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Entrepreneurship happens naturally when you homeschool-- at least in my family! .... And a job opportunity for homeschool teens at the 'Twirly Top' ice cream shop!
Sarah Keckler, PHAA homeschool graduate and entrepreneur, PHAA homeschool graduate and entrepreneur

Editor's Note from Susan Richman: We've known Sarah Keckler and her family ever since the first full year of the PA Homeschool law-- and I was delighted to receive an email recently from Sarah wondering about finding a way to let homeschool teens know about flexible summer job opportunities at her 1950's-style ice cream stand, the Twirly Top, located between Carlisle and Gettysburg PA. I encouraged her to write up a full article about how she found her way to becoming a business owner and entrepreneur-- and I know you'll be delighted with all that Sarah shares here-- very inspiring (and funny!) for sure! Soooo, hoping some of you know homeschool teens eager for a great summer job where they can really develop both skills and character... AND hoping many of you opt to visit the Twirly Top and the surrounding area (the link above has links to local sites to see!). We're also hoping that Sarah just might be able to take part in the special panel presentation on entrepreneurship at this summer's PHAA Homeschool Conference, on Friday July 11th -- she'll be a terrific motivational speaker! And even if she's not able to make it (she may need to be managing the Twirly Top!), we're definitely giving out this article as a hand-out to all attendees ;-). Enjoy! And by the way... my husband says that Sarah was *star* student in his AP Macro-Economics online class when she was a high school homeschooler!

When I was a child, the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” seemed like a joke.  I don’t recall anyone in my family ever taking this question very seriously and I followed suit with answers ranging in career path from the unlikely (racehorse jockey) to the non-existent (professional tree-climber) to the relatively unemployable (flying trapeze artist).  Into my high school years, these responses became less acceptable so I picked a generic “something in business” reply with absolutely no idea what that might mean- I certainly did not expect it to entail owning and operating an ice cream shop!  My journey from a shy homeschooled child to a 25-year-old business owner has been nothing short of eventful and I hope this article will provide insights and inspiration for homeschool students and educators alike.

Childhood participation in entrepreneurial pursuits

     To be honest, I never really saw an up-close example of a ‘traditional’ 9 to 5 office job.  My childhood was full of entrepreneurial pursuits, although I did not recognize any of them as such at the time.  My dad was a truck driver and caretaker of our large backyard garden plot and my mom was the homeschool instructor for myself and all 6 of my siblings. In her spare time (tongue-in-cheek) she taught piano lessons, did homeschool evaluations, made and sold quilts, and ran our little farmette.  During my teen years, my mom expanded her scope by obtaining a bakery license for our kitchen and selling baked goods to nearby restaurants, neighbors, and eventually farmers markets.  Even my grandparents exemplified non-traditional “jobs” post-retirement.  My artist/inventor/mechanical genius grandfather with a passion for trains and old cars created highly-detailed pencil drawings of classic antique cars, train engines, and Harley-Davidsons.  He framed and sold the drawings at craft shows alongside my grandmother’s exquisite crocheted lace tablecloths, starched Christmas decorations, and homemade fudge.

     My siblings and I all had roles in each of these ventures.  Using a Christmas gift loom, my oldest brother and sister added loop potholders to my grandparents’ craft display while two other sisters invested in materials to make potpourri-filled jars and homemade soaps. As a ten-year-old, I found my niche in the craft enterprise with a “how to make sock dolls” book (a birthday gift) which resulted in a group of wildly popular, smiling sock people, each with a unique name and personality.

     Of course we all helped with the bakery work and took care of our farm animals (my oldest brother even ran a rabbit business on the side).  Every summer, my dad had us peddle excess vegetables to our neighbors.  We trooped around the neighborhood with our rusty red wagon selling vegetables to our kindhearted neighbors and it never occurred to my 8-year-old brain that my family’s endeavors were even remotely entrepreneurial or unusual.  Granted, I did begin to question the normality of our lifestyle when my dad introduced us to supplying live fish bait.  This least-liked initiative involved hosing down the yard on summer nights then waking up at 3am to creep around outside in the dark for an hour catching live, slimy, squirming nightcrawlers, which we would store in bins of damp dirt and shredded newspaper in the basement and sell to local fisherman at $1.50/dozen. 

     I am positive that our engagement in these small enterprises would not have been possible without the independent and customizable approach of a homeschool education.  My parents guided and encouraged our interests in and out of the classroom, but also instilled in us a keen awareness of others peoples’ interests.  At a young age, we understood quite clearly that the foundation of a successful enterprise was in providing a good or service that met a need or desire from other people and this crucial aspect of business soon became very real to me.

My first short-term solo venture

     I spent the summer before my senior year at PA Governor’s School for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh with 99 other PA students (I, the lone homeschooler).  During the first weekend of the program, it became very clear to me that a majority of the students had absolutely no idea how to do laundry.  Growing up in a family of 9 people, I considered myself proficient in laundry skills, so I went to the computer lounge, opened Microsoft Word and punched out an ad.  I posted flyers in all of the elevators in the dorm offering my services as washerwoman for a minimal fee.  The first few days after the flyers were out, I received nothing, but a few sniggers and some typical high school mockery, but by the 2ndweekend (when clean clothing was beginning to run low) I had students approaching me on the sly slipping me $5 bills asking if I would do their laundry, fold it, and not tell anyone else about it.  My first solo entrepreneurial venture had begun.  At the end of the 6-week-long program, one of the professors presented 3 awards to our class.  Two awards were presented to students with the best essays and most valuable class participation. The final award, the professor explained was a new award he had created the night before.  Apparently the evening prior he had been on an elevator in the dorm to attend a faculty meeting and discovered one of my signs.  He presented me with that 3rd award, a small hand-carved ivory elephant he had brought back from a trip to Ghana.  The elephant award, he told me, was for my enterprising efforts.  He explained that humility, hard-work, and awareness are all attributes of the elephant, and attributes that I should strive to exemplify in all future endeavors.  Even though that experience was 8 years ago, I have never forgotten his words.

To college and beyond

     After graduating with a PHAA diploma in 2006, I attended college at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA for the next 4 years.  This small liberal arts college with a high respect for tradition, honor, and a well-rounded education, meshed perfectly with my homeschool and enterprising background. In 2009, the college added a new capstone class for senior Business Administration majors; it was a course in entrepreneurship and I was one of the first students to register.  The class involved developing a business idea and creating a full-fledged business plan complete with financial projections, promotional strategies, and market research.  The semester ended with a 20-minute pitch of our business plan to a room of ‘investors’ (other business school faculty).  Unknown to me at the time, in a matter of 2 years, this would end up being the most valuable classroom experience of my college career.

     I graduated from W&L in May 2010 and soon landed a job in the D.C. metro area working as a consultant at a management consulting firm.  This was my first experience into the glamorous world of ‘Corporate America’ and it involved sitting at a laptop and attending seemingly endless meetings every day.  I did get to travel internationally and quickly learned the ins and outs of client politics as well as the inevitable internal office politics.  As I closed in on my 2nd year of consulting, I came to the conclusion that working for a company was not in my best interest.  I visited home at times when I was in D.C. and one weekend while struggling with the crisis of considering changing career plans, I discovered that an ice cream shop was for sale back home.  My business plan experience came in handy at that point and I moved quickly to get financial statements, crunch numbers, write up a business plan for a commercial loan, place a bid, and announce my career change at work.  Explaining to my superiors in the company that I was bowing out of a career renown for high pay, lots of travel, and interesting work in order to scoop ice cream (to my colleagues, the equivalent of burger-flipping at McDonalds) was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever faced.

     The rest is, as they say, history.  I purchased the Twirly Top, a small ice cream shop which has been open since 1952, in March 2013.  It is a seasonal operation, from April – October.  Last year was the first full season for the Twirly Top under my ownership and it was a busy and successful season! 

And now for the job pitch!

     As I am preparing for the 2014 season opening on April 5th, I am seeking teenagers who are interested in working a flexible, but rewarding summer job.  As a homeschooler myself, I decided to reach out to the PA homeschool community to advertise these job openings.  I am particularly seeking individuals with character traits of honesty, willingness to learn, and a strong work ethic as well as an active sense of humor (a combination of these traits is the recipe for success!)  Twirly Top workers gain experience in every aspect of retail food work including food preparation, cleaning, customer service and order taking, all aspects of making and serving ice cream and ice cream products as well as inventory stocking and tracking.  While food service may not be your calling, working at the Twirly Top provides unmatched opportunities for growth- personally and professionally.  Entry-level work experiences are an advantage to gaining employment after high school (whether a student is considering college or immediately entering the workforce in any industry).  In a single Twirly Top season, a teenage employee will learn invaluable skills and cultivate character traits that last throughout the rest of his or her education and career.  Multi-tasking, on-demand focus, teamwork and attention to detail, building customer rapport, as well as following verbal directions are all abilities that Twirly Top workers learn to perform with excellence in a high-energy, bustling work environment!  The Twirly Top is open 6 days a week (closed on Sundays) and the schedule is flexible so I can work with employees for time off for family vacations, weekend trips, pre-existing engagements, etc.- ideal for homeschoolers with many pursuits! If you are a teenager considering a summer job or if you know of a teenager considering a summer job in the Gardners area, please refer them to this post! The Twirly Top is located at 1 Pine Grove Road, Gardners, PA 17324. Applications can be requested via e-mail to sarahkeckler@thetwirlytop.com.  You can also check out the Twirly Top facebook page and the work-in-progress-website at the respective links below:




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