Planting seeds for local youth-driven enterprise


Growing up in south county, you are more likely to meet up with your friends at an independent cinema and go for a locally made ice cream than you are to hang out at the mall. Your summer job is probably with a small nonprofit, local retail shop, farm or restaurant. You are fortunate enough to be surrounded by a strong culture of independent businesses and a robust network of community banks.

These local businesses are constantly giving back to the community. They purchase their supplies from other local businesses, pay taxes to the town to support our roads and schools, make donations and give gift certificates to school projects and nonprofits, and the profits earned stay here, where the owners live. Community banks contribute in similar ways; they make loans to local businesses and give grants to local initiatives. Local bankers have the interests of the community at heart because it is their community, too. You might not even realize how unusual our community is until you leave Berkshire County to go to college or travel.

Despite the success of our local business community, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has pointed out that the Berkshire economy is experiencing a trend away from middle-class jobs and towards lower-wage jobs in the service sector which, combined with high housing costs, makes it difficult for the region to retain its young people. Berkshire County has seen the median age of residents rise from 30.7 to 44.7 between 1970 and 2010. And, in the same period, the population decreased from 149,402 to 131,219 people.

How can we offer Berkshire County’s young people the kind of economic opportunities that will allow them to stay and make a life here? Do we have to mix up a special formula of nightlife and high-tech jobs? Well, that might help. But, in fact, it might only be a question of better organizing the resources we already have – with an eye to our common purpose – to build a system of support for the regenerative businesses that we need to keep our region vibrant. This winter, a coalition of organizations from southern Berkshire County has been experimenting with one initiative that attempts to do just that.

Starting in January, BerkShares Inc., Railroad Street Youth Project, the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, and Berkshire Community College’s South County Center have partnered to offer an Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship through the Railroad Street Apprenticeship Program. This has been a new opportunity for area youth to develop business skills and learn about entrepreneurship, while going through the process of writing a business plan.

To be sure, entrepreneurship is the hot topic around the country. As corporations are busy downsizing and offshoring, communities are seeking to mitigate the effects of this growing job insecurity by encouraging young people to build their own businesses. In a message very much in tune with the American Dream, young people are encouraged to “follow your passion” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But there are gaps in this approach. First, what kinds of businesses do we want these new entrepreneurs to start? Second, starting a business is extremely risky. Where will the entrepreneurs find the support they need to make their venture succeed? Third, what are the multiple ways (not only financial) that the community can invest in the businesses and entrepreneurs that they believe in? Instead of placing all of the burden on young entrepreneurs, can we create “crowd-sourced” businesses?

These are some of the concerns that we have tried to address in the design of the Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship. Though participating students were asked to write their own business plans, they were all encouraged to start from the same question: “What products do we currently import to the Berkshire region that we could produce ourselves by employing the human and natural resources that surround us?” Our 10 students, who ranged in age from 15 to 24, had no trouble imagining many different import-replacing businesses. Some of the products and services that they identified as missing from our area are sugar-free popsicles, honey mead, natural soaps, and energy snack bars, along with a compost pick-up service and a teen-focused retail shop.
In addition, we have taken a collaborative approach to the Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship’s instruction. Each class period during the eight-week course has featured a different guest speaker, allowing our students to learn from a number of experts from among our business community. For example, the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network put together a special “fundamentals of business” training for our class, taught by senior business advisors Nancy Shulman and Keith Girouard (who also developed the framework that the students used to write their business plans).

Many other local business people also gave generously of their time, offering our students a diversity of skills and viewpoints. Speakers included Caroline Correia, who runs Sweet Caroline Wools; Olivia Cobb, co-owner of Treyson Racin’; bookkeeper Michael Snyder; the Magic Fluke Company’s own Phyllis Webb; and commercial lenders Sierra King and Joseph Law from Salisbury Bank. Billie Best, president of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, shared her expertise in marketing, while writer and entrepreneur Erik Bruun and retired businessman Howard Lefenfeld both offered the students their advice and feedback based on their own successes and missteps over the years.

For an end product, we asked the entrepreneurial apprentices for two things. First, to hand in a business plan with an outline of their business model, target market, their own skills in the area, and an outline of the venture’s financial model. Students got feedback on these plans from a group of business plan reviewers including Betsy Andrus of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Will Conklin of Greenagers, Elizabeth Hamilton from Peter Fasano Fabrics, and Brian Hailes from the board of BerkShares, among others.

Second, apprentices were asked to present their idea at a public forum so that the broader community could join in the conversation about these and other potential businesses that are needed in our local economy. In preparing the students to give their final presentations, Erik Bruun encouraged them to address the basic question: “What is the underlying magic of your business?” He also lauded them for their willingness to imagine what is possible – as well as their courage to go out on a stage and talk about it.

On April 14, the underlying magic of the Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship became apparent at Dewey Hall in Sheffield as the students presented their business plans to a group of parents, friends, businesspeople and educators. As each young person presented their idea, the imagination and courage that they brought to the process clearly underscored the program’s goals. After all, without these ingredients, how else are we going to create the kind of economy that we want to see?

One student receives award of 250 BerkSharesTo thank the young entrepreneurial apprentices for their effort, the Schumacher Center for a New Economics awarded each participant 200 BerkShares to support the start-up of their proposed enterprise. And, if students decide not to pursue their business ideas, they will donate the plans to a library of ideas for Berkshire-based businesses, to be stored on the website as a resource for any aspiring entrepreneurs. Inspired by the idea, a donor from outside the region added 50 BerkShares to each student’s prize, making it 250 BerkShares total. His hope is that this year’s class will serve as a prototype for more like it.

This winter’s Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship may have only counted a handful of young people among its graduates, but it also brought together a coalition of business owners, educators and citizens who proved themselves dedicated to the building a new economic development model in the Berkshires. We have already started signing up students and mentors for next year. Add your name to the list!

This op-ed piece written by Alice Maggio was published in the May 2015 edition of the Berkshire Trade & Commerce