Cultivate Urban Students in Becoming Entrepreneurial

04/01/2011 08:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2011

Why are we not teaching our urban students to become more entrepreneurial? Why are we not driving them to be leaders of their own businesses and create rather than replicate and join the ever growing "rat race?" Many individuals may believe that urban students are incapable of leadership and good decision making; I couldn't disagree more and I am sure that there are others like me who believe that Black and Latino students have the ability to be business leaders in their own communities and in this fortune 500 world that we live in.

Consider where many of our urban children live. They live in poverty filled areas where viable employment opportunities are unavailable for many due to missed educational opportunities, lack of opportunities and resources and the flight of jobs from the central cities. Men who have little or no education, who may have been incarcerated, are shut out from the mainstream of society when it comes to finding meaningful work that not only can provide for their families, but also can provide them with career advancement. Women, who are often left alone to fend for themselves by their families and men they share relations with, struggle to find a way out of a hopeless situation that may involve a child or two.

What do these individuals have in common? They've reasoned that where society has shut them out of an opportunity for work, they must make their own. Go down any main thoroughfare in places like North Philadelphia, Camden, Newark, or East St. Louis and you'll find at least one of these: a church, a liquor store, a corner store, a hair salon and a drug set within a two-to-three block radius. Some may look at that scene and simply see a church, a liquor store, a corner store, a hair salon and a drug set. What I see is four businesses and a non-profit. Telling a kid that they come from an environment where people determine their own fate via entrepreneurial aspiration versus telling them that they come from a city of poverty, drugs and alcohol has a lot more power.

Having said that, it is understood that there are many individuals who had the potential to be movers and shakers in the corporate world, but got lost somewhere as they grew older. There are constructive and non-constructive ways to channel and exhibit one's entrepreneurial, managerial and administrative skills. Non-constructive ways of doing so are seen every day on the corners of America's inner-cities.

It is safe to say that if you teach in an urban school like I do, some of your students could be selling drugs on the streets. However, they could also be on those same streets opening their own barbershop or beauty salon or bakery, but like any talent or skill, business saavy must be cultivated. I am a firm believer that whenever you speak or teach to a group of individuals, you must know your audience. In order to relate to them and tap into what motivates and helps them learn, you must understand the external forces that help shape the internal motivations of a child -- it is about looking at one's environment to see what influences them.

When I understand the surrounding forces influencing my kids from day to day -- from the music that they listen to, the clothes that they wear, the messages that they hear from watching television and playing sports -- I gain an understanding on the socialization of that child and I can begin to adapt the curriculum of what I am teaching to serve the students I am teaching. When teaching urban students, this is especially important.

Many of our urban students express that they feel marginalized and shut out from the "American Dream." They wonder how in the world they can redefine the meaning and purpose of their lives when they are surrounded by degradation, crime and hopelessness -- not only in the streets but for some, in their homes. Kids come to my classroom everyday feeling as though they have nothing to contribute; that they have nothing to add to a lesson or discussion that can help with their learning. Once provoked to think and use their experiences to understand a concept, they look at me and each other smiling with pride, amazed that something they knew was connected to a lesson or a concept.

We can use the environment that surrounds our urban children, not just as a deterrent but also as a motivator -- in a different way. We can cite the examples of entrepreneurs using their skills in positive ways to not only provide for their families but also to provide meaningful services to the community. We can also cite examples of how not to use ones entrepreneurial skills; rather than selling drugs or selling stolen and illegally produced goods, put your talents and skills to good use by creating a business that you can have pride in. We can cultivate our students by infusing strategically crafted instruction and integrate both their experiences, examples and areas of passion.

If we do so carefully, we will not simply be creating workers for the 21st century, but rather we'll be creating thinkers and innovators who'll both reinvigorate our economy and set the bar higher for those who come after them in the 22nd century. Ultimately, we'll be helping to restore the promise of the American Dream to many who have received nothing but a nightmare.