Youngsters spend summer minding their own business


The classroom is hot and the teacher long-winded. Today's lecture for the students at Baltimore City Community College deals with Entrepreneurship and Marketing.

Sounds like a fun way for a 14-year-old to spend her summer, huh?

But Nicole Seivers listens intently, pen in hand and taking notes. She is learning business skills that will help with her duties for Umoja (Unity) Children Inc., a youth-run greeting card business.

She is one of 16 youths, ages 7 to 16, who will spend much of the next three weeks at the downtown and West Baltimore campuses of BCCC, taking courses to help them become entrepreneurs and to further a thriving card business.

"We want to get this business down to the point where adults can just sit back and watch us run [the business] fully," Nicole said yesterday.

The greeting card company, which uses likenesses of African-Americans, grew out of a youth program at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The business began in Baltimore in 1993 and in two years has sold more than $150,000 worth of Afrocentric cards throughout the country and has employed more than 200 youths in the Baltimore area.

But now the youngsters want to take it to a higher level. They want to learn management and marketing. They want to know the ins and outs of supply and demand. They want more use of computers in their workplace.

They not only want to increase their profits, they want to better prepare themselves for business prospects outside the greeting card world.

"This helps to get to know the basics of running the business," said Ernest Harris, who at 21 has been with the group since its inception and is president of Umoja Children.

The college provides the courses free to the students as part of a pilot program, said Don Akchin, the college's marketing manager for planning and advancement. He added the group has applied for a grant that would establish the training program as an ongoing activity.

"They already know and do this for real. This fills in the gaps in their knowledge about business and shows them how they can go forward with it," he said.

Cortez Walker, an assistant professor of business and information systems at the college and one of the youths' instructors, said much of his lesson is similar to what he teaches college-age students.

"It's great because you can never start too early," Mr. Cortez said. "This is giving them a sense of responsibility. This might be advanced for the average [youngster], but they're already participating in it. This is what they've been doing."

So, in a room with no air-conditioning and uncomfortable plastic chair/desks, the entrepreneurs of Umoja Children Inc. have chosen to spend part of their summer taking business courses.

But there is some consolation.

"It's only half a day, and I like that," said Keresse Burton, 15. "But I hope to get a better understanding of business so we can run the business ourselves."

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