Student-run nonprofit serving military families takes off locally

Student-run nonprofit serving military families takes off locally

By Katie Callahan (Courtesy photo)

It’s early in the morning and 17-year-old T.C. Williams senior Abigail Hamilton is sitting in front of her computer screen, chatting with her partner Emma West over Facebook about her latest business proposition.

“I’m not kidding you,” West, 18, said. “It will be 3 a.m. and she’ll be Facebook messaging me and I’m, of course, for some reason, awake, and I’m like, ‘Hello Abby, what’s your new idea?’ or it’ll be vice versa as well. I’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, Abby! We just got an email from so and so.’ So that happens.”

The two budding businesswomen got their first taste of entrepreneurship after working on a project concerning reflective Halloween gear. These days, they are hiring young photographers to take affordably priced portraits of military families. The project, part of an assignment for a dual enrollment entrepreneurship course run in conjunction with Northern Virginia Community College, is appropriately called Patriot Portraits.

Already, they’ve received $200 from an anonymous investor and cash awards from city and regional competitions, to help lay the groundwork for their website domain, business cards and promotional materials. When they are not focused on the administrative tasks associated with running a small nonprofit business, the duo are out looking for potential customers.

National Guard Spc. Amber Culliton is a recent client. She was amazed by the photography and the professionalism.

“I think it’s really beneficial to the military community,” Culliton said after a July 19 family photography session. “Most people are on a tight budget, and this opportunity is affordable, so family members can actually get their pictures taken.”

Within a few days of the shoot, the Cullitons’ portraits were available online.

“We don’t have too many photos up in our house, and most of the time, it’s just us taking selfies, so we’ll be able to capture memories when [our daughter Skyler] is young and we’ll be looking at these photos for years to come probably,” her husband Shane Culliton said. “Military life can be hard at times and it’s nice to [get] a little recognition. This is definitely not the easiest choice, but it’s cool that they offer services to show their appreciation.”

Amber Culliton, three years into her service, said Patriot Portraits chose the best photos.

“We’re really happy,” she said.

While the fledgling business is giving Hamilton and West valuable experience and helping out service members, it’s also providing an opportunity for their equally young — and ambitious — photographers. Ross Cooper and Cate Chandler, the pair of 16-year-olds behind the lens at the Cullitons’ photo shoot, are enjoying the chance to build their portfolios.

“People ask for experience a lot of the time, but no one’s really willing to give anyone the chance,” Cooper said. “It’s helpful for military families and it’s helpful for us, too.”

Aside from focusing on the business side of things, Hamilton and West are preparing for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship’s National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in Silicon Valley later this year.

Each year, over 17,000 students compete in classrooms nationwide for the title. For inspiration and guidance, though, Hamilton and West can look closer to home.

Last year’s judges bestowed second place on former T.C. student Dagim Girma. He started, a sports social network website and app for students.

Though he did not take gold, coming away with silver had its perks. Girma met former quarterback Joe Theismann, UnderArmour founder Kevin Plank, Sean Combs and President Barack Obama. He also was named Ernest & Young’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

“It helped me start my own company,” Girma said. “I’ve started small things here and there but this was bigger. I’ve met famous people and business professionals. This competition prepared me for the future.”

Girma will attend Boston’s Babson College this fall with a full scholarship. At a local coffee shop July 23, he strategized with the duo and teacher Mary Ellen McCormick.

McCormick, who helped guide Girma before turning her attention to Hamilton and West, describes studying under her tutulage as getting a “mini-MBA.”
And dabbling in entrepreneurship often empowers and emboldens her students, she said.

“I see how it changes students’ lives. There’s no doubt about it. Everything I’ve ever taught — this is what, my 19th year of teaching? — nothing changes a student like entrepreneurship. It’s amazing,” McCormick said. “I think it’s so exciting for young people to think that they can start their own business and be happy and make money.”

That’s certainly the case with Hamilton and West. For Hamilton, Patriot Portraits finalized her decision to major in business in college. Her interest in photography and graphic design is what integrated photography into their nonprofit.

“I’ve created a lot of friendships with a lot of youth photographers and we realized that there’s just a stigma of being young and not getting the professional respect,” she said. “We realized that we’re just as capable.”

While Hamilton still has another year left of school, West starts her freshman year at The College of William and Mary this fall. She’ll prepare for nationals with Hamilton via social media and video chat and will also trek back to Alexandria for photo shoots.

They also plan to launch a Texas branch of Patriot Portraits before summer’s end. Even with college plans, both will stay involved with the nascent nonprofit business.

“I know it’s going to exist in a year. I have confidence in that,” Hamilton said.