Youth Entrepreneurship

The Gianforte Family Foundation works to support organizations that equip others with the means to improve their lives and create lasting change. Since its creation the foundation has given over $59.9 million to projects designed to help individuals and families flourish, spiritually and economically. 

The Philanthropy Roundtable sat down with Catherine Koenen, executive director of the Gianforte Family Foundation, to discuss youth entrepreneurship and how the foundation is creating opportunities in Montana.

To start, please tell me a little about the Gianforte Foundation.

The Gianforte Family Foundation supports organizations that equip people to improve their lives in a sustainable way. Our first grant was made in 2005, and since then we’ve given over $69 million to operating charities. The bulk of our giving is in our home state of Montana, and we accomplish our mission through the on-the-ground efforts of organizations that work to improve education, support entrepreneurship, and create jobs, as well as faith-based organizations engaged in outreach work, strengthening families, and helping the needy.


Why the focus on youth entrepreneurship and how does it fit into your giving portfolio? 

One of our four focus areas is jobs, education, and entrepreneurship, and it’s our largest area in terms of funding. Poverty is so intertwined with other factors that leave families and individuals struggling. A good job is a key step for getting people out of or keeping them from entering poverty. Since education and entrepreneurship are ways to help people gain or create good jobs, we can really get behind those ideas and the impact they can have on people improving their lives for the long term.

When kids learn and grasp the entrepreneurial mindset, they learn about solving problems and taking risks, but they also see that taking a concept from an idea to a successful business is something they could  do. They see how they can use their ideas to make money, and with that money do things like expand their business, buy a house, and provide for their family. They see possibilities for their future.

Montana is mostly rural, and in some places it’s hard for kids to imagine a life where they can stay in their community after graduating from high school, receiving a trades education, attending college, or participating in military service, and still prosper. We want our kids to be able to stay here if they want to and giving them a mind for entrepreneurship, whether they start a business from scratch or not, puts them that much closer to creating their success, even in a small town.


As I understand it, The Philanthropy Roundtable had a hand in inspiring some of your recent youth entrepreneurship investments! Can you tell us more about the connection between the Roundtable and your recent investments in youth entrepreneurship, particularly Youth Entrepreneurs? 

We heard about Youth Entrepreneurs (YE) a few years ago, but it really hit home in the fall of 2017. YE is based in Kansas, and at that time had no programs in Montana. We were funding a program that expanded entrepreneurship awareness and opportunities in Montana, and the director for that program attended a Roundtable work skills conference in Detroit. There, she met the staff from YE and learned more about the program. When she returned, she was ready to hit the ground running, bringing YE to Montana.  We were completely on board with expanding comprehensive, entrepreneurial education for youth around the state, and we liked the YE curriculum.  We provided startup funding to get the Montana expansion arranged and have provided funding to keep it growing through its infancy. This coming fall will be its second year here and it continues to grow.


How has the foundation collaborated with other youth entrepreneurship funders in Montana?

YE is a high school curriculum, and since the beginning our goal has been to introduce it in all 56 counties in Montana. We started our pilot year last fall with six teachers, scattered at schools around the state. For this upcoming school year, we have 16 teachers on board so far. Our Montana team has also introduced YE to larger state organizations, like 4-H and Jobs for Montana's Graduates (JMG), both of which are excited to integrate YE into their programs. It will expand the reach of YE’s principles outside the traditional high school classroom, to reach even more youth. Those two entities are examples of organizations that are contributing their own resources, such as supplies and training days, to further this work within their programs. In addition to the 16 teachers, there are four other staff from 4-H and JMG that are being trained, and this fall JMG (which has over 40 schools in the state) will have a portion of their annual summer workshop dedicated to YE training.

The schools have also been big supporters. Our team wanted to bring YE to Montana with an approach that got the teachers on board before trying to do it at a larger administrative level. That was so successful that last fall, right after the start of the pilot year, YE had a session at the annual CTE teacher conference. Not only did this get more teachers interested, but it showed the value to the overall administration. We’ve begun to see support for the program, and even some funding, from the state level.

In addition to all of this, YE-MT’s team has been reaching out to other donors for sustaining support. They see a lot of this coming from the communities of the schools where YE is being implemented. The model allows for local businesses to easily donate items needed for the classes, and with a per-classroom price model, it’s simple for groups in a community to sponsor a classroom.


What are your future goals and aspirations, regarding the YE program and other investments, to build opportunities for youth to see entrepreneurship as a viable tool, skill, and possible career?

We are still working to get YE to more counties in the state. The growth and support we’ve seen in only its second year indicate that our goal is not out of reach! Montana is also the first statewide launch of YE, and our team has developed components that could become models for YE nationally. We have statewide programs integrating YE, like the two I mentioned above, a peer-based professional development community through an organized quarterly conference call with YE-MT educators, and a visiting program that I’m especially excited about. YE-MT has connected with YE's Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) in Los Angeles, and this summer nine students and two faculty from ICEF traveled to Bozeman to participate in the Montana Start-Up Academy. The Academy was a four-day workshop put on by One Montana, a nonprofit that has been an instrumental partner with us in bringing YE to Montana. The Academy brings youth entrepreneurship teams from around the state together, so we had the Montana kids and the California kids participating together and doing other team-building activities beforehand.


Looking back on this still evolving investment, do you have any parting words of advice for other funders interested in supporting or promoting youth entrepreneurship?

Do your research! There are many good entrepreneurship programs for youth, so find the one that shares your values and accomplishes your goals. Also, consider how you want to promote youth entrepreneurship — do you want to focus on helping one program scale, or support the variety of programs that may already be in existence? We’ve chosen to do the former. And finally, whenever you can, go out and meet the kids participating in the program. It’s really the best way to see your projects in action — to see what is working and what isn’t, and to meet some very inspiring individuals.


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