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Lighting the [Entrepreneurial] Fire: UW youth camp stirs young ambitions.

photo courtesy of UW-Madison Small Business Development Center

In a room full of rambunctious teens and pre-teens at UW's Grainger Hall, Julie Wood, program director at UW's Small Business Development Center, shushes the class. "We have 27 presentations today and need to get through them all!"

She turns to one student. "Alex, you're up."

A young boy stands in front of a Power Point presentation and introduces himself. "My name is Alex. My company is Healthy Happy Hostas, and I'm the CEO," he says confidently, before explaining how he'll grow and cultivate his Hosta crop at a cost of 25 cents per potted plant. "If I sell each plant for $4, I'll make..." As for marketing his company, Alex plans to talk to the Bruce Company and distribute his business cards in mailboxes.

His classmates are as accommodating as one would expect kids to be during their first week of summer vacation, and each awaits their turn to introduce their company to the group. Earlier in the week, they created their own graphic presentations, company business cards, and posters through the use of a UW computer lab. Each is allowed three minutes to present their new business idea to a room full of potential "investors," their classmates. It is their moment of truth.

Day Camp for Dreams

Welcome to Youth Entrepreneur Camp at UW-Madison. In its 11th year, the week-long camp for kids in grades six through eight introduces youngsters to the notion of entrepreneurism as a career option, "and to, perhaps, get them to start a little business of their own this summer," Wood hopes.

Understandably, the 30 kids in this class are wiry and energetic. Two girls play Cats Cradle in the back of the room, and the group has obviously become comfortable enough with each other to usher catcalls as each gets called to the front.

This is the culmination of a fun and enlightening week in mid-June, when students attended class from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, forged friendships, and learned general concepts about what it takes to become an entrepreneur and start a business.

[A young man named Ben steps up to the front. His "company" will manufacture gum that won't stick to braces. "The cost of one 15-pack of gum will be $2," he explains. "I expect to sell this to males, females, orthodontist offices, and kids with braces," he said. "My competition is gum manufacturing companies. There will be five flavors." Then he recites his contact information, displayed graphically on the screen overhead, and takes questions from the tough crowd. "Why would orthodontists want it?" one classmate asks. "So they can give it to kids so they don't choose another type of gum," Ben answers matter-of-factly, before taking his seat.]

Wood has been involved in the Youth Entrepreneur Camp for the past three years. Together with her boss, program manager Barry Roberts, and others from UW's business environs, the day-camp introduces concepts involved in starting and owning one's own business to an impressionable group of kids who might otherwise be involved in less stimulating, and less productive, activities during their first week away from school.

They all participated in a Lemonade Stand project over the course of the week, for example. Dividing into three teams, the students were charged with developing a lemonade stand business from ground-up, choosing a company name, developing a theme and marketing concept, and in the end, after expenses, making a profit.

On Lemonade Stand day, the three teams peddled their liquid concoction to UW students throughout Grainger Hall over the lunch hour, earning, in the end, a net profit of just over $159, which will go towards a scholarship for next year's Youth Entrepreneur's class. Two scholarships are awarded each year, Wood explained, one from the Department of Public Instruction with a minority and needs-based focus, and a needs-based scholarship from the SBDC itself. There is a waiting list for enrollment, according to Wood, which costs $275 for the week, including all meals and field trips. This year, enrollees included a student from California, another from New Jersey, and a third from Ontario, Canada. Each child's family is responsible for providing housing throughout the week, explained Wood, re-emphasizing the "day" in day camp.

["My name is Delton and I'm the CEO and owner of D's Rocking Guitar Lessons," announced another student to the class. "It is a guitar lesson studio. There are very few in Madison, and the ones here are very over-priced. I plan on hiring teachers and teaching myself. I will focus on retired, older folks and younger, home-schooled kids. My start-up costs will be $2,000 for amps, picks, cords, and guitars. My expenses will be rent, electricity, and heat. I will employ nine to 10 employees and my business hours will be 3:30 to 9 p.m."]

The lemonade project, Wood explained, teaches a number of different concepts, from working as a team, to how to be successful and how to compete against each other. "They learn what it takes to run a business — whether a small or large business, it all takes the same thing: marketing, selling, quality control, customer service."

The group also spent part of the week engaged in Business Simulation exercises, where they manufactured and "sold" (with fake money) paper hats one day, and paper airplanes another. The projects required students to listen to the desires of their "customers" before implementing final designs. On the paper airplane project, students had to "purchase" raw materials, such as the paper, markers for decoration, or a paperclip for weight.

Proof Positive

Real-world experience included visits to several area small businesses, including Ryan Brothers Ambulance, Rhapsody Arts Center, Westside Pets/4 Paws, SoloGear/FlameDisk, and Web Courseworks. In the end, Wood said the curriculum is designed to instill in each student a basic understanding of who they are and what they want to be. "We do a pre-test early on, looking at attitudes towards self, and how they value education and entrepreneurship. We ask questions like, What is an entrepreneur? Or what do you call it when a customer comes in and buys something?" The same questions are asked at the end of the course, and "by the end of the week, we're seeing a 20% to 25% increase in knowledge gained," she said.

On the last day of class, students are reunited with their families for a final slide show — and cake, of course — and each "graduate" leaves the camp armed with 50 of their self-designed business cards, a briefcase, padfolio, inventor's notebook, t-shirt, a UW jump drive, and hopefully, a head full of ideas. After all, the world, as they say, is their oyster — or perch, or walleye ....

["My name is Jenny and the name of my business is Jenny's Bait Shop. It is a worm farm, and I started it because I love fishing. My fixed coss are worms, at $52 per 1,000, and $5 a bag for worm bedding. I will sell the worms for $3.25, which includes the container. My main customers will be people at the boat dock and lake ..."]

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