Entrepreneur Darlene Alston, owner of Just a Bit Electric Tea Shop, took a gamble when she opted to set up her quaint vintage-style business on Detroit’s West Side instead of near shops downtown, but Alston says she did it for the children in her community who are in desperate need of entrepreneurial guidance and job skills.
Alston, now retired, invites neighborhood boys and girls ages 14 to 21 to work alongside her at the Electric Tea Shop for one year, where she affords them the opportunity to gain hands-on work experience and basic job skills.
“A big part of it [opening the shop], was to teach children to get a year of work experience and to try and teach them how to work, because a lot of other communities, have places where children can go and get a job–they can learn to work,” Alston says.
She recalls times she’s witnessed children as young as 10 years old in other neighborhoods, helping out at small businesses, learning important skills including how to handle cash, however she didn’t to see this on Detroit’s West Side.
The shop owner estimates more than 90% of the businesses on her block are black owned and says she does her best to involve them in the children’s learning experience; as she believes the gap in employment preparation, in some communities of color, is caused first, by a lack of business owners and second, a disconnect between the existing owners and the neighborhood children.
All of Alston’s students participate in a three-month intensive training experience, where they learn the basics of the workforce, which include how to fill out an application, dress professionally, maintain a pleasant attitude, and most importantly, provide quality customer service.
“Just because you have a job, doesn’t mean you can keep the job– if your personality doesn’t reflect the business,” Alston tells her young participants.
After the initial three months, all students are prompted to answer the question, “What do you want to do?” allowing them time to determine their defined role for the duration of their stay. If Alston is unable to provide them with the training they desire, she reaches out to her surrounding community.
“If we’re not doing it here at the tea shop, then I try to engage other businesses along the block to see if they can intern with them,” Alston says.
The dedicated businesswoman adds that her ultimate goal is to cultivate entrepreneurship and to promote individuality, while assuring children that they are a valued commodity.
As an added element, Alston hopes to soon offer managerial training, teaching kids to handle daily shop operations.
“Our children don’t see themselves as valuable individuals that people will engage because people disengage,” Alston says. “I want to [think to themselves,] ‘I am somebody [who] no matter where I go, I add value to that situation because I have skills, I have knowledge and I have things that will enhance any situation that I get into.’”