Young Entrepreneurs: An Investment in Our Future

March 31, 2008
By  Kathy Moore Cowan

Pay close attention to how to spell the name Bentrail Milow. It is a name you will see in the future.

This 16-year-old entrepreneur from Tunica, Miss., launched Milow's Custom Car Wash Service last fall and immediately landed his first customer: First Security Bank. The bank hired Bentrail to wash and detail its repossessed vehicles.

Bentrail Milow washes a repossessed vehicle at First Security Bank in Tunica, Miss. Bentrail, 16, is owner of Milow's Custom Car Wash.

While it may be unusual for a 16-year-old to have his own business, there are thousands of young people in the United States like Bentrail who want to be their own boss. A recent survey by Harris Interactive, an Internet-based market research firm, polled 2,400 people between the ages of 8 and 21 about entrepreneurship. Forty percent said they wanted to start their own business.

That news is encouraging, considering the importance of entrepreneurship to the American economy. According to the Small Business Administration, from 1988 to 2004, businesses with fewer than 20 employees accounted for 90 percent of all U.S. firms and created more than 97 percent of all new jobs. By 2004, these businesses employed 21 million workers. The statistics confirm the value of nurturing a spirit of entrepreneurship among the country's youth. But how does a young person get started?

Bentrail did not "go it alone" when he went into business. He had help from alt.Youth, an entrepreneurship program for young people. Bentrail was among the first graduates of the program, which was conceived by alt.Consulting, a nonprofit management consulting firm based in Memphis, Tenn.

Kerry Temple, vice president of First Security Bank, attended the graduation ceremony and says he was so impressed with Bentrail and his presentation of his business plan that he hired him on the spot to clean the bank's repossessed vehicles that are offered for resale.

At the graduation, Temple says, Bentrail was well-dressed, well-spoken, maintained eye contact and simply wowed the audience—all skills taught by the alt.Youth program.

When First Security Bank repossesses a vehicle, Temple alerts Bentrail so he can schedule the job. However, nothing is done to the vehicle before a 10-day redemption period expires.

"Bentrail currently comes on Monday and Wednesdays, but it's his business," Temple says. "He calls the shots. He knows when we need the job completed, and we trust him to complete the job." After seeing the quality of Bentrail's work on the bank's vehicles, some bank employees have become his customers.

Alt.Consulting did not have to sell James Dunn, executive director of the Tunica County Community Development Coalition, on its idea for the youth entrepreneurship program. After working with alt.Consulting to provide services to small businesses in Tunica, it was Dunn's vision to implement alt.Youth.

Dunn says he wants young people to know they do not always have to work for somebody—they can be self-employed.

Tunica is a thriving community with lots of opportunities, Dunn says.

"As the community grows, I am interested in seeing more minorities start businesses in order to share in the rewards of the community's growth," he says. "The program offers the skills kids need to know so that they can plan as early as possible and know how to manage their finances."

Dunn approached Billy Willis, director of the Tunica County Recreation Commission, about the program. Willis decided to offer it to teens who had successfully completed the city's summer job-training program.

Alt.Youth goes beyond training young people to start and manage a business. The program actually helps them launch a business. There are three levels of training.

Level 1 is an introduction to entrepreneurship and basic business training, money management and self assessment. Speakers from the business community share their experiences with the young entrepreneurs. Participants look at their strengths and weaknesses. At the completion of Level 1, participants should have an idea about the type of business they want to start, an idea they can work on immediately and a sky's-the-limit idea.

Level 2 focuses on the feasibility of the young entrepreneur's idea and on creating a business plan. Participants receive one-on-one coaching through each step of the feasibility study. They analyze the available market, startup and monthly operating expenses, earning potential and necessary management skills. At the end of Level 2, participants use the study results to assess the feasibility of starting their businesses, review lessons learned and make a decision to launch or not.

After completion of levels 1 and 2, which last a total of 12 weeks, there is a graduation ceremony where each participant presents his or her business plan to the audience.

In Level 3, all the young entrepreneurs receive up to 40 hours of one-on-one assistance as they start their business and 20 hours of additional coaching after the business is launched. Parents receive training on the tax implications of the new business. In addition, each business owner can apply for an equity investment in the business.

The first session of the alt.Youth program ran from September to November of 2007. Twice a week from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Mark Hudson of the Tunica County Community Development Coalition and Cynthia Norwood and Vonesha Mitchell, both of alt.Consulting, served as facilitators for the program.

On the first day of class, there were 16 participants. At the end of Level 1, there were 10 participants. By the end of Level 2, there were only five to graduate. At the graduation, the participants presented business plans for a candy shop, a baby-sitting service, a cleaning company, a hair braiding salon and, of course, a car wash service. Four of the five graduates decided to launch their businesses. And who was the first? Bentrail Milow.

The second session of the alt.Youth program started Jan. 7, 2008, with 12 aspiring entrepreneurs who had a variety of ideas for businesses. Barbara Young wants to design shoes—tennis shoes, flip-flops, boots—all kinds of shoes. Demaris Black plans to start a business designing rims and tires for cars. And Sherica Conway's idea is for a nail shop/restaurant. Sounds like an odd combination? Maybe so, but before you judge, you might want to read her business plan.

For information about the alt.Youth program, call Vonesha Mitchell at 901-312-9796.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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