Young Minds Spark Big Ideas With Boost from Local Entrepreneurship Programs

 Dwain Hebda                                      December 1, 2016.

Erin Jansonius, 18, relies on her planner to keep her on top of her studies and activities at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock. And like many of her peers, she uses stickers to personalize her planner.

“I was like, ‘Well, why can’t I do this myself?’ ” she said after reviewing available stickers online. “It’d be cheaper if I could do it myself. And then I was like, ‘Hey, I can make money off of this.’”

So started Genuinely Erin Designs, which has generated hundreds of dollars in sales and orders nationwide so far. And for Erin, the experience has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

“It just kind of came out of the blue,” she said. “One day I was just like, hey, let’s try this out, let’s see what happens.”

Jansonius’ experience is like that of a growing number of young people who are turning their imaginations to commerce. Student entrepreneurs are enjoying a new level of credibility thanks to their mastery of technology, specifically social media, which when properly leveraged can turn a product from an idea into a sensation overnight.

Erin Jansonius created her own stickers for use in her planner.

Helping nurture this interest are a growing number of programs and resources designed specifically to educate young entrepreneurs on the ins and outs of getting an idea off the drawing board, tackling production and operational issues and assisting in marketing.

Since 2006, one such program has been Youth Entrepreneur Showcase (YES), a business plan competition sponsored by Arkansas Capital. Students work in teams to think of a viable business and create business plans to give structure to their ideas.

Sam Walls, president of Arkansas Capital, said in addition to awards and recognition the activity yields participants critical thinking skills.

“Look at the way an entrepreneur has to think,” he said. “They have to look at a problem and ask the question, ‘How can I do that better? Can I do something in a more efficient way? Is there something new in the world that no one has thought of yet?’

“Going through that exercise, coming up with a concept and then validating that concept, even if they don’t become an entrepreneur, you can make the argument that this translates over to different parts of their life.”

More than 71,000 students have participated over the past decade, some as young as fifth grade. Lorelai Daniel, 13, of Forest Heights STEM Academy, created magnetized earrings and devices to give people wearing eyeglasses a place to hold a pencil. She said the most engaging part of the Y.E.S. program was the innovation it promotes.

“I like having an idea and then actually making it,” she said. “It kind of helps me look at things with problem-solving and finding things that you could do something about.”

Lorelei Daniel has created products like pencil holders for people who wear eyeglasses, as well as magnetic earrings.

Lily Mayner, a seventh-grader at Christ the King School in Little Rock, participated last year and had a hit on her hands with her duct tape wallets. She said she gained valuable habits as a result.

“I’m now very aware of budgets and how it has to be very precise and tight,” she said. “I loved all the work and time that it took to make everything and also how fun it was to work with other people.”

Junior Achievement offers a volunteer-driven curriculum on money, economics and business concepts starting in kindergarten. Chad Kauffman, president of Junior Achievement of Arkansas, said entrepreneurial studies enhance students’ overall educational experience.

“A lot of it at the elementary-middle school level is aspirational,” he said. “A lot of the kids we work with don’t have an exposure to opportunities and careers that they have the aptitude for. We’ve seen studies, specifically in central Arkansas, where they test these kids and their aptitude is so much higher than what they think they can do.”

At the high school level, Junior Achievement’s High School Entrepreneurship program allows student groups to form a business, produce and market a product and share in the profits. Alysea Freeman, 18, participates in the McClellan High School program and said she likes the organizational and developmental process of bringing a team into agreement.

“I’ve always been a natural leader,” she said. “My favorite part would be looking at all the possibilities and making business decisions. If a business isn’t doing too well, do you pivot and go in another direction or do you persevere and keep going in the same direction and hope for the best?

“That’s something that’s interesting to learn and it’s applicable not only to entrepreneurship and making a business, but it can really be applied to any part of a young person’s life.”

The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub co-working space, design center and maker space are valuable resources for entrepreneurs of all ages. The organization helps individuals master a specific skill and train on a given technology or process. It also provides opportunities to collaborate with other entrepreneurs. Increasingly, this includes young people, according to Joel Gordon, director of making.

“The kids who are coming into this now watched their parents during the recession struggle with bills and struggle with mortgages,” he said. “For them, it’s about what’s practical. It’s a sense of how can I approach this and have a sense of security but do it on my own terms.”

Jordan Johnson and Greta Kresse are both seniors at eStem Public Charter School in Little Rock and both have taken advantage of the Innovation Hub for their business projects. Johnson and his partners Julian Kresse and Jackson Schilling are launching their own skateboard firm, Arkansas Cruisers.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school. I knew I wanted to go to college but I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living,” Johnson said. “Toward the end of last year, I started to figure it out, and then my senior year, this changed my whole perspective. My partners and I have big plans for (our company) now and we want it to go far.”

Julian Kresse and Jordan Johnson have a skateboard company.

Greta Kresse’s company, The Thred-Heads, markets clothing and other items decorated with student art, and she said she was surprised by the impact the entrepreneurial experience has had on her educational career.

“I never considered entrepreneur as something I would end up doing,” she said. “But entrepreneurship is now one of my favorite things. I’ll most likely be majoring in business with a minor in studio art. I always want to be making things and working with people and hopefully that will include some kind of public entrepreneurship in the future.”

Greta Kresse markets clothing and products featuring student artwork.

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