MARKET VALUE: (From left) Corrine Goodman, 9, McKenzi Custus, 14, Siani Garrison-Lloyd, 14, and Hannah Carr, 14, train to participate in the West Philadelphia Youth Entrepreneurship Program.
Last year, thanks to a microloan and training from Villanova Business School, Siani Garrison-Lloyd was able to launch a start-up business, develop a clientele and double her net worth, all in just a few months. It’s impressive, given that Siani is only 14 years old.
This summer, the self-assured teen is planning to take her business — a stand selling accessories crafted from duct tape — to the next level. But asked if she wants to run a store of her own someday, she says no. “I want to own more than one store,” she explains.
Siani is one of 25 young entrepreneurs participating in a summer-long weekend market that launches Saturday, July 13, in a vacant lot in Cobbs Creek, where teens will be hawking everything from homemade water ice to hand-embellished iPhone cases every Saturday through August.
The newly minted West Philadelphia Youth Entrepreneurship Program is a pilot initiative run with support from Villanova, the Enterprise Center, Junior Achievement of the Delaware Valley and Wells Fargo. While the businesses it contains may look like mere lemonade stands and craft tables, collectively they could represent something more: a scalable model for combining microlending, entrepreneurship training and mentoring to help transform the outlook for a generation of young people — and their economically depressed neighborhood, too.
It’s a lofty ambition, but it wasn’t born at Villanova. In fact, it began in an unlikely setting: within the walls of Graterford, the state prison in Montgomery County. Villanova business professor Ronald Hill, who has been teaching classes at Graterford for the past 18 months, says the concept came out of conversations with an inmate named Aaron Fox. Fox, who’s been in Graterford 33 years, was despairing over the number of kids from his old neighborhood in West Philadelphia who kept washing up inside the penitentiary. He wanted to turn back that tide, and thought Hill could help. The two men began brainstorming answers to one key question, says Hill: “How can we help the young men and women in this community aspire to something other than street life?” The entrepreneurship program is, at a fundamental level, an answer to that question.
Hill recruited Darryl Goodman, also a former Graterford inmate and now the force behind the Public Safety Initiative Youth Transformation Project, which pairs at-risk youth with mentors who’ve been in their shoes. Last year, they developed a sort of pre-pilot program: Five kids, including Goodman’s daughter and son, were given entrepreneurship lessons and “loans” of $250, then challenged to create their own businesses.
Goodman took the kids to block parties and street fairs — wherever they thought there’d be a market for duct-tape barrettes and lemonade. Siani finished the summer with $500 in the bank. She was surprised by her success and learned a lesson about niche marketing: “I targeted only girls, so I thought I wouldn’t make as much as if I sold to guys and girls.” Goodman’s daughter, Corrine, 9, who bought light-up toys to sell, ran across a different marketing problem: During the day, the toys just weren’t that impressive. Eventually, Goodman took her to some evening events, and sales took off. Still, she finished the summer $30 in the red — and was deeply relieved to learn the $250 loan was, in fact, a gift to be saved or reinvested.
This year, the teens have more formal assistance developing their business plans, with grants from Wells Fargo and the option of participating in a weeklong entrepreneurship camp at the Enterprise Center. The program kicked off on a Saturday afternoon in June, with a crash course in business from Junior Achievement’s Gerri Vattimo. With about a dozen kids and their parents, she covered market research, product development, pricing and marketing — all in under two hours. She told them: “You have skills. You have ideas. What could you do?” Corrine, having learned from last year’s struggles, wants to go with a surefire seller on a hot summer day: homemade water ice. She thinks a 50-cent price point will be a draw.
Goodman says parents need to be involved and help kids develop their businesses, troubleshoot and manage funds. Getting kids involved at an early age — he's targeting teens aged 12 to 15 — is critical, he says. It’s easy for him to help teens 18 and older find jobs, but for younger ones there are more challenges.
“That’s where the problems and the crime kick in, when the youth doesn’t have anything to do,” he says. “Some of the kids we have here just haven’t been given the chance. They’re under the impression that [success] will never happen for them.”
With extra help fine-tuning their enterprises, Goodman and Hill hope the children will succeed in their new businesses.
“But at the end of the day, it isn’t about the money, it’s about the lesson. And the lesson should be: There are lots and lots of opportunities,” Hill says. “I’ve seen too many men in the prison system who have matured into fine people. If someone had intervened when they were 12 or 13 years old and shown them a different path, they could’ve done anything they wanted.”
If all goes well, Hill hopes to replicate and expand the program next year, reaching other areas with high rates of incarceration and poverty, like North Philadelphia, Chester and Camden. He also wants to publish a scalable model that could be adopted in cities around the country.
That is to say, the stakes are high — and not just for the young entrepreneurs. Eventually, the program could provide an economic catalyst for an entire neighborhood, says Wyatt Schroeder, an M.B.A. student who’s acting as the program coordinator in West Philly. “This is one of the poorest zip codes in the city of Philadelphia, so by putting a market there we’ll hopefully help bring this depressed economy up. We want to help 60th Street develop into a business corridor,” he says. “The goal is to generate foot traffic to that area.”
But at the very least, the kids will learn what it takes to run a business. The hope is that they will continue growing their businesses on their own — selling their wares (with parents’ support) in between Saturday markets or during the school year. Siani, for one, hasn’t stopped developing new products. Schroeder says that’s how he knows the program works: “The whole point is for this to be a lifelong process that just happens to start this summer.”
West Philadelphia Youth Entrepreneurship Program market runs Saturdays, July 13-Aug. 31, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., at 60th Street and Osage Avenue.
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