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Teaching the young business lessons for life

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By The Staff

If small business is the mainstay of the nation's economy, then it's important to plan for the future by training the small business owners of tomorrow today. That's the concept behind a growing movement to introduce young people to the idea of entrepreneurship and all the myriad aspects to owning their own business.

Students at St. Patrick's School in Maysville, 4-H'ers in Grant County and teenagers in Marion, Washington, Taylor and Casey counties have had firsthand experience in what it takes to be an entrepreneur. For many, it was an eye-opening experience.

"I learned how to make a profit and work with money and how to talk to the customer to try to sell our things and how to do the prices and think up products," said Maggie Ford, a student in Ann DeSpain's sixth grade class at St. Patrick's.

Maggie took part in a pilot project led by coaches of the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute, a program coordinated through the departments of Community and Leadership Development and Agricultural Economics in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. Throughout the three month-long project, five teams of students created a product, developed a business plan, conducted market research, created a 30-second sales pitch and sold their items during a school bazaar that was open to the public. KECI coaches Melony Furby and Annette Walters helped them throughout the process and DeSpain integrated project work into the normal classroom instruction.

"There's all kinds of math to it, so it's wonderful from that standpoint," she said. "And they learned to work together in groups and come up with ideas. This group is very, very creative, and they're very intelligent, and I just thought it would be a great experience for them."

In Grant County, 4-H and Youth Development Extension Agent Joyce Doyle chose 12 4-H'ers who had done demonstrations in the 4-H Communications Program of items Doyle felt might be marketable. She sought out the help of KECI coach Dorothy Altman who held a one-day workshop to teach the young people how to draw up a business plan and how to market themselves. The lesson culminated at the county fair last summer, when the 4-H'ers marketed their products under Altman's continued tutelage. One 4-H'er in particular, then fifth-grader, Olivia Cahill, was quite successful with her animal pots filled with candy or nuts. Since then she has expanded her line and continued her business by creating her own catalog and marketing her products on the Internet.

Doyle believes that young people like Olivia benefit on many levels from an experience such as this.

"First of all, they learn how to market themselves; 'I think it's a real good thing that I've got this product and I believe in it' - that sort of thing. And by believing in that product, they believe in themselves," she said.

Fellows from the latest KECI class in south central Kentucky banded together recently to introduce teenagers to entrepreneurship through a series of workshops ending in a competition.

Chris Hamilton, from Marion County, started a program for middle, high school and college students called Central Kentucky Youth Entrepreneurial Society, YES for short. During monthly Thursday sessions and individual sessions by appointment, he coached six young people on the legal and financial aspects of owning a business, marketing, production and drawing up a business plan.

"The early part of the course is tailored to answer the question, 'Is entrepreneurship really for me?' As we were going through the class, I lost about half of them who said, 'Oh I didn't know all that,'" he said. "That's a good thing, though, because we want them to know it as young people. We don't want them to be 25 and mortgage the house to start a business because they've got a 'great idea that can't fail.' But if they didn't dot all their i's and cross all their t's, a year or two later they could go bankrupt and lose everything. What I want is for young people to learn to start small and grow into something large and save them the potential for that type of agony and disappointment."

Similar courses took place under the KECI umbrella in Washington, Casey and Taylor counties. Recently, the students came together in Lebanon to present their business ideas to a group of KECI coaches. The ideas were as varied as the students themselves. Two high school students, Ryan Haley and Vaughn Alexander Hamilton, both 17, started their own silk-screening business in Lebanon called Indelible Ink. Their 12-year-old YES classmate, Leah Mudd, is starting her own line of designer clothing and accessories, called The Lela Line. She's focusing on eyeglass cases, T-shirt designs and other small products to start out.

In Casey County, Sawyer Hicks is focusing on hydroponic sod farming.

"My idea will cut the cost. I believe it's 60 cents cheaper than the closest competitor and they do it the traditional way," he said. "One thing I'd like to do within five years, I'm hoping to transfer the sod part to a co-op and get the community's revenue to increase."

Hamilton said the work entrepreneurs do will come back to the community "tenfold, a hundredfold. Because the truth is, entrepreneurs are also your best citizens. They're the ones who, when they're successful, regularly donate time and money to this project or that project or this school initiative or whatever. That's why I want to see our community become a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity."