Front lines of the future? Business owners age 30 and younger

Hair stylist Stefanie Johnston shares a laugh with customers at Natural Essence Salon, which she owns in Brandon with her husband, Kieyn Johnston.
Hair stylist Stefanie Johnston shares a laugh with customers at Natural Essence Salon, which she owns in Brandon with her husband, Kieyn Johnston.
Published Aug. 14, 2013

BY ERIN SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Welcome to the entrepreneurial generation.

They are young, creative and adaptable. Experts say they grew up with parents telling them they could do anything only to experience the depth of economic lows with the recession. They have mountains of student loan debt and scarce job prospects. They've learned loyalty is overrated, witnessing hardworking people laid off after 25 years, feeling lost, betrayed, forced to start over.

They refuse this fate.

"They value freedom," said Rebecca White, director of the University of Tampa's Entrepreneurship Center. "They are choosing work based on that rather than money or prestige or power."

Not that they don't want success. They do. But, if they assume the risks, they want the rewards. Many are able to devote their days and nights to building their dreams, without the tether of mortgages, marriage and children. They don't mind sleeping on couches.

They have little to lose.

Is this a new era?

Or are we returning to our roots?

"That is the attitude the U.S. was founded on: 'We are going to see opportunities where other people don't see it. We are going to create value for ourselves,' " said Michael Fountain, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Entrepreneurship. "That's the American dream."

The average age of a first-time business owner is 43, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship.

But that might be changing.

In just one year, the number of 18-to-24-year-olds who plan to start their own businesses jumped 25 percent to 19.8 percent in 2012, according to the "Global Entrepreneurship Monitor U.S. Report," released by Babson College and Baruch College.

Twenty-nine percent of recent college graduates in 2012 were self-employed, according to a study by the Young Entrepreneur Council and Buzz Marketing Group. That is a 9 percent increase from 2011.

Experts say entrepreneurship is one of the fastest-growing studies in higher education. In 1990, there were 20 entrepreneurship centers at colleges and universities, according to Babson College. There are now more than 100, with 2,600 facilities offering entrepreneurship courses.

Scott Gerber, the 29-year-old founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council and author of Never Get a 'Real' Job, said the Internet and globalization make opportunities offered today unique.

"The barriers to entrepreneurship are quickly eroding," Gerber said.

And the ego of this generation, he said, gives them the moxie to take advantage of it.

The following profiles are of 10 young local business owners interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. They are all 30 or younger. Some are highfliers. Others maintain a lower profile. As a group, their levels of higher education vary. Most come from middle-class backgrounds. Some are just starting their businesses and not making money. Others say they are making quite a profit. Most are the sole employee. Many are involved in networking groups. They said business owners can't thrive alone, without the support of mentors and loved ones.

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They were willing to take risks, but they were not fearless.

They had doubts.

But they each took the leap.

Samantha Abraham, 21

Owner: My Paper Pusher LLC, a bookkeeping service


Address: 16536 N Dale Mabry Highway in Northdale

Phone: (813) 279-2752

Samantha Abraham thought she would spend her career as a paralegal. But, while working in bookkeeping at an accounting office, she found a different path.

"I fell in love with small business owners and their energy, their dreams and their enthusiasm," she said.

At the time, Abraham was also finishing her associate's degree at St. Petersburg College and working for a north Tampa lawyer, Keathel Chauncey. She told him of her business ideas: She saw a gap in the bookkeeping industry. She felt that business owners had a choice between big, unreachable certified public accounting firms or bookkeepers informally working out of their homes.

"There is a middle ground," she said, "where you can be an affordable, professional and certified partner."

Partner is the key word. She envisioned taking the burden off small business owners, sorting out their finances, helping their businesses grow.

"It's grunt work," she said of bookkeeping. "It's day-to-day, in-the-trenches work that no one really wants to do."

She could do as much or as little as they needed. She could get them ready for tax season and work with their CPA. So many business owners she spoke with were overwhelmed and didn't know how much money they had. She could help them.

Chauncey, the lawyer, and another entrepreneur, Teri Morrow, urged her to start her own business. They offered to help. Abraham quit her accounting job on a Friday and was in business that Monday, April 1.

My Paper Pusher was real.

She still works as a paralegal for Chauncey while growing her bookkeeping business. She's enmeshed in the networking circuit and is getting clients. She is thankful for where she is, especially because of the things she's had to overcome. When she was 15 she was diagnosed with epilepsy and the following years were difficult, trying to manage the condition and find the right medication. But she persevered.

"I appreciate this opportunity I have to be able to have my own company and do things I never thought would come true," Abraham said. "I see this opportunity as such a blessing — to be able to help other people."

Chas Bruck, 30

Owner: Founding principal of SoHo Capital LLC, a private equity firm. Bruck has ownership stakes in Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club, Boca Kitchen Bar and Market and CopperFish Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar


Address: 2330 W Horatio St. in Hyde Park

Phone: (813) 335-9210

Chas Bruck is developer who, though young, has already made an imprint on Tampa, from small residential developments to something potentially epic — redeveloping dozens of acres of Tampa riverfront property. He hopes the project, called the Heights, will become a vibrant community of 4,300 people, with 100 boat slips and 260,000 square feet of offices, stores and cafes.

"It's a very important project to Tampa," Bruck said. "We are only going to have one chance and it needs to be done correctly."

Bruck comes from a family of entrepreneurs. His maternal grandparents owned dry cleaners. His paternal grandfather worked his way from pushing a hot dog cart to owning several Baskin-Robbins ice cream shops. His father, David Bruck, is a Brandon dentist.

As a child, Bruck loved looking at the landscape of Tampa and wondering how it came to be. He studied urban planning at the University of Arizona. In college, Bruck had an internship with a commercial developer, working on large shopping centers, and realized that wasn't the direction he wanted to go.

He wanted to be hands-on with his projects and to have freedom to do what interested him. He also learned he didn't enjoy being an employee.

"I'm just not one for organizations and bureaucracy," he said.

He moved back to Tampa and worked for another developer before creating his own business, SoHo Capital, with partner Adam Harden.

"There is no cookie-cutter way to do this. That's the fun thing about it," Bruck said. "I have as much fun buying an existing apartment complex as buying a warehouse."

In recent years, Bruck — a self-described "foodie" — also added restaurateur to his resume, with ownership stakes in some of Tampa's hottest restaurants including Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club, Boca Kitchen Bar and Market and CopperFish Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar. He loves creating venues that give a sense of place and never stops researching for ideas.

"I don't think of what I do as a job," he said. "If I did, I probably wouldn't be successful."

Steven Fage, 29

Owner: 5 Nines Automation LLC, a provider of industrial robots, training and automation technologies for manufacturers


Phone: (813) 658-8871

After high school, Steven Fage bummed around, partied and worked on a Mississippi River cruise ship.

When he came home, his police chief father told him to get another job or find somewhere else to live. A relative owned a construction company, so Fage went to work building concrete foundations for houses. It was horrendously hard work.

"It taught me where I didn't want to be," Fage said.

His dad suggested Fage, who never liked school much, check out the electronics engineering program at the New England Institute of Technology. Fage always liked building things, so he enrolled. A career development director guided him toward an industrial robotics company called Yushin America Inc., which makes automation technology for the plastics industry, creating everything from soda bottle caps to medical technology. Fage loved the work and later took a job with Canon, the camera and printer company. It was there Fage realized he needed to run his own business. He said colleagues were often upset about not getting raises they thought they deserved.

"I'm not going to work 20 years of my life and leave the results up to some management committee who decides how much of the profits to divide over their staff," he said. "... I'm leaving it up to me."

He knew he needed to learn how to build a successful business and decided to get his master's degree. Fage applied to the University of South Florida's Center for Entrepreneurship.

He was rejected. But then he wrote what must have been a persuasive rebuttal letter and gained admission to the program. He graduated in 2012 and launched his business, a company that sells industrial robotics and automation machinery. After a year of being his own boss — working out of his Tampa home, spending most days on the road — Fage said it's going well.

"It feels less risky to take this role," he said of owning his own fate. "You have to learn to trust yourself. You are not going to let yourself down."

Kerri-Lyn Francis, 30

Owner: KLynergy Massage & Wellness, a center offering relaxation and rehabilitation


Address: 3102 W Euclid Ave. in South Tampa

Phone: (813) 344-5374

Kerri-Lyn Francis envisioned her business more than a decade ago, when she was a teenager at a community college in Rhode Island. She wanted a center that blended Eastern and Western philosophies on wellness, a serene retreat offering a range of services — massage, acupuncture.

"I didn't know how it was going to happen. I didn't know how it was going to develop," she said. "But I saw the end point."

She wanted to experience as many aspects of the field as possible. While getting her undergraduate degree in exercise science at the University of Rhode Island, she worked as a massage therapist at a salon, a chiropractor's office and a gym. She worked in an oncology unit at a hospital and in administration at a wellness center. She taught applied sciences in Virginia.

In late 2010, she was ready to make a move. She wanted a warmer climate and began researching places. She settled on Tampa.

"Tampa really is on the map for young entrepreneurs and start-up small businesses," she said.

Francis moved in December. Even though she had the goal of owning her own business, she wasn't ready to do it. She taught and worked at a salon. But those jobs didn't last and she had a decision to make: find another job or create her own?

She was terrified.

"You're never going to fail," a friend told her.

Francis found strength in that.

"Every time my back has been against the wall, that's when most of my personal growth has happened — in that moment of change," she said. "Nothing I ever do will be a failure, unless I change my thought process and I view it as failure."

She opened KLynergy in September 2011 in South Tampa. The focus is on wellness, whether it's working with a client for stress relief or helping people with chronic illnesses or sports injuries. Francis plans to expand the practice and move into a larger location this fall. She employs four massage therapists, two interns and an upper cervical chiropractor. When she relocates, she will add three more massage therapists and an acupuncturist.

Bit by bit, she is working toward her goal of having a comprehensive retreat for healing.

"It will get there," she said. "I have my dreams. And they are happening."

Lexi Garcia, 23

Owner: LG Hair Artistry, offering salon hair services, as well as weddings and special events


Address: Salon Lofts, Loft 1, 2511 W Swann Ave. in Hyde Park

Phone: (813) 892-8984

Lexi Garcia's voice makes you feel like you've been hugged. She laughs a lot. She is a rare mix of two seemingly separate worlds — laid-back, artistic and creative but also incredibly responsible and focused. She's been working since she was 15. At 22, she had saved up enough money to buy her own house. At 23, she opened her own hair salon.

"I put my heart into everything," she said. "I think it's why I'm successful — because I'm not afraid to try something new."

The field she chose was not expected, especially because of what she had to overcome. In utero, her umbilical cord wrapped around her right hand and she was born without three fingers. She loved the beauty industry, but wasn't sure she could become a stylist. Not only would she have to master the tools, but she would need to intimately treat people with her hands; giving scalp massages, waxing, applying makeup. She worked as a receptionist at salons while attending Hillsborough Community College. One pivotal day, a client approached her.

"EWWW," the woman said. "What happened to your hand?"

Garcia calmly explained that she was born that way, but it didn't stop her from doing things. The woman said it must be heartbreaking.

"You can never do hair," she said, and left.

Crushed, Garcia decided to fight. She left HCC and enrolled at Paul Mitchell The School Tampa. She loved it. After graduating in 2009, she got a job at a high-end South Tampa salon.

Garcia said she has learned that life is not about obstacles, but how you respond to them. Happiness, she said, is a choice.

"We all have issues. We all have problems. We all have defects. We all have handicaps, in our own way," she said. "It's how you react to that and how you let it affect you that really creates your personality — and creates your challenges."

For Garcia, the dream of owning her own business was never something she questioned. She left her job last year and got her own space at Salon Lofts in Hyde Park. She worried about jettisoning a steady paycheck for the unknown. But in her first two weeks, she had 60 clients. Business has been brisk ever since.

Lisa Gilmore-Sarnowski, 27

Owner: Lisa Gilmore Design, an interior design consulting company


Phone: (727) 437-9335

A bubbly whirlwind of creative energy, Lisa Gilmore-Sarnowski has a serious plan: By 2015, she wants her interior design work published in a national magazine. In five years, she wants to be in demand throughout Florida and in other states. In a decade, she plans to have a furniture line. Possibly fabric, too.

"I always had this burning desire to have my own business," said Gilmore-Sarnowski, a 2006 graduate of the International Academy of Design & Technology in Tampa. She grew up in Lakeland in an artistic family that made their own Halloween costumes and crafted often. She was oil painting at 5.

She knew she wanted to be an artist, but she also wanted to be an entrepreneur.

"Interior design spoke to me," she said. "It was a no brainer."

She worked for other companies in the Tampa Bay area and then in Chicago, her husband's hometown. When the couple moved back to Florida two years ago, she decided it was time to start her own company. Working for other designers, she had to follow their aesthetic. She was ready to do her own thing.

"I just jumped in," she said.

She describes her style as:

"Mid-century modern meets Hollywood regency glam with a little bit of whimsical touches in there," she said. "I love color. I love pattern. I love texture. I love interesting lighting."

She has been busy, working residential and commercial jobs throughout the Tampa Bay area, Sarasota, Jacksonville and Central Florida. She said most of her clients found her through social media, such as Twitter or Facebook. She was the interior design consultant for Piquant Epicure & Cuisine in Hyde Park and is currently working on KELP Sushi Joint, a new restaurant opening soon in South Tampa.

"It's not your typical sushi joint," she said. "It's very industrial chic and moody and dark ... I'm so excited about it."

She can't stop smiling when talking about her passion.

"I love the work," she said. "I'm very fortunate and grateful."

Ferdian Jap, 28

Owner: Big City Events, an event planning company


Address: 3312 W Bay To Bay Blvd. in Palma Ceia

Phone: (813) 421-3527

Ferdian Jap doesn't sleep much.

He is always doing something, every day. He is the co-owner of Big City Events, an event planning company that does everything from charity galas to outlandish fundraisers like Tampa Tee Off, where a section of Franklin Street in downtown was closed and a huge driving range and net set up.

He is also set to graduate next year with his law degree from Stetson University.

It will be his fifth degree.

He's also a Realtor.

And a consultant.

And a board member of the Gasparilla International Film Festival. And a project specialist with Friends of the Tampa Riverwalk.

He believes in hard work, enthusiasm, passion. And coffee.

"I couldn't do a 9-to-5 job ... I would get bored," Jap said.

Jap, a native of Indonesia, moved to Largo when he was in middle school. He graduated from St. Petersburg College with his associate's degree and then from the University of South Florida with a degree in biomedical science. He had found his path. While at USF, he was involved with creating projects such as a program for students to borrow interview suits and installing water bottle refill dispensers. He wanted to do projects like that more than he wanted to go to medical school.

So he enrolled in USF's entrepreneurship program, paying for school by delivering Chinese food at night. Through USF he was connected with Friends of the Tampa Riverwalk and grew passionate about the city's goal of completing the public path. There, he realized he needed to learn more about business: marketing, budgets, spreadsheets.

So he got his MBA at the University of Tampa.

He started also working for a consulting firm and realized he needed his Realtor's license, as some business transactions are classified as real estate. Then he and a friend started a real estate company, buying and selling homes in Tampa and Orlando.

While also still working for the Riverwalk, he noticed he had trouble reading legal documents.

So he decided he needed to go to law school.

He said this is his last degree.

"I'm done," he said, laughing.

He might practice law after he passes the bar and has thoughts about teaching. But his passion is making downtown Tampa vibrant. In the next few months, Big City Events will host a rum festival, an Asian full moon night market with food vendors and a carnival in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. Each event raises money for charity.

His friends tell him he needs to be mayor.

"Maybe one day," Jap said.

Stefanie and Kieyn Johnston, 30

Owners: Natural Essence Salon and Barbershop, natural hair stylists


Address: 115 Lithia Pinecrest Road (inside the Comfort Zone Salon and Spa), Brandon

Phone: (813) 458-5041

Stefanie and Kieyn Johnston, a husband and wife duo, relocated from Miami to Tampa because they saw a business opportunity. The Johnstons specialize in doing natural hair, meaning they use no relaxers, perms or chemicals other than hair color.

"Tampa didn't have a lot of natural hair salons," Stefanie said.

Kieyn is a barber and colorist. Stefanie does braiding, locks and other hair styling. Both grew up thinking of their skills as a hobby and a way to make extra money.

After Stefanie graduated from Florida A&M University with a degree in business, she realized her hobby's potential. She made so much money doing hair, she decided to make it her career.

"I had the best of both worlds," she said. "I knew the art and I knew the business aspect, too."

The couple seized the opportunity, opening Natural Essence in 2008. They started in their Tampa garage and then moved to a small booth at the International Flea Market on Nebraska Avenue. At first, Stefanie was the only stylist. Then Kieyn, an electrician, got laid off from his job. At the salon, someone asked if he cut hair. He said he did.

A customer, knowing well the competitive barber business, told Kieyn he'd never survive in the flea market.

That made Kieyn angry.

"I hate somebody telling me I can't do something," he said.

So Kieyn offered free haircuts to new clients. Soon he and Stefanie were so busy they said they sometimes worked from 8 a.m. till midnight. Working long hours in a tight space might wear on some couples, but they said it has been good for them.

"Before she was my wife, she was my best friend," Kieyn said.

"It's made us stronger," Stefanie said.

They eventually outgrew the flea market and moved into a larger space. At one point, they had six stylists working for them. Last year, the Johnstons decided to downsize so they could go after another dream. They want to work with clients in their homes and do more special events. They also hope to split their time between Tampa Bay and Trinidad, where Kieyn has relatives. They both still work long hours, but they love making people feel better about themselves.

"The confidence you can help give to a human — to get them ready to go and conquer whatever dream they want to conquer," Stefanie said. "That's what excites us."

Guido Maniscalco, 29

Owner: Guido Maniscalco Vintage Timepieces, an online retailer in vintage watches and parts, with a Tampa showroom and repair shop


Address: 4315 N Armenia Ave. in West Tampa

Phone number: (813) 453-1392

Guido Maniscalco is an old soul, an innate entrepreneur who feels most comfortable listening to stories of people more than twice his age. He's fluent in both Spanish and Italian, with his mother's family immigrating from Cuba to Florida when she was young. He loves history and politics and saves his money. But when he spends, he buys things that last.

Such as watches.

"They are a witness to history," said Maniscalco, who grew up in the jewelry business his grandfather built, Guido Morana Jewelers. Maniscalco's vintage watch business is online, but he has his showroom and repair shop at the jewelry store.

He didn't think he would devote his career to vintage timepieces, though it's fitting given his love of history. Ask him about the watch he's wearing, a Rolex Submariner.

"It was the choice of James Bond for years," he said. "Sean Connery wore one in Dr. No in '62. Roger Moore wore one in Live and Let Die." Moore's, he said, had a buzz saw and a powerful magnet.

Robert Redford also wore a Submariner in All the President's Men. Eric Clapton favors them.

When Maniscalco was 10, his father told him every man should wear a watch and gave him his first: a Mickey Mouse watch.

As a teenager, Maniscalco said he wanted a Rolex. His family laughed. What teen has a Rolex?

But saving money, and making it, are in his blood. As a young child, he asked strangers to buy his drawings for a dime. When he saw a Rolex for sale for $900, he had enough saved to buy it.

The next year, at age 17, Maniscalco sold the watch for $2,500.

But it wasn't until a few years later — after running several businesses, selling bracelets in high school, T-shirts and sunglasses in college, working at Dillard's and Montblanc — that he decided to commit solely to the watch business.

As an English major at the University of South Florida, he saw a Rolex like the one he had as a teenager at a pawn shop for $1,700. He was wistful and bought it on layaway. But the nostalgia didn't last.

He sold it later for $3,300 — and realized he really should be doing this for a living.

"It's pop culture, it's history and it's something people can enjoy," Maniscalco said.

As he grows his business, he also plans to delve into politics. He ran for Tampa City Council in 2011 and lost, but plans to run for office again. He likes being a part of the community and helping people, he said.

"I love Tampa," he said. "Tampa has been good to my family."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at or (813) 226-3405.