Small Business

Help for Young Entrepreneurs


There are a slew of resources available regardless of whether businesspeople are just getting started or launching their umpteenth venture

When Doug Mellinger was a student at Syracuse University in the 1980s, there were almost no programs specifically for students bent on owning their own companies. In fact, he created the college's first major in entrepreneurship and helped found the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization, www.eonetwork.org, just so he wouldn't feel so alone.

"You could count college entrepreneurial programs on one hand in those days," says Mellinger, now a 42-year-old serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Foundation Source, www.foundationsource.com, a technology company serving philanthropic foundations that's based in Fairfield, Conn.

A decade later, YEO (now called The Entrepreneurs' Organization) boasted 10,000 members around the world, and some of its early members had gone on to spark a creative technology revolution that would change the world. "That early movement led to the growth and acceptance of young people in business that boomed during the 1990s. Today, people in their 20s and even teens who own businesses are very accepted, but that wasn't true before," Mellinger notes.

Along with that newfound acceptance, young entrepreneurs today enjoy networking groups, educational programs, and competitions aimed at supporting and encouraging their efforts. Here are some resources that can help youthful entrepreneurs get started:

Really Young Entrepreneurs: School programs and summer camps exist at the high school and even junior-high level that educate students about entrepreneurship. One, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, targets would-be entrepreneurs in low-income communities in inner cities and rural areas, working with teachers to provide curriculum on business ownership and resources for pursuing that dream.

College Entrepreneurship Programs: More than 600 U.S. universities offer at least one course on entrepreneurship, Mellinger says, and about 200 offer either a major or minor in the subject. Clark University, where he is an entrepreneur-in-residence, is among many schools around the country that have programs addressing both the academic and practical sides of running a business.

Some, such as Georgia State University, specialize in a particular aspect of entrepreneurship. Georgia's focus is on international business, through its H. J. Russell Sr. International Center for Entrepreneurship (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/12/06, "Best Schools by Specialty: Entrepreneurship".

Student Clubs: Campus groups aimed at college entrepreneurs and future entrepreneurs, like the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs, provide a forum for students to talk about the businesses they are trying to get off the ground. "One of the things we do with the Clark group, called 'Initial Advantage,' is take students on 'EntreTours' where they visit an entrepreneurial place of business," Mellinger says. "We used to bring entrepreneurs in to lecture, but most of them end up being horrible speakers. They want to talk about how wonderful they are today, which is useless for our students. What they want to hear is how the business got started and what hell did the founder have to go through." Having club members in a business environment where they can ask practical questions about operations has proven far more effective, he says.

Business Plan Competitions: Many entrepreneurship programs hold business plan competitions for students and community entrepreneurs. "The best of these competitions are least useful for the prize money they offer and most valuable for the feedback provided," says Peter Winicov, senior associate director of communications for the Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs at the University of Pennsylvania. "A team that won our grand prize a few years ago was and is headed up by an Israeli grad student who connected with Penn students and faculty; he's still in business at InfraScan."

Business Incubators: Sometimes called "hatcheries," these programs are usually affiliated with business schools. They are places where budding entrepreneurs can nurture their business ideas with hands-on help and advice. Office or lab space, mentoring and educational resources are provided for promising candidates. "The Wharton Venture Initiation Program (VIP) is open to Penn students as they progress through 'milestone-driven planning' to hone their business plans. No foosball tables, just serious planning," Winicov says.

Networking Groups: For entrepreneurs who are not in school, or who have graduated, there are myriad organizations that provide peer-to-peer feedback, mentoring, and resources. The Young President's Organization, http://www.ypo.org, founded more than a half-century ago, is one such group (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/10/06, "Not So Lonely at the Top" . "The most powerful thing in YPO is called 'Forum,'" Mellinger says. "You get together eight to 12 entrepreneurs who form a sort of mutual board of directors for each others' companies. It's a confidential place to share your company's problems, and your own weaknesses, and work as a group to solve them. It's an incredibly powerful resource."

Books and Other Media: Donald Green, the 30-year-old president of YANNtv, a startup providing original video content to young adults, took advantage of the plethora of financial information and business advice available in print and on television and radio when he was in high school and majoring in business in college. "I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and the financial literacy of [author] Robert Kiyosaki made a big impact on me. I had two dads myself, so I read and related to all his books," says Green.

With the help of his parents, and a first-time homebuyer program, he purchased a duplex at age 21 that he rented out to fellow college students to help pay for his tuition and start a savings account. "I also read financial magazines, watched TV shows, and listened to anything I could get on the radio related to business."

The availability of resources and the interest in young entrepreneurs has boomed over the past 20 years. "Back in 1983, all the media articles written about us would talk about 'the whiz kids.' It used to drive us crazy, because we felt like we weren't being taken seriously. What people didn't realize then was that we would soon become an important part of the economy," Mellinger says. "The only thing different about us was that we were young."


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