Global venture

Rippling out from Chico, SAGE takes entrepreneurship to a new level

HE’S GOT THE JUICE<br>Justin Swisher was exposed to Chico State through SAGE (Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship). Now, he’s director of CLIC and heading to law school.

Justin Swisher was exposed to Chico State through SAGE (Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship). Now, he’s director of CLIC and heading to law school.

Photo By Bryce Benson

About the author
Bryce Benson is a former CN&R intern and journalism scholarship winner at Chico State University who recently began a spring-semester internship in the Lt. Governor’s Office in Sacramento.

Justin Swisher knows how to make the world a better place. “Lead by example,” he said, kicking his feet onto his desk at the Community Legal Information Center in Chico, looking forward to his last semester in college before he heads to law school.

On top of his stint as the director of CLIC, Swisher is a former president of the Sigma Chi fraternity, which during his tenure won the University Cup (recognition as the top frat on the Chico State University campus). He helped organize Sigma Chi events that raised more than $10,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Swisher recognizes his generation will need to fix the mistakes of previous leaders. He also recognizes that leaders aren’t born, they’re built through years of service, hard work and risk taking. That leadership requires experience. That experience entails involvement. That involvement requires a will. That a will grows from empowerment. That empowerment is an opportunity seized.

The opportunity that Swisher seized is known as SAGE—Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship. It brought him from the East Bay Area town of Benicia to Chico in 2005, during his senior year in high school, for the organization’s state tournament. Benicia High placed first, advancing to the nationals in San Francisco.

Swisher had organized the group Stewards for the Environment, which performed a coastal cleanup in his hometown. His involvement in SAGE during high school, he says, laid the foundation for him to take advantage of leadership opportunities in college, which he was exposed to during that trip his senior year at Benicia.

Nearly four years later, Swisher still remembers the answer to the last question a SAGE judge asked him at the California Tournament: “What’s the most important lesson you learned as an entrepreneur?”

“If you’re going to be successful, you have to be willing to take risks,” the then-17-year-old replied, calm despite being in front of the “largest audience in my life” in an Ayres Hall auditorium.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of SAGE.

What is SAGE? Founded in 2002 by Chico State business professor Curtis DeBerg, SAGE has a vision statement describing itself as “a transnational social-movement organization” that “strives to improve education by introducing business and social entrepreneurship to high-school-age youth.”

In other words: SAGE encourages students to start real-world ventures under the direction and guidance of mentors from nearby universities and the community at large. They compete annually in state, national and international competitions, but as Polly Farina, SAGE director at Benicia High, says, “More important than winning is the fact that these students are truly making a difference in their community.”

BUDDING ENTREPRENEURS<br>High school students network at a “Pitch-a-thon” event in Oakland. Their leadership program is joining forces with SAGE thanks to a $25,000 grant.

Photo Courtesy of fli

With minimal funding, the organization’s volunteer network has expanded to 16 countries and eight states. There are already more than 5,000 students in SAGE programs worldwide.

“My decision to start SAGE has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done as a professional educator,” said DeBerg, who funded the group during its start-up phase. Now that philanthropic entities like the Sierra Health Foundation, the Allstate Foundation and the Ken Grossman Family Foundation are lending support, defraying costs such as holding tournaments and sending university students to high schools to serve as mentors, DeBerg spends more time writing grant proposals than personal checks.

Rob Best, chief operating officer of SAGE, sees a simple reason for the organization’s boon. Speaking by phone in an airport terminal before catching a flight to Zambia, the newest point in the network, Best stated that “the work SAGE accomplishes is needed around the world.”

Indeed, after four days in Zambia, Best headed to Uganda for four days to assess the program there, which is now in its second year and thriving in 25 Ugandan schools.

Swisher’s alma mater is a success story inside a success story. Along with winning the SAGE California competition, Benicia has placed second in several state tournaments and in SAGE USA, the national tournament.

SAGE teams get judged on 10 criteria (please see sidebar, page 17). The students need to create and sustain entrepreneurial activities, whether for-profit or not-for-profit; demonstrate civic engagement, environmental sustainability and global awareness; and, finally, show how well they’ve used their resources, such as a business advisory board and college mentors, and how well they’ve measured their success.

Benicia’s 15 SAGE students are continuing last year’s project: an energy-audit business for low-income and senior housing, in conjunction with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. They also started a new venture this school year, called Green World, which is selling reusable water bottles at retailers in Benicia and Truckee.

To meet the civic-engagement requirement, explained Farina (Swisher’s former teacher), SAGE Benicia worked for the three years to get a stoplight at an intersection near the school. At first, she said, the Benicia City Council and Police Department scoffed at the notion, but when SAGE Benicia presented statistics of 82 crashes resulting in property damage over five years, the council reprioritized. Construction is scheduled to start June 1.

To meet the social and global entrepreneurship requirements, SAGE Benicia teamed up with SAGE Uganda to import and sell Ugandan arts and crafts. Also, Farina’s students will channel the profits from Green World to fund third-world entrepreneurs with micro-loans through

Ironically, SAGE is not as strong in the city of its founding. Pleasant Valley High School is dropping its SAGE program this year, DeBerg says, and Chico High School has participated only sporadically.

“The hardest part about starting a SAGE program can be finding teachers who are entrepreneurial enough themselves to run the organization,” DeBerg said. “It’s too bad Chico’s high schools don’t get involved, because we have outstanding students at Chico State who stand ready and willing to help.

SAGE ADVISER<br>Chico State professor Curtis DeBerg says his program’s participants “really believe they can make the world better.”

Photo Courtesy of fli

“What’s even more distressing is that Umpqua Bank has provided seed capital for these schools to launch a SAGE program, but no teacher has volunteered to champion it.”

(Calls for elaboration from the Chico Unified School District were not returned by press time.)

Nonetheless, out of Chico State University, SAGE continues to ripple far and wide.

Its origins trace to a similar program for college students. DeBerg, who teaches in the Accounting and Management Information Systems Department, served as faculty adviser to Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) from 1993 until 2005. He says he realized that not only is there a bigger “market” for entrepreneurs at the high school level, but also that by targeting youth, SAGE can focus on students who haven’t gotten opportunities afforded in college—and who are idealistic enough to believe that they can make an impact.

“I saw that students became extraordinarily motivated and enthused when they were empowered to identify, lead, operate, and assess the community-outreach projects that they chose,” he said. “By giving university students the chance to create their own learning opportunities, I saw how we could accomplish results at the high school level.”

Collectively and individually.

“Talk to any SAGE alumni, and they will say it made a huge impact in their lives,” DeBerg said. “They really believe they can make the world better, and their social capital is expanded exponentially.”

One such alumnus is Rob Martinez, a senior accounting major at Chico State who’s executive director of SAGE California, the state organization. “SAGE has given me the opportunity to take action in making our world a better place,” he said. “My awareness of global issues has increased, all while witnessing solutions to them presented through the SAGE network.”

Another such alumna is Helen Shi. While Swisher was at Benicia, Shi was president of the team from China that placed second in the 2005 SAGE World Cup, behind SAGE Ukraine. Now a bioscience major at Fudan University in Shanghai, she volunteers as the SAGE country coordinator for China.

“I don’t know what exactly a student will get from SAGE, because SAGE China is just like a mirror that helps students see their dreams, characters and weakness,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I encourage all the students in China [to] look [at] the world … believing that they can do something for their community and [that] winning is not everything.”

Mica Brown teaches business and advanced computer applications at Hiram Johnson High School in East Sacramento. His students run HJ Fresh N Fruity, a business selling bags of fruit and vegetables every week to staff, parents and community members, as well as putting out a newsletter about healthful eating habits and recipes using the food in the bags.

MAKING HER PITCH<br>Monica Jackson, a participant in the Future Leaders Institute program, draws applause for her proposal for an afterschool program.

Photo Courtesy of fli

“We are working with a group called Fresh Producers so that we can someday expand the business concept to other schools to encourage healthy eating by students and their families,” Brown said.

It’s just the sort of venture that’s fostered by SAGE, which, thanks to a recent $25,000 donation from the Sierra Health Foundation, will expand to Hiram Johnson, Galt, Cordova and Marysville high schools (and possibly Sacramento’s Health Professions High School).

“We really like that SAGE focuses on how young people can contribute their skills and talents to improve their communities while learning and applying business skills at the same time,” said Diane Littlefield, a senior program director at the Sierra Health Foundation in Sacramento. “SAGE is clearly a program at the cutting edge of incorporating real-world experience into the high-school experience.”

For his part, Brown said, “I joined the SAGE program to give my students a chance to experience what it’s like to run a real business and also to [interact] with other schools about how they developed and ran their program.”

Meanwhile, the Joseph Pedott Perpetual Endowment of San Francisco awarded a collaborative grant of $25,000 to SAGE California and the Future Leaders Institute. As a result, seven Bay Area high schools will participate in SAGE as part of their FLI (commonly pronounced “fly") activities.

Now in its fourth year, FLI has enabled more than 350 high school students from Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, Alameda and San Francisco to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others through a curriculum titled “Passion to Action.” Founder/Executive Director Eve Cowen said FLI graduates and sends 100 percent of its students to college; 15 percent are the first in their family to attend college.

That FLI and SAGE were built for each other was evident last month at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, where 30 FLI students participated in a “Pitch-a-thon” event. They pitched ideas for social enterprises to local business leaders, who responded with advice and constructive criticism. The ideas moved some in the audience to tears.

Darryl Kelley, of Gateway High School in San Francisco, wants to raise money and start a group for Bay Area high school students to visit and fulfill the wishes of the chronically ill youth at the UCSF Medical Center.

Inspired by Ishmael Beah’s book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Remy Alexander, of Albany High School, spoke of saving child soldiers in Africa by creating a network of students to lobby the United Nations.

Monica Jackson, of Oakland High School, wants to create a network of high school students who provide an after-school program for elementary students “who maybe don’t have parents around,” to teach them how to cook for themselves. Nervous speaking in public, she sprinted off the stage while the roughly 150 in the audience applauded.

DeBerg hopes to expand SAGE to the 192 countries in the United Nations by 2015, the year set out in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. A $7 million grant proposal pending with the Jewish Community Federation would ensure this expansion, DeBerg says, but with the economy souring, he realizes it’s a tough time for some to invest in nonprofits.

Still, he says, SAGE is currently talking with leaders in Romania, Bulgaria, Northern Ireland, United Arab Emirates, India and Thailand about launching in these countries later this year or in 2010.

DeBerg sees the combination of social enterprise, service-learning and civic engagement as a winning formula. ‘But it’s not easy,” he said. ‘Trying to get faculty at both the university and high school levels involved in programs like this is like trying to move a cemetery. However, more and more of the innovative and entrepreneurial faculty are latching onto this concept.”

It seems to match national priorities, too—namely the Obama administration’s push via as well as the San Francisco-based social entrepreneurship venture Through the latter site, people highlighted innovative ideas; the 10 receiving the most votes get presented to the White House. SAGE finished outside the top 10, but DeBerg was satisfied that it received consideration.

His message to Obama? “Empower youth. It’s their future.”