BE 7: Young Entrepreneurs Organization Executive Director, Ernest Ruffin, Jr.

1.) What is YEO?

Ernest Ruffin, Jr.: YEO, or the Young Entrepreneurz Organization, is a nonprofit corporation that is recognized by the IRS as a 501c3 organization. [The organization] teaches sixth through twelfth [grade] youth how to take their ideas, work in teams, and create business plans, complete with financial and marketing plans. [This] culminates into a challenge among their peers for cash and prizes, [called YEO Business Plan Challenges].

The YEO Business Plan Challenge started in Newark, NJ, four summers ago. By summer 2017, [the YEO Business Plan Challenges] will be in 14 cities, including in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, with over 300 youth from urban areas across the country and the U.S. Virgin Islands participating.

YEO experienced 166% growth in its first two summers, and it will have 136% growth summer 2017. If any of the students want to start a venture, YEO will pay up to $2,500 to [help] get them started.

2.) What was the triggering moment that made you start this?

Ruffin: The thing that inspired me to start The YEO Business Plan Challenge was my university students. I teach Entrepreneurship at Rutgers University, and my students here have done and are doing great things in business. They credit their successes to they learned in my classes, and will call, text, email, Instagram, and Facebook me often with updates and questions. However, none of my [former] Rutgers students, who have gone on to start their own businesses, are either African American or Hispanic, and I wanted to make sure those kids had an opportunity to learn as well as get excited about business and economic development, too. So, I started the YEO Business Plan Challenge in Newark, NJ.

3.) Can you share one inspiring story that illustrates the goals of YEO?

Ruffin: There are several inspiring stories from the YEO Business Plan Challenges. One, in particular, happened last summer at YEO Challenge Queens, NY, where the winning team created a car that ran off of solar power. The child who created the car had been going to that YMCA location for nearly a year, but had never spoken a word–he would [only] nod to acknowledge that he knew you were talking to him. He and I sat down and created a SWOT Analysis for his team’s business plan. As the team started sharing their presentation in front of peers and counselors, a question was asked regarding how the car would recharge once the solar power ran out and the sun went down. I asked the young man to explain how it would work, and after his detailed description, his peers and counselors gave him a standing ovation. I asked them, “Why are you standing?” They informed me that they didn’t even know he could talk, let alone create a car design.

4.) Why was it important to bring YEO to other countries?  How has that helped to grow the organization?

Ruffin: It was important to bring YEO to other regions, like St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, because youth in those places also need to learn business and economic development. They have this wonderful, natural resource–the island–but they don’t understand how to capitalize on it. It also brands and markets YEO beyond the U.S.–although St. Thomas is a U.S. territory–but our goal is to bring [eventually] bring the organization to Cuba and Mexico.


5.) What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who want to scale this business nationally or internationally?

Ruffin: My advice for entrepreneurs who want to scale their businesses is to, first, become very good in their initial market. That’s accomplished by understanding your customers, and what will make them make a purchase. Target other markets with similar customers, and offer your product or service to them. The most important advice is, once you capture a customer or customers, provide the ultimate customer experience to them, and you will be successful.

6.) Why start YEO as a nonprofit? What are some of the advantages?

Ruffin: I started YEO as a nonprofit for a few reasons.  The first is that we are trying to enhance young people’s knowledge–so it’s educational.

We also want [YEO students] to attend the workshops. However, many of them are in underserved areas, so a for-profit model could leave many kids out. The nonprofit model, if it’s run with the purpose of helping and providing services to others,  can be a very successful.

Lastly, for-profit initiatives can spin-off of nonprofit companies. For example,  T.D. Jakes church is a nonprofit, but he created his media for-profit business based of off the success and brand of the nonprofit.

7.) What is in the future for YEO and/or other new programs in development?

Ruffin: We are currently a summer program, as far as teaching the students how to start a business, but we work with students all year long to help them start businesses or enhance their current venture. Currently, we are looking at extending the teaching from six to nine months after school.

The YEO team is also looking at redeveloping homes in urban areas. We have YEO students working on those projects during the summer for pay. The kids learn and earn–making them fully aware of how economic development is achieved, and how it creates jobs.




Maryann Reid is the digital managing editor of and the author of several books published by St. Martin’s Press. For more, please follow her @RealAlphanista.