Making their mark on the business world: Young Minnesota entrepreneurs turn visions into reality
By Ann Jerry, Blaine High School
BHARAT PULGAM, at the age of 16, is already the chief executive officer of mXers Audio, a company developing a new type of earbuds.
Isabel and Caroline Bercaw loved bath bombs — scented, hard balls of essential oils and other ingredients that fizz in water — so much when they were younger, the sisters created their own. And they added their own touches by putting surprises, such as a toy figurine or bouncy ball, inside. In 2012, the Bercaw sisters launched their company, Da Bomb Bath Fizzers, and now split their time between high school and managing their business.
People tend to think of entrepreneurs as college-aged or older people who create startups, such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But teenagers such as the Bercaw sisters and Pulgam also are making their mark in the business world, and there are programs to support teens interested in entrepreneurism.
“We have the potential to grow into this really big company,” Pulgam said of mXers Audio. “We may only be 16, 17 and 18 [years old], but we have the potential to do really great things.”
STARTING A BUSINESS
The Bercaw sisters and Pulgam turned their business visions into reality, but in different ways.
The Bercaws, of Edina, started out selling their homemade bath bombs at local art fairs and were discovered by a local retailer who wanted to sell the sisters’ products. Today, their products can be found at more than 100 stores across six states and online.
The sisters draw on each other’s strengths and interests to run their business.
“She’ll make the bath bombs and do packaging, but I’m more into entering the orders,” said Isabel Bercaw, 14. “We both do selling, but [Caroline] does more technology stuff. ...Two is better than one.”
Sisters Isabel (left, 14, and Caroline Bercaw, 13, make bath bombs at their home in Edina. (Photo courtesy of Da Bomb Bath Fizzers)
In January 2015, Pulgam, who attends Wayzata High School, took his idea for customizable, modular earbuds to the Chicago- based Catapult Incubator program. The program mentors youth entrepreneurs and challenges them to take their ideas from “concept to reality” over the course of six months. It culminates with the students pitching their ideas to a panel of investors.
Pulgam walked away with the Most Innovative Idea Award. He came back to Minnesota and started his company with a new team, composed of 12 high school and college students. mXers Audio is currently in the funding phase.
Pulgam found a passion in entrepreneurism after going through the Incubator Program.
“Products and services offered in today’s world can really impact how people live,” he said. “You can make money off of solving people’s problems, which I think is really cool. After I got a taste of entrepreneurship I felt like I found something I was passionate about.”
CREATIVITY AND COLLABORATION
There are many different types of entrepreneurs, among them introverts, extroverts, analytically minded and non-analytically minded, said Laura Dunham, an entrepreneurism professor at the University of St. Thomas. The characteristics that good entrepreneurs share are creativity and collaborative spirit, she said.
Both Pulgam and the Bercaw sisters founded their companies on innovative ideas, a key aspect of entrepreneurism.
“What you do have to be is open-minded enough to look at the world around you,” Dunham said.
Pulgam realized that although earbuds break easily, it’s often just one or two parts that are causing the issues. So, he decided to explore the idea of creating modular earbuds with customizable parts, so that if one part breaks, the consumer needs only to replace the broken part.
“It’s easy to repair ... and it’s affordable because you don’t have to keep buying entirely new things,” he said.
The Bercaws’ bath bombs are themed with creative prizes inside. Their Ninja Bomb is orange, with a tiny ninja figure inside. Their Earth Bomb has a sea creature inside, and a portion of the proceeds go toward the cleanup of the world’s oceans.
Collaboration also was a necessary component in the Bercaws’ and Pulgam’s businesses.
Our “parents have been so supportive,” said Caroline Bercaw, 13. “They’ve helped us create a website, they’ve helped us reach out to different stores. Without them, we wouldn’t be this far and we wouldn’t have learned this much.”
The Bercaw sisters brainstorm ideas for new bath bombs, make bath bomb batches, help out at their mall kiosks and monitor their business. They work with 12 employees, including a graphic designer and branding agent.
“Starting the business, I was really shy and didn’t like talking to people, but it’s really helped me communicate with people,” Caroline Bercaw said. “I feel a little older since I can talk to adults.”
At mXers Audio, Pulgam leads a team of 12. He coordinates all the departments, from engineering to advertising, but stresses that it’s a team effort.
“Leading from above, in a hierarchical structure, just doesn’t work, especially on a small scale,” Pulgam said. “It’s not like people are working for me, it’s like they are working with me.”
FINDING THE FUNDS
Coming up with ideas is one thing, but coming up with the money to make a business happen is another.
There are three main sources of funding for entrepreneurs, according to Dunham: personal (including friends and family), debt (such as bank loans) and investment capital.
Pitching the idea is integral to receiving funding. Pulgam’s sales pitch took place in front of a panel of investors at Catapult’s Incubator program, and he utilized both technology and speaking skills to craft his pitch.
“You should be so comfortable with the pitch that you could give it in your sleep,” he said. “You want to convey a story that people can connect to. No one’s going to connect to a bunch of numbers on a screen. Connect to the audience and getting them on board. Your visuals should be pictures, with a three-word maximum.”
Programs such as Vantage and DECA in high schools give students an opportunity to develop business plans and entrepreneurial thinking, Dunham said.
DECA, with more than 3,500 high school chapters, including in Minnesota, offers conferences and competitions to help grow business skills. University of Minnesota-Duluth offers the UMD Teen Enterprise, a week-long summer camp for students ages 14-18.
The real learning for an entrepreneur is found outside the classroom, Pulgam said.
“Even in Catapult, sitting and listening to those lectures was one thing, but going out and talking to a venture capitalist in the Wells Fargo Tower, that’s completely different,” Pulgam said. “They’ll give you real advice that’s not on page 56 of a textbook.”
Pulgam’s advice to teens interested in entrepreneurism: Just go for it.
“You develop as a person, a leader,” he said. “... All around, it just moves you forward as a person.”