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Tween Entrepreneurs

Young Entrepreneurs at U of M-Dearborn







If violin lessons and Little League aren't enough, Dearborn Chamber of Commerce has launched the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a program that teaches precocious kids how to launch their own start-up.
Let's play a word association game. I say teen, you say... 
I say tween, you say…
Did entrepreneur or business owner come to mind? I'm guessing not. Why would it? 
Contrary to popular belief, there are tweens and teens aplenty thinking about – sometimes even launching – their own commercial endeavors, focusing on things other than a trip to Abercrombie & Fitch, One Direction's tweets or the latest version of Halo. 
Sure, there are the kids who have experience running lemonade stands, selling homemade goods and cutting lawns, and at the other end of the spectrum are the whiz kids whipping out software, apps and scientific discoveries.
In the middle, are those with percolating business plans. They've thought up a solution to a problem or come up with a product idea they just know could catch on. But their dreams, plans and ideas can easily get lost between homework, soccer practice and music lessons - or languish just lying around thinking about it.
What they need is the know-how of starting and running a business. That's why the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce is launching the Young Entrepreneurs Academy - AKA YEA. The nonprofit YEA invites sixth through twelfth-graders (11- to 18-year-olds) to attend weekly classes, meetings and special projects led by business owners, executives, community leaders and others. They guide the junior entrepreneurs from start-up to take-off, including the opportunity to pitch their product or service to investors. Think local, kinder version of TV's Shark Tank.
The Dearborn Young Entrepreneur's Academy is the first chapter in Michigan and one of almost 80 nationwide. The nonprofit Kauffman Foundation, which promotes enterprise creation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supports YEA.
As the application process is underway for the academy to open in Dearborn in October, Peggy Richard, director of events for the chamber and organizer of the Dearborn YEA, says she already knows of local kids with impressive ideas. She's heard them as she's made appearances to spread the word about the academy, which is also supported by Dearborn and Dearborn Heights Public Schools. DTE Energy donated $10,000. The Dearborn YEA is committed for a three-year run and more depending on how well it goes.
"We've heard from a girl who makes scarves out of old t-shirts. She already has several designs. Another is a DJ. He has no business plan or marketing materials. We've heard from a lawn business. And one of the best is a kid who already has a pretty successful online t-shirt business that his mom knew nothing about until the tax bills arrived in the mail," she says.
It's not all for-profit ideas.
"A lot of kids are also starting social movements. You think they're creating products, but they're also creating services for the community. One past participant from another city paired used band instruments with students because so many programs had been cut in schools."
"We're also telling students they don't necessarily need a business idea to participate…What we envision is 24 students basically collapses into 12-15 businesses," Richard says.
The Dearborn YEA has 24 spots available – about 10 applicants are now under consideration. It's a 30-week program that will be taught in the University of Michigan Dearborn library. The cost is $395. Richard is working to find sponsors to donate to scholarships. 
"A mother called last week. She's from Syria. She has two daughters and she really wants to enroll them, but she has no money. I would certainly love to see her." The tuition cost covers the materials and curriculum training from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
It's Richard's job to find students, sponsors, teachers and mentors for the program that was founded at the University of Rochester with the mission of teaching kids to make a job rather than take a job.
"I need people willing to invest in these students. I spent many nights thinking, 'God, can I really do this?' It's such a huge undertaking…But not only as a membership organization do we owe our current members services, but we owe our future business owners of our community. Just to get them to stay here in Dearborn and metro Detroit is an important aspect of this."
She says stats show YEA grads do well. Of the 870 graduates in nine years, 550 are still running viable businesses, 100 percent finished high school on time and 99 percent go to college.
"This is an opportunity for kids that will give them experience they can't get just anywhere. They sit down at CEO roundtables. They hear these successful people talk about what they did, what choices they made, what choices they wish they'd made," she says.
They will visit the Quicken Loans headquarters in Detroit. There is a "salon component" where they and their businesses get makeovers.
The academy culminates with a trade show open to the business community and the community at large.
"We'll get the kids actually in front of people.
At the end of the 30 weeks is a graduation ceremony. "Not only do we hope to change these children's lives significantly we know in the process they'll change the lives of any of the adults involved as well," Richard says.
A local winner will go to the competition at the University of Rochester, where the program began. Last year's winner was a seventh-grader who took home $10,000 and access to a team of business advisers.
"We know kids have energy and focus and the drive the work hard," she says. "We see how hard they work when they go to soccer, baseball or gymnastics or to band and any of the activities kids are involved in.
"What better experience to put a resume: that you committed 30 weeks of your social and after school life to a business….Kids have all these little ideas in their heads," she says. "This will hopefully give them an opportunity to grow and blossom."
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