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Young Entrepreneurs

he Clovis Chamber of Commerce, particularly its Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) and annual ClovisFest and BIG Hat Days celebrations, lost a tireless worker and passionate advocate in November 2015 when Fran Blackney, 65, passed away due to a sudden illness. She was the Chamber’s communications and business/political advocacy director.

Some of Blackney’s strongest advocacy efforts were in the nationally-known YEA! program that she spearheaded in Clovis. YEA! is a groundbreaking program, established in 2004, that transforms middle and high school students into skilled entrepreneurs who create and run actual businesses.

During Blackney’s tenure the Clovis YEA! graduated more than 53 students who started over 18 businesses and social movements while simultaneously completing high school on time. Ninety-nine percent then went on to enroll in college.

While involved in the program, the students brainstormed business ideas, wrote a business plan, interacted with business professionals, pitched their business plan to potential “investors,” obtained funding, legally registered their businesses, participated in a trade show and actually launched their own businesses or social movements.

In addition to learning the ins-and-outs of running a business, Blackney’s YEA! students gained long-lasting life skills like self-confidence, writing and comprehension proficiency, critical thinking, financial literacy, public speaking abilities and interview/job seeking skills.

Since the Clovis Chamber of Commerce was the first Chamber in California asked to take part in this program, Blackney quickly came to the attention of officials with the national office in Rochester, New York. In fact, following her death, they said she had “personified the spirit of the YEA! mission, inspiring us every day.”

“Fran’s passion for inspiring students to pursue their dreams was a hallmark of her warm and energetic personality,” said Sara Moonan, director of community engagement for the national organization. “Fran put her heart, soul and sense of humor into all of her students’ experiences. Fran loved nurturing her students’ self-confidence and helping them to discover their potential.”
“Her impact on education in the Clovis community and student success is undeniable and will always be remembered,” she added, mentioning that the Clovis Chamber’s YEA! program was among the nation’s finest.

In fact, the national organization subsequently named an award in Blackney’s honor.

“Our entire organization so enjoyed working with Fran, and we all continue to be inspired by her enthusiasm for youth entrepreneurship,” Gayle B. Jagel, the founder and CEO of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, wrote in a letter to Fran’s husband, Mark, the Clovis Chamber’s President/CEO.

“We would like to establish the Fran Blackney Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award to recognize a YEA! student – on a national level – with drive and enthusiasm for their community and for promoting a culture of innovation. Our team is eager to recognize Fran’s important work and passion for YEA!”
The establishment of the award was officially announced at YEA’s national semifinals competition in Rochester in May.

Accolades from the people of Clovis were just as heartfelt as those from the YEA! headquarters.

“To me, Fran was this beautiful person that would stand by you no matter the odds. It didn’t matter to her what your skills, education or opposition was. She would stand by you, as steady as a rock, and support you with all her might, even if she was the only pillar to hold you up,” recalled Alexander Ewing, one of her YEA! students.

“She had a way of leaving an impact on every person she met,” added Greg Da Cunhu, another YEA! alum. “Fran taught me that integrity is everything; she always pushed us for excellence.”

“What surprised me most about Fran was that even as a YEA alumni, she was still willing to jump through hoops to help me if I asked her for assistance,” said Jessica Chillingerian.

Tributes from the adults Blackney recruited to assist her with the YEA! program and other local endeavors were also effusive.

Rick Snow, vice president of Snow Flake Designs and an active participant in the youth program, told the Fresno Bee that Blackney brought business leaders from the community to assist students in business planning. What she was most effective at, he said, was the way she could “steer the students” toward the correct answers, not lecture or direct them.

“She tried to make the kids think for themselves and come to their own conclusions,” Snow was quoted as saying.

Christopher Gabriel, a local radio talk show host at the time, wrote a tribute soon after her death that was particularly enlightening.

“Fran was one of those rare individuals whose presence alone commanded respect, admiration and the understanding that if she asked for your assistance on something, you jumped. You never questioned Fran. You followed her lead. And that was a good thing because that woman knew how to lead and get the very best out of people,” he stated.

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