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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Cultivating Entrepreneurship

Economic security, hope for the future, and responsible participationin the community are among the benefits that at-risk students can reapfrom entrepreneurship education.

Effective preparation for employment—including self-employment,or entrepreneurship—is crucial for today's low-incomeyouth if they are to break the cycle of poverty. Workers with lesseducation earn lower wages, have less job security, and experiencelonger periods of unemployment. But motivating students to gainthe knowledge and skills that they need to be successfully employedcan be a challenge. How can we spark such motivation to learn?
One method that has been effective with at-risk youth isentrepreneurship education, which links learning to the goal ofhelping students establish their own businesses and gain financialsecurity. When students discover that the knowledge and skillsthat they are learning in math, language arts, social studies,and technology classes are actually tools for creating their ownfutures, they engage in authentic learning. In addition, infusinga sense of social responsibility into the notions of forming abusiness and creating wealth helps these students develop meaningand purpose for their lives.
By building students' entrepreneurship skills and self-esteem,educators can redirect them away from the kinds of life experiencesfor which they are most at risk, such as dropping out of school,chronic unemployment, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy. By beingfully engaged in the learning process, students can get theacademic and life skills that they need to finish high school,continue their education, and develop expertise for the workplace.

A Wake-Up Call

As a special education teacher at a school in one of New YorkCity's most impoverished neighborhoods, Steve Mariotti facedstudents so disruptive that he had to stop the class every fiveminutes to get them to quiet down. Frustrated and discouraged, he invited the “troublemakers”out to dinner to find out why they behaved so badly. The studentstold him that his class and other classes were boring andthat they believed that Mariotti and other teachers had nothingto teach them that was relevant to their lives. When asked ifanything taught in the class interestedthem, one young man said that Mariotti's description of theimport-export business he had once owned had held his attention,and he rattled off various figures mentioned in class. The studentcalculated the profit margin and concluded that Mariotti'sbusiness had done well.
The student input led Mariotti to conclude that somethingwas wrong with the standard remedial education curriculum. Thestudents had said that his class was boring—except whenhe talked about business and making money. This realization ledMariotti to try an innovative approach with his students afterone particularly disruptive incident. To quiet them down, helaunched into a mock sales pitch, “selling” hisown watch to the class. He listed the reasons that the studentsshould purchase it for the low price of $6. The studentspaid attention and became interested in learning more. Once hehad their attention, Mariotti shifted from a sales talk to aconventional arithmetic lesson, pointing out that when you buya watch for $3 and sell it for $6, your profit is$3, or 100 percent. The exercise exposed students to twofundamental business concepts: buy low and sell high and focuson return on investment.
Mariotti knew that starting a business requires individualsto be intelligent, resilient, and willing to take risks. Histeaching experience made him realize that children born intopoverty have enormous uncultivated potential. As these youthdeal with stress and conflict in their everyday lives, theybecome accustomed to risk and uncertainty. They build “streetsmarts,” or what Mariotti had learned to recognize as“business smarts.” Their experiences in dealingwith a challenging world enable them to perceive and pursueopportunities that others tend to miss. Mariotti soon beganoffering a special class—How to Start, Finance, and Managea Small Business: A Guide for the Urban Entrepreneur—toengage even the most challenging and disruptive students.
Educators who recognize resilience and risk taking as giftsknow that these students are ideally suited for breaking out ofthe cycle of dependency and poverty. The divide that they mostneed to bridge is largely cultural and economic. But providingthem with a stimulating learning environment allows them to takethe important first step of bridging a psychological gap. As theirdrive and marketable skills grow, they come to know that they,too, have a place in the market economy. In addition, they canlearn the value of giving back and working responsibly to helprevitalize their communities. They need coaching in the academic,technical, and life skills that make success possible, and theyneed experience as honorable entrepreneurs—entrepreneurswho do well financially and dogood for the community.

Adding Entrepreneurship to the Curriculum

  • Strong interest in entrepreneurship. Seven in 10 highschool students wanted to start a business of their own and gavethe independence factor—being one's own boss—astheir major reason.
  • Serious deficiencies in knowledge about entrepreneurship.Eight in 10 high school students said they were taught“little” or “practically nothing”about how business or the economy works in school.
  • Clear recognition of the need for entrepreneurshipeducation. More than 80 percent of all three groups ofrespondents considered it “important” or “veryimportant” to teach entrepreneurship and the principlesof building a business.
Schools can offer entrepreneurship education in a variety ofsettings and time frames—during the regular school dayor after school, in separate courses or integrated into thecore subjects, in one-day sessions or in intensive summer camps.Programs can dovetail with existing service learning, mentoring,and vocational programs. Learning activities and curriculums canincorporate existing state and district standards in languagearts, mathematics, social studies, and technology. The followingare some examples of how entrepreneurship education can beintegrated into a typical middle school curriculum.
Language arts. In many stories, thecharacters face dilemmas that provide relevant material fordiscussion. By reading “The Treasure of Lemon Brown”by Walter Dean Myers, for example, students can analyze thehomeless character's life experiences to develop a list ofthe services that he could provide in his inner-city environment.They can write about how their personal talents, such as braidinghair, can provide marketable alternatives for employment.“Thank You, Ma'am,” by Langston Hughes, tellsthe story of Roger, a 15-year-old inner-city youth who wantsmoney to purchase a pair of suede shoes and attempts to snatch awoman's purse. Students can discuss the risks and consequencesof getting money illegally and outline ways that Roger may beable to earn money as an entrepreneur. Role-playing Roger makinga sales call or satisfying customer needs can develop students'listening and speaking skills.
Mathematics. Students can learn how touse math to price and market their products. If they want tooperate a lemonade stand, for example, they can learn how tobuy products at a low price and sell them for a higher one thatcustomers are willing to pay to make their business profitable.They can visit wholesale food stores to purchase products. Theycan also learn how to keep good records and successfully managetheir business.
Social studies. Students can compare andcontrast entrepreneurships of past and present eras and examinethe entrepreneurs' successes and failures. They can learnhow trends, demographics, and geographical locations can determinethe success or failure of a given business. Working with a focusgroup of end-users or with their peers as judges, they can learnhow sharing ideas helps them uncover weaknesses that need to beaddressed and stimulates even more creative thinking.
Business. Students can think about whattheir relatives, neighbors, and others have taught them aboutentrepreneurship or working as an employee. They can conductmarket research surveys in the community to discover the servicesneeded and publish their findings. After looking at their community,students can brainstorm ways to use their own interests andtalents to fulfill needs. Traditional self-employment examplesinclude cutting grass, helping senior citizens with domesticchores, babysitting, writing letters, designing and sellinggreeting cards, or running errands. As students start businessesthat meet community needs, they can create flyers and post themthroughout their community.
Technology. Student entrepreneurs canuse the Internet to conduct research and to develop businesscards, posters, and flyers. They can practice writing e-mails,memos, and contracts. They can use presentation software tocreate business plans, learning what is required to raisecapital in the process. Presenting their business plans toclassmates can stimulate creative thinking and motivate studentsto improve their plans and their presentation skills as well.
Art. Students can learn how to markettheir drawings and paintings, greeting cards, clothing designs,clay sculptures, and other art works. They can also use artskills to create marketing materials for other kinds ofbusinesses.

Tapping into the Community

Many schools already use science fairs as incubators for studentinitiative. To motivate potential entrepreneurs, the same formatcan be applied to an economic forum, with business-plan competitionsand youth entrepreneurship trade shows showcasing student ideas.With support and awards from business-education partnerships andparent, teacher, and student associations, such displays can providethe kind of visibility and positive impact on learning that inspirestudents to continue their efforts.
Community partners can help in many other ways. Local chambersof commerce may be a valuable source of guest speakers, mentors,or judges for business-plan competitions. Many are willing tohost field trips and provide seed capital for youth businessplans or matching funds for learning activities. Junior chambersof commerce may also be supportive.
Community resources are a logical source of support forentrepreneurship education, particularly if one of the goals isto develop young people who are socially responsible as well asfinancially successful. With many communities facing a wideninggulf between the haves and the have-nots, entrepreneurshipeducation provides an option that can transform at-risk andunder-achieving students into a generation of successfulbusinesspeople and contributors to revitalized communities.
End Notes

1 Steve Mariotti is the founder of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). For more information on Mariotti and his experiences teaching students about starting and running their own businesses, visit the NFTE Web site at www.nfte.com.

Lois R. Saboe has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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