The question isn’t whether Cooper High School junior Yemanekirstos Mulusew will start his own business, but when — and whether he launches it before his next birthday.

After some online research, the enterprising Mulusew bought a couple of vending machines and now is looking for office buildings where he can put them. “The goal is to get an official business before I turn 18,” said Mulusew, now 17.

Adding fuel to Mulusew’s entrepreneurial drive has been classroom and other programs from BestPrep, a Brooklyn Park-based nonprofit organization that offers experience-based educational programs in business, careers and financial literacy.

Up to 60,000 students will take part in BestPrep programs this year, with more than 3,000 professional volunteers visiting classrooms, mentoring students through e-mail exchanges on business and workplace skills, hosting on-site tours and leading weeklong entrepreneurial summer camps.

Mulusew’s latest BestPrep activity took place last month at Classroom Plus Career Day at Cargill’s Wayzata location. There, he joined classmates from (Robbinsdale) Cooper and students from (Robbinsdale) Armstrong High School, Hopkins High School and Roseville High School.

The students, many wearing business attire, learned about soft and hard professional skills and got inside information on 15 career fields, from marketing and information technology to strategic sourcing, transportation and logistics, and tax and customs, from 60 Cargill volunteers.

“It’s shown me that it’s more of a grown-up world,” Mulusew said of what he has learned through BestPrep, including his Cargill-sponsored trip last year to BestPrep’s Minnesota Business Venture summer camp. “If you say something you have to be able to get it done. You’ve got to stick to your word.”

‘Grown-up world’

In helping to prepare students for that “grown-up world,” BestPrep has pursued an entrepreneurial course of its own under president and CEO Bob Kaitz. He has led the organization since its start in 1974 as a pilot project at Breck School, where he was an economics teacher and basketball coach.

Kaitz himself was in high school when he began organizing fundraising projects. “My dad was a small-business man, and I always liked the thought of creating something,” said Kaitz, who has a business degree from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, a social work degree from the U and a master’s degree in secondary education from the University of St. Thomas. “I’m in the right spot, working both with businesses and education.”

Through Breck contacts, Kaitz met a 3M executive who introduced him to executives at Cargill, General Mills, Ecolab and the Peavey Co. All five companies were founding supporters when BestPrep formally launched as a nonprofit organization in 1976. Four still are among the nonprofit’s top 10 providers of volunteers and financial contributions. (ConAgra acquired Peavey in 1982). BestPrep, which has a staff of 12, raised $1.3 million last year.

Todd Schnobrich, a vice president of information technology at Cargill and BestPrep board member for 10 years, said he has seen BestPrep programs make a difference for students ranging from those taking part in Career Day to his oldest son, whose participation in BestPrep programs influenced his career interests.

“Seeing the kids and the value of what their exposure to BestPrep brings to their potential is what has kept me connected” to the organization, Schnobrich said.

BestPrep board chair Martha Field, community relations manager at Thomson Reuters, a BestPrep sponsor, said Kaitz’s leadership has helped the organization grow.

“Bob has had the vision and the capacity to look forward,” Field said. “He’s very open and willing to explore ways of doing it differently and better. That’s an asset you don’t often find.”

BestPrep will recognize outstanding students, teachers and volunteers at its Annual Luncheon on May 22 at the Earle Brown Center in Brooklyn Park. Dan and Angie Bastian, CEOs of Angie’s Kettle Corn, will be the keynote speakers at the event, which is BestPrep’s primary yearly fundraiser. Visit BestPrep’s website to register to attend or to sponsor the event.

BestPrep will also host its Educational Forum on Oct. 16, featuring former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley. The forum, which takes place every other year, helps build BestPrep’s reserve fund.


Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is