Asbury Park Middle Schoolers Become Entrepreneurs with JET Program

By Lauren Wanko

They dip gummy bears in chocolate and iron different designs onto T-shirts. These kids aren’t just middle school students. They’re entrepreneurs with Asbury Park’s Junior Entrepreneur Training Program or JET. It’s designed to teach students how to start their own business.

“I believe it’s important for students to have an opportunity to see a path in life that they may not have any other opportunity to see,” said JET Program Volunteer Director Charles Simmons.

“From our perspective, it’s not just about starting a business, it’s the skills that they learn along the way — teamwork, decision-making, conflict resolution,” said Boys and Girls Club of Monmouth County Executive Director Douglas Eagles.

This past fall, 17 students from different schools in Asbury Park were split into two teams or businesses. Each business is paired with two mentors.

“Our job is to sort of guide them, make sure they don’t come up with ideas that can’t be implemented,” Simmons said.

During the after-school program, these junior entrepreneurs brainstorm everything from the product to the slogan — like Dip-A-Licious. They’re making chocolate covered gummy bears, churros and lots of strawberries.

“We thought strawberries would sell more so we thought we should make more of those items,” said 13-year-old Ann-Ysa Belle Flynn.

Dip-A-Licious also made about 90 boxes for the candy.

“We decided because paper is really cheap it would be really nifty to make a box out of it,” said 11-year-old Xavier Etienne.

Over the course of the 15-week program, students meet at Kula Café — a hospitality training program in Asbury Park.

“We really talked about pricing, how much it costs for them to make it,” said Kula Café Executive Chef Wendy Escobedo.

Mentor Robert Wiener says initially the kids were a bit nervous.

“But week by week it was almost like a miracle for them, they just sort of their eyes opened up and they said, ‘I didn’t know that,'” he said.

“It gives them a chance to put an idea together, see it manifest into a reality,” said JET Program Mentor Mychal Mills.

As Dip-A-Licious dips, the other entrepreneurs carefully iron on labels as their partners gently peel them off after they’ve cooled. They call themselves SWEG.

“It stands for Shirts with Extra Greatness,” 11-year-old Candice Christie said.

“We figured T-shirts would be better because everyone needs a T-shirt. You need to wear something,” said 12-year-old Avant Barnes.

“I enjoyed it a lot because I got to work with new people I never met before,” said 12-year-old Daniele Delgado.

Each team learned how to create a business plan which they presented to an advisory board made up of local business owners and community leaders. They offered feedback and suggestions and ultimately approved a loan for each businesses.

“It was a lot like Shark Tank,” Simmons said.

The program’s supported by a number of local non-profits and funded by Interfaith Neighbors, which provided the loans. JET was modeled after a similar program in Trenton. The volunteer coordinators hope the pilot program will expand in schools.

“I know that our kids have this energy in them, if you just give them them the opportunity to do it,” said JET Program Founder Frank Syphax.

After weeks of work, these entrepreneurs finally got the chance to sell their products at Saturday’s Made in Monmouth event.

“There’s thousands of people that walk through this venue. These kids are now in the real world setting,” Eagles said.

Both businesses made a profit, although they’re still calculating the exact amount. They’ll decide together how to spend their hard-earned cash.