Helping teens unleash their inner entrepreneur

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Wendy Fichter (left) of the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce and program co-manager of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy explains the program at an informational meeting Sept. 12.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – Area teens wanting to start and build their own business may unleash their inner entrepreneur this fall as Michigan launches its first Young Entrepreneurs Academy class.

YEA!, co-sponsored locally by the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is a national not-for profit corporation designed to give middle and high school students, ages 11 to 18, a chance to learn from local business leaders and educators.

In a classroom setting and through off-site visits, students learn to develop ideas, write business plans, meet with investors and take the other steps needed to launch and grow a business.

When the chamber hosted an informational meeting for interested youth, their parents, and local business leaders on Sept. 12, Events Director Peggy Richards said they are elated to be co-chairing the YEA! program.

“We got this opportunity from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to launch the Young Entrepreneurs Academy in Michigan,” Richards said, “to inspire young talent to become what is essentially their own CEO: to open and launch their own business.”

For more information on the national program, begun in 2004 at the University of Rochester in New York, go to For more information about the local program and application process, call Richards at 313-584-6100, or go to

The local nine-month program for students in grades 6 through 12 starts Oct. 22 and runs 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through June 2014 for 30 weeks, divided into three 10-week segments. The class will not meet during traditional holiday periods.

The class will meet in UM-D’s Mardigian Library and will use the computer lab as well as breakout areas for students to meet with their business mentors.

Sean McGraw with State Farm Insurance in Dearborn Heights will teach the first 10-week session, followed by Daria Pikorytova, the global programs manager for Central Michigan University.

The application process for students includes filling out the application, including an essay question, getting a letter of recommendation from a teacher or counselor, and submitting a grade transcript. Sept. 30 is the desired return date for student applications.

There is a $10 application fee, and a $395 tuition charge, payable in three installments. There are limited scholarships to cover up to half of the tuition cost.

Richards said the program provides students with the opportunity to brainstorm ideas and actually write business plans with business mentors.

“We’re going to bring in guest speakers, we’re going to take the students on tours,” Richards said. “Our first tour on Nov. 8 is to Quicken Loans downtown, so that will be really exciting.”

She said the course focuses on the themes of driving innovation, viewing the world in new ways and recognizing opportunities.

“All of the learning is real, experiential and fun,” Richards said.

She said the students also present their business plans to a panel of investors who will provide seed money for business launches.

Students will receive instruction from their teachers every step of the way through a formalized curriculum, and they will work with business mentors each step of the way, Richards said.

A trade show May 31 at Fairlane Town Center will let students present their prototypes and business ideas to the community.

“We’re going to have a captive audience,” Richards said. “It’s a very busy mall. That will be a great place to launch your business.”

Wendy Fichter, director of Small Business Development for the chamber, said local business people have been very enthusiastic about becoming involved with YEA! and mentoring students.

“Business owners in our area are falling all over themselves to help young people get that great opportunity to start new business and keep our communities vibrant,” Fichter said. “We’re really looking forward to some great things.”

Some of the teens who attended the Sept. 12 information session at the chamber had already started businesses on their own and wanted to learn more and take them to the next level.

Demetrius Harmon, 15, of Dearborn Heights, a student at Dearborn High School, started selling T-shirts in 2011 with his original designs on them. He said he also designed his own website for his shirts:

He said he initially did not do it to make money.

“I just did it to get my art out there,” Harmon said. “It was always like a nice idea to have people supporting my art. Kids do not really have paintings on their wall. People will more likely wear a T-shirt. It’s something you wear every day.”

He said a “Detroit raised” T-shirt was one of his most popular designs.

Harmon hopes YEA! will help him expand his business and make it more profitable.

Another budding young entrepreneur, Maya Lyght, 14, of Clinton Township, a freshman at Southfield Christian School, used T-shirts to launch a business as well, but in a different way. Her business, Glam Ts, recycles T-shirts into women’s accessories – a type of fashionable, wearable art for women. She is thinking about branching out into ties for men, and she is excited about joining YEA!

“I have my own business, and I know it’s a struggle for me figuring out my sales and profits,” Lyght said. “From coming today and listening to what they have to say, I know this is really going to help me become more organized within my business.”

She started making accessories out of T-shirts because her mother suggested she do something with the T-shirts she was no longer wearing. She found some ideas online, and she started experimenting with her own ideas.

“I love art, and it’s just another media for art,” Lyght said. “And I kept going and I kept trying different things, and no matter how crazy it seemed, I tried it, and I put it on my Facebook (page). And people would be like, ‘Oh, that’s so amazing. Let me buy that. How much for that?’”

Her mother, Erica Lyght, thinks the YEA! program is a great opportunity for her daughter.

“I think this is an awesome opportunity,” she said, “especially for someone like my daughter who has endeavored into starting her own business. This will allow her to actually take it that step further with marketing, designing a website, and even getting some investors to possibly invest in her business.”