Can you really teach entrepreneurship?


, Chris Brown, center, executive director of Build, reviews the work of high school students Trevon Marshall, left, and Alvin Pringle for their company, Fantastic Photography. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

Could the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg be sitting in class right now in the District?

Maybe.

More importantly, are there students whose lives could be improved if they learned the ins and outs of running a business?

No question.

That’s why a growing number of local organizations are working to arm those students — whether they want to become the country’s next technology icon or the city’s next supermarket owner — with the business skills they need to succeed. And while they share a common goal, each program takes a different approach, raising questions over how, and even if, you can effectively teach entrepreneurship.

“Many young people naturally have an entrepreneurial spirit, and many of them have great ideas, but what they don’t have are the technical skills,” Tricia Granata, executive director of the District’s Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, part of a national nonprofit, said. “We can teach them things to make sure that innate entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t get wasted.”

Extending outside the schools

Where should those skills be taught? Edward Grenier, president of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington, the local chapter of a national nonprofit organization that teaches financial literacy and entre­pre­neur­ship to students in kindergarten through high school, argued that entrepreneurship education must move beyond the classroom.

“It needs to be brought into the world where business happens,” said Grenier, whose group has been training local business leaders to work with students since 1965. “In an academic setting, students will learn, sure, but I don’t know how much they’re going to be inspired or how much they’ll retain.”

That’s not to say the group doesn’t work with schools. Junior Achievement operates two “finance parks” at schools in Fairfax County and Prince George’s County, in which it brings in students from the surrounding area to teach basic financial literacy and money management skills, and it works with school officials to ensure some of those same lessons get into their core curriculums.

However, once the instruction moves beyond managing personal finances to managing a business, that’s when Grenier says the lessons should move outside the classroom.

Under the group’s “company program,” for example, the group works with schools across the region to identify students who would benefit from an entre­pre­neur­ship program. Grenier’s team then recruits entrepreneurs, executives and other business leaders to volunteer to work with those students outside of school.

Once a month for a year, each mentor meets with a small group of students to help them write a business plan, solicit funding, build and sell products, manage their revenue and then liquidate the company at the end of the year. Some of the group’s notable student alumni include America Online co-founder Steve Case, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein.

One of the reasons the model works, Grenier says, is that effective entre­pre­neur­ship training is about more than just the curriculum. Often, “it’s about an adult mentor or role model actually sparking or inspiring that interest in a youth.”

Teaching the teachers

The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE (commonly pronounced “Nifty”), takes a similar approach in that it trains adults to teach business skills to students. However, Granata’s group’s approach revolves around the classroom, and she pushed back against the notion that entrepreneurship can’t be taught in school.

“I get that question all the time, especially from potential donors, about whether we can really teach entrepreneurship,” Granata said. “My answer is yes, that what these students need and what we can teach them are important skills: how to network, how to engage with customers, how investments work.”

NFTE offers training programs to teachers at middle and high schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country. Once teachers graduate from the course, they return to their schools and can offer a year- or semester-long entrepreneurship class as an elective, during which every student designs his or her own business plan.

Near the end of the year, the regional chapters of the organization hold business plan competitions and award small amounts of seed money to the winning students.

More than a half million students have taken one of the group’s classes since the organization got started in New York in 1987. NFTE’s most recent alumni survey shows that students who participate have higher high school graduation rates, higher rates of employment and self-employment, and higher incomes than the national averages.

Chante Goodwin, who took a NFTE class during her senior year at Suitland High School in Forestville, says the program resonated with her and her peers largely because the teacher made the lessons tangible and immediately relevant to teenagers.

“In high school, the most important part was seeing how we could really make money from what we were learning,” Goodwin said. “Senior pictures were coming up, prom was coming up, and in a low-income school, that was what got students interested.”

“Suddenly,” she added, “people in my other classes who sat in the back and didn’t care were sitting up and listening and participating.”

Goodwin started a computer repair company that year called Your Way Computer Services, for which she won top honors at the region’s business plan competition and was later offered an internship at a technology company owned by one of the judges. She went on to attend George Washington University and has since built her business (now Your Way IT Solutions) into a full-service technology support and consulting firm serving several government clients in Washington.

“Some of my other classmates are still running their businesses today, too,” she said.

Inside and out

Chris Brown runs another youth business program in the region and agreed that “entre­pre­neur­ship can definitely be taught, no question,” however, like Grenier, he said he believes youth programs “need to include both in-school and out-of-school instruction.” And in order to have a lasting impact, he said, they should span several years.

“We could not be successful with the students we want to serve in one semester or one year,” said Brown, executive director for Build Metro DC, part of a larger organization that started in California in 2002. “So we work with them for the full four years, and to get the type of outcomes we want, we know that’s essential.”

Build starts by targeting disengaged and disadvantaged students heading into the ninth grade, looking for individuals with low test scores and discipline problems — the ones, as Brown says, “principals tell us would not be likely to graduate.” Ninth graders who enter the program then take a class on basic business principles and develop a business plan.

During their sophomore year, they register their companies with the city and every team is partnered with a venture capitalist or angel investor, who can invest up to $1,000 into the company. Every team is then given space in the group’s 4,000-square-foot business incubator in downtown Washington, where they meet with advisers and academic tutors, manufacture their products and start selling them throughout the city.

The business development process and academic tutoring continues through the end of their senior year. So far, the group has worked with more than 200 students at five schools in the District. Ninety-nine percent of them have graduated from high school and 95 percent have entered two-year or four-year colleges.

Outside the school

One of the latest to join the entrepreneurship education space is events company Bisnow, which started a venture last month called Gen-Z. Under the program, the company will host half-day weekend workshops for high school students, during which attendees will visit local start-ups, meet with entrepreneurs and participate in exercises meant to give them a crash course in developing, pitching and marketing a new company.

Doug Anderson, president of Bisnow Media, agreed with Granata, noting that many young people “don’t know where to go for help to develop their ideas.” And while Gen-Z isn’t meant to provide a “be-all, end-all solution,” he hopes it will “give kids some exposure and get them thinking about entrepreneurship.”

The company “wanted to create a real-world, hands-on experience for kids,” Anderson said, “where they can see what a real start-up looks like and meet real entrepreneurs.” So far, Bisnow has partnered with 1776, a business incubator downtown; WeddingWire, an online wedding services start-up in Chevy Chase; and Georgetown University’s business school to host some of its first events.

Unlike the previous three programs, though, which are run by nonprofits and meant to teach the fundamentals of launching and operating a small business, Bisnow’s program is really designed to appeal to young people who aspire to be the next Zuckerberg.

Gen-Z sessions start at $130 per student, and while the company offers a limited number of needs-based scholarships, Anderson knows his team must make the workshops appealing and rewarding to teenagers — enough so to get them out of bed on the weekend and to get their parents to hand over a check. It should help, he says, that today’s youth look at entrepreneurship in a very different light than previous generations.

“Entrepreneurs have become household names, which is much different than when I was in high school,” Anderson said, citing celebrity founders such as Facebook’s Zuckerberg. “Kids have started looking up to entrepreneurs the way we looked up to athletes and rock stars.”

Wendy E.F. Torrance, director of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, says that the different types of youth programs — from those that simply introduce students to entrepreneurs to those that actually help teens build companies — each play an important role, and all of them can deliver some basic skills that will give young people a better shot at success should they decide to start their own businesses.

More often and perhaps more importantly, she said, the programs “simply get students thinking in an entrepreneurial way — get them looking for problems and searching for ways to solve them.”

Having that mind-set “will help them regardless of whether they start their own company, become an employee of an existing company, or even in solving, say, social problems in their communities,” she added. “No matter what career they choose, it’s important for young people to look at the world through the lens of an entrepreneur.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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