Teens prepped as future entrepreneurs

As class lets out, North Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High’s hallways, like any school’s, teem wall to wall with chaotic vitality, the boisterous signature of spirited teenagers. It isn’t just any school, though, not one that meets the mainstream notion of wholesome boys and girls being boys and girls, which makes all the difference in the world.

Society doesn’t readily see these brightly animated adolescents as fresh-faced, flowering youth in whom the proverbial sap rises because they’re not suburbanites who are automatically accorded a Norman Rockwell quality of innocence.

(l-r) Christopher Fleming and Gerald Woods (Dwight Hobbes/MSR News)

When these kids hit the streets, they’re subject to a biased lens, no longer protected from the conferred status as living, breathing, walking, talking problems. They are potential threats to the peace. And on graduation, leaving for either college or the workplace, they stand to be viewed on sight as less-than.

While the world and how it views and treats them is not going to change, Patrick Henry empowers them to meet those challenges and more. The spirit of encouragement is right there on the walls. Excerpts from passages by Frederick Douglass, a James Baldwin quote: “Read, read, read. Never stop reading. And when you can’t read anymore…write.” There is a poster announcing an upcoming event at nearby Webber Park with Mahmoud El-Kati and Lissa Jones.

One practical, richly promising means of empowerment that enables budding entrepreneurs is the newly instituted Junior Achievement and Metropolitan Economic Development Association initiative, known as the JA-MEDA Fellows Program.


 “I’m learning a lot. This is something that’s going to build me, help create my future.”


Pilot program mentor Christopher Fleming, the Black male achievement coordinator, appreciates that first and foremost, to reach and resonate with youth (five young women out of the 18 students), they need to feel you respect their minds. “I’m in a place to push the agenda forward to them. As an educator [for] the past 10 years, I’ve seen that students have the desire in them to succeed. We want to make sure our scholars get the tools they need.” That includes particulars like product and market research.

As well, Patrick Henry High provides iPads to aid in the technology of starting and owning a business. Fleming adds, “Sometimes there will be gaps [in their skill set] because of the unfortunate system. A lot of our students aren’t afforded the [right] opportunities. We have to be about fostering that.”

Fleming insisted on the involvement of entrepreneurs of color. “What’s hindering is, society doesn’t show them that. [This] has to be in the interests of our scholars, how it connects to their passion.”

Junior Achievement president-CEO Gina Blayney reflects, “When we approached Christopher Fleming, he said, ‘I’m all in. I want to pilot this with my kids.’ He found seniors, juniors, sophomores [and] a freshman who want to start their own company. He [Fleming] understands. He’s an entrepreneur. This is in his soul, why we’re developing this partnership.”

His passion is one reason students trust him. They appreciate and respond to the simple fact that, instead of just punching the clock, he cares and approaches each student as his or her own individual. Gerald Woods, a Patrick Henry junior, says, “With Mr. Chris, it’s not about being compared to other students. I’m learning a lot. It’s hard not to give him credit because this is something that’s going to build me, help create my future.”

Gerald also benefits from business being in his family. “[This is] a second teaching. My father owns a business and teaches me. Along with this program, I get two pieces of knowledge that pertain to the same thing.”

Fleming stresses the importance of this not being a one-shot opportunity that only benefits one group of students. He emphasizes the value of keeping in place a curriculum that evolves and expands to serve future scholars.

“There has to be longevity because we tend to see programs that last only for a semester or one quarter,” Fleming says. Blayney is on the same page. She attests that once the pilot succeeds and is off and running, “Next year, we’ll open a St. Paul cohort. We’re investing heavily in this.”

The idea of the partnership, Blayney notes, was to leverage the considerable resources and assets of both organizations. “[JA has] great relationships with educators, the kids. We’ve got great programs and curriculum. MEDA has this network [with a history of] hiring successful entrepreneurs of color who also need a pipeline of future [professionals].”

Among executives who’ll interface with program participants are Tashita Tuffaa (Metropolitan Transportation Network), Jawad Behsudi (United Translation Services), Mauris DeSilva (3D Pars) and Elizabeth Sarquis (Jukko).

Volunteers were selected based on students’ specific areas of interest to guide them on vital aspects of starting a business. Their charges will create, market and run an actual company, having the option to continue the company at the program’s conclusion.

Blayney added, “We are layering in mentors who look like them and have already been successful. Together, we’ve created a new model, an innovation to give students opportunities significantly different than what [they] currently have.”

For instance, in addition to sharpening business and career development skills by taking part in JA Job Shadow events at MEDA’s client companies, JA-MEDA Fellows compete for Minnesota JA Company of the Year and intern at a company this summer. “We know from working with [youngsters] they can be entrepreneurial minded but not know how to go about it.”

They certainly will by the time they’ve finished their fellowship. Significantly, graduating as a JA-MEDA Fellow should cut some ice on college and university applications and help smooth the way to entrance interviews.

Gary Cunningham, president-CEO of MEDA, relates that so far as shepherding fledgling entrepreneurs goes, “There isn’t a lot in place. So we needed to help them find out what business is like, including risking failure.” He sums up, “The Junior Achievement- MEDA Fellow program is [a vital] investment in youth.”

Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest has been serving students in Minnesota, North Dakota and western Wisconsin since 1949 and, in 2018, expects to reach upward of 163,000 students in grades K-12 with education in financial literacy, career and college readiness, and entrepreneurship. MEDA, founded by Minnesota business leaders, acts to rectify a chronic, ongoing educational disparity and has helped launch more than 500 minority businesses as well as assisting more than 20,000 Minnesota aspirants to become business owners. Clearly, these institutions grasp that it is smart business to develop business smarts.

Just as clearly, the JA-MEDA Fellows Program at Patrick Henry High School is a powerfully effective means of hands-on strengthening for students to graduate, encounter society on its own terms, and prevail.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403