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WVU receives grant to support youth entrepreneurship in rural West Virginia communities

Dean Atiles at entrepreneurship event

West Virginia and other rural states struggle with the challenge of outward migration of young adults. As communities across the state work to grow their economies, youth entrepreneurship can help drive this effort, especially in rural and under-resourced areas. 

Through a $60,000 Youth Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Expansion grant from the Benedum Foundation, a project team including West Virginia University Extension, the WVU John Chambers College of Business and Economics and West Virginia Public Education Collaborative developed a strategic plan to support youth entrepreneurship in West Virginia, focusing on youths in sixth to 12th grades in rural communities. 

“Youth entrepreneurship is important because, in West Virginia, we know our students are leaving to pursue employment in other states,” Lauren Prinzo, WVU Extension specialist and Chair of the Youth Workgroup for the West Virginia Ecosystem said. “We see entrepreneurship as a solution for students to remain in their communities, pursue their passions and contribute to their local economy while giving themselves the chance to have meaningful employment in the place they want to be.” 

A team of statewide partners recently completed a yearlong strategic planning process aimed at expanding youth entrepreneurship opportunities in West Virginia. Funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, this group worked to directly engage with youths and service providers to assess the current services offered, identify barriers to participation and plan for expanding opportunities. The project was led by WVU Extension, WVU Morris L. Hayhurst Launch Lab, WVU Encova Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, WVU Chambers College of Business and Economics, and the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative.  

The Benedum grant funds will be used to pursue the next steps for expansion of youth entrepreneurship based on these key findings. 

“In West Virginia, we believe that entrepreneurship is very critical to the success of our rural communities across the state. Therefore, we know that education and support must start with our youth, so when they get to the stage when they are ready to start a business, they have the education needed to do so,” Prinzo said. “Through the strategic planning process that took place last year, we found that the vast majority of students do not recognize the term entrepreneurship. This grant will help us build that pipeline, starting in the K-12 school system, to increase the number of entrepreneurs in West Virginia.”  

Partners identified the need to develop a statewide network to move key recommendations and next steps forward. As a result, the Youth Entrepreneurship Ecosystem (YEE) Workgroup was formed. The YEE will operate in partnership with the larger West Virginia Entrepreneurship Ecosystem to foster collaboration with other adults and youth working together to expand entrepreneurial opportunities for rural youth in West Virginia. Youth engaged in the planning process are from Braxton, Lincoln, Logan, Marshall, Mingo, and Nicholas counties. 

The workgroup will engage with adults and youths across the state in professional development and collaborative planning, as well as provide support for engage middle school students and educators to attend conferences and programs including the West Virginia Bridging Innovation Conference, the WVU Impact Challenge and county and statewide 4-H camps.  

These youths also will participate in the Young Innovators Club, a free after-school program that teaches them about key entrepreneurial concepts and skills. Participants will work with their mentors to develop and pitch an idea for a community-based entrepreneurship project utilizing the My Hometown is Cool program. Student teams will then receive mini-grants to turn their ideas into reality in their hometown.  

WVU Extension agents Ami Cook, Cheryl Kaczor, David Roberts, Lauren Weatherford and Dana Wright serve on the workgroup and help lead and facilitate the delivery of direct education and training for youth.  

“The Benedum grant provides our team the opportunity to continue to drive the idea of youths creating real solutions to problems that exist within the communities that they live and work in,” Wright said. “Entrepreneurship is important for the entire state. For small rural towns, one great entrepreneurial idea could be the catalyst for generating economic growth that affects an entire region.” 

Through the establishment of the workgroup, this yearlong grant aims to move the project team forward from planning to implementation. The team will work to plan and implement statewide initiatives to increase students' knowledge on youth entrepreneurship, develop entrepreneurial skills in participating youths and increase youth confidence in entrepreneurship as a career path. 

“This grant is an important step to ensuring these opportunities are available to youths universally across West Virginia,” Prinzo said. 

The workgroup is underway working with students, teachers, and WVU Extension faculty and staff from rural communities to develop an action plan to increase youth entrepreneurship in the state.  

“The West Virginia Entrepreneurship Ecosystem has received more funding to expand this model to additional workgroups with a focus on capital, talent, and government and regulatory support,” Prinzo said. “Each of these groups will follow a similar process to the Youth Entrepreneurship Ecosystem by assessing current conditions and creating an action plan. The work of sub-committees will be combined to create a statewide action plan.” 

The Benedum Foundation has been a significant supporter for providing grant funds to WVU Extension for education and economic development.  

“WVU is proposing a model program aimed at reducing barriers to entrepreneurship participation, with a focus on positioning youth as active co-creators of their educational journey,” Melanie Claxton, Benedum Foundation senior program officer said. “This project aims to cultivate extensive collaboration, broaden access to purposefully crafted experiences, and ultimately enhance employment and economic development outcomes for future generations. This endeavor harmonizes seamlessly with the Benedum Foundation’s overarching priorities of nurturing the acquisition of knowledge and skills crucial for equipping youth with the tools for success in both their careers and lives.” 

If you want to learn more about WVU Extension, visit or follow @WVUExtension on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.   



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WVU Extension