Nicolas Warren had a great idea for a new product — chocolate snacks for athletes — but the budding business owner did not have the experience to crack the retail food market.
Then Warren, 29, heard about an opportunity in March to pitch his concept to Whole Foods Market, the giant food chain that carries thousands of boutique items. It was an event hosted by Youth Entrepreneurship and Sustainability, a Cambridge organization that helps entrepreneurs 35 and younger find markets for their products.
The young entrepreneurs made 30-second “elevator pitches” to executives from Whole Foods. “It was fairly nerve-wracking,” Warren said.
It was also successful. His business was one of 20 companies, many from Massachusetts, that presented at the YouthTrade summit and whose products debuted this week on the shelves of the 28 Whole Foods stores in the North Atlantic region.
YouthTrade is the brainchild of founder Poonam Ahluwalia, who conceived of the event after attending a conference last year at Conscious Capitalism, an institute cofounded by Whole Foods chief executive John Mackey that promotes “entrepreneurship, competition, and voluntary trade.” Ahluwalia realized the companies at the conference, which included retail chains such as The Container Store, Panera Bread Co., and Trader Joe’s, were interested in helping to grow new businesses.
“It came to me: They have the markets, we have the entrepreneurs,” said Ahluwalia.
Ahluwalia said one of the biggest obstacles for new businesses is persuading retail outlets and other sales channels to take a chance on their products. “Good ideas are just a good idea until someone supports it,” she said. “There’s a lot of support and access to financing for young entrepreneurs. The biggest reason many businesses fail, though, is because there’s no real access to market.”
Now that the first companies have been placed, Ahluwalia said she wants to propose new products to Whole Foods every three months, and is looking to partner with other stores such as Nordstrom and The Container Store.
In June, Ahluwalia will launch versions of her group overseas, starting in Nigeria. She then plans to expand to Guinea and Sierra Leone, thanks to a donation from the African Capacity Building Foundation, a foundation in Zimbabwe that works to build sustainable growth on the continent.
Poorvi Patodia, another entrepreneur at the March event, owns Biena Foods, maker of chickpea-based snacks. YouthTrade helped to get her products onto local shelves faster than she could on her own, Patodia said. She also met other young businesspeople struggling with the same issues.
“They help us connect to other entrepreneurs,” she said. “That’s a huge part of building a community of like-minded people.”
Getting a product onto Whole Food shelves is a difficult proposition at best, and can take months. The chain maintains a schedule through the year to manage its reviews of new products, moving from category to category, with a panel of Whole Foods employees sifting through a myriad of applicants. Competition is fierce.
“We get applications from hundreds of products a week, at least,” said Kimberley Rose, Whole Foods vice president for the North Atlantic region. The chain isn’t necessarily looking for specific items, she said, but products do need to be different enough to stand out on store shelves.
The YouthTrade event helped Whole Foods shortcut its normal review process by bringing a number of high quality products together at one time, according to Rose. “The quality and ingredients of the products were right along the lines of what we were looking for,” she said. “It’s hard to find amazing products all in one place. That was the score for us.”
Whole Foods is working with business owners from the March event to hammer out the details of contracts and get products on the shelves. “Now it’s a matter of how many stores they can put us in,” Warren said. “I’m feeling pretty good.
While Boston is full of young entrepreneurs brimming with ideas, Warren said that YouthTrade aside, there is little support for start-ups that are not focused in the technology world.
“Boston is a huge tech hub,” he said. “If you’re not a phone app or biomedical device, it’s hard to find people to help you.”