Young Entrepreneurs

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By Deb Hadachek
The Belleville Telescope

They are the new faces of Republic County small business owners.

Three 17-year-olds who have gone a step beyond “What do I want to be when I grow up?” and decided they could start businesses now.

Cassie Strickler, produces The Bomb lip balm from the basement of her home in Scandia. Jena Kunc, Republic, and Dylan White, Norway, manage Otter Creek Farms from the Kunc farm near Republic–with hopes to someday add a storefront on Republic’s main street.

All three saw their business aspirations recognized on the state level at the Kansas Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge competition at Kansas State University this spring. And studies show they’re not alone in seeing their age as a roadblock to business start-ups.

A 2018 study conducted by Junior Achievement and Ernst & Young LLP (EY) shows that 41 percent of teens would consider entrepreneurship as a career option, versus working in a traditional job. The survey of 1,000 teens show that more than 60 percent of teen girls have thought about starting a business, says the study, compared to 54 percent of boys. Additionally, six percent of teen boys have already started a business, while four percent of girls have done the same. A similar survey of 500 adult entrepreneurs found that 13 percent started their first business at the age of 18 or younger, though the average age entrepreneurs tend to start their first business is 28.

School Project

For Strickler, the idea grew of a natural lip balm product started with a required project at Pike Valley High School called The Coffeehouse. Students research and develop a presentation on a possible career choice. She researched ethically-produced cosmetics, which led to the concept of The Bomb lip balm. “I realized I could really do this,” she said. Her research showed that many lip balms are produced with synthetic chemicals that actually dry out users’ lips. The base of her product is bees’ wax, and she hopes to eventually use the wax produced by the hives of her cousin, Corbin Monzon.

When Pike Valley instructors Stephanie Jensen and Amanda Keillers saw her presentation, they encouraged Strickler to enter the Republic County Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge.

On the state level, Strickler was stunned when judges chose her for the $4,000 grand prize in the open division.

“The competition was really eye-opening,” she says. “The team next to me built their own drones. Another team had pop-up shops in the city that sold shoes.”

Part of the competition involved a 15-minute presentation, most spent answering rapid-fire questions about business from the 10 judges.

“I compete in IDA (improvised duet acting) in forensics, so maybe that helped me think on my feet,” she says.

Strickler markets her lip balm at the Depot Market in Courtland, where she also works, and is talking to other outlets. She just completed a large order for an organization, and hopes to promote her product as giveaways for school and other events. She creates custom labels.

She says the YEC challenge helped her think about the business end of making her own cosmetic line, like taxes and regulations that affect products like cosmetics. She hopes to expand into other products, and is considering her options past high school. Business, fashion design and image consulting are career paths she may pursue.

Farm Work Ethic

Kunc and White were also already on a business track with Otter Creek Farms when they entered the YEC challenge. Their project received honorable mention in the state competition. They’ve already invested the $1,000 prize money back into the operation.

Like all ag-based businesses, Otter Creek Farms is affected by the weather and predators, especially in the 2019 growing season. The pair continues to rebuild after heavy rains and a fox decimated their garden and chickens earlier this year.

Kunc says she grew up with animals, but it wasn’t until she spent a summer at her aunt’s ranch in Texas that she realized that raising animals and growing a garden “is what I should be doing with my time.”

She intended to purchase a few chicks to start–and instead came home with a flock. White, who learned carpentry skills from his father, helped build pens and break ground for the garden.

Soon the duo had chickens and geese and turkeys and quail and goats. Kunc began to sell eggs and make soap, which she sold privately and at farmer’s markets.

“I didn’t realize growing up with animals how much it affected me to work with them,” Kunc said. Both students say the responsibility of chores and new plans for a petting zoo and farmers market has freed them from a common teenage problem–boredom.

“It sounds like a stereotype, but farm kids have so much stuff to do,” says White. “I’m tired every night but I don’t want to stop. We love doing all this.”

On top of Otter Creek Farms, White works at Love’s Auto Supply in Belleville and mows lawns. Kunc works at Polansky Seed and the Lovewell Marina.

After the Kansas YEC challenge, the pair decided to buy a vacant building in downtown Republic that most recently was a trucking office, but also served as a doctor’s office and the Republic Bank. Now in addition to farm chores, they spend their free time making plans to renovate the building into a farmer’s market. Eventually they would like to have a petting zoo and a pumpkin patch, but this year’s heavy rains put those plans on hold.

“I replanted three or four times,” Kunc says.

The students say the YEC and the help of their Republic County FFA Advisor Jed Strnad and Republic County Economic Development director Luke Mahin helped them dream bigger about their projects. Mahin showed them historic buildings that have recently been restored in Courtland as inspiration. Both teens say high school speech classes under Debra Krotz and the requirement to make a business presentation at the YEC have taught them to communicate their ideas and goals to others.

“I thought I wanted to be an entrepreneur when I retired,” Kunc says. “Then I realized I could do this now.”

“It made us realize it takes a lot more to run a business than we thought,” White says. “There’s a lot of responsibility.”

Learn more about Network Kansas and the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge here –