Adam Russo says his foray into entrepreneurship wasn't intentional. Opening his own counseling business just sort of happened after years of working as a social worker.
"So many people fall into this by accident," said Russo, who now has owned and operated Edgewood Clinical Services in the Naperville area for nine years. "Everyone learns on the fly."
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That won't be the case for 24 students enrolled in Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a 30-week program the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce is offering for the first time. The program harnesses a university-developed curriculum and the real-life experiences of entrepreneurs to train youths about the financial, legal and practical skills needed to launch a business.
Among the first participants are twin high school freshmen who want to corner the middle-school tutoring market, an eighth-grader hoping to launch a twist on a fitness center featuring dodgeball and obstacle courses, and a sixth-grader developing a lotion stick to make winter hand moisturizing a lot less messy.
By the time students complete the program, they all will have the chance to launch a company, file an assumed business name form, start a real business bank account, make a pitch to angel investors and sell their goods or services.
"We've never really run a business before," said Sushil Upadhyayula, a freshman at Neuqua Valley High School who hopes to start a middle school math tutoring service with his twin brother, Pranav. "So first we have to learn all those skills."
Young Entrepreneurs Academy was developed at the University of Rochester and now is being used in about 100 cities, including Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Lake Zurich, Mount Prospect and Palatine. It employs a broad definition of entrepreneurship to teach students how to transfer an idea into an enterprise that creates value.
The program is in its second year in Des Plaines, where chamber of commerce Executive Director Barbara Ryan said it benefits students and area business people. She said the business plans students develop are robust enough they could be taken to any bank as part of a loan application, and one student last year finished with a patent for a plastic shoelace-guard he created to prevent soccer players from being injured by other athletes' cleats.
"(The students) are getting a full education about business and cost of goods and then they're getting educated about how to market it," Ryan said. "It's a very good way to bring the business community into the community."
The Naperville chamber began the program this year because members were looking for a meaningful way to celebrate the organization's 100th anniversary, said Mike Evans, president and CEO.
"To us, that's creating a new class of business leaders," he said.
The chamber bought a copy of the Young Entrepreneurs curriculum and then began recruiting business leaders such as Russo and Rick Kostopoulos of NewGen Business Solutions to help teach it.
"The younger the kids start, the better they're going to be," Kostopoulos said.
Each community that participates in the academy brings in professionals in fields such as law, insurance, marketing, graphic design and web design to help students develop a business plan, perfect their pitch, court investors and attract customers.
"Our businesses are going to teach them those real-life experiences," Evans said.
One highlight comes in March, Ryan said, when a panel of local sponsors doles out seed money to each budding business, but not before challenging students to knock their socks off with a presentation about why they deserve the most funding.
"They all put up money and it's kind of like a mini 'Shark Tank,'" Ryan said, referring to the ABC reality showin which startup business operators pitch a panel of celebrity investors in search of quick cash. "Our investors aren't as tough as the 'Shark Tank' guys."
The investors panel in each community also chooses a local winner, who will travel to Rochester, N.Y., to compete in a national Young Entrepreneurs contest for possible scholarship money, said Jon Ridler, executive director of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce. Last year's Arlington Heights competitor placed fourth in the nation, he said, for her "fuzzy bank" idea that combines a piggy bank with a stuffed animal.
"We're hoping she's going to really launch the business and continue to have sales," Ridler said.
Cat Bradley hates that slimy feeling of freshly moisturized hands, but she knows she needs lotion during the dry winter months. The idea that earned the Jefferson Junior High sixth-grader a spot in Naperville's Young Entrepreneurs Academy is a lotion stick that removes drippy or sticky feelings from the equation.
"You can just put it in the places that you need it and it would make it easier to travel," Cat said.
She and about 80 other middle school and high school students from Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204 applied for the program, but chamber leaders only could accept 24. They whittled the field using an essay, letters of recommendation and in-person interviews.
Saloni Garg, a seventh-grader at Still Middle School, said her application highlighted a carnival she ran last year, setting up games for her neighbors to raise money for the nonprofit organization Feed My Starving Children. Now, she's using her spot in the academy to work on a dual-temperature blanket for all seasons.
"You can make it warm or cold based on what you want," Saloni said.
Other students may have impressed with the novelty of their ideas, like a vending machine charging users a small fee to trade unused gift cards for ones they actually want, or a line of ultimate Frisbee apparel.
Cat developed a pitch book for her lotion stick, snapping photos that look straight out of an infomercial showing a friend in the throes of a slimy lotion-hand dilemma, frowning as she tries to put on a coat or talk on the phone.
"We're curious to see how the ideas change by the end of the 30 weeks," said Cat's father, Chris Bradley.
Parents of Young Entrepreneurs participants in Naperville pay $395 and commit their child to attending every three-hour Thursday night session. The classes are free for the six middle school students participating this year in Des Plaines, thanks to a grant from Rivers Casino, but the commitment is the same.
Parents like Cat's mother Jennifer Uhrin and Saloni's mother Monika Singbal say they hope their children become more savvy consumers, learn to network, build confidence and gain appreciation for independent business owners.
"She will have a feel of how good or how stressful a business can be," said Singbal, herself the owner of two restaurants in Carpentersville.
The programs began last week with orientation and are set to conclude in May with a trade show introducing the students' ventures to potential customers. Any money students make through their businesses is theirs to keep -- no Monopoly money here.
Evans said the real-life nature of the program helps parents learn how to respond to what may be the beginnings of the next big business.
"When your kid has that crazy idea, don't brush it off," he said. "We need our community to foster that spirit of innovation in our students."