When she put together a business plan and prepared to launch her first company, Sandra Kaunaui didn’t have the option to tap into the Internet for resources or study entrepreneurship at school.
Entrepreneurship, she said, wasn’t talked about in college — and wasn’t a path many students pursued.
Years later, Kaunaui leads one of hundreds of university centers dedicated to developing entrepreneurs. At Florida Gulf Coast University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, the former financial business leader helps young entrepreneurs get their business ventures on their feet — an option much more within reach because of the new resources available to them.
“A lot of kids come to me now and they’ve written plans, finished undergraduate school and want to come in and go over their business plan,” Kaunaui said. “That environment wasn’t there before. It’s just a very different environment that we’re in.”
It’s that changed environment, she said, that helps propel young entrepreneurs.
And there are many of them. Research from the Kaufmann Foundation shows the 20-34 age group now accounts for nearly 30 percent of entrepreneurs, meaning the younger age group now leads the nation in new business creation. Across the U.S. and even in Southwest Florida, they’re responsible for an increasing number of startups.
Among them is Benjamin Fleischer, who at 33 is already a success story.
Seven years ago, Fleischer set out to create a healthier, all-natural alternative to energy drink staples such as Red Bull. He came across stevia — an all-natural, zero-calorie, sugar-free sweetener that, at the time, wasn’t widely available or even FDA-approved — and aimed to perfect it.
In 2008, Fleischer relocated to Naples, where his parents have a home, and launched Pyure Brands with his refined stevia.
“I spent the first few years by myself, knocking on everyone’s doors trying to educate supermarkets about stevia,” he said.
Soon enough, it caught on. Fleischer hired a team of toxicologists to analyze his production process, and the Pyure brand stevia received FDA approval in 2010. Pyure linked up with a major distributor, and Fleischer’s product started attracting large companies looking for a healthy alternative to artificial sweeteners.
Pyure now has a retail and commercial division, a product line and a team of employees at its North Naples base. Last year, Whole Foods gave it a national rollout, Fleischer said.
In the last year, he said, the company grew
310 percent. It has already surpassed sales from all of 2011.
“We built the engine, got the team in place,” Fleischer said. “We’ve got a lot of momentum behind us.”
Fleischer now teaches at FGCU, coaching other young entrepreneurs in their pursuits.
The expanded opportunities at the university level also have contributed to the boom in young entrepreneurs, Kaunaui said. Aside from the center she directs, FGCU offers a concentration in entrepreneurship, an entrepreneurship club.
Those opportunities provide a support system for students looking to get started.
Brett Diamond, 23, grew up watching his dad grow a successful business — Deangelis Diamond Construction — and knew before enrolling at FGCU that he, too, wanted to be an entrepreneur.
After graduating in April, Diamond, who previously worked at the construction company as “the secretary’s secretary,” is preparing to launch a business venture of his own.
Called Venture X, the company is a collaboration between Brett and his dad. It’s a “co-work space” — an open space with desks, conference rooms and offices for business owners and entrepreneurs to rent by the day or month. Business owners from across disciplines can use the space, set to open in October, and collaborate on projects.
So far, Diamond said he has heard from more than 20 individuals interested in using the space. The Naples International Film Festival has already signed on, he said. The concept, new to the Naples area, is based on similar ventures in San Francisco and New York and is meant to promote collaboration and networking between businesses.
“Naples has entrepreneurs,” Diamond said. “They’re just hiding in different coffee shops. They’re not working together — they’re all doing their own thing.”
Kaunaui said as young people hear stories of other such as Fleischer and Diamond, they will be even more inspired to become entrepreneurs.
And to Kaunaui, that’s the goal of the kind of educational programs offered at FGCU and other schools.
“What we’re trying to do is to show that these are not just for other people,” she said. “Anybody can do this if they want to, if they have the passion and the interest and the ideas.”