October 24, 2016 Reading Time: 3 minutes

One advantage for our economy of small businesses is that they form their own ecosystem where the best ideas can evolve and rise to the top. When allowed to robustly compete for investors and customers, many small entrepreneurs will fail. But those few that truly succeed will have products and services that meet consumer needs, often in ways that a single large business could not have planned in advance.

I got to see this small business ecosystem in action on October 10, when I had the privilege of presenting the 2016 Student Entrepreneur Awards (made possible by the C. Lowell Harriss Scholarship Fund established at AIER) at the annual conference of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE).

The three award recipients all embody the power of motivated young people who are mentored by the right programs. But in listening to their stories, what really struck me is that all three young entrepreneurs found the basis of their ideas from personal life experience, demonstrating their understanding of niche markets where small businesses often excel.

Third place winner Ezekiel “Zeke” MacMillan loved visiting local clothing shops, but always seemed to walk away empty handed. As told on his website, his reaction to the high-end clothing on display was “I can do that, but cooler and cheaper.” Zeke, a student at Haywood Community College in North Carolina, started Don Raven, specializing in T-shirts and sweatshirts. Born and raised in the Carolinas, Zeke’s shirts are inspired by Southern style, but are versatile enough to be worn for different uses and by people with all sorts of different taste in clothing. When I asked Zeke what sets him apart from the competition, he focused on the quality of material he uses, to which I can personally attest, after having bought a shirt myself!

Second-place winner Amanda Gordon is a creative and highly motivated student at Sir Francis Drake High School, who is also enrolled in business classes at the College of Marin in California. Amanda had a talent and interest in making jewelry, and like Zeke, saw that she could make a product better and cheaper than what was out there. The result was California Gem, offering hand and body chain jewelry personally made by Amanda. She runs a successful online business, and has also leveraged her own network and relationships by displaying a collection at Embellish Marin, a local brick-and-mortar store. Amanda is also using her business as a catalyst for social change, educating consumers on problems with child labor and exploitation in the supply chain of too much of the jewelry sold in the U.S.

First-place winner Tac Mohammed started Toppy Toddler USA, manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing waterproof baby bibs. Tac, who recently graduated from Miami-Dade College in Florida, was inspired by a need he saw all too clearly in his own life as parent of a toddler.

“I sat in awe, watching a hailstorm of rice and beans plummeting to the ground, as my 18-month-old son sat joyfully eating his dinner. Half of what was in his bowl was now resting on the table, his clothing, and the floor.” Tac turned his son’s mess into a growing company that already has $9,000 per month in revenue. Like virtually all successful entrepreneurs, Tac knows the importance of the pivot, refining not only his product along the way, but also his means of distribution. He has found a successful niche selling bulk orders to day-care centers.

It was informative to see this entrepreneurial ecosystem in action. By giving lots of small but motivated entrepreneurs help with starting a businesses, but then subjecting them to the competition of the market, ideas naturally rise to the top that a centralized planner at a large business could never have had in advance.

I’m proud that AIER, through the Harriss Scholarship Fund, is making a significant contribution to this process.

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Max Gulker

Max Gulker

Max Gulker is a former Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is currently a Senior Fellow with the Reason Foundation. At AIER his research focused on two main areas: policy and technology. On the policy side, Gulker looked at how issues like poverty and access to education can be addressed with voluntary, decentralized approaches that don’t interfere with free markets. On technology, Gulker was interested in emerging fields like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, competitive issues raised by tech giants such as Facebook and Google, and the sharing economy.

Gulker frequently appears at conferences, on podcasts, and on television. Gulker holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to AIER, Max spent time in the private sector, consulting with large technology and financial firms on antitrust and other litigation. Follow @maxg_econ.

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