Jesus Fernandez and Toheeb Okenla were recently named winners of NFTE’s annual National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge (NYEC) for their business T&J Soccer, a retail business that sells soccer socks to protect player’s shins during game. Fernandez, a 17-year-old student at Thornwood High School and Okenla, also 17 and now studying at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, took home the $25,000 grand prize, prevailing over the top 34 businesses from around the country. Jesus and Toheeb were able to hone their business plan and prepare for the competition through the entrepreneurship education programs provided in the NFTE curriculum. We contacted Jesus and Toheeb and asked them to reflect on their NFTE experience and NYEC win.
Tell us a little bit about your business and what inspired you to create it?
We are T&J Soccer and we manufacture soccer socks with a built-in pocket for shin guard inserts that guarantee maximum safety and comfort for youth and adult athletes. Being experienced soccer players, we noticed that shin guard stability was a problem, not just for us, but for our teammates as well We would always lose our strap and sleeves, and even when did have them, our shin guards weren't guaranteed to stay in place.
What is the biggest thing you learned while developing your business plan for T&J Soccer?
The most important thing we learned while developing our business plan for T&J soccer is the one characteristic that sets successful entrepreneurs apart from the pack: perseverance – an ability to overcome any obstacles that arise. A good example would be before the first round in the national competition, we discovered that we didn't have the right powerpoint to present. But instead of letting that pull us down, we decided to use it in our favor, by explaining to the judges that "the powerpoint is not our business, we are our business, and we know it like the back of our hand." We went on to win the competition!
Of everything that you learned from the NFTE program, what do you think is the most important?
The most important thing we learned for our experience with the NFTE program is that many of the same skills that make an entrepreneur successful add up to street smarts. An entrepreneurial mindset can be applied to a wide range of things: from weighing the cost/benefits of a job to making the tough choice on how to invest one's time and money into a certain project.
What’s next for you now that you’ve won the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge?
Our next step is definitely to network, network, network. We plan on scaling the manufacturing process, and getting our business up and running.
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs out there?
It would be first: find something you're passionate about and identify a niche in that industry where there is an opportunity for improvement. Then, create a vision for yourself. Finally, RUN WITH IT!
Check out T&J Soccer’s winning NYEC presentation below: