Entrepreneurs rule on reality TV

It's no accident that two finalists on "Oprah's Big Give" are small business owners.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Turns out that entrepreneurs aren't just good at making money. Two of the three contestants in next Sunday's grand finale of the ABC reality show "Oprah's Big Give" are small business owners.

The Oprah Winfrey-produced show offers a philanthropic twist on the standard reality format. Contestants compete in a series of challenges to "change the lives" of needy people, typically by raising money to solve their problems.

Stephen Paletta, 43, and Cameron Johnson, 23, both serial entrepreneurs, wielded their sharp business skills on the way to the finale. (The third finalist, 24-year-old Brandi Milloy, is a former beauty queen.)

"If you just heard of the concept of the show you would think, 'Wow, the most successful contestants are going to be charity workers walking around giving money out,'" said Johnson in a telephone interview. "But then when you actually watch the show it's almost the same skills that would come into play on 'The Apprentice.'"

On one episode, the contestants were given 48 hours to give away $4,800. While their competitors roamed the streets and gave money away almost at random, Patella and Johnson teamed with a third contestant to raise money for the Denver's Children's Home.

Tasked to help a family with a cancer-stricken father, Johnson engineered the payoff of the entire mortgage on their home. Oprah arranged for guest star Jada Pinkett Smith to drop by and do some Hollywood rainmaking; building on the money Smith and her contacts raised, Johnson brought in three deep-pocketed investors - Ford Motor Co., the bank holding the note, and legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He also convinced the bank to waive interest payments and to complete the paperwork in just four days.

When contestants were given one day to give away $100,000, only Paletta met the challenge. He bought a truckload of consumer electronic gear, which he distributed door-to-door in an impoverished neighborhood. (When contacted, Paletta's wife said they had been instructed not to speak with the media.)

In last Sunday's semifinal episode, Paletta raised $43,000 for a local women's shelter by tapping his network of family and friends. Meanwhile, Johnson marshaled his own personal network to help the parents of a child with cancer. He succeeded in paying a year's rent for the family home, redecorating the child's room in pink and white, and persuading four car dealerships to chip in for a new car.

Paletta, who lives in Bedford, N.Y., worked in his family's construction business before launching several companies in the pipeline and fiber-optic sectors. In 2004, friends invited Paletta on his first visit to Rwanda. He has since made multiple trips to the African nation, helping to build schools and libraries and also starting a non-profit to create partnerships between African and American schools.

The baby-faced Johnson, who hails from Roanoke, Va., jumped into the business world at the age of nine with a greeting card operation. He has since founded and sold several Internet businesses. Johnson sits on the board of the Virginia chapter of Jobs for America's Graduates, an organization that aids potential high-school dropouts.

Veteran entrepreneur-philanthropists had mixed views on the contestants' strategies.

"You can see in them what every entrepreneur has, the whatever-it-takes mentality," said Lisa Honig Buksbaum, founder of Soaring Winds, a New York City nonprofit that supports sick children and their families.

Buksbaum felt that Johnson, with his integrated plan and crisp execution, was the clear winner of last Sunday's semifinal.

But Mickey Fitzgerald wanted to see a bit more. A former NFL player turned businessman, Fitzgerald called the concept of the show "fabulous." However, he was disappointed by the contestants' performances - he said he could raise half a million in four days.

"It's a feel-good thing, no doubt about that," Fitzgerald said, who devotes time and money to supporting Calvary Children's Home in Georgia. "But it should have gone much further than that."

At the end of last week's penultimate round, none of the contestants were eliminated, setting them up for an epic showdown in the finale this Sunday.  To top of page

What do you think of Oprah's entrepreneurial reality show? Tell us about it.

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