Making Change: Raising the Innovators of the Future: Teaching Kids Entrepreneurship

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If you aspire to launch your own business, you might consider eliminating from your vocabulary the following: silly, unrealistic; I couldn't possibly, they would never, and I give up. John Zitzner runs E-CITY, an organization that trains teens in entrepreneurship. He says what sets entrepreneurs apart is tenacity, and a belief in their own ability to make things happen. They don't ask for permission to do something, he says, and they don't let bureaucracy ensnare them. These are skills all kids should learn, Zitzner says, whether they go into business for themselves, or not.

John Zitzner: We view entrepreneurship as a mindset, as a way of looking at life, more than in a true, I guess, narrow business sense. Entrepreneurship is a way to inspire kids to look at obstacles as opportunities and not as dead-ends.

Here's how the inspiration works. E-CITY gives each participant $50 dollars to launch a business. Then, over a period of weeks, teaches them how to write a business plan, calculate costs and profit potential, and develop marketing strategies, among other things. Gentry Gillespie is a sophomore at Cleveland's Horizon Science Academy and an E-CITY grad.

Gentry Gillespie: I had no clue that I could start my own business just out of a hobby. It never occurred to me.

For years, Gillespie took care of neighborhood pets for fun and extra cash. Now, she's running a business called PAWS, Personal Animal Watching Service. She says E-CITY taught her to value her own ideas, and consider their potential in the marketplace. It's changed her outlook on life and her vision for the future.

Gentry Gillespie: Every once in a while I'll think of an idea, and I'll think it's like,'That's a silly idea, it could never become a reality.' But now I'm really gonna start to write those ideas down, and if I can start thinking about them more, I can turn them into a product or something else. And now I know the steps that I need to go through.

That attitude - the take-an-idea-and-run-with-it approach to life - is what some say really drives an economy. Ron Copfer, who has launched numerous businesses in Northeast Ohio, says every town needs to embrace and support its entrepreneurs, because they are the community's lifeblood.

Ron Copfer: And if you look around at any community that is successful these days, anywhere in the world, you'll see the bedrock of that community is the entrepreneurial spirit, or the entrepreneurs that have made it happen there. There couldn't be anything more important to any community than encouraging that entrepreneurial spirit.

Apart from that, of course, new business creates jobs. Copfer is a case in point.

Ron Copfer: Fathom IT Solutions, my company, which has 30 people, is spinning out a new company that currently has 8 people, but will certainly have 15 to 20 by the end of this year.

It's not a large number of jobs, Copfer acknowledges. But, he says, if hundreds or thousands of entrepreneurs each added a few jobs, the impact would be significant. It's a future Kirk Neiswander is working toward. He's director of Entrepreneur's Edge, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding entrepreneurship in the region. Neiswander says it's critical that young people go into business for themselves, in part to support what he calls mid-market companies - local businesses whose scope stretches beyond Northeast Ohio, and who bring money into the region.

Kirk Neiswander: If you've got a lot of 25-year-old entrepreneurs out there who are actually making it, who are cutting it (not all them will), but the more you have the better chances you'll have of more middle market companies prospering, and eventually, what you hope is that a few of them become anchor enterprises for the community.

But Neiswander says there's no coordinated regional effort to teach young people entrepreneurship. E-CITY does fine work, he says, but it's one organization with a very specific focus - urban, low-income youth.

Kirk Neiswander: I think there's a great opportunity to teach all youth, whether they are from the suburbs or the inner city, about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial skills. And, again, these skills are useful no matter what line of work they choose to go into.

All youth won't be learning those lessons anytime soon, but more Clevelanders will. E-CITY, in partnership with the Cleveland Municipal School District, plans to open an Entrepreneurial Academy for sixth through twelfth graders in fall 2006. It will be devoted, John Zitzner says, to strong academics, but will differ from other schools.

John Zitzner: When our kids graduate, they're gonna have a relationship with a bank; they're gonna understand income statements; they're gonna know what gross profit is; they're gonna understand return on investment. And I tell you, if I were an employer in this town, those are the kind of people I'd want to hire, people who understand issues of money.

The Entrepreneurship Academy will start with 100 students, a tiny percentage of area kids, Zitzner acknowledges. E-CITY can only do so much. For meaningful change to happen, Zitzner says, other entrepreneurs need to do their part - however small - to encourage young people to follow in their footsteps.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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