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Judges see beauty in teen's photo business

By Mari-Jane Williams
Thursday, February 25, 2010; PW16

For Nina Maniphak, photography isn't just taking pictures. It's a way to help boost her subjects' self-image, to make teenage girls, in particular, feel better about themselves by revealing a beauty they never knew they had.

It was that aspect of the Gar-Field Senior High School senior's presentation that wowed the judges at the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, Greater Washington's business plan competition last month, vaulting her to a first-place finish in the regional final and a $1,500 prize to help finance her budding business, Plum Porcupine Photography.

"I think [I won] because mine focused on girls and how I wanted to help with their self-esteem and confidence, because I really like that feeling of helping them feel good about themselves," said Maniphak, 18.

"One of the things the judges were impressed with was that she's not just selling pictures, she's selling self-esteem," said Julie Kantor, vice president of government affairs for the Greater Washington NFTE. "Her strategy really impressed judges. She's polished and had an understanding of how she would reach her customers."

Maniphak moved with her family to Prince William County from Fairfax this school year and, intrigued by the opportunity to try something new, enrolled in Gar-Field's entrepreneurship class. Gar-Field is the only high school in Prince William that participates in NFTE's program to teach students how to conceive and run a business.

NFTE was founded in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1987 and has spread to 11 cities across the country. The Greater Washington office opened in 1994. More than 1,000 students in the Washington area are enrolled in the program this year at 16 schools, Kantor said. The program started as a way to make school more appealing to low-income students and to keep them from dropping out.

"Whenever we approach young people with how they can turn their passions into opportunities, kids are very open to learning reading, writing, math," Kantor said.

"I did photography as a hobby, but I didn't know that it could become a business," said Maniphak, who enjoys taking a variety of pictures. "It's one of the things I actually really enjoy. With photography, for me, I always go back."

At the end of each semester, the young entrepreneurs have to write and defend a business plan for an in-class competition. The winners then compete in the regional semifinals against winners from other schools in the Washington area. The top six advance to the final, where they compete for cash prizes to invest in their businesses.

Of the six finalists, three were from Gar-Field. Junior Andre Robinson finished third with his plan for Klassic Kernels, a gourmet popcorn company. And senior Abhishek Dohare was a runner-up with his bicycle repair business plan.

Maniphak plans to use her prize money to buy photography equipment. She says she will attend Northern Virginia Community College before moving on to study photography and business elsewhere. In the meantime, she will work on honing her proposal for NFTE's National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in October, where she will compete against the regional winners from other cities for a $10,000 prize.

As for how she created the name of the winning company? Maniphak laughs.

"For our school Web site, we have a log-in, and it generates a random name," she said. "I got Plum Porcupine, so I just stuck with that."

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