Contributing Reporter 

By the fall, if all goes according to schedule, there will be a new business on the West Side — and it will be started by four Austin young people. Aaliyah Ward, Isaac Johnson and twin sisters Kayla and Cicara Reese are part of the Westside Health Authority’s inaugural Village Fellowship Program. 

The teens are currently undergoing a 12-week training session designed to give them critical skills in “business development, leadership development, economic engagement and civic engagement,” according to Yemisi Dinkins, the Authority’s director of finance and economic development. 

Each teenager gets $250 a week in stipends and, upon completing the program, will receive an additional $2,000 in startup funding to help launch their own businesses as soon as they’re done collaborating on a single business that will incorporate all of their skills. 

Quiwana Bell, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer, said that the application process for the fellowship was “highly, highly selective” and open to young people ages 16 to 24, preferably from Austin. The candidates had until March 23 to submit their applications. 

Judges considered the applicants’ ideas, their character and their talent, she said, adding that they also wanted candidates with vision and who could inspire their peers and their neighbors. Five applications were chosen, but one had to drop out due to her educational commitments, she said. 

“The goal is to grow four fellows so they’re able to be successful in business,” Dinkins said. “It was really [Bell’s] vision to bring the youth up, so they are able to be more than active citizens, so they are engaged and enhancing [the community].” 

All four fellows’ business ideas have some aspects that benefits other businesses or artists. Kayla Reese wants to build an app that would let beauty shops throughout Austin reach clients across the city and beyond. She explained that she has seen many local beauty shops struggle, and she wanted to create something that would help them get more customers. 

In the long run, Reese said that she hopes to use the proceeds from her business to launch a scholarship that would help youth who are interested in careers in the beauty industry. 

Her twin sister wants to launch a full-service salon and spa in order to employ and educate people in the community about proper skin care. 

“Everybody knows black don’t crack, but I just want to provide more information on skincare, aesthetics and beauty,” Cicara Reese said.

Ward described herself as an artist and an activist, and she came up with something that reflects both.

“My dream is to open a community center that offers therapy for youth, and also offers them opportunities to express themselves,” she said. 

Johnson said he wants to produce music. His idea was similar to Ward’s — take his talent and use it to give others opportunities to pursue theirs. 

“I’d like to open my own youth center that helps youth in under-developed communities build a platform where they can express themselves,” Johnson said. 

The fellows said that they haven’t ironed out the details of what form the collaborative business will take, but they do want to create an entity that allows all of them to utilize their respective passions and talents. 

Ward said that the fellowship experience has been “very eye-opening” and humbling — a sentiment shared by Johnson. 

“[It gave me] a sense of community a sense of how connected our community is,” he said. “It [has] shown me a new perspective. I’ve seen people who want to see change and make it happen. With that experience, I hope I can go further.”


Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...