Sam Kirk is a warrior. For the past 22 years he has been waging a very personal war against ignorance and indifference in America. The weapon he created for this struggle is Youth About Business (YAB), a Nashville-based entrepreneurial and leadership training program for underprivileged young men and women. To date, YAB has helped some 8,000 students succeed in their professional lives.

Like any rebel with a cause, Kirk is passionate about his goal. So while he agrees that "My Brother's Keeper," President Obama's much-publicized initiative aimed at increasing opportunities for young men of color, is both timely and necessary, he believes many others need similar help as well.

That's why his program helps young men--and women--of all ethnicities. In this year's class of 700 participating YAB high school students, 53 percent are African-Americans, 17 percent are Caucasian, 12 percent are Asian, and 11 percent are Latino, while seven percent are members of other groups.

Not Your Average Summer Camp

YAB immerses the same group of high school students in intense weeklong summer camps at Columbia University, Emory University, and Vanderbilt University. At the camps, the students take part in a competition that simulates a business merger or acquisition. Among other things, the young men and women learn how to research and analyze publicly traded companies, and get challenged to think through their decisions and execute a feasible transaction.

During that time, the students assume leadership roles, and receive advice from senior executives from such global organizations as Ernst & Young, Moody's, and Deloitte. A few smaller companies assist as well, including King & Spalding, SunTrust, and Robinson Humphrey, all headquartered in Atlanta, and Peppercomm, my New York-based communications agency.

At the end of the initial camp, students come to New York, where they experience a weeklong Wall Street immersion. They then return to their hometowns and participate in YAB's leadership development program. During that time, they continue to receive industry-specific mentoring from their executive advisors, who pay $3,500 to sponsor each student. Note: The total cost for a student to participate in the YAB program is $5,000. Students are asked to pay the remaining $1,500. If a student is unable to cover the $1,500, a sponsoring company will do so.

A Game-changer

YAB is far more than a one-off, feel-good summer program. In fact, it's an ongoing experience that's made a profound difference in the lives of its alumni, as many of them attest.

  • Julien Johnson is a 17-year-old high school student from the Bronx, New York. He says his YAB experience has better prepared him for what awaits him in the fall. "I'm seeing college through an entirely different lens now. I've had a great initial exposure to the real business world. I've interacted with top-notch business executives such as investment bankers and lawyers. I know now I want to become a financial analyst after college. Before YAB, I had no clue."
  • Chelsea Russell, a 25-year-old Nashville native, now works as a financial analyst at Moment Design, a New York digital product design company. She credits YAB with exposing her both to what she did and didn't like. "It was great. I saw things that originally attracted me, but after learning more about those fields I changed my mind," says Russell, who is now charged with creating and building her firm's finance team."YAB prepared me to deal with challenge and change."
  • Kimberly Hogg holds a job that most of her 27-year-old peers would die for. She's manager of the Brisk Tea Brand at PepsiCo. And she harbors no doubts that her experience at YAB separated her from the pack from Day One when she was looking for an internship."I went on job interviews with top investment banks as a freshman in college and easily beat competitors who had two or three years more experience than me," said Hogg. Her YAB Summer Boot Camps had prepared her to nail arcane interview questions like "What role does a discounted cash flow play in a leveraged buyout?" and "What's the primary difference between Goldman Sachs and CitiBank?"

    "I was so confident in my responses, that I was offered internships normally reserved for upperclassmen," Hogg says. "YAB teaches you to look at business from an executive's perspective. So no matter what role I play, I always try to answer the question at hand as if I owned the business myself."

Hopelessness Is Color-blind

Kirk says there's no end in sight for what might be considered America's longest war. He continues fighting the good fight; so far, he's established a headquarters building in Nashville and regional hubs in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and Memphis. In all, the 700 students participating in this year's YAB programs represent 13 states.

Still, Kirk hasn't even scratched the surface. "I'd give us a three on a scale of one to 10 in terms of awareness and corporate participation," he says. His short-term goals are to add two new markets in the next three years.

"In his speech, President Obama spoke about the hopelessness that infects young men of color and the need for representatives from all pillars of our society to step forward and end that hopelessness. I would agree. Youth About Business has simply expanded the call to arms to include young men and women of all colors. Hopelessness is color-blind. YAB has proven that it cannot only be fought, but vanquished."

For more information about how your small business can support YAB, go to: or call Sam Kirk at the nonprofit's main number: (615) 299-8097.