How I Started a Business in High School: An Interview with Patriot Portraits Founder

I am invariably moved by stories of young people who dare to be different by starting businesses in response to rallying behind social causes they are deeply passionate about. I recently had a serendipitous introduction to one such individual: college student and entrepreneur, Abby Hamilton. While in high school, Abby started Patriot Portraits, a socially minded photography company that hires young photographers to provide affordable family portrait sessions for military families.


I first had the privilege to listen to Abby speak about her startup at the 2015 Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) Gala, then - later that year - at the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year event. I wanted to connect further. It turns out we share a small world: Steve Mariotti, Founder of NTFE (and the person responsible for getting my foot in the door as a Contributor on The Huffington Post), is both a mentor to me and the person who made possible Abby's early career as an entrepreneur through NFTE.

When Abby and I were introduced, I was flattered to learn that Abby was also eager to meet me, as she had heard about my work at The Global Good Fund. Our mutual admiration made our connection come full circle, which is always a meaningful moment to reflect on as an entrepreneur.

Abby graciously took me up on the offer to interview her for The Huffington Post. She shares her wisdom on the importance of following your passion, the power of mentorship, and advice about how to balance everyday life as a college student (she is currently at Syracuse University) while running a social enterprise. I trust you'll gain inspiration from her story, as I certainly have!

How did you come to create Patriot Portraits?

In an Entrepreneurship class my junior year of high school, our final project of the year was to create a viable business plan that connected one of our passions to a problem we witnessed within our community.

Growing up five minutes from the Pentagon, my business partner, Emma, and I realized that countless military families - our neighbors, classmates, and friends - were facing deployment, resulting in often over a year separated from loved ones.

Professional photography sessions are often an unfeasible luxury to military families, especially due to quick turnarounds of deployment notices. As a young photographer, I personally experienced the unfortunate common stigma of young photographers, that age correlates to quality. My peers were creating publication-quality images, yet were continuously overlooked in the professional industry.

When you reflect on how far you've come, how is Patriot Portraits changing the lives of military families?

Through Patriot Portraits, we host monthly photography events where military families facing deployment are photographed by talented young photographers at a low cost in order to provide them with quality family portraits to cherish during times apart.

In the past two years, we have trained, employed, and empowered over twenty young photographers. We provide lasting memories to military families in the Washington metropolitan area, as well as through our franchise in Dallas, TX.


What inspired you to pursue your passion and become an entrepreneur?

Growing up, my parents instilled in me an entrepreneurial mindset through arguably the greatest American pastime - a lemonade stand. Every afternoon for three summers, my brothers and I would perch on a nearby intersection to catch commuters on their way home from work and treat them to a cold glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade.

The lemonade stand taught me much more than the economics of one glass, or that the return on investment in a cup of limeade was much higher than that of its counterpart: passion, effort, and a bit of elbow grease can solve almost any problem.

Today, I look to the unrivaled support from my mentors, professors, community within the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), family, and friends in all entrepreneurial pursuits.

As an entrepreneur still in college, how do you manage working with people older than you? How do you approach delegating and making decisions when your colleagues may have significantly more experience than you do?

It can definitely be intimidating to work with seasoned industry professionals. One of the biggest assurances is that that they chose to work with my business and do so because they believe in it. At the end of the day, these colleagues trust me to successfully run the business. They trust in my ability to identify each of their strengths in ways that benefit the venture, making past experiences much less of a focal point.

What is one opportunity that has allowed you to get where you are today?

By far, NFTE made the largest impact on me as an entrepreneur by providing me with an invaluable foundation. From the first day of my Entrepreneurship class my junior year, my teacher, Ms. McCormick, coupled with the NFTE staff and mentors, tirelessly invested in my success. I valued their support as I prepared my business plans for launch and NFTE's National competition.

This past summer, NFTE's Citi Foundation Entrepreneurship Fellowship connected me with nine student entrepreneurs, all NFTE alumni, who quickly became close friends and confidants as each of us launched and grew new ventures over the summer.

What do you look forward to when thinking about the future of Patriot Portraits? What about your personal journey as an entrepreneur?

During my years at Syracuse University, I aim to open Patriot Portraits' doors in upstate New York in cooperation with Syracuse's Institute for Veterans and Military Families. In the future, I aim to grow the capacity of our organization to serve families and young photographers across the nation.

Currently, I am preparing for the launch of another venture, which addresses the problem of low voter engagement, set to release in beta at George Washington University this May.

How did NFTE shape your development as a young entrepreneur?

Throughout high school, there was never a class that I naturally excelled in, nor a subject that I was especially passionate about. My first two years of high school, my career option of choice ranged from fashion blogging to orthodontistry.

Finally, in my NFTE-sponsored Entrepreneurship class Junior year, I realized that I had found my passion. Through this class, I was able to develop a business plan for Patriot Portraits and compete at a Regional and National level, providing me with a strong foundation for presenting and creating business plans in college.

How do you inspire other young leaders to forge their own paths and explore their passions through entrepreneurship?

This past summer, I was honored with the opportunity to represent the D.C. region in NFTE's Citi Foundation Entrepreneurship Fellowship. The highlight of this experience was the opportunity to assist in the programming of an entrepreneurship summer camp for teenagers in the D.C. area. At camp, each student developed a business plan and pitched the plan to a panel of judges, similar to competitions I had entered in high school. The opportunity to share my passion with other young entrepreneurs was indescribable.

On the last day of camp, about young twenty female entrepreneurs had just been alerted that they were eliminated after the semi-finals round of competition. For one precious minute, I was left alone with the discouraged group. Hastily, I lunged for the microphone and stammered an unprepared monologue, telling each entrepreneur that her business brought incredible value to this world, that every moment they invested in their business would change their futures, and recited my email address.

While I had never been one for spontaneous public speaking, thirty seconds of bravery resulted in six emails in my inbox by that Monday morning asking for business advice.

What tips do you have for other entrepreneurs starting enterprises while still in school? How do you find the time to balance it all?

My main piece of advice to young entrepreneurs balancing work and school is to start a business that unleashes a relentless passion that profoundly separates the feeling of "work" from working on the business. The ability to turn a vision into reality should be fun. While this idea sounds like an oxymoron, investing countless hours into the development of said vision should be energizing. Once a young entrepreneur has reached that point with his or her business, the likelihood for success grows exponentially.

Secondly, I would strongly encourage young aspiring entrepreneurs to find an entrepreneurial community at their respective schools. Whether it's a club at school or a group chat, the struggles a business owner faces are atypical. An empathetic support system is imperative to success.

This semester at Syracuse's Whitman School of Management, I am excited to be taking a class called LaunchPad where students with businesses of their own gather weekly to discuss the challenges and successes one faces as a young entrepreneur.

How do you actively seek mentoring opportunities? How does mentoring help advance you in your professional and personal development?

Connecting with an individual who believes in you and your entrepreneurial ventures is not only helpful, but can be a lifeline when running a business becomes challenging. Patriot Portraits would not have grown to the point that it has without the unwavering support of mentors who inspired me to take calculated risks and strive for positive growth.

I have been very lucky to connect with an entrepreneurship mentor during my first Semester at Syracuse. My mentor has been an irreplaceable support with the development of my newest venture.