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Daniel Cubias

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Who Is the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs?

Posted: 04/16/2012 5:49 pm

So the Baby Boomers, as they are wont to do, are ready to take the money and run. Apparently, many older entrepreneurs will soon sell off their businesses and retire.

Well, we shouldn't worry. After all, entrepreneurialism is a cornerstone of the fabled American Dream, and small businesses drive the economy. So I'm sure some young, smart, hardworking go-getters will keep the new ideas coming... unless of course, we've decimated education, promoted ignorance, and ravaged the social safety net to the point that we are unleashing a generation ill-equipped to tap into their own creativity.

Okay, now I'm worried.

Fortunately, some people are still interested in nurturing the next Bill Gates. The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a nonprofit that works with under-served kids to help them stay in school, has had tremendous success since its founding in New York City in 1987 by Steve Mariotti.

NFTE partners with low-income schools and trains teachers in the program. The classes, often electives, may strike some as tangential to American education's stated focus on the Three R's. However, inspiring kids to become entrepreneurs is not some 21st century version of home ec.

With many Americans apparently clueless about how basic finances work, perhaps teaching children business essentials will better prepare them for a nation where one can no longer count on that manufacturing job right out of high school.

Furthermore, some studies imply that more than 80 percent of dropouts would have stayed in school if they believed their courses were more relevant to real life. Learning how to run a small business can help kids see how their core academic subjects aren't just cruel tortures inflicted by clueless adults.

"Kids say, 'Why am I learning fractions? Why do I have to know where decimals go?' Well, when they're coming up with their business plans, they use fractions and decimals to figure out costs, pricing, and the economics of their product," says Estelle Reyes, executive director of NFTE Greater Los Angeles. "It helps them to understand why they're taking all these subjects."

About 70 percent of the students in NFTE's LA program are Latino, and many of their parents are recent arrivals to this country. Entrepreneurialism, of course, is intertwined with immigration.

"A lot of kids in LA have parents who run small shops or neighbors who run businesses in the community," Reyes says. "When I ask students if they know anybody who started their own business, probably 80 percent of their hands go up."

As such, there is a surprising side effect to the program. Few immigrants who create their own businesses, even if successful, have a well-developed business plan. However, if their kids have learned the basics, they can turn around and teach their parents.

"I doubt many mom-and-pop shops sit down and figure out how to grow," Reyes says. "But if their kids have that background and that knowledge, it helps the existing businesses get even better and more efficient."

There are 11 NFTE programs across the country, with thousands of kids taking part. NFTE takes part in a competition to reward the students with the best entrepreneurial ideas.

Last year's winner was Hayley Hoverter, a 16-year-old girl who created Sweet (dis)SOLVE. Hoverter's idea was to create a sweetener made of organic sugar wrapped in a soluble packet that melts in your drink without adding calories or throwing off the taste. It means no more discarded sugar wrappers cluttering your table or taking up space in a landfill. Hoverter plans to sell the sweetener to eco-friendly cafes and coffee shops.

Yes, you are free to ask why you didn't think of that.

Hoverter won $10,000 in business funding and a $5,000 college scholarship. Plus, she has attracted interest from investors who want to bring her sweetener to market. And she's done all this before she's old enough to vote.

Kids who have taken the program have since created numerous businesses. One student used the proceeds from his small business to pay his way through Columbia University.

Of course, not every kid who takes NFTE classes is going to become an entrepreneur. At its most basic level, then, the program aims to help kids stay in school. A higher purpose, of course, is to nurture that future Zuckerberg, one who may not have grown up with the Facebook founder's socioeconomic stability.

"There are a lot of kids who get in the program and just pop," Reyes said. "They get excited, and they want to bring their ideas to life."

 
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