From the July 2003 issue of Startups

In a recent survey of students in grades 7 to 12 commissioned by the Simmons School of Management in Boston and The Committee of 200, a businesswomen's group, just 9 percent of girls polled listed business as a career they'd like to pursue. If posed to students at The Girls' Middle School (GMS) in Mountain View, California, this question may net different results.

For four years, seventh graders at the school have had the opportunity to participate in the Entrepreneurial Education Program, a class where students create, run and seek funding for their own ventures. Each business is run during the school year by a team of four students with the help of two volunteer coaches from local businesses and an eighth grade mentor who went through the program the year before.

"Working in small groups, students write business plans, request start-up capital from investors, make product samples, manufacture inventory and sell their products or services to real-world customers," says Ann Tardy, co-director of the program. "Drawing upon lessons learned in many aspects of the GMS curriculum, the girls learn firsthand the importance of creativity, teamwork, communication, consensus-building, personal responsibility and compromise as they experience the joys and frustrations of running their own businesses."

Amanda Howard, vice president of finance for Kablam!, a company that sells candy, hemp jewelry and greeting cards, learned some of those lessons early on. "One girl in my group wanted jewelry and I wanted cards, so we combined the ideas," she says. This compromise has made for a successful business that not only earned a $100 investment from Susan Mason, a general partner with ONSET Ventures, a Menlo Park, California, venture capital firm specializing in start-ups, but is also a customer favorite. "We've sold out at sales events and had our tables swarmed," says Howard.

Participants in the program also experienced the fear and excitement of presenting to investors at a funding event in January. The students set up booths for a trade show, created business plans and spoke about their businesses to a panel of 10 venture capitalists at the Microsoft Conference Center in Silicon Valley. "Entrepreneurial Night is an invaluable opportunity for the girls to understand what real entrepreneurs have to do to get started," Tardy says. "They develop their public-speaking skills and overcome fears as they stand in front of well-known investors and a packed audience to present their business plans. There is no replacement for actually experiencing that and learning that they can do it."

The students agree. "My experience is one I'll never forget," says Shantya Martinez, vice president of marketing for Hippers!, a company that sells diaries. "It felt great being up there and have investors listen to me."

The girls are also enjoying this opportunity to make money. Profits from these ventures are divided between the investor, the students and a charity of the students' choice. Aside from the money, though, they say creating a popular product is also a plus. "Many of the girls at our school love our bags and think they're really cute," says Emma Sharer, whose company, Smorgasbord, makes handbags out of old jeans. "Overall it seems like many people are interested."

The end of the school year presents many choices for these young entrepreneurs: Some will decide to become mentors to next year's crop of Entrepreneurial Education Program participants, while others will continue running their businesses after leaving the program. Though she enjoyed the experience, Sharer, who served as vice president of operations, and her Smorgasbord partners are ready for a rest. "We're really tired of running it, so we decided to stop or take a break," she says.

Regardless of what next year holds for these seventh graders and their businesses, this class will have a lasting impact. "I learned what it takes to make a business successful; I learned the true meaning of teamwork," Martinez says. "I will use what I learned in this class later in life."