Pass It On

Forget military's colleges and universities have something else in mind of the kids of today: fashioning them into the next generation of entrepreneurs.
13 min read

This story appears in the June 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In today's society, where constant change characterizes our oh-so-fervent economy, it is our youth who've happened upon the realization that they'd be a heck of a lot better off just working for themselves. With the dissolution of familiar industry, the unpredictable fate of large-firm employment and the tremendous influence technology has had on self-molded careers, the field of entrepreneurship has gotten some strong approval from the public. Tack on the fact that because the majority of this change has resulted from the innovative small-business sector, significant support has shifted toward the relevance of incorporating entrepreneurial knowledge and skills into our youth's academia.

And whilemost upper and middle class youth may be hand-fed all the tricks of the trade through informal parental debate at the good ol' dinner table, entrepreneurship has finally earned recognition as a skill that can be extremely helpful in life. A skill that, according to National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) founder Steve Mariotti, every child has the right to know-which leads us to reacquainting you with the programs and higher educational institutions that are contributing to the overall growth of entreprenuerial learning and knowledge.

Entrepreneurship Programs

With business schools like the Babson Scool of Executive Education in Wellesley, Massachusetts, teaching undergrads and MBA students how to start business for the past 25 years, it's clear that teaching enrepreneurship is gaining credibility. As one of the first universities to actually formalize the curriculum and one of the few to have a separate department catering entirely to the field, Babson has remained committed to the cultivation of entrepreneurship even in the face of ridicule and speculation of the past.

"Frankly, we bet on this and we were right," says Steve Spinelli, director of Babson's Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. "We are fairly unique in that, by now most of the campus has embraced the field. There's a clamoring to be a part of it, from the accounting department all the way to the liberal arts people."

So, with head held high, Babson offers support to many of the exceptional nonprofit organizations that, like the aforementioned NFTE, have been spreading information about the power of business ownership to the fertile minds of low-income and at risk kids since 1987.

With programs in 26 states reaching out to about 8,000 children per year, the NFTE has forged partnerships with major supporters and additional university programs to provide less-fortunate youth with a more liberating career path. In spreading the gospel of hands-on entrepreneurship and utilizing trained college students to teach the tools for creating wealth in the marketplace, the NFTE recognizes its contribution to this national movement.

"[The entrepreneurial training market] has experienced the biggest boom in the history of educational efforts," explains Mariotti. "There's been a huge cultural change where the entrepreneur is portrayed much more positively and kids are now allowed to look up to [him or her]."

Along with NFTE, Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) has also flourished with all of the extra attention paid to entrepreneurial activism. Founded in 1975, SIFE has worked in partnership with businesses and higher education to help college students take classroom-taught business skills and apply them to real-world situations. All in the name of free enterprise, SIFE students go from assisting budding entrepreneurs and mentoring at-risk youth to competing in annual International Community Outreach Competitions, in which teams are judged on how well they teach others the principles of free enterprise.

"Our students do a great job of positioning entrepreneurs as the kind of individuals that we think young people ought to aspire to be," says SIFE president and CEO Alvin Rohrs. "And the whole notion that you can teach business concepts has really changed. What used to be considered a vocational skill is now being accepted as an art and a science."

Supporting teams at more than 700 college campuses and universities in 48 states, SIFE accomplishes what California State University, Chico, SIFE advisor Curt DeBerg calls "social entrepreneurship." "By learning, practicing and then teaching the real-world applications of business," he says, "students learn as much-if not more-about free enterprise, while simultaneously being shown that they have an important place in the community."

And for the past seven years, with DeBerg's team completing hundreds of community outreach projects and winning last year's SIFE International Championships, the organization's overwhelming notoriety has even caused Chico's dean to consider implementing innovative entrepreneurship models into the university's formal curriculum. Reading, writing and arithmetic it's not, but in today's changing business climate, it may be just as important.

Teaching Business Skills

OK, so there may be a few of you out there who still believe entrepreneurs originate from some sort of mutant ilk-one in which truly headstrong gametes fuse to form biz-savvy zygotes that produce only naturally driven, go-getting offspring whose sole birthright is to launch business ventures, make a cool couple million, and buy a pro sports team just for front row seats. Well, people, that's not always the case.

While it's probably true that many of the most successful entrepreneurs inherently possess a generous dose of self-discipline and an exceptionally creative streak, it's also true that they can be roused, cultivated and nurtured. "I think it's irresponsible to say these skills can't be taught," says Mariotti. "To say that to highly at-risk children does them a great disservice. The basic life skills of business could literally save their lives, and the concept of ownership, particularly for people who were raised owning nothing, truly motivates them."

And when such skills are coupled with on-the-job experiences, hands-on projects and competitive events, like they are at the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) national headquarters in Reston, Virginia, young students' entrepreneurial fires are stoked. Teaching how to market ideas, handle financing and understand risk provides students with the materials they need to make their dreams become realities. "What we teach is not necessarily creativity, because I don't think you can teach that," says Tim Coffey, DECA corporate development director. "And you can't teach someone to have an idea, but you can teach them what to do with it."

Such concepts as networking, writing business plans and organizing resources are also components that organizations like SIFE instill in their students, who in turn share them by teaching youth in the community. "Our tendency is to look at entrepreneurs as natural-born leaders, but the reality is, leadership and entrepreneurship are both highly teachable skills. We really just give up on a lot of people way too early," says Rohrs. "For anybody who's willing to take some component of risk, somebody's got to teach them exactly how to go do it."

"And there are a lot of people who, with some structure and direction, can be helped to create their own business ideas and plans," adds De Berg. "It's imperative we allow our students to get into the 'create mode' rather than the 'react mode.'"

Babson, too, goes through a "create" mode, specifically through its fusion of curriculum with reality-a concept that Spinelli calls "a clashroom technique"-via hatcheries open to students' ventures while they're still enrolled. "We never make up a case to illustrate a point," he maintains. "We always take it out of the real world."

"I love it when an entrepreneur says you can't teach entrepreneurship, and they've been successful for the past four decades," Spinelli continues. "That's when I ask, 'That's interesting, you haven't learned anything in 40 years about what you do?' And they say, 'No, no, no, no-I've learned quite a bit.' And then I counter with, "'Well, if you can learn it, we can teach it!'"

Success Stories

And it's not like the kids themselves aren't totally into this. According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private foundation in Kansas City, Missouri, that promotes the growth of entrepreneurship, a recent study found that seven out of 10 U.S. teens want to control their own destinies by becoming entrepreneurs. And according to a 1997 USA Today survey, in which young people were asked what they would do if they could devote one year to any occupation, 47 percent of women and 38 percent of men chose the career of entrepreneur.

"The whole issue of corporate mergers, downsizing and acquisitions has cautioned a lot of kids to quietly make the decision that they don't want that kind of life for themselves," explains Jim Hayes, president and CEO of Junior Achievement (JA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "They're determined to run their own business and control their own destiny."

So with over 110,000 classroom volunteers, many of whom are entrepreneurs themselves, the goal of JA is to inspire and expose kids of all academic levels and incomes to the benefits of free enterprise. "The important thing is to help kids understand that entrepreneurship is a very realistic path," adds Hayes. "Once they hear that, they get intrigued by the whole thing."

It was at age 12 that student James Carl joined the local JA program and started his first business. Now 16, he's gone on to launch a second venture, a stock brokerage company run from his home in Anaheim, California. Drawn to JA simply because, as Carl says, he wanted to see what it would take to start his own company, his present goals are to expand the brokerage and become as large as, if not larger than, J.P. Morgan-a pretty remarkable ambition for a teenager, wouldn't you say

As for the interest exuded by students from NFTE, the percentage of post high-school alumni who think of themselves as entrepreneurs is a whopping 83 percent, with a high percentage still running productive businesses. "The academia of entrepreneurship simply channels the drive and energy that is already within each individual," says NFTE alumnus Byron Bennett, 27, whose 2-year-old New York City start-up, Roommate Services Inc., expects 2000 sales to reach a whopping $1 million. "I definitely think it's important for youths to be given an early understanding of the business world. With such assets, they can overcome their fear and lack of understanding and begin identifying a path that will work best for them."

Former SIFE member and present advisory board member Roger Lopez, 22, agrees. "It's very important to learn the concepts of business at an early age," he says. "When you are a kid, that's the best time to learn the true entrepreneurial spirit because there is no greed for money, just the pure freedom of creativity-something most adults forget about."

At Babson, the commitment to entrepreneurial learning has become culturally ingrained in the surrounding community. Through annual consortiums and full-blown ceremonies, the school's entrepreneurial education staff showers past and present entrepreneurs with unlimited respect-almost to the point of full-on hero worship-through events such as Founder's Day, when great entrepreneurs are celebrated and elected to be placed in Babson's honorary Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs. Such commitment prompts Spinelli to pre-qualify students before their first day of class. "I tell them to walk through the Exhibit Hall," he says. "If they don't get goose bumps, I tell them to drop the course immediately."

Recent graduate Wendy Cohen, 21, has felt those kinds of goose bumps ever since taking a freshman-year Management Experience course. Acting as VP of marketing for an on-campus coffee shop called Café Babson, Cohen got her first real taste of the business world. Having considered entrepreneurship ever since she was in high school, it wasn't until she had the opportunity to experience it, and then later compose a business plan for her own original concept, that she realized how passionate she truly was about launching her very own business-a plus-size clothing business that caters only to teenagers.

Reaching Out

Now we're hoping that you all understand why such youthful cognizance should be at the very top of your to-do list. With such organizations ensuring so many of our youths' futures, it is extremely important that entrepreneurs and small business owners not only do their part in keeping such programs alive and kicking, but also take the steps to promote the integration of such knowledge into every elementary, secondary and post-secondary curriculum. Volunteering your advice, time or money to these kinds of organizations is just one way to keep the ball rolling in the right direction. "Educators are dying for somebody to come in, because the more viewpoints the kids are eventually exposed to, the broader their options are going to end up being," explains DECA's Coffey.

Contributing time as a judge for the many regional competitions held by each organization is another way experienced entrepreneurs can further these organizations. SIFE holds its regional competitions in 19 cities nationwide; DECA holds contests in every state; and JA has 168 offices around the country, all needing members to sit on the local boards.

And in the Babson community, you can volunteer your time as a mentor company. And, of course, becoming part of the angel group that contributes toward the seed fund always helps.

But it goes both ways, because the students receiving help are more than prepared to give back. SIFE students, for example, willingly assist with business plans, marketing strategies and even market surveys.

Clearly, as today's youth continue to embrace entrepreneurship, using educational priorities and volunteerism to support the growth of entrepreneurial learning and ideals becomes evermore critical in a world where self-sufficiency often begets economic success. Says JA's Hayes, "The more we can do to help kids understand this field, the better they'll be prepared to sustain it, take advantage of it and the more they will benefit from it as they grow older." How can we truly expect future generations to champion entrepreneurship if they don't know anything about it?

Live And Learn

Program: Junior Achievement Inc.
Mission: To educate and inspire young people (grades K through 12) to value and understand free enterprise, business and economics in order to improve the quality of their lives
Contact: Junior Achievement, One Education Wy., Colorado Springs, CO 80906, (800) THE-NEW-JA, fax: (719) 540-6299,

Program: National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)
Mission: To teach low-income and at-risk young people the basics of starting and operating a small business
Contact: NFTE, 120 Wall Street, 29th Fl., New York, NY 10005, (212) 232-3333 or (800) 367-6383, fax: (212) 232-2244, or

Program: Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE)
Mission: To provide college students the opportunity to establish free-enterprise community outreach programs that teach others how market economies and businesses operate
Contact: The Jack Shewmaker SIFE World Headquarters, Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise Center, Jack Kahl Entrepreneurship Center, 1959 East Kerr St., Springfield, MO 65803-4775, main number: (417) 831-9505, University Relations: (800) 235-9585, Resource Development: (800) 677-SIFE, fax: (417) 831-6165,

Program: Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA)
Mission: To help students develop skills and competence in marketing, management and entrepreneurship
Contact: DECA , 1908 Association Dr., Reston, VA 20191, (703) 860-5000,, e-mail:

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