Most small businesses generally are confronted by two hurdles in their adolesence--either they have insufficient capital or they lack experience.
Neither poses a problem for a group of would-be entrepreneurs in Montgomery County where a foundation of business and professional people hopes to add a new dimension to the school system by organizing and supporting a student-operated retail store.
"Insurance hasn't been a problem. Financing hasn't been a problem. Finding a location for a store is a problem," explained Lawrence Shulman after a year-long search for retail space.
The space would be used for the Retail Trades Foundation Inc., a community-based, nonprofit, vocational trades foundation within the Montgomery County school system. The foundation, like two others in the system, is the brainchild of Shulman, a lawyer in a firm with offices in Maryland and the District.
Organized and supported by business and professionals in the county, the Retail Trades Foundation is designed to give students "hands-on" experience in operating their own retail store, explained its president, Barry F. Scher, director of public affairs for Giant Food Inc.
The concept is similar to that employed in the Construction Trades Foundation and the Automotive Trades Foundation, which were established in the mid-1970s.
Vocational students who participate in the Construction Trades Foundation program have received wide recognition for their work in building and selling custom homes in Montgomery County.
As part of their vocational education program, students who participate in the other business-sponsored foundations operate a mini-automobile dealership. Those students repair, market and sell used automobiles under supervision of instructors in the school system and auto dealers who participate in the trades foundation.
"A lot of schools have used the foundation process to build houses, but nobody has ever used the foundation method to run a used-car dealership," Shulman said.
Nor has anyone--in this area at least--used the concept to operate a retail store. Scher and Shulman have been working with the school system for more than a year in trying to establish a gift and home furnishings shop to be run by students.
Financial projections by a certified public accountant indicate sales in the first year of the store's operation would total at least $250,000.
Seventy-five percent of the merchandise to be sold in the shop would be purchased from outside vendors, and vocational students would provide the balance of the inventory.
Profits from the sale of merchandise will be reinvested in the store and used for other educational activities in the county's distributive education program.
A distributive education instructor has been appointed teacher and planner for the Retail Trades Foundation and has been named to the foundation's board.
"This is more than a distributive education program," Scher explained. "It's one where kids would have total control of their store."
More importantly, the store would be an extension of the classroom. Students would receive training and acquire experience in marketing, buying, billing, data processing, accounting and other areas of retailing.
While the school system would benefit from this type of support from the foundation, the business community itself can expect to profit later from a pool of trained workers.
In the meantime, however, there remains the hitch of where to locate the store. Despite a commitment from three banks to provide up to $75,000 in financing for the project, finding a location remains a problem, Shulman said.
Even with several leading retailers on its board, the foundation has struck out in its search for leasable space. It should be noted, however, that while some shopping center managers have offered to lease space for the store, the foundation has rejected the offers because of what it considers a less than adequate location.
"Landlords who have looked at the program like it, but what we've experienced in the last year is that there is already a gift shop in a center or the landlord wants to put us in a corner that doesn't have much exposure," Shulman said.
"We have to have a location that's going to generate business," Scher added. "We're new, so we need to be in a high-traffic area.
"We have the dollars and the experience but no location."
Montgomery County's school system may have found an answer, though. It has proposed a concept that Scher described as "a classroom in the mall."
Negotiations are being conducted with a mall owner whose identity is being withheld for the time being.
Under the concept, distributive education students who work in stores at a regional shopping mall would study retailing and related subjects in a classroom at the shopping center. They would be taught by teachers from the school system, merchants from stores in the mall and professionals who support the Retail Trades Foundation.
Scher and Shulman said the proposal from the school system includes a plan to expand the activity to a kiosk that would be operated as a retail facility in the mall.
This experiment in a made-to-order laboratory may be the answer until the foundation can persuade a leasing agent or mall owner to give the kids a break.