Globe reporter Callum Borchers recently spoke with Leah Camhi, executive director, and Becky Levin, cofounder, of the Possible Project, an after-school entrepreneurship program for disadvantaged students in grades 10-12 in Cambridge. Here’s what he found out:
Cambridge is known as home to some of the world’s most innovative business owners, including many who have received investments from veteran venture capitalist Mark Levin. But in launching The Possible Project three years ago, Levin and his wife, Becky, invested in some of the city’s most unlikely entrepreneurs.
“Most are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch or live in public housing,” Camhi said. “We take young people who struggle academically and are not engaged in the life of the school — they’re not involved in sports or clubs. And we have a lot of English-language learners.”
The Possible Project operates two businesses from its third-floor office on Massachusetts Avenue. We Sell Possible is an e-commerce company where students sell donated and consigned products on websites like eBay and Amazon. Cambridge Made Possible sells student-designed items like greeting cards, smartphone cases, and picture frames.
“They’ve contributed $50,000 of revenue already to The Possible Project,” Becky Levin said. “And the kids who make the product or deliver the service also receive a commission.”
Students also can start their own companies — and make real money on business ideas that have included custom artwork, a sneaker repair service, and a mobile nail salon.
“The longer students are here, we see them walk a little taller, carry themselves a little more confidently and have a lot more pride,” Camhi said.
If Possible Project alumni go on to found multimillion-dollar companies, that will be great. But the program’s mission isn’t to pump out future CEOs.
“We want to give them solid skills to take with them,” Camhi said. “We want every one of our students to learn how to design a website. We want all of our students to be proficient in Photoshop. We just had our first group of 14 graduates, and 12 went on to college.”
The seed for The Possible Project was planted three decades ago when the Levins were living in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, the onetime haven for hippies that became an area known for drug use. They didn’t have the resources then to launch a teenage entrepreneurship program, but one moment that they never forgot provided inspiration.
“There was this one bakery we’d go to with a young guy who was hired to sweep the floor, and he had all these ideas about how to improve the bakery, but the owner wasn’t very nice to him and didn’t listen,” Becky Levin recalled. “And we thought, ‘It’s just such a shame because kids do have good ideas and things that motivate them.’”
The Possible Project is growing fast. Seventy-five students are active in the program now, and 188 are expected to participate in January. A deal with the Cambridge Housing Authority will soon give the program additional workspace, and several Massachusetts cities are under consideration for a second location in 2015.
“We’ve done the research to determine that we’ll be reaching 45 percent of all the income-eligible students” in 10th grade at schools the program serves,Camhi said. “That’s huge. That’s just about right, and it’ll be time to go on to another location.”
In addition to donors and customers for its businesses, The Possible Project is always looking for volunteers to speak about their own experiences, sit on judging panels when students pitch ideas, and serve as business advisers.
“A lot of these are one-time things,” Camhi said. “We always need people who are entrepreneurs, business owners, or just in interesting positions.”Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.