Chasing the American Dream: How Youth Entrepreneurs Helped These Students Succeed

Youth Entrepreneurs, supported in part by Koch Industries, keeps the American dream alive for two first-generation students.

August 30, 2017

She built a business on capturing the dreams and accomplishments of others – now she’s at Wichita State on scholarship chasing her own.

He created a PC repair business by fixing computers for friends and family members, but in 10 years, he could be fixing broken bones.

Today, as products of Youth Entrepreneurs, a growing national program that equips high school students in underserved communities with hands-on business experience, students Maribel and Long have a lot in common.

YE Alumni Survey Results - 99% Graduated High School - 61% Earned a bachelor

They’re both first-generation college undergrads beating the odds. They’ve both developed successful businesses while still in high school. And they both have parents who put in long hours at their local meat-packing plants to earn an honest living for their families.

In fact, the meat-packing industry in Finney County, Kansas, where Long calls home, is what attracts most immigrants (21 percent of the population) to this semi-arid oasis. They come from all over the world – Ethiopia, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Mexico and El Salvador, to name a few – drawn not simply by job opportunity, but a higher quality of life for their loved ones.

The situation is much the same 50 miles to the east in Ford County, Kansas, or “Cattle country USA.” Here, 54 percent of the population claims Hispanic or Latino heritage (like Maribel’s family), with immigrants totaling almost 28 percent of the county population – many of whom account for the more than 5,000 employees that keep two major county beef processors in business.

Both communities bear many similarities, but the lack of opportunities for minorities outside the meat-packing industry is perhaps the biggest. The foreign-born men and women who work in these plants know this, and it’s the reason so many willingly put in 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

While they take pride in their work, they also want more for their children, and many of their children – like Maribel and Long – want more for themselves. They want their piece of the American dream, and like their parents before them, they’re working hard to make it happen.

Focused on Her Education

When Maribel’s dad, Leopoldo, crossed into the United States from Mexico in the 1980s, he knew he was taking a risk. Leaving everything behind and seeking opportunity north of the border like so many of his fellow countrymen, he landed in Ford County and began piecing together a life with wife Julia.

“I have always been motivated by my mom and dad,” said Maribel. “They give me so much strength, and they’ve really proven to me how hard work and sacrifice gets you places.”

Through tough physical labor at the local meat-packing plant, shift after grueling shift, Leopoldo helped raise four kids on a blue-collar wage. But the example he set for his children every day he laced up his boots and clocked in – that tireless work ethic – has become his greatest gift to them.

It’s evident today in daughter Maribel, a 2017 high school graduate who recently began her freshman year at Wichita State University majoring in accounting. Always a standout student, her list of accolades is the stuff of any college admissions officer’s dreams.

Student body president. Youth Entrepreneurs ambassador. Ambassador for the National Society of High School Scholars. Future Business Leaders of America treasurer. Special Olympics volunteer. Homecoming queen.

That’s not including the two part-time jobs she juggled and her internship with the local chamber of commerce.

If that weren’t enough, over the course of two years in Youth Entrepreneurs, Maribel was able to turn her passion for videography into an additional side business called Everlasting Memories. Armed with a video camera, she’s shot several weddings, created sizzle reels for high school football players and captured a range of local events, like the rodeo and the Kansas Teachers’ Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

“I honestly didn’t even know that videography could be a business,” said Maribel. “That’s one of the many things that Youth Entrepreneurs has taught me – you can make a business out of almost anything as long as you know how to do something well or can provide a service.”

Participating in this year’s Youth Entrepreneurs Big Idea competition, where students pitch their business ideas and compete for capital grants, Maribel applied her learnings from Everlasting Memories to earn $600 in prize money. But it wasn’t her biggest win of 2017.  

That came in January, when she beat out more than 500 other high school seniors in Wichita State’s Distinguished Scholarship Invitational to earn one of two Harry Gore Memorial Scholarships valued at $60,000 over four years. It was validation of all her hard work and the sacrifices made not just by Maribel, but on her behalf.

“When I found out, I couldn’t hold it in. I hurried home and told my dad, and instantly I saw tears in his eyes. He just grabbed me and hugged me and said, ‘Congratulations, mija!’ I felt really, really proud of myself in that moment.”  

These were tears of both joy and relief. Maribel knew very early in her time as a high school student that if she wanted to continue her education after graduation, she was going to have to punch her own ticket. So with this single scholarship, all of the family’s worries gave way to overwhelming joy.

“They were even happier for me because they knew I worked my butt off those four years of high school,” said Maribel. “And to be able to tell them that they don’t have to help me pay for college … it’s pretty cool that we can just relax and not feel like it’s a burden.”

From Entrepreneur to Doctor

Sitting at his parent’s dining room table, Long begins disassembling a client’s computer with special care and a steady hand.

He twists and turns a precision screwdriver until the tiniest of screws pops out, then goes to work on the next one, and the one after that. 15 screws later and he’s exposed a green board with connectors and pins and cables that might look foreign to the average person, but his hands move around with familiarity.

Minutes pass, and he’s already diagnosed the problem; minutes after that, he’s fixed it and begun turning those 15 screws back into place. A successful reboot confirms the repair, and he lets out a small sigh of relief followed by the slightest of smiles. Then it’s on to the next one.

It’s all in a day’s work for this self-taught technician, currently a freshman at the University of Kansas majoring in biochemistry. As a high school student enrolled in Youth Entrepreneurs, Long started his own PC repair business, Zen Tech, and earned the largest capital grant ($1,800) in the Central Region’s Big Idea competition this year.

It was another feather in the cap of a student already familiar with achievement. Over the course of four years in high school, Long managed to refine his public speaking skills as a member of the varsity debate team, flexed his mental muscle as a member of the Scholar’s Bowl team, and medaled at the state chess championships.

But his success story would not have gotten its start without the difficulties endured by his grandfather, Day, many years back in the fields of Vietnam. A militia man fighting in support of the U.S. during the Vietnam War, Day was imprisoned for three years by the Vietcong when American forces pulled out of the country.

“Eventually, the Americans came back and drafted Vietnamese prisoners that helped the United States in the war,” said Long. “So my grandfather and grandmother came to Kansas. But it took 10 years to prove through DNA that my father was his son. We didn’t make it here until 2005, when I was seven years old.”

About Youth Entrepreneurs

Founded in 1991 by Liz Koch and her husband Charles (chairman and CEO of Koch Industries), Youth Entrepreneurs (YE) is a high school program that teaches students the skills necessary to start their own business, improve their marketability in the workforce and continue their education.

What began as an eight-week program in a single classroom in Wichita, Kansas, 26 years ago has grown to become a yearlong accredited course that has inspired more than 21,000 high school students in 10 states across the country.

Every year, the Central Region Youth Entrepreneurs course culminates with the Big Idea competition, where students pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges for a chance at earning capital grants. Maribel and Long were two of this year’s success stories.

Koch Industries is one of several companies and organizations committed to YE’s success.

Determined to provide a better life for the family in America, Long’s parents worked 70 hours a week at the local meat-packing plant to buy a modest house near the end of a cul-de-sac in a quiet working-class neighborhood.

But for Long, it’s stately compared to the three different trailers the family called home over their first five years in America – all of them located in a rough-and-tumble mobile home community where many immigrant families reside, unable to afford the costly move to safer haven.

“When we first came to America, we shared a trailer with 14 other family members,” said Long. “Now, this is the most financially comfortable we’ve ever been, and this is the nicest home that I’ve ever lived in. It’s the place I’m going to call home forever.”

Right now, however, home is the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Because of the simplicity of his business and minimal overhead, Long only needs a 20-dollar toolkit to perform most of his repairs, so he plans on continuing to run Zen Tech out of the small confines of his dorm room as he pursues his degree in biochemistry on scholarship. With a minor in business, of course.

“Being in Youth Entrepreneurs as well as having a business-centric mindset has actually helped me win scholarships,” he said. “Because when you apply for a scholarship, you basically pitch yourself to a committee. Then they have to decide if they buy into you as a person, what you represent and who you want to become.”

And he knows exactly who he wants to become: Dr. Long. More specifically, he dreams of one day working for Doctors Without Borders helping those most in need. It’s a fitting profession for someone so driven and determined to succeed, but also intent on selflessly serving others.

“From a very young age, I’ve always wanted to become a doctor,” said Long. “Not because of the money, not because of the wealth, but because I want to actually help people. You can kind of see that in Zen Tech … I help people fix their problems.”

Learn more about Youth Entrepreneurs

Suggested reading: Entrepreneurship: Always in Session

1 Results based on YE Alumni survey respondents;
2 The Atlantic, “Where are all the high-school grads going?” Jan. 11 2016; 2015 Common Core of Data (CCD), National Center for Education Statistics; www.census.gov, Educational Attainment in the United States 2015.