Nicole Rhynes had a bounce in her step as she hustled from one workshop to another at Erie County Community College in Williamsville Friday.
The Bennett High School sophomore had just left a workshop led by Tony Magiotto, owner of local fashion boutique CityLove Clothing on Elmwood Avenue, and was feeling inspired as she rushed to a discussion about business ethics.
"It was very cool, actually," said Rhynes, who hopes to become a music producer with her own studio. "He talked about how it took a long time, but he finally started his own business."
Rhynes' experience -- connecting with a local small business owner and being motivated by seeing him in action -- was just what event organizers had in mind when they planned "Believe in the Possibility," an entrepreneurial conference held to mark National Entrepreneurship Week.
Roughly 200 area high school students attended the conference, hosted by ECC in conjunction with the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College, non-profit financial literacy organization Junior Achievement and non-profit business leadership organization Empower Youth Entrepreneurs.
"A lot of kids have the desire to go into business, but they don't see themselves in a successful role or as having power over their future," said Kathleen Gielow, founder of Youth Entrepreneurs. "When they see others in their community who have done it, they feel closer to realizing those dreams."
With that in mind, event organizers purposely chose local entrepreneurs with interesting stories to share about interesting business ventures. There was bicycle ice cream vendor James Karagiannis, physical therapist and spinning instructor Laura Favaro, and Bob Gott, owner of the Red Dragon School of Martial Arts.
Gott, wearing traditional Kung Fu garb, addressed about 25 students, drawing parallels among the focusing of internal energy practiced in martial arts and the need to master personal emotions in the business world. Eloquently interweaving basic business principles with philosophical and practical advice, he stressed the importance of having passion, finding mentors and learning how to navigate relationships.
"In Kung Fu, we use the movements of animals like the tiger, the crane and the snake," Gott said. "We all have greatness within us and we all draw that power from the same place."
John Sullivan, ECC director of recruitment, stressed the value of connecting with real, seasoned Western New York entrepreneurs rather than "reading about theories in textbooks."
Other educators noted the added value of introducing students to the college campus and the atmosphere of higher education.
"To incorporate leadership skills with entrepreneurship and combining all these factors for success is really positive," said Colleen Connors, reading teacher and literacy coach at Burgard High School. "It shows them it can be done, gives them hope that they can do something they love."
Workshops led by local entrepreneurs were interspersed with such basic business skills sessions as decision-making, dressing for success, as well as the principles of supply and demand.
Gregory Gilbert, an author who led a session on business security, said the conference is particularly helpful in that it addresses content often not learned in the traditional classroom.
Entrepreneur and Buffalo School Board member Pamela Perry-Cahil agreed, saying she was in the midst of writing a curriculum to supplement entrepreneurial knowledge.
Without that curriculum, Gilbert said, students are forced to learn lessons through a daunting process of trial and error.
"It's the school of hard knocks," Gilbert said.