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Think of an imaginary city in which grade-schoolers assume the roles of, say, business owners--complete with the challenges of meeting payroll and overseeing employees. Next, conjure up an image of a cross-country trek that racks up mileage in direct proportion to the national debt. What do these two ambitious projects have in common? Both were conceived and executed by Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) teams.
A nonprofit organization started in 1975, SIFE seeks to instill in college students a greater appreciation for--and understanding of--the free-enterprise system. "What we're about is training, motivating and energizing college students to go give other people a real understanding of how free enterprise works," explains SIFE president Alvin Rohrs. Sort of a trickle-down approach to business education, if you will.
Fittingly, the more than 500 campus-based SIFE teams are themselves entrepreneurial in nature. "It is very autonomous," says Rohrs. "[Individual teams] decide how they want to structure their programs and decide which target audiences they want to work with." These target audiences range from senior citizen groups to at-risk youth.
So, yes, you're probably thinking--and you'd be correct--that SIFE doesn't strive only to breed successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Instead, says Rohrs, there exists an underlying concept of doing well by doing good. "They want to succeed," Rohrs says of SIFE members, "but they don't intend to do it unethically. They don't intend to do it like a bulldozer, knocking people out of their way."
To help SIFE members in their pursuit of excellence, the organization provides opportunities to meet and listen to small-business owners and top-level executives from a variety of corporations. (Entrepreneur vice president and editorial director Rieva Lesonsky is on the SIFE board of directors.) "College students can actually spend time at our competitions and our other activities with CEOs and high-level executives whom you usually just get to read about or see on television," raves Rohrs.
And the reactions? "Businesspeople aren't used to getting standing ovations--but our kids get on their feet and make them glad they're there," says Rohrs. "In fact, it's really hard for our speakers to get out the door because our kids just swamp them."
Do these ultra-enthusiastic kids go on to entrepreneurship? Many do, yes. Surmises Rohrs, "When and if they're ready to become a business owner and go out on their own, a lot of what they learn in SIFE will get them well down the road."
If you're interested in either joining or volunteering for SIFE, contact its national headquarters at 1959 E. Kerr, Springfield, MO 65803; (800) 677-SIFE.
Maybe Leslie Leland wasn't born an entrepreneur--but she came pretty darn close. "Ever since I was in third grade, I wanted to have my own company," says the 36-year-old alumnus of Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE). "I just didn't know [what type of business]."
She does now. As the founder of Dallas-based Softgen International, Leland oversees a telecommunications software company specializing in call-center solutions. "It's just exploded," Leland says of the success of her 6-year-old business. That success will translate into projected 1998 sales of $9 million to $10 million.
The technology entrepreneur attributes her achievements to hard work but also tips her hat to SIFE. "SIFE encouraged me to become a leader," she explains. "It also taught me that you have to make things happen."
While participating in SIFE 18 years ago, Leland convinced local mayors to declare a day in honor of free enterprise--and persuaded restauranteurs in her community to use a place mat she created to teach patrons the fundamentals of profit, loss and so forth. Recalls Leland, "I was on the front page of all these newspapers shaking the hands of mayors."
But wasn't it intimidating for a college student to conduct such a high-profile campaign? "Not for me," laughs Leland. "If you believe in something and you have a passion for it, it's easy to do."
Softgen International, firstname.lastname@example.org