Youth Entrepreneurship Matters

Guest blog by Darryl Birkenfeld

In November, Ogallala Commons conducted another Youth Entrepreneur Fair–our 8th consecutive in the Texas Panhandle.  Engaging high school students in entrepreneurship is a tough sell, compared to the more familiar extra-curricular activities.  It is also a chore to ask businesses and organizations to donate $6,000 to cover the costs of the Youth E-Fair and provide cash prizes for the winners.  As OC continues to organize these E-Fairs in surrounding states, the question can be asked: does youth entrepreneurship merit the energy and resources that OC puts into it?


Jake Waldo poses at his exhibit booth for Waldo Lawn Care, with his parents, Glen and Toni

A quick answer: part of OC’s mission is to identify and support change agents in Great Plains communities.  We have found that entrepreneurial education is an effective avenue to work with youth who are innovators.  Students in high school often do not know that entrepreneurship is a tool that can create change or fashion a career that brings them back home.  Even when entering a conceptual business idea, participants in a Youth E-Fair learn poise, critical thinking skills, and new ideas, whether they win a cash prize or not.  A “thank you” card recently sent by Jake Waldo (who won $1,000 in the Ready-To-Go category) makes this point more tangibly. “Thanks for making the Ogallala Commons Youth Entrepreneur Fair possible.  I learned how to take my personal lawn care business to a more professional level.”

The $40,000 of prize money donated over the years by sponsors in Texas isn’t simply vanishing into thin air.  Year after year, we receive news of winners who have invested their funds into fledgling enterprises like a photography business, a toy making company, a market garden, a home-based baking venture, a lighting and sound technology start-up, or for earning an educational degree that builds social and economic capital in our communities, as well as for the students.


Jake receives his $1,000 prize from the two sponsors: Holy Family Catholic Church (represented by Fr. Ken Keller) and Peoples Bank (represented by Branch President Marcus Brockman)

Perhaps the greatest outcome of Youth E-Fairs is its effect on families.  Being a contestant in a Fair makes a dream seem more possible, more real. When parents and families see their brother or sister dressed professionally at the Fair, interviewing before the judges, talking to the public about their business in the exhibit hall, all that effort paints a new picture and sparks a thought…”Maybe this is what he or she is supposed to be doing!”  If an idea is going to go anywhere or have legs, it requires the parents and family to get on board.  Jake Waldo’s family was no exception, as his father Glen recounted to us in an email.

“Jake had already determined that he was going to find a more traditional job (working for someone else) instead of continuing to work for himself with his mowing business next summer.  I have (dads know so little!) been telling him how nice it is to have a job with great flexibility for camps and other summer activities.  Until he saw the bottom line of profits, and had to articulate all the pros of owning his own business, he had been wanting to let the yards go.  I am very encouraged that he is investing the prize money into a riding mower that will increase his productivity and the number of customers he might be able to serve.  This has been a great learning experience for Jake, but also for Toni (my wife) and me.  Even our other son Trey gained some benefits as he plans to study business in college.  I hope more students will participate in the very worthwhile fair in the future.”


Jake Waldo works with People Bank employee Tanya Etheridge, after he decides to open an account at the back, in order to save his money to buy that riding lawnmower that he needs to grow his business.

We may be tempted to let go of our youth entrepreneurship work.  The fruits of the labor are not easy to see, and the seeds sown won’t mature into a full harvest for many years.  But people like Jake Waldo and his family give us just one of many indications that OC is on the right track, and that we must keep our eyes focused on the vision.

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