Pass It On
SIFE -- Students in Free Enterprise -- was a sleepy on-campus nonprofit organization when Alvin Rohrs took over as president, in 1983. Today SIFE counts 24,395 member undergraduates, all of whom teach others how business really works
SUPPORTER OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Supporter of Entrepreneurship: An individual whose work makes entrepreneurial success possible for others by providing infrastructure and encouragement
Organization: Students in Free Enterprise, Springfield, Mo.
Activity: a national organization of college students who, with guidance from faculty advisers, teach the value of free enterprise and entrepreneurship to high-schoolers, grade-schoolers, and other members of their communities* * *
Murial F. Siebert
Organization: Murial Siebert & Co., New York City
Activity: A discount brokerage that donates half its sales commissions from bond or equity issues to causes such as the Los Angeles Women's Entrepreneurial Fund, a no-interest microlender* * *
Organization: CID Entrepreneurial Education Foundation, Indianapolis
Activity: A foundation that funds entrepreneurship-education programs for schoolchildren and training for entrepreneurs throughout the Midwest* * *
Minister's son Alvin Rohrs likes to joke about how inept he once was at spreading the gospel of free enterprise.
Rohrs tells stories about the days when he belonged to a campus group called Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), an organization whose mission is to have college students nationwide teach the value of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. When Rohrs's self-effacing tales are told to an audience of SIFE students, the real purpose is to make the students feel great about what they've done.
The 39-year-old Rohrs is now the president of SIFE, heading a small staff -- just 11 people -- at its headquarters, in Springfield, Mo. But the nonprofit has quite a reach. Last year SIFE backed 1,731 faculty advisers at 343 colleges. The 24,395 students involved got their free-enterprise message out to another 1,157,225 college students and to 1,805,412 school-age children and, SIFE says, to some 66.6 million community residents. That last claim may be a stretch, but the main idea holds: the organization touches many lives with its message.
SIFE students can tell you how a business makes a profit and why the United States is running a deficit. And they do tell. Team members, almost all at non-Ivy League schools, actively teach what they know -- to grade-schoolers, high-schoolers, and senior citizens. The concept is simple: teach it, and you learn it very well yourself. How exactly each team does that is up to it and its faculty advisers. Whatever costs the team members incur, they cover.
What sets SIFE apart from other organizations promoting economic know-how is the teams' self-sufficiency. There are no handouts from headquarters, no blueprints for how to make money. The best SIFE chapters have effectively built little entrepreneurial organizations. They set goals and track results. They raise funds and manage money. They recruit and motivate other people. They tap the expertise of outside advisers. In short, they function just the way real businesses do.
Their efforts culminate in competitions, nine regional contests at which judges -- 100 or so business leaders -- vote based on each team's half-hour presentation. Regional winners go on to a national event that's two parts pep rally, one part patriotic revelry, one part affirmation of corporate support, and one part recruiting frenzy.
The national winner this year -- La Sierra University, in Riverside, Calif. -- put together 122 projects in all. Among them was a coloring book for elementary-school children, The Saving Game. (To raise money for everything from marketing materials to travel, many of the top contenders run for-profit ventures. The La Sierra team, for example, launched Rent-a-Brain, a successful small-business consultancy, and started a dry-cleaning operation.) Southern Utah University, in Cedar City, ran a program called Rural Young Entrepreneur Search, which sought out high school students in rural areas who were running their own companies. The 10 finalists were invited to a conference for young entrepreneurs, and the top 5 won cash prizes. Many SIFE chapters devise and implement board games that teach youngsters how wealth is created. Others run entrepreneurship competitions in their states' high schools.
Rohrs runs SIFE like an entrepreneurial company as well: he bootstraps, does guerrilla marketing, and takes on the role of chief cheerleader. It's the way, he believes, the students learn best. The underlying message: you want to teach free enterprise, you live and breathe like an entrepreneur.
SIFE's energy level wasn't ever thus. Rohrs was a SIFE chapter adviser at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri in 1983 when SIFE's national board hired him to try to reverse the organization's fortunes. Started with a bang in 1975, SIFE lost its spark in the early 1980s as the U.S. economy faltered and SIFE's backers -- large industrial corporations -- cut their contributions. The roster of SIFE schools had shriveled from 100 in 1981 to 18 two years later.
To get the energy back, Rohrs sought influential board members -- lots of them. From half a dozen members in 1983, SIFE's board has grown to 50 members, with chiefs from a broad swath of blue-chip corporations, including Black & Decker, Valvoline, Wal-Mart, and American Greetings. Part of the idea is to generate more funding; board members' companies provide up to 75% of SIFE's total budget. Diversification also recession-proofs the funding stream. Rohrs recalls the time in 1991 when SIFE had overspent its budget and went hat in hand to Wal-Mart. The retailer, then providing 11% of SIFE's total needs, was unimpressed. Its response: we won't give any more money, but we will help you diversify the board. "I really didn't want to hear them say no, but it's the best thing they could have done for me," says Rohrs.
Neither Rohrs nor his board believes the organization is close to reaching its potential, so they're going for more growth with the gusto typical of hard-driving for-profits. In the 1995-96 academic year 460 SIFE teams were fielded, a 34% boost over 1994-95. By decade's end, Rohrs plans for 1,000 teams. Not audacious enough? The big goal is to have SIFE activity at each of the nation's 2,080 two-year and four-year colleges that offer a business course.
That calls for more faculty advisers, the spiritual leaders of the SIFE teams, who clearly don't do it for the $1,000 stipend. The push begs for more board members. And more teams mean more competitions, which require more judges (mostly CEOs who, once they've experienced SIFE, often become evangelists and even sponsors).
More activity demands more funding. SIFE's budget is up from $1.9 million for the year ending August 31, 1995, to $2.8 million for this fiscal year. Rohrs logs plenty of air miles these days, drumbeating to raise money. It will go to pay for the two former SIFE faculty members whom Rohrs recently hired to drive recruitment of campus advisers; to more advisers' stipends; and to more prize money for contest winners. Marketing gets a shove, too. There's a glossy newsletter, more invitations to potential judges (this year 20,000 will receive mailings, four times last year's number), and more ads. Two years ago SIFE spent nothing on ads; this year it has budgeted $350,000 and expects $400,000 worth of free space. "We're trying to give our teams the kind of visibility they won't get nationally; that will motivate more teams," Rohrs says.
So what's in it for the kids? Well, 70% of the schools involved give academic credit for SIFE work. And jobs often await the top teams' members. At the SIFE national competition, leaders of billion-dollar corporations thrust business cards at students who've proved they're entrepreneurial team players. Some get hired on the spot: Wal-Mart snapped up 25 at the finals in Kansas City, Mo., this past May.
But the real rewards lie in the satisfaction of knowing students are making a difference and acquiring the skills that will serve them well in their professional lives. Leslie Leland, owner of $1.5-million software developer Softgen, recalls the Free Enterprise Day her SIFE team once organized -- how it pitched the idea to mayors and the media, crafted promotional materials (place mats reading, "No Such Thing As a Free Lunch!" with a crossword puzzle solved with business buzzwords), and then got local restaurants to participate. What she learned she applies today to how she designs promotional pieces and gets media exposure for her business.
That's music to Alvin Rohrs's ears.
YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN
Most company builders may not realize it, but these days they're splendid role models simply because they've created their own jobs.
In his book JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs, career-development consultant William Bridges says, "You had better be not only taking care of your own future, but also looking at yourself as if you were self-employed." The impulse behind such advice isn't hard to find: in 1994 corporate America cut more than half a million jobs, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Bridges's message is clear: in a world in which jobs are so unsure, workers who define themselves by their potential contributions give the boss more reason to retain them -- treasure them, even -- because they can see better how to conserve costs and boost output, and so help the company succeed.
Not only that, but employees whom Bridges describes as "vendor-minded" are well positioned to achieve ultimate economic independence by working for themselves, if that's what they want. Many apparently do: researchers report that there are now almost 13 million self-employed people in the United States who work full-time at home, a number that's up 200,000 from last year. That's not even counting those who start fast-growth companies that soon employ others.
But "vendor-mindedness" doesn't go far enough when so few Americans comprehend the flow of money in a free-market economy. Preparing tomorrow's workers to know how the economic world works -- to understand the difference between revenues and operating profits -- is what SIFE and other champions of economic literacy are all about.