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SMCC, Ahwatukee Chamber Launching Young Entrepreneurs Academy

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Rose Tring for the

South Mountain District News

Eight aspiring business leaders of the future are getting their starts this month as members of the inaugural class of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, sponsored by the Ahwatukee Chamber Community Foundation and South Mountain Community College.

“We’re launching it this month,” said Anne Gill, president and CEO of the Ahwatukee Chamber of Commerce and its foundation arm. “The program is a combination of bringing the business community together to support the students and support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.”

During the year-long, intensive training, students develop relationships with local business owners, write business plans, create marketing strategies and pitch their business ideas to a panel of investors. By the end of the school year, many of them will have started successful businesses.

“The curriculum is a national one and is well-established,” Gill said. “We have volunteer instructors who will be doing the teaching. There are three main instructors and then there will be additional guest speakers and mentors from the business community.”

Devida Pi’ilani Lewis, founder and partner at iAloha Media Group, LLC and owner of D&D Commercial Real Estate, was one of the first business owners to volunteer. She is a board member at the Ahwatukee chamber and was immediately on board to support the project.

“I think there is so much emphasis on academics… which is all fine and great, but there is a segment of the market where college is not for them,” Lewis said. “That was me.

“I wanted to branch out and start my own business early. That’s why I think this program is so great. You catch kids right at the cusp of their creative sides, just at the beginning of middle school,” Lewis said. “I have a heart for entrepreneurial endeavors.”

Development of small business is crucial to the state and national economies.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses represent 99.7 percent of all employer firms nationwide. Since 1995, small businesses have generated 64 percent of new jobs, and paid 44 percent of the total United States private payroll.

In Arizona, the U.S. Census Bureau reports there are nearly 61,000 small businesses with fewer than five employees. The SBA says such companies bring growth and innovation to the communities where they are established, and they help stimulate the economy by providing employment opportunities and providing services to larger corporations.

“Big corporations started as entrepreneurial endeavors,” Lewis said. “They morphed into these big companies from these small ideas.”

To participate in the afterschool program, students must be in sixth through 12th grade and ages 11-18. To be accepted, the students must fill out an application that includes letters of recommendation and a 300-word essay in which they must tell about a situation in which they demonstrated entrepreneurial traits such as persistence, self-confidence, creativity, initiative, innovation or other similar skills. They are asked why they are interested in the program and, if they already have an idea for a business or social movement, the applicants are asked to describe their idea.

“For some of them, it’s their first interview process,” Gill said. “They can be nominated by their teachers, principals, business owners or their parents can bring them to an information night.”

Gill said the classes are kept deliberately small to ensure the youth get lots of one-on-one mentoring in how to develop a business. “It is a limited number of students each year,” she said. “The caliber of students who applied this year is very impressive.”

The eight local participants represent Desert Vista High School, Mountain View High School, Taylor Junior High and the homeschool system. Their names are not yet being released as there are still some waivers participants must sign, Gill said.

“We worked with local school districts and different private and charter schools in the area to make them aware of the program,” Gill said. “We have worked with the media, business radio shows and other media to get the word out.”

Classes for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy will take place at South Mountain Community College’s Guadalupe Center. The chamber approached SMCC to provide the classroom space for the program.

Angelica Glick, coordinator of instructional programs for the community college’s Guadalupe and Laveen centers, said supporting entrepreneurship fits in with the SMCC’s vision of developing a talented local work force.

“What better way to work with our youth than to work with and support entrepreneurship,” Glick said. “We support diverse work force development and we want to provide support to our local youth population.”

Classes will mainly take place at the Guadalupe campus, but there will be some events planned for the main campus on 24th Street. “We will be having the grand opening on Nov. 19 of Entrepreneur Center at the main campus,” Glick said.

She said more programs are being developed around entrepreneurship and business and that “we have plans to work with Laveen and bring some more programs to that area as well.”

The curriculum provides hands-on entrepreneurial experience for participants beginning with several weeks of generating ideas, then developing a marketing plan and ending with the pitch for funding. Throughout the process, Gill said the students will be gaining confidence and learning how to present their ideas.

“That’s where the confidence and communication skills will come in,” she said. “It will help set them apart from their peers.”

The Ahwatukee academy is only the third to be launched in Arizona. The Bullhead Area Chamber of Commerce in Bullhead City and the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Glendale are the other state academies.

The YEA! program was first developed in 2004 at the University of Rochester in New York through funding from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Since 2011, the academy has been sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which in turn partners with local chambers.

Gill said the Ahwatukee academy is still adding speakers and volunteers to its curriculum for this year.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for business owners to help with future workforce development,” Gill said. “It’s a great way to use your knowledge to help a future business owner succeed. Your successes and your failures both are opportunities to teach.”



There are multiple opportunities for members of the local business community to get involved with YEA! including:
Investor panelists – evaluate ideas and provide start-up funding

Business mentors – work one-on-one with students sharing your expertise

Graphics designers – help develop logos and print material for the young entrepreneurs

Web developers – Help students create an online presence

CEO Roundtable – 3-5 local CEOs meet with the students and discuss their businesses and the role of CEO

Elevator Pitches – Local businessperson literally rides an elevator with the students so they have the opportunity to “pitch” their business idea.

Media Meet and Greet – Local reporters, anchors, editors, producers and other communication experts meet the youth and describe how they can get the word out about their business.


To volunteer your services, contact the Ahwatukee Chamber Community Foundation via email: foundation@ahwatukeechamber.com

For additional information about the YEA! program, visit:



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