UpStarts extension program aims to support entrepreneurship and social connectedness among youth in rural communities

Surin Kim
At the Sun Theatre in downtown Holdrege, two teams of high school students presented potential solutions for a problem their community is currently facing: population decline.
August 2, 2022

Lincoln, Neb. —At the Sun Theatre in downtown Holdrege, two teams of high school students presented potential solutions for a problem their community is currently facing: population decline. One team proposed holding sports events for their school’s alumni to foster a sense of community with and among young people in their town. The other suggested electronic scooter rental services to generate traffic for local businesses downtown. The June 30 pitch event was the culmination of the students’ month-long participation in UpStarts, a Nebraska Extension entrepreneurship education program. 

UpStarts: From Classroom to Boardroom engages high school students to work in teams to generate solutions for real issues that local business owners, organizations, and communities are facing. The program uses a reverse mentoring approach with business owners as the clients and youth as consultants who study the issue, conduct research and develop and test potential solutions. The goal of the program is for youth to learn about the entrepreneurial processes by immersing themselves in solving real-world problems, as well as fostering connections among youth and adults in the community. 

Lori Larson, director of the Holdrege Chamber of Commerce, challenged youth to come up with innovative solutions as part of the program. The chamber also provided students with cash awards to begin testing out their solutions. UpStarts has already been implemented in over 10 communities including the greater Sandhills area, Lincoln & Omaha, Torrington & Guernsey in Wyoming, and even in Krakow, Poland. 11 cohorts of over 150 students from 14 high schools have graduated from the program so far.  

Surin Kim, associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design is leading the program; along with Maria de Guzman, professor and extension specialist in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies who is heading the research and evaluation. Kieu Anh Do is coordinating the project, along with supporting partners Claire Nicholas, assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, and Nebraska Extension Educator, Molly Brandt. 

“The program shows the contributions that youth can make in their communities and how, with guidance, they can develop entrepreneurial skills and serve as problem solvers and partners for businesses, non-profits and organizations,” Kim notes. For example, one team in Lincoln developed an app to help ease scheduling challenges faced by an understaffed local family therapy clinic. In Mullen, another group of students worked with a local art gallery to develop plans for events to target previously untapped audiences. And in Guernsey, WY, youth helped a local bed and breakfast develop a low-cost marketing plan to spread word about the business.  

“Providing youth with a means to help others also helps them grow and have a stronger sense of connection to others in the community,” de Guzman says. A high school participant in Lincoln reiterates this point and noted, "I found it helpful working with an actual company and them valuing us.” Another student who joined UpStarts in the Sandhills site commented, “I learned that I actually enjoy helping other people out.” 

UpStarts is funded by grants from the Rural Futures Institute and the United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural and Food Research Initiative.

More information can be found at If you are interested in bringing UpStarts to your school, organization or community, email 

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