Amazing Kids

Four young innovators are proving you don’t have to be a grownup to thrive in local business.

A flexible work schedule, financial independence, and the chance to take charge of their own destiny. Those were some of the reasons cited by the 3 out of 5 Americans who said they would love to own their own business, according to a 2018 Vistaprint poll.

Yet only 1 in 7 surveyed saw opening a business as a realistic endeavor.

For those who take the leap, it takes sweat, determination, and drive. Behind every vision successfully carried out, there are countless discarded dreams. Whether you aspire to build a business from the ground up or create large-scale community change, it’s always a feat to go from fantasy to reality. Even more so when you are balancing expenses and exams.

Despite the challenges aspiring business owners face, the South Sound is rife with young people who have built successful enterprises and given back to their communities in big ways. We spoke to four accomplished entrepreneurs and philanthropists — all 18 or younger.

Photos by Jeff Hobson

A Sweet Legacy

Jordan Allen (pictured) has turned a legacy recipe into an 8-year-old thriving candy business — not too shabby for a high school sophomore.

The owner of JM Candy Co., Jordan said the idea for his business was seeded when he was in the first grade. One day, his grandfather called to offer him some candymaking equipment he intended to throw out. Jordan’s interest was piqued, but his parents were skeptical. It took three days of begging to convince them to let him take the equipment, but eventually he prevailed. “I’m very persistent,” Jordan laughed.

That persistent spirit paid off as Jordan set out to test his new equipment. As a 7-year-old, he spent hours in the kitchen with his grandfather learning the ins and outs of candymaking. Standing on a stool to see over the stovetop, Jordan watched carefully as his grandfather passed his beloved peanut brittle recipe down, piece by piece.

“(He) showed me the way you stir, the way you hold the kettle, the way you pour the kettle,” Jordan explained. “It’s very specific and took a lot of trial and error, but eventually I got it down.”

It took a few months to master the recipe, and once Jordan had perfected it, he started scheming up a business plan. One night, he surprised his parents and their dinner guests — the owners of a University Place store — with an unexpected interruption to their meal. Standing on a dining room chair, Jordan made his first sales pitch, asking his dinner guests to acquire his candy for their shop.

That’s how he landed his first product in a store, at 8 years old. At 12, Jordan’s candy company became an LLC, using the initials he shares with his grandfather as the company name.

Today, JM Candy is in five stores across the South Sound, including Harbor Greens and Metropolitan Market. The candy comes in three varieties, including the family peanut brittle recipe he still prepares in his grandfather’s kettle. The company also sells toffee thins and Jordan’s original recipe for coffee toffee.

While Jordan has taken striking initiative to grow his business, he said he couldn’t have done it without his parents’ support. “I like to credit my business to my parents,” Jordan said, “because had they not told me, ‘Yes; you can learn how to do this,’ it wouldn’t be where it is today.”

Jordan also credits his business savvy to a long entrepreneurial line of forebearers. Besides being a celebrated confectioner, Jordan’s grandfather was a successful businessman and real estate investor. This experience, Jordan said, has brought him and his grandfather — now 91 — closer. “He’s very proud of everything I’ve done and created,” Jordan said.

Through the years, Jordan’s parents have pushed him to see business as a vehicle for helping others. “My parents always encouraged me to give back to the community and figure out how to have my business have a social aspect,” he said.

He donates a portion of the company’s profits to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), an organization that has touched his family personally. Three of Jordan’s four grandparents have been diagnosed with cancer, including his grandmother, who received treatment at SCCA.

“We were very close to losing her to cancer,” Jordan recalled. “At the end, she had sarcoma and was given only a year to live. But because of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, she’s been living seven years and cancer-free. I’m very grateful to them.”

That relationship with SCCA, Jordan said, has been his brightest accomplishment as a business owner thus far. Ever the visionary, the young entrepreneur and philanthropist has his eyes on the road ahead. Jordan aspires to earn a business finance degree and eventually go into wealth management and real estate investment, like his father and grandfather.

In the meantime, Jordan said that while his sales have taken a slight hit due to the pandemic, the extended lockdown has given him time to turn more of his dreams into realities. He encourages other young people with big aspirations to do the same. “I think a lot of kids have wild and crazy ideas like me,” Jordan said. “I wake up with ideas all the time. I think those ideas mean nothing until they’re acted upon.”

Warming Hearts and Bodies

Eighteen-year-old Zoe Bucher sees giving back to her community as an imperative. For two years, she has run Benevolence Blankets, a club that creates no-sew fleece blankets and distributes them to individuals experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.

Founded in August 2018, Benevolence Blankets was born of Zoe’s pursuit of a Girl Scout Gold Award — after earning both bronze and silver honors from the organization. It’s the highest honor a Girl Scout can earn, extended to just 6 percent of Scouts each year. After an extensive research and proposal process, Gold Award earners implement an impactful, sustainable community service project.

The Girl Scouts entered Zoe’s life in fifth grade at a pivotal time — just after her twin brothers left for college. She suddenly found herself the only child at home. “Just meeting new people and being part of a sisterhood was really cool,” Zoe said of her initial Scouting experience. Since then, her Scouting has taken her across the globe to the United Kingdom and France and has solidified her commitment to community service.

Through the Girl Scouts, Zoe got to know the plight of individuals experiencing housing insecurity more intimately. “My troop would go down to the Tacoma Rescue Mission and provide meals to the homeless,” Zoe recalled. She also worked within similar communities as a middle school student, waking up early to serve hot meals with Operation Keep ’Em Warm and Fed. Given her prior work, homelessness seemed like a natural focus area for a large-scale community service project.

In preparing for the gold award, Zoe sought to better understand the root causes of homelessness. Her research helped her pinpoint low self-esteem as a persistent factor impacting people on the streets. “I decided to help by giving them a blanket — not just for warmth, but also a sense that people care about them,” Zoe explained.

After mapping out each element of her service project and developing a strategic plan, Zoe decided to partner with the Tacoma Rescue Mission for blanket distribution. She founded Benevolence Blankets, convening her club over the course of a year at the Tacoma Public Library’s Swasey Branch. She solicited fleece fabric donations and bought blanket materials in bulk. “It started off as just my friends,” Zoe said. Soon enough, the club expanded to a broader swath of interested community members.

The initial goal was to create and distribute 100 blankets in the club’s first year. Within six months, she surpassed that number, distributing double the amount of blankets by the year’s end.

To date, Zoe and the members of Benevolence Blankets have donated close to 270 blankets, partnering with the Tacoma Rescue Mission’s Search and Rescue Team to distribute them directly to people on the street. “We were hoping that might encourage people to … go back to the mission and get help,” Zoe explained.

As a result of her work, Zoe earned that Girl Scout Gold Award in November 2019. Since then, her efforts haven’t stalled. “After my gold award, I decided to branch out a little bit. Every other batch of blankets I do, I give to another organization.” Recently, the young philanthropist partnered with Tacoma’s Coffee Oasis-Serra House, a drop-in center that supports youth experiencing homelessness in their search for employment and permanent housing.

Through her work on Benevolence Blankets, Zoe said she was able to hone her communication and leadership skills. “Through this, I kind of came out of my shell a little more,” she reflected. It’s also given her clarity around her career aspirations. This fall, Zoe will be attending Pacific Lutheran University, where she intends to study social work and plans to continue Benevolence Blankets under the university’s auspices.

Calming the World

Transmuting a dream into reality is always a challenge — especially when the world is filled with uncertainty. But for Uzziah Campbell, the state of the world has made his aspirations feel more urgent than ever.

The 11-year-old has a dream to calm the world. He’s the owner of Calm & Cure Candle Co., which sells handcrafted soy-based candles infused with calming fragrances.

Uzziah outlines the vision for his company on his website. “Today, we’re experiencing a severe lack of wellbeing throughout the world, due to longstanding wounds of racism, injustice, illness, and trauma,” Uzziah wrote. “We hope to bring light and ‘calm’ into the anxious, stressful, and fear-ridden lives of people everywhere.”

The new business was founded directly in response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and outcry against the ongoing violence against Black communities. According to Uzziah, the idea for Calm & Cure came shortly after he heard news of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing. On that day, Uzziah and his mom went on a walk. He said he felt a need to spring to action. “I just need to calm the world,” Uzziah said to his mom. “I need to stop all the violence that’s going on.”

The young entrepreneur crafts his candles with care and is committed to using quality ingredients, including natural wax and an eco-friendly wick. He worked with his mother to develop six scented candle blends, each with its own essential oil profile. The company’s slate includes fragrances like Energy (citrus and lemongrass), Calm (vanilla rose), and Uzziah’s favorite — Happiness (cassia and exotic spice).

Uzziah said aromatherapeutic candles seemed like a natural outlet to bring about his vision because he saw their soothing power firsthand. His mom, who formerly worked in law enforcement, used candles and aromatherapy to manage stress and anxiety. Uzziah believes his candles can be a powerful tool to combat negative feelings and support people struggling with mental health issues.

Through his company, Uzziah said he aspires to bring light to dark places. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for Uzziah and his family, he said that founding his company has been a bright spot. Since opening his business on May 7, he’s been overwhelmed by the support he’s received. At the time of this writing, he has crafted, sold, and shipped more than 1,000 candles.

Uzziah said another bright spot has been seeing his community rally together. Shortly after George Floyd was killed, Uzziah and his mom joined throngs of protestors on the streets of Tacoma. He said he had a moving experience there. “It was powerful knowing that a lot of people stand with Black communities and with Black people,” Uzziah reflected.

The hope is that the candles can help soothe some of the collective grief that many have been experiencing since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The company was founded with a philanthropic focus at the forefront. In the months since opening, Uzziah has donated candles to frontline workers in Seattle as well as to families affected by police violence — like the family of Breonna Taylor. Ten percent of Calm & Cure’s proceeds go to organizations furthering research and awareness around mental health.

Uzziah hopes his candles will spread far beyond the South Sound and continue to bring relief to those who are suffering. He has a clear vision of the world he wants to inhabit, and hopes his business can play a part in making that change. “I want to see no violence,” Uzziah said. “I want to see people calmer, and more relaxed, and everyone getting along.”

Building Something Different

Eric Vasquez knew he wanted to run a LEGO store ever since attending his first BrickCon in Seattle at age 6. He never imagined his dream would materialize just four years later.

Eric, now 15 years old, is the owner of Connect the Brick, a buy-sell-trade LEGO store he’s run out of an 89-square-foot storefront in Tacoma’s Proctor neighborhood since summer 2015.

A lifelong LEGO enthusiast, Eric made his first sale at the at age 9 over a card table set up just down the street from his current location. “Every Saturday at the market, I would set up in front of Teaching Toys near the Proctor market,” Eric explained.

In the early days, Eric’s inventory consisted mostly of minifigures and pieces from his personal collection he was ready retire. His customers, he said, loved that they could purchase individual parts at reasonable prices.

After a year of saving money from sidewalk sales, markets, and household chores, Eric and his mom noticed a small storefront for rent in the Proctor neighborhood.

“My mom and I were just kind of joking, ‘Oh, that would be cool if we could open up a store there,’” Eric recalled, noting that they decided to dial up the landlord, just for fun.

When they visited the space inside the Davies Building, Eric and his mom agreed it would make a perfect storefront for his burgeoning LEGO business. They gave their name and information to the building owner; who thanked them and let them know there were 15 other inquiries ahead of them.

Remarkably, the owner decided to take a chance on Eric’s business. Eric’s card table reminded him of his own childhood entrepreneurial ventures, peddling Peruvian clothing at Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market. Eric signed a lease with just a few hundred dollars on hand. Within weeks, he was open for business.

After weeks setting up his store and stocking shelves from his own LEGO collection, Eric was ready for opening day. But he wasn’t quite prepared for the amount of buzz the business would get. “In the first weekend, we sold about half the shop,” Eric remembered.

Five years later, the business continues to thrive. Eric said his parents have been his biggest supporters, especially in helping him keep his priorities in order. “I had a conversation with my parents before we opened,” Eric recalled. “The number one thing was: School’s first, and don’t obsess over it.”

Eric said that initial advice has served him well in the years since he opened his shop. To this day, he completes homework first thing after school and maintains a straight-A average. He dedicates the remainder of his free time to running his business.

Over the years, Eric’s storefront has evolved to include a robust selection of new and used LEGO pieces, and sets. His shop is considered a hub for local LEGO enthusiasts, who can find everything from collectibles to individual parts. “It’s a really strong community,” Eric said.

Now instead of perusing the halls of BrickCon as a wide-eyed kid, Eric has participated as a seller for the last three years. The young entrepreneur said he’s learned firsthand about customer service, professionalism, and cultivating an online presence.

During the pandemic, he’s pivoted toward his internet storefront, and said his online sales have been booming. Still, the social aspect of the business remains his favorite part. “We’ve had a few people come in and say, ‘This is the first LEGO set that I’m getting, ever.’ And so that’s been really nice, for sure.”

In the early days of the business, it didn’t quite occur to the then-10-year-old what a remarkable venture he was getting into. “Back then, I didn’t realize that there were so few kids that have businesses. I thought of it as something regular. After a while, I realized this was something special I was doing. Not many 10-year-olds have their own business and successfully run it.”

Five years in, Eric recognizes how lucky he is to have found what he loves at such a young age. “It’s not just a job for me. It’s doing something that I really like. That’s one of the things that motivates me … it’s one of my passions, and I get to share it with people who have the same passion.” 

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