I recently learned a staggering statistic: The Economist reported that almost 25 percent of the world’s young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are either unemployed or underemployed — that equates to almost 300 million youths who are unable to find meaningful employment. This is the greatest problem of our time.
But on Tuesday, I went to the New York Institute of Technology to see the Finals of NFTE New York Metro’s Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge (YEC), a business plan competition that gave five students 8.5 minutes of opportunity to change their lives. From an initial group of 1,800 students, these five students — and their four business ideas — had risen above their peers to compete for two spots in NFTE’s National YEC and a first place prize of $1,500 in startup funds. The businesses were as diverse as the students were talented. We learned about eco-friendly skateboards, all-natural skin care, facial recognition software, and a consulting service for teen entrepreneurs. During the six weeks leading up to the competition, a cohort of talented business professionals volunteered their time to coach the students with their plans and final presentations. I was touched when Board member and former volunteer Jerry Spiegel summed up the dedication of NFTE’s supporters: “Being a lawyer who represents entrepreneurs, volunteering with NFTE is like being in heaven.”
The format of the competition was simple: Each student or student group had 8.5 minutes to pitch their business plan, followed by 2.5 minutes of questions from the judges. But these weren’t just any judges of a student competition — these were serious business people from companies like OpenSky, SAP America, PayPerks, Save the Date, Warby Parker and Red Rabbitt. They each asked the candidates challenging questions based on their own expertise.
From my perspective, the favorite to win was Muhand Jumah, the developer of facial recognition software that automates attendance taking in the classroom. A self-taught coder, Muhand immigrated to the United States three years ago from Baghdad. When asked about living during the war, he simply said, “It was indescribable.” His mother; his father, an electrical engineer; his sister, a pre-dental student; and his brother, a freshman in high school, had relocated to Staten Island in search of a better life. Muhand’s sister had won a prestigious award while in college; and the brother, who spoke with a thick Iraqi accent — was awesome.
While the format of this contest was simple, predicting the results was not. The crowd cheered for the competition’s winning business: Vera Natural, maker of an all-natural skin cream based on a family recipe handed down through generations.
Vera Natural was the brainchild of Melissa Ruiz-Vera, a high school junior who immigrated to the United States 13 years ago from Colombia. Melissa’s family, while happy to have settled in the U.S., struggled to learn a whole new language and culture — not to mention the struggle to recreate a professional life. Melissa’s triumph as YEC champion was a testament to her family’s support and her own will to succeed. She will join the ranks of past NFTE winners who have gone on to be successful entrepreneurs and scholars at some of the country’s top universities. Each child had the support of their classroom, the guidance of their teachers and coaches, and the encouragement of NFTE alumni. This chance — an 8.5-minute opportunity — can change the trajectory of young people’s lives, and I was privileged to have seen it. The accomplishments of two immigrant families that have found their homes in this entrepreneurship-driven country is beautifully reflected through their children’s entrepreneurial dreams. And perhaps, one of the two New York winners will become the top winner at the NFTE National YEC in October.
Judges (L to R): Rhys W. Powell, David Gilboa, Jennifer Gilbert, Arlyn Davich,
John Caplan, and Ronald Carolan, Jr.
New York Metro Business Plan Competition winner Melissa Ruiz-Vera (center) with her coach, Debra Atuk (far right), Steve Mariotti, and her parents (far left)
Finalists (L to R): Muhand Jumah, Melissa Ruiz-Vera, Fitzgerald Robertson,
Dominic DiPietra, and David Alonso
Tayzah Peeples, CEO of Diamond Dance Tutorials and
2013 NY Metro Elevator Pitch winner.
Follow Steve Mariotti on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SteveJMariotti