FARMINGTON — Former Mt. Blue High School business teacher Bonita Lehigh has invested her time and resources into a center that will nurture young entrepreneurs in the greater Franklin County community. Through a retail cooperative store located at 156 Main Street in Farmington, local youth will have the opportunity to run their own businesses.  

“I didn’t know that you could have multi-purpose businesses,” 15-year-old Madison Contrerass said, who will be printing t-shirts to sell in the store.

The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies blossomed from Lehigh’s six years of working with Mt. Blue students. She wanted to develop a youth-focused program that would allow people to learn about business by actually operating their own. In the spring of 2018, Lehigh pitched the idea to a group of teenagers in her entrepreneurial class, and they have been working with her ever since.

Entrepreneurs from left Turrin Mondor with her younger sister Shaila Mondor and McKenzie Contreras with her older sister Madison Contreras. The four teenagers will be running the downtown Farmington storefront set to open July 10. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

19-year-old Turrin Mondor who works at Big Lots in Farmington and plans to attend the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) in the fall, was one of those students.

“The idea grew and it grew and it grew, and we kind of came up with more aspects, more details, and eventually we landed here in the store a couple years later and found out that this was probably going to be our best chance at getting us a foot into the community,” she said.

Under Lehigh’s guidance at Mt. Blue, Turrin Mondor wrote several business plans. She is now preparing to run a retail business by selling merchandise like shirts, hats, journals, dog collars and stickers with “snarky” quotes. 

“There’s so many people leaving this state for other opportunities and really, we just need to create the opportunities here,” Lehigh said laughing while four eager teenage-entrepreneurs tore into a box of merchandise that was just delivered. “It’s like Christmas every time a box comes in.” 

19-year-old Turrin Mondor stands with some of the merchandise she purchased with money from a community member sponsor. Mondor wants to focus on selling items with “snarky” quotes. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

The Main Street storefront, set to open on July 10, will serve as a hub for business counseling and development, office space for people to see clients and for entrepreneurs to sell their products. Lehigh, who ran her family maritime business in Boston prior to moving to Maine, wants to offer her expertise to anyone that walks in the door. 

“Anyone can come in. Right now our primary focus is 16-24, but anybody can come in,” Lehigh said. 

Participants in the center will not only learn essential skills such as using QuickBooks, writing a business plan and conducting market research, but also gain effective communication skills.

“I have really bad social anxiety so this is a really good place for me to get out of that comfort zone for me. I can start here and make my way out,” 16-year-old Shaila Mondor said, who has been deemed the “inventory master” by Lehigh. 

Shaila Mondor is responsible for inputting all of the store’s merchandise barcodes into a database, keeping track of product costs, and she is also learning to use QuickBooks. 

“Right now I am just taking everything from the store and making sure we have it all accounted for and just making sure the bills even out,” she said.

Sheaila is also utilizing a donated wax melter and teaching herself how to make candles which will be sold in the store. 

The majority of the center’s start-up funds are from Lehigh, but she has received $2,000 worth of donations without any fundraising efforts. All of the donated money goes directly to the entrepreneurs with donors essentially acting like sponsors. Turrin Mondor was sponsored by one of the center’s Board members to get her retail business going.

Bonita Lehigh of New Sharon taught business classes at Mt. Blue High School for six years before deciding to collaborate with her students to open the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

“That $1,000 gave her the ability to buy the product,” Lehigh said while standing in front of a shelf of scented candles. “So now that she’s bought the product that she wants, she’s now going to learn how to essentially double her money because in retail, it’s a standard 100% markup.”

Other businesses that are developing out of the center include landscaping and website and app development.  

“We want to look at a person’s strengths, weaknesses, interests and values and try to look at different things that might perk that person’s interest up,” Lehigh said, who will devote 40 hours a week to supervising the center and offering counseling services.

The center’s founders see the Main Street location as merely a first step to a larger plan to promote manufacturing and health and wellness among youth in Franklin County.

Although it is an unpredictable time to launch a new business due to the pandemic, the teenagers involved with the center are grateful for the opportunity. The storefront’s opening comes at a time when many summer youth recreational activities have been cancelled due to COVID-19.

“There are a lot of teens in this area, and there’s not a lot of things for teens to do,” Madison Contreras said. “So I think that a store basically run by teens is going to be awesome!”

The young entrepreneurs discussed ways to promote their storefront during the pandemic such as social media advertising, offering curbside pick-up and just spreading the word within their community. 

“We could do tie-dye masks!” The center’s youngest entrepreneur, 13-year-old McKenzie Contreras who was busy tie-dying t-shirts to sell, said.

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