Whiz Biz Kids

Dallas' young entrepreneurs live by their creed: Just do it.

It all starts with the idea. But for those next steps, Goncalves says, you need help.

"Almost none of this would have happened without help from YEO," he says. For him and others in the group, they talk about YEO as its own mystical being, describing it like Obi-Wan described The Force: It binds them, protects them, makes them whole.

YEO began 17 years ago and has grown into one of the most powerful such peer groups in the country. Powerful to members because they make so many resources available to help grow and start businesses. Powerful to outsiders because all governments try hard to get entrepreneurs to create jobs and pump life into dead areas; Mayor Laura Miller is meeting with the group early next year to pitch downtown investment.

Derek Wilson is CEO of NeoSpire--and still looking to start other ventures.
Mark Graham
Derek Wilson is CEO of NeoSpire--and still looking to start other ventures.
Female entrepreneurs like Gina Puente-Brancato, left, and Adrienne Beam say that being women business owners is just one more of many challenges small-biz owners face.
Mark Graham
Female entrepreneurs like Gina Puente-Brancato, left, and Adrienne Beam say that being women business owners is just one more of many challenges small-biz owners face.

The Dallas chapter was founded in 1993 and consists of a group of companies with combined sales of more than $1.3 billion. They are part of the "O" network of peer groups, which also includes World Entrepreneurs Organization (where members "graduate" once they turn 40), YPO and WPO (for company presidents), and CEO, a "graduate" organization after YEO that is invite-only.

That's the boilerplate, the press release. But what is it about this group that has caused membership in Dallas (the second-largest chapter in the world, behind only New York) to nearly double in size the past four years? For most, the answer is "forums." A forum is an entrepreneur's subgroup. A forum is eight to 12 members, each in non-competing industries, who act like an unofficial board of directors. Forum meets once a month, and there is a strict no-soliciting policy. (This holds true for all YEO events; no one is hitting up another owner for business or funding during meetings, although if they decide on their own to do business together, no problem.) It's confidential and follows a strict format. One member's company is highlighted, and everyone receives financials for that company to look at. The owner discusses "wins" and "losses," concerns and challenges, fears and hopes.

"At first, I thought, 'OK, what is this guy who owns an air-conditioning company going to tell me about retail at the airport?'" says Gina Puente-Brancato, who owns La Bodega Winery at DFW Airport (Terminal A, Gate 15) and several other airport retail properties. "But we all have the same problems we have to face together. I did a presentation to my group after 9-11, which obviously affected our business at the airport. We all cut our salary off for several months. And I was a little depressed. But they assured me that I was doing the right thing and we would come out of it. And we did."

Because the room is inevitably filled with aggressive, cocksure types, they are forbidden from pointing fingers and telling the presenter, who is putting his or her figurative cojones on the table, exactly where and how he or she is doing it wrong. Any suggestions offered are anecdotal: the "when I had a similar problem, here's how I handled it" school of advice, rather than the "oh, yeah, well, if you're so damn smart..." model favored by Donald Trump and most journalists.

One entrepreneur of 10-plus years in Dallas says, however, that the arrogance and bluster of YEO members keeps him from joining. (That and the dues, about two grand a year for both local and international fees.) Yes, the contacts seem great, and it's surprisingly integrated, he says. Nevertheless, it often seemed to him a weird amalgam of a student council meeting and well-dressed frat. "You've got to understand how much bullshit goes on in groups like that," he says, asking that he not be identified because he still does business with members. "People lying about how much they make, about what they can deliver. Maybe it works for some people. But I just saw it as a big circle jerk."

Most of the YEOers I spoke with wince at this description, saying it's just one of many unfair stereotypes of the young Dallas go-go entrepreneur. (The one they laugh at the most is the "they're all rich kids" notion. Some come from money, and some have made themselves a nice wad, but even the young fête-setters you've been reading about for years--for example, Brady and Brandt Wood, who started several Deep Ellum and downtown businesses--have had the same cash-flow concerns in recent years of any small-business owner, and they've had to work hard to overcome them.)

It would be ridiculous to say that there aren't seeds of truth in some of the stereotypes. Occasionally, when surrounded by a group of them, you catch a strong whiff of hairspray and pretension. A schmear of fakery, a fat wedge of cheese, a healthy slice of b.s. There are times when you look around the room and realize that everyone's tie dimple is too perfect and the toothy smiles could easily be brought to you by Crest. Or Botox. "The douche factor is there, but way overrated," says a YEOer. "I thought these folks would be jerks. They're not, for the most part. They're sincere and helpful."

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