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Entrepreneurship gala raises $500,000

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They looked you in the eyes. They shook your hand with a firm grip. Their pitch was polished.

Dozens of high school students stood behind booths displaying their business products and services to nearly 700 local business leaders and guests at the 15th annual Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship’s Dare to Dream gala at the Ritz Carlton in Northwest Washington.

Students showcased a variety of wares, including makeup products, cupcakes, clothing lines and paintings. The businesses all took form during a one-year program organized by NFTE, which partners with businesses to teach entrepreneurship in schools. More than 24,000 students in the District have participated in the program.

E-Trade is one such business. Its partnership with NFTE includes representation on the nonprofit’s advisory board, co-sponsorship of a program at Wakefield High School in Arlington and a student entrepreneur showcase held at its office.

Khaled Khalifa, 15, participated in E-Trade’s NFTE program last year.

Celie Niehaus, a vice president for compliance at E-Trade and who also manages the company’s relationship with NFTE, remembers Khalifa entering the class as a quiet freshman from Egypt. He now has a new attitude after his cookie business racked up 14,000 sales.

“What has changed is his confidence level,” Niehaus said.

Khalifa was one of several students who received awards during the gala. The nonprofit also honored local business owners for building companies and giving back. Honorees included Cynthia Castillo of the air traffic management company CSSI. She inherited her father’s business after he died in a motorcycle accident in 1993.

The gala helped raise $500,000 through donations, tickets sales and pledges made via a text message campaign. The money will be used to support the organization’s programming, organizers said.

“Eighty-one percent of kids who drop out of school say they’re looking for more relevancy to real life,” said Julie Kantor, executive director of NFTE D.C. “All of these entrepreneurs go in and bring this real life to the kids and share their stories about what its like out there.”

Gala sponsors included E-Trade, Clarabridge, Capital One Bank, Ernst & Young, The Hasenberg Hartsock Group at Merrill Lynch, NII Holdings and PNC Bank.

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