Aug 31, 2017 @ 07:12 PM How This Nebraskan Entrepreneur Built ‘The Bay,’ A Startup That Helps Youth Across The United States I write about the growing “industry” of social innovation. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. Mike Smith Live Mike Smith is a Nebraska-born entrepreneur who has built a career by speaking to American youth across the country. Mike Smith is a 30-something-year-old from Nebraska. He has four companies, a non-profit that supports youth, over 100,000 followers on Instagram, and spends most of the year on the road, speaking to students around the country about how to be better human beings. “I don’t believe in jobs, I believe in lifestyle,” he says. Dressed in a t-shirt, and a baseball cap with shoulder length hair, Smith is anything but the traditional startup entrepreneur.
In fact, he doesn’t like to be called an entrepreneur. “I can’t even spell it. I always have to check on my phone,” he jokes.“But seriously, I just don’t really think of myself as the kind of entrepreneur that’s often portrayed in the media these days. I don’t build companies to make money. I do them because I get really excited about some issue.” Smith has built a small portfolio of businesses, centered around educating youth and giving them safe spaces to be creative, sporty, and active.
“Simply put, young people need three things: somewhere to be, something to do, and someone to look out for them,” he says, alluding to his first venture, a multi-purpose space in Nebraska that hosts events, a skate park, and a coffee shop.
Credit Alex Ruybalid The Bay is a multi-purpose facility that is run as a non-profit, supporting youth from the community through mentoring, skating, and job training. Smith’s journey started with a non-profit, not a business. In 2010, Smith, an ardent skateboarder, decided that he wanted to build a skatepark, called the Bay , in his native Nebraska to give youth in the community a fun, and safe place to hang out. “I just googled how to start a non-profit to create a skate park. I asked some smart people, people smarter than me, to sit on the board.
” In February 2010, he started the process of researching the non-profit; by November, he had the frame of the skate park built, largely by volunteers and friends chipping in.
Smith didn’t take a salary from the skatepark and still doesn’t. He speaks to schools around the country to finance the non-profit; last year he did 167 assemblies across the US. “At that point, I didn’t want to sit and think of a business plan, and spend time prepping.
Instead, I just wanted to jump in. I would figure out a way to get it done. Like, we couldn’t afford to paint it, so we let the kids use graffiti to mark up the walls,” he says. Rent for the space was $2,500 a month, which Smith admits he struggled to pay. “I didn’t even have a checkbook. I was trying to pay cash. Everyone thought I was crazy, trust me,” he says. Without a clear plan on how to make this enterprise successful, Smith turned to quirky fundraisers: he slept under a bridge homeless for 27 days to raise $10,000 and then skated across Nebraska multiple times.
For years, Smith’s speaking engagements helped pay for this multi-purpose space. Local schools in Nebraska asked him to speak to students about giving back, living a more conscious life, and being generous with one’s resources. “Growing up in a town where there are 2,000 people and 100,000 cattle, I had this story of a small town boy who grows up with big ideas and big dreams. So, I’m pretty relatable when I talk to kids and that’s why schools called me in,” Smith recalls.
It was not a cakewalk though, he iterates. When he decided to take his speaking career national, he had to become inventive with his marketing tactics: “Because no one was opening their inboxes, I made a 5 minute video, copied it onto DVDs, and sent it to principals at schools around the the country. I threw it in a recycled box and when people would open it, they’d watch a bit, and then pass it onto the counselor at the school as a potential speaker.” Six years later, Smith has used his speaking career to launch numerous companies that have a social agenda at their core. Mike Smith Live is his primary company that organizes all his speaking gigs (he’ll spend more than half of the year on the road, driving to each venue). MSL, as he likes to refer to it, grossed over $1 million in the last 12 months.
Secondly, his beanie brand, YeaNice , emerged out of skater culture; however, for each beanie sold, Smith donates a beanie to a homeless shelter in the colder cities of the US (Detroit, Chicago, etc). Thirdly, there’s Unlife, a consultancy for working with brands who are looking to build socially conscious campaigns. He’s helped build campaigns for brands such as Vans, Red Bull, and Jostens. “Sometimes companies get excited that I’m adding diversity or flavor to a crowd. Why? Because I’m a tattooed, midwestern Millennial. But come on, I’m a white guy at the end of the day,” he says, cheekily.
“So I like to help brands tap into what young people are thinking, feeling, and messaging that can be really impactful.” Due to the lack of diversity on the speaker circuit, he’s building a speaker’s bureau himself; it’s not centered around him. “I want to showcase the stories of so many amazing young women I know. There just are not enough young female speakers on the school circuit right now, and I know women who are doing phenomenal things in the world. Let’s get their story out there.” But it doesn’t end there.
His latest startup, Find Your Grind, which launches online on September 5th, tackles the educational system in the US. “Everyone’s trying to fix schools.
Why don’t we just help kids learn more about the jobs in today’s world, not just book knowledge.” He defines it as a “virtual textbook that helps kids find the jobs of tomorrow.” Nearly one-third of middle school kids, he says, want to be “influencers” or YouTubers. “But that’s not realistic.
Can we start introducing kids to other careers that might be interesting. For instance, w hat is it like to be a Marketing Director at Snapchat?” The new platform will provide short videos, documenting what people do in their 9-5 lives to give youth a variety of career options –beyond the life of a “influencer.” While all of this seems like a whirlwind and a handful to juggle, Smith is unfazed. “Look, I’m a white guy from Nebraska who graduated with a 2.4 GPA, an 18 on my ACT test, and was accepted to one small college to play sports, because my grades were bad. I’m the most average human being.
If I can make stuff happen, so can others. But we have to ask what’s driving us. It cannot be money.” The Bay, which was the launchpad for Smith, has matured too, going beyond just a skatepark: the nonprofit provides food, job training, mentoring through Big Brother Big Sister programming, a digital art space, and even sex trafficking intervention. It’s also grown to a 30,000 square-foot space and continues to be the state’s only public indoor skate park. And it’s resonated: 10,000 skaters have used the space, more than 250,000 meals have been provided in a community where poverty rates are above 40%, and over 1,000 young people have received support services.
Thought it’s still dependent on grants (the Bay raised $1.25 million last year), it’s beginning to generate its own revenue as well: over $250,000 from coffee, skating passes, and renting the venue out for events. Given that a non-profit started his entrepreneurial journey, Smith continues to question the premise of business itself. “People always say do what you’re passionate about. It’s not quite that simplistic,” he says. “You should do what you’re good at, what you have a good skillset for. For me, it was gathering a community around an issue, networking, and speaking. So how could I use that to improve people’s lives, not making money?”
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