Young entrepreneurs recommend instructional program

Nick Silzell

Nick Silzell

Madi Hawkins

Madi Hawkins

Phil Castle, The Business Times

At just 12-years-old, Nick Silzell has learned something about business most entrepreneurs don’t discover until they’re much older. “Definitely, it’s not as easy as you think.”

Still, Silzell touts an instructional program designed to turn students like him into budding CEOs. “It just teaches you what it’s going to be like to have or work in a business, and it’s great to learn that at a young age.”

Madi Hawkins agreed. “Yes, I think it’s very fun and you learn a lot.”

Silzell and Hawkins are among the latest graduates of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy in Grand Junction. They’re still operating the ventures they started during the seven-month program.

Now that registration is underway for the next class, Silzell and Hawkins encouraged other middle and high school students to participate.

Coordinated by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, the academy guides participants through the process of coming up with new products and services, writing business plans, pitching their ideas to investors and developing their brands.

By the end of the program, participants oversee functioning enterprises they can continue to operate.

Volunteers support the academy, including local business leaders, guest speakers and others who work with the students.

While academies operate across the country, the Grand Junction program is the only one in Colorado.

Darcy Weir, YEA program manager for the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said the program teaches participants entrepreneurship and helps develop the local workforce. “We want them to capture that entrepreneurial spirit.”

Silzell, a seventh grade student at East Middle School, serves as chief executive officer of Sleepy Sheepy. The company makes pillowcases from bamboo fiber. With one side made with smooth fabric and the other side made with fleece, the pillowcases offer hot and cold sides designed to promote comfort. The program was frustrating at first, he said, because he had to change his plans from developing a pillow to a pillowcase, but that product was ultimately better.

Silzell won a competition against the other students in the Young Entrepreneurs Academy program in Grand Junction in pitching his idea to a panel of investors. Silzell then competed against more than 70 students from across the United States in the national YEA competition in Rochester, N.Y. and was selected as one of four finalists. While Silzell didn’t win the title, Sleepy Sheepy won the people’s choice award.

Hawkins, a 13-year-old student at Fruita Middle School, serves as CEO of Euphoria, a company that sells products that help children deal with anxiety and such other strong emotions as fear and anger. Those products include a tent that serves as a calming space as well as coping strategy cards, a glitter jar, and stress balls.

Along with learning how to start and run a business, Hawkins said she honed other skills, among them the ability to speak in front of large audiences.

Weir said it’s exciting to watch the participants develop their businesses and their entrepreneurial skills over the course of the program.

By the time participants pitch their ideas in a competition similar to the “Shark Tank” television show, they’re all the more impressive, she said. “They blow it out of the park. They’re transformed before your eyes into these business people.”

Applications for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy are due Sept. 15. To register or obtain more information, contact Darcy Weir by phone at 263-2916 or email at darcy@gjchamber.org.

Information also is available at www.gjchamber.org.

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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