to try and find it for me. Sure enough, two days later, I got an email from Raynel with the YouTube site for the 48-year-old show that I had loved so much. It had been nominated for an Academy Award in 1966 and won an award for best short film at the Cannes Film Festival.
I can't wait until June 11th to share the results of the finals!
Semi-finalist winners (L to R): David Alonso & Dominick DiPietra (EcoZoom), Muhand Jumah (Teaching-Time), Melissa Ruiz-Vera (Vera Natural), Fitzgerald Robertson (Y.A.T.A.E.E.)
David and Dominick are sophomores at the High School of Economics and Finance. Their business, EcoZoom, aims to make the environment greener and introduce an innvovative design to the transportation industry. EcoZoom is a manufacturing business that produces ride-able recycled products that all you to enjoy the outdoors.
Muhand is a senior at Brooklyn International High School. His business, Teaching-Time, gives students and teachers more time to focus on academic instruction. He has developed a facial recognition technology that enables teachers to get right down to teaching when the class period begins.
Melissa is a junior at the Academy of Finance and Enterprise. She is the CEO of Vera Natural, a company that creates all-natural, homemade body creams for both men and women. Vera Natural offers these nourishing and moisturizing creams at an affordable price using a unique formula of ingredients. Melissa has perfected this formula to give her customers the optimal outcome they desire.
Fitzgerald is a junior at Bishop Loughlin. His business, Youth Aspiring to Achieve Entrepreneurial Excellence (Y.A.T.A.E.E.), is a teen business consulting company that aims to increase the number of teen-owned and ran businesses in the U.S. by helping them start, grow or save existing businesses or business ideas. Mr. Fitzgerald Robertson is the Founder and C.E.O. of Fitzgerald Venture Enterprises, Inc. and its subsidiaries, including Y.A.T.A.E.E. He has started and operated four successful businesses of his own from the ripe age of 13 years old.