Alex Hart-Upendo, of Racine, is an award-winning entrepreneur, author and speaker. He has appeared on major TV shows and is pitching his show to a network. He has built the foundation of a budding fashion and special events business.
All of this, and he is just 11 years old.
When interviewing Hart-Upendo, it’s easy to forget that he’s in fifth grade. Creator of the business Build-A-Bow, LLC, he speaks with the authority and wisdom of an adult. The maturity he exudes will be on display when he is keynote speaker at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Student Business Idea Competition on Feb. 26.
“He gets about 10 or 12 requests a month for speeches or workshops,” his mother, Karee Upendo, commented. “If it were up to Alex, he would take every request.”
Calling herself “his momager,” Upendo, an entrepreneur herself and owner of Karee Couture, has been much of his inspiration. She said she and Alex experienced great hardship, and as a single, emancipated mother at age 15, she wanted her son to have a better life.
“My grandmother taught me how to sew, and I wanted to give Alex something special like she gave me," Upendo said. "I taught him how to make a simple bow tie and pillowcase. At first, he wasn’t interested in sewing, but I told him it was a good time for us to talk. I was a girly girl, and sewing was a way to connect. By the time he was 9, he was good at it.”
Hart-Upendo was also very smart, and at age 5 tested as gifted.
“I was bullied in school and called a ‘nerd’ and ‘dork’ and that made me think of a how a nerd is pictured wearing glasses and a bow tie,” Hart-Upendo said. “I saw that sewing was actually pretty cool and I started my company. Bow ties were like my superpower.”
The company took off, and so did his confidence.
“My original vision was to sell to family and friends," he said. "I never expected it to become a worldwide company.”
In addition to starting the company, he wrote a book to address bullying entitled “Bullies, Bowties, and Brilliant Alex.” The book brings awareness to bullying, encourages entrepreneurship and teaches others to be kind.
“Being kind is accomplished when you lead by example,” Hart-Upendo said. “It is like a yawn — infectious. When you yawn, someone else yawns. When you are kind to someone, they are kind to someone else.”
His kindness extends to donating books for underprivileged children and schools and hosting free community workshops where participants are taught how to build a bow with bows donated to various causes. Build-A-Bow (www.buildabowbyalex.com) includes custom bow ties, hair bows and pet bows.
As the business grows, Hart-Upendo has taken entrepreneurship classes alongside adults at Gateway Technical College in Racine and has several mentors including some from the local SCORE chapter. With a heart given to philanth
ropy, he said his mentors encourage him to also make money.
“My mentors yell at me all of the time. They said I needed to increase my prices because the bows are a luxury product,” he said.
In taking classes that he said were “intense,” he learned how to interpret financial statements and is looking forward to building a company that is both dedicated to giving back and financially successful. The growth has him setting new goals.
His business has gotten too busy for his mom, whose own business is also growing and needs more of her time. She is giving up the publicity duties, and Hart-Upendo is interviewing for his first employee. He plans to continue doing his own social media marketing and posting on Facebook where he enjoys connecting with other kids and serving as a role model.
When asked about starting a business, he is quick to give advice. He has memorized the seven steps of starting a business and says it all begins with finding something you’re good at, just like he did.
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.