In the early spring, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal that mentioned an organization called the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which was created to teach the principles of business and entrepreneurship to students from low-income communities. As someone who was fortunate to learn business in high school from an amazing teacher, I liked the idea and called to find out how I could get involved. A few months later, I became one of the business mentors for NFTE's Start Up Summer program.
Every Wednesday night for five weeks during the summer and once monthly after that, I got together for two hours with other businesspeople like me—entrepreneurs, legal advisors, marketing managers, human resources directors—to mentor students who had been selected as top performers in the year-long entrepreneurship classes their high schools offer in conjunction with NFTE.
Each student created his or her own micro-business and received the necessary resources to get started—a laptop computer, 3G Internet connection, and a small stipend—as well as hands-on advice from interested business people. They worked on businesses ranging from a brownie catering service to a mobile oil change company, and everything in between. Introducing ourselves on the first night, I had no idea what to expect of the advising session, the micro-businesses, or the students themselves. What I found was truly inspiring.
Ten mentors made it a priority to leave their jobs early once a week to get to the sessions on time—not always an easy task when you have your own business to run, or team to attend to. Every week, as we waited in the lobby of a company that had donated space to host the session, we all chatted excitedly about what our particular student had worked on the week before.
Our five student mentees spent each day of the week visiting companies to learn general business information like logo creation, permits, and incorporation. They contacted and met with professionals in their specific business sectors and then worked in small groups with NFTE staff leaders to apply what they had learned to their individual businesses. On Wednesday nights, they would report all they had been able to accomplish, as well as any obstacles they had encountered, to the business advisors, and we worked with them on resolving the problems.
The result was awesome. Student business owners were able to move at lightning speed because of the resources NFTE offered and the willingness of the business community to help. In week one, they told us the basics about their businesses, showed us their early stage marketing materials, and worked on product development issues with us. By week two, they had hit the streets with actual products for sale and learned how to sell. By week three, most were showing sales, setting projections and goals, and charting their profits against their costs!
I looked forward to our weekly meetings and always left more impressed than the week before—as well as reenergized to return to my own business the following day. In my conversations with the other advisors, they described feeling the same. We knew when we got started that not every student in the room would choose to become an entrepreneur, and frankly, it didn't matter much.
The program taught valuable critical thinking skills that are not only applicable to owning a business, but also to the students' immediate success in school. Those same skills will one day be key to these students becoming an important part of the workforce, at whatever level they might choose. I will never forget, for example, the night one of the students shared with us that she had gone to a fast-food restaurant that day, and was at first annoyed at the price of the guacamole to accompany her burrito—but then thought about the cost of ingredients, the labor to make and serve it, and suddenly thought that the price seemed pretty reasonable.
In the last week of 2011, the economy remains shaky and, in Washington, it seems politics as usual, regardless of your party affiliation. Our middle class is having a harder time than ever gaining access to higher education. Finding the right employee if you are hiring, or a good job if you are seeking one, has become a monumental task. And yet there is hope. After meeting these students, I am more convinced than ever that one of the last methods of class mobility available to today's youth is entrepreneurship. If you have a good idea, and can find a way to get it to market, you can be successful.
As a business owner, I feel an obligation to give back by helping those who are just starting out on the same path I did. I hope more people will do the same in 2012. If the other nine mentors I met are any indication of what’s possible, I’d say business owners can change tomorrow much faster than the government can—we just have to decide how we each personally are going to make a difference.