One of my favorite institutions in American life is also the most humble and is a feature of the hot days of my fondest season: the summer lemonade stand.
Staffed by neighborhood kids, the stand usually consists of a small table and a few chairs, one of which is usually occupied by a supervising adult who guards against untrustworthy lemonade drinkers. Sadly, it seems even the most innocent scene these days needs a watchful eye to keep it innocent.
Just the other day, I was a patron at a stand run by local kids. Their dad, a friend who is a heart surgeon in his other life, was on this afternoon the lemonade stand overseer. He told his kids to give me a free lemonade, but, using the logic of heath care billing, charged me $50 for the cup.
(OK, so he didn’t charge me for the cup, but jokes are as much appreciated in the lemonade trade as they are in the columnist trade.)
The greater point is that the lemonade stand is an American cultural icon for a reason. Lemonade stands are private enterprise with training wheels, which is why I love them. (Admittedly, the cuteness factor is also a selling point.)
Without small business, America’s economy would not have grown so big. Those of you born here may take this for granted. But on the other side of the world where I grew up, a kid who set up a lemonade stand might have had rocks thrown at him.
The culture was just different. In America, President Calvin Coolidge once plausibly said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” In Australia, a prime minister of my generation could have plausibly said, “The chief business of the Australian people is drinking beer, having barbecues, playing sports and complaining about work.”
Yes, it sounds bloody good, but someone has to create the jobs. The system depends upon it. The reality of the system for many of us came not in our formal education, but in the board game Monopoly -- the pastime of choice on wet afternoons at the shore.
Monopoly is a real estate game, not a job creation game, but even a dim bulb on a wet afternoon can see that if someone is a successful entrepreneur in real life he or she can soon own a hotel on Boardwalk. Entrepreneurship, that’s the ticket.
The trouble is that being an entrepreneur is a special talent not all of us have -- for example, me. The sadness is that I actually look a bit like the famous Monopoly character — except for lacking the top hat, the bow tie, the cane and the general air of opulence. I do have the white mustache and the bald head.
It might have been different had I an early lemonade stand or at least some practical training in high school about starting a business. I am a veritable volcano of marketable ideas, but I smolder to no effective purpose. Why can’t schools teach practical things about business as well as traditional courses? As it turns out, some do.
Last Friday, I went to a Downtown expo sponsored by Entrepreneuring Youth, a nonprofit organization that designs programs to teach the real-life experience of business creation to middle schoolers and high schoolers.
It currently serves 240 children from economically fragile neighborhoods, many of them minorities but not all. Last week’s occasion was a market set up at lunchtime for the Junior Woodchucks of business to sell their wares.
That is where I met Nehemiah Brazil, 12, whose company was called SocksMania. He was selling dyed sports socks for $10 and hopes to be an entrepreneur because he doesn’t want to work for somebody else when he grows up. Me too.
I also met Gerelle Porter, 13, of Chef G’s Granola, who was selling self-made peanut butter, granola and honey creations for $1.50. Making a business helps you succeed in life, he said.
Most memorably, I met Ashantaya Lee, just 10 — although she will be 11 in August — who was selling potholders for $2 and lipstick made from crayons for $3. How did she become an entrepreneur? “We were bored, so what could we do?” A lot worse, I reckon.
Jerry Cozewith, Entrepreneuring Youth’s president and a social worker by background, says its program goes beyond the old adage about teaching a person to fish — it teaches how to set up a fish shop too. “It is the smartest anti-poverty program I have ever seen,” he says.
Indeed, it is way beyond lemonade stands, but just as sweet.
Reg Henry: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1668.