Hands-on business lessons for city youths

Corrine Goodman puts up a sign at her booth selling lemonade at Cobbs Creek Park.
Corrine Goodman puts up a sign at her booth selling lemonade at Cobbs Creek Park.
Posted: July 31, 2014

It was Saturday afternoon at the Public Safety Initiative Youth Market, and Corrine Goodman was ready with a beverage dispenser full of pink lemonade, a stack of cups, and her game face.

There was just one little challenge, the 10-year-old said, glancing to her right, where Malik Thompson, 14, was standing behind a tray filled with his own ice-cold bottled beverages.

"Malik's my competition, because he's selling lemonade that's homemade," she said, acknowledging that hers came from a mix.

"But his is $2," she added, "and mine's $1.50."

Product development, pricing and evaluating and responding to market conditions - those are all lessons young people absorb through the Youth Entrepreneurship Project, an initiative of Villanova University administered this summer by organizations in West and North Philadelphia, and Camden.

The start-up program teaches teens about financial management, business planning, and marketing, and offers them $250 apiece in seed capital.

This summer, it's yielded a Camden hot sauce company, inspired teens on a struggling block in North Philadelphia to start an urban chicken farm, and spawned this youth-run market in West Philadelphia, where, on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Malcolm X Park at 52d and Pine Streets, about 20 young people can be found peddling trinkets and treats.

The project was conceived by Ronald Hill, a business professor and faculty director for business ethics at Villanova's Center for Church Management and Business Ethics. Hill said he received a mandate from inmates at the State Correctional Institution-Graterford, where he also teaches.

"I met a lot of men there, many of whom are serving life sentences. Their recommendation to me was: We've got to stem the tide of young men going from our cities to places like Graterford," he said.

Their solution? Show kids an alternative path. Bring them to Villanova to see what college can be, and give them the tools to make money.

The men at Graterford directed Hill to Darryl Goodman, a former inmate there who, after his release, had launched the Public Safety Initiative, a youth-transformation program outside the prison.

In 2012, Goodman and Hill ran a small pilot, which grew into a 15-youth market last summer. This year, more than 50 teens are participating. Hill eventually wants to serve about 200 per year across Philadelphia, Camden, and Chester.

"We want to make sure young people in our city can envision opportunities," Hill said. "We want them to see that there are licit ways they can conduct their lives, and view a more positive future."

Goodman's recruits are drawn from his contacts at Philadelphia's juvenile detention center; others are referrals from his network. Some have faced criminal cases and others have clean records - most have never been out of their neighborhoods. He wants to show them the things he wishes he'd seen at their age.

In June, they spent a day at Villanova, learning about business planning, accounting, and marketing from college professors.

Then, in July, they got their micro-loans, also funded by Villanova.

Goodman demands that parents sign a contract and show up for each market alongside their kids. This Saturday, his bad-cop insistence paid off: 17 out of 21 teens were there to offer their wares.

Inayah Graham, 14, baked Rice Krispies treats, cookies, and elaborately decorated cupcakes with help from family members. She said her whirlwind college education had given her a confidence boost.

"I learned not to be afraid to get out and sell stuff," she said, adding, "Cupcakes are selling fast. They're really good. You should invest in some!"

Up in North Philadelphia, a nonprofit called Reconstruction Inc. started its own version of the market last week: People 18 to 21 could get micro-loans to find their footing as entrepreneurs. Younger teens, most of whom live on the same block of Uber Street, would collaborate on a few start-ups, receiving small weekly stipends.

By last Thursday, the Uber Street kids had decided on selling chips and Gatorade, upcycled clothing, and fresh eggs. The organization's founder, William Goldsby, had given over his own backyard to the latter undertaking.

A few teens showed off the sturdy-looking coop they'd built, filled with clean hay for their nine chickens. They'd had the hens for about five days, but so far had just four eggs to show for it.

Between chicken farming and the Villanova trip, Jamil Blakely, 13, said that he'd already learned a lot about running a business. "I learned it's not easy. You also have to have a great team."

"If you want good eggs, you've got to have everything right for the chickens," he added. "It's like having a dog, but a little more."

Kashmir Alston, 13, said he was participating partly to stay out of trouble; his friends, he admitted, had a propensity for - of all things - egging houses when bored.

Kashmir and Jamil don't dream of corner offices; they're hoping for futures as professional athletes.

For girls, it's harder to figure out what to become, said Shamil Blakely, 14, Jamil's soft-spoken sister. She knows college will be the first step.

"I don't really consider nobody my role model. I'm my own role model," she said. "Most people that's around here, they on drugs and stuff - and the little kids follow their lead."

Goldsby wants to prepare these kids to face all kinds of challenges ahead.

"It's really important for the young people in this group to understand situation management, not just how to start a business," he said. "I want them to be able to change the system they were born into. It's not just about making dollars."

Still, as the teens manned their first refreshment stand at the bustling Jerome Brown Playground, they had more immediate concerns - namely, a woman unloading inventory from a van nearby.

"She got barbecue, she got chips, soda - everything!" one said mournfully.

But program coordinator Deion Morrison reminded them they had something she didn't: "I'm hoping they'll buy from you instead because you're kids."


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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