Jabious and Anthony Williams were living crammed with their mom and eight other family members in their aunt's two-bedroom apartment in Anacostia, a violent Southeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Every day the boys walked miles to the nearest Exxon station to pump gas for tips. "Typically, we would earn thirty to fifty dollars a day to help support my mom," says Jabious Williams.
One day, the Williams brothers met Mena Lofland, a caring business teacher at Suitland High School in Maryland. She got Anthony and Jabious into her entrepreneurship class, which was sponsored by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). The boys had developed independence, grit, salesmanship and hard-won street smarts. As a result, both showed great aptitude for entrepreneurship.
The Williams brothers started a hip-hop clothing line with support from Lofland and two local mentors -- Phil McNeil, managing partner of Farragut Capital Partners, and Patty Alper, a dedicated volunteer, philanthropist and former entrepreneur.
Today, Jabious is a scholarship graduate student at Southeastern University and operates Jabious Bam Williams Art & Photography Company. Anthony heads a youth-mentorship program. They recently gave their mom $5,000 to use as a down payment on a house. "If it weren't for the NFTE classes and the support of our teachers and mentors, we would have likely dropped out of school," Jabious says.
As an educator of at-risk youth for over thirty years, and NFTE's founder, I've seen only one thing consistently bring children raised in poverty into the middle class: entrepreneurship education.
I've personally witnessed thousands of young people discover their potential through our owner-entrepreneurship courses. I've watched with pride as many of our 450,000-plus alumni have successfully moved into the middle class -- as lifetime entrepreneurs or as educated, productive workers with good jobs.
I've seen apathetic kids whose families have been on welfare for generations get excited about school and their futures. They discover that they can participate in our economy and earn money. They quickly realize that to do so, they must to learn to read, write and do math.
I've also seen how owning even the simplest small business fills a teen with pride.
The Power of Ownership
At NFTE, we call our programs owner-entrepreneurship education to stress the power of ownership to create wealth.
Disadvantaged youth are seldom let in on the connection between ownership and wealth creation. I once asked a leading venture capitalist and philanthropist, who has donated millions to helping low-income children attend private schools, "What about teaching kids the ownership skills that made your fortune so they can become financially independent?"
He responded, only half-jokingly, "But then who would do the work?"
NFTE students don't just learn record-keeping, sales, finance, negotiation, opportunity recognition, and marketing. They also learn how to properly value and sell a business, and how to build wealth through franchising, licensing and other advantages of ownership.
Owner-entrepreneurship education empowers young people to make well-informed decisions about their future, whether they choose to become entrepreneurs or not. Our students discover that, like every individual, they already own five powerful assets: time, talent, attitude, energy and unique knowledge of one's local market. They learn to use these assets to create businesses and jobs, and build wealth in their communities.
Why Aren't We Teaching Entrepreneurship in Our Schools?
The Williams brothers' story is one of countless examples from NFTE's files that beg the question: If entrepreneurship education can create jobs, encourage students to stay in school, and provide economic rescue for people in our low-income communities, why aren't we teaching it in every high school in America?
Let's begin state and national discussions about owner-entrepreneurship education, focused on four goals:
- Engage young people in school by teaching math, reading, writing and communication within the motivating context of starting and operating a small business.
- Teach young people about the market economy and how ownership leads to wealth creation.
- Encourage an entrepreneurial mindset so our youth will succeed whether they pursue higher education, enter the workforce, or become entrepreneurs.
- Make young people financially literate so they can save and invest to achieve goals like home ownership and retirement.
Fighting Youth Joblessness
Owner-entrepreneurship education also tackles youth unemployment. The youth unemployment rate is brutal --16 percent to 25 percent since the market meltdown of 2008. Professor Andrew Hahn of Brandeis University notes: "Research shows the scarring effects of early unemployment. The lack of work experience among minority teens contributes to a host of more serious challenges in their early twenties."
According to Hahn's long-term study tracking NFTE alumni, "NFTE's owner-entrepreneurship programs create jobs and are among the few strategies that work during these periods of massive youth joblessness."
Closing the Wealth Gap
Finally, whether you consider yourself conservative, liberal, moderate or libertarian, there's no denying the wealth gap in this country. Currently, the United States ranks fourth in income inequality after Chile, Mexico and Turkey.
Historically, high levels of income disparity have led to civil unrest, riots and even revolution. With the Occupy movement still spreading, it's no wonder President Obama calls income inequality "the defining issue of our time."
I believe owner-entrepreneurship education can help solve the youth unemployment crisis, rescue our low-income communities by increasing home ownership and employment, and help close the wealth gap.
As Jabious Williams says, "Because I own my business, I know I have a future."
Author Steve Mariotti, founder of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), is an expert in education for at-risk youth. NFTE's mission is to provide its innovative owner-entrepreneurship education programs to young people from low-income communities worldwide. Since 1987, NFTE has reached over 450,000 young people, and currently has programs in 21 states, 11 cities and 10 countries outside the U.S. This article was adapted from Mariotti's essay in #FixYoungAmerica: How to Rebuild Our Economy and Put Young Americans Back to Work (for Good), a book of 30-plus proven solutions to help end youth unemployment published by the Young Entrepreneur Council.