Entrepreneurship and Education & Workforce Development and Small Business

Summer program turns teens into entrepreneurs

August 17, 2009

The budding entrepreneurs who practiced their business lessons at last month’s Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration posted record sales—thanks in part to the popularity of the Michael Jackson T-shirts they were hawking.

The 18 students from Indianapolis’ Haughville neighborhood sold their wares— ranging from caps and sunglasses to purses to home-baked cookies—as part of Business Leaders for the Next Generation, or BLING, a summer business-education program for low-income youth.

Founded in 2004, BLING is a program of the Academy of Greater Works, a not-for-profit education group operating in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood. BLING received about $16,000 in funding over the years from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Summer Youth Program Fund, but this year its 13 board members opted to raise the money themselves.

“I wanted to move aboard in fund raising,” said Director Jeffrey Berry. “All of the money, about $10,000, was raised by the board members this year.”

Berry, who also founded the academy, is a full-time teacher at Pike Township’s Snacks Crossing Elementary School.

BLING trains a group of 15 to 20 students each year. Berry, the primary instructor, teaches the fundamentals of business—from legal structure to sales and marketing. The board also brings in local professionals to talk about their experiences.

The students—ages 9 to 16 this year—do not pay to participate in the program, but they do invest in promoting the businesses they create.

“Students make business cards and fliers; they pay $2 for that. We don’t charge them the market rate,” Berry said. “We do let them know that nothing is free.”

Students meet at different community centers in neighborhoods like Martindale-Brightwood and Haughville for about six weeks. After learning the basics, they write a business plan and sell their products at the Summer Celebration.

To become proficient at handling money, students also open savings accounts under BLING’s umbrella in the Community Choice Federal Credit Union. The program also includes field trips to the credit union to learn more about accounts and loans.

The culmination of the program is the graduation ceremony and the business-plan competition, held Aug. 1 at IUPUI Kelley School of Business. This year, Genesis Howard won the $200 first prize by selling purses.

Participants also get an opportunity to earn some money during the course of the program. Berry said students can earn up to $25 every week by attending classes and meeting all the program requirements.

Such business-oriented programs are important and valuable for young people to be financially literate, especially during a financial downturn, said Jennifer Burk, CEO of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana. JA has been running a financial literacy program for kids of all ages in Indianapolis since 1919.

In a 2006 survey conducted by Junior Achievement, nearly 71 percent of the 1,474 youths who participated said they wanted to be self-employed someday, up 7 percentage points from 2004.

JA hasn’t done another such study since then, but Burk said there has been an increase in the number of student inquiries about the program.

“These kinds of financial skills are truly critical to the success of the next generation,” she said.

Berry agreed. Every year, the BLING group runs one group business and several individual student businesses. This year, the group sold Michael Jackson T-shirts, generating a record $800 in sales.

James Cowherd, 17, broke the individual student record, making a profit of $223 selling hats and bandanas. He placed second in the business-plan competition.

Students decide what to sell, then go to a wholesale market to purchase their products. Berry teaches them how to set a retail price.

In addition to the revenue, some students received job offers from employers at Black Expo. Fourteen-year-old Azia Watts, who sold home-baked chocolate chip cookies, received two job offers from catering organizations.

“The program was very interesting,” she said. “We learned a lot from the guest speakers about our own business, competition, how to improve our product and service.”

A few students strive to continue with their business even after.

BLING veteran Arron Smith, who joined the program in 2006, sold self-designed T-shirts at that year’s Expo. Now a high school graduate, Smith still designs shirts whenever he finds the time.

“From my part-time business, I make around $700-$1,000 a year,” he said.•

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