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SIFE Lessons

I'm an addict. Like many addicts, I belong to a club. Some of my fellow addicts come from household-name businesses like AT&T, KPMG, Kraft Foods, Radio Shack and Wal-Mart (to name just a few). Others hail from companies you've likely never heard of. The name of our club and the source of our addiction: Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE).

To the uninitiated, SIFE is a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading the gospel of free enterprise. Part of what makes SIFE so addictive: It's impossible to argue with the message. As business owners, we understand freedom and independence take root from the seeds of innovation and entrepreneurship. It is SIFE's mission to plant those seeds, and they're sown by thousands of college students, led by an amazing array of professors, who undertake various projects (sometimes dozens) locally, nationally and globally. SIFE is so infectious, it has already spread to 31 nations, including China.

I first got hooked (SIFE CEO Alvin Rohrs calls it "getting SIFEd") several years ago at the SIFE National Championships. Every year when I return to the championships, I think, "These kids can't possibly top last year." But I am always wrong. Very, very wrong. Time and space don't permit me to tell you about the 159 teams that competed in Kansas City last May. So let me share what I discovered.

From the students at Florida's Bethune-Cookman College, I learned you can teach others about the value of our dollar and other currency by using a can of Coke. The students at BYU-Idaho taught me that true success comes from vision, passion and enthusiasm. Demonstrating there's strength in diversity, the team from Hawaii Pacific University (consisting of students from at least five different countries) showed passion, enthusiasm and spirit cross all borders. Florida's Flagler College students illustrated you can make a good thing better by morphing their successful Radio Free Enterprise into a better College of Consumer Knowledge.

The SIFE 2002 champions from Louisiana State University in Eunice (two-year division, pictured with winners from LaSierra University, below) proved the true power of the Net by sending lesson plans to teens in Africa, Central America and other developing nations.

Years ago, the students at Southern California's LaSierra University (this year's SIFE champions, four-year division) changed villagers' lives in India by loaning them cows. Last year, they used hens to start a microenterprise in Mexico. This year, they went to Peru and loaned alpacas to families in one village, so they could increase their annual income 200 percent by selling wool, and bought 210,000 bees for students in another, who rent them to farmers to pollinate their orchards.

Every year, I learn from the students at California State University, Chico. This year they decided "to start a fire" and increased the participation of state high schools in their Cal-High SIFE program by 300 percent. (For more about this, visit www.teenstartups.com.) Chico student Allison inspired me with her determination and boundless energy. Her teammate Jill touched me by saying, "For those who lack the opportunity, SIFE can be the spark that gives them their dreams."

There were individuals who taught-and inspired me as well. From Jessica (Southwest Texas State), I was reminded to ask for what you want; nothing just comes to you. Ally (from Flagler) showed mistakes are merely lessons, and, when given a second chance, jump at it. A student at LaSierra reminded me to "take inspiration anywhere and everywhere you can get it."

All addicts want to spread their habit. If you try SIFE, I guarantee you'll get hooked. Start your addiction by calling SIFE at (800) 235-9585 or by logging on to www.sife.org. Go get SIFEd! The high is well worth it.

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This article was originally published in the July 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: SIFE Lessons.

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