Big Ideas from Pint-Sized Entrepreneurs

At a federally funded training program, (very) young aspiring proprietors show commitment and smarts in learning how to start businesses

If you walked into this school auditorium without any background information, you might have thought you were at one of those high-powered university-sponsored business-plan contests that offer $50,000 or $100,000 in prize money to students judged to have the best proposals.

But the professional and committed students pitching their business plans were at the Wanamaker School -- a middle school in a tough inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood. On a 90-plus degree July morning, they spoke in an auditorium without air conditioning over PowerPoint slides showing their products, lists of management team members, and key deliverables.


  And for the students, mostly aged 12 to 14, the only prize was pizza and chicken wings for lunch. This didn't stop them from taking their turns on stage in business attire to present their startup ideas.

In the presentation for Unique Boutique for Unisex, the mission was described as catering "to all different shapes and sizes. We plan on producing items for kids, teens, men, and women. We want our customers not only to look good but to feel good, too."

During the pitch for Aphillyated Inc., the presenter said all of the dozen executives and employees had purchased stock in the company. One of its most important tasks was "scouting locations" for its special food sites.


  Most interesting about the event perhaps was that the students trained and prepped for their presentations thanks to a special education program funded with federal dollars. The well-established $300 million Education Dept. scheme known as GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness for Undergraduate Programs) familiarizes low-income students with opportunities associated with going to college. The kids take tours of local campuses but also get the chance to learn new skills, like launching a business.

Entrepreneurs tend to be cynical about the government's ability to do anything positive about promoting entrepreneurship. Yet over the course of only two weeks, the 40 or so participants in the small-business training had become fluent in the language of startups and PowerPoint -- and even experienced the joys and frustrations of launching a business.

This student training was carried out by faculty from the Empowerment Group, a Philadelphia nonprofit that organizes classes in entrepreneurship for young people in schools around the city (see BW, 8/4/05, "A Helping Hand Withheld?"). I first learned about this outfit three years ago, when my daughter began working there.


  In addition to doing the presentations, the students launched trial versions of their businesses in one-day sales to other kids at the school. The Unique Boutique made and sold hand-embroidered T-shirts ("Beauty Is My Thing" read one of the shirts). Aphillyated made and sold flavored ices.

Not surprisingly, ices have an advantage when it's more than 90 degrees outside. Aphillyated made a bit more money than Unique Boutique, bringing in about $125 in one day of sales, vs. $98 for Unique.

The presentations that followed the trials were for the benefit of the students' parents and other family members, since no venture capitalists were in attendance. After they were done, the students chipped in some of their profits to buy the pizza and chicken lunch.


  What comes next for these aspiring entrepreneurs? Several students indicated they had caught the startup bug. "I think I might start an ice business," said 12-year-old Robert Horton, a member of the Aphillyated management team, as he opened an envelope containing his $5.25 share of profits. "I like the margins."

And when he gets a little older and perhaps decides to really start a business, he'll be in a position to appreciate how the government can indeed be a positive force for entrepreneurship.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.