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COMMENTARY

Young entrepreneurs grounded in realities of running a business

Rod Watson

What would you expect a kid to do with a sudden windfall of $150 or $200?

If you said, "Buy a new pair of high-priced sneakers," then you don’t know Buffalo’s next class of budding black business owners.

The winners of the inaugural Youth Entrepreneur Marketplace "pitch" competition are much more grounded than that.

"Invest in more nail supplies" is how 14-year-old Ceyari Phillips, a Charter School for Applied Technologies eighth grader, described what she will do with the $150 second prize she won after pitching her nail service to the three adult judges.

Ten-year-old Nuri Muhammad, a Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts fifth grader, plans to spend half of his $50 third place prize and "the rest I’m going to invest in my business," Nuri’s Arts and Crafts.

They were among eight students who pitched their products in the TV-style competition this month at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday through Aug. 3, you can find them selling their products and services on the sidewalk in the 1350 block of Fillmore Avenue, before they wind up the summer program Aug. 10 at Canalside.

Before going public, these young entrepreneurs went through eight weeks of workshops to learn branding, marketing, budgeting and other basics from a variety of adult business owners.

"There are a lot of negative concepts about our youth," said Pamela James, who coordinates the program out of the Alphonso "Rafi" Greene Jr. Masten Resource Center on Fillmore Avenue. The initiative counters those stereotypes so that, as she put it, "the youth can see themselves on the other side of the counter."

Planting that seed is critical to the development of the black community. It is key to addressing everything from the wealth gap – median black household wealth is still only 10 percent that of whites – to the variety of retail "deserts" in the black community. Similarly, it is the vehicle for providing employment for neighborhood residents other businesses don’t want to hire, as well as for making sure dollars recirculate in the black community instead of so quickly winding up in the pockets of others.

"It’s not how much money you made, but how much money you keep," James said. "So we’re teaching youth what to do with their money. That’s our main objective."

The kids have gotten the message.

After reinvesting most of his winnings, first-place co-winner Djibril Horsford, a fifth grader at Tapestry Charter School, plans to "put 10% of it away."

He and Tapestry sixth grader Staz Chiddick took the $200 top prize for their SD Smiley Face Concession that sells popcorn, snow cones and other snacks. They won over the judges with an energetic, coordinated presentation that even included a jingle: "To try an exotic taste, come down to Smiley Face."

The youth were judged on everything from eye contact with the judges to creativity, knowledge of their product and how they plan to give back to the community.

But beyond learning how to make a pitch, Staz said the YEM classes taught him something more fundamental: "How to expand my business and make it known to the public."

Those are lessons that, when learned young, will keep paying dividends for both the aspiring business owners and the community they serve.

YEM is cosponsored by the Community Action Organization of Western New York, which has been in the media crosshairs lately for all the wrong reasons, after management fired the board instead of the other way around. The nonprofit then hired armed guards to bar the public from its meeting, a move guaranteed to generate even more scrutiny.

But YEM illustrates what community organizations, at their best, can do and why it’s so essential that they be properly run. Programs to combat poverty often are criticized as being handouts. But YEM is not about asking for something, it’s about creating your own.

It updates the old notion that the best anti-poverty program is a job, recognizing the reality that the best anti-poverty program is a business, which can then offer jobs to others.

That’s the philosophy these young people are being grounded in – and none too soon. For all of the progress Buffalo has made, the 2020 census is likely to reveal lingering gaps between blacks and whites in income, wealth, poverty and other key measures of well-being.

Young entrepreneurs like these are the ones who are going to have to close those gaps.

Fortunately, they already are learning how.

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