It's the '90s. Forget the campfire. These would-be entrepreneurs are burning for business.
Whenever I think of summer camp, I remember tromping around in the muddy Pennsylvania woods after a rainstorm, triumphantly catching bright red salamanders and gray-green toads. Okay, I admit, it was a long time ago. Clearly, I'm way behind the times--or maybe I've just entered a parallel universe.
Here I am hanging out with the kids in the "business track" at Julian Krinsky Enrichment Camp, nestled on the leafy suburban campus of Haverford College in Haverford, Pa.
Witness these happy campers: one girl and 14 boys, clad neatly in khaki shorts and exceptionally clean T-shirts--many with collars (gasp!). They're listening to entrepreneur Roger Grass, who just paid $26 million to buy a baseball card company, impart some pearls of wisdom: "Just because you can get the money doesn't mean you should get it. If the concept is crap, you shouldn't get it."
Later, they sit most politely for a talk by Mary A. Mitchell, author of the syndicated Ms. Demeanor column and a consultant in business etiquette. "I'm here to tell you how treating people well will actually increase your bottom line," she says. They practice proper handshakes. Next week, table manners.
There's no tetherball at this camp. Think golf, squash, and tennis, offered through Krinsky's other camp programs. For field trips, these kids tour Philadelphia's five-star Rittenhouse Hotel. They ooh and aah over the Ferraris at a local dealership, while the owner, an ex-dentist, extols his new lifestyle.
"I told the guy, 'one day they'll be buying stuff from you.' I truly hope I inspired them to go for the gold," says Krinsky, an emigre from South Africa and pro-tennis-player-turned-accountant, who started a tennis camp two decades ago with partner Adrian Castelli. They've since branched out, into golf, cooking, academics, and drama. Five years, ago, they added business. Out of 2,500 kids every summer, about 100 study business.
While summer entrepreneur camps are still a tiny niche market, they're a true '90s phenomenon, as parents seek value-added experiences, not just fun and games. My Web search turns up a good half-dozen, including Millennium Entrepreneurs Camp, in Chula Vista, Calif., which takes them as young as the third grade. "I know a couple of nine-year-olds whose parents say their kids are already trying to make money," says founder Tonja McCoy.
Perhaps it was inevitable. After all, entrepreneurs are now cultural icons. Wage slaves are out, IPOs are in. And these kids can't remember life before the bull market. They already sense that being a wage slave isn't nearly as cool as doing an IPO. About a quarter to a half of Krinsky's business campers already have their own stock portfolios.
Nadia Schwartz, 14, from Brookline, Mass. the lone girl in this session, confesses: "I've been interested in the business world all my life, and I wanted to get to know it better."Josh Ballen, 15, from Katonah, N.Y, already runs a travel service from his home computer.
During four weeks in Krinsky's program, the teens will write a business plan, learn to use the proper fork, and improve their golf swing. Perhaps most exciting to the kids, they practice trading stocks and commodities. Last year, Krinsky recalls, one camper went home and took advantage of the August market plunge. By December, he'd paid his mother back the $3,400 in camp tuition. "I said to the mom 'what a great investment!'" crows Krinsky. "I'm into returns."
When I returned from summer camp after four weeks in the country, I could raise a flag and catch slimy critters like a pro. I proudly handed my mother a glass terrarium, complete with a fat toad. I can't say she was thrilled, since she's not exactly an animal lover. But I suspect she was proud of the life skills I'd developed--just the ones a kid of my generation really needed. In that regard, nothing much has changed.
By Robin D. Schatz
This article was originally published in the August 16, 1999 print edition of Business Week's Frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy.