ENTERPRISE — If small business is the backbone of rural communities, the future lies in entrepreneurship. For a decade, Wallowa County teens have had the opportunity to learn how to run their own business through the Mentor Match program.
Marketing whiz Stacy Green, of Enterprise, said that shortly after she moved to Wallowa County in the early 2000s she saw a mass exodus of young families. Meanwhile, her kids’ babysitters all wanted to study early childhood education, but Wallowa County school enrollment was plummeting and teachers were being laid off.
“The message to teenagers was the place was dying and it wasn’t going to change,” she said.
When it came to careers, Green said many kids on a college path considered education, while others looked into fields such as health care, auto and truck repair, cooking or beauty school. Occasionally a kid would look at becoming an engineer, but no one was considering computer science, business or marketing.
Meanwhile, local businesses were looking for people to fill human resources, accounting, management and sales positions. It became evident, Green said, that more teens needed to get interested in business and entrepreneurship because that’s where most of the career opportunities in Wallowa County were.
“We need to change what we say to kids, show them what opportunities are here and help them plug into them,” she said.
The teens who have completed Mentor Match ranged from valedictorians to those struggling academically. What Green said she instills in them is that there is a whole world out there and there are great opportunities if they have a competitive spirit and the ability to adapt.
Mentor Match has no grades associated with it, so it removes that fear, and no theory or business principles are taught. Green said the teens learn skills that a business or organization wants to “buy.”
“We are trying to put them in an experience of owning and running their own business so it will click for them,” she said.
Green said in today’s business climate, dominated by restrictions in place to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever adaptability is essential.
“Adapting to changing circumstances is a critical skill needed to survive over the long term and we teach that by having the kids start their own businesses,” she said. “They learn they have to deal with a situation or obstacle by removing it or adapting it.”
For instance, Green said, when Mentor Match students develop their business ideas they have to keep in mind barriers like whether or not they can drive or will have access to a car.
Having to adapt is a requirement for an entrepreneur and one of the important things teens learn, Green said.
“I ask them, ‘How do you pivot when things aren’t working or you are hit with a crazy situation?’ ”
When adaptive measures don’t work, sometimes a business completely fails. Green said the teens learn how to fail fast, fail forward and fail successfully.
Failing fast, Green said, is acknowledging something isn’t going to work. Failing forward means applying the experience to the next effort. Failing successfully means to keep trying until a business model works.
“Most people give up and say, ‘I wasn’t cut out to be an entrepreneur,’ ” Green said. “We help them retrace their steps and teach that failing is part of the process.”
Showing the success of the program, Green said more than 30% of past participants are back in Wallowa County, most working in the business community.
Shelby Graning Eggart is a former Mentor Match participant who owns her own business, Roots Salon in Joseph. She said the program allowed her to be creative.
“I learned that no matter how big or small your business is, it is stressful, it takes a lot of planning and hard work and determination to make your dream a reality,” she said. “But every second and action put into it is worth it when you get to see your name on the business you created from the ground up.”
As for starting her own salon, she said Mentor Match laid the foundation.
“I don’t think there is anything more powerful than knowing the ups and downs in life have brought you to becoming a business owner due to lessons learned and hard work, putting in the time was definitely worth it,” she said.
The Wallowa County Mentor Match program will be conducted in-person this year, but the isolation due to the pandemic and ever-increasing dependence on the Internet prompted Green to develop a totally online version for other counties to use.
“The internet is how information is being delivered,” she said. “The virus forced me to adapt and quickly. I think it will permanently alter the way we do business.”