October 15, 2019
 
College Work with Youth Proved Pivotal for Tim Cohen-Mitchell

Tim Cohen-Mitchell: We want to build a pipeline for creating entrepreneurs.
When I was a junior at UMass I had a summer job working with adolescents and then got a grant to study in Europe. I did independent ethnographic research for six months in the mid-1980s in Cork City, Ireland.

Cork City had lost many jobs that had been sent overseas. Kids tended to drop out of school and youth unemployment was 60%. I looked at how long-term unemployment affected young people coming of age. This planted seeds for my interest in youth entrepreneurship.

After I got my bachelor’s degree, I went to work for a Danish NGO in Zambia, and then Kenya, working with youth who were selling costume jewelry on the street. I formed a trading company which I ran for eight years. The goal was to sell jewelry in North America and Europe, educate people about Africa, and enable our suppliers earn money.

At the same time, I enrolled in grad school at UMass. I studied international education and wrote a thesis on fair trade. Then in 1994 I started a doctoral program. I spent one semester on campus and then got a full-time job with the Franklin County Community Development Corporation in Greenfield. I wanted to apply what I was learning in graduate school, and through the VISTA program I got to write my own job description.

I helped start a social enterprise called Upcountry Massachusetts, which was a retail shop that sold products from local artists and specialty food producers. We also created the Valley Trade Connection. It was based on a community currency, Valley Dollars, which allowed people to barter for goods and services in Hampshire and Franklin counties. It was a great project and taught me a lot about community organizing.

Eventually, the Trade Connection faded out due to lack of funding. That was a painful process because I had invested so much in it, along with other people. It made me think a lot about how rare sustainability is at the community level. Sustainability is really a matter of building internal capacity. When outside funding stops, nonprofits tend to collapse if they don’t build themselves up.

After the CDC ran out of money I looked for another job, I became a community organizer with the Orange Revitalization Partnership. The Orange region has some of the poorest towns in the state. Service jobs are few and they don’t pay well. People survive hand to mouth or commute to work elsewhere since aren’t many large corporations nearby, or they just move away.

I formed the Young Entrepreneurs Society in 1998 with a grant from the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation along with other funding. The first thing I did was get trained and certified as a youth entrepreneurship teacher. I started a youth entrepreneurship class the first year and graduated a second class in 1999. Two former students became co-incorporators of YES when we became a nonprofit in 2000. That made a big difference, because they had the local connections I didn’t have.

I never wanted to be an executive director, but have been able to do the job because of Kathi Jaworski, executive director at the Franklin County CDC. She taught me about leadership. Since I didn’t have practical experience in project management, she sent me to a lot of trainings and worked with me directly. She was very entrepreneurial, well organized, and very inclusive in how she made decisions. Also, Deborah Becker, my ED at the Orange Revitalization Partnership, taught me how to evaluate projects, set goals, and organize volunteer committees.

Last year we served 511 kids through different programs. Now we run a cyber café and a business center. We serve 4000 customers a year, who otherwise would have to travel half an hour for the same services. We bought two buildings and revitalized them with youth volunteers.

No one gets a full time salary or benefits. I get paid for 25 hours, but work full time. We get a lot done with one-time grants, funding from Franklin County United Way, other businesses, money that we generate, and occasional small federal and state grants.

We want to build a pipeline for creating entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship exhibits itself early in life and generally isn’t encouraged, but, like in sports, kids need different levels of exposure, development, and experience. We have plans for an inkjet cartridge refurbishing business, and we want to expand the market reach of our social enterprises.

We’re always figuring out new ways to do new things. We measure our success by the number of youth we touch through our programs, and when we hear about a kid who stands up to an abusive parent or who negotiates with a principal to succeed academically. We’re like Johnny Appleseed: you can’t know the impact you have on a youth’s life for many years.

As told to Peter Lowy, March 2010. Learn more about the Young Entrepreneurs Society.

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