Suitland High's Mena Lofland Churns Out Young Entrepreneurs

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

Mena Lofland didn't get so good at developing young entrepreneurs by being a softy.

The business world is tough, and so is Lofland's world in Room 160 at Suitland High School. When two boys sitting in the back row slumped over and put their heads on their desks, she led them out into the hall and closed the door. From inside the classroom, her raised voice could be heard chewing them out.

"I don't play that," Lofland said afterward. If they'd done that at a business meeting, they would have been fired, she noted. And that would have sent them to the streets.

"I'm tired of burying these boys," she said.

Lofland's business philosophy is that before her students can ever sell a product, they need to understand how to sell themselves. To judge from the numerous awards Suitland students have won and the business proposals scattered across Lofland's classroom, it's a skill many of them are mastering.

A few years ago, there was a shy sophomore, Dexter Briscoe, who figured out how to make greater profits selling Gore-Tex jackets on eBay by waiting until competitors were in the last minutes of their bids, then offering a quick sale at a discount. He won a $1,600 prize.

Chante Goodwin, one of 10 Suitland students to win the National Youth Entrepreneur of the Year award, built computers to order, using parts. Other students have profited from photography, detailing autos, drawing portraits and giving haircuts.

The latest stars are two former students, Tatyana Blackwell and SeKeithia Johnson, who are featured in "Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon," a documentary about several inner-city teens who competed in an annual business plan competition run by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an organization that provides entrepreneurship education programs to young people from low-income communities.

Part of Lofland's success is due to the network's Adopt-a-Class program, which provided teaching materials and money for trips to New York and paired her students with mentors. Lofland said that she passed on her funding to a new teacher -- cash has been tight because of the recession -- but she still has volunteers come in to talk to the class and is looking for another sponsor.

With the startup money she won from the competition, Johnson, a 2006 Suitland graduate, sold about 1,000 copies of her poetry CD, "Reflections of an Adolescent." She has used her skills to open another business, Unleashed Talent, a theater group that writes and performs plays to help young people.

"I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I didn't know how," Johnson said. "Ms. Lofland molded me into the successful person I needed to be."

Blackwell, who won a Washington region entrepreneur competition and advanced to the national round, found that the class unlocked her skills in designing uniforms.

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