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From empanadas to fake eyelashes, young Philly entrepreneurs pitch their dreams

Joseph Felder was working as a dishwasher when he had an epiphany.

After his time living in foster homes and homeless shelters, security was paramount to the West Philadelphia youth. But what if the restaurant employing him let him go?

"If someone took away my job, what would I do for money?" Felder said. "So I used my mind to get me out of my situation."

Enter Trapfit Fashions, Felder's fledgling start-up. The 21-year-old has a full-time job as an apprentice carpenter, but he's set his sights on bigger things: a company that sells clothes, focuses on real estate investment, and motivates young people "to bet on themselves."

Felder and dozens of other young people gathered at Philadelphia School District headquarters recently to pitch their dreams, sell their wares, learn from others, and vie for cash to build their businesses. The platform was Rebel Ventures' Youth Entrepreneurship Expo, a daylong event sponsored by the successful student business that's sold more than a million of its healthy snack cakes.

One by one, the youths – some younger than 10 years old – trooped to a microphone and told their stories. Georjelis Rujano, an immigrant from Venezuela who runs La Luz De Aurora, sells empanadas so she can send boxes full of food and clothes to poor communities in her home country.

"I would like to be able to create more food for bake sales," Rujano said. "My country is struggling."

Washika Reid got her start selling cupcakes to pay for her high school expenses and found that people couldn't get enough of her confections. Now she runs Wawa's Delicious Creations as she prepares to enter culinary school to pursue a degree in pastry arts.

And then there is Janiah Bright, all of 12 years old, with confidence to spare. Bright recently launched JLuxe EyeCandy, which sells sunglasses for now, but soon will add false eyelashes and other accessories. Janiah buys her goods wholesale, she said, and wants to be able to buy more product.

"Are you looking for some hot shades?" Bright said when it was her turn to pitch, pointing to people in the School District's cavernous auditorium. "Are you? Are you?"

The seventh grader at F.S. Edmonds Elementary in East Mount Airy said she was nervous pitching a room full of people, but Bright didn't come off that way. Her mother, Natasha Curtis, runs her own event-planning business, and Bright has been watching.

"I always tell my kids, 'You've got to do things on your own, you've got to make your own money,'" Curtis said.

At the end of the day, prizes were awarded: first prize to Felder; second prize to Kimanii Mahan of Kanani Kurls, a line of organic hair-care products; and third prize to Martine Augustin of A.O.A., Ambition Overcomes Adversities, which teaches young people about goal-setting and adjusting to college and awards scholarships. A special Rebel's choice was given to Skye Shapiro-Simmons, who runs Skye's Meraki, selling homemade lotions.

The prizes were modest, from $75 to $300, but the platform seemed important, and the judges were men and women currently making it in business.

"There's so many young people out there doing good things, being their own bosses," said Simin Deveauxbray, a Rebel co-executive director and recent graduate of Prep Charter School. "We want to showcase that. We want to amplify that."

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