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Young Entrepreneur Spreads Cheer, With Oprah's Blessing

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

At age 9, Cameron Johnson started his first business, making greeting cards and party invitations on the Compaq computer he got for Christmas. Three years later, the Virginia native was making $50,000 a year selling Beanie Babies online from his parents' garage.

At 15, after flying to Tokyo to advise a large corporation, Johnson was an instant media sensation there and had his biography published in Japanese. "My entire life has always been: What's next? What's next? What's next?" said Johnson, now 23.

You might call Johnson a Donald Trump in the making -- a self-made millionaire, entrepreneur, public speaker and philanthropist.

And tonight, he's a contender to win $1 million.

Johnson is a finalist on "Oprah's Big Give," ABC's latest reality television show: a cross-country charity challenge to find the person who can change the lives of complete strangers in the most creative ways. The youngest of 10 contestants, Johnson is among three remaining for tonight's series finale.

The other finalists are Brandi Milloy, 23, a beauty pageant winner from Chicago, and Stephen Paletta, 43, a real estate developer and father of three from Bedford, N.Y.

Johnson said that if he wins, he will donate some of the prize money to Jobs for Virginia Graduates, a nonprofit group trying to lower dropout rates at high schools across Virginia.

"It's a really screwed-up world, especially when you look at the statistics," Johnson said in an interview Friday.

Consider Johnson's alma mater, Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke. Fifty-seven percent of students at Patrick Henry graduate, meaning that two-fifths fall through the cracks, a problem Johnson likened to an "epidemic."

"They think all the odds are against them," he said. "That shouldn't be the case. Somehow we're failing all of these people."

Before becoming an education advocate, before Oprah, before the Japanese book and the Beanie Babies and the greeting cards, Johnson was a little boy growing up in southwest Virginia. He would pull his red wagon through the neighborhood. He would hang out with his father at the family's Ford dealership.

He also would eat like a champion -- "A lot of broccoli and carrots and fish," his mother, Ann Johnson, 55, said.

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