Free Summer Program Turns Aurora and Denver Teens into Business Owners | Westword

Free Summer Program Will Turn Aurora and Denver Teens Into Business Owners

The eight-week program teaches youth how to start and run businesses or non-profits.
"Children already have side hustles," executive director Maya Wheeler says. "All we're doing is helping them put it in a formal, legal process."
"Children already have side hustles," executive director Maya Wheeler says. "All we're doing is helping them put it in a formal, legal process." Maya Wheeler
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The Wezesha Dada Center is taking a new approach to fighting youth encouraging young people to start businesses.

The nonprofit focused on supporting BIPOC women and youth is hosting an Empowering Youth Through Entrepreneurship program this summer.

"It's a holistic approach to youth violence," says Maya Wheeler, executive director of the Wezesha Dada Center. "When people don't have money, sometimes they make bad decisions. Youth violence, a lot of times, is around theft. Kids are stealing cars or stealing from a store, and it escalates. We want to provide them with options to let them know there are other ways to make money, and money doesn't have to be a barrier."

The eight-week program will teach children, teenagers and young adults how to start and run their own businesses while providing them with career coaching, peer support and a therapist who educates them on nonviolent conflict resolution skills.

The concept started as a girls-only project last year when the center received a youth violence prevention grant from Aurora. But after seeing the impact the program had on the girls, Wheeler decided to expand.
click to enlarge Teenagers in a business class
Last year's Empowering Girls Through Entrepreneurship participants attending a business course.
Maya Wheeler

This summer's program will operate in Aurora and Denver and is open to people from eleven to 21 regardless of gender. The plan is to split 100 participants into four groups of 25 based on their ages and cities.

The program is free for participants, and the kids can earn money through their business ventures. This year, it's being funded by Gary Community Ventures, the foundation where Mike Johnston worked before running for Denver mayor, in addition to the AJL Foundation and My Spark Denver, which is funded by Denver taxes for the city's middle-schoolers.

The center will use its program funding to cover the kids' registration fees and seed money. Participants will work with coaches to craft a business plan, do market research, register with the Secretary of State's Office and set up social media promotion.

Last year, 75 percent of the girls enrolled in the program left with their own registered LLC or nonprofit, Wheeler says, including a jewelry and candle business, a baked goods shop and a nonprofit to create a school robotics club.

"Children already have side hustles," Wheeler says. "Braiding hair, doing nails, cutting lawns. All we're doing is helping them put it in a formal, legal process and make it sustainable. ... We just want to show them the potential of what they can become and what they can do in their lives."

The program also models a business for participants: a pop-up lemonade stand called the Sugary Stop, which they run at farmers' markets, festivals and other events. By working at the stand, they earn a stipend, become certified in food handling, and learn how to work as a manager, cashier and drink maker.

For kids who aren't interested in becoming entrepreneurs, the program will connect them with local workforce centers so that they can take career tests, practice résumé writing and learn how to pursue different jobs. Wheeler says there are plans to have working professionals speak to the youth about their careers, as well as enrichment activities such as trips to the Denver Performing Arts Complex and Elitch Gardens.

"It gives them exposure to different opportunities that they might not normally see," Wheeler explains. "We want to teach them to find those strengths within themselves and learn how to leverage different resources. Then they're able to take these skills back home and help improve their communities."

Registration is available online at through May 31; the program is scheduled to start on June 17. 
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