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Future's So Bright

Put on your shades to check out an inner-city entrepreneurship program and one of its stars.

When you attend an affluent or middle-class school, it's easy enough to imagine yourself in the not-so-distant future, running touchdowns or running a business. But it's difficult to dream when you're in a graffiti-ridden high school, dodging gunfire and gangs on campus. That was the motivation when the nonprofit group Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, or ICIC, started the Growing Up CEO program with Merrill Lynch.

The program annually selects 25 youths age 20 or younger. Those chosen spend two days in Boston at the Inner City 100 Summit, where they mingle with top-notch business gurus and attend seminars.

The hope is that these young entrepreneurs will start companies back home and help revitalize inner cities. Urban areas have a bad image, concedes Deirdre Coyle, ICIC's director of communications, but she cites several advantages to placing a business in the inner city, such as being strategically located near transportation and communication hubs and in the midst of a large population of consumers.

When the contenders were being chosen to attend the first Growing Up CEO workshop in 2005, the organization had a tight deadline and had to rely mostly on other business-oriented nonprofits to point the way to kids. This year, Kate Sage, an analyst at ICIC, has been approaching clergy, guidance counselors and local school boards, searching for deserving and disadvantaged young entrepreneurs.

Growing Up CEO has already been a big help to Joe Willis, now 21, from Springfield, Massachusetts. He was among the first group of 25 winners in the Growing Up CEO program. Today, Willis is the CEO of Quick Fix Gourmet, which sells the Quick Fix Bar, a candy bar he says is made of "mouthwatering chocolate chip cookie dough and rich moist brownies, surrounded by milk chocolate."

We're sold. But so far, Willis isn't selling much of his product beyond his college, friends and family, and he reinvests the $500 to $1,000 he makes each month in his company, currently located in the business incubator at Springfield Technical Community College. Meanwhile, he has one deal worked out to sell his products at a not-yet-opened coffeehouse, and he's approaching other local bistros with the hope that they'll be interested in selling his goodies, too.

For Willis, Growing Up CEO's program was an experience of a lifetime. "The classes they offered--I mean, it's at the Harvard Business School. It was a pretty great two days, with a lot of intense work."

And since leaving the program, Willis has been trading e-mails with a lot of the people he met at the conference, who have referred him to key contacts in the licensing and insurance fields to help build his business. "It's a great program," he says. "Not only do you get inspired and learn, the people you meet are from all over the country."

To nominate someone for the Growing Up CEO program, download the application at www.icic.org. If you have questions or leads on deserving entrepreneurial youth in the inner city, contact Kate Sage via the same website.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Future's So Bright.

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