These students at Bellevue’s Young Entrepreneur Academy are proving that you can begin a business at virtually any age.
Ronit Jain wanted to help farmers in India. He knew it would take some business acumen to get his idea off the ground, so he enrolled in the Young Entrepreneurs Academy through the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. Now, at 14 years old, Jain’s the founder and executive director of a nonprofit that pays Indian farmers to plant trees.
Jain’s not the only Eastside teenager getting a head start on management. The Young Entrepreneurs Academy, or YEA, is booming with bright young minds that could be the future of Eastside business. The students ages 12 to 17 are coming up with ideas — from Jain’s nonprofit to ingenious inventions to phone apps — that may take them from the classroom to the boardroom.
SproutingIndia, Jain’s nonprofit, donates Ardu tree saplings to India, where impoverished farmers plant them. It uses a subsidization model to provide benefits, both short-term and long-term, to farmers.
“By subsidization, I mean that instead of having volunteers do the planting, like many plant-a-tree organizations, I have farmers do the planting and then compensate them for the labor, providing a direct stream of revenue from us to them,” Jain said.
Jain, who has a passion for outreach and community involvement, found out about YEA from a friend. He saw it as a platform to explore his passion and achieve his goal of giving back to Indian farmers. Jain hopes to continue the nonprofit through high school and beyond so that he can help as many farmers as possible while helping the environment.
Now in its third year in Bellevue, the Young Entrepreneurs Academy teaches middle- and high-school students how to own and run real businesses. In the program, which begins in November and ends in May, students learn the steps of starting a business: Generate an idea, do market research, craft a business plan, pitch to a group of investors, and, finally, launch the business into the real world. The students will head to Bellevue City Hall at the end of class to apply for business licenses.
Young Entrepreneurs Academy is a nationwide program that began in 2004 at the University of Rochester, in New York, with support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Bellevue’s program is one of two in the state; the other is in Tacoma. Elsewhere in the Northwest, there is a program in Portland, two in Idaho, and one in Montana.
Betty Capestany, president and CEO of the Bellevue Chamber, first heard about the program at a conference. The Bellevue Chamber adopted the program and received a grant its first year. To Capestany, the program is inspiring.
“When I look at all their ideas every year I think, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone’s worried about the future?’ With kids like this, I’m not worried about our future,” Capestany said.
The class meets from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday afternoons. During a February session, Zoya Soy, 14, and Kei Lim-Chua, 15, sat down in a conference room to meet with their mentor, Dwight Phillips, senior vice president and commercial banking officer for Columbia Bank. Phillips, a Chamber member, was there to offer a banker’s perspective while helping the girls draft their business plan.
Soy and Lim-Chua were honing the business plan for Hair Monster, a washable net that goes over a hairbrush to collect hair as you brush. The net is removable, making it easy to catch and toss loose hair. Soy believes the product would appeal to hygiene and hair-care companies. Lim-Chua sewed a prototype for the class.
Both girls are students at Newport High School and chose to work together on the project. They didn’t have a business idea when they entered the class, so it has been encouraging to have each other and the other students in the class while they work through the steps of founding a business.
“I like how we’re all going through it together,” Lim-Chua said.
Mentors are Chamber members who, ideally, work in the industry that students want to pursue. The program connects students not just with mentors but with each other. “They’re building a network,” Capestany said.
Students can work individually or in pairs, like Lim-Chua and Soy. One tandem in the class hopes to solve a very wintry North-west problem: cold fingers.
Armaan Huda, a seventh-grader, and his co-CEO, eighth-grader Ankit Sujith, are working on a heated-glove business, Warmed Up. The two didn’t know each other before class began; they go to separate schools. In February, the two were researching local suppliers for materials and production.
The idea came about when Huda and his family went skiing. At the end of the day, his dad wasn’t able to drive home because of his frigid fingers. Huda saw a chance to solve a problem, so he began work on the Warmed Up gloves.
For Huda, who at 12, is one of the youngest in the class, YEA provides an outlet for his ideas. In Boy Scouts, he earned an entrepreneurship merit badge. His mother found the class after realizing her son had a mind for business.
“I had all these cool ideas,” Huda said.
If Warmed Up never takes off, Huda won’t be giving up on business anytime soon. For him, the appeal of entrepreneurship is the marketplace of ideas, the things he dreams up in his head made real.
“Thinking of something new feels like you’re on top of the world, like nobody’s ever thought of it,” he said. “Even though there’s 30 billion ideas out there, you’re the only one that thought of it.”
Capestany is proud that the class is diverse, giving students the ability to meet new people and connect across cultural lines.
“That’s what makes the fabric of our Eastside so great,” she said.
For more information
To get involved with the academy, call 425-213-1211 or contact Kim Fredericks. Those in the business community can work as mentors or be guest speakers in the class. Tuition is $495, and scholarships are available.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of “425 Business.”