From the downtown addition of The Mill on Park to plans for the University of South Carolina Aikenís new MBA program in early 2015, thereís a renewed spirit of entrepreneurism buzzing around Aiken these days. Along with these initiatives, the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce in partnership with USC Aiken and Aiken County Schools has an exciting new program focused on young entrepreneurs.


Last year the Aiken Chamber created a 24-member Blue Ribbon Panel to identify the next big ideas for our community. The panel was comprised of Aikenís best strategic thinkers who looked for best practices, innovations and programs/projects that could add to the quality of life for the Aiken area.


One topic that quickly appeared on the panelís radar was entrepreneurism and the need to stimulate growth of new and ongoing ventures in our community. The topic became the impetus for one of our key initiatives for 2014 Ė expanding the Chamberís economic vitality emphasis, to include creating a program that fosters an entrepreneurial culture in young people, educators and the community while instilling personal, social and economic values. To accomplish this goal, the Chamber partnered with a proven national program, the Young Entrepreneurs Academy or YEA! And we are especially thrilled to be the very first YEA! program in the state of South Carolina.


YEA! is a groundbreaking after-school program that transforms local middle and high school students into confident entrepreneurs. Through the year-long program, students generate business ideas, conduct market research, write business plans, pitch to a panel of investors and launch their very own companies. From local business guest lecturers to dynamic field trips to local companies, students learn how to develop and run a real enterprise in a real-world, projects-based approach.


Students in sixth through 12th grade are eligible to participate in the program; typically students are between 11 and 18 years of age. In the 2012-2013 school year, YEA! helped 495 students start 345 businesses. Statistics from previous classes show: YEA! supports under-served populations, 100 percent of YEA! students graduate high school on time, and 99 percent of YEA! graduates enroll in college. Beginning this fall, the first Aiken YEA! class will host up to 24 students from public, charter, private and home schools in a 30-week program at USC Aiken. If you know young people who could benefit from participating in this program, encourage them to do so. You can learn more about applying to the program at www.aikenchamber.net or by calling the Chamber at 803-641-1111.


The Aiken Chamber is very grateful for the businesses who have stepped up to invest in young entrepreneurs through YEA! including: EDTS and Margaretís Garden Adult Daycare as Champion Sponsors; Bridgestone and SRP Federal Credit Union as premier sponsors; B&S Machine Tool Inc., Manpower, MAU Workforce Solutions, Real Estate One, Serotta Maddocks Evans, CPAís and URS Ė Professional Solutions as invest panel sponsors; and DayBreak, EZ Go, Mobile Office Management, State Farm - Denny Michaelis, VistaBank and Wayneís Automotive and Towing Center†as program/scholarship sponsors.


A program that encourages the next generation of entrepreneurs can be the fuel that really ignites and diversifies our local economy. I canít wait to be inspired by Aikenís bright young minds as we celebrate creativity and innovation through YEA!


Dr. Deidre Martin is the chair of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and the Vice Chancellor of Advancement at USC Aiken. She is also chair of The Mill on Park Advisory Council.