The Skill Set: 7 Tips for Starting a Business in High School

This baking CEO knows all about the hustle.

If there’s one thing Jessica Cervantes can measure her success to, it’s balance. In 2006, at the age of 16, she created the first cupcake on an edible stick while still in high school—naming her budding baking business PopsyCakes, a recognition of its resemblance to ice cream popsicles. After winning first place in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) competition against 25,000 high school students across the country, she went on to college where she expertly managed the demands of schoolwork with hundreds of incoming orders. If that was not enough, after delivering PopsyCakes to the Miami Children’s Hospital for several months and being touched by the interactions she had with patients, she decided to attend medical school.

Her on-call visits, endless class schedule and intensive exams would have to coincide with her bustling side job. “I don't think you ever reach the top,” she says. “There’s always something else you can do. In medicine, there’s new medical literature that you need to get updated on. The same thing with baking—there’s always a new taste, new dessert or a new idea.”
The Skill Set: 7 Tips for Starting a Business in High School That ambitious sentiment can be attributed to her upbringing. After immigrating to the United States from Cuba at six years old, Jessica learned how to bake from her grandmother (who pioneered the family’s move to the States with little money)—starting with flan and tres leche. She soon turned her baking skills, aspiration and work ethic into a brand that would land in the Four Seasons Hotel and Vizcaya Museum, all thanks to her high school business class’s final project. Jessica was first in her family to start her own business, and the company became the means to funding her education. Her dessert required the perfect balance of ingredients. The consistency of the stick, the thickness of the cake and the delicacy of the coating would have to be just right so the treat would hold. Successfully getting it right, PopsyCakes has been featured in the New York Post and the Miami Herald, and it was served at NBA star Dwayne Wade’s son’s birthday party. To learn Jessica’s recipe for success and what it takes to start a business when you’re still in your teens, read below.

1. Use the resources you have at the moment

I did something that was simple enough that someone at my age could do. A lot of people in the NFTE competition said, “In the future, I’m going to do this” and it would take $100,000 to start that company. For me, it had to be something I could do from home. Eggs, flour, milk and vanilla don’t cost that much and I knew how to bake from my grandmother. What made me stand out was that my product and my idea could function at the moment. I was doing what I said I was going to do, right then and there.

2. Evolve your idea

I knew that kids loved popsicles but they melt in their hands and they’re not very convenient for parents. So I thought, “Why not make cupcakes on a stick?” There would be no mess. As the company grew, I realized that there was so much waste with the sticks and they were dangerous. So that’s when I decided to make a completely edible treat. I first used a cookie stick but found the cake wouldn’t hold. With a solid chocolate stick, it would also melt in the kids’ hands. We finally did a candy cane version for the holidays before I turned to pretzels.

3. Word of mouth works

Just talk to people. The moment I started introducing myself to people, my company grew. They would remember meeting me, visit my website and order. They would refer me to people and it kept expanding from there. Especially as a young girl, I didn’t have the resources to put my cupcakes in a newspaper or an ad, but I did have word of mouth.

4. Stand up for what you believe in

At first, I would agree with whatever my team said at the time. They were mostly entrepreneurs with many years of experience who volunteered their advice and guidance to me. Then, I started to see PopsyCakes changing. The look and taste of the product veered so much from the original. The more I started talking and the more vocal I was, the better I articulated my point and my product went back to what I wanted in terms of quality, flavor and appearance. By staying quiet, I was doing my business a disservice.

5. Consider joining a competition; they're rife with opportunities

Through NFTE, I was able to get a business investment. I didn’t have to pay a cent for my patent application and trademark, because they had lawyers who helped me. They also have a great network of entrepreneurs that want to help the community. Thanks to them, I met Bill Hansen, a successful caterer who took my company to the next level. He not only gave me all his business advice and suggestions, but also let me use his commercial kitchen and supplies for free.

6. Prioritize your responsibilities

In high school, I would always get home, complete my assignments and then work on PopsyCakes the rest of the night. I improved my time management skills and got an agenda. When I went to college, I was able to choose my schedule. I would pick morning classes and always give myself a day off during the week for baking. I liked to give myself Thursdays off so that I could complete all of my orders for the weekend.

7. Do what you love and it won’t feel like extra work

When I came up with my business concept, I thought about what I really love to do and what wouldn’t feel like a job. I always loved baking and experimenting in the kitchen. When I was just starting out, my friends would even come over and help me decorate the cupcakes. It was a stress relief for me to just be there.

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Image courtesy of Ivanka Trump Illustration by Jonny Ruzzo