Just two years ago, Shreyas Parab was such a shy, unassuming teenager that it pained him to make eye contact. Now the 15-year-old from Aston, Delaware County, wears ties declaring himself a chick magnet and a stud muffin.
And he's running a company that has sold nearly 600 of those novelty ties for close to $17,000 in its first 14 months of business, tapping into a market where whimsy is popular.
Parab also makes pitches to investor panels, and has met with Sam's Club executives in Bentonville, Ark., hoping to get his Novel Tie line in their stores. A decision is pending.
"It was amazing," he said, breaking into a braces-laced smile few teens would be at ease to show. Not Parab, who was the picture of self-confidence in an interview and photo shoot at Iacobucci Formal Wear in Havertown, where co-owner Steve Cassel carries his ties. (They're also sold at www.mynoveltie.com.)
"This was where someone took a chance on me," Parab said against a backdrop of tuxedos and shiny black shoes.
To his right, wearing a wide-brimmed gray hat and prideful smile was someone else who took a chance on him, and whom Parab credits for his transformation to salesman.
"She wears hats, I wear ties," he quipped.
Ellen Fisher, herself an entrepreneur, saw potential in the 13-year-old she accepted into the program she helped start in the Philadelphia region three years ago, the Young Entrepreneurs Academy.
Better known as YEA! Philadelphia, it is one of more than 100 chapters nationwide, but Pennsylvania's first. It is the only one serving the Greater Philadelphia market, including South Jersey and Delaware. Its mission is to teach entrepreneurial skills to students in grades six through 12 with an after-school program rare in its scope and structure. The new economy demands it, Fisher says.
"Our ideas of kids getting a corporate job and being set the rest of their lives is not sustainable," said the 59-year-old mother of two from Havertown. "It's possible this generation is going to have to create its own jobs."
Developed with the support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, YEA! started at the University of Rochester in 2004. Its 4,000 graduates have started 3,000 businesses.
The program came calling in 2012 to establish YEA! here, said Michele Schina, president of the Philadelphia Center for Advancing Entrepreneurs, the nonprofit arm of the National Association of Women Business Owners that promptly added YEA! to its repertoire. It pays an annual licensing fee to the national YEA organization.
"The reality is the program fulfills the mission of the organization - to advance entrepreneurial excellence in our community," said Schina, who has her own accounting firm.
Fisher was on the center's board and, as someone "very inspired by entrepreneurial leadership," seemed a natural to serve as executive director of YEA! Philadelphia, Schina said.
"It was a joy I couldn't pass up," said Fisher, who started the Women's Yellow Pages in 1982, which she still runs in digital form.
As a daughter of a business owner, the late Samuel Fisher, the creator and namesake of one of the largest independent accounting firms in Pennsylvania, "I like to say I sort of ate it for dinner," she said.
So the opportunity to introduce students to a pathway to making money by detecting and unleashing their business acumen was appealing, said Fisher, who also cofounded the Haverford School District Education Foundation.
YEA! Philadelphia offered its first class in 2013 and will start its fourth in November, hosted at sponsor Cabrini College. Tuition is $695, with scholarships available in cases of need.
Consisting of 90 class hours, the program is spread over the academic year - one three-hour evening session a week. To enable customized support, entry is limited to 24 a year, with applicants judged on transcripts, an essay and how they do in an interview. So far, 42 students have gone through the program here.
"What I look for in our young entrepreneurs is passion and creative problem-solving ability," Fisher said.
In Parab, she saw that and more.
"He was passionate about learning about everything and from everyone," Fisher said. "He also had a sense of humor and humility."
His levity was on display recently when, in talking about his visit to Sam's Club headquarters, Parab said his mother had joined him, "because all CEOs answer to their mothers."
There are no geographic limits to qualifying for the YEA! Philadelphia program, other than being able to get to class. Schina said the goal is to raise enough funds to add programs throughout the region.
Fisher, YEA! Philadelphia's only paid staff, relies on dozens of volunteers, including local business owners, corporate executives, bankers, communications experts, graphic artists and web designers. Many serve as guest speakers and mentors. Others judge an annual Shark Tank-like competition where a panel of investors awards up to $1,000 to those students with promising business plans. Winners advance to a regional contest and sometimes nationals, as Parab did. (He was one of six from across the country to pitch, but did not make the top three.)
In class, YEA! students come up with a business idea (if they don't already have one), and are taught how to develop a business plan and speak about it in public. Everyone gets help designing logos and websites.
With the $800 Parab secured from local investors in April 2015, he funded two purchase orders of ties, primarily made in China. He's switching to a seamstress in Delaware, where he will be entering his junior year in the fall at Archmere Academy - the source of his inspiration for starting a tie company.
As a freshman there, he encountered something novel: a requirement that he wear a tie. He concluded: "If I started making ties people would want to wear, maybe people would buy them."
But stud muffin? As an introverted newcomer to the school, Parab said he figured such a tie "starts the conversation."
His first sale was at a YEA! event - to Cassel. All he had to do was ask once.
He was pushier with Rick Forman, of discount clothing retailer Forman Mills, another YEA! Philadelphia sponsor. Parab, wearing his stud muffin tie, approached Forman at a CEO roundtable event.
"I said, 'You are what you wear and if you're wearing the stud muffin, Mr. Forman . . .' " Parab recalled.
Forman paid the $20 asking price, now $25 since Novel Tie switched to a higher-quality silk.
"You can't teach that kind of charisma," said Forman, who got his retailing start in his teens. "I put his tie on right away."
Meg Jones, former chief administrative officer at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, is mother to a YEA! graduate, 16-year-old Maddie, about to enter ninth grade at Harriton High School in Lower Merion. Born with cerebral palsy that has left her needing assistance to walk, Maddie used YEA! to explore her idea of using wheelchairs to generate enough electricity to charge a cellphone.
Meg Jones praised YEA! for connecting her daughter "to a community of people she otherwise wouldn't have been connected to," and for its empowerment.
"The kids of today who have the knowledge and the will to think about how they're going to generate their own livelihoods are going to do better," Jones said.
Parab is taking nothing for granted. He and a friend, Sriram Hathwar, 16, of Painted Post, N.Y., have formed a second company producing study materials for kids competing in national spelling bees. They are in talks with a Chicago software developer.
2 Ways to Support YEA!
Donations specific to the YEA! Philadelphia program should be sent to:
1231 Highland Ave.
Fort Washington, Pa. 19034
Indicate "YEA donation" in the memo field of the check.
The Philadelphia Center for Advancing Entrepreneurs is holding a gala on Sept. 22, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., honoring Karen Buchholz, executive vice president of administration at Comcast.
Tickets can be purchased at http://www.philadelphiaentrepreneurs.org/gala
For information on sponsorships, contact Michele Schina at 215-917-4973, or firstname.lastname@example.org.