When the Youth Entrepreneurship Showcase was introduced last summer at the Boys and Girls Club on Bailey Avenue, the idea of youngsters starting their own T-shirt business lured only a few from the basketball court. Four teenagers signed on, and with far from pie-in-the-sky aspirations, they started their company, High Definition Apparel.
“I thought it would be a good way to make a little spending money on the side,” said 19-year-old Darius White, a teacher’s aide.
“I like fashion, so I thought it would be a good thing to do,” said Damon Jackson, 17, a junior at Center for Applied Technologies. “I just thought it would be interesting.”
None of the budding entrepreneurs – despite months of market research and business-plan writing knowledge – thought their company would take off.
“I thought we were going to sell the shirts to our friends and family, and make money that way, which would’ve been fine,” said 20-year-old Damon White, Darius’ brother.
But to their surprise, their “Hungry Money” T-shirts caught some buzz and will be sold this fall in a trendy apparel and footwear store in Walden Galleria and at three locations in Rochester.
“To be honest, I didn’t believe it at first because of our origin, the way we started,” said Hanifah Habeeb, 16, a senior at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. “We were just teenagers at a community center making designs. I didn’t think we had the potential to go that far.”
Their company has struck a distribution deal with streeTgame, an urban retailer with nine locations throughout upstate New York and Boston, Mass. The baseball-style T-shirts will debut in stores in mid-September.
“It’s an amazing opportunity, and it offers credibility to the program,” said Tracey Cooley, program director of the entrepreneurship program. “It sends a message to the community that you can have a program like this and have something good come out of it.”
Gilbert Park, district manager of streeTgame, said the quality and the design of the T-shirts – which feature a cartoonish illustration of a mouth gobbling a bill – first caught his attention. Damon White, who had just started working at the Galleria streeTgame store, wore his shirt to work on a day he was helping Park pick out new inventory for the branch. White suggested his line.
“First and foremost, we are in the fashion business, so the design has to be original and have the potential sell,” Park said. “The quality of the shirts is not subpar, it’s up there with the Nike products.”
Buffalo and Rochester will be the test markets, and if all goes well, the shirts will be sold in all nine streeTgame stores, he said.
“We’re really excited to be working with them and being involved in the community,” Park said. “I had been looking for a micro company to bring on. I think the program is awesome. It’s just the right thing to do.”
YES began two years ago to expose youngsters to entrepreneurship and to be a diversion from the ills of inner-city life. AHOWI, a community organization that provides outreach for at-risk youth, partnered with Canisius College’s Enactus program (then called SIFE) to develop the business training curriculum for kids. The program has grown to five locations, with groups ranging from ages 12 to 21, at each site forming businesses.
Enactus students, who also operate QuadGear, a campus based, nonprofit T-shirt company, provides weekly classroom instruction that covers a wide range of subjects from business plans and branding to intellectual property and ethics.
The businesses’ startup costs are covered by a grant from the Erie County Youth Board, and initial production is fronted by QuadGear.
Signature Barrel Footwear on Walden Avenue started carrying all products made by YES companies a few months ago and sold out. The shirts have also been hawked in the foyer of KeyBank downtown and sold by the business partners in their neighborhoods and at school.
A portion of profits will go to repay QuadGear for production costs, and some is saved to purchase raw materials for the second round of production. The remainder is divided among the owners, Cooley said.
High Definition’s deal with streeTgame is the program’s biggest to date.
Park said he’ll order 120 shirts, in various colors, 30 for each store. streeTgame is opening a second Buffalo-area location on Bailey Avenue on Nov. 1, and that store will also carry the shirts, he said.
High Definition’s business partners are still reeling in shock and delight from the deal.
“I’ve learned to take every opportunity as it comes, because you never know what it might turn into,” Hanifah said.