The Young Entrepreneur's Academy, sponsored by the Southern Midcoast Chamber of Commerce, has just begun the bear fruit. First row, left to right: Carolyn Farkas-Noe, program director; Cat Johnson; Robin Whorff, program instructor. Back row, left to right: Brian Mitchell, mentor; Bru Abreu, Liam Conlin; Timothy Welch, mentor.by Diana von Hallett
Coastal Journal contributor
TOPSHAM — When Cat Johnson talks about her participation in the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, her eyes light up with an infectious enthusiasm. Johnson, a 16-year-old from Bowdoin and a student at Waynflete in Portland, is one of three students selected for the midcoast’s first Young Entrepreneur’s Academy (YEA), sponsored by the Southern Midcoast Chamber of Commerce in partnership with Southern New Hampshire University, the Maine Chamber of Commerce, and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
The Young Entrepreneurs Academy is a 30-week program open to middle and high school students ages 11 to 18, who have an idea for a business or social action. The goal is for the students to turn their idea into a functioning business by the end of the course. The program was founded in 2004 at the University of Rochester with support from the Kauffman Foundation. Today, YEA can be found in hundreds of communities across America. In 2011, the United States Chamber of Commerce and Campaign for Free Enterprise became a national sponsor and partner of the Academy.
Southern Midcoast Chamber President Steve Wallace heard about the program, researched it, and brought it before the board, who agreed that YEA fit with the Chamber’s goal of educating young people and getting them familiar with the business world. “Read all the articles in the paper and hear all the studies about young people leaving the state [for] opportunities, and here’s an opportunity for young people to become self-sufficient and self-reliant and create a business in their own home town,” said Chamber Vice President and Program Manager Carolyn Farkas-Noe.
For Johnson, the Academy came at just the right time.
“I had this idea with my sister originally,” she said, “and we collaborated, and because we felt such passion for it, we’re like ‘Oh, we should really bring this to the community, in Brunswick and Topsham area.’ And so I sat down with my mom, and we were wondering: ‘Okay, only one problem; I’m a minor and projecting ideas for a business is a lot harder.’”
Johnson and her mother did some research and learned about YEA and that the local Chamber had just started offering the program.
“We thought it would be a good way to produce a business idea and learn in general about the business atmosphere,” said Johnson.
Across the table from Johnson, Bru Abreu, a 17-year old Mt. Ararat junior from Harpswell, exhibits an easy-going, self assurance.
“I didn’t really have a business idea at all until I got here,” Abreu said. “I just thought it would be good for me to do. I was able to think of something, though, which is good.”
Tonight they heard from the first of a series of guest speakers, including an attorney, who spoke about the legal aspects of forming a business. Johnson and Abreu found information they were able to apply immediately.
“For my business idea, it comes along with a lot of regulations,” said Johnson. “So, with this legal introduction, state and federal regulations I really come into the government aspect of business that I’d never been introduced to.”
Abreu, whose idea is in the design field, said he was interested in what the speaker had to say about patents and copyrights. Future guest speakers will include a representative from the insurance field, a CPA, and a representative from the world of “e-commerce.”
A difficult schedule
It’s Saturday morning, a bit before 9 a.m., Liam Conlin of Boothbay is the first of the three students to arrive at the Chamber offices before leaving on today’s field trip. This is my first meeting with Liam. He’s dressed in proper business attire: Dark suit, white shirt. Attire is another topic covered in the program; it’s okay to come to the weekly classes dressed as you do for school, but when you venture out into the business community, participants must dress the part.
The youngest of the group, Conlin is 14 and in the ninth grade. He rises to greet me and shakes my hand. He seems a bit quieter than his classmates, but is forthcoming about his original plan for a business. It was a very ambitious idea; however, early on in his research at the Academy, he ran into a major obstacle for starting a business in that field.
“The regulations say you have to be 18,” said Conlin. However, he continued to consider other options and has identified another idea to pursue.
Today’s field trip will be to Tim Horton’s, a franchise company. Their previous field trip was to Percy’s Burrow, a toy, book and gift shop, where they had an opportunity to meet with the owner and learn about her previous experience, the obstacles she has had to overcome and her experience as the owner of a shop that has recently expanded from Auburn into Topsham. Today, they will learn about franchises and, unknown to them at this point, they will also be put to work making donuts. They will learn that precision counts; they will be told exactly how many thousands of dollars adding just a little extra chocolate to the chocolate frosted donut will impact profits at the end of the year. And they will begin to realize, if they haven’t already, the importance of planning and details in commerce. Future field trips will include a business in the entertainment field and one in the social service sector.
Not every great idea makes for a viable business, so the program starts with what Program Instructor Robin Whorff calls “the digging phase.” This is where Whorff and the program mentors help the students identify their interests and passions and bat around ideas for turning these passions into a business. Throughout this process, the emphasis is on developing the students’ skills for making business decisions.
“We don’t want to say, ‘This is not a good business plan,’” said Whorff. “We want them to think, with all the criteria and questions we throw at them, do they think it’s not going to be a good opportunity? Is it just a fun idea?”
Johnson, Abreu and Conlin each have a personal mentor to guide them through the process, And the process is intense. There’s a weekly after school class, with homework assigned, and once a month a Saturday morning field trip, Whorff distinguishes it from other after school activities: “It’s not an after-school club; it’s a business scene,” she points out. The program demands a serious commitment, and applicants are screened for maturity and determination to stick with a project, even when obstacles appear.
As Farkas-Noe says, “It’s not for everyone.”
Such a busy schedule can be challenging. One of the issues Johnson said she keeps running into is “trying to match up with adult schedules.” She has received phone calls while in class, from people she has been trying to reach regarding her business idea, but hasn’t been able to return the calls. Abreu plays sports and has other obligations as well, and admits the schedule is “pretty hard.”
Once the students have identified the idea they want to develop, they will write up a business plan and present their idea to a panel of angel investors. First, they will work on their “elevator pitch,” and will actually practice it in an elevator, going up one floor. They will have two rehearsals before presenting their idea to the potential investors.
“They’re not going in cold,” said Farkas-Noe.
When they are ready for it, a web designer will come in and design their website, although each student will be responsible for the content. They will also receive help with designing their logo. At the end of the program, the students will participate in a trade show where they will present their business to the public.
The students say it’s a bit early to announce what their business ideas are; however, Farkas-Noe said there will be an announcement in the coming months. The public will also be invited to attend the trade show in June where the students officially launch their businesses. The public will also be invited to participate in the Chamber’s golf tournament in April, which will donate a portion of the proceeds to YEA.
The Chamber is currently accepting applications from the 16 towns the Chamber serves, for the next YEA class, which they hope to limit to 12.
For more information, visit www.midcoastmaine.com.