The Wonder Years

Training Wheels

Resources abound for kids and teens who want to explore the world of business before starting their own. There are camps, school programs, and national and local organizations that can help launch your own little future Michael Dell. A plethora of books and Web sites are available with ideas on what kinds of businesses to start, how to get ideas and how to make them a reality.

The Kauffman Foundation offers entrepreneurial programs and partnerships across the country for kids ages 5 to 18. There are also internships, grants and plenty of business advice on its Web site. One of the most popular programs it offers at schools and camps, Mini-Society, immerses kids in a hands-on simulation of an economic environment. Over 10 to 20 weeks, kids develop business ideas and experience the resulting financial, consumer and social effects. "This isn't 'Eat your spinach, and someday you'll grow up strong,'" says Doug Miller. "This is relevant right here, right now. These kids are learning cash flow, record-keeping, scarcity-and they love it. I saw a fifth-grade class incredibly excited to write contracts and then find each other's loopholes." The Kauffman Foundation, in connection with YoungBiz Inc., also offers an online magazine, Y&E (Young and Entrepreneurial), which keeps up a steady stream of advice and profiles other young entrepreneurs.

Junior Achievement, founded in 1919 as an after-school business club, now features an "Entrepreneur Center" on its Web site with tips and strategies on starting a business, and connections to experts who will answer questions. In every state, Junior Achievement matches volunteer businesspeople with K-12 classrooms to offer real-world advice and experience. The businessperson and teacher work together to set up hands-on activities that teach kids how business works and how they can use their skills to be successful. Any classroom can get this program for free by calling their local Junior Achievement office.

"Engaging kids this way shows them why their schoolwork is important-for example, how math skills convert to business success," says David Moore, president of Junior Achievement of Greater Puget Sound in Washington state.

Rohan Singh, 15, the winner of Junior Achievement's 2003 Student Entrepreneur of the Year award, credits his success to his early training and his parents. "In seventh grade, I had no idea what the free enterprise system was, and I didn't care," says the teen. After taking a Junior Achievement class, he wanted to start a business right away. "My parents had me draft a business plan to show I was serious," Singh remembers. His Woodinville, Washington-based business, Fuzzel Fish, in its second year and grossing $3,000 annually, sells software (written by Singh) that helps people create Web sites. "It's very cool to say you own a business," says Singh, whose parents emigrated from India when he was 4. "It's part of the American Dream."

For high schoolers who might like to compete with other kids around the nation, Junior Achievement offers JA Titan, a Web-based simulation where kids get to set prices, R&D spending and other factors, and then play along as economic factors beyond their control change. The Kauffman Foundation has teamed up with Disney Online to offer Hot Shot Business, an online simulation game for tweens that lets kids start a pet spa, a skateboard factory or a comic book store and introduces the concepts of financing, customer demand and pricing-with lots of decisions to make.

Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship (SAGE) is a program where participants learn business acumen and ethics at the same time. Teams of high schoolers countrywide, mentored by college students and local businesspeople, compete tournament-style against other schools to come up with the best business idea. In the process, they learn they can become entrepreneurs and help their communities. One winning team created an on-campus lunch cart for their high school: It was a profitable business and helped reduce truancy by keeping teens on campus during lunch. Dr. Curtis DeBerg, founder of SAGE, says, "Our future community leaders should have a sense of social responsibility. If you don't teach it, it gets lost."

Kids get hooked on entrepreneurship because it's the ultimate form of self-expression, says Drew. "Kids take their talent, skills and interests and create something out of nothing," she says. "We teach them the skills to make their ideas into reality, and they can use those skills throughout their careers."

Will all this fuel their desire to sell the next big thing when they grow up? Chris Miller says it doesn't really matter, because either way, there are significant long-term benefits for the kids. "When young people see they can contribute to a real business, it gives them confidence that they can make an impact on their world," he says. "This self-belief is a fantastic gift to give a child. They'll have the confidence to change things. Whether or not they decide to run their own businesses, they will feel they have choices in life."

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This article was originally published in the March 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Wonder Years.

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