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Youth CITIES helps kid entrepreneurs find their mission

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 5, 2013 11:00 AM

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[Editor's note: I recently had the pleasure of attending a Youth CITIES Monthly Mini-Hack where the serendipity of the Greater Boston innovation ecosystem was on full display. Hosted at the Cambridge Innovation Center just down the hall from the regular Thursday Venture Cafe, it was amazing to watch entrepreneurs of all backgrounds come through the room to observe presentations from kids, asking smart questions and offering gentle guidance and encouragement to the youngest of entrepreneurs. I asked some follow up questions of Youth CITIES founder Vicky Wu Davis to get the rest of the story.]

What does Youth CITIES do?
Youth CITIES (Creating Impact Through Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Sustainability) is a nonprofit that focuses on helping middle school and HS students drive change in their community by applying entrepreneurial principles and creative problem-solving skills. We provide a classroom and experiential education, tools, and network to help students succeed.

Our flagship program is our March-to-May Bootcamp, (commended last year by Governor Deval Patrick), which is a 10 week program that is held every Saturday from 9am to noon at Microsoft and Cambridge Innovation Center (both in Kendall Square, and considered to be pillars of the entrepreneurial ecosystem). A different successful entrepreneur teaches every Saturday about a different aspect of entrepreneurship, which leads up to a presentation that every student has to make in front of a panel of judges. The winning student venture receives $1500 to launch their idea, along with a hand-picked advisory board to work with him/her/them.

Since then, we’ve expanded to include other programs such as our Monthly Mini-Hacks where cross-functional and cross-generational participants gather to hack at a different community issue each month. We also have upcoming Tech Tinkering Tracks, which will focus on hands-on application of various STEM disciplines, and applying it to solve community issues. Having been a mentor for MIT's Venture Mentoring Service for a decade, I’ve seen many “tinkerers” reveal their inner entrepreneur after having created a product.

Why did you create Youth CITIES?
I’m am an odd combination of a shy, introverted, geeky, accounting major-turned entrepreneur in the videogame industry who considered becoming a social worker so I could work with orphans. I am very passionate about tech and social entrepreneurship...they are both important aspects of my personal/professional life that keeps me energized every day. But that wasn’t always the case. It was only through a winding road of career exploration and soul searching in my 20’s that I finally began to piece together how my interests, skill sets, and passion could intersect. Doing what I loved for work while making an impact on society didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Since it took me a while to discover this revelation, I really wanted to introduce youth to the concept of entrepreneurship and innovation, and to leverage that in ways to improve the fabric of society. Given the right tools and motivation, teens can move mountains in ways that adults can’t even dream about.

My kids will one day be teenagers. I created Youth CITIES to inspire innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, and help kids realize that there’s room for different personalities, interests, talents, and abilities to make an impact in this world. I wanted to create the type of program I wish I had, and what I hope will be the type of program my kids will one day enjoy and benefit from.

What are your ongoing programs?
Youth CITIES has its March-to-May bootcamp in its fourth year, kicking off with a reception at Microsoft on March 7th (classes beginning that Saturday).

We also have our monthly Mini-Hacks that we launched this past September, which is a 2-hour cross-collaborative approach among very different demographics (middle school through college students, entrepreneurs, educators, lawyers, City Mouse/Country Mouse, etc) where someone in our community presents a problem. In collaboration with Josh Goldfine (Belmont HS teacher) and Dougan Sherwood (Director at CIC), Mini-Hack participants gather to hack local community issues in a creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial discussion. White boarded illustrations of stakeholders and value propositions are mapped, and 21st century skills are exercised.

Among those who’ve presented: the Engineering Club from McCall Middle School wanting to provide alternative energy through their bicycle energy storage technology, a Winchester high school student concerned about excess food waste in school cafeterias, Boston City Councillor Tito Jackson about adding diversity in area construction workers, a Tufts MBA student wanting to start a cultural center to benefit the community, and Cambridge Science Festival wanting figure out how they can attract more teens to STEM.

How can our readers be of help?
Youth CITIES is about providing all teens with access to the tools and network of the local entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem, as well as funding for their endeavors. Youth CITIES is growing like crazy, so volunteers and funding are our two greatest needs. We are always looking for entrepreneurs to get involved in a variety of ways, such as mentoring, helping to facilitate our programs, student outreach, etc. We can always find ways to involve the local community, so the more the merrier.

Youth CITIES provides bus transport for urban youth that don’t have access to public transportation, so we would love to have individual donations or corporate sponsorships to allow us to offer the Youth CITIES experience to any teen interested in participating. We also would like to expand our ability to provide more grants. Microsoft, TUGG, Goodwin Procter, and Karmaloop are our wonderful corporate sponsors right now and we’d love to have more companies join the family. Folks interested in getting involved in any capacity can email me.

Chad O’Connor is a communication consultant, Adjunct Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, and primary editor of this blog. Follow him on Twitter @chadoconnor.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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