Cultivating Entrepreneurs During High School

As the daughter of a struggling single mother, Zoe Damacela bounced between relatives’ basements and homeless shelters, doubtful that she would ever graduate from high school. But an entrepreneurship course she took at Whitney Young High School in Chicago led her not only to graduate but to place second in a national business contest, start her own company, and land on the cover of Seventeen magazine this fall.

The course is sponsored by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit with $15 million in revenue that has introduced business ownership to nearly 400,000 low-income middle school and high school students in the U.S. and nine other countries. The NFTE was founded in 1987 by Ford Motor executive-turned-South Bronx math teacher Steve Mariotti.

Research has shown that students who complete the program start and maintain businesses at substantially higher rates than their peers and have a greater interest in attending college. Yet entrepreneurship education is not part of the standard American curriculum, even as it is catching on in emerging economies, says Amy Rosen, the NFTE’s president and chief executive officer since 2008.

Rosen, 55, is an urban school reform expert who has advised Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. She spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about what entrepreneurship education can achieve. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: Why focus on entrepreneurship when so many U.S. high school students aren’t even taught basic financial literacy?

Amy Rosen: I spent a whole bunch of time with principals and I saw what was going on on the ground. I was struck by the lack of relevancy in the high school curriculum: It was the same I had, and I’m pretty old. It particularly struck me when I looked at the rates of African-American males who drop out of school and say that if it was more relevant to their lives they might have stayed in.

NFTE is one of those very simple ideas: We teach low-income kids the basics of business and talk about opportunity and how to make money and—duh—they get engaged.

You’re right about the lack of financial literacy. We live in a country where college debt now exceeds credit-card debt and the vast majority of that education debt is signed on when kids are finishing high school. Yet we don’t seem to think it’s important for them to know what compound interest is. When you talk to kids that are signing up for all these student loans, they don’t even know that the payments will be bigger when they graduate.

What is the NFTE curriculum?

The curriculum is 60 to 90 hours and it is taught to middle school and high schoolers, depending on state and local education requirements. It’s highly experiential and game-based, but engaging academically. The students all develop a business plan. We give them each $25 and take them to a wholesale market where they negotiate prices, buy things, and then sell them at their schools. They get to keep the money they make, so they start to see the opportunities of entrepreneurship.

Where is it taught?

Our curriculum is available to any school, but we work exclusively in communities where at least 50 percent of students qualify for reduced-price lunches. We work in partnerships with school districts and cities to train public school teachers who are regularly teaching economics, social studies, and vocational classes. They take a four-day course that teaches them how to teach our curriculum.

We have 70 staff members who help support our efforts in all the cities we work in. We also run a business plan competition for every classroom and then the winners go on to a city- or region-wide competition. In any given year, we have 20,000-plus kids competing. The top 30 come to New York for the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, which this year will be on Oct. 6. The top three winners have been invited to the White House by President Obama for the past three years.

How do you reach that many students with 70 staffers?

The magic ingredient is the thousands of volunteers we bring to the classroom every year. We find that kids from low-income communities have very narrow views of what’s possible in their lives. Bringing people in to talk about business and negotiating skills is phenomenally important. Most of our volunteers are entrepreneurs, but we also find accountants, lawyers, and people who are running their own professional businesses to volunteer with us.

How is the NFTE funded?

The vast majority of our funds come from philanthropic and corporate interests. We also license the program to nine countries outside the U.S., including China, India, Israel, Ireland, and New Zealand.

What’s interesting is that in many emerging economies, the growth of our programs has been even faster than in the U.S. We’re in 300 cities in China and we recently won a social media competition there for the best charity. There’s such a hunger for our curriculum in China and recognition of how necessary it is to teach the next generation to be entrepreneurs.

Have you had a similar reception in the U.S.?

In America—a country that was founded on the backs of small businessmen—there’s an acceptance of the importance of this curriculum, but it’s never been systemically integrated into our schools.