A child’s first lemonade or cupcake stand can be a lesson in marketing, making change for a dollar, and in satisfying customers.
But for adults, entrepreneurship can be lonely, risky and daunting.
That’s where Future Founders comes in.
The Chicago-based organization teaches middle-schoolers, high-schoolers and young adults — particularly those in underserved neighborhoods — the skills and training they’ll need to succeed in the 21st century. The students may run their own businesses or build their own career paths.
“We believe every young person can create his or her own opportunity,” said president and CEO Scott Issen.
Two Chicago-area self-starters say they got a much-needed boost of confidence to create their own opportunities after they earned a spot in Future Founders’ programs.
Moe Mitchell, a 22-year-old senior at North Central College majoring in entrepreneurship and a lifelong Naperville resident, said the “incredible” experience gave him the space for his natural creativity and ideas to flourish.
Mitchell had started reselling popular tech products, including iPods and iPads, when he was in junior high.
After a short and unhappy stint working at a restaurant in high school, Mitchell said he walked away with a newfound understanding of leadership and its importance.
He decided he wanted to help his community. So he created a lawn-care company called Moe Mow’s in his sophomore year of high school.
He created fliers and started marketing it to all the homeowners in his neighborhood.
“I focused on quality and customer service while learning as much as I could about business,” Mitchell said.
He quickly realized he didn’t like the labor, but he had a knack for creativity and running a company. This led him to build a premium subcontract model during his freshman year of college and grow his venture.
He then created an Uber-like lawn-care mobile app that helped him run the business more efficiently while making it more convenient for his customers and work crews.
“In college, I found it very compelling that I could be in class, as well as doing other things, and still operate the business and make income,” he said. His business generated $75,000 in revenue the first year.
Mitchell earned a spot in Future Founders’ 2018 U.Pitch National Elevator Pitch competition, and he got accepted into the organization’s 2019 Fellowship program.
Leveraging the training, he took his boldest move: He decided to focus full-time on starting another company.
The startup is designed to be a management system for home-services businesses such as housecleaning, handyman repairs and pet sitting.
LeDonna Jackson, a 29-year-old River Forest entrepreneur, says her time in the 2019 Future Founders Residency gave her the kick-start she needed to pursue her passion of helping others learn about foreign languages and cultures.
“To be surrounded by people who are so like-minded and who have the same passion for creating their own way forward – I think that was the biggest thing,” she said. “I’m never going to feel 100 percent comfortable working under someone else. I know what I want and what I envision for my future.”
Jackson first realized she loved foreign cultures when she won a scholarship at age 15 to study as an exchange student in Germany.
“It was the first time I’d flown on an airplane,” she said. “And I quickly realized, ‘I love these people. I love this country. I love everything.’”
After deciding she wasn’t cut out for her original career as a marine biologist, Jackson earned her certification in teaching English as a second language and started coaching and tutoring.
Now, Jackson has put her passion into action with a beta test of an online course that encourages people to engage with languages and cultures worldwide.
The self-paced course coaches travelers to learn their destination country’s language before they board the plane.
Her curricula guide travelers on how to identify their individual learning styles, find the best learning resources, and set attainable study goals.
“My goal is to get people more comfortable with reaching out to people from a different culture, and to try something they haven’t tried before,” she said. “And to find joy and really engage more with the world outside of what they already know.”
Mitchell and Jackson are part of a nationwide group that has, in the past three years, collectively created 317 jobs, generated $17.7 million in revenue and raised $12.4 million in capital, Future Founders CEO Issen said.
Future Founders is headquartered in the 1871 digital startup hub so that its students can be at the center of an entrepreneurial ecosystem, Issen said.
“One of the factors we’re most proud of is that our alumni founders are now becoming mentors of our younger students,” he said.
Both Mitchell and Jackson say they hope to give back as mentors in the same way.
Future Founders also offers entrepreneurial bootcamps and skill development workshops to Chicago Public Schools students in middle- and high schools, primarily in underserved neighborhoods. The organization has worked with 35,000 students since its programs started 14 years ago.
“About half the students from CPS schools have never met an entrepreneur, and of those who have, most haven’t met a technology entrepreneur who runs a growth company,” Issen said. “Future Founders is here to ensure all communities have equal access to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.