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Gwinnett County programs grow young entrepreneurs

Twins DeAndre and Darion Nelson showed talent for anticipating chart-topping tunes, getting kids onto the dance floor with their deejaying skills and pulling in hundreds of patrons to their teen parties. But what they thought was a successful hobby turned out to be a financial drain.

“We’d have all these people at the parties and be counting all this money at the end,” said DeAndre Nelson. “After we looked at how much we put into it, we realized we were losing money.”

Unable to fit entrepreneur classes into their schedule, the South Gwinnett High students joined Youth Entrepreneurs, an after-school club that condensed those lessons. The national nonprofit has programs in Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb counties as well as Atlanta Public Schools — it’s largest footprint.

“We’re not a sit-and-get kind of program,” said Ana Rector, area director for Youth Entrepreneurs East Region. “All learning is hands-on instead of a lecture format.”

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In a “Karate Kid” kind of way, some of the 26 activities in the year-long curriculum don’t at first appear to have much to do with the lesson. But once one of the core values (responsibility, being principled, seeking knowledge, respecting rights and freedoms of others, finding fulfillment in your work, making your own opportunities, exercising sound judgment or creating a win-win focus) is applied to the exercise, a light bulb goes off.

“It’s learning in reverse,” said Rector.

One exercise is a card game called Pit, designed to simulate open-outcry bidding for commodities. YE uses the game to teach students about trade and simple negotiations, and focus on the economic principle of comparative advantage.

“We use this to explain the concepts of international trade, bidding, teamwork and many other things,” said Rector.

Within a few sessions, the Nelsons realized that they were putting too much money into promotion — eating away at the bottom line.

“We weren’t keeping good records or budgeting,” said Darion Nelson. “We know we have more to learn, but we’re already ahead of people 10 to 15 years older than us.”

By November their business, Youngest Doin It, was born. Besides promotions, the duo have a line of T-shirts they sell online and at parties and a sneaker-customization service where they turn footwear into works of art.

By cultivating students’ sense of personal responsibility and confidence in their capabilities, the YE curriculum develops skills to run a business. The program is in 188 schools in 16 states. To date, YE has produced over 30,000 alumni nationwide.

In May, the program hosted its first chance for the top 100 YE high school students across the country to compete for $20,000.

The Nelsons were awarded $2,500 in the Youth Entrepreneurs Summit Big Idea National Competition. Seniors this year, they plan to attend Georgia State majoring in business and marketing.

“We want to keep doing this, but move to the next level with adult concerts and eventually own our own club — a chain of clubs,” said the twins, finishing each other’s thoughts. They plan to train others to take over the youth segment and branch out with franchises.

While their passion and energy seem right in line with others their age, statistics show as a trend youngsters aren’t pursuing self-employment.

Data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that self-employment rates are higher for older workers than for younger workers. The self-employment rate among workers age 65 and older was the highest (15.5 percent) of any age group; in contrast, the rate was much lower for their counterparts aged 16 to 24 (1.9 percent).

But the self-employment rate in general has trended down over the past two decades. In 1994, it was 12.1 percent; by 2015, the rate had declined to 10.1 percent.

To help turn those numbers, Partnership Gwinnett launched the student version of its annual entrepreneur contest. Earlier this month it awarded two Gwinnett County Public Schools students top honors in the inaugural Amazing Student Entrepreneur competition.

Mya Swaby, a Brookwood High School junior who owns ContraBand Clothing, earned first place in the competition and was awarded $500. Her apparel company designs and produces “augmented reality” clothing. In augmented reality, real-world objects are “augmented” by computer-generated perceptual information. For example, virtual-reality goggles might make you feel as if you’re flying when you are actually sitting in a chair.

Akeyjah Charles, a senior at South Gwinnett High School and the owner of The Key Images, earned $300 for second place. Her photography service company specializes in portrait, advertising and event photography.

The competition encourages young entrepreneurs in high school and college to introduce a student-only business model.

“It’s more important for a community to grow talent than to attract business to relocate,” said Adam Forrand of Partnership Gwinnett. “Small business is the engine that drives economic development. Small service providers and product creators of today will be the Home Depot and NCR of tomorrow.”

Cindy Quinlan, a Brookwood High School teacher who serves as the lead for the Entrepreneurship Pathway in Gwinnett County Public Schools, said this opportunity demonstrates what happens with curiosity, passion and drive.

“It keeps students engaged and shows the relevancy in their school work,” she said. “There’s more rigor and depth in their classes such as language arts as well as the entrepreneurial classes. So that makes one plus one add up to three.”

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