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Generation E teaches the next generation how to be their own boss

At age 10, youngsters can start their education in being an entrepreneur. Chris Killian reports on a curriculum called Generation E started in Battle Creek and now offered nationally and internationally that readies young people for the business world.
When other boys were worried about their Little League games or a girl they had a crush on, Tyler Upston was concerned with more adult things.

Starting at the age of 12, Upston was up early in the morning in the summer, out in his Battle Creek neighborhood hustling for work and growing his customer base. His tools: A John Deere garden tractor he rented from his dad, a weed trimmer, a hand-held blower, a gas can and a lot of hope.

At first, he cut five lawns around his home. By the time he was in middle school, that number jumped to 15. When he attended Battle Creek Lakeview High School he wanted to further expand his business, but didn't know how.

"At the time, I thought I was making the big bucks," says Upston, 25. "But I still wanted to grow. I just didn't know how to."

Then, while in a class on entrepreneurship, he heard of Generation E.

"They really helped me out," he says. "They gave me the basics to succeed with, like cost control, how to write a business plan, what to charge customers. The help was tremendous."

Upston went on to attend Michigan State University, where he studied landscape design, then returned to Battle Creek to get his business ball rolling.

Now Upston, owner of Upston Lawn and Garden LLC, already has 75 contracts so far for the spring and summer for a wide range of landscaping work, from mowing to sprinklers to tree removal. He employs nearly 10 people during the summer months and his business is growing every year, he says.

And he's only one of many young persons Generation E has helped realize their business dreams.

The agency began as a simple idea, hatched in 2004 by Don Mercer, CEO of Community Action Agency is South Central Michigan, to create an educational platform for young people interested in entrepreneurship. But he needed a person to develop the curriculum.

Enter Cheryl Peters.

Peters, who had been working as a business teacher in the Battle Creek Public schools for years, was tapped by Mercer to take charge of the fledgling enterprise and make it a reality. After some thought, she agreed to take the reins, and with help from a three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Coleman Foundation, the Generation E Institute was born in 2005.

"Anybody can have a dream," says Peters, executive director of the institute. "At first, we have to ask a student: 'What do you love to do?' Making a job as opposed to taking a job, that's what we preach. But we need to find out what a student's dream is, and then make it a reality."

Generation E became a nonprofit in 2007, and is sustained with grant dollars and fees for services, Peters says. And it has grown. To date, there are Generation E programs in 35 Michigan counties as well as communities in Illinois, Indiana, California and even the Dominican Republic.

About 275 educators have been trained in the Generation E curriculum, which Peters created, a roadmap for students ages 10 to 26 to form their own businesses and realize their own dreams, teaching them pricing, business planning and how to market their products. Programs are tailored for different age groups and almost 8,000 students have gone through the program so far, she says, starting businesses ranging from computer repair to book writing to arts and crafts.

"No matter whether a child is from a rural area or an urban area, every child can succeed," she says. "There is power in starting your own business. You own it, you take pride in it and you develop it and, in turn, you develop yourself."

Even though the agency is having an impact nationally and internationally, it still is grounded in Southwest Michigan, partnering with Kellogg Community College, the Calhoun County Intermediate School District and other community agencies to broaden the scope and administration of its curriculum.

Peters has seen the power that the Generation E programming can have for a young person.

On a recent morning, she sat at a desk near the entrance to the institute's new digs on the second floor of a building in downtown Battle Creek, just across Capital Avenue NE from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. A pile of empty boxes--"Mt. Box," as she called it--were stacked in a corner and the office was still coming together, a sign of the agency's growth.

As she negotiated through the still-emptiness of the space, eventually settling into her own office, she talked about the changes she's seen in youngsters and the challenges they've overcome through the program's efforts.

"I've seen homeless kids get off the streets and start their own businesses," she says. "I've seen drug dealers turn themselves around and put their business experience to work in a productive way. Kids and young people are resilient. They just need hope and encouragement. They just need to be told: ‘You can do that.'"

A bumper sticker stuck to a file cabinet near her desk reads: "Entrepreneurs: Creating the American Dream for over 200 years!"

Peters still stays in touch with a number of Generation E graduates, still cares about them and how their businesses are doing, still gives them advice.

Like Upston, who is still living his dream.

"I can't tell you how much I learned from them," he says. "Without them, I don't think I'd be in business. They gave me the sense about what I wanted to do with my life, and so far, it's paid off."

Chris Killian is a freelance journalist based in Kalamazoo, where he's lived full-time since graduating from Western Michigan University in 2004. He writes regularly for local media outlets and specializes in feature, environmental and political stories.

Photos by Erik Holladay

Generation E Executive Director Cheryl Peters.

Tyler Upston, owner of Upston’s Lawn & Garden, LLC., is one of many youngsters who learned how to start his own business from the Generation E program.

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