For 15 years, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) has been instructing high school students how to lift themselves out of poverty by creating their own businesses. Founded by a former business executive turned New York City public school teacher, NFTE has taught business principles to more than 80,000 students in 43 states and 14 countries.
A new “Adopt-a-Class” program in Washington, D.C., however, may take NFTE to higher levels of effectiveness. The pilot program has prompted successful entrepreneurs not only to give $10,000 grants to sponsor a class, but also to share their practical knowledge with the students.
“This was just a great program to be a part of,” says alumnus Clarence Cross, an 18-year-old graduate of Washington’s Wilson High School whose NFTE class was “adopted” last year. “I didn’t just learn entrepreneurial skills, but life skills. I learned how to write a business plan, how to talk to people, how to live in society, and how to make a profit. This opened my eyes that in America, it’s anyone’s game if you’re an entrepreneur.”
Cross used his experience starting a donut business to help earn him a spot in Syracuse University’s freshman class this fall—he’ll be seeking a double major in business and communications. During his senior year in high school, Cross took $50 in seed money and turned it into a business earning an average of $157 a month in net profits. After donating 10 percent to charity, Cross put the rest of his earnings into the stock market and other investments. As a result, he’s earned a couple thousand dollars he plans to use for books and other college needs.
Cross learned from the same NFTE curriculum—taught by high school teachers—that 1,700 other Washington area young people did during the 2002-2003 school year. But Cross’s class had two super-charged boosters: Pat Alper and Phil McNeil. Alper has a marketing consulting business; McNeil is a semi-retired executive of Allied Capital of Washington. The two met while serving on NFTE’s executive board, and chose Wilson because it was Alper’s alma mater.
They are two of twelve area business executives in the past two years who have adopted NFTE classes. All have enthusiastically agreed to participate again. To adopt a class, which averages 30 students, they or their businesses must donate $10,000 a semester to cover all the costs. Among other things, the money provides each student:
• a curriculum and a workbook
• a briefcase and supplies
• business cards
• a trip to the wholesale district of New York City, where they will try to buy low so they can sell high
• and $50 of capital, “seed money” to start a business.
The $10,000 donation also pays for a teacher’s stipend and cash prizes awarded to students in a competition for the best business plans. But the money isn’t the most significant contribution adopters make. After all, students in classes that are not adopted receive the same supplies, trips, and seed money (costs in non-adopted classes are generally covered by a combination of government grants and support from NFTE’s annual budget of $9.5 million).
What distinguishes adopted NFTE classes is the human investment these business executives make in the lives of students. Each adopter is required to visit the class at least four times a semester, where they coach students in concept development, marketing, bookkeeping, employee management, and related skills necessary for a successful business. Perhaps most important, executives review individual business plans, challenging students to adjust and refine their ideas in accordance with what they themselves have learned in the marketplace.
McNeil says he has seen literally thousands of business plans over the course of his career; so it’s easy for him to steer students in the right direction. “That made the entire class,” said Cross. “What we read in the book really came together when Mr. McNeil came and helped us decide how to fine tune our business plans. He enlightened me to understand how things work in the real business world.”
McNeil says the psychological and social rewards went far beyond what would have happened if he had simply written a check, and yet “it was once a month, so it wasn’t a big drain. It’s not burdensome. You’re just teaching these kids what you know. There’s not a ton of preparation.”
The interaction changed the course of Cross’s life. He had always demonstrated entrepreneurial skills—selling part of his sack lunch to fellow students on the school bus, for example, who weren’t as prepared as he was. The class, combined with McNeil’s and Alper’s encouragement, inspired Cross to expand that concept into a business plan.
He wore a shirt that said “the donut kid” when he sold donuts on the bus and received permission from the school to put up poster ads, pass out business cards, and sell his product at a table before the first bell and during lunch. He bought the donuts for 25 cents each at a local supermarket and sold them for 75 cents. He gave a free donut to anyone who bought ten. In addition to a constant smile, Cross gave his most loyal customers American flag pendants.
“It wasn’t the greatest concept as far as business plans go,” McNeil says. “But what was great about Clarence was his execution. He was enthusiastic. He did it every day. Everyone knew him, and everyone wanted his donuts.”
Cross felt empowered, seeing himself as a positive agent of change instead of a victim of circumstances he couldn’t control. He also felt appreciated, because he was providing his classmates with a service. “I was there to give them some quality food at an affordable price so they had some energy to get through their day,” says Cross. “They didn’t have time to go to the supermarket to buy donuts. I did it for them.”
The benefits to Cross didn’t end there. He established a relationship with McNeil that lasted beyond the semester, with the two exchanging emails and sometimes talking over the phone. When McNeil learned Cross dreamed of becoming a broadcaster, he encouraged the high school senior to apply to his alma mater, Syracuse, which has the prestigious Newhouse School of Journalism.
McNeil also challenged Cross to aim not just for a career as a reporter, but to pursue a double major that included a business degree so he would be prepared to become a media executive. When Cross wrote his application essay, he ran it past his new mentor, who made suggestions. McNeil also made a call to the Syracuse admissions office, offering that “I know you’re looking for kids like this who are real go-getters.”
Stories like this one have prompted NFTE’s CEO and executive director Mike Caslin to expand the Adopt-a-Class program to two other regions of the country this academic year, with a likelihood of spreading it nationally, if not internationally.
Caslin admits it’s impossible to quantify, at this point, the difference the program is making, but it’s obvious that something special is clicking in Washington and deserves further testing. “The market has convinced us we’re on to something,” said Caslin. “We’re ten for ten on renewals. When you have paying customers, that’s the best indication of success. Their hearts, their minds, their souls, and their checkbooks are all engaged through this. This is a human capital development initiative.”
The adopt-a-class concept was primarily developed by Alper. Inspired by their sucess at Wilson, Alper resigned her board seat to oversee the Adopt-a-Class program. Alper says she has experienced the power of entrepreneurship in her own life and has been struck by the enthusiasm of fellow business people to share their stories of success, and sometimes failure, with a younger generation.
“There’s a real desire to do this,’’ says Alper. ”I have a belief that what I’m calling ‘active philanthropy’ is a beautiful way to give back, because it’s giving back what you know. You take five hours of your time and the reward is enormous. Learning entrepreneurship will set these kids up for life. They’re going to know about a marketing plan, a mission statement, profit and loss, seasonability of products, price points, and more. They’ll understand things I didn’t understand until I was into business myself.“
Mark O’Keefe is a national philanthropy correspondent for Newhouse News Service in Washington.