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Our youth is our future. And with this in mind, we need to ask if we are doing enough as a country to support and empower the younger tiers of our population to become the entrepreneurial leaders of tomorrow.
One organization that is already doing this is Denver-based YouthBiz. By working at the intersection of innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and leadership, YouthBiz is enabling its members to become proactive forces of change in their local neighborhoods.
In the interview below of YouthBiz’s Executive Director, Brandy Bertram, you’ll learn about all the positive change that YouthBiz is generating with the youth of today, filling a void in our society of entrepreneurial education and support that our school systems currently lack.
Please tell us a bit about YouthBiz.
Bertram: YouthBiz is a nonprofit organization located in the heart of Denver’s Five Points community that is on a mission to advance the social and economic prosperity of youth through the study and practice of entrepreneurship. We are 100 percent dedicated to delivering robust, rigorous, youth-centered entrepreneurship education venture ownership experiences for youth.
Every day, year-round, YouthBiz invests in a new generation of business owners, job creators and community leaders by helping them harness their passions, skills and dreams through entrepreneurship. We offer middle and high school youth a continuum of programming, both in and after school, and in partnership with a broad range of community partners, that challenges them to build entrepreneurial skills and habits through actual business ownership.
We measure our success by four core youth-centered outcomes: increased income and earning potential, increased academic achievement, increased resiliency, and increased connection to a diverse community. It is our intention that 100% of the youth who enroll in our programs realize growth in each of these areas and we’ve designed our evaluation systems to provide indicators for each.
What was the catalyst behind starting YouthBiz?
Bertram: YouthBiz was launched in 1992 during a summer with record numbers of youth-on-youth violence fueled by gang wars and a struggling local economy. Eight inner-city teens and a visionary community leader stepped up to create a series of entrepreneurial projects to increase income and build translatable workforce experience for their peers. Twenty-one years, 5,000 youth and $1.5 million in youth earnings later, YouthBiz remains committed to our founding spirit of impact through entrepreneurship.
What are the types of businesses that young entrepreneurs are creating these days? Can you share a few examples of highly unusual business ideas with us? Any success stories you can share with us?
Bertram: Our young people launch all kinds of businesses – from small hand crafts such as crocheted jewelry to scrumptious homemade treats like peach jam and snack kits featuring local products. For the majority of our youth, our programs give them their first experience in entrepreneurship. Therefore, these products and services represent their initial take at this new way of thinking and doing, and will likely grow and change over time, and even transition into new career paths.
Three of my favorite businesses illustrate how impactful even the most introductory level of programming can be. Each of the following young entrepreneurs launched their business after just one semester of our Aspiring Entrepreneurs program.
- Dee Jay is the CEO and Creative Director of Emaune Designs, where she works to hand craft small clutch purses. Her products have been to the Grammy Awards in 2012 and appeared in the hands of Arianna Huffington in early 2013! When people think of DeeJay, she wants them to think ambition, philanthropy and success. As for how she defines success, Dee Jay says, “Success to me is being able to do well enough for myself financially that I can afford to give back, and not just with money, but with my time, too.”
- Yasmin is in the process of launching a youth-centered event planning business that leverages her passion and talent for throwing fabulous events, into a vehicle that generates income and opportunity for herself and other young entrepreneurs! Yasmin is designing the entire enterprise to feature youth-owned businesses as her vendors. Need invites? She’s got a young entrepreneur for that. Need cupcakes? She’s got another young entrepreneur for that! I can’t wait to see where she takes this crazy cool venture.
- Da’Vion is the CEO and Founder of D-Bandz, an apparel and accessory business that inspires athletes and allows them to literally wear their heart as they play. In Da’Vion’s words, “I came up with an idea for headbands and sweatbands that say something inspiring so that people remember why they play the game. I want to bring the passion, heart and spirit back to the game.” An avid basketball player and hopeful NBA superstar, D-Bandz is Da’Vion’s way of turning his passion into a money-making venture and taking big steps towards his ultimate dream.
What are the biggest obstacles to increasing youth entrepreneurship in the U.S.?
Bertram: The biggest obstacle to creating a nation of young entrepreneurs is lack of access – to quality entrepreneurship education to learn about the skills, habits, and processes of successful entrepreneurs andthe tailored, appropriate, venture launch support to do something with the education once acquired!
Let’s face it, entrepreneurship (interpreted as venture launch and ownership) isn’t rocket science, but it is messy. You can have structures and content in the education components, but at some point, theories and assumptions must be tested in real-world, customer-driven markets. And real dollars have to be exchanged.
This is hard to widely implement in traditional educational system. It’s not natural, or even possible sometimes, to offer a complete entrepreneurship experience within the four walls of a classroom in a 60-minute period. And, to be fair to the schools, entrepreneurial thinking and practice isn’t a section on any standardized performance or college entrance exam anywhere. Thus, entrepreneurship education (should it be offered at all) either ends up watered down into business plan competitions, idea contests, and terminology lessons, completely eliminating the real experience of entrepreneurship or, relegated to after school hours, in community-based programs like YouthBiz.
All of this adds up to tremendous lack of access, often for the youth who most need its lessons and practices to imagine, and then create a new economic future for themselves and their communities. And it shows up in stats like this – a recent survey of college graduates shows that 92% of respondents surveyed said that entrepreneurship education was critical to their success in the new economy only 27% had ever been given access to entrepreneurship training in school (Source: Buzz Marketing Group and The Young Entrepreneur Council, 2011).
All hope is not lost! There are more and more efforts emerging daily to support young people’s introduction to and exploration of entrepreneurship. And, these efforts are merging and synthesizing in ecosystems and networks nationwide. Schools are starting to leverage community partners like YouthBiz to enrich their elective offerings and weave core content and career readiness together. Non-profits are coming together to create partnerships and collaboratives, like Denver’s Youth Entrepreneurship Network, to ensure that their community’s young people have all different levels of access and support. I fully believe that with hard work, open minds, and abundance mentalities, we’ll see a shift in my professional lifetime where all youth, everywhere, have access to quality entrepreneurship education and the support to put their learning into action through venture ownership. (See the prior question!)
How can someone get involved in sponsoring a young entrepreneur? What can companies do to help out?
Bertram: Corporations and the amazing people that found, lead, and run them, are our second greatest asset. (The first is our youth!) Corporations help fill our Board of Directors, sponsor our fundraising events and programs, fulfill our volunteer needs, provide critical services, and provide inspiration for, and role models of, great business practice.
YouthBiz works with each corporate donor to craft an engagement plan that meets our needs and theirs, whether they are looking to increase visibility in the community, engage their staff in culture building activities, invest in the next generation of home-grown talent, and/or provide them with a suite of rich tax-deductible benefits for their in-kind and cash donations.
Whether it is a company or an individual donor, the basic cost per youth is the same. With an average investment of $1000 per young person, per program, per year, a life can be forever changed. That’s less than $84/month to help a young person find their greatness, own it, and put it into action.
How can an aspiring youth entrepreneur get included in your program?
Bertram: I love this question because our entry level program is called Aspiring Entrepreneurs! YouthBiz offers three program sessions per year (Spring, Summer and Fall) at our 3280 Downing Street training facility, and delivers the same, or adapted programming at select schools throughout the Metro area. We’ve been fortunate to offer credit-bearing classes at McAuliffe International School and Manual High School, and are proud to partner with Mi Casa Resource Center to provide afterschool programming to the North High School Community.
Depending on the setting, YouthBiz asks interested participants to complete a written application and complete an in-person interview to help make sure that our model is a good fit for helping them achieve their personal, professional and academic goals.
Information about our locations and application requirements can be found on our website at www.youthbiz.org, by calling 303.297.0212, or visiting us at our 3280 Downing Street location.
How do you see YouthBiz evolving in the coming years?
Bertram: YouthBiz is at critical moment on our own entrepreneurial journey. Our Board has challenged us to become recognized nationally as an industry leader in youth entrepreneurship, and successfully replicate our model in multiple urban locations, nationwide, for a diverse demographic of youth by the end of 2018. This is all being done with the direct intention of ensuring that all youth, everywhere, have access to quality entrepreneurship education and the opportunity and support to put that knowledge into practice through venture launch!