As a senior in high school, Mahmoud Shalby won $7,000 to fund his business idea. It was called the OmegaBrush—an innovative toothbrush designed to thoroughly clean all of your teeth in seconds.
Shalby developed the OmegaBrush in the summer of 2018 while participating in an entrepreneurship camp called The Y.E.S. Program. The program teaches Baltimore high school students about the process of starting and maintaining a business, and it culminates in a pitch competition with startup funding as the prize.
At the end of his second summer in the program, Shalby pitched the OmegaBrush and won. Now he is a senior studying computer science at the University of Maryland in Baltimore City and recently co-founded his latest venture, a cloud storage startup called Haven Cloud.
Shalby credits the “little bites of information” gleaned from conversations with Y.E.S.’s founder, Dr. Johnny Graham, for allowing him to pursue entrepreneurship as a student. “It is not a class. It’s not just a lecture,” Shalby said. “You ask, and then you learn.”
Y.E.S. is just one of several Baltimore-based organizations focused on growing youth entrepreneurs. These programs guide students through obstacles often faced by adult business owners, including securing funding, accessing resources, and building a network.
Some program leaders also point out that getting into business early can help young people avoid common pitfalls like crime and drug addiction. “These kids in Baltimore are really bright and are grasping these [business] concepts pretty quickly when they have access to them,” said Tyrell Jenkins, the chief executive officer of Baltimore Youth in Action, a training program focused on teaching students about running socially-conscious enterprises.
Growing up in Baltimore, Jenkins said he didn’t have many positive goals to aspire to, especially as a young Black man. However, as he approached the end of high school, he watched some of his peers get involved with drugs and wanted to prove that the city had more to offer. “This is why I didn’t wait a year, I didn’t wait a week, anything. After I graduated high school, I went directly to get my real estate license.”
Soon after, Jenkins started a company with his AP Psychology teacher, who guided him through his real estate exam. This fruitful mentorship inspired the two to launch Baltimore Youth in Action, hoping to recreate the pipeline from Baltimore high schools to the business community.
“That age is pivotal because they’re about to be confronted with the real world,” Jenkins said about high school students. “If you don’t experiment and test things, even if the first thing isn’t where you want to stay, it still gives you experiences and skills that you wouldn’t have had.”
But young people don’t have to wait until high school to start exploring entrepreneurship and reap the benefits. Kids who start developing business ideas sooner also gain confidence in their ideas, learn to set practical goals, and reflect on how to create opportunities in their community, said Janear Garrus, the director of the Baltimore Children’s Business Fair, an annual showcase for businesses owned by kids ages 6 to 15.
“If we get kids started early enough—and failing often and fast—they can try something new, and they won’t be scared of rejection,” Garrus said.
How city agencies meet the needs of young entrepreneurs
In addition to assistance from non-profit and privately-owned groups, youth can also consult city agencies that specialize in helping small business owners, including the Mayor’s Office of Small, Minority and Women Business, headed by director Paul Taylor.
Taylor works mostly with first generation business owners, many of whom haven’t been exposed to the ins-and-outs of running a business. “That means that they didn’t see that mom or uncle try to make payroll by the end of the week and have to worry about that kind of stuff,” Taylor said, adding that this often leads to a knowledge gap, which his office fills by providing educational and practical resources to prepare first-time entrepreneurs.
As a member of the Baltimore business ecosystem, Taylor said it’s the “hustle mentality” that distinguishes the community from its peers. But this attribute can also be a hindrance. “Unfortunately, for a lot of [business owners], they’ve been hustling so long that it restricts their growth because they haven’t formalized their business.”
To avoid this, Taylor directs entrepreneurs to Baltimore Source Link, a website designed to walk them through the process. It includes a step-by-step startup guide with options to take instructional classes and connect with counselors. Under the startup guide, business owners follow key steps to launch their endeavor, beginning with researching the market for their idea, assembling a business plan, registering their business with the state, and obtaining necessary licenses.
Challenges posed to youth entrepreneurs
Despite several of these initiatives, some young Baltimoreans are often left out of the conversation. For instance, the city lacks programs specifically geared toward young women, according to Jennifer Funn, the Baltimore regional director of the Maryland Small Business Development Center.
“Everyone’s focused on the male population, and particularly the squeegee boys,” Funn said. “Nobody talks about young women.”
For those boys and girls who do pursue their venture, the most significant challenge is accessing the necessary capital. “The barrier to entry for a lot of youth is really around funding,” Taylor said, especially “if you go to borrow, unless your parent is willing to be the guarantor for your business. And even then, lenders are skeptical because you could change your mind and just walk away.”
Lenders also rely on credit and financial histories when approving loan applicants, which most young people don’t have. Taylor advises young entrepreneurs to search for specific grants and nonprofit organizations offering funding to youth. He also recommends exploring options for federal funding through the Small Business Administration and Department of Commerce.
While entrepreneurship can be exhilarating, Shalby also cautions youth about hastiness and burnout. “A big piece of advice I always give young entrepreneurs is to smell the flowers. Entrepreneurship is a rough, rough, rough journey, and there will be a lot of failures,” he said. “Definitely appreciate your small wins as they come, no matter how small.”
Despite these drawbacks, starting young can still work in their favor, especially when building a network. “There are entrepreneurs in Baltimore who just appreciate the interest that younger entrepreneurs have,” said Shalby. “Being a student is part of the advantage that you have because it shows that hunger and that drive.”
Below are a few Baltimore-based entrepreneurship programs catered to youth and early business owners. Got more recommendations? Drop them in the comments!
The Y.E.S. Program
Hosted by Our D.R.E.A.M. Foundation, The Y.E.S. Program is a summer entrepreneurship training camp open to rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Baltimore City and county high schools. Learn more here.
Baltimore Youth In Action
Described as a “social entrepreneurship investment training program,” Baltimore Youth In Action teaches high school students essential business skills and encourages them to start enterprises that fill needs in their communities. Learn more here.
Baltimore Children’s Business Fair
The Baltimore Children’s Business Fair is an annual showcase for “kidpreneurs” ages 6 to 15 in the Baltimore County area to sell their products and business ideas. Applications are now open for the Oct. 8, 2022 fair at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Learn more here.
Youth In Business
Youth In Business, offered by Jubilee Arts, is a free program for Baltimore-area high school students to learn about launching an arts-based business, as well as other entrepreneurial and leadership skills. Fall enrollment for the program is open through Sept. 30, 2022. Learn more here.
Bet On Baltimore
As part of the Dent programming, Bet on Baltimore is a paid, five-week summer internship designed to support students and their business ideas by building skills in design, creation, and entrepreneurship. Learn more here.
Baltimore City 4-H Youth Development
Operated by the University of Maryland, the Baltimore City chapter of 4-H—a national youth development organization—hosts leadership and entrepreneurship programs, along with others such as public speaking, technology and robotics, and career exploration. Learn more here.
EcoMap is a platform that connects users to different business communities within Baltimore, including a space for tech and startup business owners called BMore Tech Connect; a network for Black-owned businesses in the area called Blk Btrfly Exchange; and a collection of resources called the Maryland Entrepreneur Hub. Learn more here.
Editorial Disclaimer: Reporting for this story was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and we thank them for their support. However, the findings and conclusions presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.