I spent my high school summers working at the family business. It was based in Fairfield, New Jersey – a town mixed of working-class and middle-class families. My parents started the company in 1980 based on something they knew very well: the family table. Jerry Blanke Designs, Inc. designed and manufactured all types of products for the tabletop: napkin rings, tablecloths, runners, placemats, etc.

I had the chance to work in every department, from shipping and receiving to production to accounting. The experience still comes back to me in vivid flashbacks: the rusty condensation smell of the manufacturing equipment, my dad’s cigar smoke clouded office, the incessant chit chat of the team on the factory floor.

I did not know it at the time, but that job was my first true entrepreneurial experience. It changed me forever: touching every element of the company; seeing how all the pieces came together and how the right people glued it all together.

Those experiences have directly shaped who I am today, someone who is very passionate about growing Sailthru across all the different departments, ensuring everyone is working in sync, and talking to anyone about it who will listen.

Recently, these memories came back to me when I had the opportunity to participate as a judge at an event for NFTE (Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship). NFTE’s mission is to provide programs that inspire young people from low-income communities to stay in school, to recognize business opportunities and to plan for successful futures. The organization builds  entrepreneurs and empowers them to own their own destiny.

Four young entrepreneurs presented their business ideas (all of them generating revenue already!) to the panel in the hopes of winning funding for growing their businesses. One of them made cake pops. Another masala-flavored popcorn. Another was a printer/designer who wanted to help barber shops and contractors market their businesses better. And another wanted to create a wardrobe exchange where you could get rid of yesterday’s style and easily exchange it for today’s.

NFTE taught them how to build an MVP (minimum viable product), how to build a business plan and how to pitch their idea. It was inspiring to watch these young entrepreneurs stand up in front of a room of over a hundred attendees to talk about their businesses and what they hoped to achieve with them. It was a true character-building experience. I applaud each and every one of these young stars.

Indeed, the most rewarding part of participating was watching the pitching. I can’t think of many skills that are as useful: no matter who you are or what you are trying to do, it is always essential to be able to explain your business, what it does, why it’s different and why that matters. One of the most exhilarating feelings for me is presenting. Whether it be at a conference or to the team at Marigold Engage by Sailthru, having the ability to present ideas and have them resonate, have people connect over a single idea, or spark a healthy debate is exhilarating.

There are tons of classes and books on pitching, presenting, communicating articulately across different media. But the most important lesson for me, which came later in my career, was perhaps the simplest one: be yourself. In honesty comes clarity. You might geek out on colonizing Mars or maybe it’s Klezmer music, whatever it is, find a way to tie it into your pitch. Authenticity trumps all. Many of us increasingly lose that over time, dooming ourselves while trying to gain success by following a model others have created. If you can maintain authenticity and sincerity in every thing you do, you are guaranteed success because you define what exactly that means for you.

By teaching them to stand to stand by their convictions and present their ideas confidently, NFTE helped these young entrepreneurs realize that they owned their own destiny and if they believed in themselves nothing stood in the way of them being successful. I was inspired by the work that NFTE is doing and even more so by the young adults who I met that night. They were bold, confident, and smart. We need more of them.

 — David Blanke, EVP of Global Operations