Sean Heron hopes to pursue video game design and creative writing when he finishes his education. The high school junior from South Florida did not expect that to change when his mother convinced him to enroll in a 12-week training program for young entrepreneurs.
He joined a group of 14 other teens who learned business basics and eventually developed their own product to sell.
"Our group [was] doing a social networking event," he recalls. "And we hosted that, and we did modestly well."
Well enough that Heron's teachers invited him to join a much bigger project that would have a much broader impact.
It dealt with honey produced by villagers in Ghana.
The Honey Project's coordinator, Nathan Burrell, admits that honey seems like an unusual focus in this day and age, but says he wanted to find something that was both feasible and profitable.
"The bottom line is the farmers working with us are subsistence farmers," he explains. "Doing honey production and allowing them to do beekeeping provides them with another way to make money and have a living wage."
Building a business from scratch
The former head of an e-commerce firm, Burrell was drawn to the project in Ghana, where a south Florida technology company was building a computer lab in the village of Agogo. On one trip, Burrell says his U.S. partners noticed wild honeybees near the village and saw it as a prime business opportunity. Burrell says that meant building the enterprise from the ground up.
"We're starting from scratch. There was no honey cultivation or local production. That was one thing we discovered in the market. There was a need for organic or high-quality honey in the village of Agogo."
It took more than a year to get the business model off the ground and collect supplies, with the help of students in the program. This spring, Burrell took a group to Agogo to deliver beekeeping suits and honey-gathering tools and train villagers for the fledgling business. Their goal is to ramp up production to begin selling honey in Ghana and then export it to the United States.
A chance to see business concepts in action
That was the first time Sean Heron and many of the other students had been to Africa, and Heron said it opened his eyes to how people live in a place far from his home.
But he said the same business lessons he learned in Florida apply in Ghana.
"Once they are ready to start producing and we start selling [honey], the benefits will be very real to them, because it's going to be their money that they worked for."
The Honey Project relies on giving the villagers micro-loans, in addition to technical support, to start their business. Nathan Burrell says some villagers were skeptical at first, because they have never been given such an opportunity before.
"You're talking about subsistence farmers who never thought they would have ownership of something. Now they are part owners with the community to do beekeeping."
A lesson in social entrepreneurship
Like any business, the Honey Project hopes to make money. But the underlying goal is to help others and reduce poverty, in line with the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. And Burrell says he hopes the American students in the program come away with the understanding that business and service can work together, in what he calls "social entrepreneurship."
"I think social entrepreneurship is the next frontier, doing economic development in a very sustainable and viable way. What I like is it gives us - all of us - an opportunity to do what we really enjoy doing. People love to give back."
Members of the Honey Project say they are not done giving back to the village of Agogo. During the trip, students conducted interviews and toured sites in the village to identify possible future projects, from improving sanitation to coordinating book donations for the schools. They even met Ghanaian President John Atta Mills, who thanked them for their work.
Sean Heron says the experience has not convinced him to open his own business once he finishes school. He plans to graduate from high school next May and go on to college. But he says he will apply the business lessons he's learned to whatever he ends up doing.
"You have to know how to sell your product and sell yourself before you can expect any kind of success. You have to be patient; you just keep going, because this is your product. You gotta go out there. If your life were dependent on it, you would really have to push it."
Heron says he saw the value of persistence in the faces of the villagers he met in Agogo and hopes that is something he will carry with him into the future.