Apprentice Builds co-founder Branden Wells, at left, puts his arm around fellow co-founder Alan Cerna while standing next to a classic car in an empty parking lot at night.

Branden Wells, age 22, (left) and Alan Cerna, age 23, believe their interest in automotive repair helped to keep them from destructive lifestyles while growing up in crime-ridden neighborhoods of Santa Ana. They hope their startup, Apprentice Builds, will provide similar experiences to other youth. Image Credit: Bryan Vicente, VoyageLA

CSUF Mihaylo entrepreneurship grads Branden Wells ’18 and Alan Cerna ’17 share a passion for restoring antique vehicles and providing positive opportunities for underserved youth in their hometown of Santa Ana. The two nonprofit entrepreneurs have established Apprentice Builds, which sees hot rod restoration as the gateway to a career and better life.

For auto aficionado Alan Cerna ’17, overhearing a discussion about a crate engine while waiting for his business calculus course at Mihaylo College would change his life. The friendship he developed with classmate Branden Wells ’18 was the catalyst for a partnership that led to Apprentice Builds, a nonprofit and fiscal sponsor of the Irvine-based Givsum Foundation, which gives young people from low-income and low-opportunity neighborhoods a viable career path and a sense of purpose through hot-rod restoration.

“One day we were just waiting outside class at 7 a.m. and I heard Branden talk with a classmate about LS motors, and I knew I had to get in the conversation,” recalls Cerna. “We got to know each other and discovered that we were both big auto enthusiasts.”

The two entrepreneurs are both from underprivileged parts of Santa Ana – Wells was raised on the south side, while Cerna calls the north side home.

“We both grew up with a strong sense of family, and both of our dads were blue-collar workers. We learned to work with our hands and learned the value of money and skills at a young age,” says Wells. “We also had a strong sense of community. Growing up watching friends take the wrong path, we relied on things we loved and taking those things on to avoid the wrong paths. We saw problems that we wanted to solve and take on head-on because we saw no one our age was doing that.”

With the assistance of the Mihaylo College entrepreneurship program, Cerna and Wells developed the model and concept for Apprentice Builds, which will serve its first student apprentices this fall.

Transforming Lives, Powered by Hot Rods

Though initiatives encouraging postsecondary education among Santa Ana youth have made headway in recent years, Cerna and Wells note that many youth in the city, particularly young men, do not remain in college and instead go back to gangs or destructive lifestyles.

While Cerna and Wells have long believed that practical, applied career paths, such as automotive repair, are a solution, they believe that the local school systems have failed to adequately fund these programs, thus creating a niche for startups such as Apprentice Builds.

“In Santa Ana high schools, there is a lack of skill-building programs and those that exist are very inconsistent due to funding,” says Cerna. “Automotive helped us stay away from a bad lifestyle, and a lot of the kids in the Santa Ana High School area have a big passion for cars, but they don’t have a say because of where they’re from or they feel like because of where they live they are destined to stay there. We offer them this program, helping them build beautiful crafts with hot rods, such as ’67 or ’69 Camaros or 1970s Challengers. This skill helped us, so why can’t it help future generations?”

Cerna and Wells envision a future in which Apprentice Builds will equip students for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification, preparing them for a technical education or the launch of their own auto repair shop. They also hope to build social media profiles for each participant, demonstrating their development in the apprenticeship program, including their improvement in school and life, to maximize their hiring chances.

Getting Apprentice Builds Off the Ground

Apprentice Builds was first pitched in MGMT 465A – New Venture Creation and Funding, taught by Management Lecturer and Center for Entrepreneurship Director John Bradley Jackson, who is known as “JJ.”

“JJ is a big auto enthusiast. He loves cars, loves what we do and is very experienced,” says Wells. “In this program, we worked as a group to bring the concept to life as a new venture launch. All the members of our group were from blue-collar backgrounds and had experience with vehicles. We knew it meant a lot to have these skills and be able to work with our hands if college didn’t work out.”

Today, two mentors from their Mihaylo course are on the startup’s advisory board and Cerna and Wells are residents of the CSUF Startup Incubator, which facilitates in-depth mentoring and support from business professionals throughout Orange County.

A key player in the Apprentice Builds story is Wil Diaz, one of the customers at Wells’ day job at an auto parts store. Diaz is currently serving the startup as a part-time mentor, mechanic and consultant. Raised in a rough neighborhood in San Diego and only recently earning his GED, Diaz can relate to the positive change that an automotive-based career path can have on a young life.

Local media, including the Orange County Register and VoyageLA, have featured the Apprentice Builds concept in recent months, while Black Top Magazine, a Southern California hot-rod publication, is planning coverage.

The startup has also received significant community recognition, including first-place finishes at the CSUF Startup Competition and the Pasadena Angels Pitch Workshop at Cal Poly Pomona in April 2018, as well as honors from the Santa Ana City Council.

Donations of cars, equipment, tools and money are the lifeblood of Apprentice Builds. Cerna and Wells are soliciting sponsorships from tool companies and auto shops, and participating in car shows, such as the Main Street Garden Grove and Orange Plaza events, where their volunteerism results in donations that power their program.

They are also seeking certification from the Bureau of Automotive Repair for an auto shop license. Until then, Apprentice Builds plans to sustain the apprenticeship program through small-scale sales and auctions of the vehicles that their students have refurbished.

Finding a permanent home for Apprentice Builds has thus far been the largest challenge, but the City of Santa Ana, St. Joseph’s Health and personal connections have been pitching in to assist.

“We’ve had trouble finding a location because of insurance,” reports Wells. “Once we find a location, the Boy Scouts of America will subsidize our insurance costs for the students to participate in the program, but we also need general liability for ourselves and the students. Businesses don’t want to deal with these liabilities, and when we reach out to property owners, and they hear our concept is about automotive, they don’t want to get involved.”

The Apprentice Builds Vision

In the near-term, Apprentice Builds plans to assist between five and 10 students in their free program. However, with increasing interest in their concept, both locally and in Los Angeles County, Cerna and Wells hope that their Santa Ana launch is just the beginning of a broader movement connecting underprivileged youth with a brighter future through automotive repair.

“We plan to work with the Santa Ana Police Department to set up our own car show next year and with Segerstrom High School to be the official sponsor for their annual car show,” says Wells. “Additionally, our revenue model is somewhat self-sustainable and because we are not associated with a particular campus or school district, we are easily duplicable in other parts of the country.”

For more on Apprentice Builds or to donate or assist in their startup, email Cerna and Wells at or their Givsum page.