Teen's Business Model Earns Him National Recognition
Jason Heki has been cultivating successful business models for the last nine years, one plant and one bird at a time - the inspiration for his forthcoming book aimed at inspiring entrepreneurs. What's so special about that, you ask? He's only 17 years old.
Last month, the homeschooled junior from rural Polk County was recognized for his business acumen when he was named a "Young Entrepreneur of the Year" by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a non-profit organization devoted to entrepreneurial education. He was one of 18 students from across the country to receive the award May 19 at the NFTE's annual Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards Dinner held at the Marriott Marquis ballroom in New York City. Heki was one of 65,000 graduates of NFTE's programs eligible for the award.
"It was really neat," said Heki, son of Rich and Barb Heki of Jefferson Township, located between Johnston and Grimes. "I was pretty surprised because there were a lot of people who could have won it."
Heki received the award for his business plan and his 7-year-old enterprise, Green Acres Family Farm, which grows chemical-free vegetables and sells eggs from free-range chickens. The updated business plan he submitted to the NFTE included the production of free-range broiler chickens raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. As a winner in the operational business category, Heki received a plaque and $1,000, which he plans to use to help pay for college. Heki said he hasn't decided where he will go to school yet, but he said he wants to study business and agriculture.
"Now that I run my own business, I can apply my business skills to a whole field of opportunities," he said. "I'm just trying to figure out what direction I want to take."
Barb Heki said whatever field of business her son decides to go into, he will be dedicated to making it work. She said she first noticed his drive to own a business when at the age of 8 he began breeding parakeets and selling them to pet stores.
"Early on, he was into developing businesses," she said. "We didn't realize it would mushroom into this. It's been fun watching it grow. We're very proud of him."
Barb Heki said her son's entrepreneurial spirit has even rubbed off on her husband and herself.
"We used to be play-it-safe kind of people, but he taught us to take a risk and flourish," she said. "He's helped us develop our business minds."
A graduate of the NFTE entrepreneurship education program, Heki said his enrollment in the program taught him many valuable lessons that have helped him achieve his business goals and honed his vision for business. He attended the 2002 BizCamp last summer, an event sponsored by the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Iowa, a co-sponsor of the NFTE. At the camp, he won a first-place cash award of $500 for his business presentation, which he used to construct a building that houses 60 chickens. The birds produce three dozen eggs a day, which Heki sells at area farmers markets and to small grocery stores.
"The John Pappajohn Entrepreneur Camp was a wonderful experience," he said. "Attending the camp while I'm still young has allowed me to get a head start on being a business owner - a dream that most people don't pursue until their adult years, if ever."
Dawn Bowlus, the camp's student activities and outreach coordinator, said learning about how to start and run a business empowers young entrepreneurs, which benefits the state. "Through BizCamp, high school students can turn their ideas into businesses, helping grow the next generation of Iowa entrepreneurs," she said.
Heki said the idea of operating his own business hatched seven years ago when he created a homemade incubator that helped produce two roosters. When his family moved to its current rural residence, it gave him the freedom to expand his business.
"When we moved to the country, I got the chickens as a hobby, but I enjoyed raising them so much that I began raising more of them and selling their eggs," he said. "I had no idea it would turn into a business."
Looking for a way to diversify his business, he planted a half-acre garden with a variety of vegetables, such as lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and green beans, all grown organically and chemical-free. He said he soon found a niche market of buyers, who, like himself, appreciate the value of chemical-free produce.
Hoping that restaurants share the same values, Heki plans to sell his broiler chickens to local eateries. When he goes to college in a year, he plans to focus more of his energies on harvesting 40 broiler chickens a month. The chickens are also more profitable than the vegetables.
"Lots of people are concerned about the chemicals in their food and I think I can find a niche market for my broiler chickens, too," he said. "I know several people who sell to restaurants in Des Moines because they like to buy local food."
Heki said operating his business doesn't leave him a whole lot of free time, but he spends what little he has reading books. It won't be long until others will be reading about Heki, however. As part of an assignment for his summer class in the Herbert Hoover Uncommon Student Award program, he is writing a book aimed at helping young entrepreneurs get their start in business. The project is due by October, and Heki is currently outlining his plans for the book and has a handful of publishers interested in it.
One piece of advice Heki intends to include in the book is that first-time business owners should start small. "I tell people my age who want to start their own business to start out small and don't get overwhelmed," he said. "Every year I have made my business bigger, but only to the point of what I could handle."
Last summer, Heki spent some time mentoring an 8-year-old boy who wanted to plant his own garden and sell its fruits. Heki gave the young boy a row from his own garden and said it was part of the inspiration to write the book.
"It was really fun," he said. "I kind of like teaching. It was fun to help someone else because I've had a lot of help along the way from my mentors, teachers and family."
Contact: Michael Swanger, ,