While many high school students spend their summer break working for others, the 23 students participating in the Junior Entrepreneurs of Minnesota (JEM) program are being given the tools that will empower them to someday work for themselves.
Now in its third year, the JEM summer program attracts students from throughout the Twin Cities metro area with an emphasis on those from underserved communities, who aspire to improve their academic potential, increase their business skills, and nurture their dreams of one day becoming their own boss.
The program is supported by the Carlson School's Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship and managed by the University's Office for Business and Community Economic Development (BCED).
Selemon Asfaw, director of Youth Entrepreneurship and Leadership Programs for the BCED office, is the lead instructor of the JEM program. He's also a Carlson School undergraduate alum (BSB '09), experienced entrepreneur, investor, and mentor.
"We first of all want to attract students who are interested in entrepreneurship," says Asfaw. "As far as the academic admissions criteria, we do have standards but they don't need a 3.9 GPA to get into the program. We focus a lot more on what's in their heart rather than what's in their head."
During the five week camp (June 13-July 14 this year), students spend Mondays through Thursdays at the Carlson School studying business fundamentals and entrepreneurship under the direction of the school's professors and students, in addition to listening to inspiring accounts from visiting local entrepreneurs such as "Famous" Dave Anderson, Robert Marsh of Synico Staffing, and Tony Williamson of AJASA Technologies. Each week also includes site visits to such businesses as Quality Bicycle Products among others.
"We don't do too much lecturing," Asfaw says of the learning environment. "We do a lot of activities and experiential learning, so they're doing things with their hands so they understand it. We build a foundation, they do an activity, and then they learn it. And the speakers and site visits give them an idea of what their future could look like."
JEM student Cori Garner from DeLaSalle High School is keenly aware of the long-term networking and educational benefits she's gaining from the program.
"I think it's better to start early with business relationships," she says. "If they know that you're serious at an early age, they know that when you get older and you graduate from college they know that you'll be really serious, especially since you have all the tools that you need."
As part of their Friday schedule, students visit the program's partner, St. Olaf Community Center in north Minneapolis, to lend a hand in planning and cultivating the center's sizeable garden. The bounty will benefit those living at center as well as others in the local community.
"It not only teaches the kids issues with food justice, healthy eating, but to also teach the importance of giving back to their community," Asfaw says of the educational goals of the garden project.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the program is to give the students the tools they'll need to eventually realize their dreams of becoming their own boss. And many alums do.
One such alum is Immanuel Jones, a Wayzata High School senior who was empowered by his JEM experience to open his own nonprofit gardening business, EcoCity MN. He also serves as advisor to current students in the program.
"[JEM] really has accelerated my experience, updated my knowledge, and expanded my network of individuals that can help me open up my own organization," says Jones. "We learn a lot of stuff that's very applicable to real-world business.
"It definitely showed me that you can run a garden on a larger scale, especially in the inner-city."
Jones is exactly the kind of entrepreneurial spirit Asfaw seeks to attract to the JEM program.
"It's been really great, because you see students like Immanuel who may or may not have been excited and motivated about school, but here he is today; he's doing much better in school, he's launched his own micro-enterprise," says Asfaw. "So it's really rewarding to see that."
"JEM is a great example of how the University can work together to support the local community," says John Stavig, director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship. "I'm convinced that the earlier you touch these students with this type of experience, the more likely you are to light the fire for their entrepreneurial mindset that is creative, opportunistic, and resourceful."