Creating Entrepreneurs

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When it comes to teaching youth how to make a living, the lesson almost always boils down to the same formula: Work hard for someone else. Veteran youth worker Steve Mariotti wishes more youth programs would offer kids another, potentially more powerful option: to become that someone else.

While starting a business might seem to be an option only for those from well-off families and top schools, promoters of entrepreneurship training say it can help at-risk kids build better futures by learning both business skills and crucial life skills.

Competitive edge. Young entrepreneur Jenny Vo gets help from a mentor, Bob Higgins of Merrill Lynch, before a business plan competition run through the San Francisco affiliate of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

Photo: NFTE Bay Area

“A lot of people in poverty are not given the opportunity to think about small business as a career path,” says Mariotti, founder of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), based in New York City.

While Mariotti has nothing against job training, he believes youth workers err when they stop there. “The long-term way out of poverty is to own assets,” he says.

Maybe entrepreneurship just seems too out of reach; those stories about kids who strike gold with unique (and well-funded) business ideas can be intimidating as well as inspiring. But a small industry of training programs is making entrepreneur education more systematic and more available.

“If you were to look at a graph of colleges and universities that teach entrepreneurship, you’d see that 50 years ago, it didn’t exist,” says Carrie McIndoe, senior director of the Youth Entrepreneurship Program at the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE). “Today, almost every campus has at least a class or program on the concept.” The result, she says, is a growing demand for youth to be exposed to entrepreneurship before college.

Opening Doors

The first challenge is getting time and space in classrooms, where the training typically takes place. “The biggest issue is shelf space,” Mariotti says, especially with schools so focused on standardized testing.

He says entrepreneur programs need to show school administrators research about how the programs might improve students’ performance and increase their pursuit of higher education. (See “Indicators of Success” in the NFTE and Detroit Entrepreneurship Institute profiles on the following pages.) However, most programs have no studies of their impact after youths complete them.

It also helps to have a curriculum and textbooks. That’s one benefit of affiliating with national groups, such as NFTE and Junior Achievement.

Youth entrepreneurship training suffers, however, from the lack of a national organization to serve as a resource for data, curricula and support. NCEE, which recently took over administration of the youth entrepreneurship programs previously run by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, hopes to change that. McIndoe says NCEE wants to get more teachers trained, establish the best way to evaluate the programs’ effectiveness and make sure the programs can work within each state’s standards of learning, so that teachers will have an incentive to use the programs.

The Detroit Entrepreneurship Institute (DEI) got around the problem of finding space in schools by holding a summer camp for young entrepreneurs. Most participants in the Young CEO camp are referred by social workers or youth organizations.

DEI says the camp can’t even accommodate all who want to come. “The demand is troubling,” says Shawntay Dixon, DEI’s senior director.

Opening Minds

One of the easier aspects of starting such a program also helps to open the school doors: showing support from local businesses that have committed funding or volunteer time by their employees. “Almost anyone can raise $10,000 to $15,000 [from businesses] to start a program,” Mariotti says.

Why? Many businesspeople believe it’s in their interest to help build a younger generation of businesspeople. For Nzinga Oneferua-El, founder of the Entrepreneur Training University (ETU) in Baltimore, the motive is clear: “People that are in business should be setting up young people the way drug dealers and gangs do” – that is, by teaching them the ropes early.

Getting youth excited about running businesses can be difficult in gang- and drug-ridden neighborhoods. Oneferua-El says entrepreneur training teaches young people in high-risk areas that there are options other than gangs and drugs. Mariotti stresses that in the long run, owning a small business pays better.

“There are a lot of products in the marketplace that have the same kind of mark-up that drugs do, like perfume and lingerie,” he says. “Plus, you have to analyze the cost of going into the drug industry: violence, prison, losing touch with family.”

Supporters of entrepreneur training say its benefits extend beyond learning to run a business. “We have unique insights into teaching critical thinking, math, reading and writing,” Mariotti says. “By talking about time management, budgeting and cost-benefit analysis, it empowers people.”

McIndoe says entrepreneur training also teaches kids how to recognize opportunity and evaluate risk. “We’re not necessarily trying to train them to be entrepreneurs, but how to also be good citizens and employees,” she says.