Blog: Why wait until you graduate? High schoolers in Fort Wayne can launch businesses now

Teens are often asked: “What do you want to do after you graduate high school?” But one question that is not directed at them often enough is: “What do you want to do right now?” Noah Johnson

There is a common perception that middle and high school students can help adults with their businesses or large-scale projects, but they cannot feasibly develop their own ideas until long after they graduate.

However, several Fort Wayne area businesses and organizations are bucking this trend, and providing young innovators with the tools to make their ideas a reality now.

You just have to know where to look.

Northeast Indiana Innovation Center’s Student Business Builder Program

The Northeast Indiana Innovation Center’s Student Business Builder Program provides resources to local high school and college students (as well as former high school students within three years of graduation), allowing them to connect with experienced business coaches and engage in a shared workspace.

Nathan and Mitchell Skees, center, are brothers and high school students who used the NIIC’s services to grow their company 3B Apps.

At its core, the program is based on innovation, a desire to stay in the Fort Wayne area, and, of course, dedication. If students successfully pitch their product idea and execute their plan, they may eventually become eligible for funding or admittance into one of the NIIC’s business incubation or acceleration programs.

Students interested in the program can apply on The NIIC’s website.

Founders Spark

Another program students can take advantage of is Founders Spark, an organization dedicated to helping entrepreneurs launch startup companies. This organization is centered around its three core pillars: education, mentorship, and resources.

While most would think that Founders Spark is geared towards adults, the doors of opportunity are just as open for young entrepreneurs as well as for the experienced professionals, says Founder Aaron Robles.

“We cater towards the young and inspiring,” Robles explains.

Aaron Robles, left, hosts Founders Spark events that bring innovators together.

Every third Wednesday of each month, Founders Spark hosts an event called “Origins” in which aspiring business owners can get together. According to Robles, the events are low pressure and resemble parties that revolve around business. And the best part? No business cards required.

Fortitude Fund

A third program that can help young entrepreneurs is the Fortitude Fund, previously known as the Farnsworth Fund. When young innovators propose great ideas, they are often unsure of where to start. They typically envision the finish line rather than the long, winding road it takes to get there.

At the end of the day, prospective entrepreneurs—especially the younger ones—need three things to succeed: community, mentors, and money. The Fortitude Fund can provide all three, says Program Manager Steve Franks.

“The Fortitude Fund believes in not only recognizing, but also helping young entrepreneurs run businesses,” Franks explains.

Steve Franks coaches entrepreneurs at the Atrium.

The Fortitude Fund, which supports young entrepreneurs from age 15 and up, provides them with like minds in order to create a network of supportive peers, gives them access to experienced mentors who once walked in their shoes, and distributes grant money to help them launch projects.     

“I built my career around believing in people,” Franks says, and this faith has allowed several young visionaries to develop successful businesses that many ambitious students only dream of.

The Fortitude Fund (previously Farnsworth Fund) helps young innovators make their ideas a reality.

There are many types of businesses that have successfully been launched by local students with help of the Fortitude Fund, including the jewelry company Millie and Mabel, started by Lillian Herrmann of Manchester High School. While her jewelry is largely homemade, it resembles the professional work you might find at your local mall.

The takeaway?

“Someone who is in high school, or in middle school even, can be just as professional in their business as someone who is 45,” Franks says.

Believe in a Dream

If starting a whole business in your teens sounds too intimidating, you don’t have to feel obligated to make a long-term commitment, Franks says. Try launching a project instead.

The Believe in Your Business (BIYB) program of the nonprofit Believe in a Dream works with high school-aged applicants to teach skills relating to entrepreneurship and to foster a culture of future business leaders that will stimulate local growth.

Believe in a Dream also places an emphasis on projects.

The central difference between The Fortitude Fund and The Believe in a Dream program is that The Fortitude Fund only works with businesses whereas Believe in a Dream also places an emphasis on projects. The idea of the program is to move away from the misconception that in order to change the community, you need to start a business.

“Don't think you have to start a business,” Franks says. “Work on a project. Finish it. Start another one.”

Believe in a Dream helps potential student business owners get started.

Franks says that initiating a project can have one of two probable results: Either the students become experts in a certain area, or they help the community with their idea—or both.

And while students might feel busy between school, sports, and extra-curricular activities, Franks suggests comparing themselves to a 28-year-old who is recently married with a child. The older they get, they might have a little extra income and even a little more free time, but the stakes and the costs of failure in business are much higher.

“When you are in high school, you have nothing to lose,” Franks says. “That is the best time to start some of these things. You have very little to lose.”

So if you’re a young person with an idea in Fort Wayne, what are you waiting for?

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