She just wanted to make a little extra money as a sophomore in high school, but her little jewelry business took off.

Now, DAR's McKenzie Wilbanks is selling her handmade jewelry in 23 different stores, one of them as far away as New York City. 

At just 18 years old, she was recently announced as the winner of a $50,000 "Alabama Launchpad" grant to help grow her business. She will be working with Launchpad throughout the summer and the organizers are even talking to her about coaching future businesses in the Launchpad competition. 

"It's just crazy," McKenzie said. 

She is the daughter of Jamie Wilbanks and Brian Wilbanks. She will graduate today (Saturday) with the Class of 2019 at DAR High School. 

She's always been a creative person and she's always liked jewelry so she combined those 2 passions to start her jewelry company, Kenzie's Creations, in 2017. It was somewhat of a dark period in her life when she started the business. 

"I was going through an issue where I was being bullied," she said. "I just turned all my attention to my jewelry."

Once she made some inventory came the task of selling it. Her first effort was to push it strong on social media and she made some sales. But she knew she needed a presence in stores too in order to build her brand. 

It was a daunting task to walk into businesses and ask adults if they'd like to try selling her jewelry. 

"It's easy for people to look at teenagers and think they're immature," she said. 

McKenzie travels in a wide circle, though. She goes to school at Grant and goes to church at Skyline. She has friends in both Guntersville and Scottsboro. That no doubt helped. 

"Goody2Shoes in Scottsboro was one of the first businesses to put my jewelry in its store," she said. Grant Pharmacy and others soon followed in Grant, Guntersville and elsewhere. She has stores as far away as Decatur. 

To continue building her brand, McKenzie's boyfriend Drew Brewer built custom cases for her to display her jewelry in at the stores that sell for her. 

She also goes to a lot of arts and crafts show and sets up booths. She had friends manning Art on the Lake in Guntersville in late April while she herself had a booth at the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. 

"I will always go to shows," McKenzie said. People not only buy her jewelry at the shows, she said. Many often get information about her website and then order more later. 

"If a piece of jewelry breaks, I fix it," she said. She's aiming to build repeat business.

Her jewelry sells for $10 to $50 per piece. She doesn't see adding precious gems or anything like that and going up on price. 

Her aim is for the age 15 to 35 demographic although she acknowledges that she has grandmothers who are loyal customers too. 

The business is profitable, but McKenzie is still finding time to enjoy life too. She's taking a graduation trip to Disney World. Later in the summer, she'll go to the beach with her "Guntersville friend group."

Her focus after graduation will be on her business, although she will likely further her education too.

"I'm probably going to take some business classes at Northeast," she said. 

Even though she's just a teen, she's already struck that rare balance that so many people seek. She loves her work. 

"It's so much fun," she said. 

Up until now, her bedroom has also been her office and her creative studio. She hopes the Launchpad grant will help her get an actual office as a workspace.

She thinks the business will soon grow to the point where she can add employees. Someone to keep the books is a no-brainer. 

"I'm not good at that part of it," McKenzie said, although she does have separate personal and business checking accounts already.

Each year, she selects 120 young women as "brand reps" who both serve as models for her jewelry and can sell on a percentage basis.

Her brother Peyton helps her whenever she needs a little help. His main job is with Publix in Guntersville. 

McKenzie has run into a slightly different problem than bullying now. Every now and then, someone jealous of the success she's enjoying will say something mean. 

"That used to be the kind of thing that bothered me," she said. "I would sit up late at night thinking about why someone would do that. It doesn't bother me anymore."

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