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ORGANIZATIONS : PROFESSIONAL WOMEN'S NETWORK : Business Trials : Students go through all the motions of setting up shop in a scholarship program sponsored by a professional women's group.


Up until a few months ago, what Ventura High School students Jennifer Nelson, Jackie Bauleke and Andja Jokanovic knew about business wouldn't have filled one line on an empty chalkboard. But in less than eight weeks, the three classmates learned more about the intricacies of being entrepreneurs than some people do in years.

First, the 18-year-old seniors came up with an idea for a business, found a good location for it, obtained the necessary financing, set up bank accounts and applied for necessary permits and licenses.

Next, they got insurance, dealt with the Internal Revenue Service, developed a bookkeeping system, produced a marketing strategy and created an employee handbook. And before they had time to catch their breath, the former novices were the successful owners of a consignment store on Main Street.

Well . . . almost were the successful owners.

The students never actually opened their doors to customers, but then again, they weren't expected to. The business they set up was a mock one, put together as part of an annual scholarship program sponsored by the Ventura County Professional Women's Network.

Established nine years ago, the network offers businesswomen the chance to introduce themselves to others, as well as to exchange ideas and services at monthly dinner meetings. The scholarship program was developed as an extension of the organization's goal to "promote the personal and professional growth of women in Ventura County," according to network co-founder Diane Koranda.

Under the program, funded by gifts from businesses and corporations throughout the county, three seniors from each of the district's nine high schools are selected to be on each business-creating team. The students are then paired with members of the network--many of whom are in banking, real estate or in business for themselves--and meet at least once a week. The network members act as mentors, walking the students through the yards of red tape and legal mumbo-jumbo that is necessary to turn an idea into a reality.

Nelson, Bauleke and Jokanovic won this year's top scholarship of $3,000 for their creation of "Poor Sports," a consignment store that sells the cast-off or unused sports equipment that well-intentioned people bought new and then ended up storing in their garages.

"Before this, business was like a whole other branch of life that I didn't understand. But now I can have conversations with people in business and know what they're talking about," said Nelson, who came up with the idea for the consignment store and hopes to make it a reality after she attends a year of courses at Santa Barbara City College. She said her parents, who have been emotionally supportive of her efforts to complete the project, may help her financially when it's time to get it off the ground.

Although every team of students that completed the project won at least $250, not every group made it across the finish line. Network members estimate that the program requires at least 10 hours each week of in-depth field research and that, each year, at least 30% of students in the program drop out.

For those who do finish, though, the rewards can be great. What the program offers students, organization members said, is the chance to make mistakes and learn the ropes.

"If I had had a mentor and the opportunity these girls are getting, I probably would be seven years further down the road. I had to learn the hard way, through trial and error," said Lisa Foster, owner of a house-cleaning business she set up several years ago, and also director of the network's mentor program.

"I didn't know I had to have a license for every city I clean in. Having to get workman's compensation for employees was a blow. I also had no idea that getting insurance would be as difficult as it was," she said. "But these girls get to find out all those things before they start. They also get support while they do it."

That opinion is shared by Dennis Swindall, a college counselor at Ventura High School. Although similar programs exist across the country, he said, the learning institution where most ambitious teen-agers get their business experience is the school of hard knocks.

"There is nothing that shows them what they'd have to do if they wanted to start their own hair salon or whatever--from government bureaucracies, to facts, figures and financing," Swindall said. "To my knowledge there is no course in high school that does that."

Although most of the organization's 280 members are women, four men have joined in recent years. Some choose only to attend the network's monthly meetings, according to co-founder Koranda, while others have become mentors in the scholarship program. So far, she added, no male students have asked to take part in the program.

"The focus of the group is still on women supporting women," Koranda said. But having men work with the students is "healthy, because they will encounter men in the business world."

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