Pro Features

Teens building a business from behind bars – Young enterprise

As the Young Enterprise Scheme grows in popularity across Hawke’s Bay, a team with a difference has taken up the challenge of learning to run a business from inside the region’s prison.

The walls of the training room inside the youth unit at Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison are plastered with colourful sketches and handwritten rap lyrics. Notes and business strategies cover a whiteboard.

Five teenage prisoners sit around a table drawing and chatting to their tutor about marketing plans and promotional opportunities.

This is the nerve centre for one of the 64 Hawke’s Bay teams competing in this year’s The Lion Foundation Young Enterprise Scheme (YES) – but it’s a team with a difference.

YES is a nationwide network enabling senior high school students to set up and run their own businesses as part of a year-long programme where they learn entrepreneurial skills and compete for prizes.

Whereas all the other 63 Hawke’s Bay teams are groupings of students from the region’s schools, team Letz Lead is the first ever made up solely of serving youth prisoners.

The initiative follows on from last year when students from St John’s College in Hastings formed a joint team with youth prisoners. The merger proved successful, with leader Jake Dunn of St John’s winning the prestigious CEO of the Year award in the 2017 competition.

Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce’s Karla Lee, the local YES regional coordinator, says it’s an exciting development to have a full team based at the prison for the first time, given the valuable skills and experiences gained by participants in the scheme.

These include everything from creating a product, developing and executing a plan to sell it, through to pitching the idea to judges in a ‘Dragons’ Den’ style environment.

Letz Lead’s business idea is a book and music CD called Can You Relate?, which they plan to sell online.

Through their music and writing, the group hope to “start a discussion about bullying and to help individuals cope with bullying,” they say.

“It is made for youth to connect in a way where they can find the answers and help to solve their matters using our product.”

We can’t identify the members of the team, all aged 17 or 18, but when we met them they all spoke passionately about the project and the lessons they had learnt through being involved.

Their motivation to take on a project that addressed bullying was partly driven by US rapper Hopsin and his song Fly, a commentary on the huge role marketing and persuasion play in modern life.

“I did business studies at school in Year 9 but I didn’t think I’d get this far with business stuff,” one said.

“It’s really helped me a lot to understand how business stuff works.”

The same team member is currently combining the YES training with study toward a Certificate in Foundation Skills through the Open Polytechnic and says he wants to apply what he learns to a future career as a personal trainer.

Other team members also said they wanted to pursue business interests when they left prison.

“I’ve learnt it’s easier to work together as a team – you get things done that way,” another said.

The team got off to a good start, scoring 10 out of 10 in the assessment of the first task of the YES programme: conducting market research.

They surveyed fellow prisoners and secondary school students to establish how much interest there would be in a book on

bullying, who would be prepared to buy it, and how much they would be willing to pay.

When we visited the teens in July they were gearing up to promote their project through a campaign involving the distribution of 600 yellow anti-bullying bracelets to three highs schools.

Hastings Boys’ High School, Hastings Girls’ High School and Flaxmere College students would be encouraged to “make one, share one, wear one” with the aim of driving interest in the group’s Facebook page, where they would take orders for the book and CD.

Prison tutor Nic Scotland says being in prison means the group faces some unique challenges.

Nic says it’s hoped the team would pioneer the prison’s ongoing involvement with YES in future years.

“It’s not just a one-product business model. There’s so much that our young people can talk about, teach and get information out about. If this year is a success and we’ve got national buy-in, it makes it an easier platform to work on next year.”

Lawrence Ereatara, a residential manager at the prison, said being involved in YES was a chance for the young men to be exposed to opportunities they had never had before, as well as a chance to “dream big”.

He said the education they receive through the programme would help give them the knowledge and practical skills they needed to fulfil those dreams.

“Learning about business, and what it takes, is hard work. It’s about learning what the need is, how to promote it, what they want to achieve from their work – and it’s something they are passionate about as well.”

The group have been supported by YES’s Hawke’s Bay tutor Colette Mintoft and, like all teams in the scheme, the group have a mentor to call on for guidance, help and business advice. Theirs is Hastings District Councillor and long-time Flaxmere community advocate Henare O’Keefe.

He said most of the group would have been both perpetrators and victims of bullying.

“In the journey they’ve undertaken thus far, they’ve learnt a few lessons and they’ve received a few revelations – someone’s turned the light on. They feel a deep urge to share that with people and I really salute them for that.”

Henare said he knew some cynics would say the benefits of the programme would only last as long as the teens remained in prison.

“I hear all that but I say live in the moment. While they’re there, they’re passionate, they’re working on it. I’m 110 per cent behind them.”