Finding the Bill Gates of Sixth Grade
A Special Report by Adam Bluestein and Amy Barrett
Young people are excited by the idea of making money, but few schools bother to nurture this interest. This should change, with entrepreneurship taught to students in middle school.
Sixth-graders Adam LeMay, 14, left, Grant Sunderman, 12, John Sampson, 11, and Jade Arrowsmith, 11, try to figure out math methods for their assignment in class.
Untold numbers of lemonade stands bear witness to the fact that young people are excited by the idea of making money. "In the biographies of entrepreneurs, you see they were all testing the water when they were young," says Nancy Koehn, a professor of business history at Harvard Business School. "It's not all nature -- we can help nurture entrepreneurs by teaching them, and the earlier the better."
Unfortunately, few schools bother to do so. One outfit picking up that slack is the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. Better known as NFTE, the organization has made efforts that have been highly celebrated -- and with good reason. Since entrepreneur Steve Mariotti founded the nonprofit in 1987, NFTE has reached more than 280,000 young people in low-income communities; it now has programs in 21 states with more than 1,500 teachers. With funding from corporations, foundations, and individuals, NFTE offers classroom programs for middle- and high school students as well as intensive business camps. Students learn the nuts and bolts of balance sheets and business plans, and get real-world perspective from volunteer business people.
Independent studies of the program show a significant impact. NFTE graduates in New York City, for example, were found to start businesses at four times the rate of their peers. Nearly seven in 10 alumni in the Washington, D.C., area were the first in their family to start a business.
Ping Fu, founder of the software firm Geomagic and a former Inc. Entrepreneur of the Year, witnessed firsthand the excitement entrepreneurship sparks in young people. Three years ago, her daughter, then a seventh grader, and some friends came up with a business idea: a teashop modeled on the teahouses in Fu's native China. "I thought that would be a great opportunity to teach them entrepreneurship as well as math," Fu recalls.
Fu showed the four girls how to estimate costs and sales. When the projections showed a money-losing operation, Ping challenged the girls to solve the problem by coming up with new products to sell or changing their business model. The girls researched tax issues, interviewed local coffee-shop owners, studied how margins would improve as sales increased -- everything that prospective business owners would need to think about.
The exercise, Fu says, was a great success in demystifying the process of starting a business. And she says the girls were at the perfect age to learn that lesson. "Middle schoolers are more enthusiastic than high schoolers," Fu says. "The high school kids are so busy preparing for college that they aren't as open-minded as middle schoolers, and they don't have the time. These young kids are sponges; they get excited very easily."
Bottom Line Putting ideas into action may be the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs. Teaching youngsters how to do it is among the best investments we can make.