Young Entrepreneurs Academy gives young business buffs practice
They may be minnows, but most are quick and many have teeth. All must be schooled in business before they enter the shark tank.
Ranging in age from 11 to 18, the 21 Mesa County students selected to participate in the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce Young Entrepreneurs Academy will spend the next 30 weeks brainstorming business ideas, writing a business plan, interacting with business professionals and, ultimately, pitching their plan to potential investors in the “shark tank,” a pressure cooker like the one broadcast on the popular ABC television program of the same name, according to Betsy Bair, the chamber’s governmental affairs manager who also coordinates the academy.
The program, which kicked off Tuesday at Western Colorado Community College, guides high school students through the process of starting and running a legitimate business or social movement over the course of a full academic year, Bair said.
Developed at the University of Rochester in 2004 using a grant from the Kauffman Foundation, the Young Entrepreneurs Academy was introduced by the chamber to Grand Junction and Mesa County for the first time this year, she said.
The program relies on local professionals to volunteer their time and expertise as guest speakers, mentors, investors, graphic designers, field trip hosts, and business plan reviewers, and to provide a shoulder to lean on when the going gets tough.
Andrea Clark — a Grand Junction entrepreneur with decades of experience developing business concepts into cold, hard cash — heads up the first 10 weeks of the program.
An athlete and dancer who taught at Loyola University in her early-20s, Clark said she was mentored by Marmon Group founder Robert Pritzker, patriarch of the richest family in Chicago, who died in 2011.
“I took that opportunity and went on to form a business that managed private athletic facilities and developed children’s programs for all these social athletic clubs in Chicago, like University Club,” Clark said.
Next, she sold equipment like treadmills to gyms and health clubs back when the fitness movement first got started in the 1970s. That led to her starting another business that designed and built gymnasiums for schools across Colorado and Illinois.
“The big feather in my cap for that business was the athletic facility at the U.S. Navy Recruit Training Center in Grayslake, Ill. That was a design-build project ... which was fabulous,” Clark said.
Clark said she will share her knowledge in groups and one-on-one with academy students to provoke them into coming up with saleable business ideas they can take to the next level.
Her first piece of advice to academy students Tuesday night: “Always do what you want to do and the money will follow you. If you have a good original idea and you’re the first one to do it, the money will follow you.”
Clark said academy students will need to take risks and avoid playing it safe.
“They’re going to work harder at it than they’ve worked on anything else in their life,” she said. “They’ll need to do every single part of their job before they can hire somebody else to do it.”
In the past six years, Young Entrepreneurs Academy around the country graduated roughly 600 students who started nearly 450 businesses and social movements. Hundreds of academy graduates started as students, but left the program as CEOs of their own companies, Bair said.