From the August 2003 issue of Startups

Imagine reducing high school truancy rates, helping disadvantaged workers file tax returns or setting up a free enterprise program for students in Mexico. Nidya Baez did all those things--all before graduating from high school. Baez, 17, graduated in May from Fremont High in Oakland, California, where she and about 60 other Fremont students participated in SAGE (Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship).

SAGE is an international program that teaches secondary school students how to start and manage a business while maximizing environmental sensitivity and civic responsibility--at least that's the formal definition. An enthusiastic Baez quickly gives her version: "SAGE is for students who want to change the world one project at a time--we have a vision of the world and want to make it better."

One of the Fremont group's greatest successes was the creation of a food cart on their high school campus. "We noticed a lot of kids were leaving campus to go out for lunch, and they weren't coming back," says Baez. To counteract the truancy problem, Baez and SAGE teammates partnered with local restaurants to resell items like burritos and barbecue sandwiches from a campus food cart. The project won Fremont High top honors in California's 2002 SAGE regional competition while also meeting their goal. "Truancy rates fell from about 70 percent to about 40 percent," says Baez, "and we made about $2000 in profit."

Those profits go back into the SAGE program to finance future projects or pay traveling expenses for students whose projects have earned them a spot in national competitions or even the SAGE World Cup (where countries like Mexico, Poland and South Africa bring their best to compete against the top U.S. team).

For their next mission, Fremont students came up with a plan to provide income tax returns for those who need them the most: elderly and underemployed people in their community. Says Baez, "We knew a lot of people in our community were not claiming their tax returns, and we wanted to let people know that they could get their taxes done for free."

After creating an action plan, students studied tax laws, including curriculum by the IRS, and then set up a tax office in collaboration with a local library. "We put fliers up everywhere--in restaurants and libraries--and lots of people came in with stacks of paperwork," says Baez, who remembers one customer in particular. "She was in her 70s, and she came in with her paperwork in big stacks; she was a retired teacher and couldn't find her W-2 form." After searching through mounds of paperwork to no avail, the woman was tired and frustrated. "We encouraged her, and she went home and found her W-2 and brought it back so we could help."

The best part about projects like these? "We got to help adults who had been working all their lives," says Baez. "These people were tired and busy with their kids, and we helped them--people were amazed. People trusted us."

And trust does not come easily to young people in Baez's community. "We're people of color, low-income--we don't see leaders who look like us in the media, but we're out to change things," says Baez, whose indomitable spirit has earned her a slot at the University of California, Berkeley, starting this fall.

The ultimate Fremont team mission is to plant the seed of SAGE globally--with schools like those in Guadalajara, Mexico, says Mikel Calderon, SAGE technology team leader. A lack of funding kept much of the Fremont team from traveling, but that didn't discourage students Baez and Veronica Garcia, SAGE executive director, who headed out to Guadalajara to help create and mentor a SAGE program among local high schools.

One of the mentored schools, La Preparatoria de Degollado Jalisco, later won their local SAGE competition by creating a greenhouse that grows and sells roses in Degollado, Mexico--keeping the work and profit local by eliminating the need to import from Mexico City.

Free Enterprise for All
Part of the success of the SAGE program is that it was groomed on the heels of SIFE (Students In Free Enterprise), which has been promoting free enterprise on more than 1,400 university campuses in 33-plus countries since 1975. SIFE matches university students with business and academic mentors as they team up to solve economic and social problems while creating profitable enterprises, says Marcia Klipsch, faculty advisor for the University of Arizona SIFE team. An example? The SALSA project, created by the UA SIFE team, took a surplus of hydroponic tomatoes that would have been wasted and turned it into "Tomate Loco Salsa," which they sold for a profit.

But it wasn't a fiesta, says Klipsch. "Students had to locate a working kitchen; perform nutritional analysis; learn how to preserve, can and market their salsa; and manage the movement of inventory--just like in business."

Next Step
For more information on everything from competitions and developing projects to funding, check out CSU Chico's Web site at www.csuchico.edu/sage.

Secondary schools wanting to start a SAGE program in their school need to find the nearest SIFE university program able to become a "host" campus for your school. SIFE hosts organize and fund (pay for travel cost, prize money and awards through grants and sponsorship) a regional competition for the SAGE schools they are hosting. There must be at least three secondary schools in a region in order to compete. There is no fee to start a SAGE program and no required model to adhere to. The only requirement is that SAGE teams follow established judging criteria in competitions.

Curt DeBerg, faculty advisor for California State University, Chico, SIFE, and the brains behind SAGE, is willing to assist in establishing new regional SAGE organizations and help with fundraising tips and training for host campuses. Last year 44 SAGE teams competed at the national level, says DeBerg, but get ready--the competition is getting stiffer. By 2004, more than 70 schools in California alone are expected to be in the running, and DeBerg is determined to get SAGE into 15 countries by the end of this year.

With all this success already behind SAGE members, it sounds like changing the world is not just a lofty aspiration, but more like a reality they are steadily fulfilling.