Interview by Erin Coleman
While YouthBiz is not itself a small business, the organization is developing Denver’s next generation of entrepreneurs, teaching youth the skills — and mindset — they need to one day run their own business. The organization is committed to a mission of, as Vice President Anna Leer describes it, “empowering young people to manage, create, and earn their own wealth.”
We spoke with Leer about growing the city’s future business leaders, what it takes to help youth mold their creativity into entrepreneurism, and why they may have an advantage even over degree-holding adults.
Denver VOICE: Tell me a little bit about YouthBiz’s connection to the other branches of Young Americans Center for Financial Education. How did YouthBiz evolve from that foundation?
Anna Leer: YouthBiz was [originally] a stand-alone organization. It started in 1992, and has gone through a lot of program changes. In 2015, YouthBiz was acquired by Young Americans Center. We had a partnership with them for a long time, so it just seemed natural. Young Americans was really strong at what we now call our third tier — [creating opportunities for youth to remain engaged with entrepreneurship and financial literacy long-term] — but struggled with getting more kids in [to the program]. YouthBiz was good at exposing kids to entrepreneurship, but struggled with keeping them involved and engaged after the program ended. We were able to maintain our programming, but gain the third level [of the program] to keep kids involved. YouthBiz now operates as a separate department within Young Americans Center.
DV: What do you believe are the most important business skills to impress upon the youth you mentor?
AL: I think it’s a lot less hard business skills and more the business mindset — things like problem solving, critical thinking, confidence. We believe that mindset will help them in their own business and in life outside YouthBiz. Our strategies revolve around putting [program participants] in fun and challenging circumstances — situations that force them to think outside the box and take initiative. What we find is that they get a lot more out of doing [than out of instruction]. We set a lot of goals and challenges. There’s a business simulation challenge where the goal for the game is to maximize their profit. They’re not given too much information — similar to in life.
DV: How do the entrepreneurial skills teens acquire through YouthBiz translate to success later in life?
AL: That’s something that’s really important to us. It goes back to skills of shifting their mindset. Those skills — creativity, accountability, self-confidence — can be applied to whatever career trajectory they choose.
DV: What is the basic process youth follow in order to get their businesses off the ground?
AL: What we offer is an attempt to meet every young person where they are.
The first level [of the YouthBiz program] is school-based. We use a project-based initiative that teachers can incorporate into curriculum. Participants learn about personal finance, budgeting, idea generation, prototyping, and making a business pitch. The prototypes they make are more visual aides [at this stage]. The program culminates with a business pitch competition. First place wins $100 that we furnish.
The next level, which we call “YouthBiz Out of the Box,” is also school-based. It puts ideas into practice. If the kids do it [and the first level] back to back, they get a chance to incorporate their business plan. They have to make 20 products. They take out a micro loan from YouthBiz and do the financial planning to make sure they can pay back the loan. Sales opportunities [for the Outside the Box program] can coincide with the marketplace.
The third level is Youth Biz Stars. It’s like an independent study. We designed the program around meeting kids where they are. We offer one-on-one business coaching and mentoring, and free business workshops. We have one workshop about media presence, like how to conduct yourself in front of camera and present your business in a professional way.
We have the Marketplace once in spring and twice during the holidays. Anyone ages 6-21 is eligible for that. It gives [participants] a chance to experiment in a low-risk environment.
DV: According to its website, YouthBiz is committed to engaging “youth who live in poverty and who attend under-resourced schools.” Tell me more about your vision of entrepreneurship as empowerment.
AL: I am very passionate about that. Entrepreneurship is an incredible way to create wealth while honoring your values. It’s a chance to do something you enjoy that is aligned with your value structure and beliefs, rather than surrendering [values] like so many people feel they have to. You can give oxygen to your passions while staying aligned with your identity. We try to tap into the mindset of skills. Employers value confidence. Those skills [kids learn through YouthBiz] are also valuable in empowering them within the workforce.
DV: What have been some of the most successful YouthBiz businesses, and what, in your opinion, made them so successful?
AL: There are a couple key takeaways from all the businesses myself and my staff think of as most successful. The key is perseverance. The benefit for most of these kids is to start as a young person, when they don’t really need another form of income. ... It’s a great way to try out business ownership with very little risk, and I think that makes the kids more resilient. They can notice trends and demands. Adults have a harder time changing on a dime. The kids who stick with it almost always see some kind of reward. It comes down to kids who are collaborative and open their minds to the other kids in their group. And, of course, that creativity aspect. The adults in the room are always like, ‘Of course! Why didn’t we think of that?’ What makes them successful is not having the most outstanding product—it’s really the approach they take to their business. ■