Young Business Owners Look To Each Other For Support And Inspiration

By Mai Hoang Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) 19 year old entrepreneur Chelann Gienger recently launched a podcast called "Entrepreneur Before 25" which, as its' name suggests, features a weekly interview with an entrepreneur who started a business prior to age 25. She hopes to bring young people together to exchange ideas, support one another and encourage business ownership.

YAKIMA, Wash.

At 19, Chelann Gienger is already living her dream -- running a business.

Last year, she and several business partners opened NUYU Juice Bar, a juice and smoothie shop at 2209 Nob Hill Blvd. in Yakima.

The move put Gienger on a completely different path than many others her age. While she has plenty of support from her entrepreneurial-minded family, she desires support from others her age who are on a similar path.

"I was super frustrated there wasn't an easy way to connect with those like-minded people,"she said.

She believes Entrepreneur Before 25, a weekly podcast she launched last month, will change that. Each episode features an interview with an entrepreneur who started a business prior to age 25.

"There is something powerful about hearing the stories (from others) who are facing the same things you are at the same level you are," she said.

Eager for the camaraderie and guidance of their peers, Gienger and other young local entrepreneurs have worked to build community among themselves -- a challenge since fewer people their age have made the leap.

Though there is heavy media coverage of notable young entrepreneurs -- think Mark Zuckerberg, who started Facebook while he was at Harvard University -- the percentage of new entrepreneurs between ages 20 and 34 has fallen from 34.3 percent in 1996 to 24.7 percent in 2014, according to data from the Kauffman Foundation, the Kansas City, Mo.-based organization providing research on entrepreneurship.

The data doesn't explain why fewer young people are pursuing entrepreneurship, though there are theories. One prominent one is that burdening student debt made it less compelling to take on additional risk.

Bill Provaznik, director of the Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship and associate professor in management at Central Washington University, said the unknowns and uncertainty that come with starting a business may not mesh with younger individuals who are accustomed to having their lives planned out.

"Thirty years ago, you just go out and do something and see what happens," he said. "(Now) you don't get to really experiment."

For the last year, Provaznik and several other business professors at Central have tested out an entrepreneurial track in which students would not only learn about starting a business but also make it a reality. The effort is a precursor to a formal entrepreneurship minor in the works, Provaznik said.

Provaznik invited students taking a management class last fall to participate in the track. About 40 decided to take the classes, including a product management class in which students learned to develop products to solve different problems. Now a dozen students are taking an independent study this summer requiring them to start a business and making at least one sale by September.

"We're trying to get young people confident and try new things," Provaznik said.

In high school, Sydney Edmundson knew working for someone else wasn't for her. After a brief stint in retail, she spent the rest of her high school years running a clothing business on eBay with her boyfriend, Ivan Villarreal.

When Edmundson started taking business classes, the 20-year-old junior from Tukwila saw that her classmates were focused on securing steady jobs at companies such as Amazon or Boeing.

"I feel my goals are different," she said.

Enrolling in Provaznik's entrepreneurial track provided Edmundson a path to realizing a key goal -- come September, she and Villarreal, 22, will launch Temptitos, a mobile food cart serving what they call The Crunch King, their version of a popular dessert served in Mexico. The couple ate the dessert -- a vanilla cookie Edmundson describes as a cross between a crepe and a waffle cone that is filled with toppings, such as Nutella, peanut butter or marshmallow, and rolled up -- while visiting Villarreal's family in Mexico and have spent the last two years trying to re-create the recipe.

For Edmundson, the entrepreneurship track didn't only speed up her plans but also provided the support network she needed.

When she and Villarreal presented their concept at a business plan competition organized at Central, she said, her classmates came to cheer them on. They won the competition, which included a $5,000 cash prize.

"All the people we connected at Central have been through these courses," she said. "A lot of the people who have tried the product (prototypes, were people) who sat next to me in the class."

Successful entrepreneurs still need to -- and do -- reach out to experienced business owners, but it's not unusual for this generation of entrepreneurs to put just as much, if not more, priority on building a network of like-minded entrepreneurs, Provaznik said

"They're skeptical about doing things the old way," he said. "They want the insights of people around them that they trust."

Indeed, the small network of young business owners in downtown Ellensburg was a draw to Jaime Gutierrez when he opened his barber shop, Northwest Barbershop, two years ago.

After working in various jobs after graduating from the University of Washington, Gutierrez decided to go to barber school and open his own shop. He looked at different communities, including Toppenish, where he grew up, and Seattle, before settling on downtown Ellensburg.

"We just learn from each other -- everyone is on a first-name basis," the 27-year-old Gutierrez said. "You get that sense of community."

Just months before Gutierrez opened his barber shop, Megan West and her husband, Jared, opened Claim Clothing in the same building.

West's first taste of business came when she was tasked to develop a clothing boutique at the Wildcat Shop, Central's college bookstore. She started out with a table of jewelry and a single clothing rack. As the boutique grew, so did her interest in running a business.

In 2013, she faced deciding what to do after graduating with a degree in apparel, textiles and merchandising. Ultimately, she and her husband decided to open a clothing shop, though he was more enthusiastic about the idea, she said.

"I was the scared one, I was the one afraid of rejection and afraid of the hurdles," said West, now 25.

And they did go through several obstacles -- including getting rejected by about a dozen lenders for a business loan. The couple's young age, which meant they had little collateral, scared some lenders.

But that problem now seems minimal when compared with the success West has seen in the last two years, including winning the Enterprise Challenge, a business plan competition co-organized by economic development organizations in Yakima and Kittitas counties, and being named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Washington Main Street Program in 2015.

West had a number of mentors and people who helped her along the way, but she finds value in working with other young entrepreneurs, such as Gutierrez, in downtown Ellensburg.

"We have all these younger people wanting to be the best. ... It seems we're all very like-minded, which makes it fun to bounce off ideas," said West, noting she finds many older business owners stuck in their ways.

West also found community in a Facebook group called Twenty Something and Killing It. She loves sharing ideas with the group and enjoys the opportunity to dive deeper into some of those ideas.

"It's incredibly inspiring," she said.

Four years ago, Samantha McFarlen, the Facebook group's administrator, dropped out of college. She was not getting much out of her business classes and decided to seize the opportunity to start a photography business. The Yakima-based businesswoman hasn't looked back.

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