Usually being the owner of a soda company means you can drink all the soda you want. But when the owner of the company is 10-year-old Kent Melville of St. Johnsbury, he still has to listen to his mom when she says, "You've had enough soda this week, Kent."
But even in the face of these motherly boundaries, Kent has shown such promise and personality that Vermont Business Magazine has named him one of their 40 Rising Stars Under 40. The award banquet will be on Nov. 3 in South Burlington.
Kent's Soda in St. Johnsbury has experienced a meteoric rise over the last year. It was just over a year ago that Kent had the idea to start a soda company. "It started in 2010, I was selling lemonade on the side of the house and I was making 30 bucks an hour," said Kent with his trademark enthusiasm. "I said, 'Dad can I have a soda company selling lemonade and root beer and some money can go to the social club?' Everyone in the social club has autism."
In addition to being a young entrepreneur and philanthropist, Kent is also autistic. His dad, Aaron Melville, says that Kent has always been persistent, but since starting his company they've seen a new side of him. "He came to us and said, 'You make sure I've got everything I need, but I have a lot of friends with autism who don't have everything they need.' That was a huge breakthrough with Kent, to focus on the needs of others. Running his business and talking about it has been extremely therapeutic for him."
That conversation was also the moment that Aaron says, "The business professor in me saw the angle."
Aaron is familiar with what it takes to run a business. He's a local lawyer who teaches business classes at Champlain College and Lyndon State College. And it just happens that he was named as one of last year's Vermont Business Magazine's Rising Stars under 40. "They look at what you're doing professionally," Aaron explains of the nomination process. "They also look at what you're doing to be of service to your community."
Kent has another way of explaining it: "It must have been hard for Dad to get [the award], but I think it was easy for me. Soda is cool!"
Aaron and Michelle Melville, who have five children and are very active in the St. Johnsbury community, have been willing supporters of their children's entrepreneurial spirit. But that doesn't mean they saw this success coming, said Aaron. "This caught us all off-guard because we're still in the planning phase. We didn't realize how fast and popular the word would spread." Kent's Soda is currently served at several restaurants and stores around the area, including Catamount Arts. The Melvilles are already in talks for a potential national co-branding opportunity.
If Aaron has the business knowledge, Kent provides the enthusiasm and charisma. Aaron says that when Kent was selling lemonade on the corner, he would step into the street to stop cars and get them to buy his lemonade.
"We taught him basic cost and expenses. He understands that he has to re-invest some of the money to make things grow." Aaron says there are other important life lessons that Kent is learning from this process. "He is a brave kid. One of the hard things for him with autism is developing close relationships with his peer group. He's decided that if he can't be friends with them, he'll be friends with older people."
It's special for Aaron to see his son win the same award that he won last year. "There are a lot of things that parents worry about," he says as he wells up. "This confirms we did something right with him and his siblings. It's humbling to think the premiere business magazine in the state values him enough to give him this award."
As for Kent...well, he's most excited about the next trip on his calendar. He'll be attending the National Autism Association Conference in Florida in a few weeks. "I'm hoping to go to a new amusement part that just opened. It's Legoland!"