When kid contestants win big on Shark Tank, the next stop for some is a free virtual incubator for teen entrepreneurs.

St. Louis-based nonprofit Independent Youth has  helped grow four companies whose young founders have appeared on the show. Three even attracted investments from the sharks. They include 11-year-old Mikaila Ulmer's BeeSweet Lemonade, 13-year-old Ryan Kelly's dog treat company Ry's Ruffery, and 16-year-old Jake Johnson's toy business Flipoutz.

Shark Tank has no formal affiliation with Independent Youth, which connects teens with a network of entrepreneur mentors over the phone and email. The nonprofit's founder, Tanya Hamilton, a former marketing executive, recruits its members personally. The program, which was founded in 2010, has 20 teen founders in its roster of members, which, combined, generate annual revenue of more than $1 million.

"We're all about empowering teens through entrepreneurship," says Hamilton. The nonprofit is funded through corporate sponsorships from companies including MasterCard and Wells Fargo. 

While Shark Tank has no plans to do a partnership with one organization to recruit teen founders, executive producer Clay Newbill says the show is "always looking for young entrepreneurs with great ideas."

Recently Independent Youth partnered with Google on a seven-city U.S. tour called TrepStart Digital, hosting one-day events at high schools around the U.S. to introduce teens to opportunities in the technology sector.

Independent Youth also organizes a business-launch competition called The 30 Day Entrepreneurship Challenge, which pairs mentors with teens to help them develop a business idea to be launched at the end of the 30-day program.

The company also takes its members on an annual four-day retreat where they receive training on such skills as presenting and pitching. Mentors include MapQuest co-founder (and Inc.com Columnist) Chris Heivly, Redbox Movie Kiosk founding member Mike DeLazzer, and Build-A-Bear Workshop founder Maxine Clark.

Hamilton began the program to help teens who may not qualify for social programs aimed at lower-income communities. Participants vary in age from 11 to 21. Their companies range from new startups to businesses that have been generating revenue for years.

The goal of the organization is to educate students on entrepreneurship as a career option and to give students the skills to become more entrepreneurial-minded. While many schools offer business classes, they're often taught by teachers who have never actually started a business, Hamilton says.

So how have Independent Youth's Shark Tank companies fared since appearing on the show?

  • BeeSweet Lemonade, which uses flaxseed and honey instead of high-fructose corn syrup, partnered with a distributor to expand the product's retail presence after securing $60,000 investment from Daymond John. The company's lemonade is sold in Whole Foods in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. 
  • After Ry's Ruffery landed a $25,000 investment from Barbara Corcoran, the company landed a distribution deal with Stew Leonard's, and generated $70,000 in sales in a five-month period. 
  • Flipoutz founder Jake Johnson has already started a new company called Beaux Up  that makes custom bow ties. After partnering with Daymond John, he and his co-founders sold Flipoutz to toy company Wild Craze for an undisclosed sum in 2013.
Published on: Nov 24, 2015