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Kids starting businesses

Like most entrepreneurs, Suzy Frentz has had her ups and downs. She's seen her business grow to gain national attention, struggle with local government bureaucracy and face closing after 11 years. But this grizzled veteran isn't average in one important way - she's just 19 years old.

Frentz and her sister Diana operate Snowball City, a stand built with their father's help in their family garage in southern Howard County.

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A mechanical engineering student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Suzy Frentz has invested sweat equity in the stand since she was 8. Today, she and her sister are bit players in a national trend. Growing numbers of young people are choosing to work for themselves, sometimes employing others, instead of finding part-time jobs.

"Teens today are very interested in entrepreneurship, [and] the interest is rising," said Edwin Bodensiek, director of public affairs for Junior Achievement Inc., a national nonprofit organization that teaches youth about entrepreneurship. "Teens are looking to create their own opportunity. It's past the baby sitting and lawn care. You have them starting high-tech companies, software writing, computer hardware repair."

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"Businessperson" was named the top career choice by kids this year in Junior Achievement's annual "Kids and Careers" poll. Doctor had been the top choice in the three previous years.

In the same study, eight in 10 teen-agers said they would like to own their own businesses someday.

Similarly, a study last fall by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo., nonprofit organization that encourages entrepreneurship in youths and adults, found that more than 40 percent of youths ranging in age from 8 to 17 said they'd thought about starting their own businesses.

In both surveys, boys and girls showed similar interest in entrepreneurship, and said their reasons for pursuing entrepreneurship included gaining independence and a desire to make more money.

In Maryland, youth entrepreneurs are selling their services for everything from Web site development and filmmaking to lawn care and snowballs - and learning lessons along the way about independence, customer satisfaction and how to handle a buck.

Bumps along the way

"Not everything is going to go the way you planned," said Ronald Young II of Upper Marlboro, who went into business last year with a fellow student at Suitland High designing and selling custom clothing. "It helped you to really understand supply and demand."

Although the partners split, Young said, he is sold on being a business owner, and expects to begin selling clothes again - this time jeans he's designing with another friend - as he goes on to Hampton University this fall. The experience of running a business was a taste of the future, he said.

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"Its a lot of hard work, but you learn more," he said. "It was a great learning experience for me."

Young people's fascination with entrepreneurship is pricking the interest of educators.

In 1970, there were just 16 classes on entrepreneurship offered at colleges and universities across the nation. Today, there are more than 1,500, among them, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

UMBC is keen on entrepreneurial programs with its Alex. Brown Center for Science and Technology Entrepreneurship, the Idea Lab, where students can get research tools and help with writing a business plan, and CEO Chats, a continuing series of talks with business leaders. The school is vying with 15 other colleges as finalists in a competition to win up to $5 million in grant money from the Kauffman Foundation to take entrepreneurship education campus-wide.

"The demand is just huge," said Wendy Guilles, a spokeswoman for the foundation. "We feel like [college] is a great place to capture [entrepreneurs]. We're trying to push more schools to make entrepreneurship something that's available to everybody on campus."

Programs created

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In Howard County, the business community has worked with the schools to create several programs to interest students in business, and the county's economic development arm has even sought out programs to train students in entrepreneurship.

The NeoTech Incubator, a technology business incubator which is run by the county's Economic Development Authority, last year had two programs to encourage entrepreneurship - one taught high school seniors the fundamental skills needed to start their own businesses, and the other involved students in teams in a two-year competitive process to developing a technology and launch a business in the incubator.

Baltimore, through the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, will be looking for someone to produce an entrepreneurship training program through Youth Opportunity, a program for children living in the city's empowerment zones, a spokeswoman said.

Baltimore County public schools offer courses in marketing and entrepreneurship, and Anne Arundel Community College is planning to sponsor a two-week entrepreneurship camp next year for high school students.

"The kids are out there," said Carlene Cassidy, director of entrepreneurial studies institute at Anne Arundel Community College, and an assistant professor there.

"When they start to talk [about the business], they light up," Cassidy said. "The energy oozes out of them. They know where they want to go, and they have reasons to want to go. Every semester I have a dozen or so out of 100-plus students. They have that vision."

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Most of these teen-agers aren't pocketing lots of cash running their businesses, but going through the process of forming and operating a business that can set the stage for successful entrepreneurship later.

According to Steve Mariotti, president and founder of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a New York nonprofit, nearly every entrepreneur on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans had ventures when they were young.

Russell Simmons, 44, formerly of the groundbreaking rap group Run DMC and co-founder of Def Jam Recording, now owns several ventures in urban clothing and pre-paid credit cards. But before Run DMC hit the airwaves, Simmons was a high school promoter of records and shows.

Bill Gates started Microsoft at age 19, but before then he had launched an unsuccessful venture counting traffic and selling the information to businesses. Baltimore millionaire Reginald Lewis first made money running, growing, and eventually selling his own newspaper route, as did Warren Buffett, one of the greatest investors of our times and one of the richest men in America.

"Pretty much every great entrepreneur I can think of started as a youth entrepreneur," Mariotti said. "It's like basketball: The sooner you start, the better."

Busy in Maryland

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In Maryland, a number of students have taken business into their own hands.

* Brittany Newsome, who graduated this year from Oakland Mills High School in Howard County, started her own film company, Quiet Girl Productions, creating both her own short films and promotional videos.

* A group of students from the private Glenelg Country School in Howard created software called Lecture Library that allows all of the notes a teacher scribbles on a virtual chalkboard to be uploaded onto a Web site where students can later study them, print them or take notes themselves.

* Christopher W. Gotsch started spinning records at friends' parties in Baltimore County when he was 16, and now the University of Maryland student is owner of Magical Nights DJ service, with seven employees and a van.

* A group of 75 students from Centennial High School run Safe H2O, which measures residential drinking water for metals. The students run every portion of the business from marketing and public relations to laboratory testing.

* Bethany Bengfort, a 10th-grader at Howard High School and founder of Kids In Print, started binding books written by siblings, classmates and friends for a fee five years ago. Now, she's selling her services to individuals and entire classes here and across the country. She employs a friend to help with typing and photocopying book pages.

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And that's just a sampling of the talent in the state, according to Leonard Elenowitz, who runs a program for the state Department of Business and Economic Development that recognizes students annually for business innovation.

"There's an awful lot of kids out there who have little businesses, except they're not recognized often," Elenowitz said. "It is not as glamorous as football players and sports. It's not the glamour of winning the state championship."

That's something Suzy Frentz, who works a full-time job while operating Snowball City with her 16-year-old sister, learned this year when her business permit was revoked. The company faced fines and was forced to close for a week as the family waded through bureaucracy in the county government.

A new permit was obtained, but the family is taking its concerns to the county Board of Appeals. Despite the difficulties the stand has faced this year, Frentz said, she's not soured on entrepreneurship.

"If anything, it encourages me," she said. "I definitely want to do my own business when I grow up. I think about it all the time."


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