The Eastern Shore is full of entrepreneurs and their businesses are what help our local economy thrive. Imagine an after school program where students can create a real business with the help of a local industry professional and, when they graduate, they have an actual business license and potentially the start up money they need to get their business idea off the ground. Well, the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) – a program of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce – is doing just that. We sat down with YEA Program Director and Marketing Director of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, Sophia Smecker, to learn more about this program.

What is YEA?

YEA! Is a six-month after-school program where students can work on creating a fully formed business. This includes everything from the creation of the business plan to the logistics of the business to the market analysis and positioning and everything in between. The program is open to all students in grades 6-12 in the three lower counties – the only stipulation is that you must be able to provide your own transportation to and from the Wicomico County Library every Tuesday evening. This local YEA! chapter is a part of the nationwide Young Entrepreneurs Academy and the program consists of three segments:

The first segment is called: The Big Idea. During this phase they meet with the students to determine what their business idea will be. Students don’t need to have a complete business idea when entering the program. The program staff sits down with each student to identify their passions and see what type of business they’d be interested in starting. They also start working on the competitive analysis and market research to determine what gaps might exist in the market for a service or product.

The second segment is called: The Pitch. Here, the students are paired one-on-one with a mentor. The mentor helps the student refine their business idea and work on creating a real business plan. Mentors are local business professionals that have donated their time to helping a student work on creating their very own business. When the business plan is completed, the student must then present the business idea to a panel of investors. If you’ve ever watched the show Shark Tank, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. The students present their business idea to the investor panel and ask for how much money they’ve determined they’ll need for a three-month startup period.

Many local companies and organizations provide donations to make these students’ dreams come true. Smecker attributes the program’s success to “a lot of support from the community.” Not every student will receive funding for their business and not every student will receive the exact amount of money they requested. Much like the Shark Tank show, the investors determine how much startup money each student gets. Smecker also mentioned that this is just like starting any other business. A potential business owner can’t walk into a bank and just get a check for as much money as they want, the bank determines how much money a new business will get. The program works very hard to make sure the experience is as realistic as possible for its participants.

The third and final phase is called: The Launch. During this phase, the students work to actually launch the business they’ve worked so hard to create. The students have to figure out how to launch their business with the amount of money they’ve been awarded. Then, at the end, they host a tradeshow where the students try to sell their finished products. Every student will graduate from the program with an actual Maryland business license.

The students have a lot of help along the way as they will interact with over 80 business professionals during the course of the program. The program brings in guest speakers to talk about everything from marketing and finances to taxes and manufacturing. The students will get to take field trips during the program to local businesses. Here, the business owners give the students a tour of their business and they are able to share some of their acquired insight from owning their own business. Students get to meet with local graphic designers and web developers to help brand their new business.

The program even hosts a special event called the “CEO Round Table” where they bring in a group of local CEOs and the students get to ask them questions about owning a business. The CEOs can also share the knowledge they’ve gathered about the trials and tribulations of running a business. Another fun event is the “Media Meet & Greet” where the program brings in staff from local news organizations for the students to learn interview tips. This program truly helps the students learn about every facet of owning a business so they can build theirs from the ground up.

Smecker told us, “we’re fortunate here in this area because of our entrepreneurial atmosphere.” She explained that the program is able to utilize many of our local resources like Salisbury University’s Perdue School of Business, Maryland Capital Enterprises (a consulting and lending firm for small businesses), the Small Business Development Center, and Tedco (a resource for technology business startups). The program really aims to show students how they can utilize resources in our community. Smecker mentioned that they “want these kids to be job creators and business owners in our community.”

Success Stories

While this will only be YEA!’s second year in our area, the national program has been in existence since 2004 and they are able to provide guidance to this new, local chapter. With their guidance, the program’s first year was a huge success. Smecker told us about some of the standout students from year one:

Tyler Dunn

Tyler Dunn was a senior at Bennett High School when he entered the program last year. During the idea phase, the program encourages students to think about problems in their life that their business could aim to solve. Tyler, being a baseball player, thought about how annoying it was that his scoop kept getting lost in his protein powder container every day and, thus, The Cap Strap was born.

The Cap Strap attaches to the inside of the lid of your protein powder, coffee, lemonade or any other powdered product with a scoop. When you’re done scooping, you just put the scoop in The Cap Strap and there’s no more fishing around. You can learn more about the product (and even buy your own!) here on The Cap Strap’s Facebook page. The Cap Strap has been quite the success and Tyler is actually in talks with OxiClean! This is an incredible achievement for a senior in high school.

Tyler also used the skills and connections he gained during the program when he entered Shore Hatchery Entrepreneurship Competition. Shore Hatchery is the second longest running business competition in the nation. Tyler entered the competition after completing the YEA! program last year and became one of the youngest individuals to ever win money in the competition.

RJ Batts

Another star pupil of the YEA! program was RJ Batts. Smecker told us that no one could tell RJ’s story better than RJ himself. Check out his video below:

When RJ came to the program, he already had a prototype for the Tip Tough and he was ready to go. His product, at the time, was made from 3D printed plastic. The YEA! program helped him work with local manufacturers to turn it into the polished product it is now. In fact, RJ is now working on additional versions of the Tip Tough: a lower-cost plastic model, a version for children, and an extra large size.

Smecker told us that RJ’s product was even embraced in other markets such as hunting and fishing. Hunters and fisherman found that the perforated metal bottom made it easy for them to filet or scale their catch. Even better yet, RJ’s invention has been so successful that he has been approached by both Bed, Bath & Beyond and As Seen On TV! Keep up with RJ and the Tip Tough on his Facebook page here.

Many other participants in the YEA! program had successful business ideas such as smartphone apps and an interesting all-in-one scarf, hat, and gloves product. Fourteen new businesses were born as a result of the first year of the YEA! program. Even after the first year of the program ended, many of the students are still working to launch their businesses. To learn more about the YEA! program, visit them online here or follow their progress on Facebook here. They are accepting applications for their second year now through September 30th so be sure to let the young entrepreneur in your life know. We can’t wait to see what new inventions are born this year!