Entrepreneurship 101

A summer camp for inner-city teens works to translate street smarts into business know-how

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JUST outside the classroom, Frank Kennedy tells a group of his students they'll be negotiating the sale of a slide projector they bought for $250. Their job is to work one-on-one to close a deal with the six other class members still back at their desks, the buyers.

``What happens if you sell below $250?'' Mr. Kennedy asks. The kids nod. They know it means their business careers would be short-lived.

After five minutes of haggling, however, everyone manages to turn at least a small profit on the projector. Most important, these kids - black, white, Hispanic, Asian, all from inner-city neighborhoods in and around Boston - have learned a bit more about what it takes to run a small business.

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Their classroom sessions at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., a school known for an emphasis on entrepreneurial studies, is part of a summer project called the ``Junior Entrepreneurs Initiative.'' The initiative teams Babson with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a nonprofit organization that teaches business skills to urban youngsters.

Seminars drilling in entrepreneurial basics - ``buy low, sell high, and keep good records'' - are only one part of the two-week camp. Students will take field trips to Boston's City Hall to get a permit for a business, visit a bank office for financial advice, negotiate with wholesalers, and run a sales booth at the city's Downtown Crossing commercial area.

When two weeks are up, they should have completed a detailed plan for starting their own businesses.

All this is exactly what Chrissie Correia, a high school student from Brockton, a mid-sized city south of Boston, has been looking for. ``Business has always been something that fascinated me,'' she says. Her hope is to open a cosmetics shop that will cater to the Hispanic and Cape Verdean girls in her community, who often can't find the right products for their skin tones.

Chrissie heard about the Babson-NFTE summer camp through a local organization for youth with disabilities. She has used a wheelchair since a childhood gunshot accident. ``I hope NFTE expands,'' she says. ``I know a lot of kids making money the wrong way - selling drugs, for instance - who could really benefit from this.''

Another student, Edwin Tavares, says the kind of training he's getting at Babson this summer has a relevance he has rarely found in regular school. ``School is not a major interest yet,'' says Edwin, understating the fact that lately he's been putting much more time into his side job as a paralegal than into schoolwork. He could get better grades if he cared to, he says. But he's extremely interesting in making money and learning business skills.

Edwin saw a notice about the entrepreneurial summer camp ``on the very bottom'' of his Boston high school's bulletin board and decided to apply, though the deadline had nearly expired. He sat down that evening and ``cranked out'' the required essay - knowing, he says, it would have to be ``something really sweet.''

Students like Edwin and Chrissie are a good deal more motivated - and less involved in destructive behavior - than many of the kids targeted by NFTE. The program's president and founder, Steve Mariotti, says it has reached 7,000 teenagers since it began in 1987. To find participants, NFTE works with public schools and with such community organization as Boys and Girls Clubs and Big Brothers.

``Participation has nothing to do with prior achievement,'' says Mr. Mariotti, who spent 10 years as a special-education teacher in the South Bronx before starting NFTE. He had also run an export-import business of his own and has a master's degree in business administration from the University of Michigan. His organization's job, he says, is ``translating street smarts into business know-how.''

Typically, NFTE deals with kids who carry the label ``highly at risk.'' It has had programs at the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York and with the juvenile-justice system in New Jersey. But even the toughest kids show an interest in entrepreneurial training, Mariotti says, adding that he has seen some remarkable turnarounds.

Tracking of participants to see how well the training sticks needs to be strengthened, he admits. NFTE has a contract with researchers at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., to study the program's effectiveness.

Mariotti estimates that the business training NFTE offers gives kids at least a 10 percent increased chance of success over peers without the training.

``It's not a cure-all,'' he says. ``Business knowledge is crucial to functioning, but it's not everything.'' It can't take the place of ``family, school, and spirituality.''

But it does have a noticeable impact on students' views of themselves, according to Frank Kennedy and Desire Mondon, the NFTE staff instructors responsible for most of the teaching at the Babson summer program. ``There's lots of self-discovery,'' Mr. Kennedy says.

Kids come up with ideas that often amaze their teachers. One former student, for instance, proposed teaching summer-camp kids fishing techniques, Mr. Mondon says. Beyond business know-how, the instruction tries to get across ``general life skills ... like how to spend wisely, self-esteem, and confidence,'' says Mondon, who runs an African-clothing outlet, Meh International, in Boston's Copley Place shopping mall.

Kennedy and Mondon will serve as mentors for a number of public-school teachers who will also attend the summer program at Babson. These teachers will work with NFTE to institute entrepreneurial courses in their home schools. Some Babson faculty members will participate in training these teachers too.

At present, NFTE has offices in 10 cities, with plans to expand. Most of the money for its current $5 million budget - Mariotti emphasizes that the hiring of staff and production of training materials is costly - comes from private foundations and individuals.

The ultimate goal of programs like the NFTE-Babson collaboration this summer is ``100 percent business literacy'' in inner-city communities, says the NFTE founder. ``We believe that the transfer of knowledge from those who have learned to make money to those who have not been exposed to that is revolutionary.''

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