It was a long road getting to Nationals, but the 46 NFTE students who qualified to compete in the 13th annual National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge on October 11 were an extraordinary group. They put in a hard day, pitching their businesses in back-to-back in elimination rounds that started early in the morning and ran through late afternoon. The high-stakes semifinal rounds determined the three national finalists who would take the stage that evening to vie for their share of a total of $40,000 in seed capital awarded to help the top young entrepreneurs of 2018 launch new businesses or pursue educational goals.
During the 2017-18 school year nearly 20,000 students across the U.S. took their first step on the road to Nationals by participating in a local business plan and pitch competition at the end of a NFTE class. The strongest local competitors advanced to regional competitions and the field was ultimately winnowed down to the 46 who qualified for the national semifinals in New York City.
Each student had seven minutes to pitch their business idea to a panel of judges. Afterwards, the panel of judges was given five minutes to ask questions about the student’s business. Robert Coles, who served as a first round judge, noted, “As an entrepreneur myself, it was very exciting to see the innovation and creativity these students displayed in the creation of their businesses; if this is what my generation has to look forward to from the rising generation, then the future is very bright.”
By noon, the national semifinalists were announced and each was awarded $1,000 in prize money. Twelve businesses advanced to compete in the next round of pitching and judging: Autistic Arts from New York; Computer Garage from New York; Current Core from California; F-Connect from California; Flashing Hounds from Missouri; Flow Comfort from Maryland; Fruitago from California; Guardian Helper from Florida; Jason’s Karate Academy from Florida; Kinky Kaps from California; Study Buddy from Maryland; What the Fish from Massachusetts.
After an afternoon of strong presentations by all the semifinalists, the judges had the difficult task of choosing the final three. The halls were charged with anticipation as the students waited to hear who would advance. After 30 minutes of deliberation, the three finalists were announced: James Murray, founder of Guardian Helper and NFTE Florida alum; Kelsey Johnson, founder of Kinky Kaps, and NFTE LA Metro alum; and Joseph Franco, founder of F- Connect and NFTE Bay Area alum.
The final round of competition took place at the Edison Ballroom. Judging the final round of the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge were Ari Ackerman, Founder and CEO of Tribe, Founder of bunk1.com, and part owner of the Miami Marlins; Elisabete Miranda, President and CEO of CQfluency; Randy Sloan, Managing Director, Global Functions Technology Services, Citigroup; David Jolley, EY Americas Growth Markets Leader; and Jamila Payne, Founder and CEO of Daily Success Routine and a NFTE alumna.
The three national finalists battled it out on stage in the final round of competition and after the judges’ deliberations, Kelsey Johnson of Los Angeles, CA, was announced as the evening’s winner. Johnson, a graduate of Hamilton High School, currently attending Santa Monica College, was awarded the top prize of $15,000 for her business, Kinky Kaps an innovative shower turban for people with long, heavy hair.
The idea was conceived based on Kelsey’s own challenges fitting her long braids into a traditional shower cap. One day, she decided to use a pair of leggings to protect her hair in the shower and realized she had stumbled upon a solution that might benefit a great many people. “Braids are a trend in my community, so I know many people looking for something like my product.” Inspired by NFTE’s business course to rekindle confidence in herself, Kelsey is moved by the community and support she has discovered with her business. “The most important thing I learned from NFTE is there are people other than your friends and family that are willing to support you.”
Two runners-up were also named: James Murray, age 15 of Davie, FL, founder of Guardian Helper, a wristband that helps prevent wandering children stray from their parents, and Joseph Franco, age 18, of Oakland, CA, founder of F Connect, an app that brings a trusted network of support and tools to foster kids. Each runner-up received a $5,000 prize.
A exciting addition to Nationals this year was the announcement of prizes awarded to top students from NFTE’s newest advanced course, Entrepreneurship 2 (or E2). Earlier in the day E2 finalists participated in a separate competition track. The winning E2 business was Color HerStory, founded by 18-year-old Simone Hufana of San Leandro, CA. Hufana took home the top prize in the E2 competition: $10,000 in seed capital to build her business, which is an educational, interactive coloring book focused entirely on influential women of color.
Two other businesses named runners-up in the E2 competition each received $2,500 in startup capital: DesignAhhJeans, a service that customizes jeans based on clients’ unique styles, and Pawfect Pets’ Festival, an expo which allows pet owners to buy and sell pet products directly to their target demographic. The founders of DesignAhhJeans are Yetunde Arongudade, age 18, Antonio Finley, age 19, TyVon Jones, age 19, Diate Jackson, age 18, and Hasan Lipscomb, age 18, all of Chicago, IL. The founder of Pawfect Pets’ Festival is Elizabeth Berenguer, age 15, of Hialeah, FL.
“We congratulate this year’s winners and commend all the competitors. Participating in our national finals is an accomplishment whether or not you take home the top prize. It’s a highly demanding, highly competitive day of back-to-back pitching. They’re an extraordinary group of young people, who demonstrate the kind of creativity and initiative it takes to be a successful entrepreneur,” said Shawn Osborne, President and CEO of NFTE. “But those are qualities NFTE students and alumni are known for. Our programs help young people build business skills and develop their entrepreneurial mindset, so they can thrive –in business and in life.”
All were invited to celebrate with the 46 talented young entrepreneurs, post challenge at a reception and Expo where attendees could ask their own questions of these young entrepreneurs and in some cases purchase merchandise from them.
The 2018 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge was presented by Citi Foundation and EY, generous supporters of NFTE and the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge Series.
“Each year I’m inspired by the ingenuity and confidence NFTE students exhibit leading up to and at the National Challenge,” said Brandee McHale, President of the Citi Foundation. “These emerging entrepreneurs are a testament to the great work NFTE does to help students build networks and the skillsets employers are seeking. We’re grateful to the hundreds of Citi volunteers across the U.S. that have dedicated more than 3,000 hours to support NFTE, working with students in their local communities as coaches, mentors and competition judges.”
“EY US supports NFTE’s National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge because we believe entrepreneurship is critical to economic growth – and developing an entrepreneurial mindset is the best way to prepare for the dynamic future of work. To succeed in today’s competitive world, young people need to develop diverse skill sets, build professional networks, and gain the confidence necessary to reach their career and life goals,” said David Jolley, EY Americas Growth Markets Leader. “NFTE’s impactful programming delivers on all three fronts, empowering youth to succeed. That should excite anyone dedicated to investing today in the world we want to live in tomorrow.”