From solving mobility problems to creating streetwear, Ypsilanti-area youth explore entrepreneurship

We talked to several young entrepreneurs and adults who run entrepreneurship-related programs for youth in the Ypsilanti area.
Unlike previous generations, millennials and Generation Z are more inclined to explore entrepreneurship at a younger age. According to Forbes, baby boomers typically launched their first businesses around the age of 35, whereas millennials began their entrepreneurial journeys around the age of 27.

The trend of young people choosing to work for themselves rather than for an established company has touched the Ypsilanti area as well. Young people in their teens, 20s, and sometimes even younger are inventing solutions to mobility problems and launching products ranging from streetwear to lip gloss.

Some young people are doing this on their own, while others are pursuing entrepreneurship through a variety of local programs. We talked to several young entrepreneurs and adults who run entrepreneurship-related programs for youth in the Ypsilanti area.

Turning a side hustle into a full-time job

Christian Knox of Thrift Activist.Christian Knox, a 22-year-old Ypsi resident, recently graduated from college and is reselling vintage clothing as a side hustle under the name Thrift Activist. He began the business at age 19 during his sophomore year of college, reselling sneakers at first. When he explored a thrift store in Angola, Ind., where he was in college at the time, he realized that he might be able to sell other kinds of vintage clothing on eBay.

"I'm good at finding vintage jerseys, sweatshirts, Levi's from the '80s or '90s, mostly menswear," he says.

Knox hopes to expand Thrift Activist to be his full-time job in 2024, adding a line of new clothing of his own design. Knox played basketball in college, so some of his clothing designs will be sports-inspired. But he says he also loves reading and wants to print "quotes from books that resonate with me" on T-shirts.

"The business continues to grow at a good pace, and if I can lock in and focus on it, I will be a full-time reseller this summer," Knox says. 

Mentoring young inventors and entrepreneurs

While Knox started his side hustle on his own, other young entrepreneurs are building their skills through programs ranging from Michigan Works! Southeast's Summerworks program to Elevation Youth Corp. to a variety of initiatives for young inventors.

Micah Ferguson modeling a Bizarre Trinkets hat.Micah Ferguson, 22, sells crocheted apparel through her brand Bizarre Trinkets and says she gained many of her entrepreneurial skills through participating in the Summerworks program. She now splits her time between living with her family in Ypsilanti and attending university in Kalamazoo, but went through the Summerworks program in Ypsilanti when she was in her teens.

Ferguson says she always felt a sense of rebellion against managers and uniforms. She thinks a willingness to explore starting a business or side hustle is common in her generation, especially since social media has shifted the playing field toward gig culture.

She says she knew she knew she wanted to study communications and entrepreneurship in college. Ferguson says that's because she had the idea that if other people could start their own businesses, she could too, and she wants to "light that spark in others."

Other aspiring entrepreneurs are gaining experience at a young age through programs at Ypsilanti-based Elevation Youth. Co-founder Yolanda Ragland says the organization is "grounded in the creative arts" but has included entrepreneurship from the start, especially with its strong emphasis on multimedia services. Besides, artists are also entrepreneurs of a sort, selling their own talents.

Ragland says Elevation Youth's summer 2023 program brought in working artists and entrepreneurs to talk to participants, from the owner of a local nonprofit to recording artist Kenyatta Rashon. Ragland says the "kids really loved it." In 2021, Elevation Youth also hosted a youth pop-up shop, with proceeds going to buy coats for area residents in need.
Keith Ragland (right) leading a podcasting workshop at Elevation Youth Corps with Elleona Ragland and Skyler Shaw-Hillman.
"We had several young entrepreneurs that joined us," Ragland says. "There was a young lady called Havana who has a lip gloss company she calls Drippy Lips, and my daughter Elleona was selling her artwork."

Ragland says the pop-up shop was "a really great success" for all involved.

Inspiring young inventors

Eastern Michigan University professor Shiri Vivek is one of the founders of Dare 2 Design, an Ypsilanti-based program that promotes entrepreneurial skills for kids as young as second grade. She's also currently running an InvenTeam, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-sponsored group of students and mentors using technology to solve community problems. The local InvenTeam is one of only eight nationwide this year. Dare 2 Design and the local InvenTeam are both hosted at SPARK East in Ypsilanti.

Vivek says that, instead of frontloading the children's experience with descriptions of different STEM disciplines, Dare 2 Design and InvenTeam group leaders start by asking the kids what problem they want to solve and what strengths they are bringing to the project.

Vivek says she can't disclose confidential details of the project her teens are working on through the InvenTeam program, but it involves helping seniors with mobility issues. The InvenTeam receives funding for prototyping, as well as access to mentors from MIT and the tech industry.
Shiri Vivek at an InvenTeam meeting at SPARK East.
Vivek encouraged her own 17-year-old daughter, Suhani Dalela, to participate in the InvenTeam program with a surprising result. Dalela had been adamant that she didn't want to be an engineer like her mother, but she reconsidered a STEM career after participating in the program and bonding with a mentor.

Vivek says students are often hooked after attending an Invention Convention or other big event and making the connection between their life goals and what they're learning. Through connections made in the InvenTeam program, Dalela ended up co-authoring an academic paper and winning a first-place award for presenting an invention at an international conference.

"At the beginning, it took a little strong-arming, not going to lie," Dalela says. "But all it took was to take me to a state-level Invention Convention and [see] what kids my age were doing. That made me feel like maybe if kids my age are doing it, maybe it's not too hard. Maybe this is something I can do."

Dalela invented an "acupressure-based fatigue reliever" that allows the user to press on certain meridians and give themselves a boost in energy without caffeine. She says invention programs are "not just about learning technical skills."
Suahni Dalela at an InvenTeam meeting at SPARK East.
"After the program, you have to talk about the process you went through to make your product, and the judges will ask who your market is and how much you'd sell it for," Dalela says. "You're essentially doing market research for a mini-business."

Ferguson says she thinks her peers' inclination toward entrepreneurship relates to "a drive to make a legacy for oneself."

"Definitely, in interactions with my peers across Michigan, a majority of people want to create something they're proud of and stand behind it. Or sometimes it's about something you want to change," Ferguson says. "They want to build something that's more than a business, but a passion, or to simply share something they made."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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