Building a Business

Kathy Lynn Gray
Lilly Byrne placed seventh in a national student entrepreneurship competition.

At the age of 5, Lilly Byrne dreamed of building a drive-thru restaurant that served only healthy food.

Six years later, she reimagined that vision and created a healthy vending business. Now, at 13, she has two Love to Go to Lilly's machines locally and hopes to expand nationally. “I want to share healthy eating with others,” said the seventh-grader at Hilliard Weaver Middle School.

Credit her mom for Lilly's passion for fresh fruit and vegetables, organic grains and coconut water. Erin Byrne is a fitness instructor who's hooked on healthy eating and raised Lilly and her brother, Henry, 15, to follow her example. “I'd hide beets and spinach in brownies when they were young,” Byrne said.

Consequently, Lilly's vending machines are filled with protein bars, vegetable chips, fat-free popcorn, sparkling waters and juice—items most competitors don't offer, she found.

Lilly's entrepreneurial spirit comes from her dad, Matt Byrne, who has run his own company since 2006. Spiralight Group Benefits is based in the Dublin Entrepreneurial Center, where Byrne is connected to other startups, resources and people, including DEC manager Chaz Freutel. Freutel also is program manager of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy of Union County, one of three Central Ohio sites for the national YEA. It offers a 30-week program to help students ages 11-18 start their own business.

Lilly participated in the YEA's fall 2016 session. She'd already started Love to Go to Lilly's, but had a lot to learn. “I thought it would be a great way to accelerate her business idea,” her father said. “I wish I could have gone through the program.”

Along with 15 other young people, Lilly learned how to write a business plan, speak in front of a group and set goals. At the end of the program, each participant gave a short presentation to a group of investors—a little like the television showShark Tank—and Lilly ended up with $2,450 in funding, the most of any participant.

As the winner, she went to Rochester, New York, in May to compete against more than 100 other young entrepreneurs from across the country. She came in seventh overall. “It was a great idea,” said Freutel. “To have vending machines with healthy food is a nice alternative.”

Freutel said Lilly's business could encourage more traditional vending companies to include healthy snacks. “Lilly came to the academy with passion and with a great idea,” he said. “We helped validate that she had a good idea. She's one of those kids who are creative and hardworking, and all those kinds of things make for a successful business owner. I see Lilly as someone who could be very successful at anything she put her mind to.”

Now, Lilly is working on expanding her business. She has two machines in operation at the DEC and King Business Interiors and hopes to place a third. Her target: a company with more than 150 employees that has no other healthy vending options and has leaders interested in healthy eating. She's also hoping to sell franchises to other teenagers; packages would include a vending machine, business cards and a starter package of pertinent information.

“With all the distractions in the world today, to have a common project that my daughter and I can work on together has been wonderful,” Mr. Byrne said. “I'd like other parents to have that opportunity to spend that kind of time with their child.”

In addition to being a student and entrepreneur, Lilly is a synchronized swimmer with Ohio Coralinas Synchro and has qualified to compete in the last two Junior Olympics. That, too, has spurred her interest in healthy eating. “If you want to swim your best, you've got to eat your best,” she said. “My body is a lot more energized when I eat good foods.”

Freutel hopes others will see Lilly as a model and participate in one of the three Central Ohio Young Entrepreneur academies, whose programs run from October to May. Tuition varies by location, ranging from $195 to $995 nationally. “We're looking for students who have a passion, a drive, who are creative, who have ideas they've thought of and want to develop,” he said. “Society often tells us, ‘You'll never be able to do it.' But through this program we want to reach down and say to kids: ‘If you've got a great idea, explore it, research it, and we'll help you.' ”

Lilly said one of the most important lessons she's learned from starting her own business is to follow your dream. “My dad taught me a bunch of things, like never give up and do what you're passionate about,” she said.

Local YEA Sites

To learn more about the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, go to or contact one of the three Central Ohio programs:

Ohio Christian University,, 614-989-2429

The Point at Otterbein University,, 614-915-6636

Union County Economic Development Partnership,, 614-989-2429