It is a common maxim among economists, as well as business and political leaders, that creating and nurturing an environment in which entrepreneurship is allowed to flourish can maximize individual and collective economic success, whether it be for a municipality, a state or a nation as a whole.
Fostering and supporting creativity and innovation leading to new products, technologies and businesses can have economic ripple effects that reverberate far beyond the immediate beneficiaries of a successful new entrepreneurial venture.
According to a 2015 National League of Cities publication, “New business creation was viewed by more city leaders as a source of local economic improvement than any other factor.” Additionally, it was noted, “These perceptions of chief elected officials are in line with decades of data that show new and young businesses are the primary source of net new job creation.”
The data is indisputable: Cities that excel in incubating new businesses and, just as importantly, facilitate their successful growth do exceedingly well in important economic categories beyond employment, such as elevated standard of living, bolstered commercial tax base and increased capital flow, along with increased value of local real estate.
Synergized efforts involving local city government, business and educational leaders have led to efforts to facilitate entrepreneurial creativity and sustainability here in the Port City. Startup Weekend Mobile, the University of South Alabama’s Research and Technology Park, Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley’s engineering incubator 2203 and the Exchange 202 shared workspace facility are just a few examples.
But just as importantly, local leaders understand and are investing in planting the seeds of entrepreneurship in Mobile’s young people. A collaboration between the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, USA’s Melton Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovations and the Alabama School of Math and Science has led to the creation of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA) at the latter area high school.
YEA got its start in 2004 at the University of Rochester and has grown into a national program with more than 160 academies around the country. There are several in operation throughout Alabama, including South Baldwin County, but 2015 was Mobile’s inaugural year.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce became YEA’s national sponsor in 2011 and the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce currently sponsors the local academy. Emily McGrath, director of education and workforce development at the Mobile Chamber, said YEA is a perfect fit with the chamber’s overall mission and emphasis on creating opportunities and jobs throughout the greater Mobile area. Fostering entrepreneurial skills such as problem solving, innovation, public speaking and team building is a win-win, not just for individual students but for the community as a whole.
YEA’s classroom instructor, Jennifer Edwards, who is also an instructor in USA’s Mitchell College of Business and director of external projects at the Melton Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovations, noted the curriculum has a strong emphasis on product development so students “gain significant experience in the phases of building businesses and products.” Additionally, “identifying the supply chain markets and targeting the students to focus on developing/selling locally” benefits the community as well.
McGrath credits Alabama School of Math and Science president Dr. Monica Motley and other leaders at the school with being incredibly receptive and supportive of implementation of the program at ASMS. The first class of 13 students graduated the 25-week after-school program toward the end of this past school year.
Collectively they accumulated about $6,000 in startup funds from local area businesses after pitching their ideas to a group of local business leaders. The various presentations marked the end of the 2015-2016 academy and two of the students, Dominique Williams and Isabella Frank, were picked to compete against other student entrepreneurs at the national U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Summit.
Even greater success is expected for the 2016-2017 school year. McGrath noted this year’s weekly classes will be held at Exchange 202, the shared workspace facility located downtown. She elaborated: “YEA also provides us the opportunity to show off the great ecosystem for entrepreneurship that is forming in Mobile … Having the students exposed to such a cool space [Exchange 202], just a mile away from where they go to school, and working alongside the Exchange clients will really help our student entrepreneurs feel like they are a part of something exciting.”
McGrath is also excited about increasing the number of local businesses willing to support the program and having local business leaders serve as mentors.
Although ASMS is known as a predominantly STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) institution, Dr. Motley sees it as a perfect accompaniment to the school’s academic mission. Observing that entrepreneurship, which involves making use of higher-order thinking skills, innovation and leadership, and channeling them toward the successful development of ideas and products are things the school greatly promotes and seeks to develop in all its students.
The proof is there. Although they weren’t able to take part in last year’s inaugural YEA class, ASMS students Robert Cooper and Markell Johnson started their own technology company, Kinesis LLC. Focusing on web design, software development and database creation, the two have already completed a website for one customer and are beginning a software development project while also working on an iPhone app and developing encryption software. Entrepreneurship, given a fertile environment, can be contagious.