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How Kids Can Help You Run a More Innovative Business

This story originally appeared on Business on Main

Narita Kaur is a high school sophomore. She hopes to attend college in a few years to study pharmacy.

But in the meantime, in her own way, she's been a valued advisor to a small-business owner. Not bad credentials for a 15-year-old.

Kaur, from Flushing in the New York City borough of Queens, spent last summer working at Ontodia, a New York City data analysis startup. The program was arranged by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a New York-based global organization that helps young people from low-income backgrounds learn about starting and running a small business.

If such a description was all-inclusive, the program would seem geared solely toward teaching youngsters the nuts and bolts of working within a small business. True enough, but the benefits don't flow in just one direction.

"I think we taught Joel [Natividad, head of the company] how to work effectively with teenagers," Kaur says. "He learned how to motivate us to work hard without having to force us."

Kaur's experience not only illustrates the value of mentoring programs, but also the wisdom that younger people can impart to their older colleagues. What they may lack in experience is more than made up for by other virtues that many small-business owners would do well to remember.

Getting a fresh perspective

"One thing that young people have is a fresh eye," says NFTE founder Steve Mariotti. "Young people look at things with no bias and a different kind of energy than older people do."

That perspective can look back as well as forward. As many business startups and other small operations grow and mature, they often lose sight of their core message or the essentials of what they're doing. Having worked with hundreds of thousands of young people in arranging work internships and other experiences over the past 25 years, Mariotti says a youthful perspective can help bring those basics back into focus.

"They have a great feel for clarity," he says. "For instance, what are you selling, why are you selling it and why would anyone want to buy it? These are conversations that young people can have with entrepreneurs all the time. Young people can help you re-create yourself."

For Ontodia's Natividad, working with Kaur and other NFTE teenagers provided a valuable reminder to him that not everyone is versed in particular forms of professional jargon.

"My original training was as an engineer," he explains. "I used terminology that went completely over their heads. It taught me that I needed to simplify things so I could better connect with my audience and customers."

"As we get older, we tend to get more ethereal in our approach," adds Mariotti. "It's easy to lose sight of what genuinely matters."

Educating entrepreneurs, young and old

The lessons and messages youths can offer entrepreneurs and small-business owners can take other directions. As kids, we all remember trying something despite the admonishment from our parents that it simply "wouldn't work." That's a type of independence that every startup needs to embrace, although tempered with an adult perspective.

"As adults, we fall into it all the time -- the 'not invented here' syndrome," says Jim Caruso, an Atlanta-based marketing strategist. "But it's really a question of managing opportunity. Just like a kid would, an entrepreneur should try to figure out every opportunity. Looking at ways to do new things can make a huge difference with a startup. Later, you can do the adult thing and take steps to minimize the risks involved."

For Kaur, the several summer months she spent working at Ontodia (she says she was initially reluctant to give up the freedom of her vacation, but was persuaded to take part by her father) offered a broadening experience, if for no other reason than they opened her eyes to alternatives should her future not go precisely as planned.

"I think we all definitely learned a lot from Joel -- I know I learned a lot," she says. "Even though I hope to be a pharmacist, I might start a business if that doesn't work out. I thought this was one way to keep my options open."

For his part, Natividad found the young people's commitment and drive equally rewarding.

"I used to be a teacher," he says. "I always fed off the energy of the kids. I still do."


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