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A training program helped this Belgian woodworker plan his own antique business.

YouthSpark Star Dennis Anning

Carving a Career out of Digital Literacy

Sitting in his apartment in the small Belgian town of Mechelen, Dennis Anning is meeting with a woman who wants him to recreate a unique coffee table destroyed by water damage. She shows the young woodworker photos of the coveted piece and describes the glass detail she would like built into the top. Dennis listens intently, makes sketches, and goes over the labor and material costs in his head.

“I was always doubting whether I wanted to start my own business. The program gave me more motivation and determination to go for it.”

Dennis Anning

Dennis works in a furniture shop while crafting a plan to run his own business.

Dennis works in a furniture shop while crafting a plan to run his own business.

Flashback a year and Dennis would have presented his design and pricing estimates on a piece of paper. Now, he is creating a 3D illustration on his computer. He’s making an Excel spreadsheet that calculates the cost of his labor and materials. And he’s moving it all into a PowerPoint slideshow he will present to the potential client.

The digital presentation shows how far Dennis has come. A few years ago, he was unsure of his future, attending part-time classes at a vocational school and working at a furniture business. He knew he liked to work with wood but was struggling to figure out how to make a career out of it. Now, he is working a full-time job, creating unique pieces for independent clients, and has plans to open his own antique restoration business.

“Dennis credits this progress to the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a program he signed up for during his last year of school. The 60-hour training program (now called YouthStart Belgium) targets high school dropouts who lack computer skills and gives them the tools to carve out a future.

“When I came to the program, I didn’t have any computer skills,” says via Skype, the video chat itself a sign of how much he learned through the program. “If I hadn’t done this program, I’d still be doubting what I’d do with wood work or what I would do later on.”

NFTE aims to inspire young people from low-income communities to stay in school, to recognize business opportunities, and to plan for successful futures. Participants set up a business plan, and in the process, they learn technical skills such as creating presentations and setting up financial spreadsheets.

Dennis joins other Belgian finalists at the Bizplan competition in Dublin, Ireland.

Dennis joins other Belgian finalists at the Bizplan competition in Dublin, Ireland.

“Microsoft YouthSpark sponsors the program financially, as well as contributing all the software for the program’s laptops. In addition, many Microsoft employees help with the lessons and office support. Belgium has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe, with nearly 30 percent of young people without jobs. In some neighborhoods, that number is as high as 50 percent. Through programs and partnerships with nonprofits, Microsoft YouthSpark is helping to reduce that by teaching young people like Dennis the skills that can help them find jobs or start businesses.

Students take classes two days a week and spend three days a week doing an internship. When they complete that work, they get an equivalent high school diploma. To participate in the NFTE training program, students have to be committed. They have to be present and on time; actively participate; show respect to others; and in the end, present a business plan.

“What we say to the young people: you can not only be the CEO of your own company, you also have to be the CEO of your own life,” says NFTE director Erik Dauwen. “Dennis is a typical student who starts with us as a rather shy, young person. And then you see him opening up and gaining self-confidence.”

Dennis, who immigrated to Belgium from Ghana at age 9 with his mother who was seeking a better education for her son, agrees that the training gave him the confidence he needed to start his journey to becoming a business owner. Beyond computer skills, Dennis feels trained as a future entrepreneur.

My mind is always channeled to business right now,” Dennis says. “I was always doubting whether I wanted to start my own business. But the program gave me more motivation and determination to go for it.”

At his furniture-crafting job, Dennis creates modern pieces including cabinetry, wardrobes and chairs. But he still has a passion for antiques, and that’s where he’s aiming his future business. Dauwen coached him into entering his business plan in an NFTE-sponsored international business competition in 2012 in Dublin, Ireland.

Dennis hand crafted this wood carving piece from birch.

Dennis hand crafted this wood carving piece from birch.

About 20 to 25 students — two to three students per country — were chosen to present their business plans. Dennis created a PowerPoint presentation on his antique restoration business plan to judges, and showed off his first wood carving piece, a toucan made from birch featuring colors from his native Ghana.

The chairman of the judging committee was so impressed that he offered Dennis a job. He said if the young woodworker was ready to come to Dublin, he could teach. Dennis would have considered it if it weren’t so far from his home in Mechelen. “I would definitely like to combine teaching with my business,” he says. “The youth (of today) lose the touch of handiwork.”

Dennis plans to put his business plan into action within the next two years, creating a space for restoring antiques and also creating new pieces, like the custom coffee table. In addition to opening his own store, Dennis hopes to spread his love of antique restoration to other young people using some of the skills he learned in the program.

“I’ve seen myself really change in the sense that I really have more edge to move and make decisions on my own, like stand on my own,” Dennis says. “It really showed me how to fight for my goal and go for it. I know now that I have a chance in the business world and that I can be successful.”

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