Never too young to start a company

Rochester's Young Entrepreneurs Academy helps teens across the U.S. break into the business world
Lisa Hughes
Young Entrepreneurs Academy president Gayle Jagel and recent graduate Jason Shanley at the new YEA headquarters in Henrietta.

Jason Shanley was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the kitchen when a big idea started to form. “All of the lockers in my high school look exactly alike,” he mused.  “Why?”

A junior at Ruben A. Cirillo High School in Gananda, Wayne County, Shanley dreamed of starting his own business. He had lots of ideas, but didn’t know how to turn his dreams into reality.

Several years earlier, Gayle Jagel was at home with her family when her daughter asked how to start a business. Prior to her role as the Director of the Office of Special Programs at the University of Rochester, Jagel worked in business development at Sutherland Global Services. Drawing on her professional experience, she taught her daughter how to create her own company.

“I explained in a way an eight-year-old could understand, but she really understood concepts like return on investment and a marketing plan,” she says. “It was amazing.”

Soon, her daughter’s friends were asking how to jumpstart their own businesses as well. This discussion inspired Jagel to form the Young Entrepreneurs Academy. Launched in 2004 at the University of Rochester, YEA teaches middle and high school students how to develop business ideas, pitch their plans to investors and launch their own companies and social movements.

“I watched a promotional video for YEA and knew I had to be a part of it,” says Shanley. “I was the first person on the signup list at my school.”

He developed a line of removable vinyl locker covers, also known as “skins.”
“I was always the guy to wear bright clothes to school,” he says.  “I was known for trying to stand out. So, why couldn’t my locker?”

Throughout the year-long program, students are mentored by local entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into financial success.
They then pitch their product to an “investor panel” in a manner not unlike ABC’S Shark Tank, where adults seek venture capital from experienced business owners. Recently, Shark Tank partnered with YEA to offer young entrepreneurs the chance to pitch to the investors. Seven YEA students received callbacks for auditions.

“Students have to compete to get into the program,” says Jagel. The application process includes an interview and letters of recommendation, just like a real job interview. “These are motivated and determined kids,” she says.

In 2008, YEA became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and has since spread to fifty-nine locations in twenty-three states. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a national sponsor and partner. In 2011, Shanley was the winner of YEA’s Saunders Scholars Bright Ideas Competition and a $30,000 scholarship for the Rochester Institute of Technology. He turned his focus from locker skins to electronics. His SkinsHQ sells removable covers for laptops, iPhones and other products at fourteen Barnes and Noble college bookstores across the country.

No business comes without challenges. Before Barnes and Noble, Shanley had to reject another major franchise because the deal didn’t provide him enough profit.  When Jagel was ready to break away from the university in 2008, she lost her major source of funding as the economy went into recession.

“We had a donor lined up to provide all the funding for our first year,” she says. However, the setback turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I had always wanted to shift the paradigm on nonprofits, running it more like a business than a nonprofit,” she explains. “I started to structure our organization around the premise that we would become self-sustaining.”

Like all startup ventures, a bump in the road does not mean the end of a dream. “Anything is possible, anything you can envision,” says Jagel. “It may have to get tweaked along the way, but the world is filled with opportunity.” 

Categories: Grow