Two years ago, we wrote a piece about Landmark Graduate Michael Mazza, an Ithaca, New York, resident whose Self-Expression and Leadership Program project and partnership with co-creator Ethan Ash generated Ithaca’s Youth Entrepreneurship Market (YEM), a program with a mission of “inspiring entrepreneurial thinking through hands on learning and connections to community. Helping students realize the power of their voices and their ideas.”
Recently, Landmark Forum News caught up with Michael to see how the program has evolved since it first began: “[It’s] a really cool story of what’s possible when you give young people an opportunity to explore their ideas.”
The growth of YEM
Initially supported by a grant, the program has since become self-sustaining. After the first year, YEM instituted a voluntary sliding scale cost for participants, but it also maintains that any interested student is welcome, and scholarships are available to anyone, no questions asked.
“We did that in 2018, and it was awesome! There were a number of students who asked for scholarships, and we gave them…And then a lot of the families that can pay tend to pay on the higher end, which empowers the program and keeps it available to everyone. So it’s starting to become this community-funded thing rather than relying on one single family to give us a grant every year. And with that, we’ve been able to sustain the grant funding that we got in 2018 for two years, and we still have money left over for 2020 and beyond.”
The program’s offerings have increased as well, from two workshops in 2017 to now FIVE workshops planned for 2020: idea generation, business planning, building a budget, marketing strategy, and, after the market is complete, a workshop on financial literacy in partnership with a local credit union. “Most of them will probably have made some money, so we’ll give them the opportunity to explore options like opening a bank account and looking at ways to invest money and to save money, interest rates, and all those kinds of things to help them understand what that’s about…We want to let that be another way that young people can learn some real life skills from this.”
Students succeeding at building businesses
The YEM participants have been creating some pretty cool business ventures, Michael says. One young entrepreneur created Heart of New York, selling lacquer-glazed pinecone earrings and etched notebooks with covers made of New York state woods. Others design and sell bookmarks, soaps, candles, food, polished fossils, weighted eye masks, and more.
Yet another student created a business called SmallStones, selling jewelry and jewelry kits featuring local stones from the Seneca and Cayuga Lakes area near Ithaca, and is currently selling his creations at several local stores. “I tell this story a lot to other young people considering the program, because he’s at school–he’s a middle school student–and meanwhile his necklaces are being sold at local stores. So he’s making money while he’s at school,” Michael shares with a laugh. “It’s kinda cool.”
Two more students have even established a flourishing videography business:
“One of the really cool stories that has come out of the program over these three years is that in 2017 two students created a videography business. And after the program and the market were over that first year, they went home and within 24 hours had a video in my inbox saying, ‘Hey, we created this for you to capture the events of the day at the market.’ They had their drone and they flew their drone overhead and through the market, so you get this 3-dimensional experience of being at the market. So in 2018 and 2019, we hired them and actually paid them to be the videographers of the program, and they have made some of the most professional videos I’ve experienced… these guys have created amazing work; so much so that they have more business than they have time for at the moment, and they have local organizations and festivals hiring them to do event- and business-related videography, and it all came out of them having the ambition to start a business in that program and send us that video.”
The YEM 2019 video, below, is a sample of their work:
If at first you don’t succeed…
Michael’s daughters were his initial inspiration to create this project for his Self-Expression and Leadership Program, and they have participated every year.
“They actually struggled the first two years of the program and didn’t develop businesses that made them money. And they kept at it, and this year they developed a cotton candy business. They bought a cotton candy machine–against my better judgement, actually! [Laughs] I said, ‘Girls, with the success you’ve had so far, I don’t think it’s a good idea if you buy a big machine that’s you’re going to have to pay off. It’s going to take you time to pay that off. And they are totally living in possibility, and they’re like, ‘Dad, we’re gonna do it! Let us do it!’ And I said, ‘Okay; whatever you want to do.’
“And sure enough, they created this business, and they have had so much success this summer. Their first event was our YEM market, where they made enough that they paid off their machine in one day, they paid a few friends that came to work with them, and they both each walked away with money. In one day. And they now have a business. They have this cotton candy machine, they’ve gotten it customized from a local friend, and they go to local events now and sell cotton candy. And it’s really good to see them continue to try, you know? Because small businesses–and large businesses!–fail more often than they succeed. And I think it’s a really good lesson for them to learn, that, ‘Okay, that failed. And that doesn’t mean that I’m a failure.’ Because, you know, as humans we can collapse that. And they just keep going after it and have now had tremendous success. Which makes me happy, because, you know, I want them to succeed with this.”
And YEM’s students aren’t the only ones succeeding. The program itself has continued to evolve year after year, to the point that it now exists in partnership with Rootstock, a youth music festival in Ithaca. Additionally, YEM students are now welcome vendors at both the Ithaca Festival and the Ithaca Farmers Market. Rootstock musicians have even opened for touring bands.
“We were in a more central location this year in downtown Ithaca, and we got more exposure and more people came, and they were like, ‘Wow! These products are really amazing!’ And we’ve seen that over the years, but it’s like people are now starting to get that exposure and to appreciate what these young people are creating…I think we’re on to something that’s going to be this ongoing, beautiful celebration of youth in our community for years to come. I think it’s only a matter of time; now that people have seen what’s possible, they are going to continue to come and be part of this event, and I’m really excited. I think this has really long legs!”
Do you have an amazing Self-Expression and Leadership Program project you’d like to share with the greater Landmark graduate community? Check out our FAQs: Submitting Landmark Projects and Transformational Story Ideas to Landmark Forum News.