A small group of young women, dressed in business attire and looking busy on their laptops, recently gathered at the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship anxiously awaiting the start of a 13-week journey to better prepare them for their futures. These young ladies were the third cohort of Junior Achievement (JA) Rising Women, composed of high school girls from across Howard County who meet weekly to explore entrepreneurship first-hand as they launch their own business.

Junior Achievement of Central Maryland was awarded a grant by the Howard County Women’s Giving Circle in 2015 to facilitate the JA Rising Women program, giving participants the opportunity to develop impactful soft skills while sparking the entrepreneurial spirit.

“I have never seen an opportunity like this in my entire life, which is saying something because Howard County is filled with many unique options for extracurricular activities,” said Atholton senior Ashley Martin, CEO of this fall’s Rising Women cohort. Martin recently was given her first difficult task: to choose her CFO from two highly qualified candidates. Under the guidance of her mentor, Thomas Lah, CEO of GamersOnline Inc., she was able to assess her options and choose her finance counterpart on the leadership team.

Initial Successes

Mentors are integral to the program, serving as guides and sounding boards as the students make the big and small decisions that impact the course of the company. “Our role is to guide these young people as they face difficult decisions through the program. It’s very rewarding to see them make the tough choices that they do. We don’t do it for them,” said Sylvia Downing, a three-time mentor for the program.

Throughout the several months that the program spans, the students design and execute their own developed business plan to turn a profit and gain experience in decision-making and real-world collaboration. In the fall of 2015, the first Rising Women company, SnoozzzyScents, sold out of its inventory of scented pillowcases and netted a profit of $500. The second company, born in the spring of 2016 called Chillowco, borrowed market research from its predecessor to build on the concept of customized pillowcases with the launch of cooling pillowcases in time for the summer months. Chillowco profits reached nearly $1,000.

Mentoring Young Women

The unique path that each company takes serves up its own challenges and obstacles. Navigating through these hurdles in a short span of time arms the women with skills and knowledge that they can take with them in whatever career path they choose.

Take Jasper Lee, a Rising Women graduate who participated in both after-school cohorts of the program last year, as well as a the classroom version, called JA Company Program, in her high school marketing class. She had the unique experience of launching a business in the all-female environment of Rising Women and in a predominantly male environment at school.

In all three of the programs, she chose to work on the marketing team, a natural choice given her creative disposition. In Rising Women, she started to speak up more and share her ideas with the whole company team. She disagreed when things didn’t sit right with her and made her opinions heard.

In contrast, in the classroom setting, she never spoke unless she was spoken to. When the program mentors asked her about the difference, she said that the environment of JA Rising Women made her feel more empowered.

A Rising Cohort

Creating more environments like these where young women can flourish is vital to sustain the momentum that women are achieving in entrepreneurship. The 2012 U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners reported that 36% of businesses are owned by women, up by 30% from 2007. This is attributed to the tendency of women to display greater innovation and adaptability. A January 2016 article by Forbes also reports that women leaders provide deeper value while being cost-effective.

This fall, the current cohort of Rising Women was greeted by Peter Ettinger, executive director of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE), who inspired the young women about the possibilities and potential paths that they will encounter. He stressed the importance of mentors and commended JA Rising Women for providing the platform on which the participants may soon discover much about themselves.

Ettinger’s enthusiasm set the stage for the company members to explore, collaborate, take risks and find success through failure — all important components to empowering themselves to be future women business leaders.

Hina Naseem is a regional director for Junior Achievement of Central Maryland, overseeing program outreach and implementation in Howard, Anne Arundel and Frederick counties. She can be reached at 410-363-6403.