Raising a baby, and a business

Three years ago when Federica Bautista became pregnant during high school, nobody could have guessed she would be running her own business after graduation. But today, that is what she is doing.

Thanks to an elective class on entrepreneurship that she took at a special high school for teen mothers, Ms. Bautista learned about profit margins, marketing, and management and put them to work in the real world as Freddie's Flowers, a floral arrangement business she runs from home.

"Being a teen mom is difficult, we have more responsibility and I'm trying to work harder because I have to support my son," says Bautista, mother of now two-year-old Abraham.

The class is administered by The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit organization that teaches technology and small business skills to low-income, high-risk youths.

Nearly 80 percent of unmarried teen mothers end up on welfare, and NFTE sees a possible solution in teaching them how to start their own businesses, not only as an income source but as a way to build the skills and confidence needed to start a career.

"The talent within the teen mother population hasn't been focused on," says Del Daniels, director of the program. "Teen mothers tend to get a lot of negative attention as ones who siphon resources from society rather than adding resources."

Getting a 'mini-MBA'

The course is a year-long program taught for an hour a day as an elective for students attending any of New York's five schools for pregnant or mothering teens.

"It's a mini-MBA course," Mr. Daniels says. "It teaches them to turn hobbies into a business."

Through lectures and projects, the students learn how to make a business plan, read financial statements, navigate The Wall Street Journal, write letters, negotiate, and sell. Guest speakers and field trips such as visiting the New York Stock Exchange help them learn firsthand.

"If they're learning about wholesale, they go to the wholesale district and buy a product. If the topic is marketing, they make business cards and fliers," Daniels says.

Students and graduates go to NFTE's Wall Street business center for networking and to use the computers, copier, fax, phones, and conference area. "Most of us don't have computers and so we'd have to go to the library and wait in a long line," Bautista says.

Like other students, she has learned to promote her business by giving out her card in school, at church, and around her neighborhood. She starts her day at 4 a.m. by trekking to the city's wholesale flower market. She tracks the competition and offers her customers better deals, like free delivery. She doesn't have a car, so when her brother can't help out with his van, she loads arrangements into a taxi.

"I've seen her develop from a very shy, intimidated young lady to someone who's very confident and has turned limited seed money into a real business," says Jim Northrop, president of Princess House, a direct-selling firm based in Taunton, Mass. that sponsors the program with $100,000 per year.

Teens are taught to start locally. "They're masters of a certain environment, they know their friends and what they need and want," Daniels says.

The class is designed to get the students started, and realistically the businesses are meant to be part-time ventures, at least at first.

The students can apply for mini-loans of $100 to $500 to get going. To graduate they have to show some revenue, even if it's only $5.

Few stick to it

While many young women have succeeded pursuing their businesses, it's a tough sell. The first year the program's administrators aimed for 200 graduates but only 65 made it through. This year they expected 65 and got 45. Now they have learned that the normal attrition rate for teen-mother programs means they need to enroll 30 students for 10 to graduate.

Some of the challenges are absences from morning sickness, losing touch after the mothers give birth, low self-esteem, and the need for day care. To encourage student-mothers to stay in class and to graduate, the program is starting a Friday dial-in procedure to reach class members who have just given birth, and they offer a $100 cash incentive to finish the course.

Groups that work with teen mothers elsewhere in the US and Canada have shown interest in the program, and NFTE is planning to expand it to other cities.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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