Youngest entrepreneur brews recipe for success

Young entrepreneur Lilliana Flanigan works closely on preparing a specialty tea as part of her business, Lili of the Field.

Young entrepreneur Lilliana Flanigan, 10, holds up a tea bag she filled in the kitchen of The Incubator Center.

Ranging in age from 10 to 18, Mesa County students selected to participate in the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce Young Entrepreneurs Academy spent the last three months brainstorming business ideas, writing business plans and interacting with business professionals.

In February, the youngsters pitch their plans to potential angel investors in a pressure cooker similar to the panel that quizzes entrepreneurs on the popular ABC television program “Shark Tank,” said Betsy Bair, the chamber’s governmental affairs manager who also coordinates the academy.

If they like what they hear, the investors, yet to be identified, will donate to the student’s business. The local student with the best plan advances to a competition and potential fame and fortune.

At stake is a $50,000 scholarship to college and a chance to grow the business they launched through the academy.

One student at the head of the class is 10-year-old Liliana Flanigan. Youngest of the 20 or so students who made it this far in the program, Flanigan is spending a lot of time putting the finishing touches on her business plan.

Flanigan’s business, Lili of the Field, should strike fear in the heart of every executive at Hain Celestial Group, the publicly traded corporation that makes Celestial Seasonings teas.

“Our specialty is special teas,” Flanigan said Friday, reciting her company’s slogan and batting a pair of big, brown eyes.

A sixth-grader at Caprock Academy, Flanigan skipped a grade to learn math and literacy skills from teachers and students closer to her knowledge level.

She is being tested on pre-algebra and is reading Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery.”

Flanigan likes to dance and perform on stage, most recently as Gretel in the High Desert Opera’s production of “The Sound of Music.” In her spare time, she decided — at her mother’s urging — to attend the academy and launch an herbal tea business.

A more poised, articulate 10-year-old would be hard to find.

“Both of our daughters are self-assured, just like their mother,” said proud papa Sean Flanigan, a music professor at Colorado Mesa University.

A Coleman Foundation Faculty Entrepreneurship Fellow, Flanigan teaches students about music, but also about music as a business.

His influence is obvious.

“It would be nice starting a business and being able to earn (my) own money,” Liliana Flanigan said. “(My mom) wants me to have a good life and have more than enough money to take care of myself.”

Flanigan’s mother, Gisela, an accomplished musician and former music professor, served on the Grand Junction Commission on Arts and Culture since 2007.

Making millions “would be nice,” Liliana Flanigan said with a chuckle, “(but) at the least, probably $100,000.”

The sixth-grader’s business plan calls on her to wholesale the herbal teas she makes to coffee shops around the Grand Valley and also retail the product, possibly over the Internet.

Carrying all her herbs and other supplies in a food-grade bucket, Flanigan manufactured a tea bag in a few seconds Friday, measuring out lavender and rose hips in a combination she personally taste-tested.

Flanigan omits the string from her handmade tea bags to save on costs, she said.

“I’m really, really excited to be moving forward,” she said. “Annalisa (Pearson) has been helping me with everything.”

Kitchen manager with The Incubator Center, 2591 Legacy Way, Pearson mentored the 10-year-old through the academy program during the past several weeks.

“It’s been a blast,” Pearson said. “She’s very energetic. She’s been just incredible to work with. She’s very bright. Very tenacious. She’s not your average 10-year-old, I don’t believe.

“I love to see this kind of idea development so early in life.”

John McConnell at the Math and Science Center, 2660 Unaweep Ave., also played an important role in encouraging Liliana to strive and succeed, Sean Flanigan said.

The Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which kicked off in September at Western Colorado Community College, guides students through the process of starting and running a legitimate business or social movement over the course of the academic year, Bair said.

Developed at the University of Rochester in 2004 using a grant from the Kauffman Foundation, the Young Entrepreneurs Academy was introduced by the chamber to Grand Junction and Mesa County for the first time in September, she said.

The program relies on local professionals to volunteer their time and expertise as guest speakers, mentors, investors, graphic designers, field trip hosts, and business plan reviewers, and to provide a shoulder to lean on when the going gets tough.

In the past six years, Young Entrepreneurs Academy around the country graduated roughly 600 students who started nearly 450 businesses and social movements. Hundreds of academy graduates started as students, but left the program as CEOs of their own companies, Bair said.


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