Rising Women, a unique Junior Achievement of Central Maryland (JA) program made possible through a partnership with the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) and the Women’s Giving Circle of Howard County (WGC), is training the next generation of female entrepreneurs.

Open to female high school students in Howard County (grades 9–12), Rising Women allows participants to explore their entrepreneurial potential with the help of a team of female professionals who serve as mentors.

Members of WGC, a fund of the Community Foundation of Howard County, awarded JA an $80,000 grant in 2015 to support entrepreneurship programs for young women in area high schools.

Distributed over three years, the WGC funds will help “to prepare young women for economic success by providing hands-on opportunities that honor, value and celebrate the female perspective, experiences and unique development,” said Megan Bruno, immediate past WGC Advisory Board chair.

As part of the 13-week after-school program, the JA Rising Women team conceptualizes an idea for a product or service, capitalizes the venture, markets the product and works to make a profit.

Over the three-year period, JA anticipates providing in-depth entrepreneurial experiences to 135 young women.

Next Gen Thinking

The inaugural Rising Women program was hosted by the Howard County Economic Development Authority’s Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship and ran from November through February. During that time, the first cohort of 19 students launched a company called Snoozzzy Scents and designed a pillowcase with a sewn-in pocket that holds a replaceable scented sachet.

The second cohort, consisting of 22 students hosted by Columbia-based BTS Software Solutions, elected to further refine the product, developing a complementary cooling pillow that accommodates a freezable gel pack for personal comfort or therapeutic use.

“They will use social media to market the product, and will also have to package it in a way that’s appealing and cost-effective,” said JA Regional Manager Hina Naseem.

According to JA of Central Maryland President Jennifer Bodensieck, the program is designed to “instill an entrepreneurial mindset that fosters confidence, innovation and achievement among the next generation of women business leaders.”

But more importantly, she said, the program gives young women the opportunity to explore a new side of themselves in an environment that removes the influence of everyday social pressure.

“They feel safe enough to test things out here, to be another person and take risks or be assertive,” Naseem said. “They have their own social issues within the team, of course, but if they’re awkward, they can own that awkwardness here. They’re learning they can be comfortable speaking with [people they don’t know], and it’s rewarding to see their confidence grow.”

Real-World Experience

Rising Women’s team of mentors includes expertise in finance, sales, marketing, entrepreneurship and other disciplines. The mentors also provide a focus on the work ethic and workplace expectations, and work with the students on soft skills, including interviewing, proper attire and face-to-face interaction on the job.

Tracy Williams, a mentor involved in the business of information technology for Exelon Corp., observed that the fundamentals of business are new to this age group and this demographic of Howard County. “We’re bringing them real content and practical applications, things they wouldn’t get through an internship where all they do is make photocopies,” she said. “We treat them as an employee in a real-world way so they understand it’s not all roses and sugarcanes. It’s bringing real-world experience to them.”

Sylvia Downing, who serves as a customer liaison with a supervisory role in the federal workplace, also draws on her experience as a Mary Kay Cosmetics entrepreneur to mentor the students.

“It’s one thing to see them take advantage of the opportunity they’re being given, but they’re already taking the next step, asking themselves what they’ll do with this experience,” Downing said. “It’s great.”

Even though they’re still in high school, many of the students have a clear idea of how they’ll apply what they’re learning.

“I’ve always been interested in the accounting and finance side of business, and I really enjoy math,” said Alexandra Pickett, a Marriotts Ridge junior. “This is giving me a chance to try out that economic side of things and see if it’s something I’m interested in as a career.”