Business Plans That Make Graduates

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, May 27, 2005

Among Washington area schools, DeMatha comes to mind when thinking about the powerhouse in basketball, Thomas Jefferson for National Merit Scholars. But probably few people, even in Prince George's County, realize that Suitland High has become the regional powerhouse in entrepreneurship.

Suitland students now dominate the semiannual regional business plan competitions run by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. The school had five of the six finalists in this semester's contest. And among the 60 or so national "winners" over the past three years, three have come from Suitland High.

Much of the credit for this run goes to a single teacher, Mena Lofland, and two business owners -- marketing consultant Patty Alper of Chevy Chase and Phil McNeill, a private equity investor from Clifton, Va. -- who've put their time and money behind the Suitland program. During occasional visits over the past semester, I've watched as they have taken diffident teenagers with vague notions about business and turned many into proud entrepreneurs who look you straight in the eye when they shake your hand and talk confidently about gross margins and return on investment.

Lofland started teaching the NFTE curriculum in 1994 at the District's Cardozo High School and chalked up her first national winner that year. She points proudly to his picture on the wall of her Suitland classroom, along with those of all her other winners. Almost to a person, she can tell you where they are now.

Lofland is one of those dedicated, no-nonsense teachers who comes to class with high expectations and sees her job as preparing her students for a world that isn't interested in sob stories or excuses but rewards hard work and a good idea. In her ability to maneuver around the obstacles placed in her path by school officials and attract money and attention from the outside, she reaffirms her own entrepreneurial skills.

In 2002, Lofland put in for retirement from D.C. public schools after 35 years and signed up at Suitland. She started with two entrepreneurship classes and 40 students; today there are six classes, with more than 150 students enrolled.

The other secrets to Suitland's success have been Alper and McNeill, who previously "adopted" classes at Wilson High in the District and Largo High in Prince George's. McNeill works with students on their numbers, Alper on their marketing plans. But as several students explained to me, it is the presence of the adults in the classroom week after week that brings out their participation.

Dexter Briscoe was just such a student -- a quiet, shy sophomore with a winning smile and braided hair. Dexter's search for a business one day led him to eBay, where he noticed Gore-Tex jackets offered for around $65. A few clicks of the mouse brought him to the Web site of Government Liquidators offering to sell the same jackets for $25 apiece, with a minimum purchase of 80. At that moment, Gore-Dex Sportswear was born.

At last week's finals of the regional business plan competition, what impressed the judges was not just that Dexter had already sold 66 jackets, or that he'd negotiated a 2 percent fee for the use of his father's credit card, or that his long-term goal is to earn an MBA from Howard University. He got a good chuckle when he explained that he'd rather sell to grown-ups far away who pay with credit cards than to friends prone to ask for credit. But Dexter blew away the competition when he laid out how he turns the eBay system to his advantage: He gets more bids at higher prices by waiting until competitors are in the final hours of their auction before putting his jackets on for quick sale at a 15 percent discount.

His first place prize: $1,600 and a boost in self-confidence that his mother claims has changed him forever.

NFTE offers a road-tested program including curriculum, teacher training and competitive venues that is proven to improve graduation rates for at-risk students. I have no doubt there are plenty of businesses that would be willing to adopt a class, if only asked by an enthusiastic principal or superintendent. So, could someone explain why only 30 area high schools are participating?

Steven Pearlstein can be reached

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