10/07/2011 04:28 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2011

Students Taking Ownership - Bridging the Economic Challenges of Today Through Entrepreneurship Education

I have been an educator for 30 years, and in that time, I have seen how our at-risk youth are uniquely equipped to handle the perils and uncertainties inherent in entrepreneurship. The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), the organization I founded in 1987, sows the seeds of innovation, opportunity and access in students around the world by providing them with an entrepreneurship education curriculum with courses in math, reading and writing that are relevant to the real world, teaching them that you can participate in the economy, take control of your future and find your own path to success. NFTE connects students with mentors to help guide them each step of the way from business plan development to advertising to market penetration.

And each year, the NFTE National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge (presented this time by MasterCard Worldwide) is a testament to the passion and creativity of our young entrepreneurs. Held yesterday evening at the Hudson Theatre inside the Millennium Broadway Hotel in Manhattan, 31 extraordinary students representing 29 businesses from around the country made the trek to New York City and competed for $10,000 in startup funds and we are so proud that Hayley Hoverter from Los Angeles, CA whose business, Sweet (dis)SOLVE, was recognized by our panel of top judges from Ernst & Young, MasterCard Worldwide, FUBU, Bank of America and BET among others as this year's first place winner. The room was positively electric and it felt like the Academy Awards.

When Hayley was six, her mother, a single working mom, brought her along to her job at Starbucks, early in the morning before school. Even at that young age, Hayley found the volume of discarded sugar wrappers distressing. Now a high school junior, Hayley is combating that wastefulness with her sweetener made from organic sugar wrapped in a soluble organic starch that melts into your drink without adding calories, odor or taste. The idea was such a standout, that Judge Daymond John, Founder and CEO of FUBU, actually offered an additional investment in Hayley's company of $5,000. Unprecedented for our competition!

Judges Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group and Shazi Visram, Founder and CEO of HAPPYBABY joined together to match John with an additional $5,000 pledge. Wells also offered marketing support to Sweet (dis)SOLVE and Visram committed to an introduction for the product at Whole Foods markets. As grand-prize winner, Hayley also received a $5,000 Coleman Entrepreneurial Scholarship, sponsored by GlobalHue.

Hayley, who has hopes of attending Columbia University to study international relations, is in the process of obtaining a patent for her product and juggling letters of intent from local eco-friendly businesses in her area who can't wait to carry it. She is looking forward to distributing it across the country.

This is part one of a two-part post.