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Deborah Sternberg launches new program for high school entrepreneurs

Four months after stepping down unexpectedly as president of Starmount Life Insurance, Deborah Sternberg is teaming up with officials at LSU to launch the Young Entrepreneurs Academy of Baton Rouge.

The program, which will run for seven months beginning in September, is a local affiliate of the national nonprofit organization Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which seeks to give high school students an experienced-based entrepreneurship program teaching them how to transform their ideas into enterprises with social and economic value.

Founded in 2004 at the University of Rochester in New York, the program is also designed to create a culture of innovation in Baton Rouge and foster an entrepreneurial mindset among youths.

Sternberg had long wanted to bring something like YEA to Baton Rouge but kept the idea on the back burner for years, she says. After leaving Starmount in January, she decided the time was right to make it happen.

“I grew up in an entrepreneurial family,” says Sternberg, whose family owned Goudchaux’s and Maison Blanche department stores for decades and, in the 1990s, founded Starmount, which they sold to benefits giant Unum in 2016. “We are entrepreneurs. I want others to have those skills.”

To help make her vision a reality, Sternberg called Charlie D’Agostino, who runs LSU’s Innovation Park, for help. They decided to affiliate with YEA because it is an established program with a proven track record and some 160 affiliates around the U.S.

“By becoming an affiliate you acquire your curriculum and they train you,” she says. “It’s a proven model and that’s what excited us—you don’t have to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel.”

YEA graduates have gone on to win local and national pitch competitions, including those on Shark Tank.

Classes at the academy will be held weekly from 5 to 8 p.m. from September through April at LSU’s E.J. Ourso College of Business and at Innovation Park. LSU faculty from the Ourso College entrepreneurship department will teach the courses, though the program will not be sponsored by or affiliated with the university.

“We’re excited LSU is at the table,” Sternberg says.

Becoming an affiliate cost about $13,000, which Sternberg funded out of pocket. Now, she is concentrating on raising money to compensate the faculty who will teach the courses.

The course is open to just 30 students per year, and Sternberg is hoping to attract a diverse cross section of students from public and private high schools throughout the area. The academy’s website went live less than a week ago, so for now the goal is to spread the word and try to get as many applications as possible.

“So far, the feedback we’ve gotten has been very positive,” she says. “We’ve been met with a lot of enthusiasm. We’re just trying to get the word out.”

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