Program helps teens launch businesses

photo Mentor Match participants celebrate their success in Seattle. From left: Bette Rooney, Katelynn Sidoti, Eyreus Rooney, Nathan Perren, and Mackenzie Gray.

A new crop of ambitious juniors and seniors in the county will have a chance to become successful entrepreneurs in their own right, and learn directly from other successful entrepreneurs and business professionals, as the Mentor Match youth entrepreneur program enters its sixth year.

The program requires participants to create and launch their own for-profit business, and pursue product development, market research, building a customer base, and managing finances. The program is funded and administered by Building Healthy Families, an Enterprise-based nonprofit that provides a variety of services to the community including tutoring and mentoring.

Recent participant Eyreus Rooney, a rising senior at Enterprise, teamed up with her twin sister Bette to form Four Paws Pet Services, an in-home pet sitting service that also makes and sells dog treats and sold them through several local retailers. “I learned that I can go out of my comfort zone,” said Eyreus, about being an entrepreneur. “I learned how to work with business owners, and I learned not to be afraid to try new things.” The Rooney twins won Top Producer for the 2014-15 year, and continue to operate Four Paws.

Other participants learned the hard way that being your own boss isn’t as easy as it looks. “We celebrate failure as much as success,” said advisor Stacy Green. “The focus is on creating something with the resources you have, and seeing what you can accomplish. There is a lot to learn from failing, and there’s no shame in it. The goal is to try things, and learn as you go.”

A highlight of the program is the annual Leadership & Innovation Tour in June to Seattle, where participants stay in a downtown hostel, and visit world-class businesses like Nordstrom, Microsoft, and the original Starbucks. This year, the group was treated to a VIP Tour of Microsoft headquarters just outside Seattle, where four Microsoft employees in a variety of jobs talked about how they came to work at Microsoft, and what it’s like to work there.

“Everyone was so nice and easy to talk to,” said Mackenzie Gray, who served as president of this year’s club.

Rachel Mclean, an associate buyer for the men’s shoe department of the flagship Nordstrom department store in downtown Seattle showed off the new “girlfriend” dressing room in the junior department, a large room where girls can bring their friends to shop for special occasions like Prom. The 26-year-old Mclean spent two years at Eastern Oregon University before transferring to Seattle Pacific University and majoring in fashion merchandising. She shared what it’s like to work alongside the Nordstrom brothers, who are still actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, one of the most respected retailers in the country.

“It managed to hold my interest,” said Nathan Perren, the only male in the group, about the tour. “I learned a lot goes into a department store that you don’t even realize.”

One of the long-term objectives of the program is to introduce students to the idea of business and entrepreneurship as a career/educational choice. “We want to let kids know being your own business owner is a viable way to make a living,” said Green. “And we want to encourage business skill development, in key areas like accounting, computer science, management, and sales/marketing, because our local businesses need those skills to grow.”

Going into its sixth year, the program can show some progress. Many former participants are pursuing business and economics in college, and several have worked in local internships in accounting, marketing and computer science; some have even launched businesses.

After winning Top Producer in 2013-2014 with his scrap metal business, Metal Man, Nikolai Christoffersen started making custom wood cutting boards. That effort earned him a scholarship, and the article in the local paper caught the attention of Williams College, where he will begin this fall. The college printed the piece in their newsletter, and orders came in.

Matt Perren, a first-year participant, worked as an accounting intern at Edison Perry & Company in Enterprise this summer. He will get his accounting degree from Eastern in 2016. Since graduating from Enterprise High in 2011, Perren has been working on launching a sunglasses company. Verbal Optics is now on Facebook, and product will soon be available.

Former students John Green and Sarah Madsen tried their hands in local businesses this summer as well. Green, a second-year computer science major, worked full time at Winding Waters Clinic in Enterprise as their IT (Information Technology) associate. Madsen worked at Bird Dog Signs in Enterprise, learning about graphic design and marketing.

“Our original long-term objective was to show high school students they could start their own business or develop a skill set that a business owner wants to hire,” said Green. “We wanted to show our kids that there are opportunities here in Wallowa County, and how to tap into those. I think we’re making some progress.”

Maria Weer, executive director of Building Healthy Families, seems to agree. “Building Healthy Families is thrilled to continue our long-term partnership with the Youth Entrepreneurship program. Each year, we are impressed by what Stacy and her students bring to the table and are eager to share with the community and our funders the exciting achievements of the young entrepreneurs in our community,” Weer said.

The mandatory introductory meeting for the Mentor Match program will be Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. It will take place at Building Healthy Families, located in the former nursing home, across the street from the Big Brown Church in Enterprise. For more information, contact Green at 541-398-2314.

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