At a time when most teens are trying to fit in with peers, Joerod Collier started his own business, Surreal Styles, designing unique sneakers when he was 15.
“I knew that I liked cool sneakers. I liked to be different, and my friends were always requesting that I design things for them,” Collier said. “That’s when I realized that Surreal Styles could be a lucrative business,” said Collier, now 24.
Expanding his business seemed like a pipe-dream until one of his teachers recommended a summer camp for young entrepreneurs. Based in Tampa, Florida, the camp, called Forward Thinking Initiatives‘ Teen Business and Innovation Camp, taught him business skills such as how to market his product and file the right paperwork.
Forget campfires and lake swimming. Entrepreneur camps are gaining popularity as more parents fork over hundreds of dollars in hopes Junior will learn the skills to become the next Mark Zuckerberg with a hot new start-up.
The Florida day-camp, founded in 2004, is one of the more affordable entrepreneur camps at $250 for a five-day session. Camp prices can reach four figures. No matter the cost, the common goal is training well-prepared young men and women for a more competitive workforce—recession or no recession.
The unemployment rate for young people between the ages of 16 and 24 is 17.1 percent, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2013. The rate has declined since the peak average unemployment rate of 19.6 percent in April 2010.
The Florida camp began as a for-profit organization but transitioned to non-profit status during the economic downturn in 2010 when enrollment declined.
“As the economy went down, the irony was that parents were not willing to pay to have their kids learn how to be more self-reliant. … They would rather have their kids bag at the supermarket and come home with five bucks in their pocket immediately,” said Debra Campbell, president and executive director of the Florida Forward Thinking Initiatives camp, which includes support from Verizon.
Campbell said the camp’s goal is to show kids they can have big dreams and follow their passions if they work hard. As a non-profit organization, she receives much of her funding from grants, yet she still struggles to keep her program available to all hopeful young entrepreneurs.
That’s because camps that teach entrepreneurial skills traditionally have targeted at-risk young adults, because that’s where the grant money is. But Campbell said she wanted to broaden the camp’s reach beyond at-risk young adults.
“I don’t want to target at-risk kids. I want to target kids,” Campbell said. “Many of them have not thought about their future.”
Silicon Valley camp
Another entrepreneur camp is Silicon Valley’s Camp BizSmart in Los Gatos, California.
Peggy Gibbs and her husband Mike Gibbs founded the summer camp in 2008. Peggy Gibbs said Camp BizSmart refuses grant funding because many grant providers in the industry require camps to serve a very narrow population. “There are not a lot of programs out there for passionate kids. We care about passionate kids who really want to make a difference,” Peggy Gibbs said.
For a cost of $1,480, the 10-day Camp BizSmart emphasizes executing an idea successfully, while working with a team and competing among peers. Camp partners include tech heavyweights such as Microsoft, Cisco, and Google.
“They form teams of six, taking on actual executive positions as if they were in that company, solving this issue, while working with the actual CEOs and founders of the company who are mentoring them,” Peggy Gibbs said.
Camp BizSmart participants learn product design, leadership skills, and problem solving techniques from some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent founders and CEOs. The next camp will be held at Stanford University.
“I think the competition aspect gives them a bit of an edge, and we have kids who come back because they didn’t win the year before,” Camp BizSmart co-founder Mike Gibbs said. “Silicon Valley is all about risk and reward, and we define entrepreneurs as people who risk their time, their talent, and their money to create value for the customer and solve really big problems,” he said.
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Emergence of new camps
As America’s workforce and challenges have changed over time, so too have camps for young adults.
“The camp experience has diversified drastically in the past 10 years to reflect the needs of society and the workforce,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, which accredits more than 2,400 camps that meet its health, safety, and quality standards.
“Traditional summer camp is a tremendous learning laboratory, but as you get older you may want more of a real-life building opportunity that is more skill-based or driven toward a particular interest. The camp laboratory can still be used, but you just have to be more specific about what you’re looking for,” said Smith of the association.
Young entrepreneur Collier said the core skills he learned while at entrepreneur camp—networking, collaboration, and creative brainstorming—helped him to become a better leader. He runs a staff of 10 and is in the process of creating his own shoe line.
Collier’s mom, Ramona Collier, said she believes entrepreneur camps are worth the investment. “I saw how excited he was about it and I liked that it gave him a sense of self-worth. It really helped him gain confidence and motivation to succeed,” Ramona Collier said. “We considered sending him to basketball camp, but it wasn’t geared toward education or a future outside of basketball in any way. Forward Thinking Initiatives showed him that he had options in life,” she said.
Campbell says Collier is the perfect example of how tenacity, determination, and innovation can pay off in the long run.
“We’re teaching hard stuff like entrepreneurship, career development, and financial literacy,” Campbell said. “If we can ignite a child’s passion, motivation, and interest in learning, those seeds can grow into the next great entrepreneur.”