For poor kids living in high-crime areas, life typically comes down to three options: have nothing, steal something, or learn to earn.
One path leads to lifelong poverty, another to a prison cell; yet another to a boardroom chair.
Steve Mariotti, a businessman and teacher from the toughest, most crime-ridden schools in New York City, discovered the best way to put impoverished, at-risk kids’ feet on the right path -- the path to real ownership and success -- is by teaching them how to become business owners.
He founded the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), providing classes that help connect these kids to the mainstream economy and give them the drive and the tools to pull themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps.
The program is funded by a who's who roster of big-name donors, including Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the OppenheimerFunds Foundation, and the Goldman Sachs Foundation.
As a training program, NFTE offers no handouts, government subsidies, or affirmative action -- just hard-headed American business sense. And it works.
"NFTE was supporting me the entire way," Braulio Salas, an 18-year-old Latino from Silver Spring, Md., tells Newsmax. Salas is launching a virtual art gallery, while also studying business at Rutgers University.
"They helped me get in touch with mentors who helped me a lot. I wouldn't have been in business if it weren't for them," Salas says.
More than 150,000 children have gone through the program since NFTE started in 1987, and by all accounts it has been a rousing success. A Harvard University study of kids in the program found that their interest in attending college increased 32 percent after taking the entrepreneurship course, and that their job aspirations rose 44 percent.
The program has been so successful that it has expanded to schools and after-school/summer programs in 21 states and 13 countries.
Mariotti says, “Every human being is fascinated by how to improve their lives. Business is a very direct, positive way to do that. That self-interest aligned with the market goes right into the brain very easily.”
The NFTE course generally lasts 100 hours and goes through every element of starting a business, from making a sale, to opening a bank account, to creating a business and marketing plan, to learning the concept of return on investment, to learning how to read income statements and balance sheets.
“It’s great for critical thinking and raising students’ confidence,” Mariotti says. “We’re trying to reach them when they’re 14, and then, each year, they’ll get better.”
Most programs teach low-income kids business skills by showing them how to become good employees. Mariotti feels students should be taught how to run their own businesses too.
“We want to increase entrepreneurial abilities within the idea of ownership," Mariotti says, "so that a 15-year-old is thinking, ‘How do I own assets -- stocks and bonds or a business?’”
Paul Munsinger, 65, a teacher at Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, says his students' reaction to the NFTE course has been so positive that he feels “totally re-energized.”
Many students have an innate desire to excel and become entrepreneurs.
“In the Bronx, some students have inherent or latent entrepreneurial experiences that aren’t above-board,” Munsinger says with a knowing chuckle. “We are trying to harness their creativity to things outside the box, to get them to challenge obvious assumptions.”
His students particularly appreciate the field trips they take to visit a wholesaler, Munsinger says.
“We give each kid $50 to $80, and they have to buy something that they will be able to sell for a profit,” he says. “We have a selling fair back at school. When they get 100 percent to 200 percent profit, that’s when they really get excited.”
Sherice Coles teaches entrepreneurship to eighth graders at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh.
“The kids are learning the basics of money and how to save,” she says. “A lot of the kids are from the inner city. It gives them hope that financial success is out there for them; that their ideas can become opportunities to open their own business.”
Tonya Groover, 21, who just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, took NFTE as a summer program when she was 16. “It gave me an ‘I can do anything’ attitude. Through the program, we were introduced to young entrepreneurs. Just being around other people who created their own business at a young age gave me motivation. You don’t have to be 30 or 40 to start a business.”
Marina Reza, 16, of New York, had no interest in business before she took the course. Now she reads the business section of the newspaper daily. “You feel like you have an advantage over your classmates, because you’ve learned things you usually don’t get until college or a job.”
Evin Robinson, 17, also of New York, appreciated the practical knowledge he gained from NFTE. “It’s like being interested in art and going to a museum for the first time,” he says.
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