In the digital age, most of today's young, hot-shot entrepreneurs are working in the world of high tech, specifically in social networking. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan
Williams come to mind.
Then there's Ian Purkayastha, a 19-year old international businessman who's "networking" the old-fashioned way — face to face -- and making a big splash selling and promoting one of the world's most ancient and low-tech products: Truffles. To be sure, there aren't billions to be made in truffles, at least not yet. But truffles are by far the most-expensive ingredient in the culinary world, fetching up to $5000 per pound for the most desired varieties.
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Truffles may be used in the world's top restaurants but there's nothing fancy about the truffle business. Truffles are subterranean fungi typically harvested in the wild or from specially planted groves
with the aid of trained pigs or, more recently, dogs. It's a dirty business, literally and figuratively: Truffles must be dug up and, especially in Europe, the black market for high-end truffles really is "black": dealers have been known to kill their rival's dogs.
Enter Purkayastha who, at age 15, fell in love with foraging for wild mushrooms in the woods of Arkansas, where he's originally from. Soon thereafter, he tried truffles and it was love at first bite. Purkayastha was so taken with the truffles he ordered some from a French distributor so he could cook with them at home. That might have been the end of the story — a kid with a sophisticated palate and an usual hobby — except that Purkayastha also has an entrepreneurial spirit.
After selling some of his truffle stash to local chefs to help pay for his shipments, Purkayastha realized he had an opportunity to combine two of his greatest passions: truffles and sales.
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Soon he had a Web site, Tartufi Unlimited, and was shipping truffles across the country. Then three years ago, when he was just 16, Purkayastha convinced a major Italian distributor, P.A.Q. Gubbio, to make him their North American truffle representative. "What I didn't realize," Purkayastha recalls, "is they didn't have any preexisting clients in the US. Basically I did everything to build the company from the ground up."
While most of his friends were finishing high school and heading off to college, Purkayastha headed east to make it big in truffles. From his base in Hoboken, N.J., just across the river from New York City,
Purkayastha started knocking on kitchen doors at some of the top restaurants in Manhattan.
"I try not to disclose my age too often," he says. "When I was first starting out a few chefs wouldn't give me the light of day."
The restaurant and fine food industry is "an older man's game," says chef Jason Lawless of Tocqueville. "It's definitely interesting having someone this young" in the mix. Lawless, like many other top chefs in NYC, was won over by Purkayastha's persistence, deep knowledge of truffles and the quality of his wares.
Starting from scratch, Purkayastha built P.A.Q. Gubbio's North American business to over $1 million in sales in three years. Along the way, he apprenticed at P.A.Q's headquarters in Umbria, Italy and
lined up some of NYC top restaurants, including Daniel, Per Se and Jean George, as clients. More recently, Purkayastha has hired (and trained) three additional salespeople and aims to build the business even further.
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"It sounds cliché and corny but I had a dream and made it happen by working hard," he says.
Remember, Purkayastha has done all this before the age of 20 and yet manages to stay grounded, humble and mature well beyond his years. When most of his peers can't pry themselves away from the computer screen, or are living at home because they can't find work, Ian Purkayastha is
thriving in a rarified world — and eating very well.
The Driven Team is on a nationwide search for the next entrepreneur to be featured in an upcoming episode! Share your story with us at Driven@yahoo-inc.com or follow us on twitter @aarontask #drivenstories.
Video produced by Scott Fraser and Jessica Ashford. Production by Michael Manas, Josh Kesner, Dave Scaringe and Ramon Carty. Edited by Ryan Fritzsche. Graphics by Todd Tanner For Yahoo! Studios. Executive Producers: Russ Torres and Peter Gorenstein.