Fifteen junior high and high school students attended a Build-A-Business Camp last week at the University of Missouri, and each of them had to develop a business pitch. While the winners and runners-up took home Kindles and books full of business tips, Steve Henness hopes that each camper left with more than just ideas about their pitches.
Henness, the 4-H youth development specialist at the University of Missouri Extension, said the camp’s goals were not only to help young people develop an interest in business, but also to help them gain life skills and to invest in their communities.
“At the very core, 4-H and positive youth development are all about life skills, or a mastery of basic skills. It’s also a sense of belonging to a community and connections to people there,” Henness said. “Another is independence. We want them to set goals and achieve those goals, and to feel like they have a sense of self-determination.”
Many of the attendees came from small Missouri towns, and Henness hopes that learning about how to start and run a small business inspired them to see opportunity in their hometowns.
“Young people see that there are opportunities that they didn’t know existed in their own communities,” he said.
The camp, which is in its ninth year, is not the only event in the area aimed at helping young people develop an interest in entrepreneurship. Columbia College’s Fishman Center also held its first high school entrepreneurship camp this summer.
“I believe the Great Recession has been largely responsible for this groundswell of interest, not only among young people but among adults at every phase in their careers,” Henness said.
“Camps such as this can help young people understand where their passion lies; they’re motivated and driven by an idea, and they’re learning things that they might not otherwise learn in a classroom setting.”
Henness noted that young people also want to have earning and spending power, and starting their own business is a way to take initiative in their finances.
Jim Gann, director of the Business Engagement Center at MU and a judge for the pitch contest, said that gaining exposure at an early age to business and entrepreneurship is a good way to build enthusiasm for a potential career.
“I think that the benefit is really just the exposusre to entrepreneurship as a pathway through a life or a career,” Gann said.
Gann cited Mark Zuckerberg and Michael Dell as well-known examples of successful entrepreneurs who started their careers young.
“If choosing entrepreneurship is a path for you, how do you do that?” Gann said. “I think this camp answers some of those questions, though certainly I don’t know that all the kids will take that route.”
The winners for this year’s camp were Will Cover for the junior division (ages 12-14) and Kailyn Gudermuth for the senior division (ages 15-18). Cover also took grand champion for the event with his pitch, an app for college students and young adults with instructions for basic skills such as changing a tire and cooking. Gudermuth’s pitch was for a halftime spirit store in her hometown of Wright City, which Gann cited as a good example of a fun idea that invests back in a community.
Runners-up for the competition were Hailey Babcock in the junior division and Kristen Ross for the senior division. Babcock makes and sells toys for pet birds, and Ross has developed an affordable marketing service for small nonprofits.
Gann said that a pitch from junior participant Dionte Claeys was an example of social entrepreneurship. Claeys, who spent time in a St. Louis group home, wants to start a youth program for foster children. The organization would plan trips and activities for the children, and Claeys hoped it would help kids feel a sense of community and family in the group.
“That was a pretty emotional concept and (an example of) social entrepreneurship,” Gann said. “I thought it was pretty impressive, and it was so moving to hear her heart speak in that way.”
Henness said that business communities are starting to see the potential in young and local entrepreneurs. The camp was sponsored by several Columbia businesses and organizations, and Henness said at least three Missouri county development boards were involved this year.
“A grow-your-own approach is the way to go,” he said.