Rural businesses team up with youth to boost economic vitality

Rural businesses team up with youth to boost economic vitality

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family crossing the street in rural downtown
Even during years when commodity prices are relatively low, producers still hire workers, buy and repair equipment and make other business decisions that keep most aspects of Nebraska's agricultural production complex strong.

Words commonly used to describe entrepreneurs include opportunistic, innovative, creative and passionate. One factor that is rarely considered in community development in connection with entrepreneurship is age. An interdisciplinary team within the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln believes there is untapped potential in youth, and that this group could be the catalyst that Nebraska's rural communities need to thrive.

Youth Entrepreneurship Clinics empower high school students in learning science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics —or STEAM—and entrepreneurial skills to help solve real-world business challenges presented by rural local businesses and nonprofit organizations. Since the program started in 2017, over 120 students have collaborated with community leaders, business owners and educators to develop solutions for local businesses across the state.

The project is led by a team of Nebraska faculty, including Surin Kim, assistant professor in textiles, merchandising & fashion design and Nebraska Extension entrepreneurship specialist; Maria de Guzman, associate professor in child, youth and family studies and Nebraska Extension youth development specialist; and Claire Nicholas, assistant professor in textiles, merchandising & fashion design.

Kim sees the clinics as beneficial for participating students, local business partners and their communities.

"The students have the opportunity to build their professional networks, work with cutting-edge technology, explore career avenues and develop their critical thinking skills," Kim said. "At the same time, local businesses can give back to the community, invest in the talent pipeline of future generations and tap into the new ideas youth bring to the table."

At the beginning of each clinic, business representatives present their challenges to students. Over the course of the next 6-12 weeks, students meet with business owners and representatives, a program facilitator and their team to conceptualize their solution to the business challenge. Students are expected to conduct first-hand market research to learn about the organization and its customers. The clinic culminates in a pitch day, when students present their ideas to the businesses.

"Did youth solve part of the problem we presented? Definitely. Is the solution ready to go in the marketplace? No. But, youth did demonstrate to us that it can be solved and here's a way to solve it," said one participating business partner. "I think we learned some things about the way they chose to solve the problem, and what they were able to do with it."

Alongside the program itself, the team is conducting program evaluation and research into the factors that impact rural youth decision-making about future career paths and their perception of how geography shapes business opportunities and quality of life.

The team is expanding program offerings with a train-the-trainer workshop. The workshop will teach educators to expertly facilitate entrepreneurial and technology curriculum in various settings such as classrooms, clubs, and afterschool programs in order to equip students with entrepreneurial skills for the real world. The group is also exploring opportunities to expand the program to reach more underserved populations.

Other Nebraska Extension faculty participating in the project are Ashu Guru, former 4-H Youth Development specialist, and Andrew Larson, assistant extension educator in 4-H Youth Development; as well as graduate students from the College of Education and Human Sciences, namely, Irene Padasas, Anna Kuhlman and Olivia Kennedy.

To learn more about Youth Entrepreneurship Clinics, visit