Students testing business solutions to problems in their communities

Students participating in the nonprofit CEOs of Tomorrow program are coming up with money-making ideas to solve real problems in their communities.

“It’s interesting, the depth of the social issues that are selected by these young people, clearly showing that these aren’t just adult issues,” said Roxie Hentz, the program’s founding executive director. “When we as adults move out of the way of our young people, the possibilities become endless.”

One group of youth entrepreneurs wanted to address the “school-to-prison pipeline” for children of color, Hentz said.

They named their summer project Break the Pipe, and sold customized sweatshirts and pencil pouches in the summer of 2017. They also donated a percentage of their profits to the Goodman Community Center to support their educational efforts related to this issue.

“And then [students] had educational workshops — which was quite amazing — to help people understand the school to prison pipeline, their role in it, and the impact on education,” Hentz said.

Break the Pipe sold 59 hoodies, 68 pencil pouches and donated $167 in school supplies. The students involved shared $786 in profits.

Madison-based CEOs for Tomorrow is in its second year, after several short-term youth projects were tested in 2017. Many students earn college credit, and most projects donated a portion of their proceeds.

From fourth-graders to high-schoolers, youth participants all created and developed revenue-generating ideas. With these pilot tests, participants demonstrate the potential of business ideas centered around social entrepreneurship.

“One idea that I found to be the most touching is the Hope Box,” Hentz said. “We had a group of four high school students who wanted to address homelessness.”

The students started researching potential issues to address, before reaching out to the YWCA as their first community partner. They found that homeless people living in transitional, temporary housing often have an unmet need for cleaning supplies.

“You’d think it would be something different, like food or clothing perhaps,” Hentz said. But she said it can be especially difficult for homeless people to prioritize buying cleaning supplies, noting “it’s usually one of the last things in a list of needs — after food and clothing and so forth — but definitely essential.”

Students sold Hope Boxes containing these supplies to homeless families for $10 each. In 2017, 24 boxes were hand-delivered by those high schoolers to residents of the downtown YMCA in shelter programs. At the end of the program, $89 in profits was shared back with the student participants.

“This particular group of young entrepreneurs were all male,” she said. “They were delivering to largely women and children… The emotion that was expressed by the families, the women, the moms for those boxes was tremendous.”

Another test business, Helping Kids Be Kids, distributed $732 to student participants after selling customized T-shirts and bracelets. Ten percent of the profits were given to the American Children’s Hospital Carbone Cancer Center.

“Kids have addressed childhood cancer, childhood hunger, poverty, disabilities, animal abuse,” Hentz added. “All kinds of issues have been addressed as a result of these young people and their brilliance in thinking about business and how they can affect their communities.”

Listen to a recent podcast with Hentz:  

See the CEOs for Tomorrow 2017 report:

–By Alex Moe