At the beginning of every week, I receive an email with the subject line, “BUILD Update.” I open it immediately so I can learn what the teenage entrepreneurs I’m mentoring will be working on next. BUILD (Businesses United in Investing, Lending and Development) is an in-school elective program for 9th- thru 12th-graders. It targets students in under-served communities with the goal of helping them start their own businesses and attend college. It began in California, branched out to D.C. a few years ago, and has plans to keep expanding.
As soon as I read about BUILD this summer, I knew I wanted to get involved. I had a small business when I was a teenager, and at the risk of sounding cliche, it was a really valuable experience for me. I got a permit to set up a booth in an outdoor market near the University of Texas and I sold T-shirts I had decorated and clothes and accessories I had sewn. I didn’t make a lot of money, but I did learn a lot, and my venture was markedly more successful than the “selling rocks to the neighbors” and “selling stationery to my mom” startups I headed that crashed when I was 7 and 10, respectively. Some BUILD students’ businesses are similar to mine, some different, but all BUILD students receive huge amounts of professional and academic support so they learn they can do anything they put their minds to.
In their first year, BUILD students learn about business, come up with ideas for their own companies, and work in teams to create business plans. As sophomores, they work in the same teams to refine their business plans and present them to a venture capital adviser. If the adviser thinks their plan is solid, the team receives the funding they need to make their idea a reality. During junior year, students continue to operate their businesses, go on college tours, and prepare for the SATs and college applications. As seniors, the students shut down their businesses and focus on applying for scholarships and getting into college. In addition to entrepreneurship and college prep, there is a strong academic component to the program. BUILD students receive tutoring to help them maintain the minimum GPA they need to stay in the program. This minimum GPA rises when students move up a grade, so students must perform at higher levels as they move through high school.
The team I am mentoring consists of two sophomore girls. Talia and Jacqueline (not their real names) are assembling and selling manicure/pedicure kits targeted to teens and pre-teens. They have worked hard this semester to research the products that go into their kit, find the best deals, and create a specific and realistic plan for their business. Their work has begun to pay off, as they recently received funding from their venture capital adviser to put their plan into action. They were able to order the parts for their kit last week, and we are now working on branding and marketing in preparation for their first selling event on December 9th.
It’s clear to me from working with my team that starting a business is good for high school students. It builds a lot of self-confidence and helps them learn initiative and skills that will serve them well in the future. If you told some high school sophomores they were about to learn how to calculate gross profit, they might not be very interested. But when you ask, “How much money can you take home after you sell your products this winter?” they’re engaged. They immediately start figuring it out because they can see how the question is relevant to them, and they’re confident they can find the answer. I hear students arriving at BUILD end cell conversations by saying, “I’ll talk to you later, I’m at work.” Given a supportive network of adults and peers who take their ideas seriously, students work hard to ensure their businesses will succeed.
Aside from the more specific things they need to know to start a business, like how to calculate profit, something I’ve seen Talia and Jacqueline learn this year is how to break a big goal down into manageable, actionable steps. When we first started reworking their business plan, I remember asking what their goals for the next couple of weeks were, and they said, “Sell our kits.”
“So you have your kits assembled and ready to go?”
“Well, not yet.”
“Do you know exactly which materials you’re purchasing for the kits?”
So they researched products and vendors and chose supplies. Once they had done that, they realized the numbers in their business plan were no longer accurate. So they calculated how much each product would cost with sales tax and shipping, how much money they would ask for to get their business started, how much each kit they assembled would cost them, how much similar products sold for, how their kits would be priced, how much profit they would make on each kit, and at what point they would be able to pay the startup money back to their venture capital advisor. Each week, they accomplished smaller goals they needed to reach to get to their big goal of selling their kits.
Although Talia and Jacqueline have done a lot of the hard work already, they are a little nervous about selling their kits for the first time at the BUILD sales bazaar on December 9th. So if you work in D.C., please come do some of your holiday shopping with BUILD businesses, support young entrepreneurs, and pick up a manicure/pedicure kit for the low, low price of $12! The Metro DC Sales Bazaar will be at the Washington DC Economic Partnership (1495 F Street, NW) from 5:30-8:00p.m. on December 9th (closest metro McPherson Square or Metro Center). Please RSVP to BuildMetroDCevents@build.org if you’d like to attend. If you can’t make it but are interested in getting involved, please visit BUILD.org. There are many ways in which you can help: mentor a team, be a tutor, be a guest speaker, host an event or business field trip at your office, or make a monetary or in-kind donation.
That’s my elevator pitch for Intridea’s blog audience. You’ll need to come by in person on the 9th to hear which pitch my team is using for pre-holiday sales events!