Startup Week 2017: Youth Entrepreneurship in Alaska

  • Young entrepreneurs learn the business basics during Lemonade Day. (Photo/Courtesy/Lemonade Day Alaska)

When I was a girl, my family had many businesses: my grandmother had a dress store and then later a jewelry store; my parents owned a candy store and rental units. I spent many days folding dresses, helping with minor repairs, and my favorite — happily eating candy in front of the store to tempt customers.

As I matured, I learned to handle cash and count back change; choose merchandise at the wholesale market and price it; and serve customers. I thought I was just helping out, but in reality I was learning, through experience, how to run a small business – setting income goals; innovating when business slows down; and understanding just how much time, thought, and effort was needed to make an enterprise successful.

These days, I work in an office while my kids spend their vacations at camp and play dates. They don’t have the same access to learn by experience and observation how to run a business or value a product or service. Fortunately, our community has “hands on” opportunities for youth to practice running their own businesses that are a lot more fun than spending your vacation working in mommy’s shop.

We all know that kids learn best by doing, but there are official studies to support the conclusion that kids exposed to entrepreneurial concepts at a young age are more likely to take the plunge for themselves. While each child that participates won’t make millions with the next yummy chummies, skills learned through these programs are the same skills that will help ensure success, both professionally and personally, later in life.

The author's daughter, Charlotte Bittner, participates in Lemonade Day. (Photo/Courtesy/Lemonade Day Alaska)

For the last two years my daughter, Charlotte, has participated in Lemonade Day. This year had the highest turnout yet — more than 4,000 kids participated in communities from Anchorage to Shaktoolik.

Lemonade Day is a free program that gives youth the experience of developing and running their own business. Through a step-by-step process, they learn to set goals, develop a business plan, establish a budget, seek investors, provide customer service and give back to the community. Each lemonade stand owner keeps all revenue and is encouraged to save a little, spend a little and give a little to their favorite charity.

Charlotte learned about budgeting, planning, and time management. She priced raw materials; did consumer research; honed her math skills, including understanding the difference between net and gross income; and figured out which tools worked the best for production.

When asked what she learned from Lemonade Day that can be applied in the future, Charlotte responded, “I learned how to hustle. That is a good thing because I want to raise money for college and charity and you need to hustle to get customers and money. I think all kids should do this because it's a good experience.”

That “hustle” was part of a bigger lesson: even if you have a good idea or product, success is dependent on outside factors. Charlotte did brisk business during the tasting event on Thursday — where there was a captive audience attending the Anchorage Downtown Partnership’s Live After Five event, but not on Saturday, when the clouds appeared and there was nothing to draw foot traffic into the park.

She had to “hustle” by taking free samples out of the square to passing tourists, which also helped her gain confidence approaching and conversing with adults.

Even if I had thought to teach her that concept, coming up with it herself made more of an impact than explaining it ever could. There are many things you can learn from a book or a class, but there are some things that can only be taught through experience. That’s why these immersive programs are so important.

Alaska Business Week 2017. (Photo/Courtesy/Alaska Chamber)

I’m looking forward to when my children can attend the one-week summer camp program put on by Alaska Business Week (ABW) at the Alaska Pacific University campus in Anchorage. High school students gather from communities all over Alaska to live on campus, working as teams in a business simulation under the guidance of a mentor from the business community. Completing the program gives these students a competitive edge on workplace readiness, college preparation, and overall life success.

As a parent, I think it’s so important to provide and take advantage of any opportunities for children to learn skills that will set them up for future successes. This is especially true now — when we are experiencing economic uncertainty, but are also seeing creative ideas and problem solving combine with modern, participatory financing methods to reap great rewards for our entrepreneurs and our communities.

Children have great ideas and big dreams. Programs that foster an entrepreneurial skill set, develop their “hustle,” and encourage resilience and innovation will allow them to develop the experience and know-how to turn those dreams into realities.

Alaska Startup Week brings entrepreneurs, local leaders, and friends of all ages together to build momentum and opportunity in our unique state. Startup Week is a focal point of the Innovate Alaska (2.0) effort to diversify Alaska’s economic base. For more information and a full list of events, visit alaska.startupweek.co.

Juli Lucky is the daughter and granddaughter of two first-generation Korean-American women entrepreneurs, the mother of Charlotte and Atticus, and the president of her children's elementary school PTA. Professionally, she serves as an aide to the Senate Finance Committee in the Alaska State Legislature, where she has been a fixture for the last two decades.

Charlotte Bittner is a nine-year-old entrepreneur and sixth-generation Alaska who has talked about the importance of Lemonade Day and entrepreneurship on the Dave Sterien Show and KTVA. She likes animals and comic books and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. She says her experience handling her little brother Atticus should help prep her for working with animals.

Updated: 
07/28/2017 - 11:31am

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