Photo: Angela and Dylan Rakestraw (left) smile for a photo with Jacob and Jennifer Fitts (right) at Attalla Elementary’s Young Entrepreneur Fair.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
Attalla Elementary School hosted its first ever Young Entrepreneur Fair Monday, Dec. 16, with great success. Fifth-grade students operated their own businesses, selling products to their peers and community. Clustered at tables and booths in the gymnasium, the students offered a variety of enticing consumer goods like homemade ornaments, jewelry, slime and raffle tickets.
Attalla’s fair follows Highland Elementary’s participation in the same event, which serves as the finale of an eight-week curriculum that educates students on small business ownership, highlighting realities like product cost, profit margins and marketing methods. The program, sponsored by The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County, allows students to start their businesses with their own money, borrow money from a relative or borrow from a program-provided seed fund (up to $20 per student). If the students must borrow money, they sign a mock promissory note agreeing to pay that money back, plus 10 percent interest. In addition to paying a 10 percent interest fee, students must also pay 10 percent to their school to rent booth space. The fees collected for booth rental and loan interest are designated to support the classroom for any materials the teacher may need throughout the year.
“The curriculum outlines gross profit and net profit,” said Heather Brothers New, president and CEO of The Chamber. “After the student pays back their loan, the loan interest and the booth fee, they’re allowed to keep their profit.”
AES fifth-grade teacher Mandy Streefkerk prepared her students for every possible outcome of the experience. Streefkerk’s classroom began with lessons on sole ownership and partnership. She taught her students the “what-ifs” small business owners battle, like the possibility of making no profit. Working on the entrepreneur fair once a week, her students shared ideas with one another and weighed the pros and cons of collaborating with their peers versus working by themselves. From the moment Streefkerk introduced the curriculum, her students were engaged, responsive and interested in what they were learning.
“They wanted to work on it every day instead of one day a week like we were doing,” Streefkerk said. “The more I let them have control, the better the ideas became. It’s been amazing what they’ve been able to do.”
Once Streefkerk’s students decided on an idea, they surveyed the school to determine whether or not that idea would sell. All business ideas that Streefkerk’s students promoted received positive feedback.
Her students created flyers and hung them around the school and sent out emails and invitations to market their businesses and promote the fair.
Fifth-graders Bela Miranda and Chloe LeCroy partnered together for their business, that sold out of their products, slime and bath bombs, before lunch. LeCroy shared that her favorite parts of the entrepreneur fair were creating “stuff” for others and seeing customers happy with her products. Miranda’s favorite aspects of the entrepreneur fair were partnership and collaboration. “The fun part about this is being able to do it with my best friend,” said Miranda.
Despite learning the challenges small business owners must overcome and facing some of these challenges themselves, the students were not deterred from putting their knowledge into practice. Most confessed that after this experience, they hope to start their own businesses when they grow up, or further develop the businesses featured at the fair. Zariauna Jones, who designed jewelry for the fair, wished to add donuts to her future business, while several students planned to offer hair and nail services to clients.
One student has a slightly different aspiration for his future. While Dylan Rakestraw (pictured above) enjoyed making and selling wooden ornaments with his friends and family, entrepreneurship might not become one of his long-term goals.
“I want to be a football player for Auburn or Alabama,” Rakestraw said. “A wide receiver.”
The entrepreneur fair is one component of The Chamber’s larger initiative, Partnering for Prosperity, which is a five-year initiative with an overall goal of raising $1 million dollars to fund several different strategic actions within the Gadsden and Etowah County Community. Partnering for Prosperity’s economic plan includes incubation and entrepreneurship, business-driven talent development, partnering with public education, existing business growth and retention and innovation. The incubation facet of the initiative develops a coworking space in downtown Gadsden where individuals can rent workspace for business related ventures. In addition, the initiative plans to host a small business startup weekend to support existing endeavors and offer educational programs to teach interested individuals about the realities of business ownership and available opportunities in the Etowah County area. Partnering for Prosperity wants to foster entrepreneurship and innovation at a young level, such as with the fifth-graders at Attalla Elementary, with the goal of expanding this interest in business to eight-graders and high schoolers.
Gadsden City Councilman Jason Wilson spoke of a troubling statistic concerning the Gadsden and Etowah County area. According to Wilson, only approximately 25 percent of Etowah County students who attend college earn a degree.
“What that means is, it came from a good place, but for years we’ve forced kids into that college model.” said Wilson. “Now, with the increasing cost of college and couple with that statistic, are we really putting our kids in the best position to succeed by demanding that they go to college?”
Whether or not Etowah County students choose to attend college, Partnering for Prosperity hopes that its efforts will enlighten students to all the opportunities concerning career paths in entrepreneurship or business, and expose them to innovative and creative ways to earn a living.
“It’s really a comprehensive effort to change the culture in Gadsden around entrepreneurship,” said Wilson.
The Young Entrepreneur Fair creates that culture early, instilling in children from a young age the opportunities they have to become successful entrepreneurs. By the time the fifth-graders at Attalla Elementary graduate high school, Partnering for Prosperity hopes to provide them with an incubation space where their businesses can continue to grow.
Jonathan Tang, The Chamber Chair Elect, highlighted that if the Attalla Elementary students continued educating themselves about entrepreneurship, they could graduate high-school with nearly a decade of business experience.
“Now it’s creating a culture within Gadsden and Etowah County to say, ‘You can stay here to be an entrepreneur,’” said Tang.
Following the Young Entrepreneur Fair’s success at Highland and Attalla Elementary, The Chamber hopes to sponsor fairs for three more schools after Christmas and plans to make the Young Entrepreneur Fair an annual event.