NFIB recently awarded scholarships and national recognition to five students who proved they’re the future of business.
- These teen entrepreneurs have monetized what they love doing
- They have a keen sense for giving back to their communities
Today’s teen entrepreneurs are tomorrow’s business leaders and small business advocates. To recognize up-and-coming entrepreneurial stars, the NFIB Young Entrepreneur Foundation has awarded more than $2.5 million in scholarships to more than 2,500 graduating high school seniors since 2003.
This year, 100 U.S. teens—all graduating seniors who run their own small business—won scholarships, with five exceptional entrepreneurs being named national finalists and receiving $5,000 each, plus an additional $10,000 awarded to each of the two winners. Here, those five, now in college, share their successes, struggles and dreams.
Winner, NFIB Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award
Fly by Wire: Market research helped Secor launch an online jewelry shop that’s on its way to earning her six figures.
At age 9, LeiLei Secor of Hagaman, New York, started making braided friendship bracelets. In her teen years, she branched out into beaded and macramé jewelry. Then, as an incoming high school junior, she needed a summer job. “I couldn’t find one,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I sell my jewelry online?’”
In July 2012, Secor opened a shop on Etsy.com, which allows artists to sell their products. Her shop, Designed by Lei, specializes in handmade wire rings and earrings. Just two years after the business launched, her profits are nearing six figures, which will help finance her college education.
Armed with self-taught techniques (Secor learned the art of wire jewelry-making on YouTube) and a desire to set herself apart in an exceptionally competitive arena (in 2013, a million vendors sold goods on Etsy), she dived into research on photography, marketing and search engine optimization by comparing successful and unsuccessful Etsy shops, noting their different tactics. She uses a high-quality DSLR camera and natural light to achieve simple, elegant photography. Fans post the photos to sites such as Pinterest and Wanelo, generating a viral marketing buzz. As a result, Secor has sold more than 8,000 items, most priced around $10.
“LeiLei’s business has a clear marketing plan, incredible growth, a viral interest from potential customers and lots of additional upside potential,” says nominator and NFIB member Thomas Ulbrich, assistant dean and executive director of the University at Buffalo School of Management Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, and CEO and founder of Mow More Supplies in Lancaster, New York.
Secor’s jewelry-making and shipping supplies accompanied her to her dorm room at the University of Virginia, where she is studying business. She plans to invest around 12 hours a week in making jewelry and fulfilling orders, and after graduation, she hopes to work in finance or start another business.
“My Etsy shop has taught me not to shy away from any opportunity,” Secor says. “It has made me fall in love with the entrepreneurial spirit.”
Winner, NFIB Dan Danner Leadership Award
The Carnival Guy: With entrepreneurial drive in his DNA and a mission of giving back, Haney brings fun to the masses with his carnival rental company.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I always had the entrepreneurial spirit,” says Zach Haney of Topeka, Kansas. “I loved learning about different companies. We’d walk into stores, and I’d tell my parents what something’s wholesale cost was.”
In 2010, as a freshman in high school, Haney saw a void for local teenagers to learn about leadership and community service. He founded Teens Taking Action, a program run through Topeka’s YMCA. Teens Taking Action’s first service project was a free carnival for homeless children and their families. Although the event was a success (and continues today), the vendor he used provided poor customer service, Haney says. “Some of the equipment was dirty, and the vendors wouldn’t offer a discount even though it was for a community project,” he says.
Haney knew he could do better. At 16, he founded Kansas Carnival Supply LLC—and his alter ego, “The Carnival Guy”—using $2,300 of his savings to invest in popcorn and cotton candy machines. He started as a subcontractor for larger event companies, and as he accumulated earnings, he purchased larger equipment such as inflatable bouncy houses, midway games and photo booths.
Haney’s company made $25,000 in its first year with plans to double its profit this year. To date, the company has held more than 150 events, including private parties, school festivals and church activities, and it continues to host the free carnival each year for homeless families. The booming business was a key factor in Haney’s decision to attend college close to home: The Carnival Guy is studying business administration at Washburn University in Topeka and plans to pursue a Master of Business Administration degree after finishing his undergraduate education.
“Zach is doing what it takes to succeed. It sounds like the American Dream: a hardworking youth reaching for his goals,” says nominator and NFIB member David Stephens, owner of Stephens Printing LLC in Florence, Mississippi. “With Zach’s track record and his plans for the future, I believe he will fully utilize any opportunity he is given.”
Finalist, NFIB Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award
Book Value: Erkalova brings back the past by putting old literary works online.
As a child, Anna Erkalova made her first foray into small business by selling handmade soaps to her mother’s friends. But during her junior year of high school, the avid reader and resident of Chalfont, Pennsylvania, came up with a bigger and better idea: starting her own publishing company, Crane Books LLC, to bring old literary works into the e-book era. “It’s like I’m giving the books a new life by making them more easily available,” Erkalova says.
Her niche is publishing public-domain literature—books that have an expired copyright—that is out of print or unavailable in electronic form. Her titles range from Lord of the Flies author William Golding’s lesser-known The Inheritors to Solomon Northup’s memoir Twelve Years a Slave, which inspired the 2013 acclaimed film. For each title, she purchases a physical copy of the book, scans each page, and uploads the electronic file to websites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She sells about 100 books per month, making around $2,800 in monthly profits, and to date has donated more than $2,000 of her proceeds to charity.
“Anna’s idea is tremendously creative and very much with the times, using technology and new ways of reading. She definitely found a need and came up with a product for it,” says nominator and NFIB member J.M. Herr, chairman of the board and CEO of Herr Foods Inc. in Nottingham, Pennsylvania. “She has a great entrepreneurial spirit and has a bright future ahead of her.”
Her biggest challenge? The monotony of scanning and uploading each book, a process that takes around 12 hours. “I read along with the book as I scan it, though, so that keeps me entertained,” she says.
Erkalova now attends Princeton University, where she majors in chemical and biological engineering and plans to keep running—and growing—her business with help from her classmates. “I’ll meet a lot of really smart, ingenious people at Princeton,” she says. “I’m interested to see what [business ideas] we come up with.”
Finalist, NFIB Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award
The Big Picture: Tedla finds motivation to run a business in his passion for photography and compassion for the less fortunate.
Vivek Tedla was only 9 years old when he first visited India with his family, but the country’s staggering poverty had a profound effect on the young Newtown, Connecticut, resident. “I saw that people didn’t have the same opportunities we did,” he says. “I wanted to do something to help.”
Around the same time, Tedla and his older sister, Monica, were developing a passion for photography. In 2007—at ages 10 and 13—they co-founded photography business VRT Studios, which donates part of its proceeds to I Can, an organization that helps talented students in India pursue higher education.
Inspired by the Tedlas’ heritage, VRT Studios began with a focus on Asian cultural events, such as classical Indian dance performances. Soon, the small business branched out to weddings and high school senior portraits. “Initially, clients were concerned with our ages,” he says. “We overcame that by using a ‘show, not tell’ approach. We brought past examples and unique products that other photographers in the area didn’t have, such as a senior album, where we shoot photos of the senior and his or her friends for an album that includes quotes from each friend. The album becomes one of the most precious memories of their high school life.”
Tedla now studies management and entrepreneurship at the University of Connecticut, where his sister Monica is a senior; the duo still runs VRT Studios on weekends and breaks from school. After graduation, he hopes to launch a business and make $1 million in profit by his 30th birthday while donating to worthy causes. To date, VRT Studios has helped eight Indian engineering students and six medical students attend college—one of whom started a clinic in her village to provide discounted healthcare to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
Nominator Ralph Anderson, the retired founder, president and CEO of General Technology Corp. in Albuquerque, New Mexico, believes Tedla is capable of reaching any goal he pursues. “This young man has a special grasp of business acumen beyond his years,” says Anderson, an NFIB member. “Vivek is the kind of person I would want in my company, and I can imagine him as CEO of his own Fortune 500 company.”
Finalist, NFIB Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award
The Family Farm: Inspired by his family’s history in farming, Gradert plans to continue the legacy and also become an agricultural engineer.
Cody Gradert can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a farmer. The Ireton, Iowa, resident’s family has farmed for four generations, and Gradert began buying cattle in middle school. Since then, his business, Gradert and Sons, has grown steadily: Today, with guidance from his father, he farms 80 acres of corn and soybeans and “finishes” (fattens up) 110 cattle with help from his two employees, his older brothers. “It’s something I’ve always known and grown up with,” he says. “It’s what I love to do.”
Farming may be second nature to Gradert, but the occupation poses significant challenges—namely unpredictable weather conditions. His first year as a landowner brought historic flooding. The second year? Devastating drought. With the help of insurance and advice from his family, “I stuck with it, and my third year was finally a good year,” he says.
Gradert attends Iowa State University, where he double-majors in agricultural engineering and agronomy and works on his farm during breaks from school. After graduation, he plans to launch a career as an agricultural engineer—designing tractors and other farm equipment—while continuing to farm.
“Cody’s family and faith guide his actions and decisions,” says nominator and NFIB member Alan E. Schenck, vice president/general manager of Earl Schenck Corp. in Clarinda, Iowa. “While profits are paramount to expand and improve his business, he is very adamant that he continues to be a good steward of the land.”
Gradert is also honored to continue his family’s legacy. “It makes my dad really proud that I’m carrying it on,” he says. “It means a lot to me that I can do something for him because he’s done so much for me.”