Mini Moguls

More youth are reaping the rewards and lessons of entrepreneurship

Back Longreads Jul 1, 2012 By Anne Gonzalez

While browsing in a shop in 2009, 6-year-old Allison Prestwich saw a candle made by the Tyler Candle Co., and she wondered aloud if it was named after her younger brother.

Her father, Mark Prestwich, explained it was no relation, but while some business ventures start with a light bulb going off, this one started with a single spark of a candle. Allison decided it would be fun to start her own candle company.

They spent $10 for a web domain, Allison and her dad played around with the site and, “I thought I had escaped this conversation,” Mark Prestwich recalls.

And then, he got the bright idea of…that’s right, helping his daughter launch a candle business.

“I started thinking, ‘What if we learned how to make candles, pulled a business permit and license and started experimenting with scents?’” Prestwich says. “We could practice math, learn about marketing and customer service, production processes and keeping track of inventory. What a teaching opportunity this could be.”

Today, the Sacramento Candle Co. is burning steady, with candles in five retail outlets in the greater Sacramento area and brisk business at local wedding and craft fairs.

Prestwich, a city employee, and his daughter, a 9-year-old third-grader at St. Ignatius School in Sacramento, enjoy making candles together, and he gets a kick out of seeing Allison selling candles at craft fairs, presenting her product to prospective buyers and handling money. She used customer feedback to find the best-selling fragrances and has sold 500 candles since November 2011.

Their candles sell for $5 each retail, and the business will turn a profit for the first time this year. Half goes into Allison’s bank account and half back into the business.

“My dad lets me do everything except pour the hot wax,” says Allison Prestwich, who aspires to be a physician. “My favorite job is measuring the wax and putting on the labels.”

She is part of what many observers describe as a growing wave of children cutting their entrepreneurial chops early, gaining confidence and real-life skills at tender ages.

In a time when college graduates are having trouble landing jobs and business courses are being cut from high school curricula, teachers, parents and business groups are touting benefits of programs that teach finance and entrepreneurism to grade-schoolers and teens.

While parents need to be watchful of burnout and overambitious tendencies, starting and running a business can be a way for a family to bond and for kids to set goals and find purpose.

After-school programs with a business slant are getting teenagers “workforce ready,” thinking about careers and learning workplace skills.

Encouraging entrepreneurism in young people could be the ticket to revving up the nation’s economic engine by driving individuals into small business, where thousands of jobs can be created.

The movement also targets low-income neighborhoods, where high school dropout rates are higher and kids need vision and hope for better jobs and lives.

Citing a “youth employment crisis,” the national Young Entrepreneur Council estimates that one out of two new college graduates today is unemployed or underemployed. The council’s mission is to spark an entrepreneurial revolution in America and help rebuild the economy. The council is calling for support of the Youth Entrepreneurship Act (YEC), which would give more student loan relief, access to working capital for young people through micro-loans and increased investment in entrepreneurship education.

YEC and its partner organizations mentor 50,000 young people a month nationwide through its virtual programs. Closer to home, Junior Achievement of Sacramento is leading a regional charge to educate students about workforce readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy, says Susan Nelson, program manager for the organization.

With grants and donations, the nonprofit group recruits mentors from the business community to teach classes, and runs programs that allow students to start businesses from scratch.
“We continue to hear from educators and employers that school is failing to make that real-world connection to business,” Nelson says. “They recognize a need to find out what kids are good at and not good at. We need to make school more relevant so kids understand their place in the community.”

While the Sacramento office of Junior Achievement has a 12-county territory, it focuses efforts on a limited area. The programs serve just under 10,000 K-12 students in the region through after-school programs and one-day workshops, but Nelson hopes to increase that to at least 30,000 in the next few years.

“We know the demand is there,” she says. “We’re just scratching the surface. It wouldn’t be difficult to triple the volume of our services if the funding was in place.”

Junior Achievement USA was formed in 1919 by business executives who thought schools weren’t doing enough to help students get ready for jobs and the business world. Today, JA is the world’s largest organization dedicated to educating young people about business and finance. In elementary schools, Junior Achievement programs teach basic concepts about money. Other programs for middle school and high school students teach workforce readiness, including one-day workshops at schools and job shadow events.

JA’s Company Program helps a group of high school students start a business. They find a product or service to sell, name it, design logos, craft business and marketing plans, package the product, sell stock to raise capital, keep track of inventory and finally liquidate the business at the end of the semester.

A group of about a dozen Cosumnes Oaks High School students in Elk Grove recently started a sunglass company named Orange through Junior Achievement’s after-school Company Program. Under the tutelage of a business teacher and community mentor, the company ordered sunglasses in black and orange, designed its own logos and tags and sold them to students, teachers and parents.

Ella Lockhart, a 17-year-old junior there, was vice president of human resources for the company and says she learned valuable lessons for starting and running a business.

“The most important thing I learned was how to work with people in a business environment,” she says. “We brainstormed as a team for ideas on what to sell. I learned to deal with people and how to sell stock. We had to communicate with adults by ordering a product and making business calls. I also learned how to manage sales records and keep track of inventory. I was responsible for knowing where our product was and how many sunglasses we had.”

Cosumnes Oaks business teacher Pamela Vicchio-Cabral says the Elk Grove school district previously emphasized business curriculum but scaled back because of budget cuts.
But cutting back on business education during slow economic times is counterproductive, says Vicchio-Cabral. She says untrained teenagers often have few skills to offer in a competitive job market.

“I don’t think people realize these kids know nothing about business,” she says. “They have very little experience.”

For instance, one of her students took sunglasses to a swim team event and sold several pairs. It was the first time the students realized they could sell products in bulk, rather than only in single units.

“It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for them,” Vicchio-Cabral says. “You could see the light bulb go on. They looked at me and said, ‘Oh, we can sell more than one at a time?’”

The students also sold during lunchtime, setting up tables with, gaining experience with customer service, marketing venues and handling money. The program gave the students real-life experience in even more rudimentary concepts, such as being on time and showcasing products, Vicchio-Cabral says.

“Parents love these courses, and the business community loves these courses,” she notes. “Businesses want to hire kids that have some of these abilities, like how to design and set up a display case, how to fill out time cards and how to follow through and finish projects. Business owners are scratching their heads and wondering what kids are being taught in school.”

While many of the students involved in the Company Program envision themselves either starting or working in a business, Lockhart plans to study psychology or become a teacher or school counselor.

“I think business experience helps you anywhere you’re going,” Lockhart says. “I had to take attendance, managed stock and inventory, calculated payroll, kept timesheets and gave commissions. I thought business was boring before this, but it’s pretty fun on the entrepreneurial side, figuring out how to sell and market things.”

Sarah Cook, a Sacramento entrepreneur and author, says she sees an uptick in enthusiasm for young people getting into business. Children and young adults are more adept at new technology, especially social media networks, which can give them a leg up in production and marketing, she says.

“I definitely think more youth are getting into business, because it’s so easy with all the technology these days,” Cook says. “With the Internet…ads are free, they can use Facebook and set up a website and make transactions through PayPal.”

Cook, who published a book last year on entrepreneurial youngsters around the world and runs a website called RaisingCEOKids.com, says all that’s required for a young person to get into business is a license, which usually is inexpensive.

“Until they start making higher incomes, there’s not a lot of red tape,” she says. “There’s not a lot of startup costs.”

She knows from experience as a Mary Kay executive and from helping her children start businesses that entrepreneurship can be a way to set a child on a successful path. Her son Jacob liked to hunt for bargains at garage sales and on eBay and resell items, such as Pokemon cards, and he was interested in technology. But by the time he was a seventh-grader, he was unhappy, struggling in school and losing interest in sports.

“He felt like school wasn’t pertinent to what he wanted to do in life,” Cook says. She and her husband started home-schooling Jacob and allowed him to start a business in computer repair and consulting.

“It allowed him to explore his interest in technology and business, to research on websites, read tech reviews,” she says. “He made friends through technology and started to engage in life again.”

Jacob, 16, graduated from Rosemont High School a year early and is now taking college classes. He runs Jake’s Tutorial and Tech Support, focusing on fixing computers and audio-video production. He charges $20 to $30 an hour for troubleshooting computer repairs, including getting rid of viruses and installing and uninstalling programs. He also performs audio and video editing for speakers and authors and has five regular social media management clients.

Cook interviewed 200 young entrepreneurs and their parents for her book, “The Parents’ Side of Raising CEO Kids.” The impetus for the book and website is to collect resources for families whose kids want to get into business.

“We wanted to support parents who are doing what we are doing, which is supporting our kids’ dreams and desires,” Cook says. “I feel like the schools don’t always do that. There’s not time to cultivate individual interests in technology or sewing or reading. Each child has a different interest, and we want to help them turn their passions into profits. They learn more confidence, money skills, people skills and business skills.”

There are challenges, Cook cautions. Parents need to give control to the children, and allow them to quit the business if they want, or move on to another venture. Parents should be mindful of their children getting too obsessed with profits and help keep failures and rejection in perspective. She encourages children to stay involved in school activities and extracurricular hobbies outside of the business.
“We should help them think outside the box, to not be afraid to fail or try new things,” she says. “Starting a business is a lot scarier when you’re older and have kids. So this should be a safe environment for failing, for learning how to handle discouragement and learning about legal ramifications in business and how to manage time.”

Mark Prestwich purposely limited Sacramento Candle Co. sales to five retailers, so the pace wouldn’t be too demanding and his daughter wouldn’t get overwhelmed, leaving Allison time to take piano lessons and focus on school work. The two of them can fill an order for three months in one night of candle-making.

Allison has some plans for her company, however.

“Next, I want to start a signature collection, called ‘Allison,’” she says. “I could create them, blend the smells and put some of my artwork on the labels, like designs and flowers.”


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