Clovis Chamber’s YEA program continues to thrive

Photo by Valerie Shelton – Rod Geist of Central Valley Community Bank instructs students in this year’s Clovis Chamber of Commerce Young Entrepreneur’s Academy (YEA) program.


By Valerie Shelton, Editor


In November, the Clovis Chamber of Commerce and its Young Entrepreneurs Academy suffered the tremendous loss of inspiration and leader Fran Blackney. The YEA program, only in its third year, was Blackney’s baby, and for many students she was a motherly figure.

While Blackney’s untimely passing was devastating for YEA students, fellow leaders at the chamber as well as the students knew that Blackney would want them to continue on without skipping a beat—so that is what the YEA program under the instruction of Rod Geist, the vice president of the local Central Valley Community Bank.

“Fran did a lot of amazing things, but as a coordinator she brought in all the frosting to the cake so to speak and what the instructors always did was give the students the nuts and bolts of how to put it all together,” Geist said, insisting that he didn’t really do much except keep the program going. “Fran arranged for business owners, specialists in certain fields, who could come in and give them additional information and first hand experience. I’m confident by the time we’re done, the kids will not have missed out on anything, it just hasn’t perhaps flowed as nicely and it might have in the past so we are shoving a lot of stuff in here at the very end but they’ve done a good job and they have all been very focused and staying on track. Really all I’ve done is keep things going, keep the momentum going, keep it alive, keep the kids focused and push things ahead.”

In January, Mayra Stone was brought on as the new program manager for YEA and she says she has big shoes to fill.

“I’m getting up and running trying to plan a lot of stuff and pick up where Fran left off. They are really big shoes to fill and a lot of the kids thought of her as mom,” Stone said. “I’ve been scheduling appointments and getting to know people because I’m actually from Fresno so I’m not familiar with the Clovis community and how they run things so I’m getting to know new people and shake hands and it has been really great meeting the new people and a lot of them have been very supportive. It has been a great experience and I’m loving it so far.”

Both Geist and Stone say this year’s YEA students have some ambitious ideas.

One student eventually wants to own her own bakery, specializing in cupcakes, and she would like to design a high-tech website where she can showcase photos of all her tasty sweet treats. Another plans to invent a universal backpack strap for skateboards, which will allow users to strap a skateboard to any backpack. Another wants to design clothing with motivational slogans for body builders.

Nicholas Dybas said his company provides a radio streaming service for up-and-coming bands. “It is kind of like Pandora, but more localized,” he said.

Rei Bioco, who enjoys graphic design, plans to add her designs to apparel.

“I like to do graphic design and I started uploading my designs onto a website that will sell the shirts with my designs on them and I would make some revenue but I took that idea and figured if they can make money off of me, I can make more money off of that myself, so I’m trying to start a clothing line with my own designs,” Bioco said.

Therese Santiago plans to sell hair accessories and donate a portion of the proceeds to the American Cancer Society.

Some students are working together in groups. One group of three students is creating a website for music teachers and students searching for music teachers. The site will be similar to, since students will be able to review their teachers. It will be a place music teachers can subscribe and put their profiles and where students and parents can find a music teacher based off their preferences.

Another group of three students is creating a three new drink, similar to 5-hour energy drinks, which will provide dietary supplements to relieve anxiety, enhance focus or suppress appetite.

All the students said they have learned a lot from participating in YEA and although they miss Blackney, they are impressed with how the program has continued and is an honor to her memory.

“Fran had great critical thinking skills,” Colby Serpa said. “I’d never seen someone think so quickly and it caught me off guard because I went in there with a very well prepared essay and she just shot bullets and they were good bullets, like the devil’s advocate side, and it was a good way to teach and I walked out of there with a completely different mindset… Rod has worked really hard to fill in the gaps, especially since Bill left because he was sick and then Fran passed. A lot of weight was put on his shoulders and he has done a very good job of maintaining composure and explaining everything with the full amount of energy.”

Santiago said she too misses Blackney and is amazed at what Geist has done in continuing the program.

“It was pretty apparent that Fran was going to motivate us to move forward but at the same time I don’t think the program skipped a beat and I feel like I’ve learned so much in these past few weeks,” Santiago said. “Rod has been a very engaging teacher and I think that he has helped a lot of us move forward by incorporating our own businesses into his lectures so we know where we have to go from where we are and what position we need to be in to move forward.”

Dybas also talked about how he misses Blackney.

“I loved Fran,” Dybas said. “She was always a joy and she would always smile when she saw me. While she was always tough on us, she always looked optimistically on us and our ideas and it was hard to hear that she had passed, but the academy did a good job in continuing on and I was very impressed.”