Small Business

Business Courses Give Kids a Leg Up


The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship teaches at-risk youths the fundamentals of business and offers them a chance to realize their dreams

When she was a 17-year-old student at Mt. Carmel High School in Derby, Kan., Abby Lewis developed a business plan for the Scribbler, a nail polish applicator that looks like a marker. With big expansion plans and a patent pending, Lewis has already been approached by major cosmetic companies interested in her product.

Christian Abrego, 16, came up with the idea for his company, Young Sprouts Event Marketing, while a student at Menlo-Atherton High School in East Palo Alto, Calif. Abrego, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with his family, wrote a business plan that addressed the need for a place where young people could hang out and play soccer or participate in art shows—an alternative to drugs or just killing time on the street.

Extreme Kleen, an auto-detailing business that offers its services to owners of just about any type of motor vehicle, is the brainchild of Marvin Lenzy, 15, a student at Suitland High School in Suitland, Md.

The Business of Graduating

Lewis, Abrego, and Lenzy are all teen entrepreneurs whose interest in starting their own businesses was sparked when they took entrepreneurship courses at their high schools that were sponsored and run by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)—a New York nonprofit that teaches business skills to low-income youngsters across the country to help them out of crushing poverty.

On Oct. 3, 32 NFTE alumni finalists from around the country presented their business plans at the Second Annual Smith Barney/NFTE National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in New York City in hopes of winning up to $10,000 in seed capital. For a look at a selection of the finalists as well as other alumni who have gone on to start their own businesses, flip through our slide show (BusinessWeek.com, 10/5/07).

According to a survey published last year by the Gates Foundation, almost a third of all public high school students (nearly half of them African American, Hispanic, and Native American) fail to graduate with their class. Furthermore, these dropouts are more likely to live in poverty, be unemployed, and receive public assistance. However, 81% of the Gates survey respondents also said providing real-world learning opportunities increases those at-risk students' chances of graduating.

Taking It to the Schools

NFTE began in 1982 when Steve Mariotti, a high school teacher and dropout specialist working in some of New York's toughest neighborhoods, noticed that his students were just as interested in business as wealthy people were. "When we talked about ownership and the benefits of ownership, I noticed that they came to school more and they were more engaged," says Mariotti, who realized it was possible to convert his students' street smarts into business smarts.

So Mariotti devised a curriculum that incorporated those interests. "I came up with a course for low-income children who were not doing well in school on how to start a small business," he says. "In teaching them to come up with a business plan, we really teach them math and reading skills."

Mariotti fine-tuned his curriculum over the next five years, developing 50 lesson plans—known as the NFTE 50—covering everything from the difference between sales and marketing to how to open a bank account. Having seen the results among his own students in New York, Mariotti believed his course could be replicated on a national scale.

The Forbes One

In 1987, Mariotti read the bios of the Forbes 400 and sent letters to 186 of the chief executives asking whether they would be interested in helping low-income children learn how to start their own businesses. He received one reply—from Raymond Chambers, the founder of Wesray Capital in Morristown, N.J. After the two met, Mariotti says Chambers pledged to give him $200,000 to fund one year. "He said, 'Let's see how it goes.'"

Since then, the program has reached more than 150,000 youths in 21 states and trained more than 4,100 certified entrepreneurship teachers. Moreover, NFTE has expanded overseas with programs in 13 countries including Belgium, China, Germany, India, Israel, and South Korea. NFTE now operates on a budget of $15 million and has attracted respected corporate donors such as Microsoft (MSFT) and the Goldman Sachs Foundation.

In NFTE's weekly two-hour classes, fledgling entrepreneurs learn business skills in semester- or year-long courses, after-school programs, and summer camps. Each student comes up with a business plan and participates in organized selling events at his own school. In 1997 a study by Andrew Hahn of the Center for Youth & Communities at Brandeis University found that 33% of the students who completed the NFTE program went on to start their own small businesses and 70% finished secondary school.

Malik Armstead completed the NFTE program in 1988 as a 17-year-old in Philadelphia, at the suggestion of one of his guidance counselors. "The program allowed me use both sides of my brain—the creative and the analytical," says Armstead, who read The Wall Street Journal in class and learned how to read balance sheets and income statements, how stock prices are determined, and how to develop a business plan. "I felt pretty inspired. I felt like a business student."

Giving Kids More Options

Moreover, he caught the entrepreneurial bug. Following the program, Armstead dabbled in a number of small businesses such as selling soda and candy in his high school. While at Morehouse College, he sold hand-painted jeans and T-shirts. After graduating, he got a job at Morgan Stanley (MS) in New York but says, "My dream was to own my own business."

In 1996 he opened a small takeout restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., which eventually grew into a successful catering business, restaurant, and bar called the Five Spot, which also offers live entertainment. Armstead says one of the most gratifying parts of owning his own business is his ability to give back to his community. "One of the biggest impacts from a social perspective is that we offer training and jobs to inner-city youth."

Like many participants, Armstead credits NFTE with changing his life. "It is just incredible. I thought you had to know someone to get in a business or have a ton of money. But [I learned] you can start on a micro-level and grow it from there. NFTE gets kids focused on creating their own businesses rather than just getting a job and working for someone. It gives them more options in life."


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