By Jan Norman
As a teenager in high school, Joe Pielago discovered a Los Angeles streetwear designer, The Hundreds. Those T-shirt designs got enthusiastic responses from his friends at Palos Verdes High School in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
Soon he and lifelong friend D.J. Vilicich were talking about starting their own clothing company.
“A clothing company would be a perfect expression of my leadership capabilities, my artistic style and my love for fashion,” Joe says. “It was cool having The Hundreds clothing that people hadn’t seen so they talked about it. I’d like to give that feeling to other kids.”
That was the start of Joe’s company Voila Los Angeles, a line of hats and T-shirts that combine the hip-hop, skateboard craze and urban lifestyle that are part of the Southern California culture for teens in the 21st century. The company has four employees, including Joe’s brother, Jeff, 15, who’s the venture’s top salesman. Voila is a major reason Joe, now 18, is the NASE Future Entrepreneur for 2009.
The scholarship program, which started in 1989 for dependents of NASE Members, awarded Joe up to $24,000 toward his education at the University of San Francisco, a private college in northern California. He will receive $12,000 in the first year and $4,000 in each of the next three years. This is the largest scholarship of its kind in the U.S. and the only one that promotes the entrepreneurial philosophy.
“This scholarship helps me so much,” Joe says. “I knew . . . my high school education would not provide me with enough of a background to meet my ambitions. I knew that I needed to attend college. After researching what colleges had to offer, I decided I needed to be a business major with a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship.”
Joe learned about the relationship between hard work and success from his parents. His father, Rick, is an NASE Member who owns his own CPA practice. Joe’s mother, Kris, was a commercial furniture saleswoman for 20 years and now helps out in her husband’s practice occasionally.
“I saw how hard they work,” says Joe. “Dad leaves at 6 a.m. and comes home at 10 p.m. from January through April. He says I should become a CPA as a joke, but I don’t think my dad has ever pushed me in any direction he wanted. My mom said, ‘Do what you want.’”
His parents always knew Joe would do something entrepreneurial.
“Starting at the age of 4, we knew he’d find a way to reinvent the wheel,” Kris says.
As soon as Joe started making T-shirts, his dad insisted his son set up the enterprise as a legitimate business. He helped Joe incorporate and obtain a state permit for collecting and paying sales tax.
“I wanted to do it right: Set up a bank account, work on a Web site,” Joe explains.
Kris marvels at her son’s fearless ability to network with business people. Joe found e-mail addresses for people associated with The Hundreds, told them his plans and asked for information. He drove to the Los Angeles store to get ideas for his own business.
“When I started, I wanted to be The Hundreds, but it hit me a year and a half into it that I’m not The Hundreds; I’m my own thing. D.J. and I realized we can be whatever we want,” Joe says.
Palos Verdes High School requires its students to complete a junior project and a longer senior project. Voila Los Angeles was the topic of those projects for Joe.
“I didn’t start it as a senior project. I started it to have fun,” he says. “It became the project because that’s what I was working on.”
Voila Los Angeles hasn’t been Joe’s only focus in high school. He competed on the varsity swim team for three years and was captain his senior year.
“When I was little, I thought I could go to the Olympics, but when I got older I decided swimming was for fun, and when I got that mentality was when I started Voila,” he says.
He also worked two years as a reporter and editor for the high school’s award-winning Live From 205 broadcast, a campus Internet video news show.
“Joe has always managed to keep his grades up and be an active member of the student body,” says his school counselor Amerika McHugh. “Joe also has a passionate side and always finds time to give back to the surrounding community. As a longtime member of Lifeteen, a local church group, Joe . . . spends numerous hours in the Lifeteen room at the church, which provides teenagers a safe haven away from the gangs, violence and drugs in their neighborhoods.”
During the past summer, Joe was a lifeguard and swim instructor at a local intermediate school. But he’d like to build Voila into his primary source of income. He took his company to a major clothing trade show at the Los Angeles Convention Center last July partly as a learning experience about how larger clothing companies marketed themselves.
Currently, his goals are to earn his business degree so that he can run the company even more successfully.
“Without question, a well-rounded education is a key ingredient for learning to skillfully transform my dreams into a prosperous, legitimate entity,” he says. “Since I desire to be a true entrepreneur, I’ll study as many different facets of the business world as possible. I’ll need to know every angle such as accounting, payroll, tax laws and especially marketing.
“Long term, I want to stick with Voila clothing; that’s where my heart lies.”
Jan Norman is a writer in California and a frequent contributor to Self-Employed magazine.