Instead of just talking about it, the pair has been refining “Big Brain Cards” all year as part of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA). The program, the first of its kind in Minnesota, is billed as “The Shark Tank” meets “The Apprentice,” both popular TV shows that feature entrepreneurs.

Last Wednesday, a panel of local investors awarded the pair $700 to start their business. During the final 10 weeks of the school year, the girls will get things off the ground, even filing the necessary paperwork with the state.

Mitchell got involved in YEA because she thought it “would be cool to be a girl business owner, because it’s kind of unexpected,” she said. “This is another great way for me to build a foundation, so I at least know what’s going on” in the business world.

Started in New York in 2004, YEA encourages students to explore entrepreneurship by starting a small business, said Todd Bornhauser, president of the Lakeville Chamber of Commerce and YEA program manager.

From October through May, students from the district’s three middle schools and All Saints Catholic School meet weekly after school for three hours to go over the curriculum taught by history teacher Stacy Luurtsema.

“You get to see some great ideas that come out of these students, and that, to me, is the most exciting part about it,” said Bornhauser.

YEA businesses specialize in everything from aerial photography to beeswax candles, three-ring binders to rosaries made out of chocolate. Some offer services, like a summer camp, or a website to help kids market their own businesses.

The Chamber of Commerce and the school district jointly offer the program, with many local businesses as sponsors. Getting it going has been a community effort, since it requires about 100 volunteers to serve as mentors, investors and speakers, he said.

Luurtsema said Lakeville has a “very active, very strong business community. Without that, [YEA] wouldn’t have been possible.”

Real money, real businesses

Rather than being theoretical, the program allows the students to experience the reality of starting a small business. Students deal with deadlines and criticism and are “treated like adults, in a sense,” said Luurtsema.

As part of YEA, 11 groups or individual students came up with initial business ideas and then created business plans, started websites and researched their competitors. They’ve also worked with a mentor, heard local business owners speak and gone on field trips to places like a local ­Subway franchise and a salon.

Bornhauser heard about YEA two years ago. He and the Chamber of Commerce “rallied behind it” because they were looking for a middle-level program to encourage entrepreneurship, he said.

The program is “a substantial time commitment,” especially given students are only in middle school, Bornhauser said.

But middle school has proved to be the perfect age for YEA. “To me, the kids are the easy part,” said Luurtsema. “They’re so excited and it’s just easy … to work with them when they have that drive and motivation.”

In addition to last week’s investor panel, during which a dozen local businesspeople put $500 each into a pot to be divided among the student businesses, there’s a trade show on May 22 where students will be showing and selling their wares.

Just like on “Shark Tank,” businesses asked investors for various amounts of money after each student team summarized their idea. Investors also asked tough questions, to be answered on the spot. Every business received something, from $150 to $1,325.

“It was an amazing group of kids. They knew so much, they presented so well,” said investor Patti McDonald of McDonald Eye Care Associates. “You wish you had more money to kick into the deal.”

Parent Bob McCune, who owns his own business, said he and his wife encouraged their son Michael to join YEA. The program is “just an amazing opportunity for a young person to learn all of the facets of starting their own business,” he said. “A lot of kids out there have ideas and don’t know where to start.”

His son Michael McCune, who along with partner Kyle Dawson created “Fit Bottle Band,” an elastic band with a movable clip that tracks how much water a person has drunk, said there were times he wanted to drop out because it was so much work. “But I just stuck with it and it was worth it,” he said.

Luurtsema said the students have learned skills beyond what might be expected. “I think they’ve learned a lot of not just business skills, but life skills,” she said.