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Teen starts nonprofit, wins national Young Entrepreneur Award

Brandon — At age 18, Ashley Gunn already has an impressive résumé. The teen started a non-profit business that buys, renovates and sells abandoned homes to families in need; won a national award and $10,000 scholarship; served as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives; and was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gunn is the daughter of Frank and Grace Gunn of Brandon and was recently named the Young Entrepreneur of the Year for 2006 by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and Visa USA. She is the founder and chairman of Students Aiding Indigent Families (SAIF).

In recognition of her entrepreneurial achievements and spirit, she was awarded a $10,000 educational scholarship that will help defray costs when she begins college this fall.

“I want to thank both NFIB and Visa for their generosity and support of my efforts to help improve the lives of families and students in my community,” Gunn said. “I am so grateful for the financial assistance they are providing to help me further my education.”

This compassionate young woman says she first thought of doing something to help needy families own homes after returning from a mission trip to Africa the summer before entering the seventh grade.

“I was moved by the poverty and despair all around and was determined to help address similar needs back home in the Jackson area,” she recalls. “I was able to get the non-profit going in April of 2005.”

She followed the example of her parents, self-employed investors, who have always been involved with volunteer and church work in the community. “They were a big help in getting the business started,” she says. “They were there every step of the way. They were surprised at what I wanted to do but also very excited.”

Gunn says starting the nonprofit was not as hard as she thought, but she did have to learn to be patient while working through the state’s red tape. “I got a board of directors together and they’ve been great,” she said. “Then, wrote bylaws and articles of incorporation, filed with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office as a nonprofit. It was not difficult but I was surprised at the amount of time it took. It took a lot to go through the steps.”

She also had to learn to budget her time after the organization was up and running. As a high school student involved in school activities, she could not interview families during school hours.

This young entrepreneur solicited high school students to rehabilitate houses by writing letters to Jackson area schools and churches. Real estate agents helped identify families in need as those who wanted to buy homes but could not obtain loans. So far 200 students from five schools have volunteered their time for work days and five families have moved into renovated homes.

The homes are sold at below market value. The organization is on track to generate $100,000 in revenue this year. As a non-profit business, SAIF has been certified by the Secretary of State and all proceeds from home sales go toward providing college scholarships to deserving students who are in need.

“The most rewarding part is handing over the keys at a home closing,” Gunn said. “Most of them cry because they’ve never had a home and it makes me feel good to help them.”

After screening by Realtors, families in need of homes submit applications and are interviewed. Gunn says she and the board try to find families who will stay in their homes for a long time and better the community, hopefully lowering the crime rate.

A recent graduate of Jackson Preparatory School, Gunn chose to further her education at the University of Pennsylvania because of its Wharton School of Business. Her major will be business with a concentration in real estate and entrepreneurship.

She hopes to continue working with non-profit businesses after college graduation. “As long as I can put food on the table, I want to do that,” she said. “But if I can’t do that, I will work for a for-profit business or have my own business.”

Gunn has no family in Pennsylvania but says she likes being on her own and has some experience doing so. She spent six months in Washington, D.C., last year as a page for Congressman Chip Pickering (R-Miss.).

Her 15-year-old brother, Brantley, has been serving as vice chairman of SAIF and will carry on the organization’s work when Ashley goes off to school. She will continue to be involved during school breaks.

Gunn was selected for the Young Entrepreneur Award from four regional winners. The award is given annually to the top applicant. Applicants demonstrated their entrepreneurial achievement by answering a personal questionnaire defining their efforts and composed essays about the importance of free enterprise. Standardized test scores, grade point average and class rank were also considered.

The winner was chosen by an independent selection committee from a field of more than 1,000 candidates who were nominated by NFIB members. Each of the regional winners won a $5,000 scholarship.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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