California community colleges create programs to nurture young entrepreneurs

By Jan Ferris Heenan Bee correspondent

Nathan Vetter has had a passion for photography since high school, the more outdoorsy the better, and spends as much time as he can behind the camera – when he’s not working the night shift at Subway or taking a full load of classes at Folsom Lake College.

With his woolen cap and post-teen stubble, the Cameron Park 20-year-old doesn’t look like a typical business owner. Yet Vetter is the intended demographic for a new movement within California’s community colleges, where a group of educators is teaching self-employment skills alongside more traditional curriculum.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office has funded seven student entrepreneurship centers around the state the past two years, held a well-attended conference in Fresno last fall to encourage instructors across disciplines to teach basic business skills, and is currently hosting the first statewide business plan contest of its kind, with three $5,000 prizes to help anyone age 14 or over fund their startups.

Vetter’s entry is in, though he says his photography business, NVimages, is already up and running, thanks to the entrepreneurial skills he has learned on the Folsom campus.

“I wanted to do anything and everything I could (to be) involved with photo,” he said. “It’s very hard to balance; being

an artist doesn’t pay the bills, you know. So how am I going to make the money for the tools that I need unless I know how to leverage my position in the market?”

Other entrepreneurial efforts are percolating at various community college campuses. At Cosumnes River College, Business and Family Science Dean Jamey Nye says he hopes to get an entrepreneurship and innovation center off the ground, in part to pair would-be business owners (students and non-students alike) with community mentors. Nye is also closely tracking Napa Valley College, which offers a special entrepreneurship certificate and courses focused solely on business planning and basic self-employment skills.

Mike Roessler is the statewide director of the community colleges’ Business & Entrepreneurship Center Program, and he says the time is ripe for such initiatives.

“These days, young people don’t necessarily want to work for somebody, and if they’re exposed to the world of business ownership early enough in their lifetime, they can make a choice,” he said. “Not everyone who goes to community college is going to transfer, and we know that. If they do decide to transfer to a four-year school and get a degree, there’s also no longer a guarantee they’re going to pop out of college and have a job.”

At Cosumnes River and Folsom Lake colleges, business startup skills are taught in several classes and are the focus of student clubs such as Enactus (until recently called Students In Free Enterprise, or SIFE Club).

Folsom Lake College business and economics professor Candy Smith has for years championed such efforts. She got her own enterprising start at 19 when she opened an organic produce stand in her native Live Oak.

In many cases, students just need a confidence boost along with a little know-how, Smith said. “The thing that’s sad, if it’s really what you’re supposed to be, a lot of times you’ll get talked out of it or won’t believe in yourself,” she said. “It’s pretty common: They want to be entrepreneurs; they just don’t know how to launch. If you can break that down, it might be more likely that they can.”

Each semester, Smith assigns her microeconomics students the task of writing a business plan. Students this year are drafting theirs with an online tool, LivePlan, which is the required format to enter the statewide BEC Boost contest.

Writing the document was no hasty affair, said student Dan Chait, who worked with classmates Geoff Rossi and James Millward last semester. They discarded several ideas before settling on Rapid Fire Pizza, a food truck that would sell pizza by the slice at college sporting events, fraternity parties and the like.

The 24-page Rapid Fire Pizza plan leaves few details untouched, covering everything from salaries and per-unit costs to marketing and distribution. While it’s doubtful the three will launch the business anytime soon, the assignment was time well spent, Chait said.

He hopes to work in investments when he graduates and, possibly, run his own firm someday.

“I think eventually working for yourself is lots of people’s dream,” he said. “You can create your own hours, be your own boss.”

Classmate Vetter is already on his way. He also mapped out his plan in Smith’s class. He had begun showcasing his work through Facebook and Instagram when he launched a 365-day photo journal last year. The focus on accounting and finances has helped him push his company, NVimages, forward.

“When you’ve got a bunch of ideas floating around in your head and you don’t put them to paper, that’s when things get lost,” Vetter said. “It has opened a lot of doors. It has pushed internships into full-blown salary contacts.”

With a detailed plan in place, Vetter has been able to show his key lenders – also known as his grandparents – that photography is not just his pricey hobby. Equipment purchases that used to be “jaw-dropping” now make more sense. “It makes them more eager to fork out the dough,” he said.

Vetter is entering his plan in the statewide contest. Chris-tine Draa, youth entrepreneurship program coordinator under the community colleges’ Business & Entrepreneurship Center Program, will be one of the judges. She and Roessler said all sorts of fields are good fits for the contest – and for entrepreneurship instruction in general – from baking to graphic, web and app design.

And, says Draa, the timing is good. “Young people can make mistakes. They can take risks that we can’t.”