Cupcakes & Curls: Two young entrepreneurs share their experiences of starting a business

As high school graduates prepare to enter the workforce, it can be difficult to decide what career path to take. Many choose to attend college, learn a trade, or enter the workforce. Down the road, a select few might decide to become entrepreneurs, putting in the work to launch something of their own.

As of 2022, only six percent of entrepreneurs in the United States were aged 20 to 30 years old. A majority of business owners are over the age of 40. It can take a lot of courage, planning, and support to start a business. It’s something many young adults don’t think is attainable for them, or don’t even consider as an option. 

Here in Fort Wayne, there’s a blossoming entrepreneurial community, including a few young, savvy business owners.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with two twenty-something business owners to learn more about their entrepreneurial journeys and the resources that helped them along the way.

Ani'a Walker, owner of Puff's PastriesName: Ani’a Walker 
Age: 23
Business: Puff’s Pastries

IFW: Tell us about yourself.
Ani’a Walker: I am from Fort Wayne. I went to high school at Snider and graduated in 2018. Then I went to Ball State University, studied entrepreneurial management, and graduated in 2022. Now, I work for Brightpoint as a JAG Specialist (Jobs for America’s Graduates)  for New Haven High School and I own Puff’s Pastries.

IFW: Tell us about your business, Puff’s Pastries.
AW: Puff’s Pastries is a gourmet cupcake business. I sell everything in cupcake form, so no cakes or anything like that. I do nontraditional cupcake flavors, like cookie dough, cookies n’ cream, and turtle, which I think sets us apart from other bakeries. 

I got started really young. I always say that I started when I was 16 because that’s when I got my first set of business cards, but I’ve been baking my whole life. I never thought I was going to be an entrepreneur, especially at that age. My family always did family dinners and I had a family member offer to pay me for cupcakes, and then it just kind of snowballed from there. From that one family member came other people and then my family actually thought of the name “Puff’s Pastries” because that’s my family’s nickname for me– Puff. 

I sell my cupcakes through online ordering. That’s naturally how it formed. It started with a lot of orders from family and friends and went from there.
IFW: You said you’ve been baking forever, how did you get your start?
AW: I used to cook with my great-grandma a lot when she was here. I always thought it was so interesting. My first-ever blender came from my great-grandmother and she gave me little tips and tricks about baking and the little things that can be helpful. I definitely learned from her. She was always one of my biggest supporters, and even my other family, they’re huge supporters. 

Ani'a Walker, owner of Puff's PastriesIFW: Sixteen is a pretty young age to launch a business. How have you and your business grown together over the years?
AW: It’s fun to look back and see the people who have been buying cupcakes since I was in high school. I was so young. I’m still young! 

I look at my early cupcakes and think, “Why the heck were you guys buying these?” I was a kid and it showed. My cupcakes were a lot more colorful. As I’ve grown, I’ve changed to a cleaner, more classic look, even though my flavors are nontraditional. I think now my style highlights the flavor more so than the colors or design. The overall vibe of my business has changed a lot, even the logo. My business cards used to be hot pink and now it’s completely different. 

As a young entrepreneur, it’s funny to think, “Okay, when did you meet me? Did you meet young Ani’a? Were you getting cupcakes from me in high school? From college Ani’a?” I think that’s a really cool part of starting a business at such a young age. My community has literally seen me grow– a lot.

IFW: You mentioned that in addition to being a business owner you work for Brightpoint as a JAG Specialist. Can you tell me more about your work there?
AW: The program has been operating in our region since 2006. I help juniors and seniors gain employment skills, professional skills, and personal skills to be ready to be successful outside of high school. Whether that’s connecting them with jobs or colleges, trade schools, etcetera– I’m just helping them be successful. It’s a jumpstart before they graduate. 

A cookies n' cream cupcake, made by Puff's Pastries.IFW: When you were a student at Snider, you participated in JAG. What was that experience like from a student's perspective?
AW: I had already started the business before JAG because the program is geared toward juniors and seniors and I started my business as a sophomore. My specialist, who was amazing, knew I had a business, so he connected me with Steve Franks and got me into a business plan competition. I was nervous. I had never heard of it before, it was my first time learning how to do a business pitch, but I made my first-ever business plan. My plan was really small compared to what it is now. That’s where the business side really started to form more for me. 

IFW: What is it like to now work for a program that had a significant impact on you?
AW: It feels amazing. When I saw the job posting, I felt really comfortable applying because I was familiar with the program, and now I am becoming familiar with the other side of it. I started in September of last year, so I haven’t even been doing it for a year.

I always say– and it’s my business motto too, “It's bigger than cupcakes.” It’s more about the platform Puff’s has given me to impact the youth. I’m really passionate about that and being that person that I once needed when I was in that situation. It’s such a full-circle moment. It’s really fulfilling to see me in some of them and see how their passions are sparking something. It’s fulfilling for me to be in that position.

One day, I hope to be able to mentor other young entrepreneurs through Puff’s Pastries too.

Cupcakes made by Puff's Pastries.IFW: What is the significance of having a program like JAG in Northeast Indiana to help students figure out their career path?
AW: It’s extremely important. I think a lot of times we don’t see how many young people are visionaries. Many of them don’t have that confidence, because they look at the experience they don’t have or the resources they don’t have. Having a program in place that can connect you with someone who’s knowledgeable and wants to take the time to help is extremely important. I believe that if you can get to people younger, the impact they can have as a youth through their early twenties will be insane.


Janae Hargrett, owner of Curl Creation SalonName: Janae Hargrett
Age: 22
Business: Curl Creation Salon, 
6038 E. State Blvd. Fort Wayne, IN 46815

IFW: Tell us about yourself.
Janae Hargrett: I’m from Fort Wayne. I graduated from Snider and I also went part-time to Anthis Career Center to study cosmetology.

Studying cosmetology made me more intrigued by my hair and how curly it was. It made me start to fall in love with natural hair. At the time, I had used a lot of heat on my hair, so I didn’t even have a curl pattern on the back of my head. So for me, it was like, what can we do to bring back the elasticity of my hair? Then I created a product called Banah and a treatment system that helps rebuild curls and that’s kind of where I started building a clientele.

Now, I service over 1300 people and I think that’s from getting the groundwork in, being younger and in school having people come in for treatments. I would do a lot of the textured hair because everyone was so fearful of textured hair but it intrigued me, so it was something that I wanted to study and something that I wanted to master. 

It became my specialty, so from there on it’s been about making myself better, perfecting the craft.

IFW: Tell us about your business, Curl Creation Salon.
JH:  I created this business to set the tone for our community and to be able to give back and pour out the knowledge that I have. 

I created my own systems for natural hair. I have a straightening system and a curling system. I use professional products within those systems, but I created the way the system works and how those products are utilized. When you’re using professional products, there isn’t necessarily a manual that says how to use them. As a stylist, I need to be able to utilize a product to the best of my ability and get the correct results. 

At Curl Creation Salon, you get that treatment, which is exclusive to my salon, a curl cut, and then step-by-step I show you how to style your hair, and that is a big, big thing for our community. A lot of us curly girls, we go get cuts, we get styled but we’re not retaining any of that information. We’re not going home with the knowledge of how to maintain our hair. Here, it’s really nice that I am able to offer that to our community and it really can change the way that we view our hair and the way that we take care of it. Curly hair is high maintenance and it’s amazing to be able to empower people.

Curl Creation SalonIFW: You mentioned Banah products earlier. Can you explain what that is?
JH: The Banah products are part of the system I use at my salon. It’s made by me and what it does is helps brings back elasticity to your curls. It rebuilds the bonds of the hair. It has taken people away from getting perms and helped people who had damage that I’m able to help restore their hair.

I created it at 17. When I named it, it was important to understand the value that a name holds. I chose the name “Banah” because of the meaning behind it. It means, “Rebuild, repair, restore.”

IFW: What led to you opening your own salon?
JH: I never actually wanted to own my own hair salon because it’s a lot of money and it’s a lot of time. As a business owner, you have to be able to give 100 percent to your business if you want it to reach the level of success that you want it to.  

When I graduated from high school, I got married and had a baby. After that, I shifted. It was my grind mode. I did booth rental, full-time, with a clientele of about 300 people. That was a lot and I was working crazy hours until COVID-19 hit. Then I was busy, but not as busy, so I had time to venture out and do other things.

I got a job in New York and was traveling back and forth from Fort Wayne to New York, maintaining both clientele. I felt like I needed to switch gears a little bit. I felt like I was not growing as fast because I had a small-town mentality. 

I only worked in New York for about two months, but going to a big city and working showed me that we weren’t doing nothing here in Fort Wayne. After I left my job in New York, and as my clientele in Fort Wayne started picking up, I decided to branch out again. I had my own hair systems and I was ready to leave booth renting behind.

Curl Creation SalonIFW: You went through a complete renovation when you moved into the salon. What was that like?
JH: When I moved into my current space, in February of 2022, I had to completely gut it. I went through a very expensive renovation. I got my first business loan through Brightpoint, but I fronted some of the money myself. 

I did renovations from February to May and I worked out of the basement of my salon until I could finish the renovations upstairs, so I could keep taking clients.

I am an aesthetic person, but I am also super indecisive. My grandma is a lot like me, and she knew what I was going for, so she helped me. It’s a boujee aesthetic, but the necessities are all here. All the equipment in here is designed specifically to aid my treatment process. 

I made sure that I had a big retail space too because I sell everything I use on your hair, down to the microfiber towel. That way clients have full access to everything they need to care for their hair right here.

Curl Creation SalonIFW: What does it mean to have organizations, like Brightpoint in Fort Wayne, helping young business owners like yourself?
JH: It was truly inspiring and amazing for me. I came from a family that raised me to be strong, and they supported me, but they sent me on my way because that’s what you do when you’re an adult. So I didn’t necessarily have money sitting around waiting for me in an account when I hit 22, you know what I mean?

That loan money was a seed to be planted and now I’m building an entire foundation around it. All I needed was money. I didn’t have enough on my own to build from the ground up. Without that help, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I had a vision, but I need help turning my dreams into a reality. That’s what this is– this was all a dream just in my mind, that I started building with my hands. That loan was something that could support my dreams turning into reality.

Now, I am able to provide a space where I can help other entrepreneurs and hair stylists grow their businesses too. I have someone renting a booth here and I’m able to pass along the things that I’ve learned. When you continue to go higher, you don’t want to leave others behind. I want to take others with me.

Janae Hargrett, owner of Curl Creation SalonIFW: What other types of support played a role in your success as a business owner?
JH: My mom has always been my number one supporter. Evening growing up, I’ve always been an entrepreneur. Growing up, I wanted to invent a new candy. My mom always told me, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” 

When my hair was damaged, she helped me figure it out. We tried all sorts of products. When I created Banah to repair my hair after nothing else worked, my mom encouraged me to go help other people with their hair. My mom and dad were letting people come to our house to get hair treatments and this was before I was styling or cutting, it was just for a treatment. My mom was cooking, and she was feeding people coming over for treatments. It was crazy, but that just goes to show my mom believes in my dreams to the point where she supported me in any way she could, even if that meant providing her house. 

Now, she helps me out with my business. It takes a village. My husband and my mom provide support and nurturing for my kids when I need to be at the salon, so I can grow our legacy as a family.

My dad is so supportive too, but he’s more on the engineering side. He built my website, created all the signs you see in my studio, and contracted the renovations. 

IFW: What is it like to be a business owner in the same neighborhood you grew up in?
JH: It’s motiving. It drives me. It’s what gets me up every morning since I’m providing for my family. It’s so much more than the money. For me, my community is the most important thing. It’s where I was raised. I grew up in this area. To be able to have a small business, to lay roots in this area feels inspiring to me. To be going to Snider, not even four years ago, to be able to be down the street operating a business a successful business is inspiring. 

This story is part of a series on solutions developing to meet people's needs in Northeast Indiana, underwritten by Brightpoint.
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Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.