Executive Profile: Gayle Jagel, Founder and CEO, Young Entrepreneurs Academy

NCF: What were some of the lessons you took from your first job?

Gayle Jagel: When I was about 8 years old, I noticed that my neighbor had some beautiful tomatoes growing in her garden, but she didn’t seem to be picking them or eating them. It seemed to me that it would be a shame for all of those tomatoes to go to waste. So I picked the tomatoes and put them into my wagon, which I then pulled around my neighborhood, selling the tomatoes to everyone on my street.

My mother, who knew that we did not even have a garden, let alone one in which lovely tomatoes were growing, was a bit less pleased. She reminded me the tomatoes were not mine to sell, that they belonged to my neighbor, and that she expected me to make it right. So I swallowed my embarrassment and went to my customers/neighbors, returning their money in exchange for the “hot” tomatoes.

Through this, I learned more than a lesson about not stealing and accountability. I also realized that I was good at seeing and taking advantage of opportunities. I also learned that the best way to deal with a problem is directly, immediately, and to make it right with anyone who was wronged. 

NCF: Which entrepreneur/innovator inspires you most?

Jagel: Benjamin Franklin. He was influential in so many aspects of our nation’s early history and not just for his efforts as a statesman. He was an innovator and entrepreneur. He helped establish the University of Pennsylvania and also greatly enjoyed the arts and culture. 

He demonstrated the importance and value of a well-balanced life, rather than expending all of his talents and energies in a single direction. In everything he did, Franklin embodied the ideas that make up the motto of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) – “Embrace Your Passion. Live Your Dream. Change the World.” He did all three, and he absolutely changed the world.  

NCF: What business do you wish you could own/operate today?

Jagel: Every day I feel tremendously blessed because I know that in leading YEA!, I am doing exactly what I most want to do. I created the YEA! program at the University of Rochester in 2004. The program shows kids how to develop their big ideas, create actual business plans, pitch their plans to a panel of “investors” that make the decisions to put real money into the students’ ideas based on merit, and then help the students turn those ideas into real businesses or social policy organizations. 

YEA! ran successfully right out of the box. I started connecting the local chambers of commerce with the academic folks in the communities we served with our program, and we started getting calls from chambers of commerce across the state and from other states interested in launching their own academy in their community. This fall, we are working with more than 50 locations in 22 states. My goal is to have YEA! operating in all 50 states, working with chambers and business partners to make the program available to every middle and high school student in the country. 

NCF: What three people would you most like to invite to a business/networking lunch?

Jagel: I’d pick Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey and Taylor Swift. Each of them has succeeded in an important way that I am trying to emulate. Each of them has done extremely well professionally, and they have done so while at the same time making the world a better place, a nicer place, a happier place for the rest of us. Each of them has had the vision, ambition and drive to make their own dreams a reality. I think it would be fabulous to speak with them about their differing challenges, opportunities, strategies and struggles as they went through the process of identifying their professional goals and then making them a reality.  

NCF: What was your biggest professional success?

Jagel: My biggest professional success has been to have a lasting, positive impact on young people in America and to help re-energize the entrepreneurial spirit. I take a lot of pride and satisfaction in the success of our program, but the successes themselves belong to the kids; they made it happen, not us. It is fantastic to have been part of the spark that led to successes graduates have had.

My YEA! team is small, and we all are working incredibly hard to expand the reach of our program. There are times when the work part is challenging, or that a particular hurdle seems too big to clear. I don’t know how many times, when right in the midst of one of those really challenging moments, we have heard back from a YEA! graduate, who has had some tremendous personal or professional success. It puts everything, especially the challenge, into perspective and renews again our zeal to move forward.