In November 1981, as an eighth-grader at Furnace Brook Middle School in Marshfield, Ma., I started my first business: bubble-gum salesman.

My only goal, at first, was to make enough money to buy my mom some stamps for her birthday. Very practical, I know.

I started with a five-piece pack of gum one day (at 10 cents per piece), cleared a 25-cent profit, expanded to two packs, then four, and then held steady at eight packs of Bubble Yum, Hubba Bubba, Bubblicious and other varieties that I sold to fellow students.

Soon I set my sights on simply seeing how much money I could make between classes (and, yes, sometimes even during class) without running afoul of the school administration, which didn’t exactly endorse my grassroots enterprise.

Eventually, and quite by accident, I branched out and began selling more than 100 pieces of Starburst candy pieces a day. Along the way, I offered rewards, especially to my best customers, in the form of freebies here and there that expressed my appreciation for their loyalty.

By the end of the school year, I had earned $500–enough to help my mom buy a used car and to enroll in a summer basketball camp. You could say I exceeded the stamps-for-birthday goal.

The entrepreneurial zeal never waned, even if most of that passion over the years was expended on competing for stories as a news reporter.

Now business has come full circle with a current marketing effort that I am coordinating called “Shop The Village.” Comprised of more than 100 businesses in my longtime residence of Oak Park, Ill., the program began taking shape behind the scenes in late October and was unveiled publicly the day after Thanksgiving.

“Shop The Village” continues through Jan. 31, 2009, designed as it is to spur on shopping amid our economically trying times.

So far, and thanks to many business and local government leaders who have thrown in their support, it appears to have ignited real enthusiasm. And where I used to offer a piece of gum or a Cherry Starburst to another student, “Shop The Village” is providing more than 100 $25 gift certificates (at minimum) and a $4,000 Grand Prize at the end of the campaign.

Along with other key allies from throughout this community that I treasure so much, I will be striving to exceed initial expectations in much the same way that they were eclipsed more than a quarter-century ago back in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

And this program enjoys the major benefit of actually being backed by the powers-that-be, so there’s no need for anyone to look over their shoulder!

Today, at Lido’s Caffe in downtown Oak Park, we held the first of nine weekly drawings for “Shop The Village. You can check it out here:

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