Young Entrepreneurs Bootstrap to Avoid College Debt

Published January 5, 2013

In 2011, roughly two-thirds of the nation’s college seniors graduated with college debt averaging more than $26,000, according to the Project on Student Debt. While much national attention has focused on higher tax spending to address the problem, a new book highlights young entrepreneurs who, through their businesses, graduate college with little to no debt.

Geoff White, author of Lemonade Stand Economics, encourages young people to finance their education through small business.

“Everyone is talking about [students] needing to cut expenses,” he said. “There is no one chirping on their other shoulder, saying, ‘You need to figure out a way to make more than $7.50 an hour. You need to make $20, $25, $50 an hour.'”

A serial entrepreneur who started his first business at 17, White realized early he could be paid five times his wages when a customer offered him a contract to clean her windows. Now White wants to help other high school students make the same conceptual leap: “An entrepreneurial kid thinks differently.”

White researched and profiled a number of these “entrepreneurial kids” who have limited their college debt through hard work. Here are just three. You can find many more—even fourth- and fifth-graders—on the Lemonade Stand Economics website.

Robert Felton, 20
Junior, University of Wisconsin-Stout, Business & Entrepreneurship Major
Owner, Never Lost Jewelry

While a student at Renaissance School for the Arts, then-16 Robert Felton had to design clothes for art class. When he repeatedly broke the sewing machines, he turned to a box of broken bits and buttons and fashioned a simple necklace. His teacher was so enthralled she offered to buy it—and a business was born.

With pieces ranging from $8 to $52, Felton spends summers traveling up to four hours to attend trunk shows and fairs, where he earns half his annual $8,000 business income. Felton says his entrepreneurial spirit is innate.

“When I was little I would sell painted rocks to my neighbors,” he said. “I would have garage sales without my parents’ permission. It was how I played.” Felton uses this real-life experience to enliven boring college business classes.

In finance or marketing classes, “projects will come up and all the other students moan,” he said. “The coolest thing about running your own business is that you are like ‘Oh, my god, I totally had to fix this.'”

Felton is a junior with $2,000 in student loans. His business eliminates the need for crushing student debt, and his classes apply to life immediately. Once, an accounting class taught him how to avoid a government fine: “I learn better because I am excited about taking what I am learning and putting it into my own context.”

Chloe Siamof, 18,
Freshman, Yale University, Architecture Major
Founder, Chloe’s Popcorn Stand

When the Appleton, Wisconsin Farmer’s Market moved to a larger location, 11-year old Chloe Siamof was saddened to lose her popcorn stand spot. With a small loan from her parents, she bought a 6-ounce popcorn maker and set up shop at a new stand her father built. Every summer for the next seven years, Chloe’s Popcorn Stand was open for business at the Appleton Farmer’s Market and the city’s summer concert series.

Siamof managed every aspect of the business, including an expansion to include kettle corn. In her final summer, she earned more than $500 a weekend. “The popcorn stand is the only job I ever had,” she said.

Siamof credits her popcorn stand experience with helping her start an initiative to restore her 70-year-old high school: “My contacts and experience in dealing with people through the business meant that I had the initiative to go out there.” 

Now finishing her first semester in college, Siamof is continuing her entrepreneurial activity by job-shadowing New York City start-ups. Although she received numerous scholarships, her popcorn business is also helping pay Yale University’s $58,600 annual price tag. She plans to graduate with no debt.

This past summer Siamof sold her business to a 26-year-old hot dog vendor and his teenage brother. “So it is still benefitting young entrepreneurs,” she said.


Heather Mrotek, 18
Sophomore, University of Wisconson-Milwaukee, Accounting Major
Owner, Passion Pursuit Photography

A tall, “amazonian” teenager, Heather Mrotek began modeling near her hometown in Hartland, Wisconsin. She soon moved behind the camera, working as a photographer’s assistant during high school. While still in high school she became very involved with DECA, a young adult business network. Once she reached college and debt began to pile up, Mrotek struck out on her own, incorporating Passion Pursuit Photography as a full business.

“Once I started getting involved in the legal aspect of my business I really grew, not only as a business owner but as an adult,” she said. Now a college sophomore, she has photographed more than 100 clients for sittings that average $200.

“To show you the difference from my freshman to sophomore year, without my business I took out a $10,000 loan. Since starting my company in July 2012 I haven’t had to take out any loan, and I was able to move out of the dorms to a home where I have to pay for utilities and everything,” she said. “Even if I don’t do Passion Pursuit forever, I will be an entrepreneur forever.”


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Image courtesy of Lemonade Stand Economics.