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Student at Roland Park Elementary/Middle wins national entrepreneurship contest with Lily's Legwarmers

Why is 14-year-old Lily DeBell the toast of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School?

Budding entrepreneur Lily DeBell is self-assured and matter-of-fact, with a firm handshake and an award-winning business plan for her new enterprise, Lily's Legwarmers, which makes clothing accessories for young dancers.

She's also in eighth grade, wears braces on her teeth and admits that recent media attention has been a little stressful.

Last week, her Baltimore Messenger interview at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School followed on the heels of one for Fox 45 TV.

"It went fine. It was brief, thank goodness," she said, wearing a blue blazer and a pen in her hair.

Lily, 14, is the toast of her school after besting 55 other student entrepreneurs, most in high school or college, to win the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in California's Silicon Valley. She was announced as the winner Oct. 10 by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which sponsored the contest.

She won $5,000 in cash, a $5,000 college scholarship and a bevy of technical and business-related products and support services, totaling $25,000.

Now, Lily is getting back to more immediate business — her school work, playing soccer for the school team, the Rams, and another passion, playing the harp. She studies harp in the Baltimore City School system's free art instruction program, TWIGS, at the Baltimore School of Arts, and plays harp in the Roland Park Elementary/Middle School Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra.

The Mount Vernon resident was accepted into the school system's highly competitive middle school Ingenuity Project program and was placed at Roland Park Elementary/Middle, one of only three public middle schools that has the program. She is thinking about high school and plans to apply to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and the Baltimore School for the Arts.

That doesn't mean Lily has stopped thinking about her business. She has so far sold more than 50 pairs of her handmade leg warmers and has turned a small profit.

"I plan to get the business off the ground and hire labor," she said, sitting in a conference room with the school's principal, Nicholas D'Ambrosio. "I have three people who said they would work for me."

Lily's entrepreneurship was inspired by her younger sister, Genevieve, 11, a sixth-grader at Roland Park Elementary/Middle. Genevieve, who is studying dance in the TWIGS program, had persistent soreness in her ankles and heels, and her leg warmers were uncomfortable for her.

"So I made her some," Lily said. "She liked them. I thought other people might like them, too."

Lily parlayed her leg warmer hobby into victory last year in a seventh grade social studies project to create a business plan for a unique product or service and present it to a panel of local judges. The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship sponsored such contests in schools around the country..

One of the local NFTE judges was Dawn Gayapersad, owner of the business Technology Link, who has become Lily's volunteer mentor.

Lily came in second in a regional NFTE contest at the University of Baltimore — beaten by a student at Forest Park High, who developed a sports app — and was one of only five middle-schoolers in the nationals in Mountain View, Calif., where contestants had to make an 8 1/2-minute oral presentation with a slide show.

"It encompassed all aspects of your business, demonstrating your knowledge," she said.

One thing she noticed in her research was that most leg warmers are made from materials such as acrylic that "won't keep you warm unless you're warm already," she said. "This is detrimental to dancers, because they use leg wamers to increase flexibility in their muscles."

She makes her leg warmers from natural, biodegradable materials, mostly wool and alpaca, she said. Each pair takes 2-3 hours to make, she said. Plain ones sell for $22 and customized ones with embroidered designs and colors cost $32. She is selling them on the website etsy.com/shop/llegwarmers.

She has sold her leg wamers not only to family members and friends, but to people she met in California during the national contest.

Winning has opened doors to the business world for Lily. She said she got to meet people such as Ronald Garrow, chief human resources officer for MasterCard, and that her leg warmers have been endorsed by several professional dancers in the Baltimore area. She said NFTE will provide her with legal counseling and help her find a wholesaler and a manufacturer to mass-produce her leg warmers when the time comes.

The experience has been good for Lily's personal growth, said her father, Kevin DeBell, a budget and accountability team leader for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program office in Annapolis.

"It's been very exciting to see Lily's business side and entrepreneurial spirit flourish," DeBell said. "It's very rewarding to see young people set long-term goals and have them be acknowledged and rewarded."

Lily has long-range plans to expand her offerings to dance sweaters.

But first, there's eighth grade to finish and high school to juggle with her nascent business.

"If the demands of high school are too much," she said, "I'll put together a management team. We'll see."

Before she left, Lily handed a reporter her business card, designed by her cousin, Eric Schnare, and featuring a cartoon cat dancing and the words Lily's Legwarmers in a fanciful font.

Next to the words is a copyright symbol.

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