Jill Sheiman had volunteered to do some baking for a local homeless shelter when she created a recipe for a rich, spicy chocolate cookie.
"I was tired of the recipes we had," she said. "I was tired of chocolate chip cookies and oatmeal raisin cookies. They're the cookies everyone's grown up with and they're boring."
A number of other local cookie lovers felt the same way. The new treats got rave reviews from family and friends, and that gave Jill the idea to start a business selling them.
Two years later to her amazement, Jill is finalizing plans to widely distribute "Slightly Hot Chocolate" cookies through her own company, Jill's One Smart Cookie Inc.
What's even more amazing, though, is that Jill is only 15.
A year ago, she placed a $15 ad in the Westport News for help with the "creative aspects" of starting a new cookie company. She did not mention her age.
Much to her surprise, more than 50 people responded--including several high-powered New York advertising executives, many of whom make their homes in the affluent suburbs of southeastern Connecticut.
"They thought I was a large cookie company like Nabisco or Sunshine trying to sneak out a new cookie," Jill said. "When they found out I was just a teen-ager, most of them just thought it was a joke."
But not Peter Cornish, now a senior vice president at the advertising giant J. Walter Thompson Co. Cornish was between jobs at the time, and responded to the ad in hope of bringing in a little extra money.
Cornish admits that he was suspicious of the project at first and thought some adults must be behind it. But when he discovered that the teen-ager really was going it alone, he was impressed by her determination and volunteered his help.
"I thought it was kind of an impossible dream at first, but then I tasted the cookie and realized it was unique," he said. "Since her goals were modest at the time and she wasn't trying to take over from Pillsbury, I thought we might be able to find a little niche."
Under the expert tutelage of the 48-year-old advertising executive, Jill has since become fluent in the ins and outs of marketing, including concept boards, focus groups and the importance of packaging.
Right now, the cookies are sold only in a small store in Fairfield and to people who contact Jill directly. They cost 75 cents apiece.
But several major chain stores have expressed interest both in the cookie and its creator. And Jill has contracted with Leon's Bakery in North Haven, an automated plant that can produce 10,000 cookies an hour, to bake her cookies when she is ready to start taking big orders.
She also hopes to market the frozen dough for customers who want to bake their own cookies, which incorporates different elements of many recipes and has a taste similar to old-fashioned ginger bread.
Jill said she had learned quickly that establishing a real business involved a lot more than just putting a few cookie sheets in the oven.
For one thing, the family kitchen did not meet sanitary standards, and baking cookies in bulk was not something that could be fit in after school.
Jill had to go in search of someone else to do the baking for her.
She said she did not realize until Leon's began test producing the cookie that its current shelf life is only about a week. It often takes that long just to get cookies from a bakery into a store.
The problem seemed insurmountable until Jill contacted the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Bakers there are now reformulating her recipe for free, and she is hoping to start full production within a few months.
The cookie project has pretty much taken over the girl's family.
Her father, an attorney, provided her with financial backing. Her mother, Deborah, an educational consultant, has taken time off from work to help field business inquiries and to attend meetings that can be scheduled only during school hours.
"It's turned out to be a much bigger project than we expected," she said. "I think Jill has taught us all a lesson."
Jill says she wants to be a sports attorney, not a corporate mogul when she gets older. But the experience of starting a company, as well as the generosity of all those who helped her, will always stay with her, she said.
"What I've found is since I'm 15, people want to volunteer their services and their talents because they think that I represent the entrepreneurial spirit that's diminishing in America," said Jill, who has yet to make a profit on her new venture.
"But they weren't required to help me. They weren't required to teach me how to run a cookie business. And I never thought when I started that I'd get this much help. People have been so giving, it's amazing."