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Asha Sharma is having a very intensive college experience. Responsible for helping to pay for her schooling, the 22-year-old marketing major has so far had seven full- or part-time paid internships at Microsoft, Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, and other global corporations. And she takes so many credit hours each semester she expects to graduate a semester early from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
One of her best friends and classmates, Matt Norris, is working toward dual degrees in marketing and management information systems, all while doing considerable work as a youth consultant for the city of Brooklyn Park and applying to law schools. Norris, 21, has collected a few internships, too, at the Minnesota Senate and in Sen. Amy Klobuchar's Washington office.
In their spare time, they're spending upward of 30 hours a week preparing to open a 5,400-square-foot facility, the A-List, for at-risk teenagers in Brooklyn Park.
"Why? I guess the short answer is, going to college just wasn't enough for us," says Norris.
When the A-List opens in November, it will house a screen-printing shop, a snack shop, a career center, a lounge, meeting spaces and a portable stage. It will be run almost entirely by teenagers and college students, who will be paid above minimum wage.
The original idea came from a group of Park Center High School students in 2007; they wanted to transform an abandoned gas station near their school into a teen-run snack shop. The students floated the idea before the Brooklyn Park City Council, but nothing ever really took hold.
Norris, who's from Brooklyn Park, watched all this transpire from afar, but kept his classmates' idea in the back of his mind. And when he met an equally motivated go-getter in the form of Asha Sharma, he told her: "There's an idea in my hometown that I think could actually work." Despite having never stepped foot in Brooklyn Park, Sharma, a Racine, Wis., native, jumped at the chance to help.
"Matt is one of those young people who is so passionate, so with it. He really gets things done," said Jan Ficken, Brooklyn Park's recreation programs manager who hired Norris when he was 17 to work as a youth planner. "And now that he's found Asha -- wow."
As freshmen, Sharma and Norris recruited an executive board, set up their legal 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and developed an elaborate business plan. As sophomores, they began raising money, first $10,000 from Ernst & Young, then more from Best Buy, Cargill and the McKnight Foundation. (They have $200,000 in the bank now, but need $100,000 more.)
They also assembled a group of 15 Brooklyn Park teenagers to act as an advisory council. They set up their website at thealistyouth.org and began sponsoring community events in Brooklyn Park to get the word out. Plus, they sought innumerable coffee dates with local movers and shakers, hunting for help and money.
"I agreed to a little breakfast meeting, and I thought that maybe I would give them some advice and that's where it would end," said Jim Smart, principal of Smart & Associates in Minneapolis, a noted designer of retail spaces and restaurants including the Landmarc Grill and Fuji Ya. "But they were so effervescent. And they both have these big, big eyes. I told him I'd design the whole thing, pro bono."
The eldest son of two wildlife biologists, Norris is the bubbly one, most at home in subcommittee meetings, scribbling collective ideas on a white board. Sharma, the daughter of an Indian father and a New Zealander mother, is the more buttoned-down one: She schedules her days in 15-minute increments and keeps a complexly coded daily planner and a backup version of her daily tasks on a smartphone.
What they have in common is a taste for work, work, work. When they won their first $10,000 for the A-List by way of a national collegiate competition, they celebrated by setting up another meeting.
"If I could have one wish, it would be that I didn't have to sleep," said Norris. "It's such a waste of time."
Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis free-lance writer.