Outside a nondescript building just south of Hollywood Boulevard, parents, friends and young siblings are lining up to get a good seat at a fashion show where all the apparel is imagined, constructed and modeled by young designers. Once inside, the excited audience sits around an elevated runway where a kid DJ is pumping out tunes. Fledgling fashionistas for turn out one at a time to vogue their wardrobe creations – athletic wear, gowns, casual wear and more – with big, proud smiles.
A nearby room showcases branded lines of lipstick, eye shadow and other makeup, complete with logo and packaging and also crafted by budding kidpreneurs. In a corner, a young “hustler” is honing her sales pitch to guests, displaying her graffiti-inspired backpacks and fanny packs with positive messaging.
Fashion shows at The Unincorporated Life, which offers ongoing camps and classes for fashion-centric kidpreneurs, are the culmination of an artistic process that features the transformation of creative passions into possible business ventures. It’s just one of the many opportunities for aspiring young entrepreneurs in Southern California.
Lest you think programs, camps and experiences for “artrepreneurs” are just all fun and games, note that many successful innovators got their starts from ideas they had been kicking around since they were young. And some of today’s popular products were created by entrepreneur teens, preteens and even younger kids.
Texan Mikaila Ulmer was only 9 when she appeared on Shark Tank to present Me & the Bees Lemonade. Now sold in Whole Foods, Cost Plus World Market and other stores nationwide, the product was born out of Ulmer’s desire to help save honeybees.
Brothers Brandon and Sebastian Martinez started their Florida-based sock company Are You Kidding when they were around 10. The pair continues to design and sell unique socks that support national charities, including Stand Up To Cancer and Autism Speaks.
Even if the products don’t achieve commercial success, organizers, parents and kids see numerous benefits from learning the ins and outs of creative entrepreneurship, including a sense of ownership, self-confidence and life skills.
“The next Oprah Winfrey or Elon Musk is out there – and they could be displaying at one of our fairs,” says Caroline Ledford, executive director of Children's Business Fairs, which sponsors entrepreneurial fairs across the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, Kenya, Australia and Romania. Since its inception in 2007, almost 18,000 kids have participated in these one-day fairs, displaying their products and services to a larger audience. Every year, the demand for and participation in them grows. There were 154 fairs in 2018; there will be more than 300 this year.
“The beauty of these fairs is so simple,” explains Ledford. “It’s a place for kids to experience the joy of discovery as well as unleashing young entrepreneurs to have the freedom to learn and create on their own. We believe that experience is the best teacher.”
One rule: Parents cannot do the work for the kids – it’s all kid-based.
Parent Flower Miller’s three girls have participated in three fairs held at the recreation hall at the Venice United Methodist Church and organized through the Acton Academy Venice Beach. She’s proud of the creativity her daughters exercise and appreciates the practical lessons about money, businesses and disappointment. Miller stays on the sidelines when the girls dream big but encourages them to “go online and price out the materials” to avoid overspending with little return.
Artistic trial and error is also part of the process. “My one girl got really discouraged with a product-line design she was working on, and time was running out before the fair,” Miller says. “Finally, she started working on Plan B and she ended up with a different design that she really liked better than the first. She turned that disappointment around.”
Each fair brings new life lessons for the young entrepreneurs. Acton Academy founder Dani Foltz-Smith recalls one creator who had an idea to knit hats and scarves for American Girl dolls but didn’t realize how long it would take to make those items by hand. “She had to hire help to get the product done in time, and so, next fair, she planned differently,” Foltz-Smith says. “You learn much more from what you may deem a failure that really is a learning opportunity. Once you get used to failing, you are more willing to take other risks.”
Life lessons are also on tap at Bizzy Girls, which offers summer camps and after-school programs where young innovators can partake in the fun of the creative process in a supportive environment.
Based on the success of her tween book series "Kate Kate & the Bizzy Girls," Debora Kanafani launched a small camp in 2013 that has mushroomed into a creative enterprise that today engages girls in the greater L.A. area as well as New York and Washington, D.C. Bizzy Girls is an immersive experience where participants begin with a product idea, develop the item and learn the hardships and good side of being an entrepreneur.
On the final day, girls sell their items in a pop-up store to friends and family members. “This is my favorite day of camp,” says 12-year-old Sabrina Rossell from Santa Monica, who has attended three Bizzy Girls camps. “I love selling my product, talking to people and seeing them get excited about what I have made.”
A Kindness Board is part of every camp. If a fellow camper has given you positive attention, you can write that person’s name on a sticky note and put it on the board. “It’s a reminder to be helpful to one another,” Rossell explains. “When I was a little stuck, someone gave me good advice, and I was thankful for that. So, I put their name on the board.”
Bizzy Girls is also just plain fun. “Every time I have gone it’s been different,” says 11-year-old Ruby Fox, who has attended multiple camps and continues to hone her products (bath scrubs and lotions for sensitive skin) in between sessions. “It’s never boring; you’re not just sitting around. You get to work on your product, and there are slide shows, speakers and role-playing.”
Many Bizzy Girls programs are held at local malls – including Santa Monica Place, Westfield Century City and The Oaks – which give participants the opportunity to explore product lines and how items are marketed and displayed, and to interact with business owners.
Recently, Bizzy Girls expanded its program, adding an Etsy-like platform to its website that allows participants to safely sell their items by giving buyers a private access code. “This allows the girls to run their e-commerce business,” says Kanafani. “They learn how to change and design their site as well as learn about marketing items through Instagram. This is the generation they are. They are going to need these skills.”
Kanafani says the focus at Bizzy Girls is on making items – from beauty products to garden supplies, pet-related merchandise and fashion accessories – by hand. Creating by hand is also at the heart of The Unincorporated Life programs.
“Most of the kids who come to our classes and camps don’t know how to sew,” says Shane Salazar, a fashion-school graduate who started the program with his sister in 2013. Participants hone their apparel concepts through vision and inspiration boards and later explore options in the fabric room. They then learn how to cut out patterns and operate a sewing machine.
“It’s back to the basics,” explains Salazar, who adds that having kids work on a hands-on project from start to finish helps them focus, especially since many have short attention spans. Branding and logo creation are also part of the process.
All of these are the types of skills today’s kids, who will be tomorrow’s business innovators, should be building. “We are in an entrepreneurial era,” says Gina Woods, who launched a one-day Kid’s Entrepreneur Camp this year in Chatsworth and has plans to expand with quarterly options. Woods, who runs an e-commerce business selling hair and beauty products, also teaches adults to successfully launch their own brands. She’s extending that information to young entrepreneurs to “plant that seed earlier and avoid a lot of the frustration you can have as an adult trying to navigate the process,” she says.
Woods’ campers each create a mock business, design a website, learn to pitch their ideas and hear from real-life innovators, including the owner of the Kona Ice franchise. Woods thinks that kids enjoy dreaming and doing. Their ideas are often sky-high, which is exactly the point. “We are all creative beings. We all think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if …’” she says. “Adults see only the downside, the problems, the practical side, but kids don’t have those burdens. They like crazy ideas. They have minds with no limits – and that’s why we need to nurture and encourage them.”