Alex Upendo is only 11 years old, but he has already started to obtain funding for his own business.
[caption id="attachment_335332" align="alignright" width="483"] Alex Upendo, center, of Build-a-Bow won the Launch Box pitch competition.[/caption]
The young entrepreneur, creator of Racine startup Build-a-Bow, on Tuesday won the Gateway Technical College Launch Box’s business pitch contest, along with $5,000 in seed money.
Upendo and four other entrepreneurs each made four-minute pitches to a panel of judges at the SC Johnson iMET Center in Sturtevant.
The other companies were: Racine-based CalmLet, Racine-based Mt. Sinai Gym, Racine-based Muller Motors and Racine-based Wings of Fire. The judges were: Debbie Davidson, vice president of Gateway business and workforce solutions; Kate Walker, director of operations at Gateway business and workforce solutions; Elmer Moore, executive director of ScaleUp Milwaukee; James Hauser, assistant vice president of commercial lending at Tri City National Bank; and Robert Martin, retired, of University of Wisconsin-Parkside SBDC.
Build-a-Bow makes custom bow ties that are used to combat and bring awareness to bullying. Through the Launch Box business mentorship program, Upendo said he was able to better identify his target market and adjust his product pricing.
“I thought it was a great competition and the 12-week cohort was very helpful. I got useful information and it was just awesome,” Upendo said.
Thalia Mendez, business resource specialist with Gateway’s Business and Workforce Solutions division, described Upendo as a “very smart young man.”
“His mother’s part of the business, so she was with him at every class,” Mendez said. “He was bullied and he had terrible self-esteem and wearing a bow tie made him feel special. He wants to create that for others.”
Upendo’s mother, Karee Upendo, is a clothing designer. She taught Alex how to make bow ties when he was about five, and he eventually began designing his own unique products.
“His bow tie designs were really revolutionary and I thought to myself, this could really be something,” Karee said.
She looked for a mentor for him and found another young bow tie entrepreneur, Jake Johnson of BeauxUp, who had been on “Shark Tank.” Pretty soon, Alex was being featured on Harry Connick, Jr.’s TV show and he was receiving a huge influx of orders, including from celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Harvey.
“I had to scale down my company to help navigate his because he built this following out of nowhere,” Karee said. “It was amazing but also very scary and overwhelming. He was only 9 at the time.”
In May 2016, the Upendos officially established an LLC. Alex, who has sold about 5,000 bow ties, also wrote a book to go along with them and offers workshops to make bow ties for different causes. He is still making the bow ties by hand, and needed a little business help, so Karee applied for the accelerator program on his behalf.
“I’m business-minded and Alex is very social mission driven,” Karee said. “His social mission was always at the core of his business.”
Alex plans to use the winnings to pay senior citizens and teenagers in the Racine area to help him make the bows, and also to establish a brick-and-mortar Build-a-Bow shop in Racine by June 2018, Karee said.
Second prize and $4,000 went to Erin Magennis, owner of anxiety regulation bracelet creator CalmLet. Alexander Ersing and Pablo Davalos-Alonso of unique community gym Mt. Sinai Gym took third place and a $3,000 grant.
Seth Muller of affordable electric car builder Muller Motors, and Kristina Watanabe and Lisa Aguilar of women’s wellness coaching company Wings of Fire each received $2,500 in seed funding.
"This group was so committed to excelling, and so committed to helping each other. That’s what’s supposed to happen with an accelerator,” Mendez said. “The accelerator program provides a means for entrepreneurs to really focus. A lot of times, an entrepreneur comes in with a big idea but without the focus of being able to realistically do it. This helps them to narrow their focus and succeed.”