Budding middle school entrepreneurs in Trenton get a boost from long-running program

By Amy Reynolds [see original article here]

TRENTON — “Are you interested in any snacks today?”

Marquez Ellison didn’t hesitate to approach potential customers entering the P.J. Hill Elementary School gym for the Market Fair of Minding Our Business, a nonprofit organization that provides urban youth with an entrepreneurial education and coaching and training to own their own businesses.

Ellison, 13, was a member of the Snack Attack team, which was selling boxes filled with juice, fruit and candy at the event.

“I love persuading people to come to my group,” Marquez said.

The annual Market Fair is part of the spring program of Minding Our Business, which was founded in 1997 by Kevin Wortham and Sigfredo Hernandez with the goal to change the lives of low-income youth and their communities through entrepreneurship.

“Dr. Hernandez was a marketing professor at Rider University and he wanted to make an impact in urban students,” said Wortham, executive director of MOB. “He thought, ‘What better way to engage them than to teach them about starting and running a business?’”

Since its inception, MOB has helped about 3,500 kids, Wortham said.

Last month, 10 teams of middle school students sold cupcakes, hot dogs, customized bracelets and more at Market Fair, which attracts 750 to 1,000 adults from the community.

Market Fair is the culmination of the spring program. Beginning in February, Rider students worked with teams of middle schoolers from Trenton’s P.J. Hill, Kilmer, Rivera and Village Charter schools to plan the event and decide what their businesses will be.

“The program is unique because college students are trained to facilitate teams of Trenton middle school students in planning and running their own businesses. It’s a team experience,” Hernandez said.

The Rider students, who participate in the program as a part of a college course, were there to guide the students and give them hints and ideas. According to Hernandez, all of the business decisions were made by the middle school students.

“To be a leader, you don’t have to know everything,” said Brigid Minue, a freshman at Rider University and mentor for iCandy, which sold iPhone cases and candy. “It’s better to ask (the kids) questions than to just give them the answers. Being a leader is to guide that person.”

The teams are given loans averaging $180 to create and sell their products, Hernandez said.

“Most teams, historically, are profitable, so they’re able to pay back their loans and the students keep the profits,” Hernandez said.

Snack Attack received a loan of $192. By 11 a.m., just two hours into the five-hour Market Fair, Snack Attack had sold $100 worth of snack boxes.

“I’m a pro,” said Marquez, who has participated in the spring program twice before.

To get the loans, the middle students made presentations to a panel of business professionals. The judges offered suggestions and recommendations.

“It’s always good to see young people getting a taste of what it’s like to be in business at an early age,” said Celestine Chukumba, who judged presentations at Kilmer Middle School. “These are good things to see, but there is a lot of pressure for them to sit here in front of business professionals and present their work.”

“It’s given me a business perspective,” said Zion Johnson, 14, a member of the iCandy team who hopes to work in fashion marketing one day.

Arburta Jones, another judge, noted the middle schoolers’ valuable chance to interact with college students.

“It’s a good opportunity for the kids to see kids that are actually in college and to engage with kids that are in college, so as a kid from an underprivileged neighborhood, they can see that college is available for them, too,” she said. “Maybe kids who hadn’t even thought about college or were exposed to that now understand that Rider is here and they can go to college too and they can build something different for their life than what they see around them every day.”

“The mentors have become positive role models in the students’ lives,” Hernandez said.

“You can see how leaders emerge in this program,” he said. At first, “Some of them are very shy and hardly participate, and then they had to present their business plans to judges in order to get their loans. And you can see some of the shy kids shining and taking leadership roles.”

TC Nelson, another judge, touted the “real-life experience and institutional knowledge” the students are getting, “which is an education in itself.”

Most of all, though, the program gives students tools to succeed in middle school, high school and beyond.

“They need the confidence to know that they can do whatever they want to do in the future,” Chukumba said.

“I asked all of my mentors, following the presentations, ‘How many of you are proud of your students?’ All of their hands went up,” Hernandez said. “These students are, on the average, 12 years old. They’ve never presented in front of a group of adults, and they’ve never made a high-stakes presentation. They did so well. We’re very proud of them.”