Julie Nessen, Director & Co-Founder of the Young Entrepreneurs Alliance began the program with her father Robert L. Nessen to realize their joint vision for empowering at-risk youths through business ownership. This was natural extension of her prior experience teaching theater in adult prisons and troubled inner-city schools in New York, Detroit and Kansas City. Julie has a dynamic mix of business, non-profit and arts expertise. She served as Vice President of Nessen & Associates, a Boston consulting firm specializing in business and funding development for non-profit companies and was the National Producing Director of Plays for Living in New York City, an organization devoted to portraying family and community issues through live theater. Julie also held a faculty position at the University of Michigan’s acclaimed Musical Theater Program and was Assistant Artistic Director at Musical Theater Works in New York City, a non-profit devoted to the development of new works for the American Musical Theater.

What are you working on right now?

I’m focusing on how to replicate and expand our program so it can be brought to more teens- particularly in vocational schools. That involves finding creative ways to package our curriculum for reuse and raising the dollars to expand. I’m also working on a training program for teachers and business mentors so they feel equipped and excited to work with the teens.

What are 3 trends that excite you?

First, I’m really excited that vocational education is being taken more seriously. Not everyone learns sitting at a desk 7 hours a day. There are teens with brilliant minds who need a more visceral experience to develop and create. Vocational schools are becoming much more than the “trade schools” of our parents’ generation. They are increasingly recognized as a source of talent and creativity.

Secondly, it is great to see that corporations are starting to understand that they need to give not only dollars to help programs like YEA stay alive, but also lend their time and talents to help these organizations thrive and grow. We really depend on business professionals from supporting companies to mentor our teens and create a real world sounding board for them. At the same time, we also depend on philanthropic dollars to fund our work. When you combine the two you create a meaningful experience for the employees of a company, for YEA and for our teens. Everyone learns and feels fulfilled by the time and money spent.

Finally, I’m always inspired to see how our teens are stepping confidently — and with a level of self-awareness well beyond their years– into the professional world while they are still in high school. They are constantly embracing new technologies and developing business, career and life skills; they are juggling client demands; and they are always on the look-out for emerging professions they can pursue after graduation. How many of us did that in high school? YEA graduates who are now in college are training for fields that didn’t even exist when they started high school. I think that is exciting! The key to their confidence and success is teaching them how to be curious, flexible and still rigorous in their approach to school, work and the world. It is really impactful when you see a young adult putting their belief in themselves and their futures into practice.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m an idea person, which is fast-paced and demanding for those who work with me. I’ve learned that the best way to implement my ideas is to surround myself with people who have a more linear or concrete way of thinking. My staff tends to be more practical and able to take the “big” ideas that I’ve sketched out and determine how, if and when they can be implemented. Because we work with a lot of school systems, an idea I have may be neat but not practical at present; in turn I may bring energy and creativity to an idea that the staff had not considered but can help make a reality.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by my students and their drive to succeed. So many of them have so little. I recently discovered that one of my students is being raised by her single mother who supports a household of 5 on $14,000 a year. Obviously, at present, the odds stacked against this teen and her siblings seem overwhelming. However, she and her family manage to “keep their eyes on the prize,” getting up every day, staying safe and making progress. I know too many adults who spend their time complaining about what they don’t have. YEA’s teens have something to teach them.

What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

When I was in my 20’s, I was on a trajectory to have a career in the theatre. It took me years to realize I was scared by the potential success that could be waiting there and skirted around it in subtle ways that I didn’t realize at the time. I’ve learned how easy it is to run from what you claim you want. I use this knowledge to help my students take on their fears and follow their dreams.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

When the economy improves, I believe there will be an opportunity for services, products and non-profits who are focused on helping teens bridge the skill and economic divide between high school, college and career.

What is one book and one tool that helps you bring ideas to life?

As trite as it sounds it is The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. That man knew more about the essence of humanity and how to communicate it through language and action than any teacher, therapist or guru I’ve known.

Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?

I would like to see IdeaMensch interview Edmund Toomey. Ed is one of the most skilled and esteemed educators, business people and non-profit leaders in Boston. He understands what is happening in education, where it is both succeeding and failing and what can be done about it. He is a guide and mentor to many. Below is a bit more background on him.

What does YEA need now to succeed?

I believe YEA can “take off” and reach thousands more teens with the backing of a handful of “angels.” With their support behind us, we can focus on our mission of building programs that keep teens in school and move them onto college or meaningful careers – not just jobs. Our success rate is 98% graduate high school on time (in some schools where only 20% graduate) and 80% go on to higher education. We’d like to pollinate this type of success as far and wide as we can.

How do you balance work and your personal life?

I would tell anyone going into the nonprofit world that this is one of the hardest pieces of the job. You need to draw clear lines between the two. People who gravitate towards nonprofits are very personally dedicated and driven by their mission (certainly not by the money!) so they feel guilty when they’re not working. I’m fortunate to have three fantastic daughters and three equally wonderful dogs who fill my free time.


Julie Nessen on LinkedIn