At 16, Zaire White has participated in high-level business meetings, made major marketing decisions, gripped hands with executives, and introduced and sold a product regularly consumed by thousands of Philadelphians.
White and a dozen of his peers in Philadelphia public schools are the driving force behind the student-run Rebel Ventures. Its goal: peddling "healthy deliciousness."
During the school year, they sell hundreds of thousands of their Rebel Crumbles — dense, soft breakfast cakes packed with whole grains, apples, and cranberries — to the Philadelphia school system. Next week, the students' flagship product will be available at a grocery store.
Rebel Ventures is a nonprofit business with an annual budget of $75,000. But, it's also a social enterprise, a group that exists to provide young people tools to build healthier schools, to be leaders, to be entrepreneurs. To say that White, a rising junior at Parkway West High School, is proud of all that is an understatement.
"There's not a lot of teenagers who have their own products," White said. "I never thought that I would be creating healthy snacks for the community. Kids look up to us."
White and the other students may be the heart of Rebel Ventures, but Jarrett Stein is its soul. The idea for the enterprise was born in 2010, when Stein, an employee of the University of Pennsylvania's Netter Center for Community Partnerships, was attempting to teach kids at Pepper Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia about nutrition.
He was lousy at it, Stein said. His students were actively rebelling against his lessons. So Stein tried another angle. He asked the middle schoolers if their school was healthy. They all said no; he asked them why.
"They said, 'There's no healthy food.' I said, 'Can you do something about that? Is that a problem you can solve?' " said Stein, a 30-year-old Nashville native and Penn graduate whose own passion for healthy eating was awakened when he was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager.
Many teens lack that awareness. One in five district students is obese, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of Philadelphia schoolchildren's health between 2006 and 2013.
At Pepper, the students created their own healthy granola bars, then started selling them. They began gardening, too. When the School District closed the school and the garden in 2013, Stein thought: Why not dream bigger? Why not create a healthy snack company — a way for kids not just to eat well, but to be entrepreneurs, to define the things that limited them and to change them?
The kids had called themselves the Rebel Gardeners — they were rebelling against what was unhealthy in their community, about people's preconceived ideas about them. Funded by the Netter Center, they became Rebel Ventures. For three years, they sold their granola bars in schools and at a few markets. Stein acted as distributor, pedaling around West Philadelphia on his bike making deliveries.
"We learned about running a food business by being a food business," Stein said. "We're still learning."
Stein is the adviser, but the students do the work — recipe research and development, marketing, accounting, networking, and outreach to the community through workshops in healthy eating and entrepreneurship. They make three products, including the Rebel Crumble, and use the proceeds to employ students, test new products, and take their message to the community.
In 2015, the Rebel crew met with School District officials to discuss expanding their reach. Officials were fascinated.
Amy Virus, a food services administrator, was eager to work with the teens, who might be able to help the district advance one of its own goals.
"We wanted them to help us figure out: What is the key to getting students to come to breakfast?" said Virus. "It's helping us reach students — having their peers talk to them has really been invaluable."
Virus gave the Rebels a price point and some nutritional guidelines, and they set to work on the breakfast cake. The volume — every day the Crumble is on the district's menu, the school system needs 40,000 cakes — meant that in-house production was no longer a possibility, so the crew partnered with Michel's Bakery in the Northeast.
In January, Rebel Crumbles hit school breakfast menus. (The district declined to give its final cost, but the original target Stein and the crew were given was between 55 and 70 cents per Rebel Crumble.) The venture sold over a quarter-million cakes through the end of the school year.
Later, they expanded to archdiocesan schools. They have made connections with the city's recreation department, too.
Another leap comes next week, when the product will be available at the ShopRite on 52nd Street in a one-day sale Aug. 3. If it does well, it could hit the shelves permanently.
Like much of the crew — six students during the school year, 12 over the summer, all of whom are paid — Tre'Cia Gibson wasn't much interested in healthy eating when she first encountered the Rebels.
"It was a job opportunity, honestly," said Gibson, a rising senior at Parkway West. "I knew nothing about the work."
But she grew to like it. She knew she didn't like school lunches, and neither did any of her friends. And, at Stein's insistence, she found that she liked different foods — apples and hummus, for instance.
"A lot of kids don't like eating healthy — they say, 'It's nasty food, food like this can't be good,' " said Syhirah Taylor, a recent Paul Robeson High School graduate headed to Cabrini University. "But we're rebelling against what regular school food is, and we want kids to know that they have a voice."
Community outreach remains a major part of their work, too. The crew is spending the summer not just testing new recipes, but taking hands-on lessons in nutrition and entrepreneurship into schools. On a recent morning, they worked with students at a Gesu School camp, helping the elementary schoolers think about things like problem-solving, product development, and quality control.
Taylor led the eager children in dreaming up and presenting their own products, and she imparted a lesson she had learned herself.
"Just remember," she said, "to stay focused, to create opportunities for yourselves and other people."