Some of the world's best and brightest young entrepreneurs did a little networking -- and a little celebrating -- in Times Square Tuesday night, during the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship's annual banquet and awards ceremony.
The highlight of the 13th annual Salute to the Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards Dinner, which drew more than 1,000 attendees, was the hour-long Business Expo, where 31 NFTE students showcased their businesses -- ranging from designer apparel and website development, to dog treats and community philanthropy.
"The best way to combat poverty is to teach children to create wealth," said Steve Mariotti, NFTE's founder and president, and a former entrepreneur. Since it's inception in 1987, NFTE has provided entrepreneurship education to more than 120,000 young people in low-income communities in 45 states and 17 countries worldwide.
"In the next 30 years, NFTE will be in every city in the U.S. and in every country in the world." Mariotti added.
The Young Entrepreneurs of the Year received a trip to New York to attend the event, as well as cash prizes -- ranging from $750 to $1,000 -- to put toward their startup ventures or college educations.
More than that, however, recognition as finalists also helps lend credibility to such fledgling businesses, according to award winner Shay Hammond, a 13-year-old junior high school student from Olive Hill, Ky. Despite having appeared on ABC News and in Time Kids, Hammond said her homemade dog-treat company still sometimes struggles to convince skeptical buyers. But that's changing, as Shay's Bones and Biscuits continue to move more merchandise at local retailers and online.
While entrepreneurship has grown in popularity over the past quarter-century, particularly among young people, creating a business from scratch is still unusual for teenagers -- and something NFTE is trying to foster. In fact, entrepreneurship was the last thing on the mind of 15-year-old Anttonet Kabe Reneilwe of South Africa before hearing about NFTE. Her company, Phelang Fruits and Vegetables, has been operational for only five months, but the experience has changed her outlook on the future, she said.
"In five years, by the time I am 20, I will own my own farm," Reneilwe said. In the meantime, Reneilwe relies on her family, not paid employees, to help run her business. The first thing she does in the morning and the last thing she does at night is check on her crops. She sells her tomatoes, carrots, green beans, and beets direct to her community. What she doesn't put back into her business she saves.
"There is a lot of HIV and AIDS around me -- so people want to eat a healthy diet," Reneilwe said. "My business works together with the clinics, schools, and pensioners to let people know about a balanced diet."
Community and social involvement is just one of the criteria NFTE used to choose its Young Entrepreneurs of the Year. The level of articulation and the quality of the business were also key aspects in choosing the 14 operational-business winners.
Tomas Pablo Otero, a 17-year-old from West Haven, Conn., was urged by his NFTE teacher to build his business around something he knew about. T-Kollectibles, which launched two years ago and sells WWE action figures and accessories, grew from Otero's love of wrestling.
"I did pretty good for a 15-year-old," Otero said. In his first year, Otero made about $5,500. So far this year, he's grossed around $8,000. His business survives on the Internet, though Otero also travels to wrestling shows throughout New England to sell his merchandise.
In the fall, Otero will attend the Connecticut Broadcasting College, to study radio broadcasting. He hopes to start radio show where he can talk about wrestling -- and the new action figures coming out on the market.
That type of marketing plan is evidence of how much today's young entrepreneurs have grown, according to Tom Phillips, an NFTE spokesman. "The businesses have changed over the years -- they are much more sophisticated now," Phillips said.