Never too young to start a business
The Knoxville Chamber of Commerce launched its Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) in 2015 to teach middle- and high school students how to create and operate their own business. The program, which runs for a full academic year, has graduated more than 4,000 youth, who have gone on to found social media consultancies, landscaping firms, clothing companies and more.
“We structured YEA! to get our youth excited about entrepreneurship and business, while exposing them to employers in the region,” said Megan Wright, program director at the Knoxville Chamber. “It’s also a great way for us to engage our members by having them come in and work with the students in an interactive manner.”
YEA! is a national initiative located in more than 130 cities across the country. It was brought to Knoxville, Tennessee by chamber President and CEO Mike Edwards, who attended the Saunders Scholars Competition, in which top YEA! students from across the U.S. compete for prizes and scholarships.
During the nine-month program, students meet weekly for three-hour sessions, in which they learn skills like developing business plans, marketing, finance and production. The sessions are divided into two segments; in the first half, students receive instructions from guest speakers and during the second, they work in a computer lab researching and composing their business plans.
“The students’ businesses really run the gamut depending on their interests,” explained Wright. “In this year’s class, we have an individual with a successful YouTube channel who started a consulting company for other YouTubers. We also have a few doing lawn care who started mowing neighbors’ lawns, and now they’re taking it to the next level.”
YEA! includes a “shark tank,” where student pitch their business plans to a panel of local investors, who judge them and hand out cash prizes ranging from $100–1000. It also features a trade show, during which students set up booths and sell their products to people from the community.
“The Academy is a great way to bring our members in to host field trips, mentor students and expose them to career opportunities,” said Wright. “That’s the biggest benefit for us; getting those students engaged and plugged in at an early stage, and getting them excited about the amazing opportunities in Knoxville.”
Looking ahead, Wright says the chamber plans to partner with other community organizations to expand the scope of the program.
“We’re looking at opportunities to engage with other groups with like-minded missions, whether that’s a shared field trip or pooling educational resources,” she said. “Our next step will be finding out how we can do it a little bigger and better moving forward.”
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