This is the first in an ongoing series about community leaders in West Michigan implementing entrepreneurial skills in youth education.
Like any business, commercial screen printer Ambrose strives to provide their customers with a quality product at competitive pricing in a timely fashion. But something sets Ambrose apart–the company is run by five teen apprentices as part of the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) Social Enterprise Initiative.
Adam Weiler started Ambrose eight years ago as a means to fund an after school art and design program at the Holland Area Arts Council. Weiler graduated from Central College in Pela, Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in visual arts and mathematics. He was inspired by the experience of having a difficult time applying his skill set after college and sought to create a program that would better equip high school students to make beneficial decisions early on.
Overtime, Ambrose grew and the company was able to expand its services, create a product line, open a retail space and successfully fund the after school programming at no cost to the students.
“At the core of it, we were starting to help students explore the business side of creativity and the creative side of business,”Weiler said.
When it came time to take the next step, Ambrose sought partnership with WMCAT, an organization that provides creative after school programming for teens in the Grand Rapids Public School district. While Ambrose was looking to expand further, WMCAT wanted a way to keep their alumni connected to their programming post-graduation. The two joined forces and merged in 2015.
“Ambrose offers them (WMCAT alumni) a place where they can get a living wage while receiving opportunities, mentor ship and support,” Kirk Eklund said, program director for social enterprise at WMCAT.
The first group of Ambrose apprentices began in the summer of 2015. The apprentices, all of whom are alumni of WMCAT’s Teen Arts and Tech Program, range from ages 18-20. They work from 10-30 hours each week and are involved in every aspect of the company. Their responsibilities include developing production schedules, creating product, customer service, ordering blank goods, social media and marketing management. Before starting, they were given a crash course in business acumen, including the business model canvas. Through teaching the apprentices how to bring products to life and engage in meaningful business practices while working together as a team, the program aims to give them the ability to invest in their college years in a way that will be beneficial to them in the long term.
Margaret Anikso, 19, is a WMCAT alumni and Ambrose apprentice.
“My favorite part about it is just being immersed in the business and getting real world experience,” Anisko said.
Anisko attended high school at Nexus Academy of Grand Rapids and is currently going to Grand Rapids Community College for business management.
The apprentices are also involved in developing metrics to gauge the success of the program. They regularly address three factors when determining what is working and what isn’t: Is it investing in the student’s ability to grow, is it profitable for WMCAT and is it delightful for the customer?
Ambrose’s unique programming has garnered a positive response from their customers and the community. Marketing firm Williams Group is an Ambrose client and recently spent an afternoon talking to the apprentices about marketing jobs and career paths. This, Weiler says, is kind of interaction that Ambrose strives for.
“We don’t want customers, we want collaborators,” Weiler said. “Our goal is for students to better understand the ways that they can use their unique skill sets in ways that benefit companies, communities and nonprofits. To have folks open their doors just to say, ‘I’m a graphic designer and this is what I do everyday,’ is so helpful.”
Ambrose is just the beginning of social enterprise at WMCAT. Eklund and Weiler plan to refine the model and expand it to include other programs in order to diversify employment opportunities for students as well as diversify WMCAT’s income strain.
“The most rewarding thing has been seeing the apprentices realize that they have the ability to shape the environment they work in,” Weiler said. “ … that they don’t just have to inherit the systems that are inefficient, but they have the tools necessary to change those things.”
For more information about Ambrose at WMCAT, please visit www.wmcat.org/social-enterprise/