Success for high school entrepreneurs

We just published our annual list of America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs. One nominee that didn’t qualify, because the company is a non-profit, has a story that we want to highlight anyway.

You can buy Big Picture Soda at Whole Foods in Rhode Island and dozens of other retail stores. The all-natural soda, made with spring water and pure cane sugar, can also be found in Rhode Island restaurants, corporate caterers and university dining halls.

Not bad for a class project. The business plan for the Big Picture Soda Company grew out of a 2005 entrepreneurship course at the Met High School, an inner-city school in Providence founded 12 years ago to be an "innovative career and technical school." Following the 2005 class, students Yessenia Mercado and D.J. Hall wrote a business plan for the soda company, raised $10,000 from investors, and hired nine other students to help run the company, which donates profits to a scholarship fund for Met graduates.

Within six months, they had 20 retail accounts, and 42 accounts within a year. When Mercado and Hall graduated and left for college, account manager Jean Merlain stepped up to become CEO. He's focusing on expanding beyond retail into the hospitality market and increasing Big Picture's distribution. They've already donated $2,000 to the Met's scholarship fund and expect to donate another $6,000 in February. And the school plans to launch an entrepreneurship center next year.

Any entrepreneur would be happy to sell into Whole Foods, let alone do it before graduating high school. But this is more important than one success story. The Met School's entrepreneurship program, supported by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, is giving students skills that will help them succeed in entrepreneurship or other endeavors.

Entrepreneurs with less experience working in family businesses or other small businesses have slimmer chances of succeeding in their own ventures, according to research by Robert Fairlie and Alicia Robb. That factor helps account for the lower success rates of businesses started by blacks and Latinos. Projects like Big Picture, along with entrepreneurship camps, can narrow the gap in business success for disadvantaged groups. So Big Picture Soda isn't just a good business -- it's a good idea.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.