Young entrepreneurs sign up for early success

Entrepreneurship is hot! Everyone is talking about it, start-ups, incubators, venture capital, crowdsourcing, the gamut.  

Certainly at the university level, the conversation takes off with expanding curriculums and entrepreneurship programs, but until recently little attention has been given to cultivating entrepreneurial skills way before college.

Now the Tampa Bay region is seeing a growing trend of programs targeting children interested in entrepreneurship and mentor organizations -- even before they learn to spell the words -- to guide them down this path and cultivate their innovative spirits.

“I certainly believe in teaching younger kids entrepreneurial skills,” says Daniel James Scott, Executive Director of Tampa Bay Technology Forum (TBTF), an organization dedicated to growing and promoting technology and business resources in Tampa Bay. Scott has mentored and judged youth programs in the area. “Problem solving, communication, being able to execute – all wrapped up in this bundle of skillset – are the same [qualities] employers are asking for.”

Creative class

Forward Thinking Initiatives (FTI) is a relative veteran in this realm. Executive Director Debra Campbell, whose background is in economic development and education, says she estimates her organization has reached thousands of middle and high school students over the 10 years since FTI began, though she is committed to keeping classes small.

Campbell says greater involvement and partnership with established businesses, financial institutions and education are key. 

“We need more schools and educators to understand that entrepreneurship programs for youth are not just a club, but an engaging way to teach Common Core,” notes Campbell. “We need economic development agencies to see the importance of growing our Creative Class and starting at an early age.”  

While the Forward Thinking Initiatives teaches the standard ABCs of entrepreneurship, its approach is personal.

“Kids equate entrepreneurship with business or technology. They do not see the connection between entrepreneurship and their passions and interests,” says Campbell. To that end, FTI has had two international exchange programs with small businesses in Colombia and South Africa, and holds programs targeting entrepreneurship in sports, environment and a popular one: ART-repreneurship. 

FTI’s ART-repreneurship exposes kids to such things as interviewing artists and arts professionals from the Tampa Bay area, which indulges their curiosity but also puts them in a position kids and even many adults are almost never permitted: the real-life power-skill of preparing for and leading an interview – on the air, no less. The interviews are recorded and then podcast on Life Improvement Radio and Media. In the process, participants learn about how artists can best market and make money with their product: themselves. Campbell says her students become “creative critical thinkers.”

Forward Thinking Initiatives is offering several programs this fall on both sides of the Bay – at the Greenhouse in St. Pete and in North Tampa. “It’s a great time to teach kids entrepreneurship,” says Campbell. “We want to keep the best and the brightest here in Tampa Bay, to grow with the community, give them options, and to stay here.”

Utoria girl-power!

If there is a stereotype for entrepreneur, nerdy-boy-a-la-Facebook’s-Zuckerberg may come to mind. Good thing someone is breaking out the girl-power.

Tori Molnar, a youth entrepreneur herself, at 14 created Utoria, an educational and networking community for young women looking to start their own businesses.  

What initially began as Molnar’s successful direct sales company for girl products quickly transformed into a platform for training girls ages 13-30 on starting their own businesses. Through Utoria’s Be Your Own Boss (BYOB) conferences in cities around the country, Molnar holds intensive “action-oriented” coaching sessions and is currently building out Utoria’s online platform where “girls will have access to all kinds of resources to grow their businesses, interactive, very personalized, not just static advice or info,” says Molnar who will offer this on a subscription basis.  

Shelby Gogulski took Utoria’s BYOB camp in Tampa last summer when she was 14 with a business already in mind. “When I went to Utoria I was a newly established semi-company having fun,” says Gogulski. 

Gogulski says the conference helped her and the other girls come up with “a plan of marketing and how to use social media to sell the product when you have very little money to start with” and in her case, affirmation of the products she wanted to sell. She was able to use that information and “make changes that in the end saved us money.” She began selling items from her new company, Yourself Expression, in August of last year and says she has earned about $250,000 in revenues in the first year. 

Molnar now 18 and a resident of St. Petersburg, has her fingers in many pies, a common symptom of entrepreneurs, and in addition to Utoria, operates consulting and business services through, is developing a new company, Bars and Bites, which she says an “all natural curator of snack products” with products carefully selected from quality small businesses around the country. She also filmed a pilot for her reality series vision this spring, House of Business, and is working on selling it. Stay tuned.

Enabling inventors

Another young entrepreneur, Pavel Terentev, who in 2012 was 21 and still in college at the University of South Florida, launched his first company Students4Students, initially a tutoring company and more recently technology and app design company PartPixel. Seeing a demand for teaching kids entrepreneurial skills, Terentev now offers several programs through Students4Students afterschool, through camps and at private schools to kids as young as age 7. 

Terentev’s approach uses 3D printers and computers to catalyze kids roles as inventors. He says kids are natural problem-identifiers and are enthusiastic about solving things. He says using 3D printers enables them to tangibly create the solutions they envision. 

“I have noticed that younger kids surpass expectations and they are really good team workers,” says Terentev, noting “they are going to have to know this stuff, but they don’t teach it in schools.” 

Easy access to entrepreneurs

Many of these programs are as accessible and affordable as a trip to the library -- literally. This past spring, the Hillsborough County Public Library piloted a Saturday morning entrepreneurial program for 7- to 10-year-olds, called the Venture Club at its downtown location at The HIVE. Relying on the generous volunteer roster of mentors, the free program covered a range of concepts from market research to preparing pitches. 

Senior Librarian Laura Doyle, who led the project, says the curriculum developed and lessons learned from this successful pilot are currently being shared with youth services specialists at our other library locations “so that future iterations can be offered in different parts of the county.” 

In the meantime, children can learn about entrepreneurship through another entrepreneurial program the Hillsborough Library has hosted for over a year – AlligatorZone. Slated as a “family-friendly shark tank,” entrepreneurs present their projects monthly at libraries around the county in a forum where “children and families can ask questions and learn more about the entrepreneurial process, presenters gain valuable feedback while learning to simplify their message,” says Doyle.  Jimmy B. Keel Library will host the next AlligatorZone August 10th. 

$10,000 may help your business plan 

For the third year this fall, Pinellas County public high school juniors and seniors will have an exceptional opportunity to win $10,000 in financing for their entrepreneurial projects thanks to a program called Next Generation Entrepreneurs (NGE). The program was co-founded by Kurt Long, an established and successful Clearwater-based entrepreneur, CEO of FairWarning and board member of the Pinellas Education Foundation, which also operates Enterprise Village

The NGE’s first winner, Joe Sleppy of Osceola High School, says that beyond the cash, the most valuable experience is the exposure to high-level mentors such as Long, which he calls “a blessing.”  

“Being with someone as professional and successful as Long rubs off,” comments Sleppy. “Not very often do you get to work with CEOs of million dollar corporations.”   

Sleppy, majoring in electrical engineering, with minors in nanotechnology and technical entrepreneurship at the University of Central Florida, is still actively engaged in SleppSolutions and its product, Free Hand Fitness. The product is like a hands-free TRX device allowing users who may have disabilities or amputations, carpal tunnel or want to avoid pressure on their wrists a similar suspension work out. Free Hand Fitness is now patent-pending and Sleppy is working on next steps including reaching out to investors and diversifying sales channels.   

The experience is quite a resume-builder for a college student even if it doesn’t ultimately turn him into a millionaire.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant for regional and global businesses. Though she has always been passionate about arts and culture, she spent many years in the tech and B2B corporate worlds both in the U.S. and abroad. With a degree in Economics and International Relations from The American University in Washington, DC, she considers politics her favorite sport and follows it avidly with as much humor as she can muster. Based in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa, Kendra is a mother and wife, a news junkie, and lover of all things creative.
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