Young entrepreneurs want to boost businesses in Austin

It’s a common refrain on Chicago’s West and South sides: There aren’t enough jobs for young people, especially males ages 16 to 24. A new retail cooperative launching this month in Austin aims to change that.

Eight young adults — supported by the Westside Health Authority — are the first members of the newly formed Young Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow (Y.E.T.). Their goal isn’t just creating more jobs but also empowering their community, reducing crime and providing a safe environment for shoppers, said Micheal Clark, 22.

Y.E.T. will hold the first in a series of pop-up markets on Jan. 19 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Westside Health Authority’s youth development center, 5437 W. Division St. The cooperative also will be organizing and managing mobile retail carts at key West Side locations, and representing local businesses at various community events.

“A lot of people want to give back to the community but don’t really know how,” Clark said. And local businesses need more support to thrive. “We can help fill that void by working with business owners in Austin.”

Micheal Clark, 22, is one of eight participants in the just launched Young Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow program in Austin. Clark has his own clothing line, Fla$h Mobb Apparel. | Suzanne McBride/Sun-Times

Clark and the seven other village fellows, as they’re called, just completed 12 weeks of training during which they learned business basics such as how to network as well as life lessons like there’s more power in working together than alone. It was during the training that Laurentio Howard Jr., 26, realized “this could be really big.”

“I learned some things that I was good at and some things I wasn’t good at,” Howard said. “ We have eight different people who are part of this coop with eight different stories. … When we bring all that together, it can be very impactful.”

That’s what Westside Health Authority COO Quiwana Bell believes.

“Everything we do here is about building capacity,” Bell said. It’s not just about offering services but allowing people in the community to offer their gifts and take advantage of the assets already here, she said.

There’s a great deal of disposable income in Austin that gets spent elsewhere every day, Bell said. “They’re not spending it here; they’re spending it in Oak Park, in Oak Brook and in North Riverside.” That’s why the young entrepreneur program is needed, Bell said.

Y.E.T. stems from the Westside Health Authority’s Good Neighbor campaign, which launched in October 2016 in the midst of an especially violent period in Chicago. At the time, city officials said the answer was more police officers and youth mentors, Bell recalls.

But when the nonprofit surveyed local residents, they heard different suggestions, including more opportunity for young men and the need for people of all ages to connect with another. That’s what led to Y.E.T.

Demetrius Brooks, one of two people who led the entrepreneurs’ training, said each participant faces challenges both in and out of the workplace. That’s why he pushed them hard, often telling them, “I need you to win.”

When Brooks, senior pastor of Revelations of Christ Kingdom Ministries and founder and CEO of We Are Light Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to tackling poverty, was recruiting the seven men and one woman, he looked for people who were willing to apply business lessons to the rest of their lives.

Terrand Smith, founder and CEO of 37 Oaks Consulting, said she had to make sure the group developed an entrepreneurial mindset. “You can’t get that from a PowerPoint. … We’re not just selling cookies. At the core of what we’re doing is the community – supporting businesses and residents.”

Local businesswoman Chamille Weddington, who met with the young entrepreneurs to share her experience running Schweet Foods, 5051 W. Chicago Ave., said Y.E.T. is taking the right approach.

When they met last month, Weddington said she could see the energy and excitement — as well as the uncertainty.

“This is going to work,” she said. “I know the power of young people. … I know a good thing when I see it.”

The Westside Health Authority is recruiting for the second group of village fellows, with the next class likely starting in March.

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