Every semester, insureon's Small Business, Big Impact scholarship holds an essay contest for college students whose lives have been impacted by small businesses. The essays we receive tell inspiring stories about people who grew up working in a family business, who have worked part-time at local small businesses, and who have launched their own ventures. While the stories of the entrants come from all over the country and involve businesses in a variety of industries, they all have one thing in common: they illustrate what a powerful impact small businesses can have on the individuals and communities they serve.
To meet past winners and read the essays that won over our judges, scroll below. To submit an essay about how a small business has impacted your life, visit the scholarship submission page. (Note: we accept submissions in the spring and fall and award scholarships twice a year, in June and December. Official rules and guidelines are available here.)
Winner: Chi Chung
Business: Uncle Chung's Szechuan
School: University of California, Davis
Chi Chung is a third-year college student, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in managerial economics at the University of California, Davis. He is working toward becoming an accountant. Chi is hoping that he will be able to use those skills to continue contributing to his family business or maybe even start a business of his own someday.
The story of my family's restaurant, Uncle Chung's Szechuan, precedes my time. From what I can gather from the occasional anecdotes told by my relatives, constructing the business took a leap of faith. In 1985, my grandma departed Hong Kong for the United States seeking an opportunity to provide for her family. She arrived in California with the clothes on her back, about five dollars, and her recipe book.
For the next two years, my grandma worked endless hours at a factory to save enough money to achieve her goal of opening her own business. Through her hard work and determination, Uncle Chung's Szechuan was open for business in 1987. As the 30-year anniversary of Uncle Chung's Szechuan looms around the corner, I no longer look at this local Chinese restaurant as just a family business, but rather, a lifeline. From my grandma's generation to my father's and even to my own, this restaurant has played its part in supporting our upbringing. Whether it is providing financial stability for my mom and dad, or offering me my first real job experience, this family business has helped us through it all.
My dad has been working at our family business for over 20 years now, and my mom is not too far behind at 15 years. Given that I am only 20 years old, this has been my life for as long as I know. My experience working at the restaurant over the past couple of years has been eye-opening. I experience a sense of joy and pride when I am working there that I can't replicate anywhere else. When a customer compliments the food or the service, it warms my heart knowing that they are complimenting my family's work.
I will always remember a story a long-time customer shared with me. They recalled of the memory of first coming to Uncle Chung's Szechuan with their kids only years after it opened. More than two decades have passed and their kids are now having their own children, and they continue to dine in on a regular basis. They expressed that their kids essentially grew up alongside our business, and that puts into perspective the staple our family business has been for the community over the years.
One event I look forward to every year is Chinese New Year. My family throws a dinner party for current and past employees to rejoice in another year of life. We want to show our appreciation for all those who contributed to the success of our business. My grandma personally goes around the room greeting everyone, handing out red envelopes, showing her appreciation for each person. I look at it as such a simple sentiment with such a powerful message. Everyone matters and is respected.
My dad is nearing the age of retirement, and it is about time to pass the reins to the next generation. After graduating college, I would love to inherit the business. I have witnessed firsthand what it takes to run a successful business. I believe pairing that with my college education, I can grow our family business to new heights. I contributed a part to this business, but I will never be able to match what this business has meant to my life. It is still hard to fathom that the plan my grandma set in motion before I was even born is still supporting me to this day. The family business has played an integral part in providing me with incredible opportunities. If I am given the chance to prove that I can run our family business, I will make sure the next generation of my family will be fortunate enough to have the same. I am honored to say that I could witness my family business turn into my family legacy.
Winner: Eden Lolley
Business: Walker's Market
School: Humboldt State University
Eden Lolley will be a freshman at Humboldt State University majoring in environmental resources engineering. Her goal is to combat climate change by converting energy sources around the world to sustainable and renewable methods and materials and create a business around it. She loves spending time in the outdoors.
I often reminisce on the day that my life changed. I was enjoying the best cheddar cheese dip I had ever put into my mouth. My family friend Kimberly had purchased it from a local grocery store while on vacation in North Carolina. We paired it with Wisconsin artisan crackers she had grabbed from a gift shop in Atlanta and sat at the table discussing the glorious gourmet foods from around the country. That's when I saw a lightbulb go off in Kimberly’s head. "So many cities have access to these amazing foods, except for ours," she reflected.
It was true. Huntsville, Alabama, is among the last to be graced with all things contemporary. And since we are both foodies, it was a problem we knew all too well. The only restaurants in the community were franchises and chains. "What if we opened up our own gourmet food store, full of small-batch, hand-crafted goods from around the country?" she mused.
The idea was too grand to discard. After years of working out the logistics, we rented a one-hundred-year-old house as the home for our business. We worked day and night to convert the building into a charming store. Months of renovation paid off as we watched our sign light up above the building: Walker's Market. Now we were ready to begin ordering products.
From Alabama to New York City, we have traveled the country looking for not just food but also artists who put love into it. It took several years and many trips to Atlanta, New York, and Charleston to research some of the small-batch products personally. As the idea grew, it resulted in some very unique finds from the hubs of the East and West Coasts: rice grits, infused marshmallows, bacon jerky, and so much more. We fell in love with the families who care more about the quality of their product than the quantity of their profit.
The next phase of our project was to offer fresh meals that our customers could bring home and reheat for an easy, home-cooked meal. After interviewing many caterers, we chose three family-run operations whose passion was evident in their food. We arranged for all of the food to be fully cooked in their facilities and then transported in coolers to our commercial refrigerator at the market.
We could not believe the response we received from the community once we opened our doors. Everyone was excited to step out of their comfort zone and try new foods that are now some of their favorites. They were shocked to find so many items that were close to home yet unknown to them before. Moms praise us for the fresh entrees on busy school nights. “You have made life easier for us,” they rave. The community has been changed by the gourmet goods introduced by Walker's Market.
One year later and our business is thriving. A lot has changed since that conversation so long ago, including myself. As manager of Walker's Market, I learned how to start a business from scratch, and that it is not all fun and games. It takes dedication and passion, two qualities that have only strengthened within me on this journey. I have learned to break of out my shell of shyness and build personable relationships with customers, a few who have become lifelong friends. I have learned to raise my voice and offer my opinion. I have learned how to make a difference in the world.
Working for a small business has changed my outlook on commerce. I now choose to only spend my money at local merchandisers, whereas before I would spring for the cheapest stores and products. I do this because I know that the money I spend will support the lives of my neighbor and their family instead of a large corporation that has more than enough to get by. I do this because I want to support the dreams of my neighbors and help them attain their aspirations. I do this because my purchase will strengthen the local economy. I only shop at small businesses because I am part of a small business, and we support one another like family. One day, I hope to start my own small business. Walker's Market encouraged me to spread my wings, and now I soar, inspired by the dream that one business can change the world.
Winner: Andrea Stocker
Business: Cakes By Darcy
School: Kennesaw State University
Andrea Stocker is from Roswell, Georgia, and is currently a junior at Kennesaw State University. She is working towards a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in sculpture. In her artwork, she highlights environmental issues and is currently focusing on the illegal wildlife trade. When Andrea was just seven, her mother opened a bakery, which she has been a part of ever since.
When I was seven, my mom decided she wanted to start her own business. She had worked in bakeries all of her adult life and decided it was time to take the leap of faith and open her own. She and my dad had debated the right time to open a business, and decided while my brother and I were young was best. They thought opening this store when we were little would teach us life lessons and show us the long-term effects of hard work.
They were right. I remember one very specific day right after they bought the building when I was ripping up carpet with my brother and mom. We used putty knives and as much strength as a seven- and four-year-old could create. When we were done, my mom bought us ice cream, but she only had enough money to buy my brother and me a small cone, while she went with none. I realized then that we really did not have any money to spare. We were living on little to none, and this business was all we had.
During the first year of business, my mom and dad stayed late most nights to get work done, and my brother and I slept on the cement floor in a sleeping bag. The bakery was our life, and we all did as much as we could to help my mom out.
I remember going to the bakery every day after school and watching my mom decorate cake after cake. I started to watch her every move and practiced decorating with icing on the tables. When I turned fifteen, I was legally allowed to work at the bakery, and did so promptly. I started learning how to do more things, like decorating cupcakes, making fondant pieces, and just being an assistant to my incredibly talented mother.
To this day, at the age of twenty, I still come home every weekend to work for her. I am taking six classes, and still make it a priority to come home Thursday nights to spend almost twenty hours at work over the weekend. I am learning how to decorate cakes to my mom's standards, and how to run the business as a whole.
I have decided that after college, I am going to follow in my mother's steps and eventually take this business over to continue this amazing bakery. I have learned the incredibly hard work that comes with running a successful business, but I have learned from the absolute best mentor and I know I can handle it.
I am extremely thankful for this business. Thirteen years later, there are still hoops to jump through and challenges we face, but at the end of the day, the bakery is the best it has ever been. Cakes By Darcy has taught me so many lessons about money, the value of hard work, and to never give up on something you believe in. I have been taught the skills required in a workplace, and how to be professional. I have been given the most amazing opportunities thanks to this store, and I am sure I will be provided with many more opportunities in the future. I cannot imagine my life without this store, and would not want to. Owning a family business has been one of the biggest blessings to me, and I am so glad that I can be a part of such a successful story.
Winner: Jacob Gloss
Business: Nature’s Pet Market Kirkland
School: SUNY: Albany
Jacob Gloss was born and raised in Washington. Over the last four years, he has worked in numerous political contexts: as an activist, as an operative, and in organizations and campaigns. This work has led him to pursue a path of service of others. He plans to dedicate his life to public office, which is why he is majoring in political science and public policy. His ability to go to school and receive a good education is the first step towards his career in public service.
My grandfather, Jeffery Davis, worked for a small record label for 35 years. As digital music and streaming services became more and more popular, small labels everywhere started closing. Those that survived experienced massive layoffs, and my grandfather was one of those laid off.
Being old, with experience in just one field of work, he struggled to find another job. After over a year of hunting, the Great Recession hit and my grandparents' retirement fund took a massive hit. Desperate, and with few options left, he decided to start his own business.
My grandfather arguably loves dogs and cats more than people, and as such he decided he would start a business to help give pets the best life possible. He believed in the importance of providing healthier and safer alternatives to pet food and products. He spent $140,000 of his savings to open this business, and he has worked every single day from open to close for seven years putting his heart and soul into this business; visit it and you'll see the product of that labor first hand.
He hired me to work for him part time, as it was all he could afford, three and a half years ago. Since that time, I have seen his business grow from the small store it was into a community staple. My grandfather spent these last seven years building up relationships with his customers and his community until he was a de facto member of the Houghton neighborhood in Kirkland.
Recently, thanks to some nudging from my grandmother, he started taking every other Sunday off and letting me work that day in his stead. And what I've seen while doing that is amazing; he is truly cared for and respected. Every Sunday I work, customers come in and ask me, "Where is Jeff? I hope he's okay!" or, "Does Jeff finally have a day off? That's so good. He works so hard and he really deserves it." He always shakes his head in disbelief when I tell him that, but I think he truly appreciates the way people feel toward him.
There is something different and special about this store; it isn't impersonal or soulless. In fact, it has a beating heart. Customers have been with us for seven years. They stay with us from the day they get a new cat or dog until they move away or it dies.
Jeff is given Christmas cards by customers, he is invited to birthdays, customers bring him food when he doesn't have time to leave and get some, and it doesn't end there. There is a level of trust that goes deep between Jeff and his customers. He can trust them alone in his store, or to take food with no charge and come back a day or two later to pay when they can. Customers trust his opinions and take his word like gospel, and they trust him to always act in the best interest of their pet. Customers respect Jeff for his willingness to go out of his way to help them. They respect that he always opens the door and moves around displays for people in wheelchairs or with strollers, or how he always carries big bags of food out for customers who can't. They respect Jeff for how honest he is about products and services, even ones he sells.
And that trust and respect are what fuel his business. It's why we keep our customers, it's why they send in their friends and family, and why even when customers move across county lines or to another city, they still commute to us. It's why Nature's Pet Market in Kirkland is a bigger staple in the local community than any other store could hope to be, and why it is my favorite small business.
Winner: Derrick White
Business: Needles and Ink Screen Printing
School: University of Georgia
Derrick White is a junior at the University of Georgia studying Digital Marketing and Entrepreneurship. On campus, he is involved with the Black Male Leadership Society, Society of Entrepreneurs, Pi Sigma Epsilon Business Fraternity, and the University’s Varsity Track Team. With his degree and acquired knowledge, he plans to receive his Master’s degree and then eventually start his own business. Being raised in a family of entrepreneurs has taught him about the pride and value that comes with owning your own company and the amount of inspiration it can provide for the community.
My mom bought the equipment for her first business, Needles and Ink Screen Printing and Embroidery, in 2007. When she showed me how the machines worked and the endless possibility of t-shirts and apparel that could be printed, I knew we would be rich in a few years. My 12-year-old mind automatically began painting pictures of my family owning an urban clothing line, selling thousands of t-shirts to athletic teams on all levels, and finally being able to evade the reach of poverty that seemed to hover over us for as long as I can remember. I just knew that these screen-printing machines, boxes of t-shirts, and buckets of ink would change our lives.
However, it didn’t work out that way. The industry my parents joined just wasn’t as profitable as it seemed from the outside. For the next four years, I watched my mother run a small business out of our basement that barely made enough to keep the machines running. Every night, my siblings and I would watch my mom emerge from the basement covered in ink and sweat just to go straight to the kitchen to cook a healthy dinner for her family.
The youth football season was my mom’s most profitable, and after an extremely profitable quarter, she was able to move all of her equipment to a storefront just around the corner from our house. Even though I was now16, the storefront immediately made my childish dreams come back to my imagination; this was our break. My brothers and I were trusted with our own orders and customers. What was once a woman listening to gospel music in her basement sweatshop had become a locally owned family business.
Unfortunately, that moment of prosperity didn’t last long. My brothers and I became busy with our own sports and homework and after eight or nine months, it was back to my mother running the shop alone. I never realized how much stress that shop brought to my mom back then, but I do now. Countless nights, I would be left the responsibility of cooking dinner for my family and bringing a plate to my mom, who would often work until two and three in the morning in order to finish a project – just to spend the night on the couch she had in her office.
This lasted off and on for a little over a year and a half before my mom had had enough and was forced to sell the business for the sake of her family, marriage, and credit. Even after watching my mom struggle day in and day out for so long, that basement business will always be my favorite small business. Needles and Ink taught me a real life lesson that every young entrepreneur should learn early and constantly be reminded of: owning a business is about more than making profits and supplying a service or good. Owning a business requires real blood, sweat, and tears, and I saw my mom give all three in our basement and at her shop. Seeing her perseverance and refusal to give up when the times got rough – and they seemed to get rough every other week – was easily the most inspirational thing I have ever seen. It actually inspired me in my collegiate career.
Throughout this journey, my mom would always use her successes and failures to teach my brothers and me different lessons about life, people, and the importance of education. By doing so, she has managed to lead two of us to accredited schools while my younger brother finishes high school. I don’t think I’ll ever forget my excitement when my mom first told me that our family would be the owners of a custom t-shirt company, because it was in that moment that the seed of entrepreneurship was planted in my young mind. I found inspiration, both positive and negative, in our basement, and I could never thank my mother enough for bringing it into my life in the form of needles and ink.
Winner: Lindsay Diamond
Business: Diamond Motors, Inc.
School: James Madison University
Lindsay Diamond is from Midlothian, Virginia, where her parents run a small business dealing with used car sales and automobile service. She enjoys running, cooking, shopping, playing with her dog, watching movies, and spending time with her friends and family. She attends James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, where she is studying nursing. She hopes to work on the pediatric floor of a hospital in Richmond.
My father is my greatest role model. He has a mind of his own and when he has an idea, he runs with it. His entire childhood, he was his own boss, mowing lawns for his neighbors and family friends, and delivering newspapers along the seaside of New Jersey. He attended community college for less than a semester before dropping out to pursue his dream of becoming an entrepreneur.
He has run three successful businesses throughout his life without a business degree; his interpersonal skills, salesmanship, and logic were enough to keep his dream going. His companies have included selling office supplies, doing handyman work, and now, selling used cars and providing automobile service.
He got very sick when I was in high school, and was unable to work at his handyman business any longer. The company went belly up without him, and my mom was having trouble finding accounting work because of the state of the economy. She ended up working an entry-level job at Walgreens while my brother and I took care of my dad at home. We had already been living at the poverty line for two years when my dad had a heart attack. The expenses for his ambulance ride, extended hospital stay, two surgeries, and two months at a rehab center far surpassed the minimum wage my mom was earning at Walgreens. As a family, we decided to sell one of our cars. My dad handled the sale and we ended up getting more for it than we paid in the first place. A light bulb went off in my father’s head after that, and Diamond Motors, Incorporated was born.
As soon as he got out of the treatment center after his heart attack, he started firing ideas at my mom. At first, they bought cheap cars on Craigslist, fixed them up together, and sold them for more. They were making more profit than my mom could make working at Walgreens by far, so she quit her job to help my dad be more efficient at his new hobby. This went on for a couple of months until they found out that there is a law in Virginia that requires you to have a vehicle dealer’s license to sell more than four or five cars in a year.
We all assumed that this whole idea was over and that my mom would have to start looking for jobs again; but not my dad. He found a course that my mom completed in three weeks to get certified as an independent automobile dealer. He leased a cheap gravel lot with a doublewide trailer on it and transformed it into a cute hometown car lot with a repair shop in the back. This whole ordeal was very risky, considering money was already tight, but none of my family members ever doubted my dad’s ambition. We believed in his success.
After two years of eating lots of ramen noodles and not exchanging gifts on the holidays, things were finally turning around for us. My parents pour their souls into this business every day, and I think the reason they have become so successful is their customer service. Car dealers are known for ripping people off and scamming people into paying for more repairs than they need. My parents are empathetic and kind, sell cars for fair prices, and do honest repair work. This alone has gotten them many customers just from word of mouth, and has earned them friends along the way.
I am so incredibly proud of them for turning this small gravel lot into a successful livelihood for our family. By no means are they earning profits like CarMax or Pence Nissan but this business has made our whole family happier and less stressed. One day when I’m earning money of my own, I wouldn’t want to buy my car from anywhere but Diamond Motors.
Winner: Casey Suliga
School: University of Virginia
Casey Suliga is a native of northern Virginia and a rising second-year at the University of Virginia. She plans to major in Global Security and Justice and minor in French. Upon graduating, she hopes to attend law school. Casey is an avid reader, volunteer, traveler, runner, and (of course) cupcake eater. She considers herself lucky to have been able to combine many of these loves to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, and doubly lucky that Confections, her favorite bakery, was part of the process. Her goal was to give every child in her community the opportunity to learn to love reading whenever they stopped by for a delicious cupcake.
I love Confections for reasons more than just their incredible cupcakes. Sure, they might have initially enticed me to come inside and check out my local area’s first bakery dedicated to cupcakes with their mouthwatering swirls of buttercream and chocolate-dipped cake pops, but what kept me coming back, week after week, dozen after dozen of cupcakes, was not just the delicious raspberry frosting or the special Nutella flavor that only made an appearance once a month.
It was the people. Every visit to Confections was marked by smiles and service that were sweeter than the sugary treats I had come to taste.
I learned that the owner of Confections, Laura, had opened the bakery not just to start her own unique, fun business, but to participate in and give back to our community. There were constantly pictures of Little League teams sponsored by Confections, baskets for food pantry donations, and school supply collections filling the little shop. Each Halloween, Laura would hold a costume contest, where parents would bring in their little ones dressed up in their scariest monster masks or prettiest princess gowns, and the winner would get a special free treat.
The Confections staff quickly became known for always being willing to donate time and resources to engaging in the neighborhood atmosphere. So that’s why when I decided that I wanted to develop a project toward earning my Girl Scout Gold Award during my junior year of high school, I didn’t have to think twice about where I wanted to do it. There was no better place than Confections for me to set up my Little Free Library – a small bookshelf with the motto “take a book, leave a book” – and host reading nights; it had a warm, friendly feel, was well-known throughout my local area for being community-oriented, and always attracted children with its display cases full of beautiful cupcakes, perfect for encouraging kids to swap their video games for a good book.
I contacted Laura, intending only to ask for a small counter space to put my library and permission to sit at one of the tables outside and read Dr. Seuss to any children that stopped by, but she, just as with her amazingly-decorated cakes and over-the-top frosting skills, went above and beyond what I had envisioned. She helped me arrange and advertise a book drive, offering free cupcakes to those who donated children’s books to fill my library. She designated a cupcake “happy hour” for my project one evening, allowing me to hand out flyers describing my library while customers enjoyed $1 specials. Confections worked with me to design the library bookshelf, promote me on their social media platforms, and even gave me free cake pops to give to children at weekly reading nights.
Many of my fellow Girl Scouts working on their Gold Awards were struggling to even get an email back from their project advisors, while I had one who fully and enthusiastically dove into my project, helping me plan events and writing me a glowing reference letter. I was fortunate to enjoy firsthand the generosity and kindliness that Confections has become famous for. Their staff, and owner Laura in particular, will do anything, waking up in the early hours of the morning and staying late into the night, to put smiles on the faces of their customers and to leave positive change in our community.
And that’s another reason why I’ve realized this small business is so much bigger than just a sugary-sweet storefront; its roots have grown so deep throughout our neighborhood, and its impact extends even farther. Without Confections, my Gold Award would never have touched as many children as it did, and I wouldn’t have been able to make my own contribution to the lives of those around me. Or have an excuse to eat a cupcake before dinner every day.
Winner: Gerardo Lizardo
Business: U-Save Power Equipment
School: San Jose State University
Gerardo Lizardo was born and raised in Oakland, CA. He enjoys playing sports, traveling, and drawing as hobbies. He started his first job at his father’s mechanic shop, U-Save Power Equipment, to earn enough money to replace a neighbor’s window he broke playing baseball. Working at U-Save taught him a lot about running a small business, but one of the most important lessons is that great customer service is essential to success. A rising senior at San Jose State University, Gerardo is completing a degree in corporate finance. He hopes to become an entrepreneur and looks forward to applying everything he’s learned to a business of his own.
In 1984, four brothers purchased a landscaping equipment mechanic shop from its previous owners, who declared bankruptcy. As former employees of U-Save Power Equipment, the four brothers envisioned this as their opportunity to achieve the American Dream and validate the sacrifices they made in immigrating to the US less than a decade prior.
I heard various stories of the difficulty in the early years of operation, when no one knew who U-Save was and when they were on the verge of closing. However, for over 30 years, U-Save has remained a small family-owned business located in the heart of East Oakland. Its reputation has grown, and U-Save specializes in selling and repairing two- and four-cycle engines for all types of lawnmowers, chainsaws, generators, weed-eaters, etc.
Most people would overlook this type of small business, unaware of the important role that U-Save plays in the community. They supply the resources for homeowners and property owners to maintain their properties, while at the same time servicing a whole demographic group of landscapers in the Bay Area. Most of these landscapers find it impossible to secure any work in any other service field. At the same time, U-Save provides services and equipment for city agencies, such as the Oakland Fire Department, which frequents the shop for purchases and repairs. Each unit is sold and serviced with pride and care, because U-Save knows their work can help save lives.
U-Save Power Equipment is important to me because it is my second home. I grew up working there for the past 15 years, since I was seven years old working off the debt of a neighbor’s broken window. My father, one of the only two remaining owners of U-Save, was committed to teaching me that when something is broken, one must fix it. As a seven-year-old, I began by maintaining a presentable showroom full of products and various brands. I was then taught how to make repairs, but was mainly pushed to lead in customer service, due to my fluency in English, which was more proficient than that of my father and uncles. After, I grew to understand the inflow and outflow of U-Save’s finances, inventory, and part orders. I began by climbing on boxes as a child counting units and writing them down on a clipboard, to teaching my father how to create and store inventory electronically.
Taking on various roles at U-Save has not only taught me how to network, conduct professional business transactions with clients and suppliers, but also the value of hard work and love in every step of the process. There are areas that U-Save needs to improve in, and as a small business we recognize and admit it. The past 30 years have been a blessing, but in order to compete in the local and national market for the next 30 years, there are areas that we must expand on and be innovative.
In about three to four years, my father and uncle will be ready to retire. It will be up to me to continue the legacy of U-Save. I believe it is my job to ensure that U-Save is a place where we can continue to grow, but not lose our mission and values of a small business in the process. When clients return to pick up their units, we kindly like to remind them of our motto, “Now you have no excuses.” While we are referring to their duty of fulfilling their yard maintenance chores, we actually state it as a reminder to ourselves that despite all and any struggles, we must continue to move forward, increase our potential, and always give quality service.
Winner: Maddie McClain
Business: Teffany's Dance Studio
School: Oklahoma State University
Maddie grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, surrounded by a loving family and many pets. She loves to dance competitively, read, write, and watch movies. Maddie also teaches dance to kids ages 2 – 11 at Teffany’s Dance Studio. She plans to attend Oklahoma State University in the fall to pursue a double major in English and Pre-law. Her goal is to use these degrees to make a difference in the world, no matter how big or small.
In a world full of big ideas, small businesses have always held a special place inside my heart. The reason for this soft spot may be my rather “small” upbringing; I live in a small suburb known as Annaville outside of Corpus Christi, Texas. My brother I attend a school that is a one-hour roundtrip away, in an even smaller town known as Orange Grove. Even though this town does not have a stop light to its name, it is the place where I learned the value of a small business.
I have been dancing since the age of three, fueling what will forever be my passion. In 2009, I stumbled into Teffany’s Dance Studio. Teffany Ibarra, a dance instructor from Guam, launched her dance studio, quite literally, just down the street. Shortly after I joined Teffany’s Dance Studio, I became a competitive dancer training in ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, lyrical, and contemporary. After seven years with my studio, I am proud to hold titles such as Showstoppers Teen Solo Grand Champion and Feature Performer: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. My experience at Teffany’s Dance Studio was pure bliss, but little did I know that the hardest times were yet to come.
In the winter of 2013, life as I knew it at Teffany’s Dance Studio fell apart. The building our studio was housed in was slowly deteriorating, and the building manager evicted us because he could not afford the repairs. At the same time, our secretary became pregnant with twins, our co-owner declared she wanted to open her own studio, our main assistant teacher was accepted into nursing school, and all three women turned in their resignations. We were left with two teachers, no facility, and a rapidly increasing enrollment rate. In addition, two other locations in Orange Grove and Rockport had opened the previous year and were now teacher-less.
A fellow dancer named Valerie and I are the oldest dancers in the studio, and Teffany approached us with a desperate plea: would we be willing to attend dance teacher certification over the summer to help teach young ballerinas at the studio we love? With no place to go and no one to teach hundreds of little girls, the only answer in our minds was a resounding “YES!”
This past summer Valerie and I traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, to attend the Twinkle Star Dance Training and Certification Convention. We were the youngest participants at the convention and despite the funny looks we were given by older teachers, once we explained our mission to keep our studio running, the attendees were more than sympathetic. After returning from the convention, we formulated a plan with Teffany to take full responsibility for all classes at the Orange Grove studio, as well as a portion of the classes at our main location in Annaville, while our other remaining teacher took over the Rockport studio. I prepared lesson plans and choreographed routines all summer, while still trying to balance my teaching responsibilities with my salutatorian ranking and college preparation, but the reality of what I had taken on did not hit me until the first little girl walked through the door and into my class.
Now, five months and many dance classes later, I am confident in my abilities as a dance teacher, even if I happen to be my studio’s youngest employee. The combined income of the Rockport and Orange Grove studios was enough to fund the rent of the Annaville studio’s new location, a converted yoga studio that has less square footage than my house. The space is not ideal, but we make it work; we are just thankful to have to a place to call home.
Through this experience, I have seen just how much my studio gives back to the community. Parents and children were horrified at the thought of foreclosure, and parents at the Orange Grove studio continuously tell me how thankful they are that I took on this job, because without it, their children would not have access to any sort of creative outlet. I can see the importance of my work shining up through the eyes of little girls in pink tutus, just as my eyes shined in my first class so many years ago. Teffany’s small business has become a huge part of the community and without it, I would not be able to call myself a dancer or a teacher, both of which are the littlest things that make the biggest difference.
Winner: Lanvy Vu
Business: Korner Washateria
School: University of Texas at Austin
Lanvy is a proud native Houstonian and an avid food and dessert enthusiast. She will attend the University of Texas at Austin to study at the McCombs School of Business and plans to earn her bachelor’s degree in business management. Her goal is to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a pediatric cardiologist working in the Texas Medical Center, and eventually, opening her own private practice. Lanvy loves spending time with her family and friends and dedicates her time to volunteering in the community. Her parents are her biggest inspiration and she would not be the person she is without their guidance, love, and sacrifices.
“What do you think about opening up a washateria?” my mom asked one day.
“That’s not a good idea. We don’t know anything about the laundry business,” my sister said with concern.
“And I didn’t know anything about being a mom, but I did a pretty good job,” my mom said, winking.
In my eyes, my mother is the poster child of someone achieving the American dream. She came to the United States with virtually nothing, spoke not a speck of English, worked at a factory, and then worked years at a convenience store until she became her own boss, owning her very own convenience store at the age of twenty-five.
“So this is what a laundromat looks like?” I asked. “It’s really depressing.”
The walls were lifeless, the floors were dirty, the TV flickered, and the washers creaked. My mom and I were checking out some washaterias near our future location site and were taking notes on what we liked and disliked. It was interesting to see the strengths and weaknesses of our competition. Spending time with my mom and watching her passion for business made me admire her even more. At the end of the day, we resolved to turn doing laundry into an experience rather than a chore.
Little by little, the vacant unit on Dairy Ashford Road started to become the Korner Washateria I know today. Its opening day was the scariest and happiest day of my life. My family had put in countless hours painting, building, decorating, stocking, and cleaning. There were elements of my own, my mom’s, my dad’s, my sister’s, and even my toddler brother’s work and input throughout the entire place. From painting the walls happy colors of yellow, light green, and light blue and building the children’s play area, to buying laundry-inspired artwork at thrift shops and inserting wall decals of laundry puns, the washateria truly became a largescale family project. All we had to do was wait.
And soon enough, thanks to weeks of advertising, people actually showed up.
One of the things I love about working at the laundromat is our customers. You never know what is going to happen. Helping someone fold their laundry can turn into a profound conversation about life and regrets or an impromptu dance party. I know frequent customers by their name, and they know mine. Developing that type of relationship with our patrons makes my job so much more enjoyable and rewarding. Another reason why I love working at the washateria is because I find cleaning therapeutic. My mother really lucked out. I relish cleaning our stainless steel appliances, sweeping the floors, wiping the tables, and of course, folding laundry. There is always work to do, and I am always on my feet.
At Korner Washateria, our mission statement is providing customers with a pleasant laundry experience through excellent customer service and store cleanliness. After a few shaky months, to the relief of my parents, our business began to steadily flourish thanks to the help of technology. We are one of first laundromats in the Houston area to operate on a card system where customers use cards (paid by cash or credit card) to operate the machines. I love to see the joy on new customers’ faces when they find out that they no longer have to bring a ridiculous amount of quarters to do laundry.
Yelp has played a tremendous role in the success of Korner Washateria. It is so nice to see the love I have for my family business be reciprocated by our amazing customers. It goes to show how technology is so important in a competitive industry and the value of customer service. In all seriousness, working at the laundromat not only makes me appreciate and respect my parents’ struggles and work ethics more, but it motivates me to continue treating others with kindness and respect. The washateria holds a special place in my heart because I was there since its inception and watched it grow despite the many obstacles it faced. I will miss working there when I go off to college. As I pursue a degree in business management and entrepreneurship, my future is unlimited and uncertain. However, I am certain that I want earn an honest living while having LOADS of fun.
Winner: Shannon Desmond
Business: Half-Full Gourmet Pizza and Wine
School: University of Central Florida
Shannon Desmond, a native of Lewes, Delaware, wrote about joining the staff of gourmet pizza restaurant Half Full as a high school student. Initially, the job was a means to an end for Desmond: she wanted income so she could get a car. But after working for a while, she noticed she “was sad to think that one day [she] wouldn’t get to do this anymore.” The restaurant’s manager recognized Desmond’s passion and suggested she consider a career in hospitality. When Desmond begins classes at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management in the fall, she’ll do just that. Desmond plans to one day open her own hospitality business.
Growing up, my parents always raised me on that idea that I had to work hard to achieve what I wanted. Whether it was good grades or a new t-shirt, I had to earn it. So when I entered high school, what I wanted most, like every other teenager, was a car. My parents told me that if I wanted a car I better get a job and start saving. As soon as I turned 14, I begged my older sister to help me get a job at the restaurant she worked at. Luckily for me, they gave me shot, which turned out to be more rewarding then anything I could have hoped for. Half Full Restaurant is 500-square-foot restaurant, with roughly 12 employees, serving only gourmet pizza, wine, and beer. I immediately fell in love with the restaurant and everything it offered. Being a popular restaurant in a small community, it felt like I got to know everyone. This small business and its employees became my second home and my second family. I looked forward to going to work and didn’t mind giving up soccer practice or a movie with my friends to spend time in the restaurant. Speaking and connecting to people had always come easy to me. I thought being social butterfly was just a characteristic I had. Working at Half Full showed me that it wasn’t just a characteristic, it was a strength, and I could grow with it. I got so much satisfaction in making others feel welcome and enjoy not just their meal but also their entire experience from the minute they walked in the doors of our tiny restaurant. Clifton Strength Finder identifies this strength as WOO, or winning others over. People who hold this WOO strength “derive satisfaction on breaking the ice and making a connection with another person.”
But it wasn’t only engaging with guests that I enjoyed. My interest and passion for the hospitality industry continued to develop. I wanted to learn about every ingredient and every detail my manager Meghan was willing to share. From making orders to menu development, wine selection, and business management, I was like a sponge ready to absorb every drop I could. I was sad to think that one day I wouldn’t get to do this anymore, that someday I would have to get a “real” job. Meghan noticed this spark in me, and proposed the idea of a career in the field. She then became my mentor. I had never thought of all the opportunities and careers the hospitality industry had, where you are creating experiences for people. She made me aware of jobs in hotels, spas, theme parks, and restaurants all around the world. And suddenly the car wasn’t what I wanted anymore. I wanted a career that would energize me every day the way working at Half Full Restaurant energized me. I had been working for about two years when I finally was able to buy my car. But when I had it, I realized that the car wasn’t my main focus anymore. My new focus was turning this budding passion I had for Hospitality Management into a career. Without Half Full restaurant, I would have never experienced the small business feel, the sense of community, and the genuine desire to please guests and see them return.
I continued to work at Half Full throughout high school, and my experience and obvious passion for hospitality granted me admission to The University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. It’s one of the top Hospitality Management programs in the country and located in Orlando Florida, the heart of tourism. I dream to one day open my own small business in the industry, whether it is a boutique hotel, a spa, or a small restaurant like Half Full. Now in my senior year of college, my dream of being a small hospitality business owner is getting closer and closer. I can’t imagine where I would be without the inspiration and influence this little pizza restaurant had on me, and hope that one day my business will have the same influence on someone else.
Winner: Laura Stockman
Business: WNY Young Writer’s Studio
Kenmore, New York, native Laura Stockman’s essay detailed her launch of the Twenty-Five Days to Make a Difference project, a blogging project dedicated to helping young people do good deeds. Started as a way to memorialize her grandparents, the project led to Stockman’s creation, with her mother, of the WNY Young Writer’s Studio, which mentors young writers and teaches them how to blog to make a difference. When she turns 18 this year, Stockman hopes to grow the WNY Young Writer’s studio into a vibrant not-for-profit. Her college plans align with this goal, as she’s planning on majoring in graphic design and entrepreneurship.
I lost my grandfather first. A bright light in my tiny world, he passed away quickly when I was just ten years old. A month later, my grandmother joined him. This was a difficult blow for my family – my dad lost both of his parents in less than forty days, and my mother lost the parents she had come to call her own.
Abused as a child, she made it her mission to ensure that I would never suffer the pain that she did growing up. I've never known that side of my family, so when my father's parents died, the loss was that much more acute. Particularly at the holidays. Christmas was my favorite time of year. I spent it baking with my mother, curled up in front of the fire in our tiny living room, and always listening to my grandfather play the harmonica. He was a good man who knew the value of simple things. He never spoke poorly of anyone and he taught me the importance of living small and practicing gratitude. His life was not an easy one – he raised seven children on a very small salary – but he did the best that he could and he never complained. He gave his time to his church and his family and the friends, who often called upon him for help.
As soon as the first snowflakes began to fall the first year he was gone, I began to long for him again. Twenty Five Days to Make a Difference was my effort to remember him. That December, I began doing a good deed each day in December and blogging about it in order to inspire other children to do the same. And many did. I received a lot of recognition for my efforts that winter, but what was most important was the healing that came from remembering my grandfather in this way and finding company in the efforts of others who dealt with losses just like mine and turned their pain into a meaningful contribution.
This decision to do simple acts of kindness and share them online was transformational for me. I saved my allowance for the entire month and promised to donate it to the charity named by the person who made the most difference in their own way, right beside me. I didn't realize that many would match my funds, share my blog with others online, and generate such a ripple effect from my tiny ten-year-old efforts. But they did. All over the world, kids as young as four were doing good deeds each day in December and writing about them. As they shared their stories, other kids got involved. They were using their words to make a difference, and instead of spending that winter wallowing in the pain of losing my grandparents, I couldn't help but feel that they were smiling down on me and on everyone else who was doing good things in memory of those that they loved.
My efforts didn't stop there. I continued doing service work and blogging about it for a year and then I took my efforts offline. My mom and I decided to start a small business called The WNY Young Writer's Studio. I've been volunteering here for the last seven years – mentoring young writers and teaching them how to blog in order to make a difference. I offer my sessions at no cost to participants, and I also volunteer to visit their classrooms and work with their teachers to grow the good they inspire. This March, when I turn eighteen, I will become an incorporated partner of this organization. I intend to pursue degrees in the visual arts, leadership, and entrepreneurship over the next four years, and I will be using what I learn to enrich my contribution to this business that has come to mean the world to me. I hope to transform it into a nonprofit shortly after we incorporate this spring.
I didn't realize when I was ten and just beginning Twenty Five Days to Make a Difference that this is where my work would take me, but I'm so glad that it has. Not only am I helping young people make a difference, but I've been able to take a profound loss and turn it into something that has not only benefited me but so many others as well. I'm looking forward to helping other young people do the same at the WNY Young Writer's Studio.
Winner: Gillian Davis
Business: Stump Sprout Design + Build
School: University of Southern Maine
What began 10 years ago as an interest in wooden boat building turned, for Gillian Davis, into a passion for woodworking, building, and using those skills to help others. In addition to building wooden boats, furniture and cabinetry, doing home remodels, and building a tiny mobile house through her business Stump Sprout Design + Build, Gillian has spent years working in education. She taught boat building classes to middle and high school students at Bath Maritime Museum and the Compass Project in Maine, woodworking techniques at Helensview Alternative Public High School in Oregon, and trades-related skills to women through two Oregon-based nonprofits, Oregon Tradeswomen and The ReBuilding Center.
Her environmental sensibilities and desire for social justice led her to return to school to pursue a degree in Architetctural and Engineering Design with a focus on Building Science and Sustainability. She plans to combine her small business experience, knowledge of building and science, and new skills learned at Southern Maine to design residential energy retrofits for old, leaky homes. Through this work she hopes to help Maine families struggling to keep up with home heating bills and make a positive environmental impact by reducing overall energy consumption.
To relax after a long day of building, Gillian shares her passion for the music and dances of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s through her swing dance organization, the Portland Swing Project.
I sat down at my desk with a blank piece of paper and a pen one snowy winter evening, a few days after returning to Maine following five years away. I was about to embark on a job search, and this blank piece of paper was to be the template for my search. Under a heading titled "values", I wrote education, community, craftsmanship and environmentalism. Under the heading "skills", I wrote woodworking, creativity, listening, teaching, and work ethic. I started brainstorming jobs that could fulfill many of these core values, utilize my skill set and provide new challenges, and somewhere in that evening of mapping out the work I needed to pursue, the unexpected idea of starting my own woodworking business became a reality.
I quickly created a new heading titled "learning curve to start a business", and a long list grew. It began with business structure, QuickBooks, and SketchUp, and continued with marketing, taxes, and design, trailing down the page until I hit the bottom. One thing was clear: if I wanted to make this happen, I needed to get to work.
Within three weeks I had rented a woodshop space, purchased used machinery, printed business cards, launched a website, applied for eight upcoming summer woodworking shows, and plowed through a dozen books on how to start a business. In those weeks, I learned the basics of business structures, budgets, marketing, web design, machinery repair and how little sleep small business owners actually get. With acceptance letters from woodworking shows slowly arriving in the mail, I set out early each morning in my Ford Ranger with a load of wood scavenged from the local transfer station to transform this waste into beautiful, functional pieces of furniture through my new business, Stump Sprout Design + Build.
The name "Stump Sprout" fit with my business intent: Stump sprouts are small tree shoots that grow quickly against all odds in deforested landscapes. I had just finished a three-year job at an alternative public high school teaching woodworking to pregnant teenage girls and students on probation or parole, and I wanted to incorporate education into my business, providing new avenues for these kids to "sprout" against the challenges they faced. I also wanted to give new life to old barn boards discarded in piles at the transfer station and create functional pieces people could enjoy. It seemed like the possibility for regeneration was everywhere, and "Stump Sprout" was the perfect, quirky name for the work that lay ahead.
Through two years of running my business, I learned the importance of clear business contracts, how to compare commercial insurance plans and how to keep accurate financial records. I poured through resources late at night to gather new design ideas, and would sketch six completely different designs for the same project before arriving at a solution. I drove thousands of miles towing packed U-Haul trailers of furniture, became quicker at changing planer blades, and learned to respond with a smile when asked "where's the guy who built this furniture?"" time and time again as I stood alone at my festival booth. I denailed hundreds of old pumpkin pine boards, scavenged for wormy chestnut and found the beautiful, aged grain behind so many fire-burnt, moss covered old boards.
The combination of successes, failures, joys and late-night frustrations across two years laid the groundwork for being a small business owner, but there was still one thing missing: broader community impact. I love building furniture, but found that I was ultimately building for those who had their basic needs met and could afford the luxury of a custom built piece. Although I was spending a lot of time volunteering to build boats with at-risk kids, I felt like I was moving further away from underserved communities with my day-to-day work.
I began reading countless articles detailing families in Maine struggling to keep up with their heating bills as they poured oil into leaky, uninsulated houses. My environmental sensibilities and desire for social justice kicked in, and I realized I could combine my newfound small business skills with knowledge of building and science, and really make a significant environmental and social impact if I redirected my business goals.
The blank piece of paper emerged once again, and under another title of "learning curve" I began a long list that trailed with an arrow to the back of the page: CAD drafting, codes, building science, structural engineering, technical design, materials, site planning, systems design. It was clear that this new skill set would require more than a stack of books, and I discovered that my local community college offered a program in Architectural and Engineering Design with a certificate in Building Science and Sustainability.
I enrolled in the fall and began classes in January. Since January, I've drawn complex mechanical parts through CAD software, learned to read electrical, plumbing, civil, and architectural blueprints, and produced energy audit reports grounded in principles of building science. Iâ€™m learning so much towards my new goal and it feels fantastic. I recently moved my woodshop into a smaller space while back in school full time and only able to take on smaller projects. With temperatures finally edging above freezing, I opened up the shop doors and windows to start re-sharpening blades and organizing fasteners. I found a dust covered notebook under my bench, and inside I found a quote I had cut out and pasted on a page: "A laborer uses his hands. A craftsman uses his hands and brain. An artist uses his hands, brain and heart."" I took a pen out of my pocket and crossed out each "his" and replaced them with "her". I smiled, surrounded by all these tools that had become so familiar, and felt grateful for that winter night a few years ago, a blank piece of paper and the decision to take a chance on building something meaningful from the ground up.
Winner: Clare Parrino
Business: Reginelli’s Pizzeria
School: Louisiana State University
Clare Parrino is from Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. She started working at a local pizzeria named Reginelli’s last summer to save up for a car. During her time there, she learned how to talk and relate to people of all ages and backgrounds – the perfect training for her planned career in nursing. Clare will be starting college at Louisiana State University in the fall of 2016. Her plan is to initially become a registered nurse who specializes in the care of newborns. She would love to do some travel nursing and experience life in other states. After a few years of nursing experience, her ultimate goal is to become a neonatal nurse practitioner.
Welcome to Reginelli's! My name is Clare. What can I get started for you today?"
When you live in New Orleans, food is life. It's the home of creole gumbo, seafood jambalaya, and boiled crawfish. It's a culture of amazing, unique culinary creations made with local flavor. Reginelli's Pizzeria is no exception to the rule. The minute you walk in, you're enveloped in an aroma of fresh tomatoes, rare Italian herbs, and spicy salami. They specialize in combining New Orleans' signature flavors with traditional Italian dishes, like the "Lafayette Highway 90" sandwich, which features andouille sausage, provolone, dill aioli, and okra on a ciabatta roll. Such mouth-watering recipes keep locals coming back time and time again. As for me, many of my teenage memories are rooted in this amazing place. Looking back, I didn't expect that this place would mean so much to me; I've become a part of Reginelli's Pizzeria...and it has become a part of me.
It all started a few years ago. My family lives around the corner, and Reginelli's just so happened to be our favorite place to get a great pizza. Our tried and true choice is the "Saltimbocca"- a handmade pizza topped with fresh spinach, garlic herb sauce, aged prosciutto, and sliced chicken breast. We've spent numerous Friday nights there; it was the perfect ending to a long week. It's the perfect place to kick back, relax, and even watch the LSU Tigers play. However, my relationship with Reginelli's grew much more intense this past summer. You see, it was my dream to get a car for my senior year...but there was one thing standing in the way: money. I began searching for a job and eventually decided to apply at Reginelli's. I had an impromptu interview with Matt, the manager. He said, "I don't usually hire people on the spot…but I'll hire you." That was the beginning of my new chapter.
Those first few weeks were rough. Taking phone orders was difficult. Sometimes I tripped over my words, introducing myself to customers. It was terrifying at times. It took practice to not screw up orders. Making sure that each table had enough drink refills was a crucial task in itself. Occasionally, people were impatient, and I was still learning. Fortunately, my coworkers and managers were more than patient with me. They gently showed me the ropes, and eventually I felt more comfortable. Often, people couldn't decide what they wanted to order. That was when my knowledge as a former customer would come in handy. I could rattle off the best dishes in the house. I had a special gift with the kids; sometimes a box of crayons and a coloring page can go a long way!
But my favorite part of the job was people watching. I cringed as a young couple awkwardly attempted conversation on their first date. I witnessed moms and dads, still wearing their business attire, struggling with their kids to eat "just one more bite" of salad. I ached for the large family who gathered after a funeral, and, with tear-stained cheeks, they shared memories of their loved one. And then there were celebrations: the new graduate, the pregnancy announcement, or "Happy Birthday, Grandma!" All of these momentous life passages revolved around meeting and eating at Reginelli's, pizza located front and center.
In some wonderful way, I became a part of those times. The regulars would come back, and share their days with me. All of a sudden, coming to work was no longer "work". It was home. I was part of a family who needed me. I needed them, too.
As I prepare for college next fall, my time working at Reginelli’s will soon come to a close. Just like closing time, it will be time to clean up and put all things in order. I have now perfected the art of relating to people of all ages and backgrounds. I believe this will make a huge impact on my career choice to become a registered nurse. I will share in my patients' defining moments, whether celebrating or mourning. I'll provide comfort to those in need.
Sometimes my coworkers and family ask me: what's life going to be like next year, away from Reginelli’s? My answer is: I'm not sure. However, I do know this: I carry all of them with me in my heart. A place like Reginelli's is never forgotten. The memories of this sweet little pizza restaurant are a slice of comfort for my soul.
Winner: Zeke Rogen
Business: Zeke Pet Sitting
School: Ithaca College
Zeke Rogen, from South Salem, New York, wrote about his own business, Zeke Pet Sitting. He started his pet sitting and dog boarding business at 12 when his neighbor asked him to take care of a rooster, four chickens, and three cats for a week. Zeke continued to build a reputation and became the go-to pet sitter for forty local families. He plans to attend Ithaca College in the fall to major in business and sports management. His ultimate goal is to become a sports agent and take what he’s learned from pet sitting to use in his future career.
It started as a minor inconvenience: my neighbor had an aggressive rooster, four chickens, and three cats that needed care when the family went away one summer. I was twelve, and my neighbor thought I'd be the perfect victim. My mom accepted for me, and I had no choice in the matter. The rooster terrorized that family – even the son, a 6'3" baseball player at Northeastern College, sometimes hid in fear of being attacked.
The pets and I survived the week, and my neighbor hired me again the following year. That neighbor told a friend, and soon I was walking a few more dogs. By eighth grade, word spread that I was the town dog-walker.
My small business grew again two years ago when I was asked to board a Labrador that I had been walking. The responsibilities were greater: not only would I have to handle the afternoon walk, but also the early morning, late night, and every walk in between. Once I began boarding dogs, requests came in even faster. I now have over forty families I've worked for at various times.
Like with any job, this one has required sacrifices and led to some interesting stories. In order to handle that rooster, my mom and I ended up borrowing our neighbor's lacrosse pads and helmet, to protect ourselves from the violent rooster. This year, I took on an incontinent, elderly dog. When it began using our entire house to "do its business," I couldn't keep up with the cleaning, and I had to contact the owners’ vet to board it for the remainder of the scheduled stay.
Along with the messes there have been many rewards. I have met people from all kinds of backgrounds – people I wouldn't have otherwise known. I was hired by our school superintendent and by the owner of a local airport. It is pretty empowering when prominent figures trust me to enter their homes and care for their precious pets. I am proud that that I took an unwanted assignment and turned it into a successful venture that has grown each year since it started. Compared to most of my friends, I earn a good salary, and try to be responsible with my earnings.
But the most fulfilling parts of my work have been unexpected. When I was in middle school my dad told me that he had been diagnosed with ALS. I didn't understand it then, but our family has learned more about that disease than we care to know. Fortunately, it has been progressing slowly for my dad; however, during the day, when I am at school and my mom is working, he is alone. It turns out that he enjoys the company of the dogs. This summer after we returned a particularly friendly Cockapoo to its owner, my father felt that the house was empty. That was when I understood the most significant way that my work has contributed to my family.
We might not have been in a position to have our own pet, but the rewards of our temporary ones have been huge. The animals change the atmosphere in our home – while their owners are away in whatever new place they're visiting, the dogs give the three of us our own break from the routine. Having a dog in the house lightens our mood and keeps us in the present.
When I first considered why my work has made me feel like an adult, I thought about the respect I received from my community and the benefits of earning a paycheck. But the more I think about it, the accomplishment that makes me most proud is that after years of my parents caring for me, I can finally give back something that in a small way lightens their burden. I didn't expect it at the time, but tackling that minor inconvenience has turned into a life-changing experience.
Winner: Jordyn Schara
Business: HOPE (Helping Our Peers Excel)
School: University of Wisconsin
At the age of 14, Jordyn Schara started her own 501(c)3 non-profit, HOPE (Helping Our Peers Excel), which inspires youth to grow by utilizing community service and volunteerism as tools to encourage them to make a difference in the world.
Through her non-profit, she has organized several award-winning service projects: Project READ (Reading Equipment for America’s Defenders), where she and her brother provided care packages to our troops serving overseas; C4C (Comics 4 Change), which promotes youth literacy through a comic book donation program; and WI P2D2 (Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal), which sets up drug collection programs to rid pharmaceuticals from our drinking water and keeps them out of the hands of abusers. So far, Jordyn has set up over 10 drug collection programs and helped to collect over 1,000,000 pounds of drugs.
At the age of 14, I created my own small business, HOPE (Helping Our Peers Excel), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that creates community service projects to inspire and encourage youth to make a difference in the world. To begin empowering youth to become leaders, I created award-winning community service projects. Each program that my business creates is innovative in its own way because they are programs created by teens for teens. My strategy is to share the importance and empowerment of volunteerism and how it helps kids build better lives for themselves and the world through the experience of helping others.
My second nationally recognized community service project focused directly on problems affecting youth. After reading about the death of teens in the state from prescription drug abuse, I created WI P2D2, which stands for Wisconsin Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal. Our medicine cabinets are now the new drug dealers. The prescription drugs and Over-The-Counter (OTC) medicines that we leave unsecured in our medicine cabinets are fueling the newest drug problem among America’s teens – Prescription and OTC Drug Abuse.
So far I have held multiple drug collection events, created six permanent drug collection programs, hosted a flu shot clinic, a free sharps disposal, a free mercury thermometer swap, and have helped keep over 900,000 pounds of drugs out of the hands of young children and teens. In starting my WI P2D2 business, I contacted the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Department of Justice, but none of these governmental agencies were willing to tackle this insidious problem or help me with my project.
When I discovered that a municipal grant was available to help communities start a drug collection program, I asked my town’s grant writer if he would apply and he said NO. I then asked a neighboring community if they would apply for the grant. They said that they would apply, but that they would keep the money and not share it with my hometown. I then decided, at the age of 14, to apply for the grant myself.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I won the grant and the neighboring town’s grant was disqualified. I then contacted both towns and informed them that I won and that I was splitting the grant between them. HOPE started with me, my brother, and my parents. I can now say that I have dozens of volunteers and have reached students across the world.
WI P2D2 has purchased several 24/7 drug drop off boxes for communities, engaged high school students to paint and decorate the containers, and helped cities purchase incinerators to save on disposal costs. I have been the first teen in Wisconsin to win a state grant for drug collection/disposal, mentored teens and adults across the country with their programs, and have become a national spokesperson for teen activism. I have partnered with another drug collection program and P2D2 has now spread across the country into over 22 states.
The Volvo Adventure Award program chose my drug collection program to represent the United States and sent me and my team of volunteers to Sweden for their international environmental competition. There, P2D2 won 3rd place from the United Nations judges and several other countries expressed interest in starting their own P2D2 programs. The success of my non-profit helped Coca-Cola choose me as one of 10 students from the U.S. to carry the torch in the 2012 London Olympics.
HOPE is my favorite small business because it provides me with the means to mobilize the energy, ingenuity, and compassion of young people to discover their power and potential to solve real world problems through service and service learning. My goal is to not only give kids and teens the opportunities to see firsthand the issues in the communities and around the globe, but to also give them the tools that they need to respond and become a part of the solution. HOPE has also created Project READ (Reading Equipment for America’s Defenders) and C4C (Comics 4 Change), which is an award-winning literary program.
Winner: Sloane Chmara
Business: Sloane’s Sweets and Treats
School: Vanderbilt University
Sloane Chmara always had a huge sweet tooth and loved baking, so in 10th grade, she started experimenting with her own recipes and concepts for desserts. As she continued to bake and bring treats to her friends at school, word started getting out that she had a particular "talent" for desserts, and Sloane's sweets were in high demand.
As of December 2013, Sloane's Sweets & Treats was up and running. She started selling a unique menu of homemade baked goods to her friends and family while developing a website and sales models from scratch. She also donates a percentage of all proceeds to No Kid Hungry, an organization aimed at ending childhood hunger in America. Her small business has been running for almost 2 years, and she is eager to see how it grows while she’s in college!
Turning the oven to 350 degrees, I casually start browning two sticks of butter in a pot while simultaneously checking customer activity on Facebook. Whisking the butter with my left hand, I use my right to navigate orders on my laptop, licking subfolder after subfolder, until I find what I’m looking for.
Monday, May 11: 75 chocolate-chip-Nutella-marshmallow cookies; 50 Oreo-cookie-dough brownies; 50 vanilla-sugar blondies.
Knowing I have to get these all baked by tomorrow, I switch my focus back to the bubbling butter before uploading a new picture to Instagram and checking my Twitter feed for comments from potential customers.
Welcome to the kitchen of Sloane’s Sweets & Treats, a baked goods delivery service, for which I’m the Head Baker, Director of Marketing, Sales Coordinator, and, not coincidentally, the sole owner and employee.
Ever since my mom introduced me to Toll House® chocolate chip break-and-bake cookies as a child, I have had a passion for baking. I love the freedom of exploring different flavor combinations while being forced to honor the chemical properties of the ingredients. When I started baking cookies for my friends as a sophomore in high school, I didn’t imagine I’d be formulating a business model in a year and making a four-digit profit by the next.
From running a business, I’ve learned how to advertise, manage a bank account, calculate revenue, update commercial social media accounts, research charities to donate portions of the proceeds to, and design a website and business cards – all of which make baking the easy part! As the sole person responsible for the successes and failures of my business, I must be invested and committed to making my products the best they can be. However, all my work just makes me more proud and thankful every time I hand off a package of cookies or brownies adorned with my logo and colorful ribbon to an eager face.
Sloane’s Sweets & Treats has become such an integral part of my life, and I cannot imagine who I would have become without it. Not only has owning a small business helped me become a prepared businesswoman with real experience, but it has also helped me understand responsibility and passion. The success of my business relies solely on me, which is a huge responsibility to have, considering my packed schedule; my time is always occupied by either school work, performing arts, or baking, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Friends ask me all the time how I even have time to bake, let alone run an entire company. My answer is always the same: I don’t really know, but somehow I always manage to get it done. I am so passionate about my treats and building a reputable brand that customers will associate with amazing quality and creativity. I pride myself on selling one-of-a-kind sweets, and I am constantly innovating and creating new products.
When I come up with a new idea, I cannot stop smiling and talking about my excitement and how I plan to execute the treat; I often rush to the market right after school for ingredients and don’t stop thinking about the product until after it is baked and has passed the taste tests from my family. Though most new products I make receive great feedback, others receive quite the opposite. When the feedback is negative, or even just average, I start over and try to make it better or scratch the idea completely. I’ve learned that letting negativity and “failure” get to me only pushes my business to take steps back, instead of driving it huge distances forward. I have made tons of mistakes throughout my two and a half years of business, but through those mistakes, I have learned so much that I wouldn’t have, had I not been exposed to the real life struggles of a business owner.
I am so proud every day to say that I am the owner and creator of Sloane’s Sweets & Treats, and because I created it myself from the ground up, I will work especially hard every day to make sure it becomes, and stays, the successful (yummy) business I intend for it to be.
Winner: Joseph Katula
Business: Yorkeville Laundromat
School: Case Western Reserve University
Joseph, who plans to study biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, wrote about Yorkeville Laundromat, which supported him in his efforts to provide clothing for the children of Yorkeville. During the foreclosure crisis, Joseph saw that children in his county whose parents had lost their jobs and homes often lacked toothbrushes and clean clothes. He and his siblings founded Yorkeville Cares 4 Kids, an organization to collect clothing from schools’ lost and founds and distribute it to food pantries for pickup. Before distribution, Joseph and his siblings wanted to clean and repair the clothes. Enter Yorkeville Laundromat, which donated washing machine time when Joseph’s family’s machines couldn’t handle the load.
Growing up in rural Illinois, my favorite small business has been the Yorkeville Laundromat. No, doing laundry is not on my list of top 10 things to do after school. But without the help of the Yorkeville Laundromat, I never would have been able to found the Yorkeville Cares 4 Kids organization.
During the last recession, eight out of 14 houses on my street were foreclosed on. Many people lost their businesses, jobs, and homes. At that time I was volunteering at the local food pantry and I witnessed firsthand how area children were directly impacted by the recession. As their parents lost jobs and housing, these children were coming in without the very basic needs, not even a toothbrush. In 2005 Kendall County was named the fastest growing county in the nation. When the recession hit, it soon become the county with the highest number of foreclosures.
I really wanted to help children in our area that were struggling to get even their most basic needs met. My brother sister and I talked and decided to find a way to get clothing to the food pantry for immediate distribution to the kids in the direst of need. To start out, our first year, we began working with only one school. Today we have expanded and now work with over seven large area schools in two school districts to collect unclaimed lost and found clothing. We make regular rounds a couple of times a year to collect unclaimed lost and found items. After items are collected, we spend weeks sorting, cleaning and repairing clothing items before sending them to the food pantry for distribution. At first, we were able to do the laundry out of our home, but we quickly outgrew this space.
It was without fanfare or any accolades that the Yorkeville Laundromat offered to help us. The owner of the laundromat donated washing machine time to help us manage the growing piles of clothing we collected. This simple gesture has allowed us to do hundreds of loads of laundry at no cost. We felt it was important to clean the items before donating them to these children.
To date, with the help of the Yorkeville Laundromat, we have worked with the schools and collected clothing items with a total value of $26,000 to $30,000 for donation. In turn, these items have gone to thousands of families in Kendall County with children who qualify for extreme need. During our last run, we sorted, washed and repaired over 50 jam-packed-full loads of laundry. There is no possible way we could have done this without the help of the Yorkeville Laundromat. I love this small business because they truly care about the welfare of the people in my community.
I believe smaller businesses have closer ties to individuals within a community. The owners of this business are not multimillionaires, but they offered what they could to turn my idea into action. In doing so, they have helped clothe hundreds of children. Someday, I will own my own small business. In the future, I hope that I will have the opportunity to enrich the lives of children in the community where I work and live. Sometimes even the smallest ideas and gestures can have a tremendous impact on the world.
Winner: Margaret Manto
Business: Atlas Coffee
School: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Margaret, who plans to study biological engineering at MIT, wrote about Atlas Coffee, a café owned by her parents that she’s worked at for years. In her essay, she described her mother’s resilience and hard work as she kept Atlas Coffee running even when circumstances (including the closure of a nearby bridge) made that difficult. Her parents’ drive and perseverance have always been an inspiration to Margaret, both in extracurricular and academic pursuits.
Even though my mom’s hair turns platinum blonde in the summer sun, while mine remains brown as a mud puddle, regular customers who come into Atlas Coffee on Saturday mornings still peer at me thoughtfully as I punch their order into the cash register. Sometimes they’re tipped off by the way I turn on my heel to run to the back of the bar for some ice; sometimes they notice how I fiddle with the pens stored next to the register, sorting them and testing them for proficiency. And sometimes—most of the time—it’s the way I speak that gives me away: casual phrases like “Anything for breakfast?” or “The lids are just there to your left,” tiny habits picked up after years of whiling away weekends sitting at the bar with a pile of homework, listening to the oven beep and the espresso machine sputter and clang.
Inevitably, though, any customer who visits Atlas unaware that it’s a family establishment has a moment of realization when their eyes widen and they exclaim, “You’re Lorie’s daughter, of course!” And though I may roll my eyes and grin sheepishly, insisting that the resemblance is only skin deep, I know perfectly well that the similarities between my mom and me are too great to just be seen in a family photo.
She opened Atlas Coffee when I was in seventh grade, the name an homage to my dad's career as a flight attendant. She worked without pay for a year to keep Atlas open when business partners dropped out; when the bridge just next door to Atlas closed, cutting off our neighborhood's traffic, she walked to work and greeted potential customers on the way to make sure that Atlas didn't just survive, but thrived.
No one handed my mom a key and said, “Go open your coffee shop.” Watching her slowly build a successful business out of an old tax management office has made me cognizant of how much work is needed to turn even a well-conceived idea into reality. I remind myself of that uncompromising truth constantly: when the music I’m arranging for my a cappella group to sing doesn’t do what I want it to or when the Arduino-based robot I’m building in Mechatronics does nothing at all; when I want to go on a NOLS course but have to work Sundays in the church nursery for a year to save up enough money.
I work hard because my mom works hard. If she can wake up at five every morning to bake muffins and still be cheerful in the afternoon, I reason, then there’s no excuse for me giving up on my goals. With her as my model, I can always find that last gritty push of stamina that turns my scribbles into song, my broken code into a talking bot. Sometimes I even manage to be the one who wakes up at five AM and bakes muffins. But Atlas Coffee is more than a second kitchen to me. It’s my reminder of what one person can do with enough drive and resilience. And when I’m behind the counter, I find myself stepping into my mom’s shoes, eager to meet the world as an entrepreneur, or a creator, or a simply a ready mind.
Winner: Suneil Kamath Davis
Business: Music of the Heart (MOTH)
A business management student at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), Suneil is passionate about social entrepreneurship and civic engagement.
When he was just a freshman in high school, he founded Music of the Heart, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that develops innovative music programs for disadvantaged youth. Since its founding, Suneil has grown Music of the Heart into an international organization serving hundreds of young people. He has also helped lobby on the importance of childhood nutrition on behalf of the organization Save the Children in Washington, D.C., and has worked with several businesses and nonprofit organizations to help them maximize their community impact.
Suneil has been recognized for his leadership and commitment to service by several organizations, including Alcatel-Lucent, Best Buy, Coca-Cola, and Prudential Insurance. He serves on boards of State Farm Insurance and AARP Foundation.
One personal characteristic of mine is that when I get an idea, I constantly work to achieve it, and I do not stop until the venture is successful. Some may call it stubborn, but I call it success through simple persistence.
Since I was little, I volunteered with my older sister at Nationwide Children's Hospital by playing the violin for the patients. As soon as the patients heard the music, their bodies seemed to become invigorated with joy. At the time, I did not understand the reasons for the emotional change, but I knew music was the driving force behind it. Several years later, on a trip to India, I had the pleasure of seeing my cousin's school. Though it was a private school, it had no music program for the students to partake in. After returning, I found music programs were not only lacking in a majority of schools overseas, but, shockingly, in America as well. The combination of my trip overseas and hospital volunteering ignited a spark in my mind that I needed to do something significant to give people the opportunity to experience the benefits of music.
I wanted to create something that would have a wide reach and a large impact, so I thought of starting a non-profit organization. Although extremely difficult to accomplish, I knew, if successful, I would be able to make a significant difference in the lives of people and change the world one note at a time. Being a freshman in high school, I had absolutely no idea how to start a nonprofit.
After some research, I sent a plethora of letters to attorneys that would help me pro-bono. None of them responded. Not giving up, I sent another set of letters to different attorneys. Still, nothing. Finally, after sending fifty letters, I got a positive response. Over the next several months, I created bylaws, recruited a board of directors, and, with the attorneyâ€™s help, completed the IRS and state registration forms. In fact, I took a job to finance the registration expenses personally. Although creating Music of the Heart (MOTH) was difficult and grueling at times, my determination and ability to persevere served me well, and MOTH received its 501(c)(3) status.
Since the founding of MOTH, we have grown to a team of three and have numerous volunteers that help us with each project. Through MOTH, I developed a music education curriculum for music teachers based off of service learning. The curriculum targeted at-risk, low-income students; and helped students develop a number of skills including critical thinking, team building and leadership. In addition, I have organized several concerts and musical activities at local hospitals and libraries; and am currently initiating an after- school hip-hop program for disadvantaged and at-risk youth.
In total, MOTH has impacted over 500 youth through music. While observing the activities or performances, I notice the effect music has by watching the children smile widely while they clap or sing along to the music. One parent once told me, "Your organization is making a significant difference in the lives of children. It means the world to me that people do really care." That statement, to me, is the essence of the impact small businesses and organizations, like MOTH, have on society. Even though they might be small, every day they are positively impacting peoples' lives.
Through creating MOTH, I have connected and learned from people of all different walks of life. In addition, I have been able to hone my leadership and communication skills, as well as round my attitude and perspective on matters; all of which are invaluable skills that will help me become a better global citizen and leader.