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Future Entrepreneurs Get Early Start at Columbia College Summer Institute

A group of high school students spent a week of their summer gaining a head start on their future with help from Columbia College’s McNair Center for Entrepreneurism.

The young women, rising 10th-12th graders from Midlands schools, took part in the Step Ahead program, a five day camp in which participants designed their own startup enterprises, learned what it takes to get a business going, and by the end of the week pitched their projects to judges.

“It’s actually gone surprisingly really well,” said participant Jasmine Stewart after delivering her first presentation. “I know if I came up and they were like ‘Oh yeah, present this’ on the first day I wouldn’t be able to do it, but now understanding everything, I feel a lot different and I can do it.”

Jillian Mehta and Kaytlynn Johnson present their startup plan (photo by Allen Wallace).

Jillian Mehta and Kaytlynn Johnson present their startup plan (photo by Allen Wallace).

The week included a visit to the ropes course at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, meetings with women in leadership positions at Wells Fargo and local entrepreneur Shennice Cleckley, and lessons from Columbia College faculty and staff. “It’s been extremely inspiring to see all the women,” Stewart said.

“They know MBA-level language now,” said Christine La Cola, co-director of the McNair Center. The students learned about SWOT analysis and the four P’s of marketing, among many other things. La Cola said the lessons learned will be valuable no matter what career path the young women take.

“They don’t have to want to start a business,” she said. “No matter what, you need to know this.” One lesson, for example, focused on the importance of planning in great detail before launching a project.

Richland Northeast student Kaytlynn Johnson said Cleckley’s visit was her favorite part of the week. Johnson particularly enjoyed Cleckley’s focus on what to do when obstacles arise. “[She] told us about her business and how when you get out of school, you graduate from college, it’s not always what you planned, but you always try to do better and keep on working for your dream,” Johnson said.

Johnson and her partner, Spring Valley student Jillian Mehta, pitched an idea for a business called Color Confident, which would sell clothes and makeup, but would focus on empowerment, encouraging customers not to strive for some arbitrary ideal, but to be what they want to be and look the way they want to look. Their pitch drew applause from their fellow participants, with one student in the audience saying “Will one of you please grow up and do this right now?”

Not all the lessons came in a classroom. The trip to the zoo ropes course focused on taking risks and overcoming fears. “I’m really afraid of heights,” said participant Bree King. “At first I didn’t want to do it at all. So I felt like that really helped me overcome my fear of heights.”

The Step Ahead camp is the result of a partnership between Columbia College’s McNair Center for Entrepreneurism and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a national organization devoted to providing programs that inspire young people to stay in school, to recognize business opportunities and to plan for successful futures.

“You teach them now, and they can pick it up at any point in their lives,” said La Cola, noting that the average age for an entrepreneur is around 35. The excitement of the young women was obvious to any visitor, and their energy was infectious. As La Cola said, “They give you hope.”

More information on the McNair Center for Entrepreneurism and Columbia College’s longstanding and prestigious Summer Institute for high school girls is available here.

Featured image: Bree King and Jasmine Stewart make their pitch (photo by Allen Wallace)


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