By Debbie Adams
Graham Knight Fitzgerald has some pretty profound thoughts and dreams for someone who just turned 6 years old. He is ready to take on the foster care system one T-shirt at a time.
Graham has just completed this year’s Gauntlet Business Program and Competition to find a way to reach his goal. He is the youngest entrepreneur enrolled in the Gauntlet this year. He was just 5 years old when the sessions started in February – a kindergartner at Green Valley Elementary School in Roanoke County.
His business is named GK’s Dream; he is selling T-shirts to raise funds for foster children, “helping them secure their forever homes while spreading positivity.”
Current data indicates that there are approximately 424,000 children in the United States foster care system and the average age of a foster child is 6 -1/2 years old.
Graham stopped by the Vinton Municipal Building on April 19, right before the Town Council meeting, to be introduced to Mayor Brad Grose, Vice Mayor Sabrina McCarty, and Council members Laurie Mullins and Mike Stovall and to tell them about his dream to help foster kids. He brought along the T-shirts his business sells featuring Titan the Monkey and the mysterious catchphrase “What’s up with the FOM?”
He gave council his “elevator pitch,” a Gauntlet technique, to sum up his business in just about three minutes:
“Hi, my name is Graham Knight Fitzgerald, and I am currently 6 years old. I live with my dad and am starting to realize that even though I don’t have everything I want, I am very fortunate to have the things that I do have in my life. It is my dream to find a way to make the world a better place by doing the right thing and doing something for the greater good.
“Titan’s catchphrase, ‘What’s up with the FOM?’ started in my aunt’s house as I came busting through the French doors into the kitchen and shouted, ‘What’s up with the FOM?’ Everyone looked puzzled and asked me what that meant and at the time I was just being a silly kid and stated, ‘I have no clue.’
“On the ride home, my dad and I started talking and decided that this catchy little phrase could be a good gateway into fulfilling some of the dreams that I have.
“One of these dreams is to help children in the foster care system. I am going to help these children have a chance at finding their forever homes that are filled with love so they can achieve their dreams. This is important to me because my best friend is currently in this exact situation and like him, I don’t want any kids out there to feel like they don’t belong like he did when we first met. So, with the support of my dad, my family, close friends, Titan, and all of you I am starting GK’s Dream to help these children’s dreams become a reality.”
There were “high-fives” all around when Graham finished speaking to council.
In their business plan, Graham and his father, Mike Fitzgerald, are listed as co-owners and co-CEOs of GK’s Dream.
Graham’s dad is a substance abuse counselor, currently with the Carilion Clinic OBOT (Office-Based Opioid Treatment) program. He has his Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling and is also a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor.
He says his goal is to help make Graham’s dreams come true.
“My passion is to help people, including my son, so this adventure begins,” Fitzgerald says.
The Fitzgeralds have had some help in developing their business, including from artist Michelle Quesenberry.
“I have a passion for drawing and when Graham told me his vision for GK’s Dream I was all in,” Quesenberry says. “In addition, I have fostered children in my home for the past several years and have experienced their pain of not having a stable and loving environment first-hand. Graham’s vision tugged on my heartstrings, and I wanted to contribute to his success in helping children in need.”
The T-shirts they have come up with feature intriguing slogans. Two shirts have been designed and released so far, with a goal of including five to seven in the series. Each shirt offers just part of the meaning behind the slogan of “What’s up with the FOM?” – part of their marketing strategy.
The team worked with Marj Easterling (a Gauntlet graduate) and her Big Lick Screen Printing, LLC, to come up with the finished product. They wanted to keep their business “local” as much as possible.
The T-shirts are now on sale online through their website and Facebook page.
This year’s Gauntlet business classes were online and included a record 140 entrepreneurs. Now in its eighth year, the Gauntlet has helped more than 650 local businesses get a start.
Mike Fitzgerald and Graham both participated in the online classes each Tuesday night for 10 weeks. They were a challenge at times for a kindergartner, but Graham enjoyed the Table Talks (“it was fun”) which are part of the program. Mike says the feedback from fellow entrepreneurs was priceless.
The Fitzgeralds plan to continue on through the competition phase of the Gauntlet and have submitted their business plan, hoping to win cash and/or prizes to advance GK’s Dream. Once “pitches” are presented to judges in the coming weeks, finalists are invited to participate in the Gauntlet Graduation and Awards Ceremony on May 25 at the Vinton War Memorial.
When entrepreneurs join the competition, they are asked what type of prize would best serve their needs – money, resources, or in-kind services. Fitzgerald says what they really need is funding to get the T-shirts made to begin with.
Graham’s dad says his biggest concern is making sure the proceeds of the T-shirt sales get to the foster kids who need assistance. They are exploring the options.
Annette Patterson, President and CEO of The Advancement Foundation (TAF), who founded the Gauntlet Business Program, says, “We are so pleased with Graham’s participation in the Gauntlet. Kudos go to his dad, who is clearly fostering his entrepreneurial spirit. The most successful entrepreneurs of any age approach everything they do with a growth mindset. Honestly, there is no better skill set to build in our workforce, whether starting a business or working for a corporation. The ability to identify problems, create innovative solutions and implement change quickly are critical to any business’s success. This is a central tenant of the Gauntlet program and culture.”
The Fitzgeralds were introduced to the Gauntlet by Chasity Barbour, Vinton’s Director of Community Programs, who suggested the business program would be a good way for Graham to meet his goals and realize his dreams. The town has worked closely with the Gauntlet since its inception; in the early years, the business classes were held in person at the Vinton War Memorial, one of the facilities Barbour oversees in her position.
The “What’s up with the FOM?” T-shirts are on sale on the Fitzgeralds’ website at https://gksdream.com/ and the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/gksdream/. They come in both kids and adult sizes from small to 2XL. The cost is $15 for children’s shirts and $25 for adults. You can also purchase stickers with the “What’s up with the FOM?” riddle.
Hopefully, the business will expand quickly so we can all discover just what “the FOM” is.