Start-Up Spirit Baltimore nonprofit teaches kids how think like entrepreneurs

The rules have changed, Aisha DaCosta says about of today’s job market—for adults as well as for kids.

“There’s no such thing as job security. How do you make yourself valuable,” asks DaCosta who founded I AM O’KAH! (pronounced “I AM OKAY!”) in 2011 to teach Baltimore students about the job market, today’s economy, which professional fields have the highest demand and what it means to be a valuable employee or business owner.

“I AM O’KAH! looks at entrepreneurship as more about developing an entrepreneurial mind than starting a small business,” DaCosta explains. “It’s definitely a bonus point if they decide to start entrepreneurial gigs on the side or start a full-blown business. All of that is gravy,” she continues. “But the meat and potatoes for us is to shift the way they think about how they participate as an employee in the workforce and the value they can bring to [their] city.”

The organization actually began as a scholarship foundation, inspired by the generosity and altruism of DaCosta’s sister, Kahdine, who died of breast cancer at age 26.

“Kahdine and I were best friends,” DaCosta says. “She was the kindest person I ever met.”

Since 2011, the mission of I AM O’KAH! has evolved. “As I was working with our first scholars, I realized that there are missing pieces that these kids don’t have,” DaCosta says. She shaped the mentorship program to focus on “developing an entrepreneurial mind,” and to “help students get more strategic about college and their future careers.”

I AM O’KAH! has partnered with the Digital Harbor Foundation and the Code in the Schools program, as well as high schools like Carver Vocational-Technical High School, Baltimore City College and the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, among others.

For high school students, the program teaches “entrepreneurship in the fall and investing in the spring—more importantly looking at themselves as an investment,” DaCosta says. This includes finding ways to attend college debt-free, the topic of The Graduate: A Guide for Debt-Free Education and Wealth Creation, a book DaCosta and one of the students from I AM O’KAH’s high school mentorship program wrote and published this year.

So, what can parents do to ensure that the next generation gains the skills they will need for financial security? DaCosta shares a few tips with Baltimore’s Child:

Start business young
“Get them doing simple things,” DaCosta suggests, like selling their old clothes and toys to a consignment shop. “If a kid understands how to value things, it can shift their thoughts about themselves and everything around them.”

Introduce STEM
DaCosta believes that “parents should expose [kids] to programs in STEM,” an acronym for the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. She suggests looking into the Digital Harbor Foundation and the Baltimore SEMAA (Science Engineering Mathematics and Aerospace Academy) program at Morgan State University to get kids started on the needed and high-demand skills in this area.

Encourage free education
“The first strategy is applying early— for most schools this means on or before Nov. 1,” DaCosta says. Second is “picking the right college, because they’re not created equal.” Help them focus on “understanding who they have the best likelihood of obtaining an investment (ahem, scholarships and financial aid) from.”

Check out I AM O’KAH at iamokah.org for upcoming events and programming.

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