Youth entrepreneurship programs encourage thinking big

Fourteen-year-old entrepreneur Gianna Gallardo is entering ninth grade, but in some ways she already has an advantage over many small-business owners.

Having created a detailed business plan, the Culver City teenager sells handmade bookmarks decorated with her drawings. She has managed to raise prices 50% recently. And she has landed some outside capital, which she invested in a laptop computer for her part-time business, Custom Mark Bookmarks.

It’s still a very small enterprise. Total sales for the $3 bookmarks are less than $200. And the capital investment was a $400 cash prize Gianna won in a recent student business-plan competition.


But the skills she learned during her eighth-grade entrepreneurship class last spring could have big payoffs later, she said, no matter whether she grows up to run her own business.

“I definitely became more confident, standing in front of crowds and giving speeches, and learned how to be responsible” for the business, Gianna said.

Teaching young people that they have the ability to create their own businesses is only one of the goals of the growing number of youth entrepreneur training programs around the country.

Discovering a reason to use and polish math, reading and writing skills is part of it. Keeping at-risk students in school by engaging them in relevant, hands-on learning is also a big goal of some of these programs.

“It’s less about turning them into entrepreneurs and more about getting them engaged in learning and motivated to learn more,” said Betty LaMarr, president of business coaching firm Los Angeles-based Nadisa Associates and a mentor to student businesses. “It’s that they now have a bigger vision.”

Recognizing the benefits to students, and potentially to their own companies, local small-business owners such as LaMarr are supporting entrepreneur training in middle schools and high schools with time and money.

For example, LaMarr set up a Los Angeles nonprofit, EmpowHer Institute, in 2003 and uses it to raise money to help fund start-up skill classes for young people. Among other things, it provided textbooks to Gianna’s class.

In Calabasas, an online business services firm, MyCorporation Business Services Inc., recently started taking steps to bring the national Lemonade Day entrepreneur-training program to local children next year.

The Lemonade Day program started in Houston. Children sign up and are given a free backpack with start-up supplies. They are then trained in goal setting, planning and budgeting, among other skills. It culminates on a Sunday in May when the children set up their lemonade stands for a day.

The program “seemed perfectly up our alley,” said Heather Taylor, social media manager for the Calabasas firm.

Entrepreneurship programs can have a big effect on students, said Los Angeles handbag maker Nancy Gale, who designs and sells locally sewn luxury handbags through her Los Angeles company Jamah.

Gale recently started a nonprofit program for teenagers called In True Fashion. It participated in an entrepreneur training program at Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale and provides students with hands-on experience in how businesses in the fashion industry operate, she said.

“The days we take them on field trips, we take them in stretch limos,” Gale said. “It’s all about them realizing if they want to do the work, there are no limits.”