Florida teen ‘Shark Tank'
Even grade-schoolers can get help with business skills at academies tailored for young entrepreneurs.
Rachel Zietz walks the warehouse and fulfillment facility for her company, Gladiator Lacrosse, reviewing improvements and additions to the company’s product line. She points to boxes redesigned to make units more attractive for retail displays and new shipping labels.
Earlier in the day, Zietz had checked the competition’s pricing online and ensured that Gladiator’s 10 products — from goals and replacement nets to rebounders — were still the lowest priced in the market.
She proudly points out newly arrived professionalquality goods bearing the name of spokesman and professional lacrosse player Casey Powell. Zeitz personally pursued that partnership but explains that she couldn’t negotiate the actual deal with Powell because “I’m not 18 yet. My parents are both attorneys, so they have to handle that kind of stuff.”
Zietz, just 15, is founder and CEO of Gladiator Lacrosse, which had sales of almost $1 million in 2015 and is shooting for $2 million this year.
A high school sophomore, Zietz learned a good bit about business from her father, Sam Zietz, founder and CEO of Boca Raton-based payment solution provider TouchSuite, whose warehouse space she shares.
But Zeitz also benefited from taking entrepreneurship courses at a local Young Entrepreneurs Academy, or YEA. Founded in 2004 at the University of Rochester (New York) with support from the Kauffman Foundation, the effort is aligned with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and member chambers.
Local YEA programs teach middle and high school students skills rarely covered in grade school. At YEA, Zietz, then 12, learned about product ideation and development, trademarks, packaging, marketing, website design, fundraising and networking.
Like many YEA students, she enrolled with no idea about exactly what business she’d pursue. An instructor asked what excited her. For Zietz, who plays lacrosse, the answer was obvious.
There are other programs available to aspiring young businesspeople, including DECA, which teaches high school and college students management and entrepreneurship skills, and Junior Achievement, which last year taught 4.6 million U.S. gradeschool students about workreadiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.
The Young Entrepreneurs Academy, however, aims to get businesses off the ground. In Florida, 576 students have graduated from YEA programs. Nationwide, the program has 4,338 graduates who have launched 3,172 businesses, says Gayle B. Jagel, YEA’s founder and CEO.
Each spring, students compete for about two dozen spots at 100 YEA classes around the country. In the fall, those selected will pay up to $995 for some 100 hours of business instruction over 30 weeks.
The aspiring entrepreneurs meet weekly with local executives trained in YEA’s model, preparing to pitch their ideas to an “investor panel” of local business leaders. Some of the established businesspeople have responded with seed money or an offer of ongoing mentorship.
The winning idea heads off to regional finals. Winners there move on to national competitions and vie for college scholarships up to $30,000. In Boca Raton, last year’s local winner was Zietz’s brother Jordan, then 13, who pitched video game console rental concept Gamereef to executives and managers from sponsor Walmart and Sam’s Club at the company’s offices in Arkansas.
Another YEA participant, Ashley Chico, a high school junior in Winter Park, won a spot in the 2015 class of the Orlando Science Center’s Young Entrepreneurs Academy. Her idea: A tablet app to help older, illiterate or non-English speaking patients fill out medical forms. Chico won the 2015 Bright House Bright Ideas STEM From Today’s Youth competition.
YEA mentors showed Chico the importance of competitive analysis. Ultimately, she wrote a business plan to chart how to turn her concept into a functioning business — and aims to launch the app next year under the company name Chico Healthcare Software.
“I just didn’t know how much goes into a business plan — the financing, the longterm goals, the planning,” she says. “The little things are the things that count in business.”
Few products that make it past the idea stage ever hit the market, admits Orlando Science Center Vice President of Education Heather Norton. But that’s all right, she says. More than launching a business, students — from widely differing socioeconomics and academic backgrounds — are taught “a skill set that can be replicated,” she says.
“We have the haves and have-nots,” she says. “They all have that passion about wanting to do something with their lives.”
Young Entrepreneur Academies
The following organizations offer YEA programs:
» Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, hosted at Southeastern University, 863/688-8551
» Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, hosted at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Wellington Campus, 561/790-6200
» Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, hosted at St. Andrew’s School, 561/395-4433
» Miramar Pembroke Pines Chamber of Commerce, hosted at Broward College, 954/432-9808
» Northern Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, hosted at Florida Atlantic University, MacArthur Campus, 561/746-7111
» Orlando Science Center, 407/514-2074
» Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, hosted at Global Business Solutions, 850/438-4081
» Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, hosted at the State College of Florida, 941/556-4026
» Santa Rosa County School District, hosted at Santa Rosa High School, 850/995-3600