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Students Find Sweet Opportunity In North St. Louis

Tim Lloyd
St. Louis Public Radio

 This is how the conversation usually goes when Dejah Cox tells her friends she has a job.

“They’re like, ‘oh really, what do you do?’” they’ll ask her.

Dejah: “I’m a beekeeper.”  

“They’re like, ‘no!’” Dejah said with a chuckle.  “They’re shocked.”

On a recent Saturday morning, the teenager donned full beekeeper regalia and flipped open the top of a hive in a vacant lot in north St. Louis.  The honey she harvests will be used for an array of products, from lotions to body butter under the label Honey Masters.  

At only 15 years old, Dejah is president of Sweet Sensations, an entrepreneurship program run by Northside Community Housing, Inc.  Built on top of tried and true hands-on and project-based learning styles, Sweet Sensations plugs into a growing interest to teach business basics in real-world settings.         

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Youth in Sweet Sensations cleaning out bee hives.

 “The idea was that the youth would learn how to run the business, and that they would actually run it,” said Phil Minden, who helped found the program. “That’s exactly what’s happening.”

The six students in the program, two of whom are part of the STL Youth Jobs Program, are paid $10 an hour and can create matched college savings accounts.  That, in turn, makes Sweet Sensations a dual education and employment program.  Youth also get titles and are elected to positions like president, vice president and production manager. Along the way, they polish marketing campaigns, keep inventory and develop new products.

“Eventually, our goal is that the whole business will be self-sustaining,” said Minden. “That they’ll earn enough revenue every year to cover the cost of the program.”

Nationally, African Americans are lagging behind in business ownership.  On top of that, in African-American households, business equity accounted for less than 4 percent of assets on average, a number that went down between 1983 and 2010, according to a Pew Research report.  To chip away at those statistics, Sweet Sensations was designed to help develop entrepreneurial skills in African-American teens living in the Ville and Greater Ville neighborhoods.

Youth are put through a curriculum based on one developed by Junior Achievement, a nonprofit that teaches students business basics.  And at 4:30 p.m. Friday, they'll open a new shop at 4067 Lincoln Ave. in the Greater Ville neighborhood.               

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Beekeeper Phil Minden, who helped organize Sweet Sensations, guides students through hands on beekeeping lessons.

Though the space for the shop is donated, not all business services provided to the program are free.  For instance, when students meet with an accountant they have to work the expense for the service into their budget.  Youth also have to be light on their feet when navigating the logistical snags that come with bringing their product to market.   

Take adding nutrition facts and bar codes to bottles of honey, for example.  Dejah brushes it off as just part of the job.

“There aren’t that many nutrition facts,” Dejah said.  “It’s all pure, urban honey.”

Then, there are the hives themselves. Some residents aren't keen on hundreds of bees living in their neighborhood.  And even before writing the grant, Minden had to craft his pitch to members of Northside Community Housing, Inc.’s board of directors who were leery of the idea.

“There were a lot of concerns about insurance and things like that,” Minden said.  “But we were able to convince them that we had procedures in place where the kids would be fully protected.  And that we would act in a responsible manner so that they could be successful in this business and not be harmed at all.”

Minden, an avid beekeeper, guides students through hands on lessons. 

“Selfishly, I helped write the grant for this program so I could take care of more hives,” he joked.

La'Jazia Elijah, the 16-year-old vice president of Sweet Sensations, was antsy when she first peered into a hive teeming with honey bees.  

“Two bees landed on me and I got scared,” La'Jazia said.  “But nothing bad happened.  It was cool.” 

'You have to just chill out because they can sense when you're excited. When students get that, when they see the results of that, it's wonderful.' -- Volunteer beekeeper Jessica du Maine

La’Jazia and other students also get help from volunteers from the Eastern Missouri Bee Keepers Association like Jessica du Maine, an electrical engineer who picked up beekeeping after her children left for college. 

“You have to just chill out, because they can sense when you’re excited,” du Maine said.  “When students get that, when they see the results of that, it’s wonderful.”

She said the confidence extends beyond the hives. 

For example, a group teenagers walking around in what can look like hazmat suits attracts plenty of attention. Du Maine said one day the questions came from a curious restaurant owner who was driving by.

A student calmly struck up a conversation with the man, Du Maine recalled, and promptly gave him a sales pitch.

“I know a lot of adults who couldn’t handle that,” du Maine joked.  

 ‘I saw them as entrepreneurs’

Jessie Mueller was on her way toward a masters of social work at Saint Louis University when she picked up an internship with the Grove Community Improvement District.      

“My boss one day said, ‘hey, you know the anchor that we’re missing in the neighborhood is a coffee house,’” she recalled.

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Rise Coffee House owner Jessie Mueller.

Mueller -- who had never made a dime as a barista and knew nothing about the coffee biz -- couldn’t shake the idea.  She and her husband Ron kept talking about it and eventually decided to roll the dice. The pair took out a loan and used tax credits to renovate a blighted building. And this fall they opened Rise Coffee House, a little shop with a bohemian vibe.

While building her customer base, she kept noticing a group of kids who would gather in the shop and talk about business plans.

“I was just beginning my business, so, I guess I felt a sense of solidarity with them,” Mueller said.

Then one day, one of those kids told her about the honey they cultivate on a lot about three miles to the north. She told Mueller about how they use the money to sustain the program and pitched her on buying their product.

She was sold.

“It was really cool to see how confident they were in asking me to offer their products,” Mueller said.

So far, she’s bought about 100 bottles of Honey Masters brand honey.

Credit Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Jason Wilson, coffee in hand, talks with two of his workers at the Northwest Coffee Shop in the Central West End.

Jason Wilson, who owns Chronicle Coffee, tells a similar story.  At first, he wasn’t sure what to expect when he scheduled a meeting with a handful of teenagers from Sweet Sensations.

“I was impressed,” Wilson said.  “Because they’re young and the amount of knowledge they had.”

Wilson has had his ear bent by many a salesperson.  But he said the secret to Sweet Sensations was that it didn’t really feel like he was getting a pitch at all.

“There was this spiel they gave me, but it was natural and authentic, rather than contrived and forced,” Wilson said.  “I like that about them. I didn’t see them as kids anymore; I saw them as entrepreneurs who have a product.”

As the customer list expands, so does the Honey Masters product line.

On a recent afternoon, production manager Byron Owens was busy making lotions and body butter at Sweet Sensations’ offices in the basement of Northside Community Housing, Inc.

The soft-spoken 15-year-old had thought about looking for a job cutting grass after the school year ended, but he overheard someone talking about the Sweet Sensations program and put in an application.  Now he’s hustling to keep Honey Masters’ inventory up to date.   

“I stay on St. Louis Ave., it’s about a block over, so I shouldn’t be late,” Owens joked, while adding scents to a fresh batch of lotion. 

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Production Manager Byron Owens works on mixing a fresh batch of scented lotion in Sweet Sensations offices.

Sweet Sensations was seeded in 2012 with a $35,000 award from the YouthBridge Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition at Washington University.  Startup costs totaled around $55,000, and program expenses are projected to reach $83,000 in 2017.  The hope is for sales to reach $85,000 by then, and they’re around half way toward this year’s sales goal of roughly $12,500.

For now, though, donations help keep the program afloat, with most of the underwriting coming from the Daughters of Charity Foundation of St. Louis and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.  Expanding the program hinges on keeping up with orders and growing the Honey Masters brand.

“It kind of made me start thinking about entrepreneurship,” Owens said.  “I was thinking it would be nice to create my own business.”

With a string of real-world responsibilities, pressures and problem solving skills under his belt before he can drive a car, Owens said he’s also more confident that he’ll reach his dream of earning an engineering degree.

Bigger than business?

Leaning by doing -- it’s the underlying principle for a range of project-based and hands-on teaching styles that fall under the umbrella of experiential education. The teaching style is a constant theme for Sweet Sensations and other entrepreneurship programs sprouting up in St. Louis and across the nation.

“It’s a different level of learning and a different level of cognitive process,” said Carole Basile, dean of the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  “It builds kids self-confidence, motivation to learn and attitudes about learning.” 

At the same time, Basile said that alternate ways of teaching business and other topics have traditionally been absent in struggling school systems.

“We’ve been so focused on getting them to learn their ABCs, just getting the reading, writing, arithmetic right that we’ve not focused on the other pieces,” Basile said.  “It’s time to hold these kids to high expectations.  It is time that we are very conscious of making sure that all kids have access to this kind of learning.”

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Bottles of Honey Masters honey line the shelves in Sweet Sensations offices.

There are signs that expanding entrepreneurial  opportunities for K-12 students has been steadily gaining traction.   

“There’s definitely been growth in the concept of entrepreneurship education and trying to introduce it into standard curriculum,” said Tom Gold, the vice president of research for Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a New York-based nonprofit focusing on teaching business to youth in poor communities.  

The number of students taking NFTE courses has grown by around 60 percent over the past three years.  Last fall, for example, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave the network $200,000 to scale up its program for 600 poor teens in Miami.  But most of the organization's expansion has been overseas with an especially large amount of interest in China, according to the nonprofit.    

On the nation’s college campuses, momentum has been building for years. In 1985 college campuses in America offered around 250 entrepreneurship courses.  That number ballooned to 5,000 by 2008.  Now, nearly 9,000 faculty members teach the subject to more than 400,000 students a year, according to a report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. 

While he said anecdotal evidence abounds, it’s hard to nail down a data point on the K-12 level. 

“A lot of these programs at the K-12 level are local programs that a local business might have started, that local philanthropists might have started,” Gold said.  “They’re really hard to track, in some ways. But there are some efforts out there in the education research world to identify those programs and start tracking them.” 

As interest rises, the Huffington Post recently reported so has the potential for political influence.  According to a story that ran this month, the Koch brothers sought to inject a "radical free-market ideology" into an entrepreneurship program offered to students in Missouri and Kansas.  In contrast, Julie Ford, superintendent of Topeka Unified School District 501 -- which offers the program called Youth Entrepreneurs -- told the Topeka Capital Journal that she hasn’t seen a political agenda in the classes.     

There’s also a long-standing back and forth about whether or not entrepreneurship can actually be taught. But Gold said the end game isn’t limited to creating future business owners.

“A lot of it is teaching a mindset,” Gold said.  “This is about teaching students how to have an entrepreneurial mindset, which is forward thinking, goal oriented and how to take some calculated risks.”       

In a survey of participants released in 2013, students who participated in a NFTE program had increased high school graduation rates and employment levels when compared to other students.

'This is about teaching students how to have an entrepreneurial mindset, which is forward thinking, goal oriented and how to take some calculated risks.' -- Tom Gold, vice president of research for Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)

Scan the education and youth program landscape in St. Louis and you’ll see a range of educational initiatives sprouting up. 

  • This fall the Parkway School District plans to roll out a new entrepreneurship program called Spark.
  • The Sweet Potato Project, which is sponsored by the Missouri Botanical Garden and the North Area Community Development Corporation, has earned a fair amount of local attention for teaching youth in north St. Louis about agriculture and business skills.

Andrew Hahn directs the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University.   Since 1993 he’s worked with donors across the country who support youth entrepreneurship programs and want to measure whether their investments are making a difference.
“You need to have entrepreneurship programs that lead to traditional education outcomes and are careful to promote cognitive and non-cognitive skills,” Hahn said.

Unlike other forms of business and financial literacy education, he said, entrepreneurship programs lean more heavily on real-world application. While he said programs often foster a more positive self-image among students, it’s not really clear if they lift other classroom outcomes.         

“An open question that’s not 100 percent resolved today is what does it do for cognitive skills like reading, writing, math and scientific understanding.” Hahn said. 

No matter how a course is offered, Hahn said schools and foundations out to get the most for their money need to pair teaching business smarts with other topics.

“Entrepreneurship programs can’t stand alone, they need to connect to other parts of the school or community,” Hahn said. 

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.