Entrepreneurship as a path to college


WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: Dave Baran, (L), mentor, talks with student Sharell Wheeler, 16y, at Build, 645 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC, November 14, 2012. BUILD is a non-profit afterschool program targeting students in underserved areas and teaching them entrepreneurship skills. 100 percent of the kids in the DC program have gone to college afterwards. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

As a 14-year-old high school freshman at Maya Angelou Public Charter School’s Evans campus in Northeast, Ariel Graves said she was a disinterested student.

She was shy, silly and had an anger problem, she wrote in a speech last year. She didn’t like extra work.

But by her sophomore year, Graves was spending her free time developing a business plan. She’d found a goal she could stick to — to sell custom candles with a business partner and classmate.

The pair are two of 150 students enrolled in D.C.’s Build program, a nonprofit after-school program encouraging student entre­pre­neur­ship. Build targets disengaged and disadvantaged public and charter high school students and seeks to propel them into college. The program has three regional sites — San Francisco, Boston and D.C.

The students made the custom candles they sold. They bought wax, wicks and molds from art-supply stores. After melting the wax, they’d pour in the scents their customers requested — their most popular was “Downey Fresh,” featuring the scent of a laundry detergent. They would sell them for a few dollars each.

A year later, the two have “cashed out” — repaid everyone who invested in their business, and kept the profits for school supplies or uniforms. As seniors, the two are focusing on applying to college. Graves is hoping to attend Rutgers University, and eventually to pursue a career in criminal justice.

Not all students make it through the program — Build’s D.C. senior class this year is comprised of 25 students from an original freshman group of 70. Many of those who dropped out moved out of D.C., switched schools or had time conflicts, Build’s D.C. Regional Director Christopher Brown said.

Despite the low retention rate, 100 percent of last year’s seniors, the first to complete the program in D.C., were accepted to two- or four-year colleges. Across Build’s San Francisco, Boston and D.C. sites, 93 percent of Build graduates have completed one year of college, Brown said, compared to a national rate of about 65 percent.

Build’s program is four years. In the first year, Build trains public school teachers to offer an entre­pre­neur­ship course, often as an elective, at handpicked schools with disadvantaged students and a strong administration. In the second and third years, Build students are assigned to volunteer mentors — local professionals — who help them develop business plans. Student businesses have ranged from selling sweatshirts and body oil to offering photography services. In their sophomore year, students can ask local venture capitalists for a few hundred dollars in seed capital. If they secure funding, they can purchase inventory and manufacture their products at Build’s office space in Southeast D.C.

All funding must be paid back before the students graduate.

This year, Build partnered with D.C. Entrepreneurship Week in October — student teams pitched their business plans to local entrepreneurs, who allotted each team funds provided by Capital One.

The students plan to hold this year’s first selling event at Build’s annual Holiday Bazaar on Dec. 5 at the Hill Center in Southeast Washington.

Chief executive Suzanne Klahr founded Build 13 years ago in Palo Alto, Calif., hoping to address what she saw as a gap in the educational nonprofit world — most organizations targeted high-achieving students, but the disengaged students were being neglected, she thought.

“Students don’t always come in as excited to learn academically, but they’re really excited to make money,” Klahr said, hypothesizing that engaging students through entre­pre­neur­ship might encourage them to pursue higher education.

Though many Build graduates go to college, only a handful pursue entre­pre­neur­ship in college.

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Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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