New Harper Program Preps Teen Entrepreneurs

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg was a college student when he launched the project that would make him a billionaire. Carl Mattes is confident the next great idea could come from someone even younger, and the Harper College small business specialist is poised to make it happen.

Mattes is heading up a first-ever grant-funded Harper program that aims to identify aspiring entrepreneurs, coach them on the ins and outs of business, work with them on a business plan, and help them launch their big idea via $2,500 grants - all before they graduate from high school.

"I absolutely believe some of the best business ideas lie in the bright minds of teenagers," Mattes says. "All they need is a little coaching to help them make it reality."

Participants - as many as 20 students from grades nine through 12 - will attend classes weekly, and present their business plans to a panel of local small business executives in April. The top two will land grants, provided by community donors, as seed money to get their business off the ground.

With an eye on engaging the teens, the program is built around segments from popular business-based TV shows - from ABC's business-pitch hit Shark Tank to History Channel's pawn store series Pawn Stars and trucking show Ice Road Truckers - and lectures from Mattes that tie those shows into business reality.

"Running a business is like driving that truck," Mattes says of how "Truckers" ties in to the project. "Some days, you're going 90 miles an hour downhill on ice. Some days, you're trying to truck uphill on sand. That's reality, and these students will need to hear that. You are rarely on a smoothly paved road."

Information sessions for the youth entrepreneur program will be held from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 12 and Wednesday, October 19 at the Harper Professional Center, 850 E. Higgins Road in Schaumburg.

It's free to apply, but those who are accepted will pay $50 to take the class. "I want them to understand they've got to put skin in the game when it's their own business," Mattes said.

Applicants must have a feasible business idea in mind.

The program is funded through a grant from 2010's Small Business Jobs Act.