Entrepreneuring youth

Program teaches teens basics of starting a business

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It was a setting familiar to most college business students: Precious Tucker stood at the front of a classroom, delivering her elevator pitch.

The elevator pitch is that classic speech designed to let entrepreneurs explain their business plans to executives in 30 seconds or less -- if necessary, as the lesson goes, within the time constraints of an elevator ride.

In this case, the audience wasn't a room full of business executives -- it was a class of 10 middle school students. But Precious, at 14 years old, is in fact an entrepreneur. She, along with the students who were watching her presentation at the Manchester Academic Charter School, is part of a summer program associated with Entrepreneuring Youth, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that offers entrepreneurship classes to underprivileged youth and is an affiliate of a national program, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

Precious, of the North Side, is the CEO and sole employee of a business that makes and sells homemade soaps and bath salts, specializing in products for people with sensitive skin. She's made around $2,000 since she started the business two years ago with the help of the program.

Her classmates' businesses covered a broad range of products: from T-shirts and customized candles to hamburgers and original music.

The basic idea behind Entrepreneuring Youth is simple: Showing youngsters how to be entrepreneurs shows them how to be better students, better workers and better consumers.

"There is equal dignity in all work," said Jerry Cozewith, president of Entrepreneuring Youth. "But I suggest that young people should never be content to know how to flip hamburgers; they should learn how to own the store."

It doesn't matter much whether or not they actually come to own a store, Mr. Cozewith said. Just knowing that it's a possibility could be eye-opening for children from underprivileged backgrounds.

"You can't aspire to something you don't know exists," he said. "We give them a much bigger menu of choices because we want young people to become opportunity seekers."

The class does not deal in abstract concepts: a student come up with an idea for a business and, with around $25 in startup cash provided by the program, makes the product, markets and sells it. The students calculate profit margins, come up with catchphrases and decide on a target audience. In the process, Mr. Cozewith said, they put principles into practice that might have been just abstract ideas when they were presented in social studies or math class.

Steve Mariotti, founder of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, first realized the impact of entrepreneurship courses when he was teaching special education in the New York City school system in 1982. One day, when his class was being especially rowdy, he stepped outside to gather his thoughts.

"I took my watch off, walked back in and said, 'What would you sell this for?' And that started this whole lesson that started a 30-year odyssey," he said.

"It's easy to see it's working -- you can see it in the classroom's eyes."

Since it was founded in 1987, NFTE has reached nearly 350,000 people.

A 2004 study done by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that students in the organization's programs showed a 34 percent increase in interest in attending college, compared with a 17 percent decrease in a control group of non-NFTE students. It also showed that NFTE students were more interested in reading independently and had higher aspirations after the entrepreneurship classes.

That could translate into fewer students dropping out of high school or resorting to criminal activity on the streets and more attending college and technical schools, Mr. Mariotti said.

With entrepreneurship rates declining in the United States, Mr. Mariotti believes that his program could help to spur economic development in future years.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a nonprofit research group that tracks entrepreneurship worldwide, reported a drop in entrepreneurial activity of nearly 3 percent from 2008 to 2009 in the United States and an 8.7 percent decline in early-stage entrepreneurship, at least partly because of the recession. In its report, the monitor noted that because economic growth is a long-term activity, "The effects of these casualties will be felt for years."

"The only chance that I can see for the global economy over the next 30 years ... is to get massive amounts of people into the marketplace, selling, trading, buying, being alert to opportunity, understanding supply and demand, creating a profit, making a profit," Mr. Mariotti said.

"My ideal is that every child in the world will learn the basics of entrepreneurship by the time they graduate from high school."

Precious Tucker is doing her part. She has the $2,000 she's earned tucked away in a bank account, waiting to be reinvested. She plans to continue to run her business as she enters high school and hopes to own her own store some day.

"It's cool," she said. "Running a business is something lots of adults don't even know how to do ... but I can."

Shay Maunz: smaunz@post-gazette.com .


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